Words and Symbols: Not Just Decorative

Theatre is storytelling. A large part of that job is understanding how various aspects of your story, visual, aural, linguistic, etc– will affect your audience. You’ll never be 100% accurate, of course, but it’s your job to have a basic working knowledge and understanding of the way words and symbols are interpreted by the culture in which you’re staging your work. Unless you’ve contracted to tour an existing show in another area and are using a word you didn’t know was local slang for “extremely large penis,” it’s your job to understand those things well enough to manipulate them effectively.

So it always comes as a surprise to me when theatre people screw this up. Let me break down my past few days for you:

swastikaring

redskins

michonne-cosplay

1. Sears listed this ring on its website, then immediately took it down, saying a third party vendor had posted it in violation of their terms. Whether Sears knew about this or not, in the online discussions I saw of this, people were LEAPING to defend it. Whenever you get into a discussion of swastikas, the first apologists you see are the people charging in with “it’s a religious and/or cultural symbol that was used in art all over Europe and Asia for centuries.” To which I say: LOL. WE KNOW. But the historical usage of an image doesn’t change the way that image is perceived NOW, in this time and place. Its usage in traditional art cannot evacuate its current semiotic– and what’s more, YOU KNOW THIS. You KNOW that most people in the Western world associate that image with the Third Reich. The next apologists say things like, “I don’t think most people even know what that means anymore; kids are ignorant.” To which I say: LOL. They’re kids, not hamsters. They know.

If you’re a theatre professional, you should understand what that symbol means and the impact it has on a western audience– whether it’s the one in your theatre or the one walking down the street checking out your cool not-Nazi-I-swear ring. Whatever background information you have about that symbol is worthless in that process. The swastika is one of the most recognized symbols in western culture, and its semiotic is as clear as any semiotic gets.

2. The same thing can be said about the Washington Redskins logo. Although the association of the word “redskin” with racism isn’t as widely discussed in our culture, about fourteen seconds of thought should be enough to straighten you out. How difficult is it to ascertain that the word “redskin” is racist? Let’s ask the “ignorant kids” of Urban Dictionary:

“An offensive and derogatory term refering to native americans.”
This is the third definition; the first two are along the lines of “greatest team in the NFL.” In addition to every legit dictionary definition designating the term “offensive” or “racist,” even a crowd-sourced dictionary used almost exclusively by the under-30 population knows what’s up. EVERYONE KNOWS.
The apologists are exhausting: “It honors Native Americans,” “I grew up with it; it’s not meant to be racist,” “I totally know a Native American who thinks it’s fine,” “It’s tradition.”
So what is anyone– let alone theatre people– doing defending this name? Why would anyone try to pass off a word widely accepted as a racial slur as “honoring” that group? Why would anyone defend the use of a racial slur as “tradition”? We have plenty of racist traditions we no longer employ because they’re racist. So what makes this word different? Because . . . you like it? You’ve always been allowed to get away with it, so having the power to use a racial slur without consequence is your right? You get to determine what’s racist or culturally insensitive to marginalized people?
*****
3. The third image comes from a debate that broke very recently. A German cosplayer posted a picture of herself  in dark makeup as part of her cosplay of Michonne from The Walking Dead, pictured next to her. The internet went (predictably) apeshit.  Whether or not blackface occupies the same cultural position in Germany as it does here, the fact remains that plenty of people in the US are defending this, and this is hardly the first time I’ve seen this in cosplay. The defense goes something like this: “She’s honoring the character,” “It’s OK when black people do whiteface, so what’s the big deal,”  “no one even knows what a minstrel show is anymore,” and the ever-popular, but completely perplexing, “anyone who says this is racist is a racist.”  Several threads about this issue have contained comments from Black people saying things like, “You don’t understand how hurtful this is because of its cultural and historical context; whiteface is entirely different; please believe me” only to be shouted down with a barrage of “So white people don’t get an opinion?”
*****
A few days ago, I was in an online discussion with a young white guy who took extreme umbrage at the fact that I said it’s a pile of nonsense-flavored nonsense for white people to tell people of color they’re wrong when they discuss their lived experiences of racism, using as my example my frustration with seeing white people jump on an Asian American who was calling out yellowface. This young white guy– a theatre person, btw– insisted that the opinions of white people need to be welcomed and honored in those discussions, or they would never “be convinced” that diversity is good and bigotry is bad.  That white people need to be “allowed” to argue (read: allowed to argue without consequence) with people of color when people of color point out racism, or white people will refuse to care about racism.
*****
Setting aside the  fact that no one should have to “be convinced” to have basic human decency and care about racism, both the blackface apologists telling Black people they need to “calm down” (literally) because cosplay blackface isn’t a problem, and the young white guy above are saying the same thing: The opinions of white people are ALWAYS important, no matter what the context, no matter how uninformed or misguided. In short: white people should be respected when they whitesplain racism to people of color. To which I say: LOL.
privilege
When theatremakers who should know better defend racist and/or culturally insensitive symbols, there are several things operating at once: White privilege, wishful thinking, and their combined ability to override the basic theatre skillset of understanding cultural context and semiotics. It’s one thing to understand a racist symbol and then use it with that understanding; it’s entirely another to try to argue that a symbol with a well-known racist semiotic is actually just fine if you squint (and stop listening to people of color).
 *****
Only someone consumed by their own white privilege could possibly imagine that social justice demands respecting white people shutting down people of color as people of color recount their lived experiences of racism. That’s not a discussion– it’s a deployment of privilege and power– or an attempted one. It’s whitesplaining.
*****
It’s not that white people don’t get an opinion because they’re white. Have all the opinions you like. I HAVE A WHOLE BLOG OF THEM. It’s just that white people should stop expecting people of color to STAND ASIDE while in discussions of racism so that white people can seize control of definitional authority. No one believes that white people aren’t “allowed” an opinion– we all understand free speech– but like so many people who misunderstand free speech, whitesplainers are upset because they’re not allowed an opinion without consequence. What they’re upset about is that they’re the ones being shut down instead of being accorded the authority to shut others down. When the discussion goes “PoC: That’s racist; Whitesplainer: Actually, it’s not; PoC: You don’t get to decide what’s hurtful to people of color” the whitesplainer gets upset because the person of color didn’t step aside and allow him to define the terms of the discussion. The whitesplainer derailed the discussion away from the racist act itself and into an argument about whether or not the person of color is correct and/or respects him. It’s exactly the same as this:
“What should we do for lunch?”
“This isn’t lunch, you’re wrong.”
“Dude, I’m the one facing the clock and I’m telling you it’s noon.”
“Why aren’t you respecting my opinion?”
 *****
White theatremakers, please think before you start jumping to defend symbols of racism, bigotry, and cultural insensitivity. If you find yourself in a discussion where you’re disagreeing with targeted people and passionately defending someone’s right to wear a swastika ring, or use the term “redskin,” or wear blackface, stop and think about what the actual fuck you’re fighting for. Seriously. You’re fighting for the right to be, at the very least, culturally insensitive without consequence. You’re fighting for the right to sieze definitional authority over terms and symbols that target marginalized people away from the people targeted. Why do you believe you deserve the authority to tell marginalized people what they are and are not allowed to find hurtful?
 *****
If you want to be a theatre professional, you MUST come to terms with the fact that, no matter how hard you wish it, the semiotic of a symbol IS WHAT IT IS. Manipulate it how you will after that, but don’t go on facebook trying to convince people that swastikas are OK in America because of the way they were used in India.
*****
There are privileged people out there who are fighting HARD for their cultural privilege. I’m not saying they’re deliberate bigots– they’re by and large not– but they are so used to occupying a certain positionality within our culture that they freak directly out when that positionality is challenged– when their authority isn’t automatically respected in a discussion, or when they’re asked to believe people of color when they talk about their lived experiences, no matter how hard those stories are to hear. Take a step back, listen, and think.
Tagged , ,

Protecting Racism in Theatre

Yes, I am still talking about this, despite some truly delightful comments and emails requesting that I stop draining all the fun out of life. (One woman, who said, and I quote, that she would like to punch me in the face, was relieved that I didn’t cast her local production of The King and I, as I would have unfairly deprived her of her favorite role, Lady Thiang, due to my ridiculous stance against yellowface.) The title of Mike Lew’s brilliant HowlRound article, “I’ll Disband My Roving Gang of Thirty Asian Playwrights When You Stop Doing Asian Plays in Yellow Face,” says it all. Privilege goes down hard, and it goes down swinging, and it goes down all the while claiming the right to do, ahem, whatever the fuck it wants.

One of the things privilege wants, and wants badly, is the continued ability to protect racism in performance. Mike Lew’s article above discusses some particular and extremely important issues regarding racism in performance, and while this was written for a special HowlRound series, he and I and a bunch of other theatre bloggers (and writers and critics and academics and your mom) have been discussing racism in narrative performance for quite awhile. And it’s disheartening to see, despite ongoing national discussion for DECADES, so little impact. Yes, things are changing, but with glacial slowness.

