Photo: joe mazza – brave lux
I believe in mystery, mystic conjoinments of spirit with earth and life speaking in many forms. As humans we are but animals speaking in languages elevated by our ability to think in miraculously complex webs. Or not. Elevated by our ability to commit savagery in stunningly cruel webs. Or not. I believe in faith practiced not religion worn. I live in dichotomies and dualities that resonate in my head, muscles and soul. Life is scored by music soaring from my throat, an instrument, an orchestra, a band. Life is painted in palettes of color by days, years, decades. These multiplicities manifest in art interactions to read, perform and view.
My practice is an excavation, a search for women’s voices, those reverberating in other heads, expelled through other throats, as well as my own. I seek the lived truth versus what is taught, demanded, culturally expected and in some instances still required for acceptance in a patriarchal universe. My writing is rooted in feminine earth. Discoveries are made but answers are illusory, always provoking questions. My writing speaks with multiple voices, telling stories via written and shaped text, spoken word, vocalized sound, audio, video, dimensional objects and embodied performance.
As a playwright I focus on exploding canonical, patriarchal stories about women, especially over 50, honoring them by giving agency to their voices with my own imagination. I see plays in shapes. Women generally do not, cannot, live in undulating waves or discuss life, loves or crises in conversations or arguments plotted on pyramids. We live and speak in circles, spins, inversions, funnels, webs, weaves and flashes. Exploring these, I find the trajectory of my plays. A musician in youth, lyricism and rhythm often lace my text. Combined with aural, visual and textural elements that play critical storytelling roles, I strive to provoke internal and external questions, discussions and realizations, often using dual protagonists to speak the multiplicity of truths women navigate.
Solo writing is performative and hybrid, poetry that incorporates elements of prose and scripted dialogue as well as audio, video and visual elements to fit the journey of the piece. My actress and performer brain compels me to push the limits of text to perform on the page using physical shape and space, audio and video. Once I can stretch those limits no further, text grows beyond the page into live performance and/or installation. Accordingly, these poems live in interstitial spaces between page and speech, script and score, theatre and gallery, spaces that draw breath from the written word and simple gesture growing into being in collaboration, multiple lives. Many are explorations of self-ventriloquism – the dualities, multiplicities and unexplained silences underneath thick and thin layers of personal paint that don’t peel easily. Exposures and manipulations of the ever-changing face of my inner and exterior voices, my forward- and backward-looking view.
I make myself uncomfortable in this work. If you never go out on a limb, you always have an obstructed views.
Judy is an interdisciplinary writer, performer and producer. Her theatrical career spans stage, film, commercials and voice-over. As an actress, she will return to New Orleans in summer 2023 for Sweet Bird of Youth with The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company. Her play, Gerutha and Margaret was a semi-finalist for the 2022 Eugene O'Neill National New Play Conference followed by a self-produced workshop of the same directed by Kate Hendrickson of Trap Door Theatre. Constructive collaboration delights her. Most recently she co-curated and produced EMXBODY at The Blue Parrot in Chicago, an evening of poetry, performance and visual work. As a poet, she scored, produced and performed her poem Eve’s Ribs/Lilith’s Lungs at the 2023 IMPACT performance art festival, also in Chicago. Judy is a founding member of Telling Humans playwright studio and Burnished Collective, a grassroots arts salon for women over 40, as well as a member of both the Dramatists Guild and Honor Roll. A 2023 MFAW candidate at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, she is fortunate to count Ruth Margraff, Matthew Goulish, Lin Hixson and Nathan Hoks among her influences. Once a classical musician, she sings and fiddles around on the piano, an autoharp and an accordion half her size.
And she talks to trees.
MFAW Candidate-The School of the Art Institute of Chicago-May ’23
Sweet Bird of Youth (actress)-summer 2023
The Tennessee Williams Theatre Co., New Orleans
Eve’s Ribs, Lilith’s Lungs (writer, performer, director)
IMPACT performance art festival
Full & Short Length Plays
GERUTHA AND MARGARET
Full length feminist historical drama/dark comedy with choreographed movement, no intermission.
2 W, 1 M
November 2021 Chicago Dramatists directed by Kate Hendrickson
Wisteria Root Productions directed by Kate Hendrickson
@ Facility Theatre – Chicago, Illinois, May 2022
Semi-Finalist- National Playwrights Conference,
Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 2022
Semi-Finalist- New Works Festival,
Garry Marshall Theatre, 2021
In an undetermined place and time, Gerutha (Gertrude of Hamlet fame) invites Margaret (Henry VI trilogy, Richard III fame) to coffee as they “share more than they know” and she wants Margaret’s help. The two women, who mirror each other in the duality of their external public persona and internal actual persona, establish a kinship through their shared anger over Shakespeare’s hijack of their lives and the subsequent erasure of their actual life stories. Via a spiraling conversational, confrontational journey, their actual stories are revealed, shifting their external and internal duality and forcing them to confront the grim price paid for taking agency in a world designed, dominated and controlled by the patriarchy.
