09 Jun 2011

Sample essay: Spiderwoman Theatre

In the year 1975, Muriel Miguel, a Rappahannock/Kuna woman and a native of Brooklyn, New York, organized a radical workshop which has now evolved as one of the oldest and ongoing theatre group in all of the United States and Canada- the Spiderwoman Theatre. In retrospect, the pioneering workshop gathered Native and non-Native women in the country which also included Miguel’s sisters Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo in New York City’s Washington Square Methodist Church. Today, Spiderwoman Theatre continues its reputation as a successful Native feminist theatre group, spawning 35 years in strong existence. On that note, this research paper attempts to analyze on what brought Spiderwoman Theatre to the pinnacle of stage success. In the same way, it also highlights the theatre’s aboriginal and feminism origins.

In order to gain insight on how Spiderwoman Theatre has evolved and transformed into what is now seen as an unprecedented, widely acclaimed success, it is essential to include an overview of the theatre itself and its founders. The Spiderwoman Theatre Company was founded by a group that worked mostly with performers coming from a Native American background. The sisters Muriel Miguel, Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo grew up in Brooklyn, New, York, just like their mother and grandmother. Their father, on the other hand, was a Kuna Indian originating from the San Blas Islands off the Panama coast. Muriel tells that their father found it hard to make a living in the unfamiliar culture of Brooklyn. In effect, he turned to earning money by performing snake oil shows where the family dances for money. The sisters during their young ages felt uncomfortable with this kind of living which is why they shifted their attention to formal education (Amerinda Editors). In school, they were attracted by the inviting force of the theatre. Here, they spent their energies and talents by turning their performances into an art form rather than a spectacle for senseless amusement.

Having discussed part of the aboriginal roots of this theatre company, it is also significant how it basically emerged from its feminist roots. To regard it as coming from its own kind of feminism cause is explicably a matter of explaining how women became largely involved in the Spiderwoman Theatre. First and foremost, the most obvious one can be pointed out to the name of the theatre group itself.  The name of the company is coined from a goddess in the Hopi mythology. Spiderwoman, the Hopi goddess, taught men and women how to weave after ‘weaving’ them to life.  Initially, the theatre started as a workshop which experimented through the weaving of stories, images, music, feelings, bodies and spaces. The women actors practiced and structured the basics of their dreams and stories.

After that, they improvised in order to polish their works and act it out. At the start of the workshop, the group taught their audience about the hand games of the Native Americans. While creating her own story, one woman plays the Spiderwoman while doing the act of finger-weaving. To continue the story, another performer then wove her story into the first performer. The group continued in weaving, storytelling, dancing and acting out their structured stories in a spontaneous fashion while the improvising musicians played with bowls, rocks, gongs, flutes, a saw and other handmade instruments to accompany the “weaving act.”

In the “Women in Violence” performance, women were portrayed to have emerged from strong causes. Each of the performers in this particular act presented herself as a clown which comes from a peculiar, goddess-given trait of her own. For instance, a strong circus woman named Gloria, placed a flashlight which is hidden in between her skirt’s metallic skirts for her to be able to search for herself beyond the reflected image beneath. Lisa, an “exploiting iconic blonde beauty,” used a tight black dress painted with white lines that outlined her fundamentally female parts and long blonde curls which were held together with a huge sparkling bow. According to Muriel, the aim of this workshop answers the necessity to work with the feelings of anger and isolation, feeling about the Indian situation and movement in the current period and the women’s own violence as women and as Indians. In many ways, the “Women in Violence,” as a paradoxical depiction of women undergoing the strains of feminist aspects and cultural issues, has been instrumental in achieving the goals of the Spiderwoman Theatre’s founders and confirmed the group’s long-standing existence in the theatrical sphere.

