Trista Baldwin: "Chicks" Kill! Kill!

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After a recent run of her psychosexual coming-of-age drama "Patty Red Pants," a big hit at last summer's Fringe Festival, Trista Baldwin dipped into her rucksack looking for a follow-up. What came out is her Russ Meyer/Roger Corman homage, "Chicks with Dicks," which enjoyed successful runs in Seattle and Phoenix and was primed for a NYC premiere. Starting tonight at 10:30 pm, "Chicks" will run Friday and Saturday nights at the Kraine Theatre (85 East 4th St., between 2nd and 3rd Ave.) through May 3.

As far as possible from the dark-hued, dreamlike "Patty," which followed two 15-year-old girls dealing with a classmate's murder, an incestuous uncle and the rapid loss of innocence, "Chicks" is a fun and frisky spoof of B-movies like "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" and "Kitten with a Whip," which captivated drive-in audiences of the '50s and '60s. Full of busty, ass-kickin' women and submissive men, Baldwin's affectionate take infuses a nuclear tinge to the trashy tale of Vespa de Amore, a prom-queen runner-up who accidentally kills her sex-shy boyfriend and ends up on the road with an all-girl biker gang named Satan's Cherries.

We sat down recently with Baldwin to talk about bad girls, Chinese opera and whether we'll see "Chicks II" anytime soon. Here are excerpts from that conversation. Where did the idea of "Chicks with Dicks" originate from?

Trista Baldwin: I first wrote it in 1994. There's been some changes since then, but it's pretty much true to its early stage. I was watching "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" a long time ago, back when I was an undergrad in college. It's the first movie where I actually laughed so hard that I cried. I kind of found my sense of humor in those B-movies, more than from what was supposed to be funny.

For me, part of the appeal is very basic in terms of women with low-cut shirts fighting, scraping, rolling around on the sand. I just thought it was pretty funny. So it appealed to me on many levels, base though they might be. So then, while living in Seattle, I got into a lot of B-movies -- Russ Meyer, Roger Corman, "Kitten with a Whip" with Ann Margaret.

There's something about that time period -- the "Leave it to Beaver" time period -- where something like "Faster, Pussycat" could be rated X. There's absolutely no nudity, there's no sex. It was rated X because buxom babes were being violent. That was enough! There was an innocence about that that attracted me the most. "Chicks" captures that a little bit. [Movies like] "Girl's Town," "Beat Girl," "Switchblade Sisters" -- they all went into the pot and, from that, "Chicks" emerged. Did you want to stay true to those movies when you were writing this play, or is it more of a parody?

TB: It definitely starts off as more of a parody, and then goes to new ground. But I won't say more than that! Many of these films from the '50s and '60s are all about bad girls kicking ass, yet they still appeal to many people nowadays. What do you think is the attraction to bad girls?

TB: This might sound a little drastic, but I think it's seeing people behave in a free way who don't normally behave in a free way. Women, as a whole, don't necessarily behave in outright ways like men do. Not that men really do, but there's less examples of women saying and doing [things with] no apologies: "I'm going to do this, this what I want, I'm going to go out and I'm going to do it. I'm not going to just sit and whisper in some guy's ear, and get them to do it for me," like "Dangerous Liaisons" or something. Which is what usually happens.

There's something liberating about seeing somebody do that. Not just for women, but there are plenty of men who like seeing that happen as well. There's something attractive about outright female aggression because you don't see it very much, even if you know it's there. It's nice to see it released.

In terms of theater fulfilling fantasies, who, male or female, didn't want to be a biker chick at some point in their life? You want to go to the theater and see people do things you [don't] feel like you could do on an everyday basis. [We all] have superhero fantasies, absolutely -- I want to be in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"! So it's like realizing a fantasy?

TB: Yes. Realizing a fantasy and realizing there's hidden truths in it. And there were always hidden truths. Even in those B-movies, which were so silly and outrageous, there was something more true about them.