Full length feminist explosion of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
3 W, 1 M, 1 Omnipotent Voice (male)
2 W, 1 M
Telling Humans Playwright Studio
Journey with Eve and her fantastical mentor Lilith, “the first Eve”, as she struggles to break free of the patriarchal stamp of the ideal feminine so ingrained throughout western culture by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Mixing mythic and contemporary storytelling, we encounter Eve grappling with life in Eden and Eve grappling with life in the modern world via four parts based on Milton’s enduring feminine tropes – woman infantilized, sexualized, idealized and villainized. Can Eve and Lilith break Eden, freeing Eve to define herself in her own image?
The play’s shape is anchored by four trunks, Parts 1 – 4 representing the primary tropes from Milton’s Paradise Lost that drive cultural representations of/actions toward women in much of the western world. Within these parts are a series of scenes in fractal patterns, branches of the trunks, branches of our Eve’s life, neither linear nor chronological. In nature fractals roughly replicate themselves at different ratios repeatedly, possibly forever. Splitting and splitting again. A way of survival? Adaptation? Regeneration? A feminine pattern.
10 minute mystery thriller
An otherwordly passenger desperately enlists her driver’s aid in an attempt to control her rage and her destiny. A slingshot conversation stretches and releases repeatedly, growing ever more taut. The heedless driver is blind to the rising tension. Until the band reaches its abrupt limit.
Hymn to the Chimes
Rooms in Mind (What Would Alette Say?)
Eve’s Ribs, Lilith’s Lungs
Waiting to Blow
Representative works. All with varying multiple lives, on the page, in performance and as installation.
Photos: Judy Lea Steele
Drag up for excerpt
Urban Tree Talk
Medium: digital photography, text
Materials: grey duct tape, kraft paper, grasscloth, fallen sticks, dead trunk, chapbooks(green felt, cardstock, printed text and photos), twine, foamcore, large format digital photos
Exhibition: Abandoned Practices Institute, SAIC Galleries, 33 E Washington
I’ve never considered how much of my city life is bound by edges: sidewalks, fences, crosswalks, walls, hallways, streets, parking spots, waiting lines, cellular service, etc. Viewing edges from the standpoint of urban trees, I realized that different urban life forms also have edges, sometimes less obvious. For the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden honey locusts these include the parking lot underneath minimizing their root bed, marble garden pavers, garden walls and fences, the outside wall of the Art Institute, the shadows it casts, exhaust, street salt spray and the rounded edges of sawn limbs the trees are attempting to heal.
Considering the serial sets of three observations from the South Garden, the installation was constructed in intersecting sets of threes:
- Base – concrete floor/parking garage, thin kraft paper/thin earth layer, uneven grasscloth/uneven ground cover.
- Middle – fallen sticks, dead trunk, broken canopy.
- Canopy – three broken crowns.
- Three chapbooks – Root Edges, Trunk Edges, Crown Edges
- Three “chapters” – oration, confusion, lament
- Three forms of intertextual writing – quotation, randomization, erasure/palimpsest
Video: Judy Lea Steele
Medium: text, video
Materials: audio interview overlayed with video, gathered limbs, parchment cardstock, burned parchment cardstock, nails, soil, plastic pots, bricks, foam filler, water pitcher
Exhibition: Grand Rising, SAIC
Experiences of unexplained grief and loss, especially from childhood, leave a collection of remnants – disparate, scattered, pieces without any direct connective tissue. What happens to those experiences for which the only remnants are fragmentary memories without explanation or object representation of any kind? Experiences wrapped in mystery, veiled in uneasy silences, blanks? How does one process the resulting fragments and blanks in memory, time and space or construct a frame to contain them? What role does the surrounding physical landscape play in giving body and shape to reconstruction and reconciliation? Attempting to divine answers from blank space often requires a dichotomy of being, a recreation of the self at the time of loss in conversation with the self at present, a self-ventriloquism. Journeying back to and through my childhood and the unexplained loss of my birth father, I attempt to fill the blank spaces. Growing up in a rural area, the physical landscape framed my view of the world. Still do. I use the rooted features of this landscape, the trees, to give form to the formless, vessels to contain what cannot be answered.
