Who has opposable thumbs and no longer uses them to fill out her Minnesota Public Radio pledge-drive cards? Former “Prairie Home Companion” performer Sue Scott.
Former, as in, “You are banished, you and your decrepit, old-lady voice.” So joked a rueful Scott, who was involuntarily “released” from the long-running “Prairie Home” three years ago and created an event that grew out of the experience, “Island of Discarded Women.” Both a podcast that is available on SoundCloud and other streaming platforms and a live evening that is part cabaret, part radio show, all “Waiter, can I get a refill on this margarita, please?,” “Island of Discarded Women” has quickly become a popular monthly happening. It’s dedicated to the idea that women’s voices must be heard.
Since the first iteration of “Island” in January, the show has evolved. Each roughly 90-minute evening begins with a comic update from the fictitious island, where local performers including Shanan Custer, Mo Perry and Regina Marie Williams gather to sympathize with and inspire one another. Scott also interviews a female leader (on Aug. 11, it will be children’s book writer Nancy Carlson and past interviews have included James Beard award winner Ann Kim, Ann Bancroft and former KARE anchor Roxane Battle) and there’s a specially commissioned tune from singer/songwriter Zippy Laske. Meanwhile, the audience eats French Meadow food and drinks cocktails.
Scott chuckles about it now but her self-esteem took a serious hit when she was given the heave-ho by “Prairie Home,” especially since castmates Tim Russell and Fred Newman, older than her but male, were retained (they’ve subsequently been let go, too). Supposedly, when one window closes, another door opens but it felt like this particular window was shattered over her head.
“If someone said 10 years ago that this would happen, I’d have been surprised, but if they had also said that I would completely lose my self-worth, I’d have said, ‘Absolutely no way.’ But the more women I talk to, the more I find who identify with that,” said Scott, 62, insisting, “I’m not the poster child for ageism. I’m not a poor-me victim. I don’t want to be pitied. But it felt like I ran up against a wall called ‘Men are ageless and women are not,’ and my experience did open up my awareness.”
Scott also acts — she was in “Sisters of Peace” last spring at History Theatre and she’s currently in her first-ever Minnesota Fringe Festival show, “Mad as Nell, or How to Lose a Bly in Ten Days” — so she had an “in” with area performers. She began thinking about how she could put that together with her decades of radio experience and came up with a podcast which insists that women have plenty to contribute, regardless of age or obstacles in front of them.
“The experience at MPR inspired me to look for inspiration from other women who are wondering what to do with the rest of their lives. Some might say, ‘Oh, boohoo. You had a fancy job and you have to rethink your life now,’ but this could happen to a schoolteacher or anyone whose identity goes away and you think, ‘Now what do I do? Do I go back to school? Do I retire? But I’m not ready to retire!” said Scott, who adds that the island makes room for women who are far from retirement age (St. Paul songwriter Laske, for instance, is 28 and regular contributor Dexieng Yang is 20).
At the sold-out July taping, about 80 mostly female audience members heard Custer, Scott and others report about kick-starting their lives after washing up on the deserted island. Scott showed off her knack for voices when asked to read a speech about climate change a dozen ways, including as a man with wooden teeth, and Williams expressed her frustration at a society that seems to have no use for middle-aged women of color: “Please forgive my big fat angry black tantrum!”
Actor/writer Perry read an essay about the decision to part ways with what could be called the Beauty Industrial Complex, including no longer coloring the silver in her dark hair. It was suggested to her that she might never be cast in a play again, but Perry persevered.
“The early months of baring my roots were like the first tentative steps on a nude beach,” Perry said, insisting, “A woman busy ‘doing pretty’ is busy not doing a lot of other more important and useful things.”
That hit home.
“When Mo told her story, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to rock the gray,’ ” said Laske, whose July song, based on an idea by Scott, was about learning to trust one another. “For me, the ‘Island of Discarded Women’ puts things in perspective. It shifts my attention to focusing on my skills and craft and not being so caught up in what people think of me or if I have the right body type. We’re all going to hit that age eventually but, if you can own what you do, age, race, gender, those things, should not matter.”
The July show concluded with Scott interviewing artist/activist Robin Hickman, who spoke about her uncle, legendary photographer/filmmaker Gordon Parks, as well as creating “soulful dolls,” art pieces that reflect the need for girls of color to have dolls that look like them. Hickman told Scott she found the “Island of Discarded Women” moving because its focus is to “learn to bask in one another’s light, versus blowing out one another’s.”
Although the island is for discarded women, not girls (yet), lighting the way for younger people is very much in Scott’s head as she assembles the show, which she’s currently self-funding.
“My experience totally opened up my eyes to how prevalent these societal and cultural norms are for women. If we don’t do something about it now, 20-year-old Dexieng will be where I am in 40 years. I don’t want that,” said Scott. “What bothers me more than anything when I think about these societal norms is the idea that people say, ‘That’s just the way it is.’ I’m not male-bashing or saying even that everything about the patriarchy is bad. But I would like to ask: Why is it this way?”