In "Faster, Pussycat," one of the things that appealed to me was how much Russ Meyer made fun of his clientele. In the opening scene, these girls are go-go dancing and these guys are screaming: "Go! Go!" He paints such an ugly portrait of them. I find that so interesting. And it's also a strangely loving portrait of these three bad go-go girls. Are you trying to do the same thing?

TB: I'm doing the same thing from my perspective, which is inevitably going to be different from Russ Meyer's or Roger Corman's. How is it different?

TB: Well, we live in these times where women can do and have done some of the things that were more of a fantasy [for women] in the late '50s and early '60s. But there's still a relevance to bad-girl behavior -- even now, when we're supposed to be more able to step out there and be "bad," whatever that means.

One of the thing I'm bringing to ["Chicks"] is the innocent quality of bad-girl behavior that was in those movies. We've lost something now, with having everything being ok. There's a joy in "Chicks" because there's an innocence in "Chicks." We've lost some basic innocence about sexuality and female aggression and things like that. What about sexuality do you think has changed?

TB: Well, sex is everywhere now, but real sex is nowhere to be found. Sexual images are completely bastardized images. Like Britney Spears -- there's nothing true in her sexual image. There's no real discussion of sexuality; it's all pornographic images, which are only appealing on this one flat level.

Instead of anybody actually knowing how to go about having good sex in their life, instead of anybody knowing what sexual energy is, it's all this "grind" -- thoughtless, joyless, ugly sex. That's what people are looking at, and that's one of the reasons I keep wanting to discuss sexuality, because it's been so violated in our culture.

I had a female professor in graduate school tell me, "Why is this all about sex? Why are you betraying feminism?" That really clarified my thinking from hers, and it made me go all the more into that area. Why does exploring women's sexuality have to be a weak thing?

"Chicks" addresses [sexuality] in a fun way -- I'm not trying to say that "Chicks" has real sex in it, it doesn't -- but it does address sexual images in a more joyful way. There's more heart in this show than there is cleavage. But it is a celebration of cleavage! What's your opinion about nudity or explicit sexuality onstage?

TB: I don't actually have a problem with nudity, but I think that it distracts too much onstage, unless the nudity really serves the piece.

[As for depicting sexuality onstage,] I don't like to see it. I don't think it's new, or scary, or dangerous, or interesting to see it. I have been known to pull directors away from very literal takes on that onstage.

When you have people pressed up against each other suddenly naked, to me it just loses so much of the energy, the tension. What's difficult about sexuality is the coming together and the coming apart -- all these things that we have not examined. Even though we live with [sexual] images around us all the time, there's so many elements of sex that we're so stupid about.

It's still taboo -- I don't care how much you show it, it's a way of getting out of the truth of the moment by taking off your clothes. Then it's like, "Oooh, they're naked! Oooh, we're going there!" You're not going there -- you're not going there psychologically. It's an escape mechanism more than it is a shock mechanism sometimes.

Even [something] like a kiss... speaking as an audience member, I don't want to see it. I can see people kiss on the train. That does nothing for me in terms of showing me something new and different, and making me understand something about these characters. It's all about trying to find the tension and the truth in sexuality and relationships. We're talking about sex, yes, but we're also talking about relationships between people.

I really think we've violated sexuality in our culture, and I think that there's a lot of work [to be done] to get back the joy and innocence of sex, because it's a life force, and I think we've diminished it. We've taken the easy way out because we have hang-ups about it, being a puritanical society, and our hang-ups are expressed through the "uh-uh" nature of "Entertainment Tonight." These images all around us are just as much of an escape of an issue. In theatrical terms, "Chicks" and "Patty" are more heightened than naturalistic. Do you consciously avoid naturalism?

TB: Some of my writing goes into more naturalistic territory. But I don't think there's enough value placed on things right now that are not naturalism. Naturalism is taken so much more seriously than other things, but I feel like not everything can be expressed naturalistically. Things that I want to express are often not what would be called realism. What would you call it?