Photos: Leila Ghasempor
Medium: two bodies, physical gesture, voice, original prose
Materials: text, original music and sung lyrics, two masks, gauze wrapping, “plaque” of the world’s great female writers, markers
Exhibition – The Chicago Cultural Center in association with Crossing Borders/SAIC, photos courtesy of SAIC
The Chicago Cultural Center is a landmark building and public space. Opened in 1897 as a magnificent public library it was also a shrine to great writers and thinkers of the world, all white, European men. This despite historical records of great female writers from a multitude of countries prior to 1897. The spectacular shimmering glasswork was attributed to Louis Comfort Tiffany until the early 2000s. It was then revealed that his success in that endeavor was primarily the work of “the Tiffany Girls”, led by Clara Driscoll.
An indoctrinated museum docent experiences feminist awakening in the process of leading a tour. Audience members experience this with her by listening to her internal voice via provided cell phone link. She is symbolically bound to silence by a mysterious patriarchal figure in the process. Intent in purpose, she persists, inviting audience members to enshrine the great female writers of the world by writing their names on her binding.
The piece explores feminine duality and self-ventriloquism, the external doll acting what has been taught/required by patriarchal figures of dominance for acceptance, payment, existence colliding with the awakening of internal self actualization and its growth from thought to speech. Despite the binding by a male “stranger” representing the monolithic, depersonalized strength of patriarchal control.
Photos: Ji Yang
Eve’s Ribs, Lilith’s Lungs
Full medium: poetic text shaped, spoken and vocalized, body, gesture, movement
Materials: original music and sound, large abstract painting, two abstract portraits
Collaborators: Composer-Jack Steele, Painter-Evolene Zhang
Abbreviated medium: poetic text spoken, body, voice, gesture
Materials: mirror, lipstick
Full exhibition: IMPACT/33 E Washington, Chicago, March 2023
Solo exhibition: EM(X)BODY/The Blue Parrot, Chicago, November 2022
This work was inspired by two female figures shrouded in religious myth, Eve, the villainized instigator of the fall and Lilith, the “first Eve”, reviled and outcast for her choice to reject submissiveness to Adam. In this exploration of their duality, one woman rails against Eve’s patriarchal ribcage of objectification, sexual assault, loss of bodily autonomy and image, breaking free to re-discovering both with Lilith’s lungs of defiance, self-awareness, strength and love for both self and our collective, individual feminine images.
Performance video: Ále Campos and API
Projection video and photos: Judy Lea Steele
Medium: body, activated object, video projection
Materials: foamcore w/imperfect “perfect” ink print, mask, sampled overlapping musical collage track, video sequence of self-portraits
Exhibition – 2022 Abandoned Practices Institute, video courtesy of API.
A practiced rigidly turning physical presence masked with the unremovable smile and make-up of an ideal woman is identified as “Perfect” by the large labeled placard. Which, upon close inspection, has subtle indications that it is not so. As the “perfect face” turns to display perfection to every side, we hear and see the rebellion and chaos of imperfection inside her head. A practiced self-ventriloquist, the edges begin to fray. The piece is a reveal of the internal rebellion against the culturally taught/expected image of feminine perfection beginning to ooze through the outer shell.
Medium: two physical bodies, activated objects, singing voices, projection
Materials: woven vine globe, deep red fabric strips, twine, slide projection
Exhibition – 2022 Abandoned Practices Institute, photos courtesy of API
Two performers symbolize attempts to protect lifeblood from the rising tide of gun violence. As children singing the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosy”, they attempt to keep the lifeblood protected inside a primitive ball of woven vines, moving and afloat with childish tools of twine and song. As they move faster and faster, becoming frantic, attempts fail and fall.
A protest against gun violence, this short piece laid the groundwork for the later, larger work, Bloodwash.
Drag up for excerpt
Medium: physical bodies, voice, activated objects, original poetry, projection
Materials: text, washbasin, pails, artificial blood, chair, slides
Exhibition – submitting, devised in association with Performing the Rural, SAIC
A washwoman sits alone in a spotlight with the eternal job of scrubbing death from the clothes of those killed in an avalanche of mass shootings. She grieves, worn with never-ending attempts to wash us clean of the violence. Three shadowy figures in silhouette behind her vocalize the children’s rhyme “Ring Around the Rosy”, humming or singing brokenly. As they succumb to the violence, their lifeblood pours from pails seeping into the light. The washwoman cannot revive them, in the end showered in blood. Backed by slides projecting the immenseness of the ongoing catastrophe and the lack of political will to stem the blood tide, she laments in bitter poetry.
This piece is a protest of the continuing senseless loss of life and the lack of will among American politicians to curb it, largely on the political right. Despite proven tactics in other countries to stem such tragedy, money and power lock legislative opportunities to join them in the severely polarized United States.