“Sex was never something to be shushed up,” announces Calliope Porter.
The actress is half of the mother-daughter duo behind Girls Wear Shirts, a movement-theater play that takes its cue from the conversations mothers and daughters have (or don’t have) about sexuality.
“Of course,” she adds, “we didn’t talk about it at the dinner table.” Porter and her mother, Silent Partners founder Hilarie Burke, enjoy a close relationship; that sense of intimacy comes from the way Burke raised Porter.
“Mom’s philosophy was that even though she’s not perfect, she’s a whole person. I could ask her questions and she’d answer them — maybe not with personal details, but she was honest,” explains Porter, a recent UNC-Chapel Hill grad.
The play is a collaborative effort, drawing on Burke’s mime background, Porter’s theater training and the video scenery of Adam Larsen, known for his work with the local productions Hedwig and The Fatherhood Project.
“This is very different for Silent Partners,” Burke admits. (Usually, the two-member movement-theater group numbers Burke and dancer Yoko Myoi; the Girls project is an auxiliary venture.)
“I’ve never used so much text,” continues Burke, who designed the show’s costumes. “Also, we usually use large props.” Larsen’s scenery becomes crucial during the “car talk” segments, used to divide scenes. Burke and Porter sit in the front seat of the “car,” and the audience appears to be in the back seat, watching the road projected through the windshield. Occasional traffic noises interrupt the mother-daughter dialogue, punctuating those “I don’t know what to say” moments.
“There’s a part where I tell Mom I’m no longer a virgin,” Porter laughs, “and a loud tractor-trailer horn fills in the silence.”
Some of the video is a collage of family pictures provided by Porter’s dad, Benjamin Porter, a black-and-white photographer. “We have a lifetime of family photos, and they’re not your average snapshots,” Burke says. Porter’s younger bother, Daniel, is designing the lights — so the whole family plays a role, on-stage or off.
When the personal isn’t political
The play examines three major events in a child’s life that shape her notions of sexuality. Despite the subject matter, there’s no nudity (except for “nude” bodysuits). The short acts run the gamut from goofy camp to straight monologues discussing the scary issues surrounding sex as defined by different generations (such as pregnancy vs. HIV).
“We have a Barbie [doll] scene and a magazine scene,” Burke adds. “Our intention was to be fairly lighthearted. Abuse hasn’t been our experience and it hasn’t been for many people. We wanted to address something serious in a lighthearted way.”
While the play is careful not to embrace victim roles, neither does it shy away from its subject matter. Born from conversations and e-mails Burke and Porter shared while the latter was in college, the original idea was to examine a broad spectrum of women and cultures in relation to sexuality. “We began researching and gathering information and realized it was too much,” Porter says. After interviewing many of the women in their extended family — Burke’s siblings include eight sisters and Porter is one of eight nieces — they decided to base their material closer to home.
“My influences about sex are from my mother; conversations we had, what we both observed and tales from the family,” Porter explains. “What’s universal is often what’s real, and what you know. We’re honestly and openly exploring ourselves [through the play], which can hopefully be an exploration for the audience.”
The work’s title speaks to that sense of the universal. In interviewing family and friends, both Porter and Burke found that the women had similar experiences of realizing during childhood that, even before the onset of puberty, their bodies were different from boys — hence the “necessity” of donning a shirt where a boy might go shirtless.
“This is important to us; being open to a degree and looking at our own experiences along with our relationship as mother and daughter,” Porter reflects. “We’re not saying we have it all figured out.”
“We’re not trying to put a moral spin on it, either,” Burke adds.
“Because of the interview process, Calliope has heard some family history I wouldn’t have dreamed of knowing at her age,” she continues.
That willingness to confront such truths has moved the mother-daughter team into a position many families never approach: facing each other head-on.
In fact, the opening story is about the circumstances of Porter’s conception, with Porter’s reaction to her mother’s story. “She’s responding from the standpoint of a much-more mature person than I was when she was conceived,” Burke points out.
Beyond generational differences, she admits that working together has often been challenging, since both actors bring different ranges of experience to the arena.
“Calliope isn’t from a [movement-theater] background, and I am,” Burke points out. “But she’s been really open about working that way — maybe because we always played together as she was growing up.”
Porter, who knew she wanted to be an actor since childhood, found she had to stretch her boundaries when it came to the script. “This is the first thing I’ve ever written,” she confesses. “I don’t know that it’s my calling … after this show I’m not sure what I’ll be doing.” Her future does include moving to Chicago to pursue an acting career.
For Burke, the weeks ahead mean a whirlwind stint at the Kennedy Center October 8-13, where Silent Partners will perform their Fables series before Burke returns to Asheville to finish the run of Girls Wear Shirts.
“I’ve submitted this play to Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, so … who knows?” she says.
Girls Wear Shirts is the culmination of a lifetime of material, two years of commuting between Burke’s Asheville location and Porter’s home in Chapel Hill, and lots of input from the likes of Duke University’s Ellen Hemphill, Silent Partners’ Yoko Myoi, and Julie Gillum from Warren Wilson College — not to mention grants from the N.C. Arts Council and the Asheville Area Arts Council. It may be a two-woman show, but Burke is quick to point out, “We couldn’t do this in a void.”