Who gets to tell the stories that comprise our shared history? Who determines what defines a cultural moment? Come to that, who decides what is or is not “ladylike”?
Those questions and more animate Kit Steinkellner’s play “Ladies,” which receives its world premiere at Boston Court Pasadena Friday after being workshopped at the theater’s New Play Festival last year. Per Steinkellner, the title can be interpreted literally, playfully, or primly — and all interpretations are correct.
The play tracks a year in the life of the Blue Stockings Society, a feminist group — arguably the first — created by four women in 1750s London, including wealthy British social reformer and writer Elizabeth Montagu, portrayed onstage by Meghan Andrews. “Ladies” also resurrects essayist and poet Elizabeth Carter (played by Carie Kawa); self-educated novelist Fanny Burney (Jully Lee), who counted Jane Austen and Dr. Samuel Johnson among her fans; and Swiss-born neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman (Tracey A. Leigh), who was one of only two female founding members of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. In pubs at that time, men — and only men — discussed events of the day; the Society relocated and expanded those conversations to include women.
Steinkellner, who also created the acclaimed “Sorry for Your Loss” web series on Facebook Watch, says she first learned of the Blue Stockings Society 10 years ago while visiting London’s National Portrait Gallery. Inspired by the group’s story as well as its members’ novels, paintings and jewelry, she was unsure how to translate her excitement without sounding “preachy and pedantic.” The theme was clear: female empowerment, a consistent topic of interest throughout her work. Numerous revisions over several years yielded the stylized piece starting previews Friday, which includes nudity and onstage sex, as well as the playwright — unnamed, and performed by the four actresses. It’s Steinkellner’s witty way of inserting her modern-day voice to reconstruct history without muting the Society’s members.
Her words tumble out in a rush of sparkplug energy as she articulates her efforts to make history “dynamic” and alive in the present. She says she’s wrestling with “the weight of what it has always been to be a woman in the Western world, and the stress and pressure and disappointment and unfairness of all that. And also the fact that things have gotten better, but things still feel so deeply unfair. There’s this element of privilege that’s intersectional; being a white, able-bodied, straight woman today, you have a certain amount of privilege that your corollary 300 years ago doesn’t have, but the system still feels broken. … There is a gulf between now and then — a gulf and a strand of hair. We’re so far away from that time, and we’re so very, very close.”
The difference between 18th-century and 21st-century feminists begins with semantics: in the 1750s, “feminism” wasn’t yet a buzzword.
“The word wasn’t even invented until 100 years after, approximately,” Andrews notes. “So to be a feminist in the mid-18th century wasn’t even really a thing. However, the French Revolution was about to happen, the American Revolution was bubbling, and England had already experienced the Glorious Revolution [of 1688], so revolution was in the vernacular. And Elizabeth Montagu was the first one to include women in the conversation … encouraging women to take ownership of their work: to put their name on their novels, not to use a male pseudonym on their books, for example, or not to paint only landscapes and self-portraits. They weren’t allowed to paint from life, which is essentially a nude portrait, and the nude portrait was like a calling card for artists; the better your nudes, the better an artist you were. Women were kept away from things that would establish them as capable artists. …
“This is an opportunity to be inspired by what may have possibly been the first feminists. What do we think happened? What actually happened? What did history record, and most importantly, how does that impact us here and now?”
Director Jessica Kubzansky’s decision to have only women staff the production underscores the theme of female empowerment. Steinkellner says that choice was driven by the goal of seeing “women’s work onstage” and having “women telling a story about women.” Andrews concurs that it does the play “a great service.”
“That’s not to say that I don’t love working with men — I do,” she says. “But it’s created an environment that is so safe.”
Steinkellner’s currently “in the room” with staff writers for “Sorry for Your Loss”; shooting for its second season begins days after “Ladies” opens. She jokingly calls herself “a real amphibian” because she enjoys hopping between theatre and TV.
“I mean, look,” she says, a phrase that punctuates her conversation often. “Unless you’re, like, Lin-Manuel Miranda with ‘Hamilton,’ it’s hard to get as many eyeballs on your play as you will with a TV show, especially a premium streaming show. I don’t believe I’m sacrificing quality at all by making a TV show. I feel so artistically fulfilled. There’s a magic in that. I love working with a bunch of writers and us all having ownership over the show. …
“But I also love being in rehearsal [for ‘Ladies’], the intimacy and immediacy of that. I wouldn’t trade one kind of magic for the other. My playwriting makes my TV writing better, and I think my TV writing makes my playwriting better. You know those exercise classes where they have legs days and arms days? I feel like that with TV writing and playwriting.”
“Ladies” premieres at Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Friday, May 24, and runs through Sunday, June 30; $20-$39. Info: (626) 683-6801. kitsteinkellner.com, bostoncourtpasadena.org