Change is maddeningly slow in an art form otherwise known for its cultural progressiveness because privilege is constantly defending and protecting racism in performance by calling it names like “artistic freedom” or “intellectual complexity” or “having faith in audiences.” See through the verbiage to what’s underneath: protecting racism.

Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post, “A challenge for the arts: Stop sanitizing and show the great works as they were created,” is an overt apologia for racist characters and tropes in classic plays and operas. Kennicott asserts that the only people who care about what he terms “giving offense” (ugh) in American theatre are people who see art as merely “entertainment” rather than “an independent and volatile space governed by its own rules (or no rules at all).”

To preserve their independence, the arts need to stand resolutely aside from the increasingly complex rituals of giving and taking offense in American society. The demanding and delivering of apologies, the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended, the futile but aggressive attempt to quantify offensiveness and demand parity in mudslinging — this is the stuff of degraded political discourse, fit only for politicians, partisans and people who enjoy this kind of sport.

Art has more important things to do: preserving its autonomy, preserving the danger of the experience, preserving the history embodied in the canon, and helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.

I’d like to start by immediately euthanizing his phrase, “the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended” for two reasons. First, people who are resisting bigotry are often dismissed with the belittling idea that they’re “offended,” as if fighting cultural oppression and the tools with which it creates, disseminates, and preserves that oppression are equivalent to an imaginary schoolmarm shocked at finding the word “fuck” carved into a desk. No, we are not “offended.” We’re fighting bigotry, and belittling that by pretending it’s about offending our delicate sensibilities with your culturally superior artistic achievements is nonsense. Secondly, the idea that only people of a certain group should resist bigotry against that group is, in 2014, laughable, and Kennicott should be ashamed of himself. Tell it to Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Tell it to Judy Shepard. Tell it to Kiichiro Higuchi. A culture wherein bigotry is protected by privilege is a culture of inequality, and that inequality affects us all. We all have areas of privilege and areas wherein we lack privilege. Resisting race-based bigotry is to resist all bigotry, as a concept, benefitting us all. But even setting personal benefit aside, in this statement Kennicott BELITTLES EMPATHY, and he should be ashamed.

Let’s look at his central idea: that preserving the bigotry in classic works is aligning oneself with a higher good– the “autonomy” of art and its history. The basic conceptual problem here is that “art” does not spring full-formed from the head of Zeus, perfect and complete. Art is created– and interpreted– by humans, using the tools we have at our disposal. Art does not have “autonomy,” because art does not have a separate existence from its creators, interpreters, producers, or performers, particularly performance-based art that is largely created using the bodies of living people.

Two of the specific examples he gives are Monostatos from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He gives many examples, but I’ll focus on these two and allow you to extrapolate from there rather than bloviate about them all.

Kennicott seems to believe that performance is the only window through which contemporary people can access classic performance. No one is arguing that classic works, along with their historical bigotry, should no longer be studied by scholars, discussed, or written about, so the hysteria around protecting the “autonomy” of art and “the history of the canon” through performance is curious. Scholarship studies what is there, on its own terms. In performance outside of an academic pursuit, however, there is a duty to the audience to be, at the very least, clear, and Kennicott shows a truly shocking lack of understanding of the basic dramaturgy of classic works in performance.

Monostatos is a character originally conceptualized as a Black monster of a man who threatens rape and violence. He has a single aria in which he laments that he’ll never know love because it’s denied him due to his ugly Blackness. Die Zauberflöte premiered in 1791 in Vienna, in a time and place wherein the opera’s audience would take Blackness as a nearly universal sign for “ugly and repellant.” Mozart chose that semiotic purposely. However, that semiotic no longer functions as he intended. The entire cultural context of Blackness has shifted, and performing the semiotic as written actually vandalizes the original intent. If you want to preserve the intent– that the character is self-evidently read as physically repellant– you must search for a contemporary semiotic that gets you as close as possible to the original intent if your purpose is to preserve the original intent. When you pause to consider that Kennicott is arguing for performing Monostatos as written solely due to a stubborn insistence on being allowed to be publicly racist “because art,” you begin to see what’s underneath the argument.

Shylock is a complex character, and Merchant is a complex piece of work. Many people think it’s no longer recuperable due to the fact that antisemitism is woven into the fabric of the narrative. I’ve seen a number of attempts to work around that, none successful. It’s the reason I haven’t directed it myself. It’s truly a tragedy, as some of the play is heart-stoppingly beautiful. But whether I think the attempts are successful or not, the fact remains that, in 1605, there had been no (openly living) Jews in England since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, and there would be none until Cromwell permitted their return in 1657. It’s almost certain that Shakespeare had never seen a Jew, and was using the semiotic of “the Jew” as a marker for avarice, lack of honor, blasphemy– all the things English people of the time associated with “Jews” as a concept. If you choose to stage Merchant today, you’re confronted with the unhappy reality that Shakespeare used a member of a marginalized group as a semiotic for a set of ideas in a way we now consider unvarnished bigotry, and contemporary audiences will not react in the same way to that semiotic as the author intended. And while the solution is not as simple as ones generally found for Monostatos, contemporary directors recognize that a solution must be found, and not because people are going to be “offended,” but because the 400-year-old symbol no longer works as intended.

Of course I understand that there are some people who still take Blackness to mean “ugly,” and that there are plenty of people who believe Jew = avaricious (as a Jew, I’ve been treated to that sterotype numerous times), but the culture as a whole no longer accepts those symbols as read. A director cannot rely on them to function as they once did, and clarity of storytelling is one of the most basic aspects of our jobs.

If Kennicott and his ilk believe it is so important to perform these works as written in order to preserve them as a window into our past (“the history embodied in our canon”), where are the castrati? Why do we no longer perform Shakespeare with adult men in the male roles and underage boys in the women’s roles? Because Kennicott, and people like him, are not ACTUALLY arguing for historical preservation or artistic “autonomy.” Instead, they’re arguing for the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not, and an issue they find acceptable– bigotry in performance– is being challenged. Kennicott and those who concur with him, like the woman who wanted to punch me in the face, are protesting the challenge to their power, to their cultural authority. They want the right to be able to continue to perform works in yellowface, or to perform roles that equate Blackness with monstrosity, or to perform antisemitism, simply because they have had that power long enough to consider it a right, and are, and I use this word deliberately, offended at the suggestion that they do not.

It all sounds so pretty, and fine, and noble: “autonomy of art,” “preserving the history embodied in the canon,” “helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.” But under those phrases lie the simple idea: “I am uncomfortable that I am losing my cultural supremacy and its concomitant definitional authority over what is acceptable and what is not.” How ironic that these fine words, used in the service of protecting racism, shine an undeniably clear light on our “ugliness, weakness and cruelty.”

Tagged , , , , ,

Ferguson, Narrative, and Dungeons and Dragons

Like everyone, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ferguson, and about the epidemic of white men gunning down unarmed young African American men.  What is racism made out of? What makes someone think that such an action is acceptable in any way? As they say, no one is born racist. Sure, people talk a lot about the influence of tribal thinking (who is like me and therefore part of my group; who is unlike me and therefore a potential threat), but there’s no intrinsic reason that should be related to skin color any more than hair color or height. No, you have to create racists, and you do it by creating, disseminating, and consuming racist narrative.

When a police officer, or a man in a 7-11 parking lot, or another police officer, or the guy next door, or a Neighborhood Watch nutjob (I could go on and on, but you get my point) shoots and kills an unarmed young African American man (the ages of the five murder victims above spans 13 – 22), he does so because he believes that young man is in some way intrinsically dangerous, and less human because of that. After the fact, the stories pour out: “I saw him reach for a gun” is a favorite. “I thought my life was in danger” is another. What makes a man imagine a gun in the hand of an unarmed African American teenager? Because he sure as hell isn’t imagining that gun when it’s a white teenager in front of him.

I believe that the answer lies in the narratives we create, disseminate, and consume. The entertainment industry makes a staggering amount of money selling products that depict Black = Dangerous. There are white men whose entire fortunes are built on that trope. (Check out this article by Dr. Darron Smith on the issue of the depiction of Black men in American media.) The reality is that MOST African American men are NOT committing violent acts, but MOST of the art about African American men that gets funded, distributed, and consumed depicts that as if it’s irrefutable fact, even when the main Black character is not participating in those activities– he’s “getting out,” or “trying to rise above.” There are white gatekeepers out there refusing to fund art that doesn’t conform to that trope because they believe it doesn’t sell as well– and maybe they’re right, which is on us as consumers.

