Sex and spike heels sound like the signatures of an infamous HBO show starring Sarah Jessica Parker and her quartet of cosmo-slinging girlfriends, not a stage play at TCU.
But the theatre department is putting on a show in April that is a little bit edgier than most.
The show, “Spike Heels” by Theresa Rebeck, follows a former prostitute named Georgie, and details her contemporary, real-life encounters with sexual harassment, complicated relationships and power. It has the equivalent of an R rating for sexual content and language.
“It’s basically this four-sided love triangle … like a love square, or a love “quadrangle’,” director Claire Parker said.
Senior theatre major Collin Duwe said the play is a complicated look at the way people relate to each other and a contemporary comedy of manners.
Duwe will play Andrew, the quintessential nice guy who lives in the apartment above Georgie and forms an semi-mentor-like friendship with her. With good intentions, Andrew loans Georgie books in an effort to educate her and lands her a job in his friend Edward’s law office.
Drama ensues when Andrew, who is engaged to another woman, develops more-than-friendly feelings for Georgie and tensions escalate when Edward, a blatant womanizer, is sexually aggressive toward Georgie at the office.
Katie Caruso, a senior theatre major who will play the role of Lydia, Andrew’s fiancÃÂ©e, said that her character less than relishes that her future husband has befriended a Lolita.
Caruso couldn’t be more excited about the play.
“I always, always welcome controversy,” Caruso said. “I think it forces society to think twice about cultural expectation and reconsider.”
Caruso likes pushing people to examine why they feel the way they do about right and wrong especially in a college-age crowd where many audience members are coming into their own.
“Any university should embrace controversy,” she said.”It empowers young people to make clear choices about who they are and what they believe in.”
Caruso said she was drawn to this production and immediately clicked with the personality of the character.
“I love her because she is so human,” Caruso said. “She’s made bad choices and represents the green-eyed monster in all of us.”
To her, one of the most meaningful aspects of the play is the breakdown of preconceived notions and prejudices that unravel during the play, she said.
“It’s not until she actually meets Georgie that she sees her for who she is 8212; just a woman trying to get by, rather than a monster,” Caruso said.
Duwe said he was drawn to the role of Andrew because of the character’s innocence and genuine good nature.
“He exposes her to culture, loans her books, helps her get a job…” Duwe said.
An intense scene that almost leads to rape fires Edward up, making him realize that his feelings for Georgie have evolved, he said.
The show is one that Jennifer Engler, assistant professor in the theatre department, said appeals to audiences on multiple levels. Many will see themselves in one of the characters, and also just the opposite, she said.
“I think it’s really important that we challenge our audiences and perhaps these characters are going to be people they’ve never encountered before,” she said. “These people exist, they have real problems and this is what’s going on…so whether it’s something they can relate to, or it’s completely foreign, it’s extremely valuable for them to get that image.”
The production is meant to open our eyes to stereotypes: a prostitute, a womanizer, a nerd and an upper-crust ice queen, and then flips the script by illustrating the complexities of human nature and how no one really fits in a neat little box.
“In this inverted Pygmalion, not all the characters get what they want, but they seem to get what they need,” Andres J. Wrath wrote in his review of the play on oobr.com. “In Rebeck’s world, where men and women are constantly fighting for the upper hand, mere conversations turn into full-scale wars, and the age-old battle of the sexes is played out.”
What will set this show apart from other productions at TCU is not only its raunchy, contemporary storylines and characters, but also the fact that it’s the directorial debut of a student theatre major, Claire Parker.
Parker, who has an emphasis in acting, was an assistant director at the Trinity Shakespeare Festival and several short productions on campus. She said Rebeck’s plays have a certain style that she finds very appealing, but most importantly she thinks the crowd will find meaning in the characters.
“The audience will walk away finding power and confidence in themselves,” she said. “That’s what it’s about. All four characters go somewhere 8212; they go to a different place and there’s moments where you identify with all of them.”
Some of the actors, were a little more comfortable than others with the content.
“We had to put a little note on the audition form, asking if people were okay with profanity, because that’s kind of the whole schtick,” Parker said.
Sexuality and profanity are huge components of the show. The second act opens with two characters making out on top of the other, and in one scene, Georgie’s character is in her underwear on stage.
“I mean, my mom’s going to hate it,” Parker said.
The main message in the storyline, according to Parker, is self-actualization and finding one’s inner power.
“Power doesn’t have to be sexual; it doesn’t have to be “I look hot and so you’ll do what I want you to do.’ It can be that she’s just a powerful woman,” Parker said. “That’s a story a lot of girls our age can identify with.”
She also loves that the show is real. It’s about real people, changing and dynamic characters, real, contemporary situations and issues that everyone deals with or is touched by at some time in their lives.
“It’s interesting and has depth and it’s really funny, but also really serious and there’s not that big Rodgers & Hammerstein bow on the end and everyone’s really happy,” she said. “Like you can guess, but you don’t know.”
“Spike Heels” is part of the theatre department’s Studio Series, which is student directed, designed and performed.
The shows are performed in the studio space, which is a very personal experience.
“The audience is basically sitting on the acting area,” Duwe said. “It’s really, really nice to be that intimate with the audience and for them to be really, really in the world of the play.”
The most controversial scene in “Spike Heels” will surround Georgie’s “kind-of’ sexual assault, something the theatre department is not shying away from and never has.
