How refreshing to be reminded that sometimes an artist is an artist is an artist, no matter her chosen medium and despite our own reductive need to “frame” her as just ONE thing. This is most definitely the case with the multi-faceted contemporary visual artist Phyllis Yes, who also happens to be a fine and gifted playwright.
Her debut play, Good Morning, Miss America, premieres at CoHo Theatre on Saturday, March 10. The show tackles some tough issues, namely the psychological and logistical challenges of caring for ailing and aging parents who have lost their autonomy and ability to care safely for themselves. It features a crack cast including Lorraine Bahr, Rick Sadle, Jane Fellows (who also directs) and Kelly Marchant. With set design by Tim Stapleton and light design by Jamie Rea, the show promises to be top-notch.
Theater rehearsals are generally closed affairs, but I was lucky enough to sit in on one for Good Morning, Miss America at McCoy Millworks during the end of the third week of the process. I arrived in time to watch the industrious Fellows and the production stage manager, Annie Bosworth-Foley, prepare the space for rehearsal. Shortly after, Yes arrived, followed by Bahr (whose character, Jane, is based on the real-life Phyllis) and Sadle, who portrays Phyllis’s real-life stepfather, Lou. Small talk ensued about the show, the particularly gnarly evening traffic, and the outcome of a Portland Trail Blazers game, a team Phyllis follows enthusiastically.
Don’t expect to catch her at a Blazers game, though, as a matter of principle. She can’t stomach what she considers the over-sexualizing of the dancers. “I’m such a feminist!” she said with a wholehearted smile. I happened to agree with her about the dancers, or at least see her point, and soon discovered it would be difficult not to see her point on nearly any subject. Phyllis is charismatic, disarming, and seems to be acquainted with herself thoroughly, which goes a long way toward inspiring confidence and garnering cooperation all around, a handy combination for a collaborative art form like theater.
Once the company got down to business, it was a delight to watch the play with the playwright not only in mind, but right there at elbow. Whether weighing in on the merits of a particular prop, evaluating the efficacy of a beat or movement in a scene, or giving her take on a piece of costuming, Phyllis seemed to delight in just about every aspect of the process. It was easy to imagine her many years as a Professor, first at a University in Brazil and then the Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University), Oregon State University and finally Lewis and Clark College, where she also served as Chair of the art department and dean of Arts & Humanities prior to her retirement (although with the pace she keeps, the word “retirement” hardly seems apt). I imagine she was the best kind of educator—enlivened by the exchange of ideas and thrilled for her students’ inquiries and successes.
About those Trail Blazers dancers and her identification as a feminist: the wider topic of gender roles and various cultures’ attitudes and attachments to ideas surrounding gender is near and dear to Phyllis’s heart, and has been instrumental in her work and her development. She is best known for “feminizing” items that are widely considered masculine, including a 1967 911-S Porsche (which she called “PorShe”) that took 600 hours to hand-adorn in lace rosettes for an exhibit in New York, and later, on a road trip across the country as an exhibit on wheels.
When I asked Phyllis about this aspect of her work, she talked about a time when a group of students, one by one, tried on a particular military coat and how, by virtue of just putting on the garment, their demeanors transformed. To a person, they became dictatorial in gesture and speech, bordering on aggressive. “I thought, show me one single object that we think of as a woman’s that could bring that out in people,” she said of the experience. This idea that we imbue artifacts with gender-based characteristics, and that by altering those artifacts we can challenge our perceptions about gender stereotypes, strikes me as the core of this strand of her work.
It came as no surprise to discover that, in addition to writing a play, she also does a good many commissions of her flower paintings these days. Ever the trailblazer (and not the dancing kind), she told me that “painting flowers is the kiss of death for a modern contemporary female artist.” She doesn’t seem be deterred in the least. Interestingly, her flower paintings have a surprising history involving a refusal by the Powers-That-Were at Lewis and Clark to include any women bronze plaques alongside the “great thinkers” (all men) of our time that adorned a conference room wall.
Phyllis and her female cohorts suggested some women be included and even sneaked in one evening to “redecorate” the walls, pinning on them some particular suggestions of women who, they felt, earned the distinction of being included. The unfortunate answer came as a slap in the face—rather than adding plaques of formidable women, the wall was stripped completely of all the bronzes. Some of Phyllis’s early floral paintings can be seen to have a name etched behind the flowers. A painting might, for example, read: ARISTOTLE.
Phyllis has, as she puts it, spent a lifetime learning “to observe things as if you are from a different world.” This notion likely came to her early on, perhaps during a formative time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil, when she did exactly that–bring a new sensibility to a different world, complete with its own culture and customs surrounding gender. By “feminizing” implements (for example, a handgun, which we typically associate with violence and which Phyllis deftly reimagined for another exhibit) we also reconsider our relationship to the implement itself, and by extension, to our world at large.