I’d never say that an African American (or anyone else, for that matter) who created art about violence out of his or her lived experience should not be doing that. No one should ever tell another person that the art they create out of their lived experience should be suppressed– consuming authentic narratives about others creates empathy. Everyone should have a voice, and we need diverse voices from diverse points of view in all our art forms.

But that’s just it– we need more diversity in our narratives. We need to take a cold, hard look at the ways in which we as creators and distributers of art contribute to making Black = Dangerous the PRIMARY narrative about African American men, because the impact of that is quite literally lethal. We don’t have other, equally potent cultural tropes about African American men tempering Black = Dangerous, which is why this racist trope is the one in the minds of armed white men facing unarmed African American teenagers– these white men have been taught from birth that Black = Dangerous, and they, for whatever combination of reasons (and we could list these all day– institutional racism, family racism, enjoyment of privilege, lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of empathy are just a few), BELIEVED IT, never questioned it, and gunned down someone’s baby in cold blood. As a mother, it stops my heart.

Solo performer and author Brian Copeland does a show called Not a Genuine Black Man. I took my students to see a performance of the world premiere run. It was an incredibly impactful experience. The most devastating story he told about growing up African American in a nearly all-white Bay Area town (San Leandro, now one of the most diverse cities in the nation) in the 70s, was when he was 9, being chased and harassed by racist white teenagers. He saw a police officer, thought “safety,” and ran up to him. The police officer took a step back and put his hand on his gun. NINE YEARS OLD.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com

This country desperately needs to disrupt the cultural status of Black = Dangerous as the primary trope about African American men. We need to stop making money off a trope that’s literally KILLING KIDS. As artists, it’s our JOBS to understand the cultural context of the tropes and narratives we create. WE MAKE CULTURE. Let’s start making it with the deliberate goal in mind of making the primacy of Black = Dangerous a thing of the past, so that one day a story about a Black bad guy will be no more about his Blackness than narratives about The Joker, Emperor Palpatine, or Hannibal Lecter are about being white. We desperately need to decouple the concept of “dangerousness” from race.

Let’s look at a content creator who’s doing it right.

As a giant nerd, of course I got the new Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. When I first cracked it open in the store and began paging through, I was floored. Page after page after page of women– as many women as men– all looking like legitimate heroes in functional armor, not scantily-clad pose monsters pretending to fight while twisted into impossible shapes that manage to show both cleavage and ass. I never realized how much I felt like I was a girl horning in on a “guy game” until I saw these pictures and felt welcomed.

What also immediately stood out was the diversity. The book is filled with people of color. I stood there holding the book in the game store, and I almost cried. I held the book out to my husband, a longtime player, and fought back tears as I explained to him what it meant to me just to see these women. And to think about what it would mean to young nerds of color to see themselves reflected on those pages.

I could go on and on about what this means for women. But to stay on target: There will be an entire generation of nerdkids who will learn this game in this edition, for whom Black heroes will be a natural part of the game, who will experience narratives of Blackness that aggressively disrupt Black = Dangerous. All D&D adventurers are dangerous. But they are all individual, as individual as the people playing them. A Black D&D adventurer is no more or less dangerous than anyone else. His Blackness is part of his identity, but nowhere in that universe is the color of his skin a marker for his dangerousness. His broadsword or his spellcasting, on the other hand . . .

Let me show you a few examples. These are just a few out of an incredible diversity of images. If you EVER had an interest in D&D, or thought you might someday check it out, now is the time.

This is the first example they give of the Human race. LOOK AT THAT FUNCTIONAL ARMOR!

This is the first illustration in the Human race profile!

dnd2

This is the first illustration in the Fighter class profile.

This is the first illustration on the Wizard class profile.

This is the first illustration in the Wizard class profile.

There are still plenty of white guys in there, but along with them, there are just as many women and people of color pictured as legitimate adventurers in their own right, not window dressing or tokenistic afterthoughts. Bravo, Wizards of the Coast. You fucking nailed it. I hope this new edition brings you legions of new, diverse fans. And you can BET I will be showing these pictures to my students and talking about narrative creation in our culture.

Do I actually think D&D can save the world? YOU BET I DO. But it can’t do it alone. It’s up to us as artists and entertainment industry professionals to reject the idea that the only trope worth funding or distributing about African American men is Black = Dangerous, and replace that harmful idea with a wide variety of tropes– yes, including Black = Dragon Slayer. I’m not leading some campaign against art that depicts Black men committing crimes or being violent. I am, however, one small part of a campaign against a widespread artistic and cultural practice that PRIMARILY depicts Black men as threats.

This CAN be done. We just have to pay attention to the cultural context of what we’re creating, funding, distributing, and consuming, and make a commitment to real diversity. When it’s done right, it’s glorious.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

10 Tips for Choosing an Audition Monologue

han.leia.iknow.endor

Hello, you magnificent bastards. I love you all, and I’m prepping a new blog post for you while I’m also prepping a bunch of classes and a new season at my theatre, so it’s moving kinda slow at the junction. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the post up in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, to prove my love, here’s an article I wrote for Theatre Bay Area Magazine, 10 Tips for Choosing an Audition Monologue. I spoke with some of the top casting directors in the Bay Area and used my own eleventy scrotillion years of casting experience to come up with a solid, practical guide to choosing monologues. 

Tagged , , ,

The Class Divide in Theatre

For so long I’ve wanted the Theatre Industry machine to behave a certain way and suddenly I realized I want to take that machine apart and build a new one instead.

It’s been brewing in the back of my mind for awhile, but it really came to a head last week in a Facebook discussion about Charles Isherwood’s condescending language when writing about plays by people of color. Isherwood has enormous power to make or break the success of a play and/or playwright, and he’s not the only one using that kind of language, but he has extraordinary power because of his position with the New York Times.

But I think the problem isn’t just Isherwood personally, since we could fire him into the sun and there’d be another one right behind him to take his place. We should start thinking in terms of dismantling the power we accrue to that position rather than just calling out the person in it, and while we’re at it, let’s also start thinking in terms of dismantling the way we conflate “important” with “in New York” or “well-funded.” This last idea, which I’ve fielded a few times, has been met with a ton of resistance. And I’m not surprised– it really is a big, frightening dream to imagine that we can successfully disrupt the class-based divides in the theatre community that make New York theatre seem so much more important than theatre elsewhere (which accrues an inordinate and wholly undeserved amount of power to the tiny handful of individuals who review theatre for the New York Times) and that make well-funded theatre seem more important than everything else. But I feel like the time has come for us to try. This may not be my work to finish, but it sure as hell is mine to begin.

I think we have two challenges to face. The first is the mythology of the importance of New York, a class-based mythology that places New York above everywhere else. A large amount of wealthy and influential people have enormous personal stakes in the perpetuation of the myth that New York is the pinnacle of theatrical achievement and success, and there are even more people who have pinned all their aspirational hopes (and childhood dreams) on that as well. But as in any discussion of privilege, it’s painful for the privileged minority to allow those without privilege to rise to equality, and it’s perhaps even more painful for those who are in the middle of struggling to achieve that privilege, or who believe that privilege is potentially achieveable for them. We accord New York theatre an enormous amount of privilege that we’re denying theatre elsewhere for no reason other than that we DO, and that there are people who believe that myth with all their hearts, have sacrificed for it or profited from it, and therefore are loathe to give it up.

There’s no question that New York has a LOT of well-funded theatre that employs more theatremakers than any other single location in the country. But we accrue an inordinate amount of prestige to a show in New York for no other reason than that it’s New York, the historical heart of theatre in the US. Our language reflects that: There’s “New York” theatre and there’s “Regional” theatre– everywhere else. This is an incredibly outdated point of view. Why, in 2014, are we still perpetuating the mythology that a show in New York with a (for example) $100K budget has somehow achieved something that a show in (also for example) Minneapolis with a $100K budget has not? It massively undervalues the theatre happening all over the country. A show that starts in Chicago and then transfers to Off-Off Broadway is held up as having achieved something significant.

The second is the mythology of importance = money. The importance we accord theatres and productions is directly related to the size of the budget. This class divide impacts every single thing we’re trying to achieve, because it doesn’t just marginalize theatre below a certain level, it renders it completely invisible. When we’re discussing problems or strategizing solutions in the theatre community, we’re almost always discussing LORT and/or Broadway and/or companies with an annual budget over a certain amount. The eligibility requirements to become a TCG member theatre (a first step in “counting” as a nonprofit theatre) are primarily FINANCIAL. Out of eight eligibility requirements, just three are related to the actual theatremaking (“commitment to the rehearsal process,” “minimum of one year’s prior existence,” and “community vitality,” which, to be fair, mentions funding sources, but allows for other evidence like “awards” and “media coverage.”) There’s no such thing as a study of diversity in “theatre,” or gender parity in “theatre.” We have studies of those things in wealthy theatres, but not in “theatre” as a whole. When we talk about diversity in theatre, what we’re almost always really talking about is a glass ceiling that prevents a more diverse distribution of money and resources, not actual diversity across all types of theatre.

