The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

TCG is holding a multiyear inquiry about audiences called “Audience (R)evolution.”

The piece I wrote for it is called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement.” It’s a little . . . rabblerousy. Are you surprised?

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Check it out, leave a comment, share it on twitfacetagram. I’m thrilled that I was asked to contribute!

UPDATE: Please take a look at Jonathan Mandell’s excellent response to my piece in his blog, New York Theater. He takes me to task for adding to the culture of ageism we have in the theatre industry, and he could not be more right.

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Go Ahead and Start Your New Company. But.

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One of the earliest flyers from my company. This was 1997. We did a series of 10 minute plays called “Impact Briefs” for 9 seasons. Pictured are Charlie Marenghi, Alex Pearlstein, Tonya Sutherland, and Christopher Morrison, all of whom were acting, writing, and/or directing.

So you want to start a theatre company. My first bit of advice: don’t. It’s insanely difficult. Undeterred? OK. Here are some things you need to know.

1. Vision and Mission. I know this sounds like the title of an insufferable U2 album, but actually, they’re the two most important things to have in place when starting a company. Why are you starting your own company? What do you want to say, and to whom do you want to say it? What kind of art do you want to make? What’s your aesthetic? These are the questions that will, I promise you, make or break your company. Companies without a clear vision and a clear mission are doomed to fail. I’ve been joking for over a decade that every new company destined to fail begins with either Danny and the Deep Blue Sea or The Marriage of Bette and Boo. For some reason I’ve never entirely figured out, I’ve seen dozens of companies begin with one of these two. Literally dozens. If you’re starting your company with such a well-worn play, it says to me that you have nothing interesting to say, let alone any idea to whom you want to say it. If you have an interesting new take on one of these plays, commenting on its position in the canon or using the play to make a larger point, that changes everything. If you’re just doing the play because it’s cheap (small cast, small set) and you want to act in it, then you need to have a long chat with yourself and all your stakeholders about what your company is all about, because I guarantee you, you don’t know. If you figure it out, clarify your mission, your vision, and your voice, you can succeed. If you don’t, you’re not going to make it. It’s tough enough to make it with a clear vision; it’s impossible to make it without.

One of the most successful plays we've ever done, both artistically and financially, 2005. Our lesbian Othello. Pictured is Desdemona, played by Marissa Keltie, and Othello, played by Skyler Cooper.

One of the most successful plays we’ve ever done, both artistically and financially. Our 2005 lesbian Othello. I was blindsided by how popular this production was. I never expected it to be such a runaway hit. Pictured is Desdemona, played by Marissa Keltie, and Othello, played by Skyler Cooper. Picture by Cheshire Isaacs.

2. Money. You have two choices: incorporate as a for-profit, which means you cannot qualify for grants and donations you receive aren’t tax-deductible, or go nonprofit, which means you will eventually qualify for grants and all donations you receive are tax-deductible. For-profit companies pay income taxes on their income; nonprofit companies do not. For-profit companies exist for one reason: to return profits to owners and investors. A successful for-profit company puts moneymaking at the center of most decisions. A nonprofit company exists as a public entity, governed by a board of directors, owned by no one, with profits going directly back into the business, ostensibly putting the public good at the center of most decisions. A for-profit company exists to make money. A nonprofit company exists to make art. A for-profit company makes money with their art, which dramatically impacts the art they choose to do– they’re only going to choose the kinds of shows they are reasonably sure will be popular and profitable. A nonprofit company, in theory, is supposed to be wholly divorced from the need to make a profit through their ability to receive grants and donations, making productions that may not be popular but further the art form, foster new voices, create a space for experimentation, and serve as a space for exploration of new ideas both in the art form and in the culture. In theory. In practice, the larger a company gets, the more money it needs, and the more blurred those lines become. Not legally, of course– legally, they are entirely separate entities– but in practice, particularly in season planning, the lines can get blurry.

A few years ago, Rebecca Novick wrote a fantastic article called “Please, Don’t Start a Theatre Company.” Provocatively (and somewhat misleadingly) titled, the article is a brilliant examination of the instability of the nonprofit model. I recommend that you read it, no matter where you are in your process, as it contains a great deal of hard, necessary truths. But if you’re feeling tl;dr today: There’s not enough funding to go around, so let’s think up different models than the traditional nonprofit one. The big theatres have sucked up all the grant money so fund your company differently, and worry less about structure and more about supporting the artists.

