Kathleen Lewis :: Telling 'Tales' Out of School in 'Fourth Grade Lesbo'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 11, 2016

Boston stages in the last few years have seen a surge of stories relevant to the LGBTQ community, from the historical ("Bent," "The Normal Heart," "The Boys in the Band") to the futuristic ("Citizens of the Empire") to contemporary comedies ("Buyer and Cellar" and the upcoming "Bootycandy").

Now Flat Earth Theatre undertakes the East Coast premiere of Gina Young's '90s-infused comedy "Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo," which is set to run from March 11 - 26 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. Cast member Kathleen C. Lewis chatted with EDGE about nineties music, the dangers attending gaffes in style, and the need for language and society to adapt to the times -- and the people who live in them.

EDGE: I enjoyed your character in Boston Public Works' recent production of "Citizens of the Empire." That play that also had a gay angle to it.

Kathleen Lewis: That was a fun one to work on. What an epic piece!

EDGE: How did you see your character, Sid, in that production? Was she gay too?

Kathleen Lewis: Definitely. I feel like at first [playwright] Kevin Mullins might not have written that completely in, but as soon as I stepped into the role that's exactly how I interpreted her.

Kevin is great to collaborate with, and we talked a lot about how Sid would be queer. In fact, his future drafts are going develop on this more! Here's this character out there in space for long stretches of time, working a job as an interstellar trash collector, which must get really lonely -- not to mention, she's involved in the movement to revolutionize the way the galaxies think of robots and their rights. But then, all of a sudden, this beautiful femme dove [sex worker] steps onto her ship... and we've got ourselves another possible queer love story in the midst of a revolution. It's important to note that there are many queer characters in Mullins' story including the leader of the revolution -- Marcus Kent -- as well as some dignitaries in high court.

EDGE: Your bio at Flat Earth's website says you are "currently devising a project using Bavarian Fairy Tales with a group of experimental physical theater artists from Boston, NYC, and Maine to be showcased in the Spring of 2016."

Kathleen Lewis: It's true! Currently I'm working with a gal that graduated with me at Bowdoin College. She works over at the A.R.T.

A collection of Bavarian fairy tales of Franz Xaver von SchŲnwerth was discovered five years ago and just translated to English. We're working with that text. What's interesting about these Bavarian fairy tales is, it's not "clean," like your popular well known fairy tales.

EDGE: Clean? As in scrubbed of violence and sexuality? Or not clean as in full of narrative recursions, internal contradictions, and other things an editor would weed out and neaten up?

Kathleen Lewis: The stories deal with a lot of familiar fairy tale tropes -- princes going off and overcoming an obstacle and finding their one and only true love princess. But structurally the pieces don't have these nicely buttoned endings. They aren't classic stories that end in a way that clearly give you a "moral ending."

The stories seem so purely from a form of verbal story telling -- you can imagine your aunt or parent telling you these stories -- leaving out important details, and then remembering halfway through the tale that, oh yeah -- that rusty needle -- let's bring that important magical tool back into the piece. The endings seem unfinished in some stories -- which I think makes for a more engaging story -- where the listener/reader really has to decide for themselves what is the moral, what is the point of a turnip turning into a chestnut that hides a princess, are the ice giants good or bad characters, what's up with turning into a bear one moment, then having the curse lifted, and brought back down on you for no clear reason? What do these moral tales and symbols mean? You won't get a clean answer, which I find fascinating.

EDGE: And then adapting that material to the stage is a further process.

Kathleen Lewis: Absolutely. At first we were thinking of this as a kind of a devising project before starting on work we had in mind to do later. Specifically, we want to work with Heiner Mueller's [1977 postmodern play] "Hamletmaschine," but we wanted to start with something a bit more light; now we're finding that the folk tales are pretty dark and odd. We'll see what happens, but currently it's in the devising stage and I'm hoping that we get to showcase something and show some of our work by the end of 2016.

EDGE: What does "physical theater" mean? Is it dance? Acrobatics? Aerial silks?

