One Woman's War
Book review: The Accidental Activist
Early in 2003, Kathryn Blume launched a plan: to inspire nationwide, even worldwide readings of Aristophanes' antiwar play Lysistrata to protest the approaching invasion of Iraq. Assisted by the web, the project was a hit; on March 3, 2003 more than 1000 readings of Lysistrata took place in all 50 states and in 59 countries on six continents. Blume's one-woman, autobiographical show The Accidental Activist tells the story of the Lysistrata Project's development and aftermath, complete with plenty of funny, moving and altogether entertaining twists and turns.
In both the play and real life, Blume is an actress, married to Vermont Stage Artistic Director Mark Nash, who "back and forths" it a lot between New York and Vermont. The dramatic action starts in 2002, when she is working a day job transcribing news interviews, mostly concerning the repercussions of September 11; she is, according to her own report, not what many casting directors are looking for: "not tall, not thin, not blond, not 12."
Blume is better described in positives. She has long red hair, slightly tussled, and dresses in a black blouse and pants. She's artsy without being self-important. Despite the minimal set -- a mini-trampoline covered in blankets and pillows, and a desk -- she fully inhabits the stage from the moment she sets foot on it.
And hers is quite an entrance. Blume begins the show under stark top lighting, wearing a long, black robe. The set-up screams "performance art," and Blume delivers: She holds a mask in front of her face and chants. What she chants doesn't matter, because at this point the more skittish audience members aren't listening; they're looking for the nearest exit. Suddenly, the lighting becomes natural and the mask and robe, along with the audience's doubts, are cast aside: "Just kidding," Blume says. "I am so not going to do that to you."
But after assuring the audience there will be only one audition story, Blume does offer a disclaimer: She will discuss her own political views, which are unabashedly liberal; you don't need to agree with them, but they're a part of her story. She wants to make the world a better place, to do big things. "I should have convinced the Bush administration to sign the Kyoto Accords," she laments, "or figured out a way to sop up excess greenhouse gasses with a giant atmospheric maxi pad."
It's a recipe for self-indulgence. But Blume artfully uses humor to temper her earnestness about the nation's response to September 11, 2001, the war in Iraq, the environment, and so on. "We are counting down to Armageddon," she says, preparing to transcribe another interview, "and I'm spending my final moments recording the success of a small group of secretive, insular, power-hungry, consciously violent people working against the common good and for their own gain...plus -- I feel fat."
Even when things turn deadly serious, Blume maintains a light touch. "Watching the twin towers burn," she says, "I kept thinking of this Bedouin song, 'Fire on Top of the Mountain.'" As Blume sings, the song sounds bleak and haunting. "No wonder I just can't take it anymore," she concludes. But then, suddenly, we hear percussion. As the music rises, Blume sings along, and then begins to dance. The same music that has so strikingly set the tone for Blume's remembrance of September 11 brings her out of grief and back to her quest to save the world.
At one point, Blume attends a fundraiser for the Right Living Awards -- what she describes as an indie version of the Nobel Peace Prize. She dramatizes the acceptance speech of the keynote speaker and award recipient, Amira Bakkan from Sudanese Mothers for Peace. Bakkan and the women in her community told their feuding husbands, "You get no piece of me till you give me peace" -- a sentiment that's echoed by the women in Lysistrata.
Naturally exuberant, Blume calms herself down to embody the serene Bakkan. Recounting conversations with various characters, she is equally adept at portraying her husband Mark, her New Age therapist mother-in-law, a journalist, a "Harvard-educated Middle Eastern Middle East expert" and a London associate named Genevieve. In the end, Blume always switches back to herself, fretting over how to make local action influence global powers.
When she hears about the new organization Theatres Against Wars and its planned "day of action" in March 2003, she decides to take part. She knows what kind of event she wants to create: "a giant theatrical happening that will...make it totally impossible...to go to war." But how?
Eventually, an idea presents itself: Blume has been writing a screen adaptation of Lysistrata, "the original antiwar sex farce" in which "plucky Greek women deny sex to their husbands until the men lay down their swords." Why not present a staged reading of the play? So begins the hugely successful Lysistrata Project. The rest, as they say, is history. But the U.S. goes to war anyway, and Blume is left to figure out what's next. As it happens, the answer is another show: this one. By its end, Blume isn't asking the audience to share her political beliefs about the war in Iraq; she's asking them to care, and to take action.
Blume did. Despite recent assertions that show-going might not be an appropriate activity in a time of war, both the Lysistrata Project and Accidental Activist bravely demonstrate that theater is not a passive form of escape, but, indeed, a way to fight back.