There is Always Room for Cream
It’s hard to believe it has been almost ten years since the Dyke Division of the Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf first introduced audiences to Room for Cream, their “live lesbian soap opera” that ran for three “seasons” at La Mama and became an underground hit. Set in Sappho, a lesbian haven hidden somewhere in the Berkshire mountains, the series depicted an idyllic but complex queer community that had audiences longing to live there too. Our current moment seems right for a Room for Cream revival—I know I could use an escape into an off-the-grid lesbian-feminist utopia right now. Thankfully, this fall, Dyke Division will present three new episodes as part of the New Museum’s exhibit, Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon. And, if you missed the series the first time around, you can get up to speed on Sappho’s herstories; videos of the first three seasons are showing as part of the museum’s installation until January.
Experimental director Brooke O’Harra, co-founder of the critically-acclaimed Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, formed the Dyke Division along with Brendan Connelly (composer and Two-Headed Calf co-founder) and writer/performers Jess Barbagallo, Laryssa Husiak, and Laura Berlin Stinger in 2008. (Later, Barbara Lanciers and Sacha Yanow joined the Division as well). Fatigued by Two-Headed Calf’s lengthy creation process and wanting to engage identity politics more directly—and inspired by their own pleasure in binge-watching TV—with Room for Cream, the Dyke Division traded esoteric experimentalism for the conventions of television soaps and abandoned long development periods and carefully-cultivated performance pieces for a lightning-paced production schedule, slip-shod aesthetics, and melodramatic antics. The first eleven episodes, presented bi-weekly, were attended by young, queer, and enthusiastic audiences. In the wake of this successful first season, the group staged a Season One “box set” before premiering eight new episodes as season two the following February, and a five-episode “miniseries” in February through June of 2010. Members of the company took turns heading up the writing process, supported by contributions from the rest of the team. The scripts for the forty-minute episodes were written, rehearsed, and performed in a span of less than two weeks. In addition to writing, the Dyke Division members also acted in the series, and all but Connelly had major, recurring roles. This quick and collective process led to uneven and unresolved narratives—it was almost impossible to track who was feuding and/or having sex with whom—but that was part of the show’s fun.
The first season of Room for Cream revolves around three major conflicts—one personal, one political, one otherworldly. The long term relationship of Ellie (Kate Benson) and Robbie (Nehassaiu deGannes), the proprietors of the titular café, Room for Cream, and the adoptive mothers to a runaway named Bailey Donovan (Barbagallo), is on the rocks. Dr. Jane O’Boyle (O’Harra), a quirky professor of film and feminism at the University of Sappho and regular at Room for Cream, falls for the enigmatic Officer Jill Andrews (Nina Hoffman), who is tragically murdered by a coven of vampires before their relationship can really take off. In the meantime, City Councilperson Brandy Rogers (K8 Hardy) is trying to close down the Bearded Goat, a local organic farm run by a collective of trans men. The season also follows the on-again-off-again romance between Sappho’s endearing and ever-horny handyperson, Dire Owens (Becca Blackwell), and Lacey Peters (Husiak), a grad student and part-time manager of Progressive Pussies, “Sappho’s oldest sex shop.” Seventeen-year-old Bailey, a barista at Cream, explores first-time love with hot high school volleyball player Francesca (Mieke Duffly) and gender identity with friend and goat farmer Willow (Hans Kuzmich). Late in the season we find out that Grace (Rosemary Quinn), a farm-dwelling, Birkenstock-and-socks-wearing Wiccan former activist, is actually the mother of CIA Agent Steph (played by performance artist Jibz Cameron, aka Dynasty Handbag), having given Steph up to her partner Ellen (the Wooster Group’s Kate Valk in a cameo appearance as a deus ex machina at the end of season two) in the late seventies.