Kathleen Lewis: Physical theater means that the storytelling involves more movement, but not quite dance, in order to create the shapes, and energy of the plot. The physical work we are putting into it can't be straight acting with dialogue between the characters in the story because very little dialogue is written into the fairy tales.

These are stories that you tell while you're gathered together around the living room fire, or in the kitchen cleaning, or while you're farming. They are meant to be told verbally. But we are going to add the magic of what these fables look like when put up on their feet with possibly some dance, some lifts, running, sliding, building shapes with our bodies and using the magic of theater to create a shared experience. It's a process, and we are in early stages, but I am working with some good people.

EDGE: Let me ask you about the play you're in currently, Flat Earth's production of Gina Young's "Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo." It's a about a group of school friends who are writing a play; is the group of school friends in fourth grade? Or are they writing about fourth graders?

Kathleen Lewis: There are a few storylines that are being told, from the perspective of different middle school characters and groups of friends each with their own unique experiences with queerness and sexuality.

There are three main writers that are collaborating together about their experiences growing up through elementary school and middle school, though they didn't grow up in the same school, or environments at all -- each of the writer's stories share the same coming of age theme.

Like the title suggests, it's about their different stories and experiences that helped them recognize their identities as lesbians. But the show is also very much about the growing pains that go along with the high stakes of middle school reality -- that almost everything seems epic, and permanent, and all consuming: Your first kiss, the first time you hold hands with someone, that first crush, as well as that feeling of "outsiderness" and the painful process of owning who you are as an individual.

EDGE: So when they call this play "nostalgic," that's a reference to the characters in the play -- they are nostalgic for the past as they draw on their earlier experiences for their project.

Kathleen Lewis: I think calling the play "nostalgic" references how at times it seems the stories are being told in flashback. The writers are remembering what moments of realization made up their unique lesbian coming of age stories. Also, it's set in the nineties, which is going to bring back a whole lot of nostalgia for that decade of awesome music, and fashion, and scrunchies, and lip gloss, and high heeled sneakers, and neon laser background for school photos. It was a very iconic time and it's been so fun to play with all these elements.

EDGE: You play two characters. Tell me about them.

Kathleen Lewis: I play Seven, who is one of the primary writers, and also the partner of one of the writers. Seven is a tomboy who grew up thinking having body hair was cool. She tells a story about how she was always the one to volunteer to play the boy when she and her friends played "house," and Seven is the one who gets the unfair rep as a "slut" at her school, which befuddles her because she hasn't had sex. She is also being name called "lesbo" because of her friendships with boys. She asks, "How can I be both a lesbo and slut?"

The play brings up these very powerful questions about how we use labels to identify people as good or bad, cool or not, and how sometimes we don't even know what the labels mean. There is a whole scene about not knowing what words to use about the feelings Seven is having for her friend Julie... she says, "I don't even know if there's a language for it."

I also play Whitney, who is part of that group of girlfriends in middle school who are always creating dance routines for the middle school talent show. She has this moment with her friend Brandy, where you see some tension there and attraction -- but remember this is middle school, where sexuality is a gray area at best, and labeling someone queer, gay, lesbian is a sure way to effectively become the most bullied person at school. There's a real threat in these friend groups where standing up for your classmate can cost you dearly and you can suddenly be the one bullied.

EDGE: The play involves the time period, and the aesthetics, of the 1990s.

Kathleen Lewis: Definitely, which has been a lot of fun, because I think most of the folks who've been cast, we remember that time very fondly. The musical numbers that were chosen and written into that play are from that time period... "time period," god!... the nineties, and we're doing neon colors, tights, leg warmers, the whole nine.

EDGE: How nostalgic is this play for you personally? Does the nineties setting square with your own experience of elementary and middle school?

Kathleen Lewis: Yeah, it does. A lot of the music I listened to, what I wore, the pop culture of the day that makes up the tone of the play is part of my elementary/middle school experience; I feel like in the nineties, in my middle school we started talking more openly about the fact that we should have an LGBTQ group, but it most certainly wasn't something that was a popular suggestions at my school. And also, from stories I've heard from my friends, queer advocacy was not trending all across the nation in the nineties. The music scene was talking more about sex, safe sex, different kinds of sexualities more openly, and I think this is where I was able to consume more queer culture -- but still it wasn't easy learning even a vocabulary for this culture when I was growing up.