Of course it begs the question– how do you support your artists without structure? Your only two choices are selling stuff (show tickets, classes, merchandise) or getting stuff (grants and donations), both of which require structure in practice and by law. She advises new companies to make a “new model.” Her examples include a company that funds their personnel through a hit late night show (as if one could plan for that); a company that got money from somewhere unstated (but certainly traditional– grants, sales, donations) and uses it to pay artists, then uses those artists as admin staff as needed (which of course is the model most small theatres already use); and companies that fund their work through selling non-production-related things such as classes and CDs. While many companies offer classes, selling merchandise is a commercial enterprise that requires a great deal of support, both legal and practical (not to mention the fact that no one on earth is going to buy your CD). Here’s my point: When such a brilliant and experienced theatremaker elucidates the problems perfectly but presents solutions that are so deeply flawed, it exemplifies the difficulty of the situation we’re in. Whether or not her solutions are flawed, her analysis of the funding problems we all face are absolutely, undeniably true, and something you should take into serious consideration.

The takeaway here for someone starting a new company is that the nonprofit funding model is broken because there are too many companies competing for funding already, and your new company will only survive if you can produce on a shoestring, if you’re lucky enough to have a long-running hit show (and a place to house it), and/or if you have an extraordinary amount of free time to manage whatever non-production-related thing you’re selling to support your theatre, plus the enormous good luck to capture enough market share to make that profitable in an economy where small businesses go under every day.

Personally, I’d love to see funders stop giving almost all their money to a handful of behemoths and start peeling off a more meaningful percentage to smaller companies. Novick does chastise funders for requiring a minimum budget– the most common is 100K minimum annual budget for grants for “small companies”– and she goes on to say, “requiring a minimum budget size prioritizes growth over caliber of the work.” I could not agree more. But at present, that’s the reality we’re facing. (Novick also advises artists who are thinking of starting a company to consider forgoing permanent status and band together temporarily to produce shows here and there, as desired. This is possible if you have a funding source with which to pay production costs and no absolute need to make a profit on that money, as most shows, especially one-off shows, lose money. You could also run into some problems with finances, insurance, and taxes as an unincorporated non-company unless you’re working under the umbrella of a larger producing org. While one-offs aren’t what we’re discussing here, I would be remiss in not at least mentioning it. If you have access to an umbrella company and/or money to burn, you might want to consider a temporary, limited production run to see if you’re interested in continuing as a permanent, producing company.)

So choose which devil you sell your soul to, for-profit or nonprofit, as they both suck at present. I think nonprofit sucks slightly less vigorously, and if you agree with me, get the Nolo Press handbook for becoming nonprofit in your area and follow the steps. Make sure to check the law in your area about incorporating as a business (such as getting a business license), and take your paperwork down to a bank and create a business bank account. DO NOT– and I cannot stress this enough– commingle your company’s funds in your personal bank account. For one reason, you become personally liable for income tax on that money, and for another, it’s technically embezzlement.

The Year of the Rooster, 2014. This show was a hit off-Broadway. We got excellent reviews, but the play never found its audience in the Bay Area.  Did I overestimate how turned off audiences would be by the idea of a play about cockfighting? Was I blinded by the excellence of the script and the fact that the heart of the play is the rooster himself to the way potential audiences here would be turned off by the stigma? Who knows. All I know is we lost a ton of money on this show, and you can never predict what will sell and what won't. Pictured: Caleb Cabrera as the rooster, Odysseus Rex, and Sango Tajima as Lucky Lady, his mate. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The Year of the Rooster, 2014. This show was a hit off-Broadway. Even though our Berkeley production got excellent reviews, the play never found its audience. Did I overestimate how turned off Bay Area audiences would be by the idea of a play about cockfighting? Was I blinded by the excellence of the script and the fact that the heart of the play is the rooster himself to the potential consequences of the stigma? Who knows. All I know is that even though press was great and the audiences who did come raved about it, we didn’t come close to meeting sales goals and lost a ton of money on this show. You can never predict what will sell and what won’t. Pictured: Caleb Cabrera as the rooster, Odysseus Rex, and Sango Tajima as Lucky Lady, his mate. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

3. Board of Directors. If you’re a nonprofit company, you are legally obligated to have a Board of Directors. Most small companies have an “artist-driven board,” meaning the people in the company are on the board. Eventually you’ll want to decide what kind of board you want. My recommendation is to get a board focused on fundraising, and put a lawyer on it. This is much easier said than done. Whoever you put on the board, they need to truly believe in your mission and vision, because the board has the power to fire the Artistic Director. If you’re a for-profit company, investors are going to want to see some experience on your team. Surround yourself with people who have already created success elsewhere. Call them an “advisory board” if you can’t afford to put them on staff. Get big names on there if you can. And then listen to them.

