Reviving Feminist Archives: An Interview with Leigh Fondakowski

by Caitlin A.Kane
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Leigh Fondakowski (they/she) has dedicated nearly 25 years to creating theatre from narrative interviews and archival research. In works including The Laramie Project, The People’s Temple, I Think I Like Girls, and Spill, Fondakowski uses the words of real people to create nuanced portraits of communities in crisis and to illuminate difficult moments in U.S. history. In 2018, they were commissioned to craft a podcast about women’s liberation in honor of the 19th Amendment centennial. That commission led to Feminist Files,[i] an audio theatre series about the “nerdy revolutionaries” (including Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, Pauli Murray, Edith Green, and Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink) who started the “academic sex revolution” by clandestinely passing the legislation that we now know as Title IX. Although the commission for that work came before the pandemic began, Fondakowski’s research and creative process were undeniably affected and constrained by pandemic-era shutdowns and by rising awareness of the need for more accessible approaches to producing and presenting theatre. In this conversation, conducted via Zoom in November 2022, Fondakowski and I discuss how these forces shaped their development of a hybrid podcast-theatre form that blends Fondakowski’s first-person narrative, recorded interviews with relatives of those who led the fight for gender equity in academia, and performances of edited archival materials. Podcasts and other audio forms, we both agree, have great potential for theatre artists interested in exploring experimental and unconventional dramatic forms and for creating more accessible theatrical works.


Caitlin Kane: Can you describe Feminist Files for those who have not yet heard it?

Leigh Fondakowski: Feminist Files is a ten-part narrative audio series that tells the secret origin story of Title IX. It covers the years of 1969-1976, tracing how this group of women in Washington went behind the scenes to create legislation that has had an amazing impact.

CK: In the series, you describe those women as “nerdy revolutionaries,” and it is such an apt descriptor.

LF: Right, there are a lot of cliches about women’s libbers from that period: bra-burning, protests in the streets, all that kind of stuff. That did happen. The radical lesbians were really at the forefront, but the women [whose stories we tell in the series] were not doing that. These were women who were focused on legislative change.

The thing that I love about the [timing of this project] – it’s tragic in a way – but Feminist Files was released on the 50th anniversary of Title IX in June [2022], and the day after that, Roe was overturned. So, in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX pass, and in 1973, Roe is instated. Half a century later, Title IX is the last one standing. It is incredible in terms of the arc of history.

CK: It makes the series even more urgent at this moment. There is a lot that we can learn about the legislative side of activism from the women whose stories you tell.

LF: Right. I think my biggest discovery was realizing the intricacies and the convergence of different people’s work that went into [passing Title IX]. I never really thought about how the sausage gets made.

CK: How did you become interested in the stories of this group of feminist activists and the history of Title IX?

LF: The project has a bit of a history. I was approached by this media company called Frequency Machine – a young startup co-founded by two women. They wanted to do something for the centennial of the 19th Amendment, so they approached me with this outline they had created for a women’s series, right? I wish I could show you this document. Each episode was an epic chunk of women’s liberation from 1910 to the present. So, I was like, I’ll take this, and I’ll see what I can find.

I knew Title IX could be one of the episodes, so I sat down to talk with Rora [Brodwin, another playwright who had previously written a solo show about her Great-Aunt Bunny Sandler, the “godmother of Title IX”], and I realized the series could tell Rora’s story and the story of Title IX. Then, I went to the Schlesinger Library and was convinced that it could be the whole series because I found all this material there. There was so much material, and there were so many parts to the story that I was discovering. So, I went back to [Frequency Machine], and I pitched it. The producers had a background in reality television, so we had to learn how to talk to one another, how to find a common language. I had to learn to speak in TV dramatic logic, which I’m still learning. It took a lot to convince them that there would be enough drama in it because this is not true crime, you know.

I told them, “We’re gonna use oral history, but we’re gonna have an actor perform it.” And they were like, “Why are we gonna have an actor perform it? Can’t we just use the real audio of it?” But Bunny Sandler isn’t an actor, so the real audio doesn’t quite have that dramatic energy. I said, “I’m gonna adapt it to my style.” It was a long process of me convincing them this could be dramatic enough, which it turns out it absolutely is. In the end, I think maybe [the producers] were beaten down by my endlessly returning to this pitch! They also gave me the freedom to create something they didn’t entirely understand at first, which is a rare opportunity as an artist, to be trusted in that way.

So, the origin story of it was that it was supposed to be this gigantic women’s history. From a hundred years of women’s history, I homed in on Title IX.

