Friday, January 30, 2009

Erin Judge and Ailin Conant Share Their "Meaning of Wife"

Can a sketch comedy show change people’s perceptions of marriage?

It’s a lofty goal, to be sure, but one Erin Judge and Ailin (pronounced like Eileen) Conant are taking on with their two-woman sketch and stand-up show, “The Meaning of Wife,” which is playing at The Comedy Studio Monday. Judge and Conant plan to explore the theme of what it means to be a wife, using their personal experiences as a road map.

Judge, a stand-up comedian, and Conant, artistic director of Theatre Temoin, are both recently married, Erin to a man named Jesse and Ailin to a woman named Julia. Neither of them expected to be married so young (Judge is 28, Conant is a couple of weeks just shy of her 27th birthday). The two women dated when they went to Wellesley College, and never saw themselves as people who would, as the term goes, “settle down.”

“I think both of our marriages are unconventional in the sense that, I think Erin still identifies as someone who is queer,” says Conant, “and I’m married to a French person who is a woman. So there’s a lot to talk about there.”

The show is a comedy that covers the relationship between Judge and Conant, how they’ve evolved since college, their attitudes toward love and relationships, and how they came to be married and still a big part of each other’s lives (Conant was Judge’s maid of honor last July – with Comedy Studio owner Rick Jenkins presiding, Judge notes). It’s a theater piece, with sketches strung together around a theme, an environment Judge found challenging. “It’s great for me as a stand-up comedian to be doing theatre, because it’s a whole other world,” she says. “And it really has a whole other structure and I’m learning so much about it.”

But it’s also a political statement about the fact that one marriage is fully legal and recognized internationally and the other is not. “It’s basically how do we cope with the fact that we think wives are boring, and we are wives.,” says Judge. “So that’s sort of where the comedy comes from. But once we sort of set ourselves up, we really show the audience who we are as people and how our marriages work, and then it really helps, I think, show how absurd it is that one of these marriages is legal and the other one is not. By the end, it’s like, well, they both have their own way of negotiating what their relationship is with their spouse and they both have this unique situation, they’re both these interesting, unique people. At least that’s how I think we come across.”

“There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter relationship or a cookie-cutter marriage,” adds Conant. “Within that legal term or whatever that structure, you still have to negotiate in that relationship just like any other relationship.”

The legal aspect of marriage is a part of the show, dealing with legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act, the main stumbling block to the legalization of gay marriage, and the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow permanent partners of U.S. citizens the same rights to pursue permanent resident status as accorded to the spouses of U.S. citizens. With one side arguing a narrow definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and the other side pointing out the various incarnations of marriage throughout history, legal definitions become murky.

To Conant, an evolution of the definition seems perfectly natural. “I think it makes perfect sense that the definition of marriage is something that is bursting out and changing really, really dramatically recently,” she says, “and that’s because it’s only been in recent history that marriage has been linked only and directly to love. Never before maybe 50 years ago has that been true. In this country and in other countries it’s still very, very new, the idea that marriage and love – in some countries, it’s still not even the case.”

Making any rigid rules about marriage and relationships also seem a bit futile to Judge. “It’s absurd to differentiate between people’s relationships when I feel like the rules in my marriage are things that I make up with my husband, and we just get all these rights because we signed a piece of paper,” she says. “We get all these rights that other people should be able to have with the person that they choose to sign that piece of paper with.”

There are plenty of unconventionalities in both marriages. Conant’s wife, Julia, can’t get a green card through marriage because the marriage isn’t legally recognized. And Judge says of the two of them, she has a much more public job than her husband Jesse, who often jokes about being a “comedy wife.” And the two had a join bachelor/bachelorette party that Judge describes as extremely tame.

“We had a great time, but it was the most non-scandalous thing,” she says. “There were no strippers. We played charades, because my husband and I, all of our friends came together for a big party.”

Conant says her bachelorette party was similar, but for different reasons. “I’m in an open relationship, in an open marriage, so it’s not like, oh no! We’re about to get married, we can never kiss somebody again,” she says. “We’d better just go crazy the night before. It’s none of that.”

But don’t expect to get a stern lecture when you see the show. Yes, the political points are made, but according to Judge, “The Meaning of Wife” is still the story of two human beings working out the issues. “This show, more than anything,” says Judge, “is about our relationship, and how our friendship is, and how we talk to each other and how we process things together and how whenever either of us wants to figure out what’s going on, we turn to the other to talk about it. That’s the dynamic going on onstage. The dialogue is how we casually talk to each other.”

Judge and Conant expect to take the show to California this summer, and have submitted it for consideration in several New England theater festivals.

A bit of "Meaning of Wife," in Judge and Conant's own words:

The Meaning of Wife at The Comedy Studio, Monday, February 2 at 8PM. Details on Erin Judge's Web site. Advance tickets are sold out, get to the Studio early for walk-ups.

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