Bringing the “Most Dangerous Women” to Life:

Bringing the “Most Dangerous Women” to Life:
An Interview with author Jan Maher

Jan Maher, director, professor, author and workshop leader is the co-author of the play Most Dangerous Women and author of the book Most Dangerous Women: Bringing History to Life Through Readers’ Theater. The book is about “Reader’s Theater” as a teaching and organizing strategy. Maher is currently teaching writing, multicultural education, feminist theater, gender and women’s studies at Plattsburgh State University, NY. We caught up with her to talk about her work, past and present.

Tell us a little about your book.

Maher: The book puts the play in context … about how to work with the material that is in the play in a community, and in classrooms. It tells you about how to teach it and how to produce it.

Let’s talk about how this evolved. The idea for the work first grew out of a request [WILPF member] Sylvia Lunt made. She asked Nikki Nojima Louis, your co-author, to develop something for WILPF’s 75th anniversary and then Nikki asked you to help on that project?

Maher: Right. We ended up with the first version of it in 1991, and that was done as a benefit performance in Seattle with a professional cast. And Sylvia and others Seattle members said ‘this is too important to not have it keep going.’ We then went to the national [WILPF Congress] in Bryn Mawr.

Then what happened?

We kept being asked to go to different communities to do it, West Virginia, Chicago, San Jose, Philadelphia, Milwaukee ... and all through this we had only the rights to do staged readings, not even to do a printed version. Finally, in 2006 after several years of updating, tracking down rights and with rewrites and (there were over 70 rights holders in the script) the print version was published and we obtained limited authorization to grant permission to do stage productions in community, educational, and nonprofit theater settings.

Edith Bell (who had helped bring Most Dangerous Women to West Virginia) had moved to Pittsburgh and wanted it done there. And [the branch] really made it their own, which is really the idea of the book. They produced a one-act version, added lines about Crystal Eastman and made some musical changes.

On what basis do you think that “Reader’s Theater” is a good way to raise levels of activism?

Maher: There are a lot of different ways it [the play] has been used. In West Virginia there was a community group of women – some had never performed and they came from several communities – and had not met each other before. Living in small communities, some felt pretty isolated and I think it was a profound gathering for them … Women who already resonated with the material found each other.

In Waukesha, WI they had a local director and she cast it from their community theater. They were actresses, not necessarily feminists – they were just women who liked to perform and it operated differently there to educate people about history. And we did it three times in Milwaukee, one performance was at a conference about peacemaking in the family and then a WILPF member saw it and so it was done again two more times in Milwaukee and that led to Waukesha. It is a slow viral process, unlike YouTube!

When the Milwaukee branch did their production you were brought in as a consultant. What was it like working with the WILPF branch?

It was wonderful … Some very well-known community activists performed in it. It really brought together a really rich assemblage of Milwaukee women. Rose Daitsman – a WILPF member – did a lot of the organizing of the second and third productions there. Merry Wiesner-Hanks helped produce it and she is a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  

I’m sure we feel like we have our own issues these days and they are unique. Why do you think people will find political inspiration in the lives of these foremothers?

I think one of the things people discover that is often surprising, especially to general audiences, is that figures like Jane Addams … she is thought of as a kindly social worker and people don’t realize that she was a fierce advocate for peace and won the Nobel Peace Prize for those efforts.

And a lot of people might know that Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, but they may not know that she was a staunch anti-war activist and … was reelected before WWII and cast the only vote against entry into that war. People see repeating patterns … we see Barbara Lee with her being the only voice against the Afghanistan War.

I think it inspires people to realize what a history this movement has and to think about what women endured to get that first Congress together and that down through the decades that work has continued. The music in the play really helps it work. It starts with music from the 1880s … there is resistance music through the decades, such as Die Gedanken Sind Frei and Singing for Our Lives.

Are you writing anything new? What are you working on these days?

I’m teaching a feminist theater class this semester at Plattsburgh and we’re doing a production of Most Dangerous Women there, which will be fun. I’m also working on some fiction projects.

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You can find out more about arranging for a production of Most Dangerous Women at www.localaccess.org where Maher is a project director.

This Q & A was done by e-News editor Theta Pavis. Special thanks to Laura Roskos for her extensive help.

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