Whatever prevailing viewpoints drive her artistic pursuits, a sharp mind guides it all. “A painting ought to have an idea behind it,” she told me. Her execution is as exacting as her eye, and most significantly, she seems to be fearless when it comes to both her art work and her writing. “Well, if you don’t take a chance on something,” she said, leaving the end of the sentence implied. And of the age-old question of whether she waits for inspiration to strike or keeps a schedule with her visual arts and her writing, she answered with this tip: “You have to be in the studio to make a painting. And if you can’t find your way into the painting on a particular day, you do something else—you stretch canvas. You clean up.”
The more I spoke with Phyllis, the more obvious it became that her notions about visual arts could, and do, apply to any discipline. It isn’t the form so much as the work ethic, the gumption. “I never had a blank page hit me, and I never had a blank canvas hit me,” she said. Her approach, the very way she thinks about art, could help explain why, after a resounding career and more than 130 exhibits worldwide with an equally impressive career in academia, she found the courage in her eighth decade (she was born in 1941) to reach into entirely new artistic territory as a playwright, although it might be argued that the territory isn’t exactly entirely new.
As it turns out, she acted in plays in junior college and has also attended a good many more professional-level shows than most savvy theatergoers. Every fall semester for years, as part of a program with Lewis and Clark, Phyllis took a group of lucky students to New York, where they saw Broadway and off-Broadway plays. She has always been drawn to the communal nature of theater. When I asked her what theater could do that visual arts couldn’t and vice-versa, she told me, “You can get into a painting. You can get into a play, but in theater, you are right there with the audience. With painting, it’s intimate, but in theater, it’s about sharing an experience.”
As you might have guessed, Phyllis also has a long history with writing. She wrote as an art and theater critic for a blog and also began scripting an ambitious project about the anonymous feminist-activist group the Guerrilla Girls that I, for one, hope she revisits. Her artistic sensibility, hard-earned over her lengthy career, is evident in her writing. She can “kill her darlings” in rewrites with no compunction whatsoever (Good Morning, Miss America has been through thirty revisions!). She also took on a challenge that could be difficult for even the most seasoned playwright—crafting material based on real-life people and events. Again, Phyllis is a quick study and understood intuitively that when you write about real life, your allegiance to the story, to the dramatic enactment of it, sometimes has to trump the cold, hard facts.
In my time with Phyllis, I was surprised most by her composure. She was drawn to the project because she had a deep passion for this personal material and a savvy sense that the notes she began taking as her mother and step-father started to decline could make an interesting play.
The only shred of doubt I witnessed came by way of one endearing admission: “No matter how many art shows I did, I always worried that people wouldn’t come! That it would be opening night, and no one would be there except the curator and me. I feel like that now.” She otherwise lacked the anxiety I have come to expect from the theatrical process, which can be best explained as an emotional undressing. In fact, I was impressed with the professionalism and equilibrium of the whole company.
As I observed the rehearsal that evening, I was reminded that for an actor, the work requires both a deep vulnerability and a thick skin, at exactly the same time. Everything about an actor is up for discussion: the way one looks, moves, speaks, and most importantly, thinks and interprets. The same can be said to varying degrees for the all the collaborators. The director has to wrangle all the elements at once while answering the age-old question that dates back to the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen: Why have you called us here? (Especially in modern times, when many folks are content sitting in the comfort of their homes and binging on Netflix.) In the case of Good Morning, Miss America, the director, Jane Fellows, had the added challenge of switching her hats in a split second, as she also appears as a character in the show, Phyllis’s mother.
And each designer along the way—set, lighting, costume, sound, props–has to navigate that territory where personal interpretation meets functionality meets deadline meets larger vision. It sounds dizzying, and it is. It usually happens in just a few weeks, and with limited money to go around. In this case, it also happens that the playwright, the creator, had been present for every single rehearsal except one. So, to the larger questions: Why a play, and why this play?
It has long been posited that there are really very few subjects worth writing about. From Shakespeare’s King Lear to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night to Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and beyond, nothing is as captivating to an audience as dissecting our complex and difficult familial relationships. As these relationships are primary to our entire existence, the territory is rife with confusion, conflict and uncertainty, perhaps at no time more so than during that stage we may all one day find ourselves in, when our parents begin to decline (or we do) and all that was not handled and discussed comes to the fore, along with our baby-hurt that renders us limited in our ability to see the larger picture.
With humor–as Phyllis pointed out, “It’s quite funny when it’s not your family!”–and a striking balance between realism and true-to-life absurdity, Good Morning, Miss America lands smack dab in the middle of that rich forest, which might be the least explored, yet most important, for the stage. “None of us are experts at this,” Phyllis said. “We don’t have a road map.” The play navigates this terrain masterfully, and without any didactic or prescriptive remedy to offer. The aim is to create theater at its finest: Phyllis and company inviting the players to the stage, and the audience to the seats, and embroiling them in the impossible, only to watch them toil away.
My last correspondence with Phyllis came by way of email. “What a difference a few days makes,” she wrote. “Last night’s rehearsal was terrific. Am now sleeping through the night. Hurray!” Hurray, indeed. And as a final note to Phyllis—no need to worry. Whatever the medium: If you make it, they will come.
Phyllis Yes’s play Good Morning, Miss America premieres Saturday, March 10, at CoHo Theatre, and continues through March 31. Tickets and schedule information here.