TB: Emotional realism. The truth as I see it. Then how do you decide what kinds of material you want to put onstage?

TB: I always ask myself when I'm about to write a play, what about this should only be on the stage and nowhere else? What I think theater should exploit more [are] things in ways that you can't do on film, both through language and the physicality that the actors bring to it. What is it about physicality onstage that attracts you?

TB: Well, I just love seeing people sweat. I love seeing human effort. It's like sports a little bit -- it's like, "Wow, look at them keep going and going and going!" There's something really primitively attractive about seeing people work.

In addition, something gets expressed through the body that's beyond what you could say in words. Theater is so much about that. I think dance, and some of the sensibility of dance, needs to show itself more in theater. In my plays, I try to make it impossible for actors to do otherwise -- to just be standing there, to just be sitting there. There's something to be said for stillness, absolutely, but what I hope to get is an energy onstage that real live human bodies can give the audience in ways nothing else can. Do you think actors spend enough time thinking about their physicality on stage?

TB: No, but I don't think it's the actors' fault. Theater has fallen too much in love with film, and we're acting only from the neck up. People aren't learning how to use the rest of themselves as a vehicle to express things. There's too much focus on naturalism onstage. Does an performer's physicality affect what you write or how you direct?

TB: Yes. There's just something in seeing somebody, seeing their gestures, and how they are with other people that changes things. I get a sense of them. I'm not saying that it becomes different words than I would've written before, but I know some of the triangle aspect of the story in "Patty" was definitely informed by [the actors]. Not that there was a love triangle with the cast at all, but it was just seeing how certain behavior emerges between groups of three and in the dynamics between people. You are directing "Chicks." Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

TB: There's a sensibility in the play that is... I think the script could be quite bad in somebody's hands if they didn't have the same vision, quite frankly. To me, "Chicks" is not about the script, so much as it is about this other energy that I know I can bring to it as a director.

With "Chicks," I direct the actors away from mugging. I direct the actors away from making fun of the material because it's easy and it's cheap, and it's boring. What's fun about "Faster, Pussycat " is that [those actors] believe in that world, no matter how ridiculous it is. That's what I love about B-movies: Everybody believes it. They all have to commit to it, regardless of how bad the script is, how bad the director is. They all have to believe it 110 percent! The emotions may be big and the plot may be absurd, but their belief in it is what makes it funny. So I always direct them in that way.

Look at Charles Busch's material, for example. When he performs it, when he directs it, it's absolutely serious -- everybody's very serious. I've seen productions of these same scripts that are very boring to me because people are like, "Ha-ha, look at how funny that line is!" I don't need to be told that that's funny, especially by the character that's supposed to be playing it. It loses some kind of joy. There's a joy and fantasy in doing something you know is naughty, campy... If you really believe it, it does something kind of magical. Where's the line between believing and taking it too seriously?

TB: Well, as an actor, you always have to bring joy or pleasure to it. If you're not enjoying it as an actor, then it becomes too serious. The energy drains. I think that is a way that people take both drama and comedy too seriously -- they forget that it's a performance. They forget that ultimately it is an entertainment. You are there for the audience.

Also, there's a fine line, especially with something like "Chicks," in how much you acknowledge the audience. That's something that we're still working on in rehearsals right now, finding that balance: "Yeah, you can look at him, but don't turn around and look at yourself." Don't be self-conscious in anything. God, that's the worst! If I see an actor looking like they're looking in a mirror, to me that's when the magic breaks. How is directing this play different from directing other pieces?

TB: You direct this from the outside in, basically. You need to know your motivations, but a lot of this is simply, "I'm going to tell you how to put your hands so that it looks the best."

One of the things I said in the first rehearsal was, "Yes, this is campy comedy, but this is also a Chinese opera. Everything that you do with yourself -- every movement, every gesture -- counts." That's why I love directing this play: It's choreography. And [the actors] bring the meat. These are incredibly smart actors -- these are really skilled, bright people. So they bring themselves to it, and I bring the outside eye of being able to show them what they are doing with their bodies -- being that mirror for them.

