On Sunday, August 14th, Lifeline Theatre hosted a “Sneak Peak” event for my upcoming play, Miss Holmes. We do one of these for each mainstage show. Early in the rehearsal process we invite our subscribers and donors to come and watch a couple of scenes and hear about the process and what we hope to accomplish with the show. We give a little demonstration, do a little Q&A, and then mingle and drink wine for an hour. It’s fun. But during the Q&A portion this time, a young woman asked a question for which I should have been prepared, but wasn’t, and I tanked the answer.
A little background: Miss Holmes is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, an exercise in “fan fiction” in which we explore Arthur Conan Doyle’s setting and characters by changing the gender of the two central characters in his stories. In the originals, Sherlock and Watson have pretty much free reign to go wherever they want, talk to whomever they choose, interfere with police investigations, wander around crime scenes, and set traps for criminals. As long as Sherlock solves the crime, nobody has a problem with it. None of that would be true if Sherlock and Watson were female. Women who exhibited the same traits as the male Sherlock Holmes would be met with contempt. They would face consequences that could include institutionalization in an insane asylum.
So that’s what my story is about.
The question I got at the event on Sunday was something like this: Was I using this play to put forth my ideas on the differences between men and women? I don’t recall my answer exactly. I believe I said that no, that was not my intention, and the initial spark of the idea was really a collaboration between my wife and me, and then I kind of faded into mumbling until Paul, my director, moved on to the next question. It’s been bugging me ever since.
I should have seen this question coming. If I had been prepared, my answer would have been Yes, as a playwright writing a story about women, my own ideas about gender would obviously inform my storytelling whether I intended it or not. The real question is, what informs those ideas?
I would have talked first about the research I’ve done into the history of women in the medical profession in Victorian England. Watson is a doctor, after all. Heroes like Sophia Jex-Blake, who organized the first group of women to attend classes at a medical school in Great Britain, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was the first woman to obtain a medical license in England (among many other extraordinary achievements), provide invaluable source material for my story.
I would have talked about the Not In Our House movement, and the brave women who have shared stories about their experiences in our theatre community.
I would have pointed to my two leads, Mandy Walsh and Katie McLean Hainsworth, and I would have explained that from the beginning I knew the story could not be told without their voices.
I would have talked about all of the women I know who have shared with me stories of the everyday sexism that permeates their lives.
And I would have explained that I don’t look at writing plays as an excuse to preach what I think. I see it as an opportunity to learn something new. But don’t ask me what I’ve learned yet. I haven’t finished writing it.