CK: The audio theatre form that you developed for this project blends the dramatic forms that you use in your interview- and archival-based plays with a more conventional podcast structure. Can you describe how this developmental process built on the processes that you’ve used in the theatre?

LF: What’s interesting about it for me as a writer is I really hear text musically when I’m playwriting, both when there’s pre-existing text and when I’m making the text up. In a way, it was like a long rehearsal process. I could live with these recordings and edit from these recordings.

Instead of saying to the actor, “Cut that line” or “change this around,” I could just do that with their voice. It did give me the thought that, in the future, when I’m playwriting from big source material again, I’ll have actors record the read-throughs of the whole play so that I have that audio and can play with that audio as I’m playwriting.

This form also frees you from having to worry about bodies and space. You create an image world for each episode –you can really focus on voices and story.

CK:  What do you see as the possibilities for this form looking forward?

LF: I think that it’s an underexplored form. I mean, it’s interesting to see what’s happening in the theatre, right? Audible is putting plays on tape… LA Theater Works has been doing it forever, but I think people are more open to audio now, and Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon because it’s a proof of concept, right? They don’t have to invest in developing a TV series. It can be a podcast first, and then, they can decide they want to make it into a TV series.

But there are also people who – instead of selling their intellectual property to someone in Hollywood – they are making an audio version where they have more control and can play with form. It has been called the Wild West because it doesn’t have a lot of rules. SAG and Equity don’t know what to do with it. It’s not governed by any of that stuff, so people are still just exploring. I think it’s a truly experimental landscape right now.

It’s also just a different form, right? When [the producers] were giving me notes, they were saying that I needed to imagine someone doing their laundry, being on the treadmill, or cleaning their house. So, we’ve lowered the artistic bar, but it’s also universal. Everybody can access it. It’s not expensive, so in terms of what you were saying earlier–

CK: In terms of what the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated for us as theatre-makers–

LF: Right, we still have an issue in the theatre of affordability and accessibility: how much money is spent to make the thing, who gets to watch it, and who are the gatekeepers. In this podcast world, you still have some constraints, but anybody can make a podcast, and most people can access it.

CK: You are somewhat present in your theatrical work as an interviewer or narrator figure, but in Feminist Files, you play a much more substantive role. What was it like to be that present as the host and narrator of this series? How did it feel to put yourself into the work in that way?

LF: I’ve always resisted that, but in this form, it felt like an inevitability because I’m the one finding this stuff, and I’m trying to recreate this experience for the listener of going on this journey [as a researcher].

Before I found the oral history transcript [in Bunny Sandler’s files at the Schlesinger Library], Rora [Brodwin] had already told me most of Bunny’s history and her own story of sexual assault, including her going into the Title IX office that her great-aunt had created and not being able to tell her great-aunt about that experience. So, that was a narrative arc, right?

Then, some of the most moving experiences for me were finding Pauli [Murray’s] journal, realizing that I was working beneath her portrait [in the archive], and Rora introducing me to her as a figure in history. I thought Rora was going to be able to thread all those other elements in.

I spent an unbelievable number of hours putting [Rora and Bunny’s] voices together, so they were telling the story together. I thought it was just gonna be the two of them talking to each other because they couldn’t talk to each other in real life anymore, but there was too much that needed to be filled in. I needed to talk people through and give context.

I would also say that Sarah Lambert [my co-producer] had a lot to do with it because she is the standard bearer for artistic integrity. So, when Sarah was encouraging me to put myself forward, I knew I had to pay attention. She had never said that in any other process. And, of course, Sarah fact-checked everything to within an inch of its life, so I always felt confident in everything we were saying, you know? And then I had to learn how to direct myself narrating, which was a process.

CK: Right – I can imagine how different that felt from working in a theatre with actors, particularly amidst the pandemic. Can you describe your directorial process? How did you do the recordings? Was the whole process done via Zoom?

LF: Yeah, [the actors] would set up recording studios, most of the time in their closets, and then they would record, and I would direct via Zoom, but I didn’t have a live feed to the recording because they were sent these kits with SIM cards, so it was nerve-wracking. I could hear how they were sounding over Zoom, and I could hear when they messed up a line, but I couldn’t hear the quality of the recording until they sent us the files, so some of the editing was based on the takes and how they sounded. It was a very different process than when you’re building work in a room with actors.

CK: Did you do all the editing yourself, or did you do a rough edit and then have audio engineers who cleaned things up?

