What does it take for a man to become a feminist – and why does it matter? In seven diverse and poignant vignettes from his own life, Peter Pruyn (pronounced “prine”), an American trauma therapist who works with female survivors, takes the audience on his journey in Up: One Man’s Journey To Feminism on the afternoons of 31 March and 1, 2, 7 and 9 April 2023 at London’s Hen & Chickens Theatre.
The UK premiere of an American production, an autobiographical play in support of gender equality, written and performed by Pruyn (pronounced “prine”), is billed as ‘An Autobiographical Play in Support of Gender Equality’.
The stories Pruyn tells feature his experiences of attending an all-boys primary school, being the only man in a Women’s Studies class, flying as a pilot in Alaska, interviewing at the trauma unit of a psych hospital, and working in a methadone clinic – culminating in a personal reflection on male privilege as a fundamental barrier to social change. Along the way, Pruyn accompanies himself with improvised piano. Each performance is followed by a period of reflections from the audience.
A psychotherapist and performance artist from Massachusetts, here Pruyn chats to My Theatre Mates about One Man’s Journey To Feminism, described by one creative as “a compelling, empathetic, and disarming journey that allows us to experience the power of understanding, connection, and alliance with feminist values”.
How did this play come to be?
From 2018 to 2020, I wrote a memoir about my journey to feminism. For the book’s release, I created a reading based on seven excerpts from the book and played improvised accompaniment on the piano. Several audience members encouraged me to develop that musical reading into a stage performance. This play is the result.
How did you choose the seven vignettes that you use?
I wanted a series of self-contained stories that gradually built on each other, showing gradually increasing awareness in myself. I also wanted them to represent meaningful moments from diverse contexts in my life. Finally, each one had to be relatively short. These seven were the ones that I felt fit those needs best.
What would you say is the purpose of the play?
The purpose of the play is to create a safe space for audience members to reflect on the dynamics of gender inequality in society and to inspire action in support of gender equality. A second purpose is to use each performance to raise the visibility of local organisations that work in the areas of gender equality and trauma prevention.
Who is your intended audience?
I think the people who will get the most out of the play are those who describe themselves as either curious, learning, or even ambivalent about feminism. I would not expect those who already identify as activists to get much new out of the play, though I would hope it will be affirming. A sub-theme of the play is the gendered dynamics of trauma, including an introduction to the little-known but pervasive mental health issue of dissociation. So mental health professionals and those who work in the area of trauma prevention are another niche audience.
Is this your first play? What is your background in performance?
Yes, this is the first play I’ve written. Prior to this, I’ve been involved in performance in one way or another most of my life, in community theatre, leading public sing-a-longs, being a music director in improv comedy, and developing workshops on improvised dance, and on mindfulness and improv.
How would you describe the function of the music in the play?
Like the musical score in a movie, the purpose of the music is to underscore the emotional experience of the stories. It also helps provide some pacing between scenes. I’ve played the piano by ear most of my life, so including music in some way felt natural to me.
You said you improvise the music. How do you do that?
The general idea is that different kinds of music can represent different kinds of emotion. A faster tempo might represent higher emotional energy, and a slower tempo might represent lower energy, for example. The pitch of the notes might be used in a similar way. Having said that, underscoring is an art, not a science. At the most basic level, I’m trying to connect with how I’m feeling in the moment, and then express that through the tone of the music.
Since some emotions reoccur from performance to performance, I sometimes repeat certain themes or motifs, but the exact notes I play are different each time. So, while the words stay the same, the musical variation helps keep it interesting for me. I also try to play music that has no direct association with any traditional genre of music, allowing the audience to stay connected with the stories as much as possible rather than be pulled away from them.
There’s a brief cameo by a stuffed animal in the play… Who’s that?
That’s George the Alaskan musk ox, which is a previously endangered species. I often feel nature can teach us everything we need to know. George is there to teach us one lesson about the opposite of patriarchy. He’s since become the official mascot of the play.
What’s been most surprising to you about this project?
I’d say the intensity of emotion from audience members. That’s why I feel it’s important to always have a period for audience reflections after each performance. For me, this talk-back period is actually the most important part. The performance is really just a prompt to start a conversation. Meanwhile, the play touches on many complex topics, so it is not trying to resolve all of them. The hope is that by creating a safe space to have that conversation, it will serve as a bridge for people carrying the conversation forward in their own lives in whatever ways are most important to them. Once the house lights come back up, my intention is to step out of the spotlight and share it with others. At that point, I shift from performer to facilitator. As a man, I will always have more to learn about feminism. So, once I’ve told my story, I feel it’s my job to focus on listening.
What’s been the hardest part of this project for you?
I’d say sustaining my morale for doing it over many years. For me the key to maintaining motivation has been pacing and support. I’d work on it for a while, get tired of it, not look at it for a few months, and then go back to it. Each time, I’d then find just a few people I really trusted to look at the new parts of it.
A highlight of this process for me was having the opportunity to speak on the phone with Valerie Hudson. Valerie is a US professor of international relations who has written two seminal books that make an incontrovertible empirical case for gender equality on a global scale. The way I’d describe Valerie is, if Gloria Steinem was an academic, she’d be Valerie Hudson. I was honoured that she was willing to speak with me. When she read a piece I’d written on gender equality, she said she was grateful for it *. I couldn’t get over that. Valerie Hudson was grateful for my work?! I was beyond grateful for her work. If Valerie Hudson thought what I was doing was worthwhile, well, then maybe I should keep at it.
Also, when audience members say the work touches them, like the 29-year-old American woman, Noel, whose comment during the discussion period was: “I felt seen.” That meant a lot to me. So, when I think of giving up, I think of Valerie and Noel, and they keep me going.
(* Women’s Empowerment → Humanity’s Well-Being, Fourth Wave, Medium.com, 6 November 2019)
“Up had an immense impact on me as a woman. It fearlessly goes to a place of reckoning with the past, being understood, and feeling seen. This generous play opened up dark places that I thought I had buried away, allowing me to explore them well after the show ended. This is not just a play but an experience, an experience that will change you” – Jocelyn, age 45, Vancouver, Washington
“A compelling, empathetic, and disarming journey that allows us to experience the power of understanding, connection, and alliance with feminist values. Engaging, reflective, personal, and poignantly musical” – Mike Descoteaux, artistic director
“To see this play is to reconnect with the joy of laughter that comes with sharp wit, honesty and kindness” – Catriona, Edinburgh
“I saw a performance of Peter’s play in December, 2021 and I have been reflecting on some of its themes/concepts ever since. I left the experience thinking a lot about my own sense of privilege in an expanded way. The play’s messages are thought-provoking and quite profound… perhaps, you will laugh and cry as I did. One way or the other, I trust that you will be deeply moved” — Deborah Korn, PsyD, EMDR Institute senior faculty member, co-author of Every Memory Deserves Respect
“Peter is one of those clinicians who wants to play his part in creating positive change and understands that the arts have so much to offer us here. I applaud his use of storytelling, music and performance. This is the kind of performance that will stay with you afterwards, inviting new thoughts, observations and insights long after the final curtain” – Dr Nina Burrowes, founder, The Consent Collective, Brighton, UK
Up: One Man’s Journey To Feminism plays at 3pm matinees on 31 March and 1, 2, 7 and 9 April 2023 at London’s Hen & Chickens Theatre, 109 St Paul’s Rd, London, N1. Tickets are £12.25. A portion of proceeds will be donated to The Consent Collective. Age guidance: 16-plus. Content warning: Contains references to physical and emotional violence. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!