At a women’s wellness retreat run by an unseen male guru, cloistered attendees Lois, Toni, Maria and Aditi meet, share housing, chafe, bond and ask questions of themselves and the world in Nandita Shenoy’s new comedy The Future Is Female…, getting a world premiere production by Flint Repertory Theatre in Michigan Feb. 3-19. This so-called “baby camp” is populated by childless women, which makes you prick up your ears in our post-Margaret Atwood world.
Set in the near future, The Future Is Female… is not an explicitly disturbing and violent vision of society, as in, say, Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but it has a distinct tension and implied menace. Amid the whip-smart character humor, it’s definitely serious-minded as it zeroes in on ideas of feminine freedom and power, the commodification of eastern rituals, the wellness industry, and how reproduction figures into social change.
“I think that I am a generally optimistic person even when I am feeling existential dread,” Shenoy told me. “So the play reflects both my fears and my hopes for the future. Also, I wanted to share that the world doesn’t have to become ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in order to be a scary place for women.” She later added, “I definitely define it as a dark comedy and/or a satire.”
Developed in Flint Rep’s 2022 New Works Festival, the premiere production has an all-female production team, including director Kathryn Walsh, scenic designer Yi-Chien Lee, costume designer Shelby Newport, lighting designer Gabrielle Strong, sound designer Caroline Eng, props designer and set dresser Miranda Sue Hartmann, stage manager Melissa A. Nathan and assistant stage manager Rebecca MacCreery. In addition to Shenoy, the cast features Hallie Bee Bard, Siho Ellsmore and Clara Tristan.
Here’s how Flint Repertory Theatre bills The Future Is Female…: “Set in the not-too-distant future, four women attend a feminine wellness retreat in hopes of finding solace, empowerment, and solidarity in a world increasingly hostile to females. But once there, they discover that freedom may not mean the same thing to all of them and they may not be willing to pay the price of clawing back political power. This timely satire explores a possible reaction to the rolling back of reproductive rights and its inevitable backlash.”
I liked the frisky voice of Shenoy so much back in 2016, when I interviewed her about her Off-Broadway comedy, Washer/Dryer, that I threw some questions her way via email during her Future Is Female... rehearsal time in Michigan.
Learn more about the Flint Repertory Theatre production at the resident Equity company’s website.
Here’s my quick chat with Nandita Shenoy.
Take me back to the seed of the idea for The Future Is Female...” What inspired it, or what was the impulse behind it?
Nandita Shenoy: The play was born out of my anxiety about the fate of women’s rights in 2018 and a deadline that was given to me by The Brooklyn Generator, a wonderful playwriting group led by Erin Mallon and Bixby Elliot, which gives each writer in the group one month to write a play on the topic of our choice. At the time, I had noticed some cases working their way through the court system that were very troubling to me regarding access to birth control, and I used that anxiety to write a play!
What did you “see” first? Characters? A place? An idea?
Nandita Shenoy: Brooklyn Generator allows you to choose the team of artists that you would like to collaborate with before you write a word, and so I had a group of actors and a director that I wanted to work with, and then went from there.
Did you ever attend a wellness or meditation retreat?
Nandita Shenoy: I have not done any wellness retreats, per se, but I have attended a few writers’ retreats which are somewhat adjacent in my mind. On the one hand, retreats can be very appealing as a way to escape one’s day to day life and have a week of meals and activities that are pre-planned. But I also think that, depending on your retreat, handing over all your daily decisions might make an opportunity to give up other larger decisions too.
The play takes a look at a number of things: the cultish following of gurus, the question of who gets to define feminine power, the disturbing idea of organizations monitoring and dictating reproductive decisions. Now that you’ve been in rehearsals, what stands out to you as the primary idea (or ideas) of the play? Has it changed since you first conceived the play?
Nandita Shenoy: To me, the central concept of the play is how much women’s equality and freedom relies on their ability to control their own reproduction. Putting the play on its feet has definitely made that point even clearer for me. I was definitely taking aim at some of the female-focused spaces that I had experienced as oppressive institutions and think that the process of actually building the retreat has sharpened the point on that as well.
