NAWPA: Spiderwoman Theater

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Performance stills from “Sun, Moon and Feather” At Miami University: February 25, 1997
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Gloria Miguel, Pam Verge, Muriel Miguel, Lois Weaver, Lisa Mayo  WOMEN IN VIOLENCE

Gloria Miguel, Pam Verge, Muriel Miguel, Lois Weaver, Lisa Mayo

Spiderwoman Theater began in 1975 when Muriel Miguel organized a workshop of Native and non-Native American women at the Washington Square Methodist Church in New York City. The true roots of the troupe, however, can be traced to the childhood of the three sisters, Muriel Miguel, Gloria Miguel, and Lisa Mayo, who form the heart and soul of the group as it has evolved from its beginnings in 1975.

The girls grew up in Brooklyn, as did their mother and grandmother; their father was a Kuna Indian from the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. Muriel explains that her father found it difficult to make a living in the “alien culture” of Brooklyn and so turned to earning money by doing snake oil shows: the family would perform dances for money. The young sisters felt embarrassed, and eventually rejected being spectacles of cliche by turning to formal education; thus they were drawn toward the theater, focussing their energies on turning their performances into art rather than “spectacle.”

The sisters drifted in different directions in their formative years, but all focussed on the performing arts: Lisa received a classical training as a mezzo-soprano, then studied dance with Uta Hagen and musical comedy with Charles Nelson Riley; Gloria went to Oberlin College in Ohio and studied drama with Herbert Blau; and Muriel trained as a dancer until joining Joseph Chaiken and his avant-garde improvisational company, The Open Theatre. Although they developed as artists through these very different and unique influences, something still tied the three together, something which would eventually be actualized in Spiderwoman.

Hortensia Colorado, Matoaka Little Eagle, Lisa Mayo WINNETOU'S SNAKE OIL SHOW FROM WIGWAM CITY

Hortensia Colorado, Matoaka Little Eagle, Lisa Mayo

The Spiderwoman Theater Workshop in 1975 was based upon the Hopi goddess, Spiderwoman, who wove men and women into life, and then taught them how to weave. The workshop experimented with the weaving of stories, images, songs, poems, experiences, feelings, music, spaces, and bodies. The actresses rehearsed and structured the basics of their stories and dreams, then used improvisation to round out the work and bring it to life. At the beginning of the workshop, the group taught the audience Native American hand games. One woman then became Spiderwoman while finger-weaving, creating her story. Another performer then wove her story into the first one. Along with improvising musicians playing gongs, bowls, rocks, a saw, flutes, and handmade instruments, the group continued weaving, telling, dancing, and enacting their prepared stories in a spontaneous manner.

One week after the first Spiderwoman Workshop, one member died, another had a baby, and the ensemble dissolved. Muriel’s passion to pursue the workshop, however, remained intact. By the following June, she organized another ensemble, this time consisting of the sisters and two non-Native women, Pam Verge and Brandy Penn. The women covered the walls with newspapers and Native quilts, which the sisters have been collecting and using as a backdrop since; Donna Hennis, a non-Native sculptor, added to the set design by filling the room with webs, and the first performance of “Women in Violence” emerged. In the workshop, each performer presented herself as a clown drawn from a goddess-given, idiosyncratic quirk of her own: for example,Gloria, a circus strong woman, kept a flashlight hidden between the metallic strips of her skirt so that she might search for herself beneath the reflected image; and, exploiting iconic blonde beauty, Lisa used a tight black dress (on which white painted lines outlined her essentially female parts), and long blonde curls held together with an oversized sparkling bow. Muriel called the purpose of the workshop a need to “work with anger, with feelings about being boxed in, feelings about the Indian situation, the Indian Movement today, my own violence as a woman and as an Indian.” “Women in Violence” not only achieved Muriel’s purpose but confirmed Spiderwoman Theater’s existence with some 70 performances in New York and Boston within a year of its debut.



Within a few years, the troupe had undergone a transformation from a radical feminist group of Native and non-Native women to the Spiderwoman Theater that we know now, comprised of the sisters (and guest performers such as Hortensia Colorado), with works growing from a predominantly Native American base. After nearly twenty-five years, Spiderwoman Theater, the longest-running feminist performance group in existence, continues to present vibrant, original work that entertains, challenges, and enlightens audiences around the world.