by John Lyons
Three Girl Scouts stand side-by-side in a line downstage-center. There’s a campfire behind them, and the auditorium is quiet. One of the three is played by a boy. They practice swimming, camping, fishing: things many people might associate with the American Girl Scouts program. But soon, the audience learns of some of their other skills.
“I earned my killer instinct badge,” says Girl Scout A.
“I earned my knock-out badge,” says Girl Scout B
“I earned my hide and dump badge,” says Girl Scout C.
And then, scene after scene, we see them hunting men, putting flesh into Girl Scouts cookies, and “ripping off a mannequin’s dick” when practicing murder techniques. In this way, the world Rodriguez constructs carefully uses violence to both comment on the real experiences of girls in America while simultaneously depicting an alternative world, different from our own, but one still very informed by patriarchy.
“The play centers around how women are trained in the world and how they choose to train themselves when the world fails them,” Rodriguez said, “And I thought, ‘What does a satire/dark comedy about Girl Scouts look like? What does the extreme rejection of a patriarchal society look like?’ Killing men… I wanted it to be very clear that these are young women, that these are girls, and they’re Girl Scouts, but they’re also killers and that these things are not mutually exclusive. They can be youthful and still powerful.”
After learning that Girl Scouts, forthcoming in the 40th issue of earthwords: the undergraduate literary review, was going to be produced for the Ten Minute Play Festival, I reached out to Jivani. I hoped to ask her about the process of writing and directing this play, and how the experiences of reading the script and seeing it performed differed.
I met with Jivani in the green room of the UI Theatre Building. Performers for various shows (of which there are plenty in rehearsals at the moment) scurried in and out while we discussed her relationship to this piece.
John: “So, first things first, how’d the idea of this play come about?”
Jivani: “Well, it came out of necessity. I was an apprentice at the Orchard Project, an apprenticeship program where young people go to New York and get exposed to a bunch of different artists and a bunch of different ways to make theater. We all had a personal project there. So I was thinking, What do I write about? I just thought, What about Girl Scouts? And there’s a sash and they have to find this badge… and then it was gonna be a musical and I had some lyrics for it and then it just ended up being a vignette — choppy style… [Girl Scouts] is a very movement-heavy play as a result of my exposure to the movement and dance work at the Orchard Project. At the Orchard Project I was exposed to a lot of movement work and dance kinda work and I feel like this is a very movement-heavy play and this is a very physicalized play — like the gestures for the badges and so on.”
Hearing this reminded me of the value of seeing this piece performed. The movements of the characters speak volumes in a way that can often be hard to conceptualize when reading a script. Moments of movement, like a closed fist thrust into the air, show the true aggression lying beneath the friendly tones in which the actors speak their lines. Interestingly, movement also makes space for poignant beats of stillness which leave the audience uneasy as the danger of the world around these three Scouts becomes abundantly clear. Certain movement decisions, such as a instance where all three Scouts look out into the audience to encourage them to clap along, thus involving them in their chants to “Go on a man hunt” — this integration of audience, movement, and physicalization has a more visceral effect on the viewer who sees the play live.
And this attention to movement seems part and parcel to Jivani’s writing process.
Jivani: “I’m a primarily visual person, so when I write plays I usually get flashes of the stage pictures, like where the bodies are and what shape they’re in. For [Girl Scouts] it was useful to physicalize the actions myself, like the badge scene or the girl scout salute, so I could figure out what it should look like. When I write something, first I see what it looks like. I picture the stage and say ‘okay, these are where the bodies are and this is the shape that they’re in.’ Usually, I do the play myself: I like, do my three finger Girl Scout solute and actually do the play up on my feet.”
John: “What is it like to write a piece that’ll be a blueprint for a collaborative project?”
Jivani: “It’s really scary to give something up. It’s scary to give your baby away to somebody and be like, ‘I know I have a lot of the answers but it has to become more of a collaboration.’ It goes from being this is exactly what this is, to a more nebulous thing. There are so many hands in the pot. It’s really vulnerable because I know that at the end of the day it’s a reflection of my vision and my work filtered almost directly through me. I don’t get to hide behind the choices someone else makes, I’m fully involved in the conception of the piece.”
John: “That’s right, because you also have the unique position of being the director of this piece too. How has the directing process been so far?”
Jivani: “It’s interesting. I feel like it’s such a movement piece, so I tried to open it up to the actors in the room. I gave them prompts like cooking, cleaning, fishing for the badge scene and I had them create a movement from those and from those we kinda culled the movements that we wanted for those specific moments. And it’s very short, it’s all very short… I think inevitably a part of the play gets lost in translation even with me being the director it’s not quite… it’s good. I’m proud of it, I’m proud of what the actors have done, but it’s not quite the same.”
Then Jivani started to speak a little bit about how she’s used the directing process to add new layers of meaning to her written work.
Jivani: “There’s been stuff that’s in the script but has kinda been pushed a little more. Like the audience interaction between the Girl Scouts and the audience during the sing along scene. They try to get the audience to clap along with them, and reading that and seeing the actors try to get the audience to do something is so different. I try to think How do I get the audience to be more uncomfortable? and moments of stillness like the trap scene — when A is waiting so long, I’m like, Make them wait.”
We both laugh at that.
John: “And finally, what are you hoping the audience will experience overall?”
Jivani: “I want them to align themselves with the Girls Scouts. I want them to feel the danger that they feel in having that man on stage, that shadow [behind the Girl Scouts, a man’s shadow is ever-looming, eerily], that, yes, these Girl Scouts are killing people and they’re violent and powerful within their own right, but ultimately they are protecting themselves from this greater danger that, even though you never see it, is still present throughout. And I want them to have a fun time and be like oh this is so crazy. And this is kind of part of it: I want them to feel like we’re failing them. We’re failing young women, we’re putting these people in danger.”
And then she paused for a bit, and said,
Jivani: “And one more thing: It’s not a story about men. It’s a story about young girls, to have an actual man on the stage would take away from the power and danger. It’s about them and each other and being a team, them taking care of each other. It’s about them.”
Jivani Rodriguez is an actor, playwright, deviser, and director from Iowa (but technically born in California) who is the playwright for SCOUTS, known as Girl Scouts in earthwords, and the playwright for the UI production Home Garden.
The Ten Minute Play festival, where you can see SCOUTS live, runs on these dates:
Thursday, February 13, 2020 – 8:00pm
Friday, February 14, 2020 – 8:00pm
Saturday, February 15, 2020 – 8:00pm
Sunday, February 16, 2020 – 2:00pm
Saturday, February 15, 2020 – 2:00pm
You can read the piece Girl Scouts by Jivani Rodriguez in Earthwords 40, launching on Saturday, April 4, 2020, 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City. Do follow our Facebook and Instagram for more details.