LF: I did all the editing. I’m trying to think of how many passes on average, but we did a pass, and then, [the producers] would give notes, and then, we’d do another pass, and they would give notes. As it came more into form, they had more and more to say about it. In the beginning, they didn’t know what it was going to be, so they didn’t have much to say, but as it began to take shape, they wanted to weigh in more and more. Then it went to the sound person, Gary [Grundei], and he would edit based on sound, which was such an important element. So, there were probably three to five editing passes for each episode.

CK: You mentioned that the process of creating this felt like being in twelve straight weeks of tech.

LF: It really did. After I would make the final layout of the words, it would go to an engineer who does a pause pass, which is like a pacing pass. Then, it went to Gary for sound design again, and it came back to me, and I would usually edit out large swaths of the text based on Gary’s work.

CK: He does beautiful work, recreating the sounds of the archive for instance, which is both such a quiet space and a space that really comes alive in this podcast. Given how effective this form was in activating this period of feminist history and the capaciousness of the title, Feminist Files, I wonder if there is any plan for additional seasons or episodes?

LF: I wanted to call it The Consequential Feminist.

CK: What happened to that title?

LF: That title never made it out of committee!

CK: That’s too bad!

LF: I know. I wanted it to be called The Consequential Feminist. I really fought for that title. I think that’s why you hear the term so often in the series. The producers were a bit wary of Feminist Files, too. They wanted to shorten it to be F Files. Because feminism is a “bad” word – people recoil and don’t want to pay attention to feminism. The producers were feminists themselves but having worked in Hollywood for as long as they had, and experienced the sexism and misogyny of the industry, they felt people would be afraid of the word.

CK: That’s disheartening. Do you know what the response has been to the project, given the title you chose?

LF: It has a steady following but not gigantic because they are a young startup without a big marketing budget. We’re hoping that we’ll be nominated for a GLAAD Award so it can gain some traction. It’s had a steady following, but I only know that from hearing from people that they’re listening to it and enjoying it.

CK: If it gets a more robust response, do you think there will be other iterations of the project?

 LF: That was the idea. The idea was that it could be anthologized, that we’d go back to the archives. I don’t think they’re gonna let me do it, but the story that I want to do next is one I came across accidentally in my research. Somebody left in the scanner a membership card for women in the KKK. It was just sitting there, and Teddy [one of the archivists] said, “Oh, they’ve left this in here.” We were both looking at it and looking at each other, and she said, “Yep, that archive is here.” I mean, that’s a whole different story. We tend to think of the history of mobilization on the left, but I don’t think we think of the history of mobilization on the right.

CK: It would be a hard story to sit with for a long time, and you’d have to find an entry point for yourself and audiences, to help them find their way into that story and recognize it as part of our history that we need to grapple with. This project centers on a more uplifting narrative, but it was crafted at a difficult time. You began researching Feminist Files before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the recording and editing of the project was completed in 2020. What was it like to be working on it in the early months of the pandemic?

LF: Well, as you know, it was a very scary and isolating time. Once we figured out the mechanics of how to send people the [recording] kits, and I started directing those recordings, though, it was like, “Oh, I’m back in my world.” Being able to spend those hours with Mercedes [Hererro], who is a longtime collaborator of mine, getting to be in the room with Ronald Peet, having conversations with Margo Hall about Black Lives Matter and her life – it was like air in a world without air, you know?

And in the end, the producers and I did find a common language and we became strong collaborators, we trusted each other. They were able to get Jodie Foster on board to play Bunny, which shows how much they believed in this project.

Getting to work with Jodie [Foster], with that high calibre of an actor… I got off that Zoom call, and I was dancing around the living room. It was lifesaving to have something big to focus on and to be able to connect artistically with people to create it. As a director, working with actors is the whole game, right? Without having that contact, you can think about the projects you want to make and read plays and do other things, but that engagement is where the creative flow really happens.

[At the beginning of the pandemic], it felt like that was gone, and it would never be back. But then, it was right there. I could connect with these actors. It was amazing. The decision to have them break character from time to time to have conversations with me was me trying to capture that feeling of creating something together. We’re discovering something together. We’re in community, which is how the women in the story were also in community. I was trying to mirror that. It was a gift.

Caitlin Kane (she/they) is an Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Dramatic Criticism at Kent State University and a freelance dramaturg, director, and intimacy director. Their research and creative practice sit at the intersection of theatre and social change and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies and center on queer and feminist approaches to staging history.

[i]Fondakowski, Leigh. Feminist Files. Accessed November 10, 2022.