Season two follows similarly soapy storylines; Ellie and Robbie break up, leaving Bailey and Dire to run Room for Cream, while Dr. O’Boyle kindles a romance with an ex-nun. Portia Morrison (Sacha Yanow), an ambitious video artist, hooks up with Lacey. Their liaisons fuel Lacey’s substance abuse problems, and she spirals out of control. The series’ third and final season proves a bit more political. After Sappho’s mayor’s shocking death, Dr. O’Boyle, Grace, and Lacey all run for office, a plot point that permits each woman to present her vision for Sappho’s future. The impending nuptials between Dr. O’Boyle and Agent Steph—as well as Dire’s drunken marriage to Julie Jaspers (Amber Valentine) and Officer Ann Ruffins’s (Lea Robinson) pregnancy—also allow an opportunity for the Dyke Division to present differing views on gay marriage and queer domesticity.
From the first episode I saw in 2009, I was hooked. An avid spectator of experimental theater, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the series centered lesbian experience at a time when most downtown companies were disavowing anything that might be construed as “identity politics.” According to O’Harra, as the Dyke Division drafted scripts for the first season, it quickly become apparent to them that everyone in Sappho is a lesbian. Even so, Room for Cream is inclusive: its characters represent a broad spectrum of gender identities, ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual desires that expand and complicate the label “lesbian.” For example, when Greg Mehrten joined the RFC cast in season one as Warden Tim, part-time volunteer at Sappho’s slammer, he took on a role that was originally intended for Donna Barkman. Rather than rewrite the part for Mehrten, the Dyke Division left the scripts and their lesbian references intact. O’Harra instructed Mehrten to imagine Barkman doing his role and to play it “like a seventy-year-old lesbian.” The result is a character that is at once a gay man—someone who enjoys leather chaps and Mikey, the handsome bouncer at the Boozy Butch—and a lesbian; Tim is also a flannel-wearing, Oxygen-watching, crocheting member of Sappho’s pagan women’s singing circle.
Part of what is so pleasurable about the series is its many references to both high and low lesbian culture. The audience laughs as hard when Bailey’s cell phone plays Ani DiFranco’s angsty classic “Both Hands” as when Dr. O’Boyle longs for a copy of Julia Kristeva’s essay on melancholy to console her when vampires murder her girlfriend. Allusions to little-known feminists like filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger and controversial video artist Alicja Żebrowska introduce audiences to these women’s work. The Dyke Division argues for movies such as Personal Best (1982), Bound (1996), and If These Walls Could Talk (1996) as lesbian classics. They make lesbian use of non-queer cultural references, claiming a movie like Sister Act (1992) with Whoopi Goldberg, which Dr. O’Boyle watches in episode 1.9, as a lesbian artifact for its subtext of same-sex desire. “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls becomes a lesbian anthem when sung in the season one finale, “Field of Queers.” Music is especially important in the series; between scenes, the audience hears clips of everything from Melissa Etheridge and k. d. lang, to Joan Armatrading, Patti Smith, and Bikini Kill. (One of the first tasks for the cast of the new episodes: learn Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes”).
The town of Sappho itself is a celebration of lesbian feminist history. In addition to places like the local strip club Lavender Legs, The Boozy Butch bar, and the HomoSapettes Gym (2.4), there are locations throughout Sappho that honor famous women. Dr. Wendy Dooley (Barbara Lanciers), therapist to everyone in Sappho, directs local productions at the Sandra Bernhard Community Theater (2.1; 2.2; 3.2) until it is shut down in season three. Jane, distressed about the murder of her girlfriend, goes for an extended stay at the Convent of Hildegard von Bingen (1.11). Betty Friedan Drive leads from Room for Cream to the University (3.3). U. Sapph’s Library boasts the Dorothy Arzner Media Center (3.3), and the women often congregate at the Rita Mae Brown Reads bookstore (2.1; 2.7). Officer Ruffins coaches basketball at the Martina Navratilova Community Recreational Center (3.1), while Portia tricks Dire into giving money to support Sappho’s Alla Nazimova Movie House and then runs away with the funds (3.4). The Dyke Division continues this tradition in the first of the new episodes, in which D, a new character who is now running Room for Cream, reveals plans to make a pointillism mural that honors Angela Davis in the café.