According to Wilmeth, Spiderwoman Theatre emerged as one of the so-called feminist movement. In order to connect this theatre company to its feminism roots, it is also crucial to determine how feminist movements surface and how these movements moved to achieve their aims. Feminist theatre, as an alternative theatre movement, began in the early part of the 1970s decade. It proliferated alongside the radical political movements that time which created manifestos gathered around urban centers all throughout the country. These local and innumerable groups comprising of women performer in theatres spoke directly to the public regarding gender equality, women’s subordinate position in the dominant culture and the potential and practical solutions to those issues (255).

The theatre production is an interwoven dialogues, actions/movements and music that connect to various narrative strands which often add “slapstick comedy.” The first Spiderwoman production, “Women in Violence,” premiered in 1976 in New York with huge success, which consequently brought the group to Europe. In the year 1979, the motion picture “The Spiderwoman Theatre Group from New York” was produced during the “Lysistrata Numbah” tour of the company. During the premier of their “Lysistrata Numbah” performance in 1977, the Spiderwoman Theatre produced a satire of female gender stereotypes through a spectacle of likeable and less likeable characters. In its typical production genre, Spiderwoman Theatre serves to scrutinize the contemporary society, the history, resistance and survival of the Native Americans and most fundamentally the feminist ideals and issues portrayed in many of the theatre’s performances (React Feminism Editors).  Rebecca Schneider, assistant professor of theater and performance theatre, said that the manner of story weaving that is intrinsic to the Spiderwoman Theatre gives more than just mere delight to the audience experience of its stage plays (Cornell University Editors). These story weavings are accorded with some tiny flaws which allow each one of us to reconsider our human experiences, our roots and our view of feminism.

In any organization, one of the most defining parameters that measure success is in terms of how well does one particular organization perform in achieving its goals and mission statements. Spiderwoman Theatre states that their mission is to “present exceptional theatre performance and to offer theater training and education rooted in an urban Indigenous performance practice. We entertain and challenge our audiences and create an environment where the Indigenous, women’s and arts communities can come together to examine and discuss their cultural, social and political concerns” (Spiderwoman Theatre.org Editors).

From the very beginning, the theatre has centered on diversity as their foundation. The Miguel sisters spearheaded such collective diversity of women who come from varying races, ages, worldview and sexual orientation. This joint effort to create a team, a theatre company, is rooted from the feminist movement in the 1970s decade. Similarly, it also sprang out from cynicism with the way women were treated during the radical political movement of that time. They began to question cultural stereotypes, gender roles, economic and sexual oppression. They raised significant concerns involving issues of racism, sexism, ‘classism’ and violence in women’s lives.

The Spiderwoman Theatre was a breakthrough in terms of its storytelling and story weaving which became the basis for creating their moving theatrical pieces. With Muriel as the critical “outside eye” of the theatre company, the performers wrote, performed and portrayed personal and traditional stories. Their performances were wholly layered with text, movement, music, sound and visual images. By weaving humor with popular culture and personal accounts, coupled by their shocking styles of presentation, the theatre was able to excite the hearts and enliven the spirits of women, along with men, in their audiences not only in New York but also in the United States, Canada and in many places around the globe.

On how the Spiderwoman Theatre has imbibed aboriginal contexts and roots can be traced back particularly in the beginning of the 1980s. During that decade, many of New York’s Indigenous communities which are based nationally and internationally hailed the women of the Spiderwoman Theatre as a “powerful voice” which gives avenue for the rest of the world to hear their concerns. Because of this, the theatre company emerged as a foremost power for artists, cultural artisans and for Indigenous women. Moreover, the works of the Spiderwoman Company relatively connect the traditional art forms of cultural dance, storytelling, music and practices of the contemporary theatre of the Western world. Originating in Brooklyn, the works of this theatre group is sourced from their personal histories and experiences in being “city Indians.”  By becoming the precursor of the Indigenous theatre movement in America and Canada, the original members of the Spiderwoman Theatre have become mentors to the Indigenous writers, performers, and educators. Apart from presenting their personal works, the group is collaborating and integrating the work of these artists into the theatre company. The women of Spiderwoman Theatre are relentlessly putting their best foot forward to continue their dream of creating an artistic domain wherein indigenous forms of the culture and the arts are autonomous to become the important element of the entire environment of the arts (Spiderwoman Theatre.org Editors).

