‘Optimism is her legacy’: Holly Twyford on directing ‘Gloria: A Life’ at Theater J

‘The personal is the political’ in this closeup on Gloria Steinem, who championed the cause of women’s rights at a time when most people thought they had none.   

For someone like me, who grew up in a world that predated (and often mocked) the precepts of feminism, it’s hard to believe that Gloria Steinem—the celebrated subject of Gloria: A Life—will be 88 this month.

Yet for Holly Twyford, director of the play—now at Theater J—Steinem and the movement she helped create are part of history. (Or herstory, as we feminists like to put it.)

“Like many in the audience, I’m a member of another generation,” Twyford told me, speaking over the phone as she was on her way to visit her mother, who, like Steinem, is a 1950s graduate of a women’s college. (Steinem and I both attended Smith, home of a long line of women’s rights advocates, including Betty Friedan.)

“I’m 30 years younger than Gloria. So I knew who she was. But I didn’t know what she had achieved,” Twyford said.

Although Steinem is widely known as an instigator of the second wave of feminisma champion of women’s rights at a time when the phrase itself appeared to be an oxymoron—many people, like Twyford, didn’t know a lot about the movement.

Holly Twyford

“I’m coming to the party late,” she admitted, “so I knew I had to educate myself.”

Nowadays, she added, people learn about feminism in a women’s studies course. “But such things didn’t exist when I was at college. Women’s suffrage was all we learned. I knew very little about the woman’s movement, but I knew a lot about civil rights.”

As it turned out, learning about civil rights was right on target for Twyford, since the play—like the movement it depicts—focuses on the need for feminism, which is about equal rights, to intersect with and embrace other movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

Twyford and cast members interviewed a lot of people—women who were in the movement and those who were not, and found that all of them, whether they knew it or not, were influenced by Gloria.

It’s not a coincidence that the focus of the play is Gloria’s life, and the impact of the people around her, who ultimately became part of her vision.

“Gloria’s favorite line,” Twyford reminded me, “is ‘The personal is political.’ Gloria didn’t invent it, but it’s her rallying cry. It means that personal experiences—particularly those involving power—are dictated by the existing political system.

“To liberate the person, she tells us, you must change the system.”

Mani Yangilmau, Sydney Lo, Debora Crabbe, Susan Lynskey (as Gloria Steinem), Erin Weaver, Sherri L. Edelen, and Awa Sal Secka in ‘Gloria: A Life.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Although Twyford had not seen the original production, in 2018 at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York, she did see the PBS adaptation, which aired in 2020. She also saw the play when it was staged at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, where Emily Mann, the playwright, is based.

“To my delight, Emily has been actively engaged in this production,” Twyford said, pointing out that because the play was written during the Trump administration, there was quite a bit of rewriting to do. “The bones of the script remain the same, but there were changes to be made.”

Working together, the two updated the material, tossing out all the quips about Trumpery. On the other hand, at the time that the play was written, a woman’s right to an abortion—guaranteed by Roe v. Wade—seemed immutable.

“Obviously, that changed,” Twyford said, adding that other than those updates, the script is the same. Its emphasis throughout is on hope.

“Gloria calls herself a ‘hopeaholic,’ someone literally addicted to hope,” she continued, pointing out that hope is what makes the play upbeat, and ultimately joyous.

On opening night, March 13, 2023: Gloria Steinem with Susan Lynskey, who plays her in ‘Gloria: A Life’ at Theater J.

“Optimism is her legacy. Gloria remembers what life was like in the 1940s and ’50s. For example, she reminds us that we took pay inequity for granted. And that we accepted the fact that married women rarely worked. At the time—the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s—most women went straight from high school or college into marriage.

“Gloria, on the other hand, was a working woman, a journalist,” Twyford explained. Her most famous story—in which she posed as a Playboy bunny in order to write an exposé of what went on at a supposedly respectable gentleman’s club—drew a lot of raucous attention, but the reality is that it revealed some of the terrible conditions under which some women worked.

Although Twyford began her career as an award-winning actor, she switched gears some 20 years ago and has been directing ever since. She regards her recent work, directing Naomi Jacobson in Becoming Dr. Ruth, as one of her proudest achievements.

Curious, I asked, “How did you get into directing?”

“Easy. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” she laughed, explaining that she had worked with a lot of directors over the years, and couldn’t resist telling them how to direct. Most put up with it.

But one day, the director was Aaron Posner. And he said, “OK, why don’t you direct?”

“So I did,” she said. She soon discovered that she was very good at communicating with actors. The secret, she added, is understanding that everyone speaks, and hears, a different language. “If there are five actors in a show, that means you need five different languages to reach them, and help them learn a part.

“A director,” she concluded, “may have a remarkable vision for a show. But if he or she can’t communicate it, the vision is lost. Figuring out how to communicate with each actor”—how to sound the right notes and get across the right feeling—“is something I can do.”

Audiences can see the results for themselves at Theater J for the rest of this month.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Gloria: A Life plays through April 2, 2023, at Theater J at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($45–$85, with member and military discounts available) online or by calling the ticket office at 202-777-3210.

The program for Gloria: A Life is online here.

COVID Safety: All patrons in the Goldman Theater are required to wear masks covering their nose and mouth. Only performers and guests invited onstage may be unmasked. Masks are optional but encouraged in the Q Street and 16th Street lobbies, hallways, and other public spaces. For more information, visit Theater J’s COVID Safety Guidelines.

In ‘Gloria: A Life’ at Theatre J, a look at an icon and hopeaholic (review by Lisa Traiger, March 16, 2023)


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