Charlotte Bydwell, writer and solo artist of Woman of Leisure and Panic shares the same name, the same city of origin (Montreal), and the same aspirations for artistic success, as the character Charlotte in this 45 minute work. But the character Charlotte displays an unrelenting knack for living a life of stress, dissatisfaction and distraction. Such self-flagellation would never lead to the funny and complicated work that Bydwell has created. Premiering in 2011 at the terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA Festival, and performed this month as part of The New York International Fringe Festival at the 14th Street Y, Leisure and Panic is an unsettling but engaging mirror of our own obsessions.
Leisure and Panic begins with an emphasis on the importance of art and creativity (Bydwell’s modes of artistry are numerous, including dancing, writing and acting). With a fat marker on an oversized calendar, Charlotte marks off designated time to “create.” This, we understand, is her priority in life, even though, within minutes, the calendar is overlapping with time to exercise. Time to work. Family time. There is no time to do it all. When Charlottes cell phone alarm blares, she bursts into a fit of jumping jacks, (the phone acts as a sort of theatrical chorus, often used to propel the play forward). When the phone rings, it is her boss asking her to cover a shift. When there is a moment of quiet, she fills it with flirtatious texting. Oddly, the one thing we never see Charlotte attempt to fit in is that oh-so-important act of creativity, an absence that makes Charlotte shallow and taunts us with the question of what a real artist is…can you really schedule inspiration?
It is useful to separate the artist from the actress when the realism of this work makes the absurd exaggeration of her regimented and stressed life believable (and made all the more fresh with perfect comedic timing and beautifully simple stage directions). Some moments of despair hit close to home and are met with knowing laughter, like when Charlotte spends hours trying to text a response to a possible love interest, only to end up lamely typing “ha”. With a crown of flyaway hair illuminated by backlight, Charlotte is at once hysterical and angelic.
This dualism of personality is a continuous rollercoaster of emotions, leading to exhaustion that manifests itself in an unhealthy relationship with her body. Bydwell’s script nonchalantly reveals the mindset of a girl with an eating disorder. From obsessing over calories, to exercising during a date on the floor of a bathroom, to constantly measuring herself, abuse to the body is more realistic and more disturbing than any other theme in the show. Bydwell never slows down to assess this imbalance and possible disease. Anorexia is projected as de rigueur for a person with deadlines and dreams, and any possible commentary on health is passed by. By not providing respite or solutions to an unhealthy life and unfulfilled artistic life, Bydwell depicts an existence too blinded by everyday distraction to delve into true passion. This makes the work better, not worse. By not acknowledging deeper issues, this one-woman show maintains the narrow viewpoint of a 20-something artist who can only focus on what is right in front of her.
Leisure and Despair is without a climax, though the build up of anxiety desperately calls for emotional release. The character’s distress imitates that whirling unstoppable flood that audience members associate with their own lots in life. Leisure and Despair keeps us in its distressed vortex, and by the end of the show Charlotte’s anxiety is ours. “That’s what my life is,” a woman leaving the show said to her friend. “Can you say, ‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday’?” This build up of anxiety is both frustrating, and perfect. We are like her, and although this is nothing to brag about (the character is possibly jobless, definitely penniless, and with little respite on the horizon) it engenders solidarity. And while the work’s perceptions and mockery of modern life ring true, by neither condemning nor romanticizing a hectic lifestyle the audience is simply left to question how much their own life resembles this onstage stress-fest.
It’s interesting that we only see Charlotte frayed at the edges as she aspires to ‘create,’ when Leisure and Panic is so beautifully crafted. No such work would be produced from the lifestyle that Charlotte the character leads. Charlotte Bydwell found a way to create an engaging and multilayered play, regardless of distraction or outside demands. Apparently, though, she doesn’t want to give out that secret just yet.