It’s foolish to pretend that money doesn’t matter at all. Of course it does, and the conversations around who gets hired and which playwrights get the higher-paid commissions or production slots and WTF glass ceiling are valuable ones to have, but we need to stop pretending that this is a conversation about whose voice is “important.” It’s a conversation about unfair income, resources, and jobs distribution. But by refusing to call it that, and instead talking about which voices are “important,” we’re reinforcing the cultural idea that the only marker of importance is money.

When The Kilroys list came out (full disclosure: I contributed to it and I would again in a heartbeat), I saw a number of playwrights flipping out for not being included. I saw people saying they were, and I quote, “pissed” for not being chosen. The Kilroys had asked contributors to name the five best plays they’d read that year that fit the criteria (written by a self-identified woman, no more than one full production). The final list included a number of luminaries along with rising stars. Artistic Directors of smaller companies started posting on social media immediately about how they’d do readings of every play on the list, or how they were going to stage this or that play. And I had to just take a deep breath, because they would all eventually find out: Most of the 46 “winning” plays, if not ALL 46, would be denied to them. I had already asked for the production rights to two plays on the list and been shut down. And that’s FINE. The list isn’t about getting those plays produced AT ALL. It was about going Hulk Smash on the glass ceiling. I think the list’s rollout suffered for its lack of clarity on that issue– this list wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, and it wasn’t meant for the likes of me. It was for big money theatres, in direct response to Ryan Rilette’s comment that there were not enough plays by women “in the pipeline.” The Kilroys built a new pipeline of LORT-ready and Broadway-ready plays as determined by a ton of existing gatekeepers, and shoved it right in everyone’s face, an act of bravery and enormously successful activism. But it was about the distribution of money and resources, not about getting women’s work done at all. I’m willing to bet most of the 46 would have had more productions, and therefore been ineligible, if the rights had been released to the small companies who had asked. I’m not critiquing that decision in the least, and I think activism that works to dismantle the glass ceiling and create equity in the distribution of money, jobs, and resources is incredibly important. But we need to stop reinforcing the idea that money and/or location are the only kind of “important.” It’s time to build a new machine.

I’m a big fan of Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco, the only Filipino American theatre company in the nation. I’ve been to a number of their shows, and a few days ago I went to see The Guerrillas of Powell Street. Guerrillas is a play about the Filipino WW2 vets who were promised military benefits by the US and later denied. They were made to wait 70 years for any kind of compensation, and to this day some are still being denied due to poor recordkeeping during the war. The play is also a beautiful, at times heartbreaking, examination of the meaning, strength, and limits of friendship and family, as well as a celebration of Filipino culture. Guerrillas was fantastic in every way. Every show I’ve ever seen there has been packed to the rafters with eager audience members, with more on the waiting list, almost all Filipino Americans, almost all under 40– an audience we’re told repeatedly does not exist. Bindlestiff is a small theatre you’ve probably never heard of. It’s all volunteer-run, non-AEA, with tiny production budgets. This play, this theatre, this audience will never make it into a national study about “diversity in theatre.” Their productions, audience, playwrights, existence are not considered important enough to include because of the size of their budget. Their work, like the work of indie theatres all over the country, is invisible. But those audiences are having an intense, emotional, moving, unique, life-changing theatre experience. It’s not in New York, nor is it a 20 million dollar a year LORT, but the audiences and the work at Bindlestiff, and at indie theatres everywhere, are every bit as an important. The tiny, very elderly woman sitting next to us at Bindlestiff Friday night, who sang along to every song, laughed at every joke, and made comments in both English and Tagalog, completely enraptured by the show, is somehow in a less important or culturally valuable experience than a wealthy white woman who saw a Broadway show the same night unless we refuse to continue validating that point of view and conflating “importance” with money and location.

When we talk about what work is “important” in theatre, invariably we’re talking about a category that has a pricey entrance fee. You don’t get on the board unless you have the right budget and/or the right location. We ignore this class division each and every time we talk about problems in “theatre.” The majority of companies are waiting at the rope line outside while the well-heeled are inside talking about themselves. And again, I think it’s VERY valuable to discuss who gets in that door, and why we’re not seeing more women, people of color, people with disabilities, and trans* people let through the rope line. But we’re ALL, even those of us in the rope line, always in the process of either ignoring the rope line or talking about it as a lesser state a being– a place you come from, not a place worth belonging to.

I’m tired of trying to convince the bouncer that he needs to let more of us, and more types of us, into that club. I want to tear down that building and build a new one that includes us ALL, a building that recognizes that money is important, but that importance isn’t money.

And yes, fuck yes, I want to see more diversity on big money stages, and I think a lot will change when that finally happens, when more diverse artists and arts administrators are able to quit those day jobs and just be artists and arts administrators. (Don’t even bother telling me that arts adminstrators don’t belong in that sentence until you’ve spent a decade running a small theatre on 50K or less a year, paying everyone but yourself.) But I want us to be clear about the terms of these discussions. When we’re talking about money, let’s talk about money, where it goes and why there’s not enough diversity there. But when we’re talking about diversity of plays, theatremakers, and audience, let’s talk about diversity as such and stop requiring outdated entrance fees to that discussion. Why isn’t Bindlestiff at that table? THEY’RE THE ONLY FILIPINO THEATRE IN THE COUNTRY. And it’s like they just don’t exist. There’s nonstop talk in the club about how “theatre” needs to diversify or die, while everyone inside pretends there aren’t hundreds of diverse theatres they stopped at the rope line.

I want to make sure we continue to talk about money, but I also want to dismantle the language and the thought processes that accord “importance” only to theatres with the right location and/or the right budget. The undeserved, massive power of someone like Charles Isherwood can’t be dismantled by disrupting his personal power– it can only be dismantled by disrupting the power of the position. And I think we all benefit from doing that. Not only do we have more honest discussions about both money and diversity, but we also start according importance to work that is ACTUALLY important rather than just well-funded, using better, more realistic and inclusive criteria. Money is a KIND of importance, but it can’t be the ONLY kind of importance, especially in the nonprofit world where the entire point of our 501c3 status is supposed to be rising above the concerns of commerce, using grants and donations to make up the ticket income shortfall because nonprofit theatres are supposed to be doing risky work that furthers the art rather than sells scads of tickets.

So examine your language. Examine why you think the way you do, and why you think this company or production is more important, or worthy of your attention, than that company or production. When you talk about money, or its gendered and/or privileged allocation, be honest, because it’s an important conversation to be had. When you talk about diversity, stop shutting people out because of location or budget. Recognize that, while money is important, importance cannot be money. Otherwise, who are we?

 

 

Tagged

Things Playwrights Do That I Love

Sometimes I open a play and see something that makes me feel like this:

Here’s what you do that makes my heart sing as I’m reading the plays in my stack. Are these subjective? Sure. But I made sure to only include things I’ve heard echoed by other artistic directors. Is this meant to be all-inclusive? Of course not. I’ve written a lot about playwriting already, so there’s a lot I’ve left out here. (Search for the tag “playwrights” if you want to see more.) So here we go– what makes my eyes turn into cartoon hearts when I look at you:

heartsforeyes

1. Your play is set anywhere but New York. Every time I talk about this, I get ten playwrights saying, “That NEVER HAPPENS anymore. That’s OLD SCHOOL.” And then I open the next 20 plays in my consideration folder and 14 of them are set in New York. So believe me, this is still alive and well. When I see a play is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, I immediately start rooting for it just a little bit harder. So few plays are set where my audience lives. Stories happen in every corner of the globe.

Mutt: Let's All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

2. You have a male/female professional pairing, and they do not have sex or even try to. When I see on page one a female cop and her male partner having a conversation about The Important Mission That May Be The Plot, I start tensing up, because I know that too few playwrights will write a scene wherein a penis and a vagina are anywhere near each other without being compelled to meet on page 50. They will write plays wherein two men can do a professional thing without involving their penises, but as soon as a woman enters the scene, her magical hypnotic vagina powers will compel that professional relationship to eventually be about sex. Listen, a vagina is not a rifle. You can actually put one onstage in act one without the audience expecting it to go off in act two.

chekhovgun

I get incredibly excited when there’s a male/female professional pairing and they have professional respect for each other and live the story without sex being part of the story. Which leads me to:

3. I get incredibly excited when there’s a male/female professional pairing at all. Ask yourself: Does that doctor/cop/bartender/psychologist/politician HAVE to be male to retain narrative integrity? Sure, some stories are just about men or the male experience, and that’s totally fine. Not every play has to be gender balanced. But many (probably even most) plays are about stories that aren’t gendered. When I read a play that isn’t about a gendered experience, and half the characters are women, just because women are people who live in the world? I get happy. This also leads me to:

4. You have a female/female pairing and avoid every stereotype. This can be a professional pairing (co-workers) or personal (friends, roommates, sisters). They’re not fighting over the same man. They don’t fall into the hot one/ugly one, or skinny one/fat one, or beautiful but dumb one/plain but brilliant one, or any of the ridiculous, misogynistic dichotomies we’ve invented. They’re both well-rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses like people? HOLY CRAP. I love you.

