Nancy Bell Relishes the Way The How and the Why Keeps Women Center Stage

click to enlarge Nancy Bell Relishes the Way The How and the Why Keeps Women Center Stage
Actor, writer and director Nancy Bell.
Nancy Bell returned to St. Louis from Los Angeles a few years ago and immediately set about reestablishing herself on local stages. Lead roles in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia and Molly's Hammer were praised by audiences and critics. She went on to display her talents as a playwright for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' "Shakespeare in the Streets" productions, also placing as a finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Playwriting Prize competition and emerging as the victor in the 2013 St. Louis Actors' Studio's LaBute New Play Festival. She's expanded her portfolio to include directing as well, joining the small but gifted sisterhood of local female directors that includes Deanna Jent and Annamaria Pileggi.

Bell is also an avowed fan of science, eloquently discussing the wonder she felt at Los Angeles' famously photogenic Griffith Observatory, particularly a quote on the wall that reminds guests that everything you see in the exhibition hall comes from the stars. Still, she doesn't let wonder deter her from the facts: "Science has answered so many questions about 'how,' but not 'why.'"

Both parts of the question are the subject of Sarah Treem's two-woman drama, The How and the Why, which the New Jewish Theatre opens this week as part of its current season with Bell as its director. It's a play about two female scientists from different generations who not only try to solve the "why" as part of their daily work, but have to fight to win recognition in a field that is is primarily dominated by men and their discoveries.

And that, too, attracted Bell to the drama, which she says she'd previously considered producing at Saint Louis University, where she is an associate professor in the theatre department. "It has fascinating science in it, but it has really emotional stuff in it about two people who are trying to have a relationship," she notes.

"They both work on the evolutionary biology of female physiology. One of them has a theory of menstruation and what it's really for — there's a lot of talk about menstruation. Science traditionally has been put to work for the patriarchy, and much of the work has been to reinforce the idea that women are 'less than.' These women are trying to wrest the idea that away and make women not ashamed, not think their bodies are dirty."

Menstruation and two intelligent women trying to occupy the same field are far from typical subjects for modern dramas, which raises the question: Is this play is going to appeal to men and women, or mainly women?

Bell refuses to believe men are so shallow as to be repelled by a show focused on women's concerns. "We're not that different, but then we also are," she muses. "As an actor I'm aware that a huge part of theater is displaying female beauty. As soon as [women] took they stage, that was part of it." But she doesn't think that's all that drives male theater-goers' interest in a show. A compelling story well-told by strong actors has a draw all its own.

Rehearsing a compelling play can take a psychic and emotional toll on actors. Bell's experience as an actor has taught her to allow actors to rehearse with as much intensity as they feel is right for them.

"It's always a question, and it's different for every actor," she says. "Some go for broke, some pace themselves and are ready for opening night. I just have to trust their process and help them take the risks. I have the most success when I empower them and support them on their way. If you cast it well, you can trust the actors to go at their own pace. I have a great cast for The How and the Why."

Bell is correct; Amy Loui has won several awards for her work on St. Louis stages, and Sophia Brown has done excellent work in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women and Neil LaBute's The Way We Get By, both with St. Louis Actors' Studio. When a cast has the talent and the technique to set the pace in rehearsals, she says, she's happy "to let them do that and then focus on storytelling, telling a story through movement."

Not only do Loui and Brown have the talent and the technique, they're getting to put their skills to work in a a serious play with two strong roles for women. Bell views the rarity of that as a serious gap in our cultural heritage.

"Great roles are great roles. There aren't enough roles for women, especially for older women. Actors get better as they age, and just as women hit their peak roles disappear, while great roles for men are suddenly available," she says. "Women disappear from the stage, but they don't disappear from the culture — and that's bad for the culture." The How and the Why is a rare opportunity to witness two women engage with great roles, and be directed by a woman to boot.

The How and the Why runs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday (January 24 to February 11) at the Jewish Community Center (2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur; Tickets are $41 to $44
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