EDGE: So for you that process might have been a little later than for kids now.

Kathleen Lewis: Yeah, absolutely, I do think that kids now have more resources available. Having gay couples kiss and hold hands on the silver screen, TV shows showcasing drag queens, more out queer movie stars and even political figures, more popular songs about lesbian love, queer rights, there are way more LGBTQ Pride clubs in schools -- all this helps factor into a safer culture that is more aware of identity diversity.

Our language is still developing, and bullying is still a huge problem in schools where name calling often involves some sort of gay shaming. We touch on a few of these elements in the show. It is a lot about bullying and growing up and trying to figure out how you identify, where you fit it, what you are, and that's just the process we go through as kids, right?

EDGE: But at the same time this isn't too heavy. It's a musical!

Kathleen Lewis: It is not at all too heavy, which I love! I love that this is not a bawl-your-eyes-out show about coming out and finding your individuality. It is very much "Yeah, it was hard, but we're going to have fun with this." "Fourth Grade Lesbo" has lots of musical interludes and a lot of levity. I think that puberty is this painful, awkward process of figuring out who you are, but there are many funny moments in this show that we get to share.

EDGE: Music is a big part of most people's lives, especially as you're just entering adolescence.

Kathleen Lewis: I think that music has a huge influence on us, especially when you are at an age where your own words can't quite express what you feel. Sometimes you hear a song and that's enough to explain love, or fear, or loneliness in a way a middle schooler may not be able to verbalize (heck even we adults need music for this). I love the way music is inserted in this play because it helps celebrate, and accentuate the very powerful feelings that you have when you're at this age.

EDGE: Are you going to be lip-syncing to popular songs? Is it like a drag show?

Kathleen Lewis: I wish there was drag! But that's for another show. Everything is going to be sung a cappella, or with the folks we have on stage with background music. I think that perhaps for one piece we will pre-record, but everything else is all going to be live, and it's all parodies of these very good tunes that you know. I personally am going to be doing a Montel Jordan rap, which I'm really excited about. There's a whole bunch of stuff in here: There's dance routines, raps, musical numbers, dress up, spanking. It's chock-full of good stuff! Promise it'll be entertaining to see.

EDGE: In the nineties, of course, any hint of anything gay at school provoked a huge firestorm. Is that part of the story here?

Kathleen Lewis: Absolutely. There are some heartbreaking scenes. I don't want to make it sound like it is just a laugh, because that bullying that happened when I was in middle school, and the bullying that happens now -- gosh, it's like you could have the wrong T-shirt on and that would be enough for you to be ostracized for the rest of the three years you're in middle school. We definitely touch on that, and how the smallest details about your clothing or that way that you acted, or piercings you wore, or the handkerchief you had on would be enough to lose all your friends.

It's absolutely nuts that that is the case even now. I know this young girl, who really likes Spider-Man. She has a pair of Spider-Man shoes; I think she's six years old, but immediately the girls at school were like, "What's wrong with you? Are you a boy?" That name-calling, "Are you a boy," or "fag hag," or "faggot," all of those words, "dyke" -- for those to come out of children's mouths when they don't even know what those words mean. Then try being on the receiving end of that, how confusing it is to not know what these words mean, but to know it means trouble for you. Then you've got the trend in schools where, as a means of social survival kids simply follow the herd, and participate in bullying.

EDGE: Even today, the subject matter would be likely to draw criticism and ire. Has the play been attacked for its content, or even for its title?

Kathleen Lewis: I have noticed in our community, in Cambridge and Somerville, it's been a pretty warm response. We haven't put it on yet, so we'll see what the reviews say, and how the public responds. With a title like "Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo" I think that the queer community and our allies will come out to support this piece, but I also hope that people who are a bit nervous about a title like this come out and see this piece about becoming aware of yourself and realizing your own identity in these formative years. I guess we'll see.

"Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo" continues at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown through March 26. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.flatearththeatre.com/shows/2016/tales

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.