What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

5. Your play has a Jewish character who isn’t from New York and isn’t whiny, a Muslim character who isn’t a mouthpiece for all religious Muslims everywhere (either a stereotypical terrorist or a gentle soul whose main function is to condemn terrorism), a Wiccan who isn’t a punchline, a Buddhist who isn’t there to provide WORDS OF WISDOM to the main character, etc. Basically, when I see diversity of religion or religious heritage in characters, and those characters are well-rounded people whose identity isn’t entirely about that religion or heritage? I’m surprised and thrilled.

6. Collaboration. You’re specific about what the design should feel like (“a rundown motel room,” “a beautiful high-rise apartment,” “an open field that stretches for miles”) and what the needs of the action are (for example, multiple levels, or specific pieces of furniture around which action takes place), but you don’t dictate every aspect of the design. I’ve seen playwrights get as specific as the color of a character’s dress or the kind of flowers on the table, when neither of those are part of the narrative or the action. A playwright who creates a world and then leaves room for others to play within that world is a gift. I also love responsive playwrights. I love sending an email or a text with a question and getting a timely response, even if the question is “Can I change this?” and the answer is “No.”

The Chalk Boy, by Joshua Conkel at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The Chalk Boy, by Joshua Conkel at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

7. And after I read and love your play? What makes my heart sing? A playwright who’s willing to go to bat for a small company. We don’t talk about this a lot, but it can sometimes be difficult for a small company to get the rights to a play when the playwright has an agent. Agencies don’t make as much money from small companies, and they’re (understandably) much more interested in scoring a LORT or Broadway production. I’ve been denied the rights to plays that afterwards sat unproduced for years waiting for a LORT production that never came. Many playwrights are willing to go to bat for small companies and direct their agents to release the rights to a company they can trust to stage the material according to the playwright’s intent. Sometimes a playwright works with their agent to help get a smaller company into a rolling world premiere (where more than one company in different markets premiere the play on or near the same date), or has the smaller company stage the play as a “workshop production,” ceding the world premiere rights to a future larger company. I LOVE THESE PLAYWRIGHTS.

I see a LOT of excellent work out there. Without your work, my work doesn’t exist. So THANK YOU, playwrights.

Tagged , ,

Six Female Characters You Really Need to Stop Writing

Please read Kate Beaton's entire comic here: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311   It's GLORIOUS.

Please read Kate Beaton’s entire comic. It’s GLORIOUS. http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the stereotypical “Strong Female Character,” based on the CRAZY idea that we need to start thinking of female characters as . . . characters, period. In that spirit, I offer the following six female characters we really need to stop writing.

1. “The Girl.” A big group of people in a narrative that could easily be non-gendered, and yet there’s only one girl along for the ride. It’s Our Hero, Handsome Scoundrel, Crazypants, Toughest Guy, and The Girl, who has no personality apart from BOOBS. She’s probably sleeping with Our Hero, or he wants to sleep with her, and/or she provides a reason for Our Hero and Handsome Scoundrel to have dramatic tension.

"But honey, I really need your opinion on the appetizers for the cat's birthday party! It's only a month away!"

“But honey, I really need your opinion on the appetizers for the cat’s birthday party! It’s only a month away!”

2. “The Clueless Interrupter.” Doesn’t she know how IMPORTANT her man’s task is? She’s always interrupting him while he’s saving the world, fighting the powers of evil, or having a SERIOUS BROCONVO about SERIOUS BROFEELS with her frivolous calls about their upcoming wedding, or what she should fix for dinner, or hey, the house is on fire. Our bros just shake their heads in wonder, watch as he lies like a fourth grader caught in the pastor’s liquor cabinet (“I swear there’s nothing going on, now you just go back to your frivolous ladystuff, OK?” “But I hear robot ninjas in the–” “LOVE YOU HONEY, BYE”), or grab the phone away from him and just hang up or throw it out the window. THAT’LL TEACH HER.

3. “The Woman Whose Sexual Desire Is Comical.” So, and you might wanna sit down for this, people over 40 have sex. People over 60 have sex. Women who are not skinny have sex. Women who are not “beautiful” (whatever the FUCK that means) have sex. Whatever kind of woman you’re imagining as undesirable, she’s having sex. So when you write a character whose main function is to throw herself comically at Our Hero because her very desire is HILARIOUS? I want to punch a wall. Yes, I know all about Restoration comedy and Mrs. Roper, but it’s time for that trope to retire.

THE ROPERS, Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, 1977-84. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

THE ROPERS, Norman Fell, Audra Lindley, 1977-84. © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

4. “Hooker with a Heart of Gold.I’ve written about this before (along with the “Magical Person of Color/Gay BFF/Disabled Person,” another trope that needs retiring, but since it’s nongendered, I’m leaving it out of this particular post). So I’m just going to be an asshole here and quote myself rather than reformulate this entire train of thought:

Sex workers are not a marker for all women everywhere. If you’re writing a play about ACTUAL SEX WORKERS, then carry on, my wayward son. But if you’re writing a play about, oh, a young man trying to find himself, or a middle-aged man who’s vaguely dissatisfied with life, or a man whose wife just doesn’t understand him and constantly asks him to do horrible things like pay attention to her or fold his own laundry, then inserting a Magical Prostitute who swans into his life and shows him The Way to Happiness, or the Broken Flower Stripper who needs the man to save her from herself and show her that college exists, then I am looking at you with crankyface. Are you writing a play with a sex worker in it? Ask yourself: WHY is she a sex worker? Are you writing about sex workers, or do you just want a naked version of the Magical Person of Color? Does she have objectives of her own that aren’t there just for the male protagonist to correct? Does she have a character, or is she just a racktacular vector for Words of Wisdom?

5. “The Girl Who Doesn’t Know She Wants It.” This is the character who spends the entire piece rejecting Our Hero until she finally “gives him a chance,” or realizes she wanted him all along. Apart from being annoying, this trope is DANGEROUS. He deserves her! What she wants is irrelevant! He’s a nice guy so her lack of interest in him is her fault! Stalking is adorable and romantic! What he wants is more important than what she wants! This character has a sister character known as “The Bitch Who’s a Bitch Because She’s Not Interested in the Main Character,” which is the same thing except she never “gives him a chance,” therefore, she’s a “bitch.”

wonderwoman_post

6. “The Fantasy Feminist.” This woman is a misogynistic caricature of a feminist. She’s very vocal about hating men, not shaving, and blaming ridiculous things (like the lack of her favorite yogurt flavor at the grocery store) on “the patriarchy.” Her function in the work is to impede the main character’s love interest from “giving him a chance” or to act as comic relief. Or both.

7. BONUS ROUND: Male character you need to stop writing: “Guy Who Has No Idea How to Do Normal Stuff.” This is the guy who ends up putting a diaper on a baby’s head, or just sitting the baby in a bucket instead of diapering it. This is the guy who sets the kitchen on fire because he’s watching the game while cooking, or uses his kid’s doll carriage as a beer cooler. Believe it or not, there are tons of men who are actually quite competent at simple, real-life things.

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

I know there are more! I invite you to comment with the sexist tropes you’d most like to see fired into the sun.

suncrop1_8653

 

Tagged , , , ,

Why Forced “Audience Participation” Doesn’t Work

(UPDATE: I tweaked the title a bit due to the number of people confusing me with the recent Chicago Trib article. If you’re here to read something against all forms of audience participation indiscriminately, you’re in the wrong place.)

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about “audience engagement.” It’s partially been driven by a few big grantors requiring some form of it, and partially driven by the psychology of trends. Because every new entertainment technology sends people right to the THIS IS THE END OF THEATRE box, frightened by the popularity of the internet and its DIY culture, some grantors and theatremakers have been scrambling to create theatre that borrows some of that mojo in order to glean a portion of that success. The problem is: It doesn’t work.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. It CAN work. For starters, “audience engagement” need not mean “audience participation.” That’s just the most prevalent (and problematic) form. There are other ways to engage your audience. Shotgun Players in Berkeley, for example, has created several excellent theatre pieces based on interviews with members of the local community, telling their stories and telling the story and history of the area. The most recent was Daylighting, for which they set up a recording booth in the lobby for people to tell their own Berkeley stories after the show, which were posted on their website. That’s what I’d call excellent, effective audience engagement that should stand as a national example for how to get it done. Interrupting an otherwise traditionally-structured performance to haul audience members onstage or force actors to put individual audience members on the spot by making them perform actions or engaging them in conversation– not so much. A recent production I saw, otherwise traditionally structured, actually had an actor begin a benign conversation with an audience member at the top of the show and then suddenly verbally attack her, shouting insults. I had enormous sympathy both for the woman being attacked– women are verbally assaulted by male strangers all the time, and it’s an extremely unpleasant experience– and for the actor forced to perform the attack. While that’s an extreme example, that kind of “audience engagement”– audience participation as surprise, forced interaction– is by FAR the most common kind. It just doesn’t work, and I have a theory as to why.

