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Spiderwomen Theatremakers

Spiderwoman Theater as been cited by many as the longest-active feminist theater group in North America. So why the heck had I never heard of them?

The group was founded in 1976, and emerged from the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. Muriel Miguel created Spiderwoman with her sisters Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo, as well as a company of other women of all races, ages, identities, and sexual orientations. The Miguel/Mayo sisters are of Native American heritage, and were raised in Brooklyn, New York. Their work is highly influenced by their experiences of being Native American women and, more specifically, “city Indians,” but also creates a platform for stories that are incredibly relevant to all women.

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Spiderwoman Theater created a technique of storytelling rooted in the Native American tradition which they call “storyweaving.” The company’s name, in fact, has its origin in Spiderwoman, the Hopi goddess of creation, who in Hopi tradition taught the people h to weave.

The play I examined as part of my final project for Contemporary Drama was called Power Pipes (a filmed version can be found here!). This play very much encapsulates the storyweaving technique that is central to Spiderwoman Theater’s work. The women’s individual stories rise from the group, as the rest of the group supports their telling. Different ideas and themes such as mixed-race identity, homosexuality, sexual assault and violence, sisterhood, immigrant status, and more all have space to live within this work. In addition, traditions of many different Native American tribes – Kuna, Iroquois, Hopi, Rappahannock, Kiowa, and more – are represented through the various stories and actions. Sound, music, dance, movements, and visuals are important layers as part of the storyweaving technique. All of these elements help to tell the story in a way that feels cohesive but is rich with many diverse parts.

An interesting part of Spiderwoman’s mission is their educational work, and included in that is a “storyweaving workshop” that can introduce participants to the techniques and exercises of the Spiderwoman technique. This workshop is available for any group to participate in, not just Native American or women’s groups, and results in a final product for performance. This is another example of how Spiderwoman Theater creates a platform for stories to be told, in this case by generously sharing the techniques they’ve developed with other groups who have their own unique stories and concerns.

I was thrilled to delve into this group’s origins, history, and body of work. Spiderwoman Theater has created more than 20 original pieces over forty years, toured them across North America, Australia, New Zealand, and China, and most importantly, continues to create ground-breaking work today. Their latest project in process is called Material Witness, which you can read more about here. Though unfortunately Lisa Mayo passed away in 2013, Gloria and Muriel Miguel continue to perform, direct, write, and create works for Spiderwoman even at their advanced age (both are in their 70s). Gloria performed just last Fall in a staged reading of her play One Voice, which was directed by Muriel. These women have lived their values throughout their entirely productive creative lives, and their continuing to do so inspires me.

I invite you to watch Power Pipes and learn a bit more about Spiderwoman Theater, a company which I would count not only as central to Native American and feminist theater history, but also one with a specific, compelling mission that is an important component of our contemporary theater landscape.

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