BWW Interview: Playwright Michele Riml and Actress Elizabeth Townsend Talk Beauty and Strength in MISS TEEN

BWW Interview: Playwright Michele Riml and Actress Elizabeth Townsend Talk Beauty and Strength in MISS TEEN
Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Emily Neves
in Stages Repertory Theatre's production
of MISS TEEN. Photo by Bruce Bennett.

Stages Repertory Theatre works again with acclaimed Canadian playwright Michele Riml to produce the world premiere of MISS TEEN, a comedic drama about a shy, unlikely beauty pageant winner and her mother's ambitious efforts to meet the demands of her daughter's newfound fame.

Ringing relevant today, MISS TEEN uses the backdrop of a 1980's beauty pageant to explore the contradictory expectations of women, where the most effective way of obtaining success and respect is, at its furthest, skin-deep.

BroadwayWorld talks to playwright Michele Riml and actress Elizabeth Townsend (Coco) to discuss MISS TEEN.


BWW: The absurd notion that a woman's value directly ties to her physical appearance is so prevalent in our society. It's apparent in the ads we see, the shows we watch, and the fad products lining the shelves for women to buy. How does MISS TEEN approach the value of beauty?

Michele Riml: MISS TEEN is set in the 1980's when hair and makeup and shoulder pads were big and when women were straddling the worlds of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and CHARLIE'S ANGELS. The new pressure to do everything be everything while looking good was summed up in the Charlie perfume commercial demonstrating the gorgeous model who can "bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never ever let you forget you're a man." It was the beginnings of a notion that prevails today that women must be and do everything and look perfect doing it. It's an unsustainable myth and one that hurts women and steals their power, money, energy. MISS TEEN subtly looks at the cost and pressures of this myth as a young girl and her mother struggle to conform to the standard of beauty demanded while holding onto their moral center.

Elizabeth Townsend: I play the mother, Coco, who attempts to teach her daughter that a woman gains value in the world through the way she dresses and carries herself. And while draping a sequined scarf around her daughter's neck, Coco states the known fact that "Women who get seen get heard." And learning how to walk in heels is a must because "Heels give you confidence and accentuate the calves." In Coco's mind, by teaching her daughter these survival techniques, she will properly send her off down "the yellow brick road" in pursuit of respect and success in this sexist world.

Can you give me more information about the character Coco?

Michele Riml: Coco is a low-income single mother struggling to give her daughters a better life while she cares for her ex-husband who has cancer. When Margaret wins Miss Teen, Coco grabs on to the dream of Nationals as the ticket that will get her family out of poverty and despair. Coco herself is an orphan, so her identity is constructed from what she pulls from the world around her. Her unflinching courage comes from her desire to protect her girls and her willingness to abandon conventional morality in the pursuit of the crown is a reflection of her steely self-will. Ultimately, she is a woman who comes to know herself through her mistakes.

Elizabeth Townsend: I cannot describe Coco better than Michele Riml has in response to this question. I can add that Coco is "dancing as fast as she can" to catch up to where everyone else, in her mind, just gets to start. She is an expert at "making do" until she can no longer accept that making do is fun or a path to success. She is fearless for her family and frightened to her core. She makes up a reality acceptable to the successful in the world until she can no longer plaster a smile on her face to make everything okay.

By the end of the play, Coca awakens from the false promise that the only path to freedom is one that is put on rather than the present day reality where one finds one's imperfect self, smack dab, in the middle of a not so perfect, but real life.

Miss Teen explores the pressures that come with being a pageant winner - or having a daughter who is pageant winner. How have you guys built upon the strengths of the mother-daughter team?

Michele Riml: As any woman who has had a daughter or been a daughter will understand, the strength of the play and the humor too come from the relationship between Coco and her teenage daughter Margaret, who is at first a reluctant pageant participant. We tapped into the gamut of emotions that any mother and daughter might experience as their wills clash. Also we explored how the absence of Coco's mother informs how she parents, her inability to set boundaries at times, but her fierce commitment to her girls as well. As winning at all costs begins to color the relationship, we looked at how mother and daughter are pulled apart by ambition and then come together when things get real again.

What do you want people to take away from seeing the show?

Elizabeth Townsend: I would hope that women in particular will notice when they are smiling just because society pressures women to make "everything all okay." We pretend to others and to ourselves when it would be much healthier to tell ourselves and others the truth.

Michele Riml: An appreciation for the mother-daughter relationship, as conflicted and wonderful and imperfect as most are. (Some people in the audience have come out to say they "need to go home and call their mom.") A sense that the unadorned moments of connection that we have with the people we love is the true reward for living an authentic life. An insight that living authentically while messy and not always "pretty" is ultimately the big "win."

MISS TEEN runs April 6 - May 1; Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm; Sundays at 3:00 pm. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway Houston, TX 77019. Tickets are $21-65. For more information, please call (713) 527-0123, or visit www.stagestheatre.com.

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