4. Ethics. I know you’re new and tiny, but the world is watching you. The internet makes everything public. If your company does nothing but plays by white guys, if all your casts are all white, if you hire directors who scream at actors and designers, if you violate contracts, if you do not immediately fire people who sexually harass your personnel, then A. you WILL get called out for it eventually and B-Z. What the hell are you doing? If you fuck up, own it, and genuinely strive to be better. When someone in your company comes to you and says she’s being harassed by someone working for you, take that seriously. If you’re not taking those issues as seriously as you would discovering that someone is stealing from the till, you probably shouldn’t be the head of anything, let alone an arts org. There are about eleventy kajillion ethical considerations to running an arts org, and they can all be summed up in: Treat your people like gold, create a culture where people are valued, and make sure everyone you hire is on board with that.

5. Don’t reinvent the wheel. No matter what you’re trying to do, someone has already tried it and fucked it up, and someone else has tried it and succeeded. The advice of the person who fucked it up is going to be golden– listen to people when they tell you what they did wrong. It’s relatively easy to avoid many types of failures– “We forgot to buy insurance,” “We didn’t have a written contract,” “I kept my mouth shut when the director violated contract by rewriting the play,” “I didn’t check his references,” etc. The advice of people who succeeded is going to be valuable as well, but success can be much harder to replicate, especially if the market has changed significantly, your circumstances are different, or if (and this is incredibly common) luck played an enormous role in that success. Often you’ll hear Boomers talk about how much better they were than the rising generation at (fill in the blank), and how much more successful they are in comparison, completely ignoring that the cost of living and producing was miniscule by comparison in real dollars, donations and grants were free-flowing, and competition was minimal. Don’t look at a company started in 1980 and wonder why you can’t replicate their success– they had it so, so, so much easier than you do, in every possible way. But you can look at a company’s failures and avoid them. If someone is willing to tell you the mistakes they made along the way, take notes. Decide what you can replicate and what you need to adjust (or abandon outright) when looking at other companies’ successes.

If you’re wondering how to X, or where to get Y, or why so many companies do Z, just ask. Email someone at a longer-standing company and ask. Chances are they will be happy to help. If they don’t have the time, they’ll let you know. Don’t be offended if they don’t answer you– they’re just as busy as you are. Ask several people until you get the answer you need. Then remember, when your company is the longer-standing one, to pay it forward. If there’s a theatre service org in your area, JOIN IT. Here in the Bay Area, we have Theatre Bay Area. Whatever your equivalent is, it’s well worth joining. If you ever get big enough to join TCG, or if they make their membership less dependent on financials, it’s worth joining as well.

The show we closed in December, The Dragon Play by Jenny Connell Davis. I knew I wanted to produce this play by the time I was 15 pages into the script. It was so satisfying to see audiences fall in love with the show night after night. This was a deeply satisfying artistic experience for me personally and, I hope, our artists. Lindsey Schmeltzer as Dragon Girl and Jed Parsario as Boy, photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The Dragon Play by Jenny Connell Davis, 2014. I knew I wanted to produce this play by the time I was 15 pages into the script. It was so satisfying to see audiences fall in love with the show night after night. Lindsey Schmeltzer as Dragon Girl and Jed Parsario as Boy, photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I could write a book about starting your own theatre company. There are so many issues to consider– legal, ethical, artistic, practical. So many skills to acquire. So many decisions to make with enormous consequences down the road. So many things I’ve left out of this one short article. Maybe one day I will, since clearly publishers are scrambling to come out with books about us, right? A TED talk? Web series? ::crickets tumbleweed lonely gust of wind::

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Anyway. These are some of the most important points to consider when you’re thinking about starting your own company. Think long and hard about them, choose wisely, and make the art you need to make in the way you need to make it.

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Theatre’s “Broken Business Model”: An Open Letter to Dwayne Clarke, CEO

Dear Mr. Clarke:

I read the Stranger article about your play at ACT in Seattle. As a millionaire (billionaire?) CEO, it’s honestly touching that you wrote a play about your life-changing experiences in group therapy. By all accounts, it was a decent first effort. Of course, it wasn’t staged on its own merits– you paid ACT for the privilege, taking on all the financial risks yourself, and filling the house by exhorting your CEO buddies to buy blocks of tickets at twice the ticket price to support the work, then give the tickets to their employees– a very nice touch. You could easily have paid someone to make this into a film. But you chose the theatre, and that’s actually, honestly, kind of sweet. You say you see yourself as a neo-Renaissance patron of the arts, a modern Medici. Either you’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed, or you know a little something about history, but either way, on its surface, it’s touching.

