Within the last year, a spate of celebrities have publicly announced themselves as gender fluid. One might be tempted to assess this as a new phenomenon about new experiences, especially as there are now available a wide-ranging set of vocabulary terms for one to express their identity.
But, for those individuals who came of age long before anyone envisioned the global social platforms we have today to share those experiences and new vocabulary, instead it has been a more complicated journey. It reminds us that gender has never really been a fixed point to anchor identity but rather a continuously shifting phenomenon that flexes and responds to all sorts of experiences in one’s inner self as well as their surroundings at work, school, peer communities and, yes, on the public performing stage.
That journey drives Can I Say Yes to That Dress?, a new solo play by Sarah Shippobotham who also performs it. In the last decade, there have been quite a few excellent solo plays in local independent theater companies, written by one person and performed by another. Shippobotham’s work here offers a unique opportunity to see that instead of being tethered to a fixed all-encompassing label, one’s actual journey is truly fluid and still in progress. Shippobotham appears as Sîan Jones (the character’s name), who absorbs and processes the objective of expressing their identity one day at a time.
Can I Say Yes to That Dress?, directed by Jamie Rocha Allan, will open the Salt Lake Acting Company’s (SLAC) 52nd season today in a production run that continues through Oct. 29 at the company’s location (168 West, 500 North) in Salt Lake City.
A solo monologue performed by its playwright is a gutsy programming choice as a season opener for SLAC. Notably, Shippobotham has an outstanding reputation as an actor, university professor, dialect coach and intimacy consultant. Trained as a voice and dialect coach at The Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Shippobotham worked for 18 seasons with the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada, and in 30 productions for Pioneer Theatre Company and SLAC. Shippobotham also spent seven months in New Zealand, working as a dialect coach on The Hobbit film franchise.
The play has had a long curing process that Shippobotham, in an interview with The Utah Review, said has continued up until its world premiere engagement and likely will continue after the play sees its final performance in late October. “I wrote the first few pages in the summer of 2012,” Shippobotham said, after returning to England from New Zealand when Sarah’s mother was terminally ill with cancer. And, the creative process for the play continues, as this goes to press. Shipppobotham said that right before the interview, “I was working on the script, putting in tiny tweaks, making sure to correct a few typos and mistakes.”
Shippobotham, who admits to being both a wonderful [her word] procrastinator and perfectionist, left the play dormant for a good while. But, after attending a clown workshop in London, which Sarah said was “a bright moment in a dark time,” the possibilities of developing the word play potentials concerning a middle-aged woman who is questioning her life choices and what it means to be a woman while trying on a wedding dress in a store’s changing room gradually materialized.
It was Robert Scott Smith, one of Salt Lake City’s most prolific actors who also is on the University of Utah theater faculty, who urged Shippobotham to persevere, recognizing the validating merits of the few pages he had already seen of the script in progress. In time for the 2022 edition of the Great Salt Fringe Festival, Shippobotham had enough material to test it out for audiences. The Fringe performances sold out, with interest so strong that the show was moved to a larger venue to accommodate accordingly. Shippobotham garnered Fringe’s award for outstanding one-person show. Earlier, this year, the play had a reading at SLAC’s New Play Sounding Series.
“I finally had something,” Shippobotham said. “I have had forever this bee in my bonnet of not being a woman that fits in with the conventions of society, and realizing the level of courage it would take to accept the reality. And, I was inspired by the students whom I was teaching who are living in a time where they can be comfortable and affirming about accepting gender fluidity and their non-binary bodies.”
Shippobotham recalled being moved by an older woman in a clown class in Minneapolis. “The woman confessed that this was the first time she acknowledged her pronouns as she/they,” Shippobotham said, “and it got me thinking about what if I embraced my more masculine side and what that might feel like.” In the play, some cultural behavioral expectations become targets for Shippobotham’s humor as well. For example, one might think in a supposedly enlightened contemporary landscape that we have moved beyond obsessing publicly about women who go out in public without makeup or who decide not to shave their legs, especially if it involves an aging female celebrity. Or, why popular culture still champions romantic heroines who are lithe, slender, beautiful young women. There remains a dearth of great roles both on stage and in cinema for women older than fifty.
In Can I Say Yes to That Dress, Shippobotham brings to bear a good amount of social behaviors, many of which often are taken for granted in our culture, which likely are the most significant ones for uncovering just how much we understand the current culture. So, discussions about subjects such as what some perceive to be excessive body hair and the ‘socially appropriate’ need to remove it can be important enough to clarify their underlying meanings and the value of tolerance, confidence, affirmation and acceptance.
Noting a love for both theater and stand-up comedy, Shippobotham said the time is appropriate to stand fully present before the audience in the work that has had a long gestation period. “It’s me finally practicing what I have been preaching to my students and no longer saying, ‘wait, hold on a second.’”
Shippobotham added that the rehearsal dynamics have been unique, particularly when the subject at the center is both playwright and solo actor. “The director [Jamie Rocha Allan] has deferred to me when she felt it appropriate,” Sarah said, adding that “it is interesting to have the option of executive decision in this odd piece.” But, Shippobotham is quick to add how valuable having Allan as director and Camden Barrett, “kid sister from Fringe” as assistant director, have been in honing the nuances to make this solo play work. Rounding out the creative team are Cara Pomeroy (set designer), Jessica Greenberg and James Craig (lighting designers), Spencer Potter (costume designer), Arika Schockmel (props designer), Cynthia L. Kehr Rees (sound designer), Alexandra Harbold (dramaturg), Tahra Veasley (stage manager), Erik Reichert (construction supervisor) and David Smith (lead electrician).
Performances will take place on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. For tickets and more information, see the SLAC website.