Did you rewrite in rehearsals? What did you learn about the play in Michigan? What was the major leap forward there?
Nandita Shenoy: I rewrote a lot in rehearsal. There are things you learn from rehearsing with actors off-book and moving around that you just can’t learn in a reading. I wish that play development offered some step between readings and full productions, because one learns so much from exploring the physicality of the play. There is a scene in my play where the characters do yoga, and even though I do a lot of yoga myself, I still did rewrites on that scene that were born from seeing the actors actually do all the poses. I also think I was able to tighten a lot of the dialogue in rehearsal and make cuts that became apparent as we rehearsed scenes multiple times.
Director Kathryn Walsh really helped the play move from scene to scene. She had a great vision for the transitions from scene to scene which is something that I have no talent for. She also recognized the parallels with cults that I had not been explicitly exploring even though it is definitely in the play.
In the earlier draft I read, “peak femininity” is defined by one of the characters, who says that the ability to create life is the greatest power of women. This is a point of view we’re used to hearing from conservatives and evangelical Christians, but you turn it on its head. There is a liberal agenda behind this “baby camp,” as it’s later called. The play suggests “women are not a monolith” and “feminism is not one thing.” Were these foundational goals of the play, or did they emerge?
Nandita Shenoy: For me as a woman of color, I find that so much of the discourse around feminism and women’s rights centers white women, and I set out to write a play that explored these issues from multiple viewpoints. Women are certainly not a monolith, nor are liberal women a monolith. And I hope my play offers a perspective on the many ways that women can experience their own femininity and feel empowered.
You also appear in the premiere production. Did you write the part of Aditi with you in mind? Seeing the world through a South Asian lens, as an South Asian American actor and writer, were there specific targets you’ve always wanted to aim at?
Nandita Shenoy: I did write the role of Aditi for myself. I started writing plays out of frustration over the lack of roles that I could audition for, and I have always thought that if I’m not writing for myself, who else will? And as an Indian woman who takes a lot of yoga in some overwhelmingly white spaces, I wanted to shed some light on how much of the “feminine wellness” industry does not include women of color.
Did you always know the camp would be populated by mostly women of color?
Nandita Shenoy: I live in a diverse world with a diverse group of friends and collaborators, so my plays always reflect that.
There are upsetting and funny mentions of camp rituals, like the compulsory drinking of rose-scented whole milk, as well as the male gaze and power over attendees. The charismatic unseen guru, “Cheepak Gopra,” is billed as an ally, but he also keeps tabs on the menstrual cycles of the childless women there. Did you do any research about cults while in the process of writing the play?
Nandita Shenoy: I did not do a lot of research on cults, though my director did. Honestly, when I started reading some articles about a few cults last year, I was surprised by the parallels! But I think anyplace that purports to have “the answer” is probably a place where a cult could spring up!
What development did the play have before Flint?
Nandita Shenoy: The play had an initial reading in 2018 and then a workshop in conjunction with Leviathan Lab in 2019. I was fortunate to have a few chances to work on the play via Zoom during the pandemic with Theatreworks/Silicon Valley, Miami University of Ohio, Dorset Theatre Festival’s Women Artists Writing Group, the Zoetic Stage New Play Festival. And then the play had a live reading at the Flint Rep’s New Works Festival last spring which was a wonderful return to live performance after so much Zoom!
What’s next for you as a writer or an actress?
Nandita Shenoy: I have a few commissions in the works and will be heading off to the Hermitage Retreat in March to do the second half of my fellowship there!
Flint Repertory Theatre (Michael Lluberes, producing artistic director) is a professional, not-for-profit theatre in the heart of Flint, Michigan. Recipient of a 2018 National Theatre Grant from The American Theatre Wing awarded to innovative theatre companies making local impact across the nation by connecting their community to excellence in the performing arts. Flint Repertory Theatre is a program of the Flint Institute of Music.