A lot of people aren't used to acting that way. That's another reason I felt passionate about directing it -- people aren't used to controlling where their hands go so precisely. For example, I'll get in there sometimes and say, "Your fingers should be like this." It's more the style of the body -- how you're holding yourself needs to be really precise. Why?

TB: First of all, because there is so much fighting, you have to be precise in your physicality or you're going to hurt somebody or yourself. But it's also the style of the time period. If you look at any of the characters in "Faster, Pussycat," they are never loose in their body -- everything's a pose. So finding that pose, and yet not being over the top, is what we've been doing in rehearsal. It's like, "Here's how you should hold yourself. Let it become ingrained in you so that your character stands like this all the time and it's not a joke." What qualities do you look for in an actor?

TB: A kind of rawness. Of course you want skill, but you also want somebody who hasn't lost the kind of raw energy that brought them to acting in the first place. You don't want to lose that through training. Sometimes people can be worn down through training -- their instincts get worn down. So, somebody has to have a real vitality and remember what they're in it for.

Also, if they like or understand the material, it's really important to me as a playwright, certainly. I think it matters a lot. I've worked with people who haven't liked something at first, and then they have breakthroughs and end up really, really enjoying [the play], and then I enjoy it too. In this way, a shared vision of the world is important -- of the world of the play. You have to get the shared vision of the play, whether that happens in rehearsal or on the audition. Can you teach someone to understand your work, or is it usually more instinctual?

TB: What I love about acting is that there are different ways of getting things. You can get something and you don't know you're getting it. I see that all the time.

For instance, you can nail the first reading of something, and you don't know why -- you didn't intellectualize it, maybe you didn't even think about it. Cold readings are amazing that way sometimes -- just being able to pick up on a rhythm in the language, to understand something without knowing you understand it.

That maybe can't be taught, but people can learn to appreciate different [writing] styles, different acting styles, to appreciate acting in Shakespeare versus acting in a brand new play. That can be taught, that can be learned. How do you feel about collaborating with actors when you're writing something?

TB: Oh, I love it so much. I just love not being alone in my room with my computer screen. It's so against what theater is. [When collaborating,] I can write ten new pages and say, "Here, do this!" and they can make things work sometimes that I thought wouldn't work.

The "maybe maybe" section in "Patty Red Pants" probably would not have made it into the script had I not had the people there workshopping it with me. Because I did not think that that could work. I was very wrong.

It was probably also because I was afraid of going there, but they pulled it out of me, basically. They took the pages and they put it in front of me in a new way where I could say, "Oh, ok!" It took it outside of myself. The back-and-forth between an actor and a playwright can help both sides see more clearly, and can make it a much stronger play. So, in most cases, do you want to collaborate during your writing process?

TB: Yeah. I'm not saying I always want to write things for specific people, but I always want to have a nice, luxurious workshop process. I think that's how good theater is born. You've already written and had produced a sequel to this play, "Chicks with Dicks II: The Battle with Cannibal Sluts in Outer Space!!" What can you say about that?

TB: Well, all I really want to say about that right now is that it's a sci-fi piece. Our hero and her sidekick go into space together and battle cannibal alien sluts in outer space... I always loved "Barbarella." Is there any chance that after "Chicks" you'll do a production of "Chicks II"?

TB: Well, I've tinkered with the idea. I have to say that "Chicks I" is my favorite. Even though I wrote both, I don't know why ["Chicks I"] works quite the way it does, but it works.

There's a joy in "Chicks I." "Chicks II" is just about different things. It's more clearly a parody. They go into space and they battle aliens, so it's just different. But there's no motorcycles. Maybe I like "Chicks I" better -- because of the motorcycles.

Special thanks to Aliza Mills for her help with this story.