E. Faye Butler brings the Goods to Artemisia | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

E. Faye Butler brings the Goods to Artemisia 

The Chicago musical theater star helms an online sci-fi feminist drama.

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click to enlarge Julie Proudfoot and Shariba Rivers in Goods

Julie Proudfoot and Shariba Rivers in Goods

Courtesy Artemisia

Sometimes, we just don't give ourselves the space.

That's something E. Faye Butler, in her new capacity as the board president of Artemisia Theatre, as well as the director of Goods, Artemisia's first production of the year, has been thinking about a lot lately. 

It's hard not to these days—think about space, that is—as the pandemic lingers, and a sizable chunk of everyone's mental space is reserved for navigating everyone else's personal space, while still protecting our own. 

Written by Lauren Ferebee, Goods (streaming through May 30) is a feminist sci-fi adventure about two female intergalactic trash collectors, Marla and Sam (played by Artemisia executive artistic director Julie Proudfoot and Shariba Rivers, respectively), who are tasked with one final, unplanned, devastating disposal job before concluding their anniversary tour around the asteroid belt. It takes place in the year 2100, entirely within the confines of a small, dilapidated spacecraft, but the subject matter is as contemporary as you can get. 

"[In Goods], here these two women are: in outer space, with no space, in a small space, trying to garner their personal space," Butler says.

Garnering space for women is at the crux of Butler's goals for Artemisia's development within her new role as board president. 

"My fond wish is that Artemisia have a space of its own, so that women can gather," she says. "I want Artemisia to have a space, because right now they float from space to space, and we're blessed to do that when we can go back in person, but to have a space where women can have that collective together . . . that's what I want for Artemisia. Because those are the conversations, the dialogue, the experiences, that will keep the plays coming, and they come from everywhere, and I want to make sure that women can connect with one another. That is my greatest wish for Artemisia—that we keep allowing those voices to be heard and that we are the catalyst to make sure that they're heard, not only through plays, but for programming through the community."

Butler has been one of the most prominent musical theater performers in Chicago for years. But Goods, in all of its galactic glory, is the perfect inaugural performance for Butler's new chapter with Artemisia. 

The spacecraft's green screen, when viewed through Zoom, lends a vintage, 1960s-esque, Star Trek-era vestige to the play, an effect that also serves as a reminder of just one of the many ways the concept of shared space has shifted, even as a return to in-person theater feels nearer than ever (fingers crossed!). 

"The thing that really excited me about [Goods] is that it's very well written, [Ferebee] did an amazing, bang-up job with this script, and it speaks to something that we haven't endeavored before: the future, space, our goods, what we do with them, how we look at life now, moving forward after the pandemic with social justice and change happening all around us, and we have a whole new medium of theater right now, Zoom, and that's never going to go away.”

In directing Goods, Butler embraced the challenge of keeping this two-hander performance feeling like the conversationally driven story that it is, without relying on all of the "pizzazz, flashlights, and LED screens" that might typically accompany a performance set in a 22nd-century spacecraft. 

"We've been consumed with so much magic around us in the last 20 years of theater that sometimes we forget that we're storytellers," she says. 

Butler's focus on storytelling suits her well for the new role she's taking on at Artemisia, a company which since its founding in 2011 has not only prioritized storytelling generally, but specifically women's untold stories, in homage to the company's namesake, Artemisia Gentileschi, a great feminist painter who was forgotten by history until she was rediscovered during the modern era—a mission not so dissimilar from Ghostlight Ensemble's For Your (Re)Consideration series.

While writing Goods, Ferebee—who has always been a fan of science fiction—was rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series she grew up watching with her sister. 

"I was engaged in rewatching a lot of 90s science fiction and kind of like looking at it with a more critical eye now, and it was kind of interesting to think about the ways in which science fiction can be used as feminist discipline, because it's sort of like imagining a different world, and then looking at different versions of the way we've imagined that world over time."

In her career as a playwright thus far, Ferebee, who is currently an MFA candidate in playwriting at the University of Arkansas, has not shied from feminist subject matter. In her current capacity as an artist in residence at Artemisia this season, she's had the opportunity to explore her feminism, and the way it impacts her art, through a broader lens.

"I think I've really delved more into trying to think about where my own place is as a woman and understanding that I have a particular experience as a white woman living where I live, and really having this space to wrestle with how to create a pluralistic, diverse feminism in my work," she says. (Rivers, who plays Sam, is Black, as is Butler.) "Being able to work with E. Faye was so amazing, because she kind of really took the helm on the rehearsal process and brought a lived experience to [Goods] that I don't necessarily know. So I think [the residency] has enabled me to delve into having to really deal with where I sit in relation to women across the world and then how to expand what I talk about, and what I do, in a responsible and fuller way, which is definitely a process, probably a lifelong process, I think."

Goods, which won the 2021 Planet Earth Arts Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, is the first of two plays Ferebee will stage virtually with Artemisia this year. In October, the company will premiere Into a Blaze: The Triangle Shirtwaist, a commentary on current workers' rights campaigns contextualized by the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire.  v

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