In a Catholic reformatory in New York City in 1914, four young women adopt birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger as their patron saint and construct an elaborate, violent fantasy world in which they reign supreme. Oh, and it’s all set to Jane’s Addiction.
That’s the premise of What Every Girl Should Know, a new play from Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and written by Monica Byrne. It’s a bizarre but compelling story about strength in the face of oppression and the burgeoning women’s rights movement in the early 20th century.
“[They were] a part of a movement of women who were experiencing things that had never been experienced before,” Byrne said of those first activists, as well as the four characters in the play. “They were totally revolutionary.”
Of course you can’t turn on the TV or open a newspaper today without seeing something about women’s issues—abortion, ovarian cancer screenings, the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney feud—so clearly, almost a century after the events of the play, these subjects are still problematic.
“That some humans should be punished for being born in a female body is pervasive everywhere,” Byrne said. “The idea that birth control is still controversial, I can’t even take it seriously because it’s so funny.”
Lucius Robinson, the play’s director, also feels that the story is extremely relevant.
“I think the show directly addresses women’s control or right to have control over their own bodies regarding sex and pregnancy,” he said. “The lack of information is inherently destructive.”
Byrne’s play attempts to explore and celebrate a time in which women were beginning to take control of their lives, their bodies and their sexuality. When the characters learn of Margaret Sanger, who went on to found Planned Parenthood in 1921, they undergo a kind of ecstatic conversion, illustrated by kinetic modern dance choreographed by Byrne’s sister Clare. They then develop a fantasy world in which they exercise total agency, a dramatic escape from the oppressive conditions in the reformatory. This experience resonates personally with Byrne: “I have such a low tolerance for unhappiness that if I got into an unhappy situation I would find a way out of it violently.”
Byrne and her childhood friends shared a similar fantasy, each of them writing letters to the others as though they were traveling the world. They would speak of their imaginary families (Byrne’s pretend boyfriend was Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton) and exact revenge on those who had wronged them.
“The other feature of these letters is that we’d kill someone,” she said. “We had enemies, boys who tortured us, teachers who were manifestly unfair, so we’d kill people in gruesome ways.”
But it was all in good fun, she insists. It was mostly about conceptualizing an ideal life, a notion that is often very different than we might think. Byrne herself went to graduate school for biochemistry and intended to pursue science journalism before realizing that she was miserable. She describes seeing Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman at Little Green Pig as a moment of catharsis.
“That is exactly what I want to do, can I do that?” she recalled thinking. “Can I commit myself to do what gives me pleasure and makes me happy?”
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She answered that question herself and began work as a playwright; her first production, Nightwork, about none other than biochemists in graduate school, debuted at Manbites Dog Theater in 2009. That journey of personal discovery has now found a vehicle in What Every Girl Should Know.
“The play is about how women in general break through feelings over and over only to find that there are more feelings, so they have to take radical steps in order to align what they feel inside with what they do,” she said. “I could definitely say that’s a facet of my own life.”
So what about Jane’s Addiction?
“It’s perfect to express the rawness [the characters] were feeling, things they personally were never feeling before,” she said. “They’re very raw and they capture frenetic adolescent energy.”
Robinson expressed a similar reaction to the music.
“It’s brash, it’s powerful and violent,” he said. “It lifted up some of the scenes into a place that was more potent and exciting.”
Little Green Pig’s What Every Girl Should Know will run Thursday-Saturday, April 19 to May 5, at 8 p.m. at Cordoba Center of the Arts. Student discount tickets are available for $5 with I.D. for all shows.