Launching Ships by Janet Hayatshahi and Kirsten Brandt at StateraCon in NYC

The Statera National Conference has become known as a treasure trove of solo work by women artists. This year is no different. We’re excited to tell you about Launching Ships by Kirsten Brandt and Janet Hayatshahi.

Launching Ships takes a deep look at society’s ideas of beauty through the mythical journey of Helen of Troy. We caught up with Janet and Kirsten this week to learn a little more about their collaborative work and their performance session at StateraCon!

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Your piece Launching Ships is loosely based on the story of Helen of Troy and her return from the Trojan War. Tell us about using this story as a way to explore beauty and objectification.

Janet Hayatshahi: The mythology about Helen paints her as the most beautiful woman in the world, the face that launched a 1000 ships, and caused a 10-year war. But Helen's beauty was merely the excuse for the war.  This is essentially an ancient tale that paints woman as scapegoat and woman as object. We were interested in exploring the combination of beauty, objectification, and aging and felt that linking it to Helen’s story made sense.

How has the #MeToo movement influenced Launching Ships?

Janet Hayatshahi: We started thinking about this story right after the #metoo movement started in 2017. Our first workshop of the piece included direct quotes we had received from friends when we asked them for examples of backwards compliments they had received. These “compliment misfires" were samplings of how we reflect on beauty in our society and how this reflection affects us. When your mother tells you "you would be so beautiful if only you...." fill in the blank here with "lost some weight," "put on makeup," "got a nose job," etc., this has an effect on your psyche, right? But, Launching Ships aims to go beyond perceptions of beauty. It looks at how men have allowed these ideas to persist. How, through their gaze, women have been objectified, and labeled, and how much of that has been out of our hands. In this same way, Helen's objectification was something she had no control over. At its core, this piece aims to confront the way we perceive beauty, and how we have been taught, through the patriarchal gaze, to see. 

Janet Hayatshahi as Helen in “Launching Ships”.

Janet Hayatshahi as Helen in “Launching Ships”.

This piece was created as a partnership. What was special about this creative collaboration?

Janet Hayatshahi: Kirsten and I have been collaborating for a long time - since our time at Sledgehammer Theatre in San Diego in the early 2000's. When I moved to Richmond, VA in 2015 for an academic job, I felt really lost artistically. My collaborators were 3000 miles away. I knew I had to find a way to be creative, so Kirsten and I started having weekly video conference meetings about projects we could create together. Our first project was a piece about food and death that we presented in Berlin in the summer of 2016. 

In 2017, when the #metoo stories started spreading, we were sure there was a way to connect them to a retelling and a deconstructing of a classic story, so we got back online, and the video meeting schedule started up again, as we worked on creating Launching Ships. We tested a very short version of the piece in March 2017 during which we Skyped into each other's classrooms and performed the piece for our audiences over the internet. We then had a workshop of the piece at Firehouse Theatre in Richmond in January 2018 for a live audience and received some great feedback for developing it further. With some funding from Randolph-Macon College, where I teach, we were able to present it again in Santa Cruz in the summer of 2018 and then again at a Gender Studies Conference at George Mason University. It still baffles me that most of the work on this piece, the development, the writing, and the numerous edits we have made, has primarily taken place with a distance of 3000 miles separating the two of us. It's amazing to be able to use technology in this way. We couldn't have done this 15 years ago.

Mentorship is at the core of StateraArts' mission. Can you tell us about your mentors and how they've shaped you and your work? 

Kirsten Brandt: Ancient Greek Scholar and playwright Marianne McDonald was hugely influential for both of us. She instilled in us a love of Greek plays. I had her as a teacher at UCSD when I was an undergrad.  Janet also spent a lot of time with her while she was at UCSD for grad school years later. When I was running Sledgehammer and exploring Greek myths (with playwrights Kelly Stuart and Susan Yankowitz), she was an invaluable sounding board.  But, surprisingly, most of my mentors were actually men.  It’s fascinating, there was such a lack of women in academia teaching directing in the 90s.   Which is why it is important to me and to Janet to mentor women.  

I recently completed my MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College.  The entire group of advisors on the Port Townsend campus are women (Devora Neumark, Petra Kuppers, Sharon Siskin, Laiwan, and Ju-Pong Lin.)  It was an amazing experience where I felt supported and nurtured to urged to pursue hard questions about gender and performance. 

Janet Hayatshahi: For me Janet, mentorship has come in waves, each of them meaningful and incredibly influential. One of my most recent mentors is Allyson Green, who was at UCSD while I was in graduate school, though she’s now a Dean at Tisch School of the Arts. She always told me I needed to create a solo piece and she was right. I’m glad to see that piece come to life through Helen’s story.

How has your community supported the trajectory of this piece?

Kirsten Brandt: Our joint communities have been incredible. When we presented the piece in Richmond, we expected to have a few friends come and see it, and were completely surprised when about 40 of Janet’s colleagues were in the audience. We received such great feedback from them because this style of storytelling was unlike anything they had seen. When we presented in Santa Cruz, we had post-show conversations with the audience and received some great insight for developing the piece even further. Each time we present this piece we learn so many new things because Launching Ships is really about our audience and what they see. It's a pseudo call and response where we put out an idea and they meet that idea by bringing their own history to it.

Janet Hayatshahi: The comments we received from people days and weeks later, as they were processing the show and thinking about how the issues impact their daily lives, were astounding.  Our goal is to start a conversation with this piece and get our communities to start talking. 

Launching Ships is featured in the schedule at Statera's upcoming National Conference in NYC. This will be a pared down version of the production in a studio setting with minimal tech. What can attendees expect during their 75 minutes with "Launching Ships"?

Janet Hayatshahi: I think they can expect some surprises about the myth. They can participate at whatever level they are comfortable. We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation with them.

Janet Hayatshahi (left) and Kirsten Brandt (right)

Janet Hayatshahi (left) and Kirsten Brandt (right)

General Registration for conference is open through September 30th. If there is still space available, Late Registration will begin on October 1st. Statera also offers a deeply discounted student rate for those who are currently enrolled and attending with their professor.

Watch the Launching Ships trailer below: