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Biblical stories resonate today in theatre

By Mary Stamp

The Gonzaga University’s winter performance, “Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices,” weaves together dance and poetry to convey the intersections of contemporary issues with ancient stories of Vashti, Jochebed, Miriam and nine other named and unnamed women from Scripture.

Weaving Voices
“Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices” cast members Heather Seybold, Kaitlin Vadla, Dorothy Chung, Mary Davis and Amelia McClelland form the symbol they rebuild.

A collaboration of the theatre/dance, religious studies and music departments, it weaves together insights and talents of its creators, poet-writer-biblical scholar Linda Schearing and director-choreographer Suzanne Ostersmith.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, Jan. 29 and 30, and Feb. 5 and 6, and at 2 p.m., Sundays, Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, at the Magnuson Theatre in the Administration Building.

The spark for the production began when Suzanne choreographed “The Medieval Mysteries” for the theatre program in 2002 and realized that 90 percent of students auditioning were women, but 90 percent of the parts were for men. 

“The disparity ignited my desire to create a piece about the lives of women in Scripture in relationship to our lives,” she said.

In 2005, she met Linda, professor of Hebrew Scriptures, and proposed that she write the script and Robert Spittal of the music department rework a musical composition for it.  The script and music were developed that summer.  After fall rehearsals, the first performance was for the Gonzaga Guild in November 2005.

They did a spring 2006 tour performing at University Ministries, the Women’s Hearth, Whitworth University, two Interfaith Council Circle of Caring events, a Gonzaga retreat, Volunteers of America shelters and programs, St. Thomas More Parish and Russell Theatre.  More than 850 people saw it.

While dance and ritual movement were part of Suzanne’s life from an early age, her degrees are in theatre.

Since 2000, she has started and has directed minor-degree programs in theatre and dance, part time at both Whitworth University and Gonzaga University.

Suzanne Ostersmith
Suzanne Ostersmith

Suzanne grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1989 at the University of California in San Diego, including summer programs at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England.

After graduating she moved to Seattle and worked in professional theatre for 10 years.  In their first year of marriage, she and her husband Mark spent four months in Nicaragua, where she taught dance to children after school at Bario Acahualinea, a shantytown near a dump.  They also spent time in Brazil and Bolivia.

In 1998, her husband decided to come to his hometown, Chatteroy, to be near his parents.  Settling on a small farm with llamas, she searched for dance and theatre opportunities.

In 2000, Rick Hornor, director of Whitworth’s theatre department, invited her to teach a musical theatre dance class.  Then the director of Gonzaga’s theatre invited her to teach there, too.

Suzanne grew up Presbyterian, but has been involved with and attends a variety of churches.  She enjoys working with hundreds of students a year in classes and performances at Whitworth’s Presbyterian-affiliated campus and Gonzaga’s Catholic campus.

“I love theatre because it makes people come alive.  As I teach techniques, I see students gain confidence and find new ways to express themselves,” said Suzanne, who has been involved in directing, choreographing and/or performing in more than 80 shows in her career.  “I encourage students to move their bodies to embody emotions.”

In teaching and in life, she said, her faith leads her to see God’s face in the faces of everyone she is with, especially in the faces of her students.

Now in her 17th year at Gonzaga University, Linda grew up in Ohio and Florida.  In her 20s, she became involved in the Salvation Army, as a cook and counselor with a program for runaway girls. She completed studies at the College for Officer Training in Atlanta in 1974 and served four years in Rhodesia.

Her studies for a master of divinity degree at Candler School of Theology and at Emory University in Atlanta stirred her interest in the church’s role in advocating justice and led her to become Catholic in 1982, before she began doctoral studies at Emory.

While completing her PhD in 1992, she taught a year at Rhodes College in Memphis and four years at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa, as well as at Emory.

She and her husband, Angel Fitzpatrick, moved to Spokane when she began at Gonzaga in 1993.  They now live in a 1916 farmhouse on a small farm in Fairfield, south of Spokane.

Linda sees writing “Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices” as an extension of her teaching.

“Teaching is my vocation, but I don’t confine teaching to the classroom,” she said.

When Suzanne came to her with the idea of the drama, Linda was teaching a class on the “Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,” looking at stories of women in Hebrew Scriptures.

As they began to discuss which women to choose and how to include an element of conflict, Linda suggested developing the drama around the story of the Levite’s concubine.  She was pushed out the door into a crowd of men to save the Levite.  Abused, beaten and raped all night, she was barely alive in the morning.  When she died, the Levite divided her body into 12 pieces and sent a part to each of the 12 tribes.

“We used the stories of other women to help bring healing, to give her a burial,” Suzanne said.

“The Levite’s concubine symbolizes a call for justice for victims,” Linda added.  “The play makes her whole and helps the audience see they have a call to help make people whole, too.”

“We recover unknown and unnamed women, like the five daughters of Zelophehad and Job’s wife,” she said.  “We also look at how Mary feels as a mother, excited about her baby and later unable to protect him. 

Stories of women biblical characters are exemplars or cautionary tales,” Linda said, explaining that more men are named and more chapters are spent developing their characters in the Bible.  “It’s important to recover women, whose lack of visibility and lack of character development leaves them subject to being stereotyped and leaves their power unseen.

“Scripture transcends its historical context and is relevant in other generations, in our generation in the 21st century,” she said.

With the women chosen, Linda wrote poetry to capture their stories and how each calls for justice.  Suzanne broke it into parts, assigned characters—first three and now five—and decided how to stage it.

“In 2005, we did the touring show with three women actors,” Suzanne said.

When she was asked to direct the main stage performance at Gonazaga University’s Magnuson Theatre in January 2010, she decided to do “Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices” with five actors, two musicians, a full set and costumes.

A symbol designed by a student for the first performances represented the Levite’s concubine torn apart and put back together.  For this performance, costume designer Summer Berry made it as white quilted pieces held by Velcro on a black circle at the center of the backdrop.  The pieces are taken down as the concubine’s body is torn apart, and are set at the edge of the stage.

“As the pieces are put back after stories of other women are enacted, the puzzle is rebuilt, leaving a picture of wholeness,” Suzanne said.  “Our goal is to empower women.

“We choreograph dance and movement with large pieces of white sheer fabric to serve as scarves, a rope, bells, the Red Sea parting, water in Miriam’s well, a baby, Christ’s body, veils, seductive clothing, carpet and other elements of the stories,” she said.

“Today’s injustices were inherent in biblical times.  Women could not inherit, but the daughters of Zelophehad argued in court so they could inherit their father’s land, because he would not want them to be destitute.

Injustice riles me,” Suzanne said.

The Levite’s concubine had fled his abuse and gone home, but the Levite came and took her back.  In 2005, when the actor said, “I understand restraining orders today are not effective either,” it resonated with experiences of women at the Women’s Hearth.  One spoke up, “That’s for sure.”

“Women’s voices,” the performance begins.  “Women know what it’s like to love, hate, hope and fear.  Words and lives of our sisters, mothers and grandmothers have shaped who we are. 

“Women far away in time are our sisters, mothers and grandmothers in spirit—angry over injustice, triumphant over adversity.

“Women are more than objects.  They are people who struggle for food, water, life and human rights.  Some are silenced.  Their stories are our stories, our legacy.”

For information, call Suzanne at 313-6553 or Linda at 313-6797.