But first let me say that there are very specific ways in which audience participation works very well. One great example is the new trend toward what people are somewhat misguidedly (I’ll get to that in a second) calling “immersive” theatre– the kind of theatre partially based on narrative gaming (especially video games) and partially based on narrative ride-through or walk-through experiences (think haunts or Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean)– which works very well. The most famous example of this is Sleep No More. This is better titled “interactive theatre,” so that’s what I’ll use.

What makes audience participation work has been perfectly described in Jeffrey Mosser’s 2012 Howlround piece, “The Psychology of the Audience: Rules of Engagement.” In it, he describes how this kind of theatre must be conceptualized and constructed with the audience as a participatory element from the beginning, and that the participation must be completely voluntary. In other words, a successful audience participation piece can’t exist without audience involvement, and the degree and type of audience involvement has to be chosen by each individual audience member. This is why interactive theatre pieces work, as well as HOW they work. A video game’s narrative doesn’t exist until you play it, and in most cases now, the narrative changes according to how you play the game. You’re playing the theatre piece like a video game, and/or being taken through an experience that happens around you, and with which you interact on your own terms. You go to that type of theatre (and other types of interactive theatre structured around the concept of voluntary audience participation) specifically for that experience, and it’s a different experience entirely than traditional theatre. Megan Reilly’s excellent article in Howlround about the gamification of theatre is well worth a read for anyone interested in this kind of work. She describes both the ups and downs of the format– both which I’ll get to in a bit.

People who are fired up about the promise of interactive theatre can be very disparaging about traditionally-structured theatre– a show that’s performed for an audience that sits in the dark and watches it. It’s often touted as the “future of theatre,” as if other (both participatory and traditional) models were useless. It’s an enormously disappointing and short-sighted point of view, especially considering the fact that this kind of experience– becoming wholly immersed in a story someone is telling you– works. It works not only in theatre, but also when you’re lost in a novel or a film, or when you’re spellbound by a storyteller, even when that person is just a friend at a party. And let’s stop for a moment and look at that word– SPELLBOUND. We all know what that means– so rapt, so caught up in the narrative we’re consuming that we have a truly singular, magical experience. People aptly describe it as “losing themselves” in a story. It’s something that we’ve all experienced, and that only happens when we’re passively immersed in someone else’s narrative. That’s become a dirty word– “passive.” The “passive” audience is seen as a sack of potatoes sitting there, doing nothing but having something spoon-fed to them, detractors claim. Au contraire, neurology has discovered.

That supposedly “passive” audience, when experiencing what we colloquially call the state of being “spellbound” by a book, film, play, or story, are experiencing hugely active and unique brain states. Researchers have discovered that while “passively” consuming fictional narrative, the human brain not only experiences that narrative as if it’s actually happening, but also improves and expands the consumer’s empathy. A different study found that when an audience is “passively” spellbound by a narrative, their brains experience neural synching with the storyteller (and therefore, in a group setting like a theatre audience, with EACH OTHER), again experiencing the narrative neurologically as if it’s real and again expanding empathy. These studies confirm what theatregoers already know: there’s something magical about being rapt in a story someone is telling you– something unique and undeniably immensely valuable. That’s the kind of theatre I would be more likely to label “immersive.”

When you’re playing through interactive theatre, you’re very much aware of your relationship to it, even more so than in a video game where your hands are manipulating the controller almost involuntarily as you navigate the world on the screen, losing yourself in your avatar’s experience. In interactive theatre, your physical body is in the game, rather than an avatar, and you become the self-aware center of your own narrative, a narrative you create with the tools the production has given you. In the traditional immersive experience, you’re in someone else’s narrative, experiencing their lives and feeling their feelings, which is the theory behind how that kind of theatre creates empathy. Interactive theatre is about having a magical, self-involved, self-aware experience of your own. It’s no less valuable, but it is different, and there are both gains and losses. The gain would of course be the wonder and magic of being surrounded by, and a part of, a fictional world. The loss, I think, is related to the loss of the immersive experience– the loss of that “spellbound” near-trance state, which loses the neurological synching experience that creates empathy.

In fact, I would say that the interactive theatre experience is more likely to deter empathy. As Megan Reilly describes, slower-moving patrons are literally elbowed out of the way as other patrons, people who are on their second or third playthroughs, are pushing their way through the crowd to be in the right place to trigger certain events or be chosen for certain special content. Anyone who’s ever been in an online multiplayer environment knows exactly what that’s like. And while face-to-face contact could lessen the rudeness one encounters in online co-op, it does not entirely eliminate it, especially, as Reilly notes, when patrons are given masks. I wouldn’t bother to see Sleep No More for that very reason– as someone who is short and has some mobility issues, I assume that I will be pushed out of seeing and experiencing a lot of the best content. It’s something I experience all the time in public spaces, so I wouldn’t expect it to be different in a show. I don’t need to spend $100 to have people push ahead of me and block my view when I can experience that for free at Trader Joe’s.

But that doesn’t mean that people, especially people who’ve never experienced it before, can’t be awed by interactive theatre, or can’t have a fun or even emotionally intense experience. The fact that something isn’t disabled-friendly or favors the aggressive player doesn’t make it a shitpile for the people who have what it takes to be high-level players. Additionally, there are interactive shows that better handle those aspects, as Reilly documents, using an “on-rails” rather than open world structure. There’s no question in my mind that some company somewhere is working on an open world interactive theatre piece that creatively corrects for both. (Reilly herself is working on an interactive piece, and I have every expectation that it will kick all of the ass.) Despite the fact that interactive theatre trades the spellbound neurology for a self-focused one doesn’t make it LESS than traditionally immersive theatre, just a different, and no less valuable, experience. Playing through an interactive theatre experience– being literally within the world of a play– can be a wonderful experience. But so can being in the audience in a traditional performance setting.

So let’s take a step back, see interactive theatre as a TYPE of theatre, not as the FUTURE of theatre, and stop disparaging traditional audience experiences as if they don’t work, because they DO. These two types of theatre do two very different things, both valuable. We’re big enough to value both for what they are, without demanding that one is better, more important, or the replacement for the other.

So to bring it all back home, my theory about the reason forced audience interaction doesn’t work in otherwise traditionally-structured theatre is based in the neurology of narrative: If your piece isn’t constructed around audience interactivity, when you force an audience member to participate rather than observe, you disrupt their neurologically synched “spellbound” state, jerking them back into a self-aware state. In most cases, that’s not just a normally self-aware state but a HIGHLY self-conscious, awkward one. It’s a matter of conjecture how long it would take for that audience member (or the audience members nervously wondering if they’ll be next) to recover neural synching with the narrative and the people around her. And of course, this is just a theory as to why forced audience participation so rarely works. When a neurologist is looking for funding for that project, I’ll be the first to contribute to the Kickstarter (award level: brain candle).

I think interactive theatre, while something that has been in and out of favor for centuries, is really hitting its modern stride with the gamification format, and I expect exciting things from it as they work out the kinks. I would love to see forced audience participation fall by the wayside completely as we explore the neurology of the audience more and more. And despite everything, I still think it’s valuable to imagine the ways in which *voluntary* audience participation can work in some forms of traditionally-structured performance (my guess is that it’s much more likely to work in direct address theatre that never establishes a fourth wall, like Always . . . Patsy Cline or in meta-theatrical and camp performance). Emphasis on VOLUNTARY.

All this boils down to: you MUST consider your audience’s experience carefully. We have more tools than ever to understand what their experience will be like. Avail yourself of them and make your decisions with open eyes.

But really, apart from the neurological experience you may want to create and nurture, and apart from the considerations of what may or may not “work,” understand that forcing someone to do something is never OK, and can sometimes even be dangerous. I’ve seen actors force audience members into conversations or physical actions that would feel HUGELY invasive and inappropriate to, say, an abuse survivor, or physically painful for someone like me– you can see the cane, but you can’t see the surgery scars or the areas of injury. I recently saw an actor climb over the seats and into the audience at a huge professional theatre, and all I could think was, PLEASE ALL YOU GODS DO NOT LET HIM COME THIS WAY, as using my shoulder as leverage (as I could see him doing) or bumping into my leg could cause me enormous pain. I stopped watching the play and started strategizing how to block the actor with my cane should he come near me.

