Physical theater artists Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken began devising Mouthpiece, their two-person show about the female experience, in 2013 — before, said Nostbakken, “feminism” became a hot buzzword and an en vogue civil rights movement. “For my whole life, it had a stigma,” she said. “We honestly believed that if we made a show marketing itself as a feminist play, no one would come. But then we realized we were hypocrites. Of course it was a feminist play. And we needed to scream about this issue.” In this acclaimed theater piece, Sadava and Nostbakken play the same character simultaneously, offering an embodied representation of the workings of this woman’s mind as she mourns the death of her mother.
“When we started writing from our personal perspective, we realized we needed more than one voice to express all of the voices going on inside our heads,” said Sadava of the creation process behind Mouthpiece. Though the voices (and the performers playing them) are different, they have fluid points of view. Sadava and Nostbakken professed that audiences frequently try to label the voices within a binary context: the good versus the bad, or the progressive versus the regressive. The playwrights insist these hardline dualities don’t allow for the complexity of the human thought process. “That isn’t how our brains work,” said Sadava. “It isn’t like, a ‘good’ Norah and a ‘bad’ Norah sitting on my shoulders. … We contradict each other sometimes, and we’re in harmony sometimes, and we’re constantly shifting our perspectives.”
Two performers were also needed to fully express the internal dialogue of the character, especially in a time of loss, confusion, and emotional distress. “We needed to have at least two women to capture the cognitive dissonance that seems to occur several times a day,” said Nostbakken. “A good example is when [the character] gets catcalled. We both answer simultaneously with ‘Thanks!’ and ‘Go fuck yourself!’ to capture that feeling of both emotions at the same time.”
Mouthpiece also probes the complicated bond between mother and daughter. For a young girl, the mother is the most predominant example there is of how to exist in the world. Elements of how the mother moves through life will inevitably be engrained in the daughter. In Mouthpiece, the loss prompts the character to consider aspects of her mother’s character (and how they trickled down to her) more critically. “She relates to how her mother ate, and what she wore, and how she presented herself, and how she saw herself,” explained Sadava. The play also examines how impressions of her mother shaped the character onstage.
Sadava and Nostbakken have toured Mouthpiece throughout the world, including a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. There is also a film adaptation of the piece. “I think people respond to how confessional it is,” said Nostbakkan, “and how vulnerable we are. We are speaking our own stories. … [People] come up to us and confess things to us. Right there in the lobby. … It seems to strike a chord.”
“We had to write our own journey of relating to the women’s movement,” added Sadava. “It’s never going to go away. We will always need people fighting for our rights.” These artists, who call themselves Quote Unquote Collective, hope this show will inspire people to look more analytically at their beliefs about themselves. “We want this piece to get people to think about why they do what they do,” said Sadava. “It’s fine if you want to shave your legs, just think about why you’re doing it. Think critically about where it’s coming from and why you’re engaging with those ideas.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Mouthpiece Wednesday, January 23, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.