Shames, if You're Nasty

How a Tucson writer overcame Trump loathing with inspired work

November 2016 brought a sea change to the United States. That's hardly news. For many artists, prone to be a bit sensitive anyway, the spirit-crushing political events landed like a boulder had escaped from its place atop a mountain. Some felt immediately inspired to express their outrage or sadness or great sense of loss. Others just didn't know how to respond and perhaps came close to losing faith that what they had known as their own guiding light had been dimmed, if not flat-out extinguished. But many artists manage their sensitivity with an outsize strain of pluck. It's pretty much a job requirement.

Tucsonan Germaine Shames is a prolific creative writer. Although she didn't practice the craft in her younger days, when she was an executive with Hilton International and then a foreign correspondent, her experiences led her to experiment with writing novels, for which she garnered publication and numerous awards. But then, at another bend in her road, she started writing plays, and then, not just plays, but musicals. She has re-fashioned her novel You Fascinating You, into a musical. The show, the true story about a young, gifted Jewish ballerina who had to leave her Catholic-Italian composer husband during the lead up to World War II, is currently under contract to be developed in New York. But all the energy and momentum she had built in her endeavors crashed against the wall of the Trump presidency. She stopped. Everything. For months.

"Everything just came apart. I thought, I am of no use to anyone or anything." Eventually, she says, "I had to draw a line. I could spend six or seven hours a day writing letters to politicians who could care less, or I could dip into the deep well of passion, and love of the art and imagination to do something, and while saving myself, I would hopefully uplift and inspire others ... I'm not going to let him dictate what I write about. He is not going to alter in any way the essential sweetness of my life. I'm not going to give him that power.

"So, the way that I got over my initial—I don't want to call it a writer's block, because, really, I had lost a frame of reference. I needed to experience a sort of creative disintegration. I needed to let everything just come apart. And then hope it would reintegrate."

She says when she started writing again, the writing had changed. She went with it, though, and started writing short plays and working back up to longer plays. Then came Nasty.

The word "nasty," of course, refers to then-candidate Trump's pronouncement during a pre-election debate that Hillary Clinton was a "nasty woman." But the term was co-opted by millions of women and men, and after Trump was elected, it has become sort of a battle cry, initially for the Women's march, but remains a sort of code for the massive resistance to Trump's presence.

In the play, Shames brings together Peggy Guggenheim, Annemarie Schwartzenbach and Nancy Cunard. They were all, in their own way, nasty women.

Shames says she had specific criteria for the women she chose to bring together: they were all heiresses; they all were witnesses to the rise of fascism; they were all scandalous. "I wanted to explore through an historic lens across generations. They all were very damaged and had very tragic lives, but they persevered. We may be using the term, but there have always been nasty women. All these I found very nasty in the extreme sense of the word. They were not Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton. They are very unlikely role models. But they refused to hide behind their privilege. One thing that was difficult was that I was trying to put together a diverse group of women, but all I've managed is that all these women are white, one of them is gay. They were terribly, terribly flawed and naughty. One was a morphine-addict; one at the end of her life weighed 59 pounds and collapsed on the street and never got up. They were very much in the public eye, not for their achievements but for their exploits. And interestingly they were muses to the well-respected male artists of their generation."

The play began as a 15-minute monologue by Guggenheim, but Shames thought it needed to include others. "It's a meeting of the Nasty Women Society with a present day master of ceremonies. We can see both the common ground of that generation with today's and certain gaps between that generation and the women of today. It's an interesting contrast and a lot of fun."

Shames is reaching out to the community to let them know about the show. "We will provide full productions to any group or any individuals in Tucson who can provide a venue and an audience. I have a director and a cast who are wonderfully flexible and really want to do this."

Shames' post-November rebirth has also inspired a project on the web she calls "LoveBlast! where music and activism fuse." LoveBlast! was created as "a refuge from hate talk and headlines," and singers and musicians are encouraged to upload music so folks can visit for respite and encouragement.

Shames will be off to Tennessee soon for a writer's retreat where she will work on a new musical. She has also recently been named as a Global Educator for 150 benchmark high schools, beginning this September.

But right now she wants to get the word out about Nasty. "The theater community here has a very big heart," and so does the community at large. Nasty is a gift that Shames and her Nasty theater mates are offering at no cost to this community and beyond. Knowing Shames and her work, you should take the offer.

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