The aboriginal lineage of Spiderwoman Theatre is linked to their own sense of identity which plays sensibly in a manner of irony, illustrated by double visions and contradictions. In many of their stage plays, they humorously emphasize their lack of familiarity with the Native languages in paradox to their childhood identification and fascination with a typical white girl in the Western world. It initially gives the impression of being somewhat detached to a certain degree from their aboriginal origins, as a way to portray how the new culture has influenced the people with Native roots. Eventually though, their authentic identities are slowly unraveled in wayward manner.  Along with the inevitable humor and funny scenes injected in the theatrical pieces, the concept of Native identity is never set aside. Such practice is crucial to convey the essential message staged in every presentation. Without such stable element , the theatrical piece itself is barren and lifeless despite the humor it integrates (Diner). Thus, as Rebecca Schneider puts it: “Much of Spiderwoman’s work is related to the issue of Indianess, adroitely played in the painful space between the need to claim an authentic, native identity and their awareness of the appropriation and the historical commodification of the signs of that authenticity ” (Schneider, 161).

Of course, the concrete proof of success is also determined by citations and awards given to this theatre company. Over the years, they have been recognized and honored with various awards and distinctions. In the year 1997, as part of the Native American Women Playwrights Archive at Miami University located in Oxford, Ohio, as the founding contributors, they were given honorary Doctorates of Fine Arts for their personal works and great contributions in the theatre field. During the year 2005, the Spiderwoman Theatre received another honor as they were included a vital part of the exhibit, New Tribe, New York, in New York City’s National Museum of the American Indian by the Smithsonian Institution. Last year, the Spiderwoman Theatre was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art (Spiderwoman Theatre.org Editors, 2011).

At this point, let us look at one of the Spiderwoman Theatre piece and its portrayal and impact to either or both contexts of feminism and aboriginal roots, particularly that of a Native Indian. In Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show from Wigwam City, there is a sort of destabilization in terms of stereotype centered at the multiple differences created by the Spiderwoman Theatre itself. Spiderwoman challenges the fixity of the term “princess” when they portray such role aside from declaring a commitment to challenge the so-called ‘multipurpose’ view of feminism. Spiderwoman’s princesses portray a danger of purposely re-fitted identities (Haugo). Hence, parodies are created which intensifies the disruption of the images.

Some known authors have critically examined elemental value of the Spiderwoman Theatre, the kind of theatre which hosts feminine audience for the most parts. In his Processual Encounters of the Transformative Type, Jill Carter called the Spiderwoman Theatre a “newly mobilized feminist collective.” He also adds that the clowns created by this theatre company that aims to carry its artists an audience in the course of the stories are the “archetypes of contemporary feminine humanity. Such archetypes serve to eventually become the medium of discovery and revelation at the end of the day. By way of their involvement and assistance, both performer and the spectator are drawn in an unconventional way of revealing and confronting themselves in public through their own histories and accounts. The aggressive environments which enact violence towards women and where women play and act with their own violence are transformed into a healing avenue wherein the fundamental human responsibility, accountability, value, possibility and dignity may be recognized, reclaimed and most of all, celebrated (Carter, 264).

Apart from its reference to feminism, Carter suggests that the theatrical pieces, written and produced by the Spiderwoman Theatre, consist an additional and supplementary store to what he termed as Indigenous Knowledge. They have victoriously documented the survival and resistance of the Natives. The theatre also celebrated the “artful existence” despite of the seemingly unwelcoming society and the deceitful urban social structure of America during the last part of the twentieth century. With specificity, the mola or the multi-layered quilt used by the Spiderwoman Theatre as a signature backdrop since 1976, serves a cultural and aboriginal purpose. This particular material signifies the Miguel sister’s connection to their Kuna ancestry. Aside from that, it is also a “material representation” of the processes of drama and performance which is viewed to have originated from the artistic mola-making craft of the Kuna (271).