What’s less touching is your opinion that theatre is a “broken business model.” You see, Mr. Clarke, there are two basic kinds of theatre. Commercial theatre makes scads of money by staging splashy, fluffy shows, charging a mint for tickets, and selling tons of related merch. Think Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway, or the touring company of Book of Mormon. These would be the people operating on the for-profit business model with which you’re familiar, and they’re doing, for the most part, quite well.

The nonprofit theatre, however, works under the 501c3, meaning the model it works under is expected to make less in ticket sales, and is allowed to make up the difference in grants and donations, tax free. “Why would we do this,” you ask? Because the kind of new, risky work we want to do rarely sells scads of tickets. Sure, every so often you have a hit, but most of the time, risky new work doesn’t pack the house. It’s necessary, however, for the development of the art.

This is usually where patronage comes in. You see, we already have that as part of our model. It’s called “donating.” Millions of people make individual donations each year to nonprofit theatres, ranging from a buck tossed in a hat on the way out the door to a $100,000 major donation that underwrites a show to a multi-million dollar endowment. We could not do what we do without them, because you see, Mr. Clarke, the patronage model is the business model all nonprofit theatres already work under.

The difference between most donors and you, however, is that most donors don’t overtly dictate the plays the theatre they patronize chooses to produce. Donors are making an investment in a theatre they love– it’s a gift to ensure that the theatre can continue to do the work it already does. It’s an act of faith in the theatre and its leaders, and the art they produce. And it’s already an enormous part of our nonprofit business model, by design.

Most new playwrights, and a significant percentage of new plays, come up through the small theatre world– either smaller AEA theatres (what we used to call “midsize theatres”) or indie theatres working without AEA contracts. There are thriving indie scenes all over the country. The playwright who would have been slotted at ACT had you not purchased the slot and put your own play there, would most likely have begun their career toiling in obscurity for years in the indie scene, developing their work, and trying to break into the level you bought your way into.

You see yourself as a modern Medici, but the Medici didn’t make the art themselves. They paid artists to create art. Sure, they paid for art that flattered them, or that they wanted made for other reasons, but the artists they patronized were free to create in their own voices, in their own styles. You would have been a modern Medici if you have commissioned a play about your experiences, underwriting the playwright while s/he was working on it. You would have been a modern Medici if you had made a major donation to the theatre and gotten your name above the title of a hot new play as the producer. You’re not a modern Medici, sir, by displacing a playwright with your donation. It’s wonderful that you made money for the theatre. It’s wonderful that you wrote a play (and engaged a local writer to help you). It’s wonderful that you want to help the theatre. But it’s not wonderful that you co-opted that theatre’s voice as a condition of your patronage.

You see, we already struggle with this issue. Unfortunately, many large theatres have something akin to that in place called “Don’t upset the subscribers,” or a skittish, conservative board of directors, and those theatres’ work has suffered for it. Groundbreaking new work is passed over for something less risky, less groundbreaking, less likely to result in Mr. and Mrs. Cecil Moneybags pulling their annual $10K because never! in our lives! have we been so offended!

And here’s something else you might not know: We’ve long been in a national conversation about how to get more work by women and people of color onto our stages. Because the experiences of wealthy, straight, white men, while just as valid and important as anyone else’s, have dominated western theatre for a very, very, very long time. If you had gone to ACT, said, Give me the top ten plays you’re considering for next season by women and people of color, chosen one, and underwritten it, sold out the house, put your name above the title as producer, and called yourself a “modern Medici”– you would have been a fucking hero. Instead, you made replacing the theatre’s artistic voice with your own a condition of your patronage.

Mr. Clarke, I think you’re probably an awesome person, and that’s not at all sarcastic. Believe me, it’s not lost on me that you chose theatre as your vehicle of choice, nor is it lost on me that you took on the financial risk. I know you treat your employees well, and that goes a long way with me. But we don’t have a “broken business model”– we have a model that already incorporates patronage. You didn’t create anything new, you just used an old model and made creative control a condition of your patronage.

I hope you keep writing plays. I really do. But I hope you don’t continue to buy season slots for your work. I hope you get out to the small theatres in your area and the places you travel (there are so many), to see what the up-and-coming playwrights are doing. Find a playwright or theatre whose work you like. Sponsor the ever-living fuck out of them. Seriously– go drop a 50K donation on a small theatre and you will be a lifelong hero to those people, and, by proxy, us all. Create a grant for playwrights. Underwrite a season slot somewhere where you get to be part of the season selection process, rather than sole dictator of content. Because this is already what we do. Why do we do it, you ask? We love it. Come love it with us. We welcome you with open arms. Just . . . don’t buy any more LORT slots, OK?

