‘Miss Neo Pageant’ explores what it means to be feminine, successful
BY MARY HOULIHAN May 8, 2013 6:08PM
Jessica Anne (from left), Megan Mercier, Leah Urzendowski Courser, Molly Plunk and Tif Harrison star in “The Miss Neo Pageant” at Neo-Futurists.
‘The Miss Neo Pageant’
◆ May 16-June 22
◆ The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland
◆ Tickets, $20
◆ (773) 275-5255;
Women studies scholars will tell you that there are three feminist movements. The first began with the suffragettes and the right to vote; the second, of course, was the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s and the third rallied the young women of the ‘90s via the Girl Power phenomenon.
Megan Mercier came of age during feminism’s third chapter with strong female role models in her life. But despite all this, now at 29, she looks around and feels she’s “ended up in this weird limbo.”
“It feels like being a teenager never stopped in some ways,” Mercier says. “I don’t feel like a fully realized adult. You’re guided through life and then you get out of college and no one prepares you for what to expect. There’s no structure and it’s easy to go off the rails.”
Mercier, the artistic director at the Neo-Futurists, the unconventional North Side theater ensemble, dissects this predicament in the new show “The Miss Neo Pageant.” The show begins like a traditional beauty pageant but “wanders off in other directions,” Mercier says. “You won’t see anyone twirling a baton, but in a way you will see people responding to baton twirling.”
“It’s a crazy dream of a pageant with audience participation and sledge hammers and lots of costume changes,” director Stephanie Shaw adds. “It’s like a crazy dream where there’s a beauty pageant except it’s not, it’s a bookmobile.”
“The Miss Neo Pageant’ was created by the performers: Mercier, Jessica Anne, Tif Harrison, Molly Plunk and Leah Urzendowski Courser. Shaw guides them through the process. She says the actresses keep one another on track while also keeping the show multi-faceted.
“Megan gave the ensemble its point of focus, but each women brings her own point of view, her own background, her own artistic approach to it,” Shaw explains. “They counter balance one another very well. We have folks who express themselves best physically, we have wordsmiths, we have empaths and we have rebels.”
The show addresses issues of gender bias, how success is measured, and what it means to win. “It also looks at how women feel misrepresented in art, media and culture and would like the chance to speak for themselves,” Plunk says.
The women began collaborating last fall in what would become a 15-week writing process. The goal was to have an open discussion about things in their lives.
“We bonded in a great way that doesn’t always happen because we have these dizzy, haphazard lives,” Mercier says. “Most of what went into the piece is drawn directly from our lives.”
Shaw admits the entire process of creating “The Miss Neo Pageant” has been an “odd process” for her. “The ensemble is creating it; I’m just directing it. Which means there’s a bit of sitting back on my part, letting it breathe, letting the performers work out what it is they’re expressing and then stepping in to make sure it’s clear and help establish the flow and focus of the piece. It’s just like directing a regular play, only the creators are all standing onstage staring at me.”
Through the process, Mercier says she has learned something about herself. Positions of leadership and being assertive have often left her uncomfortable.
“I’ve often held back as a leader because I don’t want to be seen as a bitch,” Mercier says. “But I’ve learned here that I can be a leader and that people won’t interpret that as another agenda. It’s just a different vision.”
The show was created by women for women and that has left its creators feeling they’ve made something special.
“Not to say men won’t enjoy it as well, but it’s definitely targeted toward women,” said Plunk. “This show challenges conventional ways of being feminine and questions what it means to be successful, talented and beautiful.”
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.