I suppose you could sum up my entire post with “Voluntary good, forced bad,” but the REASONS for that are critical. We have more tools than ever to create amazing audience experiences. Let’s use them all to their best advantage.

Tagged , , , ,

You Need a Dramaturg (Because Clowns are Creepy, and Other Semiotic Shifts)

Image

I should be sorrier for this than I am.

Like everyone (right?) I have a running joke with a friend about how scary and creepy clowns are. It’s just a joke– considering I sleep every night with a Dell’Arte-trained actor, it’s obviously not an indictment of physical theatre professionals, for whom I have enormous respect. It’s not even related to physical theatre at all– it’s about the imagery. The idea that clowns in full makeup are creepy is now a pervasive cultural trope that everyone recognizes, whether they personally agree or not. It’s now more present in our culture than any other trope about clowns. Yet this was not always the case. I’m not interested in getting into why or how this happened (I’m sure someone’s writing a dissertation about this very subject). The point is that it HAS. And that this kind of cultural shift happens ALL THE TIME.

My husband in a student performance at Dell'Arte International with a fellow student.

My husband at Dell’Arte International, performing with a fellow student.

So my friend recently sent me this 2008 BBC article about the University of Sheffield study that surveyed 250 children between the ages of 4 and 16, and found that clowns were “widely disliked,” prompting researchers to urge children’s hospitals to consult with (shocking) ACTUAL CHILDREN before decorating their hospitals. The article goes on to quote a child psychologist:

Patricia Doorbar is a child psychologist in North Wales who has carried out research into children’s views on healthcare and art therapy.

She said: “Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd. (emphasis mine)

“They are unfamiliar and come from a different era.” OK, she knows clowns do indeed exist in this era. The ACTUAL point she’s making is that the semiotics of the clown– what that imagery means within the context of our culture– has changed dramatically from previous generations to today. In my father’s generation, children’s shows featuring clowns and clown toys were much more common. The trope about the scary clown existed (this Smithsonian article blames it on Grimaldi via Dickens and Deburau via . . . um, child murder), but was far less prominent in popular culture. In two generations, the meaning of that imagery in context changed enormously. When someone creates a clown character in popular culture today, it’s more likely to be something creepy than something lighthearted and fun, because that semiotic has shifted. Clowning for children still exists in popular culture, of course, just usually out of traditional makeup. A picture of a clown on the wall of a hospital, once (evidently) a comforting sight to most children, is now a frightening sight to most children. The “creepy clown” has supplanted the “happy, funny clown” as the primary trope about clowns in full makeup in our culture, and it happened fast. Lights up on a clown in full gear 50 years ago would generate a different audience reaction, and create a different set of expectations, than lights up on a clown in full gear today.

Image

Seriously, what do you think is going to happen next? Balloon animals or murder? From “Top 5 Clown Makeup Ideas” on designsnext.com

And so it goes with imagery, tropes, characters, and narratives throughout the entire history of dramatic lit. When we stage classic plays, we’re looking at material that comes from a world that no longer exists– a world full of symbols and tropes that have shifted meaning. For example, Taming of the Shrew was, in context, taking a bit of a stand. It stood out from the many popular shrew-taming comedies of its day in that it did NOT advocate beating women into submission. It instead advocated isolating them, starving them, gaslighting them, and denying them sleep until they became tractable and obedient. The Christopher Sly framing device demonstrates how well gaslighting works (and it’s inescapably connected that Sly, like Katherine, is in a position of social inferiority and relative powerlessness). You can convince anyone to believe anything as long as you control what they see, hear, and, ultimately, think. While Petruchio’s techniques are horrifying to us today (you can see them all codified in Biderman’s Chart of Coercion, a tool used by Amnesty International and domestic violence organizations to help people define and understand abuse), they were a gentler approach in the context of the time. Check out the scold’s bridle if you’ve never heard of it.

The idea that a woman who isn’t obedient and who speaks her mind is a “shrew” who needs “taming,” while not fully banished from our culture, is no longer mainstream. Petruchio’s techniques are now considered abusive. But understanding the historical context of the play provides a window into the playwright’s intent and opens the possibility of a recuperative staging that preserves that intent. And while Shrew may be an extreme and controversial example that some feel is unrecuperable (I’m honestly not even certain where I land on that myself, although there’s a local production about to open with an amazing team that I’m dying to see– if anyone can do it, it’s these badasses), the point stands. A dramaturg can help you navigate the wily waters of narrative and text in historical context if that’s something you’re not already doing yourself. And even if it is, a dramaturg might have access to resources or knowledge that you don’t possess, bringing in points of view or historical context you didn’t even know to look for.

Theatremakers are divided into three categories: Those who have no idea what a dramaturg does, those who think dramaturgs are for new plays, and dramaturgs. OK, that’s a joke. But I see people approaching classic work all the time with misguided points of view. Either they’re beating the playwright’s intent to death on the rocks of fussy (and ultimately egotistical) purism, or they’re making changes in the name of modernization that don’t make sense in the context of the work, that obfuscate rather than illuminate the work. If you’re not into historical linguistics or history, and/or if you don’t have a clear understanding of the culture and semiotics of your audience, get a dramaturg. Work with her before the first rehearsal. Let her help you conceptualize the work in a way that will preserve the writer’s intent, which means the engine of the play– what makes it kick ass, what makes it endure, what makes it work for audiences for decades or even centuries– remains intact and clearly presented for a 21st century audience. And that’s IMPOSSIBLE to do by just “doing the play” without thought to the distance between the play’s original cultural context and current one. Insisting on a purist interpretation is essentially insisting on changing the meaning of the play. The older a play is, the more this is true.

Image

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Even in plays that are much closer in time to us– Miller, Williams, O’Neill– there are symbols and tropes that either have completely lost their meaning, or whose meaning has shifted. For example, a man enters a living room where his sister-in-law is standing. The man removes his outer button-down shirt and is now just wearing a T-shirt. In 2014, that symbology would likely go completely unnoticed– a T-shirt has become perfectly acceptable public attire. Even an A-line undershirt is acceptable public attire. It’s no longer inappropriate for a man to take off an outer shirt and wear a T-shirt in his own living room in front of his sister-in-law. The original semiotic attached to that moment has been lost. If you want to preserve the intent– a man doing something that most people in the audience would consider inappropriately intimate– you need to do it another way, such as create that feeling through the acting. And if you don’t understand the historical context, the playwright’s intent for that moment is completely lost on you, or you may misread it as something else entirely. If you’re not well-versed in the history– and that’s no shame, plenty of great directors aren’t– a dramaturg will help you find and work with moments like these.

Conversely, a working knowledge of contemporary (and local– geography can change everything) symbology, popular culture, and slang can be crucial to speaking successfully to your audience. Terms change meaning, and the new usage may be obscure. You may think a line or a word means one thing to your audience when it really means another. I once saw a local director post on facebook that the community here is far too supportive and uncritical, so much so that people refer to it as the “Yay Area.” Or take, for example, the way words such as “mod” and “ratchet” have taken on new meanings. Think for a moment: There will be people in your audience who have never heard either term used ANY OTHER WAY. Sure, older people will think first of the Kinks and socket wrenches– but that’s my point. Understanding how meanings change in different contexts is important, and if that’s not your jam, then find a dramaturg, because I assure you, it’s hers.

I’m barely covering the beginning of what a dramaturg can do. A dramaturg is your in-house expert in research, narrative, semiotics, and history. Consider working with one! Wondering where to find a dramaturg in your area? I bet the fine folks at LMDA can help you.

Image

By Jon Wolter, from keepingwolteraccountable.tumblr.com

 

Tagged , , , ,

Why I Don’t Watch the Tonys

 

Image

Tony winner and all-around excellent human James Iglehart as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Photo by Cilla von Tiedemann.

Before anyone starts calling me out, Yes, I did watch part of the Tonys for the first time this year. My husband and I went to undergrad with James Iglehart, who may actually be the sweetest man in the world (or a strong contender), and we watched his number and his acceptance speech. It was a moment of pure joy, especially when he thanked Celestine Ranney-Howes, one of our lecturers. It’s always wonderful to see someone you know deserves recognition get it, doubly wonderful to see them thank a teacher, and triply wonderful to see a teacher you KNOW is fantastic get thanked. He sent my husband a beautiful note thanking him as well. It was lovely all around.

But I don’t watch the Tonys.

I don’t care about the Tonys and people give me a surprising amount of shit for it.

