‘Vinegar Tom’ addresses women’s issues onstage, behind scenes


Noah Frick-Alofs/Daily Senior Staffer

A “Vinegar Tom” actress strikes a pose. The show features scenes set in the 17th century and cabaret songs set in the modern era.

Andrea Michelson, Assistant A&E Editor


Director Lee Hannah Conrads chose to bring “Vinegar Tom” to Northwestern a year ago as a play she thought was relevant to the times. But she had no idea just how applicable it would become.

The feminist play will premiere this weekend at the Josephine Louis Theater at the height of the #MeToo movement, as women both within and outside the entertainment industry are publicly holding men accountable for sexual assault and harassment.

For Conrads, creating feminist theater in this political climate has challenged her to be an “effective conversation maker.”

“It’s really awful. Obviously you want your theater to be relevant … but you also don’t want to be exploiting that moment to help boost your art,” Conrads said. “You want to be making art that is helping tackle these questions with everybody else.”

“Vinegar Tom” explores age-old stereotypes of femininity and violence against women. Playwright Caryl Churchill originally wrote it to be “a witch trial with no witches,” in which the actors perform scenes set in 1640s England and songs set in a modern cabaret.

Communication senior Amy Nadal, said each of the 17th-century characters represents a stereotype about women — such as a mother, a wife and a promiscuous woman — and is shunned in some way.

“The songs we sing and the lines given to us hark back to the stereotypes of the characters we’re playing in the 17th century,” Nadal said. “Basically, the message of the play is that not a lot has changed.”

The play references several time periods to draw parallels between women’s marginalization in different eras, said set designer Michelle Lilly. In addition to the 17th-century scenes and the modern songs, the play’s set is modeled after a 19th-century music hall that has fallen into disrepair.

Lilly and Conrads said the music hall symbolizes the patriarchy — crumbling, but still present.

“(It’s a) very masculine, formal space with these women who have brought their performance in,” Lilly said. “They’re taking this space and turning it into this thing that it was never meant to be. They’re reclaiming it for the purpose of telling this story.”

Conrads said it was important for the setting to be a performance space because much of the play centers on impossible performances of femininity. She said she also facilitated discussions offstage for the actors to unpack the subject matter of the play and its relevance to their own lives.

Communication junior Simran Bal said dialoguing on heavy subjects so frequently can feel exhausting, but is ultimately worthwhile.

“The themes we’re working with hit painfully close to home for so many of us — the sexual violence, the pain and uncertainty that come with the female body, and so on,” Bal said in an email. “But my cast and I have always felt cared for. I think because we’re all aware of the difficulty and raw truth of the themes we portray, we band together because of it.”

Nadal said the creative team worked to empower the actors behind the scenes. The costume designer, Raquel Adorno, told the actors to “wear something you feel fierce in” to the callbacks and used those outfits to inspire the cabaret costumes in the show.

Conrads said she also worked closely with the actors to individualize the choreography to each performer’s comfort level.

“How a young woman is in her body and women’s sexuality is so much a part of this play,” Conrads said. “I tried to not shy away from that in the choreography, but also to have it always be rooted in what feels comfortable and empowering for them.”

Conrads’ efforts in encouraging conversation and emotional exploration were impactful and educational for male cast members as well. Stefan Schallack, a Communication junior and one of the cast’s two male actors, said though he had worked on predominantly female productions before, he gained a unique perspective from being a part of “Vinegar Tom.”

“I’ve learned that a lot of this, (that) a lot of what’s been going on for hundreds of years, is closer than I thought,” Schallack said. “Being in the room where these types of scenes affect people who have actually gone through these things in a completely different way than they would affect me has been very visceral.”

Conrads said she hopes “Vinegar Tom” will inspire more than just conversations.

“If we actually want to see change in the world, we have to take the things that have been unmasked for us, and then leave the theater and actually go do work in the world that changes that,” Conrads said. “I think the failure of this play would be for all of the conversation and thinking to stop at the theater doors.”

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