Live Girls! Theater is debuting Blood/Water/Paint, a play by local playwright, Joy McCullough-Carranza. LG focuses on women writers, and the subject matter of the play is a 16th Century Italian painter, Artemisia Gentileschi. We can assume, correctly, that Artemisia (it seems more appropriate to refer to her by first name) had a tough time being recognized as a painter. But more than that, Artemisia’s story is amazing in part due to a still-surviving trial transcript of a trial where she testified against her rapist, even after being subjected to torture! Her fight to convict her attacker makes her an even more appropriate heroine today.
STACKEDD interviewed playwright McCullough-Carranza about bringing this play to life. Joy described for us her writing process and what drew her to try to put this story on stage:
“Some time in 2001, I was reading a Margaret Atwood novel that made passing reference to a famous Artemisia. I had never heard the name, so out of curiosity I looked it up. It was early days of Internet, so I only found a bit about the Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. But what I found was enough to send me off to the art history section of the library.
I knew very little about art history, but I’d minored in Women’s Studies in college, so I was not surprised to learn that in the Baroque Italian art world, women were not apprenticed, or given access to the career tracks required to become painters. But Artemisia Gentileschi was apprenticed to her father and even as a teenager, the quality of her work was already surpassing his.
Her story was immediately theatrical to me. She was not only a brilliant young painter in a time when all circumstances conspired against her, but she approached the common subjects of the day with an artistic vision completely different from the men around her. As a young woman in a man’s world, she knew what it was to be watched, and so she painted Susanna in the Garden as terrified, rather than seductive. As a young woman who had been raped by a teacher, she knew what physical force it would take to overcome a more powerful man, and so she painted Judith Slaying Holofernes with all the force and blood it would have taken for a woman to cut off a man’s head in order to save her people.
After her rape, Artemisia took the extraordinary step of pressing charges against her attacker—or rather, having her father press charges, since she didn’t have the legal right. As a part of the trial, the joints of her hands were crushed to be sure she was telling the truth. In college, I had been a liaison between sexual assault victims and police officers for the Chicago YWCA, and I was struck in reading the transcripts from Artemisia’s trial by how little has changed since the 1600’s. Everything we put rape victims through in our current justice system is an echo of what happened to women like Artemisia all those years ago.
A few years out of college, I had never heard of Artemisia Gentileschi. I’d also never heard the Apocryphal stories of Susanna and Judith. This outraged me. I hadn’t studied art history, but surely these stories should have come up in my women’s studies courses. I’m fascinated by which stories we hold onto and which ones we let go. All little girls should know these stories, and yet they’d been nearly forgotten.
And so a play began to form. This began with research, since I knew nothing of art history, or the process of painting, or Roman life in the 1600’s. But once I’d read a lot of books, the writing began. The play that’s about to premiere at Live Girls Theater in Seattle bears little resemblance to the one I started with. In my earliest drafts, the play revolved around a present day art history professor who was, through Artemisia’s story, coming to terms with her own sexual assault. But Artemisia, along with Susanna and Judith, were always the heart of the story, and finally, after many years, I stripped everything else away.
I’ve worked on the play and put it away many times over the last fourteen years. Meghan Arnette, artistic director of Live Girls Theater, had read the play many years ago. She’d even featured excerpts of it in a show called Notorious Women. But that was years ago, and I had given up on the play. Then, about a year ago, Meghan got in touch, saying she really wanted to put it on stage.
It’s been an overwhelming process so far, watching the tremendous amount of talent and energy being poured into this play that’s lived in my head for so long. Director Amy Poisson is weaving time periods and flashbacks with so much skill. The exceptional cast members have thrown themselves into a play that’s very difficult, both emotionally and structurally. And there are amazing design elements I never even considered while writing, like all the on-stage painting that happens. Brian Stricklan is painting partial reproductions of some of Artemisia’s most famous paintings, which we will use on-stage.
Few people know of her, and most who do remember first that she was raped. But there’s so much more to her story. I’m excited for Seattle audiences to discover it.”
February 20 – March 14