Broadway is, for the most part, commercial theatre that exists as a business enterprise to return profits to investors, and, as such, is entirely risk-averse. That’s not even remotely controversial– we all know Broadway is big business where some of the biggest players (like Disney) have set up shop. That doesn’t mean Broadway is “bad,” but it does create some specific outcomes. Broadway has massively high production values with incredible technical innovation, but shies away from anything even a little risky. Broadway is the Harlem Globetrotters of theatre– flashy, fun, technically marvelous, an amazing spectacle, an ambassador for the art, but not where the meat of the American Theatre lies. The risk is too high to do any kind of experimentation apart from tech, so the choices must be safe, tried-and-true. When the risk is 10 million dollars (or more), you’re going to choose a revival starring Hollywood celebrities or a splashy, safe musical almost every time because you have a reasonable assurance they’ll sell tickets and merch by the wagonload. You’re going to take on a new show only when it’s already proven to be a smash hit elsewhere. There are currently 45 Broadway productions with tickets on sale. 70% are musicals, and 42% feature a Hollywood star– and I didn’t count Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster. If I had, the count would have gone up to 50%. This is the model for Broadway today. It wasn’t always. But it is now.

Image

While Walter Lee’s exact age isn’t given, his sister, Beneatha, is 20 and a college student. Denzel Washington’s daughters are 27 and 23. For producers, his star status overrides the fact that he is far too old for the character. His characterization is far less important than his ability to sell tickets. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Walter Lee’s mother, Lena, is just five years older than Denzel Washington.

Broadway is a tiny percentage of the theatre that happens in this country, yet we talk about it as if it’s the most important theatre in the country– or the ONLY theatre in the country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an article about “theatre” only to find that it’s just about Broadway, ignoring 99% of American theatre. Audience trends that apply to an industry where ticket prices are $200 each are not applicable to, for example, the thousands of indie theatres across the nation charging $20 a ticket, where the supposedly non-existent under-40 audience is thriving, or gospel musicals, where the supposedly non-existent African American audience is thriving. I run one of those indie theatres, and my theatre would have to close its doors were it not for the under-40 audience I’m told repeatedly do not exist.

Image

One of my favorite moments in the entire history of my theatre company. This group of high school students brought spoons to Titus Andronicus, and held them up when the pie came out. I snagged them for this picture after the show.

Whenever I talk about the issue of overvaluing Broadway (and the attendant undervaluing of everything else), I get inundated with OUTRAGE!!11! I think, first and foremost, a lot of people grow up with Broadway as their Big Dream, and, as it’s inextricably tied to their personal dreams and identities, they can’t bear to see it discussed as anything other than the Holy Pinnacle of Theatrical Achievement. But what it really is (let’s be honest) is the Pinnacle of Theatrical Employment, which is a very different thing. It’s truly fantastic that there’s a theatre industry that employs so many people. I’m 100% behind that. But let’s not go off the rails and confuse money with quality. Money imparts a certain kind of quality– the kind that comes with technical achievement and jaw-droppingly gorgeous spectacle– but no amount of money can purchase genius, emotional impact, or transformative experience. They’re not mutually exclusive, but neither are they mutually dependent. Money does not automatically equal quality, nor does it automatically eliminate it. Let’s not go off the rails in the other direction and get pissy about corporate theatre. But money is a completely separate consideration from quality.  To equate the most money with the highest quality and the most importance dosn’t make sense. Although Amy Herzog is one of the most produced playwrights in the country, she’s never been produced on Broadway. The legendary Maria Irene Fornes has never been produced on Broadway. Likewise Lynn Nottage, Ping Chong, Tarell McCraney. Paula Vogel has never been produced on Broadway.

Image

Yes, THAT Paula Vogel.

Another point of outrage I’ve encountered about my opinion that Broadway is not the Mothership of All American Theatre is that many people hold Broadway up as one of the most important ways kids get interested in theatre, creating the theatremakers of the future. I deeply question this. First of all, sure, it gets the kids whose parents can afford to drop $600 on tickets for ONE SHOW for the family. And those kids are going to be the actors whose families can support them for several years after they graduate with their MFAs 67K in debt and can only find work at tiny indie theatres paying just enough to cover transportation– if they’re lucky. We know that far too many theatremakers are drawn from those relatively privileged classes, and more open accessibility for people not from the middle and upper classes is a conversation we’ve just begun as a community. But for now, most of Broadway is a closed ecosystem for the privileged. It’s expensive to get there, it’s expensive to stay there, and it’s expensive to see the shows. Sure, there are ways to game it to make it less expensive, but you have to be really driven to find those, and the people we’re talking about here are the NOT driven– the ones who aren’t theatre families, whose kids are potentially about to be awakened for the first time to the magic of live theatre and the possibility of making that magic central to their lives.

Image

Sarah Ford, Lisa Kass, and me in our college production of Dracula: A Musical Nightmare. I ran around taking pictures in black and white because ART. I can’t remember who I asked to take this one.

Most kids– like me– got into theatre because there were theatre programs at school. There are plenty of kids falling in love with theatre because of a lively theatre program, or a great teacher, or a local youth show that came to their school– many, many more than there are who’ve seen a Broadway show, even on tour. So while I’m not denying Broadway’s ability to excite people, especially kids who are suckers for spectacle, I don’t think it’s anywhere near the primary place this happens. Again: This is one tiny geographical area most people will never step foot in. If you see Broadway as the center of the theatrical universe and the reason you started in theatre: great. I support that. And I could really do without the shock that I do not.

Image

Broadway’s relationship to the rest of the theatre in this country is complicated. We make what they need. We create the playwrights, actors, designers, and techs that they need to survive. They won’t touch a play or an artist unless that play or person has been field tested extensively by the rest of us. They repackage what we make, pump a shitload of money into it, put it in a beautiful dress, and then charge us all a week’s salary to see it. But they take a tiny percentage of us and allow us to make a (often temporary, but still) living at what we do, an elusive dream for most of us. They make it possible for theatremakers to create and play in beautiful, beautiful worlds. They’re theatre ambassadors for a certain segment of the population, and that segment of the population are the same demographic from which donors and subscribers come, and boy do we need those. Their technical innovations are undeniably marvelous. Their corporate backers’ influence that creates so much aggressively inoffensive material and reliance on Hollywood stars is maddening. Their over-reliance on revivals and lack of interest in plays by women and people of color are maddening. Their nonstop repackaging of Hollywood films as slick, bland musicals is maddening. The fact that people go to see these slick, bland musicals and think “this is theatre” is maddening. But everyone connected to that slick, bland musical is EMPLOYED. The tech is spectacular. A sizable percentage of the people in that audience are thinking, “This is theatre AND I LOVE IT.” And the amount of press and public attention these shows get do continue to keep theatre’s existence on the radar. Like any longterm relationship . . . it’s complicated.

The Tonys are an awards show that celebrates the achievements of this one little corner of the world, a tiny percentage of the national theatre community. Most people in the national theatre community have not seen those shows. Most people in the national theatre community are so completely removed from what happens on Broadway that it could fall into the Atlantic and, without any connection to the internet, they wouldn’t find out for months, if ever.

That’s not to say that I begrudge your enjoyment of the Tonys, or of Broadway, or even of a Disney musical. I’m a human. Humans like spectacle. I get it. I actually love Disney. I was married in Disneyland (not even joking). I would happily watch a Disney musical or a star-studded revival of an old chestnut if I didn’t have to blow my entire month’s grocery budget on it. But this insistence that Broadway should be the center of my universe as a theatremaker– of all our universes as theatremakers– is nonsense. This insistence that what happens on Broadway happens to “Theatre”– that Broadway and the American Theatre are equivalent– is now laughably untrue. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS “AMERICAN THEATRE.” We have many theatres, divided by class, with small indie theatres at the bottom and Broadway at the top– divided by one thing and one thing only: Money. I’ve seen great theatre in tiny houses and I’ve seen great theatre in big houses. We need to stop pretending that those with the most money are the ones producing the most important work.

And that’s why I don’t watch the Tonys unless I know someone nominated. A local awards show, not in my market, has nothing to do with me, and to pretend it does, and express shock at my lack of interest, is nuts. I don’t mind that you take an interest. I don’t mind that you care who wins an award at a regional award show not in your region. Live it up! Have your parties! Post your statuses celebrating the awardees you love and vilifying the awardees you hate! Complain away about the show itself! I support you 100% and will make cupcakes for your party. I will help you with your Antoinette Perry cosplay.

Image

I recommend pin curls.

But likewise allow me my opinion that the Tonys are no more important to me and my work than the Jeffs, Oscars, or VMAs. I have a passing curiosity, and it’s always wonderful to see a worthy friend, colleague, or former student recognized, but it’s not directly applicable to my work.

So let’s hug it out, Tony lovers and Broadway worshippers. There’s room for all of us.

Image

HUG IT OUT

Tagged , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,706 other followers