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Dance For Beginners And the Women's Voices Project

The Play

Dance For Beginners

By MT Cozzola
Directed by Heather Bodie
May 13th-June 11th, 2017
Previews May 11th and 12th

The centerpiece of our work 2016-2017 season is the professional premiere of a new work by female Chicago playwright MT Cozzola, Dance for Beginners. Dance for Beginners is an intimate look at the beginnings of a relationship in the third act of life, and celebrates a strong female voice. With oceans separating them, they turn to dance to bring them closer together. Dance for Beginners was developed at Chicago Dramatists and was read at Piven as part of the summer of 2016 Lab season, and exemplifies the way the Lab cultivates relationships with new artists and new works.

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An interview with Playwright MT Cozzola about Dance for Beginners

Dance For Beginners was initially developed with Chicago Dramatists, then brought to Lab at Piven for a reading in the summer of 2016. What was your experience with the Lab and with Piven audiences like? How did that experience help shape the current version of the play, if at all?

MT Cozzola: Some of my favorite productions I’ve seen in Chicago have been at Piven—Our Country’s Good, Eurydice, and Chekhov Stories. So the opportunity to present a reading of Dance there was an honor. The audience’s appreciation for the nuances of this very intimate story was galvanizing. Being able to reflect on it later with artistic director Jen Green helped me in doing a final draft. Jen is so good with seeing the big picture, the larger arc of a story, and that helped me to clarify what was most important to me about telling the story.

Exploring new love between characters in the third act of life, especially when facilitated by technology, feels like a beautifully modern update to the long-distance relationship story. What made you want to tell this story through that very specific lens?

MT:The lens arrived first, in this case. I woke up one morning having dreamed the first few moments of the first scene, wrote them down, and continued writing. That’s often the way plays start for me, or at least it’s happened two or three times before. Maybe it’s my subconscious figuring something out. In this dream, the moment that struck me was where Jerry says, “You went away,” and Jenni says, “I was right here.” That’s the mystery or dilemma that spurred me to continue writing: how easy and yet how difficult it can be to really trust each other, especially when the primary means of connection is an object.
When we connect thanks to technology, we can feel that we trust each other, but perhaps what we really trust is the technology. A call or text with someone can feel intimate or comforting, but it’s also an illusion – what I’m ACTUALLY connecting with is this piece of technology—this phone or tablet or whatever. It presents sounds and images that I assume are initiated by another person, but what I’m touching and seeing is an object, an inanimate thing. Maybe there was an era when people had trouble trusting those objects, but today it’s nothing new. What is perhaps new is how our trust of technology has become part of our collective DNA and what that bodes for nontechnology-mediated relationships.
As people well into middle age, Jerry and Jenni reflect how we’ve grown up trusting technology, how it’s deeply embedded in our consciousness. In fact, some of us trust the thing itself more than the relationship. And I think that’s what compelled me about them and made me want to tell their story.
These two individuals have spent their lives unfulfilled by in-person relationships; one of them tolerated an unhappy marriage whereas the other avoided longterm relationships – two ways of keeping the deepest part of you safely locked within yourself. When their need for greater intimacy challenges them to meet in-person, they are challenged to abandon the most familiar and central relationship in their lives—one created by their phones—for an unknown relationship, one conducted as physical bodies in space.
Physical bodies in space is pretty much all that ballroom dance concerns itself with. How do you move together, how do you relate to each other physically? The third character in the play, Dante, is all about physical connection. He reflects what’s possible when you absolutely trust that exactly where you are at each moment in space and time is exactly where you belong.

What is important to you about initiatives like the Women’s Voices Project? You've worked with the director of Dance for Beginners, Heather Bodie, on previous projects; how do collaborations with other female artists inform your work (and especially this world premiere)?

MT:There are many important women who have worked on this play, starting with Heather, who always inspires me to take more chances with what I choose to explore in a theatrical arena. Others who have helped me to better understand this story and how to tell it include directors Emmi Hilger and Stephanie Stroud, choreographer Dustyn Martincich, actors Diane Dorsey and Kelly Owens, and teacher Brenda Fournier, who helped me feel the joy of dance despite an extreme lack of ability. I’m also excited to be working again with Ashley Ann Woods, who designed costumes for my play Boy Small and is the set designer for Dance for Beginners.