Furthermore, molas are the Kuna nation’s traditional textiles which come from the independent territories of Kuna Yala, or known today as the country of Panama. These molas, as large part of the Spiderwoman Theatre contain the founder’s aboriginal Kuna roots from Kuna perception, cosmology and identity.  The crucial role that the mola plays in Kuna heritage is best described in Monique Mojica’s own words that goes “It is this thickness, this multi-dimensional knowing applied from the principles of Kuna women’s art that I believe is the centre pole of my writing and following the lead of Spiderwoman Theater, it has become the heart of my theatrical form. And I want that thickness in my work.” Mojica, as an actor and playwright of the Spiderwoman Theatre, is committed to the “strengthening the continental links among the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.” (Knowles). The works embodied in the Spiderwoman Theatre is a bridge built by the contemporary artists in an attempt to share the process while they are still searching for means to tightly ground themselves in artistic forms and structures, crafted in an aboriginal way.

k.Spiderwoman Theatre has endured as their works surface from the foundations of their cultural heritage. The subjects explored by this theatre group are certainly not exclusive to the Native communities including violence towards women, domestic abuse as well as the assimilation and loss of culture.  The theatrical pieces incorporate the themes of oral tradition and native myth, in other words- a storytelling tradition- which has the realms of the contemporary life that are used to analyze the issues (Abbot, 167). Again, by using the personal histories and life experiences as the basis of their story weaving and storytelling, Spiderwoman Theatre mirrors the “tapestry of humanity and weaves a web of connections among people. Just like the Hopi goddess, Spiderwoman is ever present to give guidance and counsel by way of their work.

Works Cited

Carter, Jill. Processual Encounters of the Transformative Type from the book Troubling tricksters: Revisioning critical conversations by Linda M. Morra, Deanna Reder .Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010.

Schneider, Rebecca. The Explicit Body in Performance. New York : Routledge, 1997.

Wilmeth, Don B. The Cambridge guide to American theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Web sources

Diner, Robyn. “Not-So-Exotic-Indians: Irony, Identity and Memory in Spiderwoman’s Spectacles. Thirdspace.ca. March 2002. <http://www.thirdspace.ca/journal/article/viewArticle/diner/57> 08 May 2011.

Abbot, Larry. “Spiderwoman Theatre and the Tapestry of Story.The Canadian Journal of Native Studies. 1996. <http://www2.brandonu.ca/library/cjns/16.1/abbott.pdf> 08 May 2011.

Amerinda Editors. “Professional Bio: Spiderwoman Theatre.” Amerinda.org. 2004.

<http://amerinda.org/naar/spiderwoman/spiderwoman.htm> 08 May 2011.

Cornell University Editors. “Cornell will host symposium on Native American representation.” Cornell.edu. 28 March 2002. <http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/02/3.28.02/indiansindians.html> 08 May 2011.

Haugo, Ann. “Colonial Audiences and Native Women’s Theatre: Viewing Spiderwoman Theatre’s Winnetou’s Snake Oil Show from Wigwam City.” Journals.ku.edu. 1999.

<https://journals.ku.edu/index.php/jdtc/article/download/3327/3256> 08 May 2011.

Knowles, Ric. “Monique Mojica”. The Literary Encyclopedia. 05 March 2008

<http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12028> 09 May 2011.

Mojica, Monique. “Spiderwoman Theatre.Eastcoastnative.com 2008. <http://eastcoastnative.com/page04.html> 09 May 2011.

React Feminism Editors. “Spiderwoman Theater (USA, founded 1975).”

<http://www.reactfeminism.org/artists/spiderwomantheatre_en.html> 09 May 2011.

Spiderwoman Theatre Editors. 2011. “Mission.” Spiderwomantheater.org. 2011.

<http://www.spiderwomantheater.org/SpiderwomanAboutUs.htm> 09 May 2011.

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