As the Hour Glass Figures performance troupe approaches its one-year anniversary, founder Susan Kelejian looks forward to a repertoire that may include a production of The Women, a parlor comedy whose vivacious all-female cast belies the fact that men are absent even from photos that decorate the set. The story is so lively that, well, you don’t really miss the guys.
Such a production would be only too fitting for a group founded to empower women, an enthusiastic theater population who find all too often that the majority of roles aren’t for them. HGF’s mission statement was not to exclude men, but to explore a different angle for actresses wanting to hone their skills.
Kelejian notes that during any given audition, “there are 10 times more women then men auditioning, and 10 times as many male roles as female.”
She also perceived a somewhat awkward gender dynamic. “When both genders get in the same room, a lot of barriers go up,” Kelejian explains. HGF was founded, in part, “to develop a cohesive group with less inhibition, less fear, where risks are taken and different relationships established in a deeper way.”
And there’s a historical bent, too; Kelejian recalls studying few famous women in world history. Now, “I ask women to name 10 famous women in history; they can only name one or two. I just wanted to level the playing field.”
The idea of an all-female company such as this first occurred to Kelejian in 1999, when she was directing the youth internship program for the Ojai Shakespeare Festival. Kelejian had stumbled upon the Ojai Valley a couple of years before, when a local director had been open to gender reassignment in the traditionally male role of The Tempest’s Prospero, providing veteran Shakespearean actress Kelejian a chance to reinterpret the 65-year-old character. She recalls yelling her lines into the sea yards from her family home, then coming to rehearsals and falling in love with the town of Ojai.
And while she would be happy to work with an all-male group, or to combine forces with a male counterpart to this company, she wanted the initial stages of HGF to be focused on forming a confident, daring ensemble.
Approximately 50 women showed up to audition, resulting in a strong mix of community actors, professionals, educators and women new to the theater scene. The company now boasts a dozen full-fledged members and scores more who are “in the wings,” or supportive of the company but unable to commit full-time.
The assignment for each new member was simple: choose one to three women in history, myth or imagination. The women could not be living. They had to be compelling figures for the actress.
“The majority knew of women I hadn’t heard of,” Kelejian recalls, clearly impressed. “It was interesting to see what people knew from their own education.”
Now the women meet, rehearse and perform with the backing and support of Interface Children Family Services. HGF is the resident company of Interface’s Performing Arts Collective of Oak View, and performs largely for school-aged children.
After a historical figure is chosen and research has been conducted, performers eschew wigs or costumes, opting for a scarf, handbag or other effect to symbolize the “essence” of the character. Kelejian admits that this was at first a logistical concern — the first scheduled performance didn’t afford the cast enough time to assemble complete costumes — but it has grown into a philosophy.
During the one- to two-minute monologue, a performer presents herself as a representation of her character. After giving a brief description of the woman’s background and history, the performer will teach the children something her character would know. A female pirate will demonstrate how to make a map or follow a compass. When troupe member Catherine Dain portrayed 17th century writer Aphra Behn, she asked each child to produce a short story. Charloa Quail brought sculptor Louise Nevelson to life by teaching students the art of assemblage: she brought in throwaway items from which they, as a group, had to create a single artistic piece. An actress representing the Statue of Liberty introduced Emma Lazarus’s famous epitaph on the base of the statue, and told students to use improvisation to present the verses in a new and compelling way. The result of one such activity was rap.
And for the little guys — grade school audiences — there’s Auntie Roxie, a welcoming host whom Kelejian originally conceived as a potential public television personality in the Pee Wee’s Playhouse tradition, a mix of animation and live-action. At school, it’s a traveling trunk show, where a gypsy-like Kelejian offers children the ability to globe-trot and time-travel during a 50-minute assembly. Seven company actresses join forces and sets are minimal.
“Our bodies become set pieces,” Kelejian explains. “A gypsy wagon, carriage, thrones … ”
Children are brought up from the audience and asked to look into Auntie Roxie’s crystal ball — a globe — and to put their finger on a random spot. In all, there are about five world regions that the gathering may spend about 20 minutes exploring. Topics explored have included the California Gold Rush, ancient Arabia, Mount Olympus and the classic Greek gods and goddesses.
But the assembly can be made-to-order as well: with advance notice, Kelejian and company can tailor the presentation to comply with California state standards. A program built around the Revolutionary War, for example, would include main historical points, traditional songs and an introduction to a female soldier who fought as a man. The accommodating cast might then depict Washington crossing the Delaware.
“It’s usually done with a lot of humor,” says Kelejian.
It is fitting that an actor who, at the age of 17, ran off to France to tour with the Commedia dell’Arte would integrate so many elements of clowning and physical performance into an educational agenda. Kelejian has worked in outreach through the Ojai Shakespeare Festival in addition to teaching everything from English as a second language to horseback riding at Ojai schools.
HGF celebrates its approaching one-year mark with a showcase at the Oak View Park and Resource Center, what Kelejian refers to as “snippets of all we do.” It’s About Time is an all-ages presentation that includes a raffle, wandering performers and an auction of 17 blondwood hourglasses decorated by company members. From 7 p.m. on, Auntie Roxie will regale the audiences with an introduction to the Magical Gypsy Wagon and host interactive performances. Kelejian’s original play, The Little Turtle, will be performed by a cast of Smart Start participants aged 2 to 5. From 8:15 on, subject matter becomes a bit more dramatic as selections from Kelejian’s verse play, Boudicca, depict the final moments between the contentious cousins, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. Topping it off with a little modernity are scenes from Carol Churchill’s fantastical Top Girls. Throughout the evening, guests can expect Renaissance-era music.
“I like to establish a sense of community, having a theater space in a residential area,” Kelejian muses when considering the company’s current location. In addition to ongoing educational outreach and full-length productions, she looks forward to “co-collaborative” projects that might include teens.
After all, her mission has been, and continues to be, creating a safe space to perform.
It’s About Time is sponsored by Interface Children Family Services and will take place Sept. 30, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m., Oak View Park and Resource Center, 555 Mahoney Ave., Oak View. Visit www.hourglassfigures.com or call 649-1605.