While I don’t initially think about a person’s gender when considering collaboration, I do find that women more often seem to understand what I’m getting at in a play, sometimes even before I do. Initiatives like the Women’s Voices Project make it easier to bring women together to tell stories that might not immediately strike a male director as being meaningful. But maybe that’s an unfair generalization. Mostly I just love working with other women because there’s a certain shorthand in communication that makes life simpler, and someone always brings snacks.

The Project

Following the success of the Quality of Mercy Project, in our 2016-2017 season we have expanded our efforts in our sophomore effort: The Women's Voices Project. The Women's Voices project not only celebrates our 45th anniversary by honoring the legacy of Piven Co-Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus Joyce Piven, but also celebrates the many female artists in our community, and female-driven storytelling.

Over the next few months, we will be partnering with organizations like She Is Code, Story Studio Chicago, The YWCA Evanston/Northshore, the Evanston Public Library, and many more Evanston artists, organizations, and businesses. See below for details on programs as they are finalized.

Additionally, you can visit our Lab page to see our upcoming Women's Voices Project Lab programs featuring new female driven works in development, intimate readings and productions led by female artists, and more here.

Upcoming Programming

April 30th at Bookends & Beginnings, Evanston: Exploring Empowerment of Women and Girls; Three Books to Inspire, Educate, and Activate.

Join us at local Evanston independent bookseller, Bookends & Beginnings, for three conversations with female authors who are empowering women with their work.
From 1:00 to 2:30pm, Nancy Doyle offers an objective and straightforward perspective on finances based on a wealth of professional and personal experience. In Manage Your Financial Life: A Thoughtful, Organized Approach for Women, she shares a practical and easy-to-understand system for getting organized, analyzing your financial profile, educating yourself about investing, and putting your money to work. Whether you're going through a transition--parenthood, home ownership, a new career path, divorce, widowhood--or you simply want a better understanding of how to manage your financial affairs, you will find this comprehensive resource invaluable--and you find yourself coming back to it again and again

From 4:00 to 5:30pm, Donna Seaman presents Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists. Who hasn't wondered where--aside from Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo--all the women artists are? In many art books, they've been marginalized with cold efficiency, summarily dismissed in the captions of group photographs with the phrase "identity unknown" while each male is named. Donna Seaman brings to dazzling life seven of these forgotten artists, among the best of their day: Gertrude Abercrombie, with her dark, surreal paintings and friendships with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins; Bay Area self-portraitist Joan Brown; Ree Morton, with her witty, oddly beautiful constructions; Lois Mailou Jones of the Harlem Renaissance; Lenore Tawney, who combined weaving and sculpture when art and craft were considered mutually exclusive; Christina Ramberg, whose unsettling works drew on pop culture and advertising; and Louise Nevelson, an art-world superstar in her heyday but omitted from recent surveys of her era.
These women fought to be treated the same as male artists, to be judged by their work, not their gender or appearance. In brilliant, compassionate prose, Seaman reveals what drove them, how they worked, and how they were perceived by others in a world where women were subjects-not makers-of art.

From 6-7:30pm will be a conversation with award-winning Northwestern University psychology professor Renee Engeln, who has dedicated herself to studying girls’ and women’s struggles with beauty and body image. In her revelatory new book, Beauty Sick, she explores the shocking consequences of our culture’s obsession with girls’ and women’s appearance – effects on their wallets and their ambitions as well as their emotional and physical health, including depression, eating disorders, disruptions in cognitive processing, and lost money and time. Fed by a culture that focuses on women’s appearance over anything else they might do or say, beauty sickness prevents too many of today’s women from living the happy, meaningful lives they deserve. So what can be done to heal our beauty sick world?

May 20th: Dance for Beginners Date Night

Join us at the Workshop for a ballroom dance class for beginners, the world premiere of Dance for Beginners and a wine and cheese reception following the show! Tickets will be on sale soon, so keep an eye out for more information.