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Surviving Modern Labor Pains

By Julia M. Hurley, director of Contractions

Contractions has two characters: Emma and her Manager. The entire story is told in a series of meetings over the course of two years; the Manager calls Emma in to discuss her contract, and later, as the story develops, Emma’s relationship with her coworker, Darren. What starts out as a normal conversation between employer and employee soon becomes absurd … and then frightening.

I first encountered the works of Mike Bartlett when I saw Contractions performed at Studio Theatre in 2013. I was drawn in by the storytelling—the way things devolved from normal, everyday experience to worst-case scenario so quickly and yet so seamlessly. Bartlett has a way of bringing out the humor in the increasingly bizarre conversations of the first half of the play, and then subverting audiences’ expectations when the story takes a turn for the worse. When the opportunity arose for me to submit a show for the Fringe Festival, Mike Bartlett’s ability to grasp the issues of our time immediately came to mind.

Contractions has two characters: Emma and her Manager. The entire story is told in a series of meetings over the course of two years; the Manager calls Emma in to discuss her contract, and later, as the story develops, Emma’s relationship with her coworker, Darren. What starts out as a normal conversation between employer and employee soon becomes absurd … and then frightening.

This show has never been more timely. The United States has always been famous for its pursuit of the “American Dream,” the idea that anyone can succeed as long as they work hard. But our culture has become increasingly demanding in recent years: not only are employees expected to go above and beyond in pursuit of achieving higher results, but one’s life should be dedicated to one’s work above all else … in spite of all the talk about “work-life balance.” This mentality has only gotten worse as technological advancements such as email, cell phones, and smartphones have come into play, with employers expecting a virtually 24/7 on-call performance from their employees. These conditions are further exacerbated by the fact that, in the last few decades, wages have stagnated and good jobs are hard to find.

A job at a prestigious company can seem like a dream come true. But in today’s world, information is the new currency—and laws that protect the consumers are unable to keep up. Privacy is becoming more and more of an illusion as companies gain the ability to collect unlimited information about anyone. So, what happens when a company chooses to enforce all those clauses you skimmed over when you signed your contract, desperate just to be employed? What happens when you find out you have never been in control? In Contractions, Bartlett paints an extreme picture of the workplace, but one all too close to our current reality.  

What fascinates me most, and what made me want to work on this play in particular,  is that the story occurs between two women. They could not be more different: one has clawed her way up the corporate ladder, fighting battles along the way that have left her devoid of compassion for those who have not sacrificed as she has. She has had to struggle and demand respect for herself in areas of business that are still—in 2017!—dominated by men. She hasn’t succeeded; she has survived. And along the way she lost the ability to relate to those around her on a basic human level.

On the surface, the Manager seems to be trying to take over her employee Emma’s life. But in a way, in a very twisted way, she is helping Emma—showing her what it takes to succeed as a woman and a professional in this world. We don’t see enough stories about women as professionals in theatre today, and that’s what makes Contractions so unique. In so many plays, women are relegated to the role of wife or mother, of sister or love interest. But in this story, even though a man and a relationship are talked about, it’s not about the man. It’s about the choices that one woman makes. With deathly dark humor, Mike Bartlett’s play raises questions about the world we live in, and what the not-too-distant future could look like.

Part of what drew me to this particular story was how it relates to the theatre industry. This may surprise some, but the theatre industry, open and innovative though it is, suffers from many of the same problems as the corporate world—in some ways, it is worse because there is no HR department to create oversight, and the transient nature of theatre means there is not always long-term planning for improvement. But as a theatre artist, I have encountered another harsh reality of the medium in which I work: women are not represented enough in this industry. This is largely because there are far more (and varied) roles available to male actors.  study of the top ten theaters in England subsidized by the Arts Council England found that an average of 38% of the actors employed between 2011 and 2012 were female, with the National Theatre dropping as low as 34%. But as anyone in this industry will attest to, there are far more women auditioning for roles, and in many cases it is more difficult to cast male roles because there is a smaller pool to choose from. Similar statistics apply to directors and designers: a study in Howl Round found that in the League of Resident Theaters, female designers made up about 32.1% of all designers, while only 31% of all directors were female. The only significant outlier in their findings was for costume designers, of which about 70% were female.

Working in D.C. theatre has shown me many of these findings in practice—and I’m only scraping the surface of this issue, which also includes wage disparity, discrimination, fair practice issues, and more. Seeing these things in action has inspired me to pursue work either by female playwrights, featuring mainly or only female actors, and female designers, or some combination of the above. There are many ways of effecting change, through protest or otherwise, and I’m a big advocate of changing by doing. By pursuing work that, in some small way, gives women a voice, I hope that I am making a contribution to changing the culture. And I think that theatre is the place to do this—theatre has a way of getting a message across that no other medium does.

Works like that of Mike Bartlett highlight the absurdity, the chaos, the drama, and the sheer bizarreness of the world we have created for ourselves. And theatre gives this work the immediacy that no other medium can. Anything can happen in front of a live audience, and the dynamic of a play is different with every single audience. Nowhere was this more true than at another Fringe Festival offering, Abortion Road Trip, during which protestors carried signs and shouted through megaphones outside the theater doors. For better or worse, their protests became part of the audience’s experience, painfully contextualizing the story in the process. Likewise, the deafening reality of oppressive corporate culture surrounding Contractions makes the play more relevant, poignant, and urgent. Theatre isn’t just art, it’s life. And it’s happening right in front of us.

Contractions was written by Mike Bartlett. It is directed by Julia M. Hurley for the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival and features Katelyn Manfre and Miranda Zola. Tickets are available here.

Julia M. Hurley is a director, actress, and writer living in the DMV area. She has worked with The Rainbow Theatre Project, the Source Festival, and 4615 Theatre Company, in addition to directing her own work. She is also a reviewer for DCMetroTheaterArts.

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