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Theater Review (NYC): Charlotte Bydwell’s A Woman of Leisure and Panic

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Last May Charlotte Bydwell, a recent Juilliard graduate whose performance credits include work with Monica Bill Barnes and Company, performed her first solo show, A Woman of Leisure and Panic, at PS1’s 9th Space. The show was presented as part of the soloNOVA Arts Festival, and it was nominated for a New York Innovative Theater Award. The well-paced, often hilarious 80-minute performance charts Bydwell’s emerging existential crisis as she attempts to reconcile her artistic career, survival job, physical appearance, family life, and personal life. It’s a Venn diagram whose missing ingredient is political awareness, but that lack only proves A Woman of Leisure and Panic a product of its time.

The show opens with the overture to the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. Bydwell, in full skirt and tank top, enters wistfully gazing into the semi-distance. The music and the costume (the skirt detaches) are Bydwell’s nod to performed femininity and perhaps performed leisure, too. The irony is clear: The audience is sitting in a basement space and our heroine sports a Mona Lisa smile.

When the music ends Bydwell gets down to business. Part Bridget Jones, part Annie Hall, she begins making appointments, drafting to-do lists, and planning a vacation on a large white poster that forms the backdrop of her sparse set. Marking up the poster as her calendar and task list she identifies the three main goals or categories for her time management: Be Creative, Exercise, Work. Bydwell’s character’s life, like the poster at the start of the show, is a blank slate. She’s looking for an artistic gig, a new survival job, a boyfriend. Planning the time to meet all these goals her conflicting thoughts overlap in a mix of narration, recorded voiceovers, and alarm bells. Her anxiety is internalized. She worries whether her food intake matches nutrition recommendations. Has she had too much grain today, too little meat? The alarm cues both anxiety overload and her character’s time to exercise. This is the panic part. These exercise sequences, along with a few more abstract interludes and the show’s denouement, contribute the dancing element to the show.

As any Juilliard graduate knows, you can’t have creativity without discipline. Bydwell’s treatment of this contradiction gets just the right amount of micro in the macro, and vice versa. What room is there for creativity within a disciplined regimen? Is it possible to program creative time? This is the thinking of the professional artist in the era of MacBook Pro. It is the creative artist’s dream of perfectionism—ever elusive—something that, either because of or in spite of her routine, Bydwell has captured.

When I first heard about this show I thought it was going to be something entirely different—a critical exploration of the 21st century myth of perfect autonomy, namely that you can have it all if you can do it all. Bydwell never challenges these assumptions. Indeed she takes them her a starting point. Some would suggest the pressures Bydwell’s character experiences, and they do exist in the real, not-so-funny world, are a result of a political vacuum. With no political movement, no social organizing, we are left with only private solutions to public problems. (Think double shifts instead of public funding for artists, or babysitters instead of daycare.) Bydwell’s character might not be happy with her situation, but she’s gonna knuckle down and get her work done. But there’s only so much time in a day.

A Woman of Leisure and Panic is an excellent start for this young talent. I’d like to see something a teensy bit more subversive in her next go.

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About Natalie Axton