Like all good soaps, Room for Cream features steamy sex scenes. But writing these scenes for themselves and each other, the Dyke Division courted a distinctly lesbian gaze, free of heteronormative male objectification. As O’Harra points out, “We took back sexy!” In Sappho, all kinds of bodies are validated as desirable. That the actors’ bodies do not necessarily conform to contemporary U.S. feminine standards of beauty contributes to the boldness of the sex scenes, which is magnified by their liveliness and their proximity to the audience. The sex scenes are usually slightly comic—the actors are clearly enjoying themselves, and audiences delight in them as well. Showing the characters (and the actors) taking enormous pleasure in sex of all kinds, the Dyke Division highlights the lack of representations of queer desire in other venues—in downtown theater, in theater in general, in film, and on television.
All of these characteristics helped Room for Cream create a sense of queer community onstage and off. In a 2009 interview, O’Harra told me, “[I]t is such a community-oriented show. People come to see their friends and…to be part of a community.” Indeed, the shows felt more like social events than your usual Saturday afternoon matinees. My friends and I secured season passes and mingled before the show in La Mama’s cozy club space. Patrons could purchase cheap beer at the venue, which they were permitted to drink throughout the performance. Audience members were invited to meet up with cast members at a local bar after the show.
The fun continues this fall with three new episodes that will feature members of the original cast reprising their original roles, as well as the addition of new characters—all of whom, according to O’Harra, are genderqueer or trans. O’Harra says of the process, “It’s nice to come back and have some perspective on the collaboration…If I didn’t feel like we are all more grown up, I wouldn’t want to do it. The process is different and better.” When asked what he hopes the new episodes will accomplish, Barbagallo writes, “I hope the mini-series reunites a group of people I love and creates a new community of mutually beneficial exchange. I hope people laugh. I wanna better understand how humor operates in queer community right now and this feels like it will be a gauge.” Laryssa Husiak also cites the serious side of the series’ fun: “Re-watching the old episodes of Cream, I was reminded of the way it became this place to reflect the queer community in a loving, light-hearted way…Things feel really heavy these days, and I hope that Cream can help process, but also provide a little comic relief.”
Though she knew nothing about the series, activist Cecilia Gentili was thrilled when Barbagallo asked her to be a part of the revival. In addition to wanting to work with Barbagallo again (she worked with him on Casey Llewellyn’s O, Earth and Barbagallo’s own My Old Man And Other Stories), she explains, “This is a dream come true—Jess asking me to do this soap opera.” She elaborates, “I am Argentinian: I grew up with soap opera, and I love the dynamics of a soap opera. They are extremely funny…The idea of adding fantasy to my life was fundamental as a trans person. [Soap operas] helped me survive.” Gentili points out that many members of the Dyke Division who once identified as lesbians have now transitioned to more transmasculine identities, which is something these new episodes will need to navigate. “As a person who has transitioned into many different identities, I want to see how [Room for Cream depicts] people who have transitioned through identities in a theater space.”
The Dyke Division’s vision of utopia, as illustrated in Room for Cream, is a “no place” (in the first of the new episodes, characters can’t locate Sappho using GPS), comprised of people of various genders, generations, political affiliations, and personal persuasions—all of whom are radically committed to community. One of the themes of the new episodes, according to O’Harra, is the questioning of the inclusivity of this queer community. The series created a real-life community of artists who continue to collaborate and who encourage one another to make explicitly queer and feminist work. It created a community of audience members who continue to show up to support these artists’ endeavors and who are encouraged to imagine better, queerer worlds. As Dire says in Episode 2.2, “It’s true Sappho’s entire population might be made up of lesbians and that we all might be trying to get in to each other’s pants. But ideals don’t have to be fantasies!”