In 2001, a show called “Extremities” included the graphic sexual assault of a female character. Two years ago, the department produced “The Laramie Project,” the story of the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was gay.
“There was some trepidation about doing that play in a conservative state, but it worked out beautifully,” Parker said. “We got the Religious and Spiritual Life office involved and they had a whole week of diversity and that [the show] was one of the main staples.”
Parker, herself, was the center of controversy when the character she portrayed in “Talking With,” used the n-word in a monologue. An audience member walked out in the middle of her performance and wrote a letter of complaint to the editor of the Daily Skiff.
“You think people would be smart enough to know the actor is not the character,” Parker said. “It’s the job of theater to show and endorse all aspects of life and I think it’s a disservice to our students and our audience if we ignore that and only do “Oklahoma!’.”
“The theater should be a mirror to life, and sometimes life isn’t pretty, “Engler said.
“I think if we show the audience this world as what it is, just a slice of life, I don’t really think we’ll get stuck on the four-letter words or the lifestyles or the sex,” she said. “We start to see them as people dealing with their problems, going through life.”
Among the other controversial shows produced include the classic “Cabaret” and “Doubt,” which involves misbehaving religious officials.
“All of these plays most likely received backlash because of their subject matter, but we still put them up,” Caruso said.”It’s definitely easier to produce controversial shows in a university setting because we don’t necessarily rely on ticket sales to survive.”
According to Duwe, the theatre department puts on three to four shows every semester and all theatre students must audition for all shows. This semester, the students auditioned for two monologues, a song and a dance. And while everyone must audition, not everyone gets cast.
Fret not, however, for the poor, rejected actors. Part of the TCU Theatre Department’s philosophy of creating well-rounded theater students requires they still be involved with the production.
“They really do expose you to all aspects of theater,” Duwe said.
“If you’re not cast, you’ll have to “crew a show,’ and work with the sound, lighting, costumes or work the box office.”
Duwe said getting the all-around experience makes the students more marketable to employers.
The theatre department, itself, seems to have no problem with marketability. With nearly every show sold out, the department, though small in size, packs a powerful punch, Caruso said.
Duwe said the main stage and faculty directed shows nearly always have full seats. Tickets are $5 for students, $10 for general admission and $5 for seniors.
The First Nighters program helps the theatre department to constantly sell out its shows. Made up of theater connoisseurs, alumni and arts enthusiasts in the community, members go to dinner and a first-night performance of every show.
Engler said the loyal base the department has fostered is a result of a lot of factors, but mostly its drive for excellence.
“I think we have a very selective program and succeed in bringing in the best talent.” she said. “We have a professional training degree; we’re training people to go out and be professional actors.”
Engler said another key aspect of the department’s success is that there is a fellowship among the students and the faculty.
“What we have is a system that I really like; we’re encouraging students to push the boundaries,” she said. “We are encouraging them to fall on their face at times and there’s no negative repercussion from it; it’s a learning situation.”
The department sometimes works with professional actors or productions in the area, called “co-pro” work, which Engler says is hugely beneficial to the students.
Once every other year the department works with a professional theater, called a co-pro, gaining valuable experience and knowledge from professionals in their field.
“I wish we doing more of that,” Engler said. “I’d love for us to do a co-pro every year, so when they graduate they don’t have a rÃÂ©sumÃÂ© that just has college work on it, there’s professional work as well.”
Caruso said that as a student in the department, their work is a huge source of pride.
“I am proud every time I see a production, because the students essentially have created it,” she said. “We have a hand in every aspect of each show we produce and that is definitely not something every theater major in America can say.”
Tickets for “Spike Heels” go on sale April 4
Behind the Scenes
Michele Alford gives a stitch-by-stitch of what goes on inside the Costume Studio. by Maddie Grussendorf
With 16 student workers and three to four “grown ups” including one they call the “cutter,” the Costume Studio is packed full of creative minds.
Michele Alford, the costume studio manager, gave some insight into the creative interweaving of design production for the TCU Theatre Department.
Her team of designers includes theater professionals like LaLonnie Lehman, who Alford christened THE costume person as she’s been designing for more than 40 years at TCU. There’s also Brian Clinnin, whom she describes as her “release pitcher.” Clinnin is trained in multiple areas of design including scenery, lighting and costumes.
Then there’s also student designers like Matt Slater who designed for “Spike Heels.” And even though Slater is an acting major, Alford described him as having “costuming tendencies.” Not every student, however, comes to Alford with a natural gift. She said that her 16 student workers come to her “mostly never having sewn on a button.” But after the hours of on-the-job training they complete by the time they’re seniors, Alford said they can successfully sew without having to “ask a question every stitch.”
Together all these creative minds produce over 100 outfits each year for a minimum of three plays each semester. But the Costume Studio’s work doesn’t end there, they also work with local Fort Worth organizations like Circle Theatre and the Fort Worth Orchestra.
Alford said she had two extremes when it came to choosing her favorite costume designs. “Little Women” was her first.
“People who love costumes love Civil War era,” she said. “Every single woman’s costume had sweet, fussy details [that] we went berserk over.”
The other: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that Clinnin designed.
“He took us out of our comfort zone and incorporated fiber optics and things we have never dealt with before,” she said.
Alford said Clinnin’s designs were “out there.”
“We’re not used to battery packs being in costumes,” she said.