Love,

Melissa

UPDATE: (Or should that be PS?):

I’m getting a lot of feedback like this: “It’s important to point out that this was not part of ACT’s Mainstage season, but was part of their ACTLab program; no playwrights were displaced in staging this show.” The ACTLab program is something like a co-production program, allowing smaller companies and self-producing artists to use ACT resources such as space, marketing, and ticketing to which they otherwise would not have access.

I’m not sure that makes a difference here. In ACT’s own words, it’s a “curated partnership program.” ACTLab’s own application states, “Due to the high number of applications received, ACT will only contact those applicants whose proposals are selected as candidates for the ACTLab.” They’re turning so many people away, they don’t have the resources to contact them all. Surely someone– many someones– were turned away while ACT resources were devoted to this project.

My intention with this post was never to fault ACT for their actions. If someone came to me with such a Faustian bargain, would I be able to say no? I don’t know. But I do find it difficult to believe, given the available information, that no playwrights were passed over in favor of this project.

The point here is not to scold another company for taking an offer that would be very, very difficult to refuse in this economy. It’s to discuss Mr. Clarke’s misunderstanding of patronage, and the widespread, completely untrue belief that the nonprofit business model is “broken” because it performs exactly as it was designed– it doesn’t cover its expenses through earned income. What’s “broken” is the amount of support vs the number of companies needing support. But that, imzadi, is a blog post for another day.

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Homing in on Home

I’m a fifth-generation East Bay resident. My family came here in 1900. My son makes six generations of my family in the beautiful East Bay. This is my home.

But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “home” and what that actually means. Recently, my husband and I received a letter evicting us from the house we’ve lived in for nine years– the place we had come to think of as “home.” It’s a typical Bay Area story: the owners want to sell. We had to scramble to find a new place in the same school district, and now we’re packing up nine years of our lives and two kids and vacating this space that has felt like home for so long. Renters can fool themselves that they have “homes,” but we don’t: we have housing. The rug can be pulled out from under you so quickly. In my parents’ generation, a teacher could afford a housewife and an East Bay house to put her in. In my generation, no two teachers combined can afford a house in the East Bay, the area in which my family has lived for over a hundred years. We’re priced out of the only area in the world I can call “home.” Unless something changes dramatically, we’ll never have a home, only housing. That was a startling, heartbreaking revelation.

The same can be said of our theatre space. We rent the space, like nearly every small company in the country. We overlook issues with the building out of fear of irritating the owner or calling attention to ourselves. We’ve put hundreds of hours into renovating the space over the years. We’ve overlooked the set pieces and audience seating ruined by workers the building owner sends in, unannounced, to, for example, open a wall onstage to access wiring. We don’t want to be evicted. We have no home, only housing. It’s a stressful way to live.

And the same could be said of my employment situation, one faced by millions of people. When my PhD was finally in hand, my plan was to run my little theatre company and teach. It was a simple enough, accessible dream, or so I thought. The bottom had just fallen out of the university teaching market and there were no jobs. I spent twenty years as an adjunct with no job security, being paid less than half what the tenured faculty made for the same work. When those tenured faculty couldn’t make enrollment quotas in their classes (a common occurrence), their classes would be cancelled and they would be given mine whether they were qualified to teach the subject or not, suddenly leaving me with no income, and often asking me to give them, free of charge, my notes and prep work so they could teach my class. I could be offered a full load and relative financial security, I could be offered nothing, or I could be offered something and have it yanked away from me, and everything, everything happened at the last minute. Eventually, like millions of people in every field, I was laid off. Finally, through a fluke, I landed a job teaching at a small private high school. It was something I had never planned on doing, but thank all the gods I did. The staff, students, and pedagogical approach are beyond my wildest expectations. I am in love. And every day, even after nearly two years there, I walk in that building in fear. Every day, I worry that this, too, will be yanked away from me. I would call this school “home.” But I’m not even sure such a thing exists anymore.

It once did, however. The right to “home” for everyone, something we used to call “The American Dream,” was last claimed by the Boomers, who quickly threw a fence around the idea, shutting everyone else out. The subsequent generations are dividing into two categories: the rich few who can still access that American Dream and everyone else. The idea that anyone who wished could land a Steady Job, which would be enough to buy a house and support a family– to create “home”– started with the Labor Movement and began its slow end with the Reagan Revolution. Now it’s over in most areas of the country.

And the idea that you can start a nonprofit theatre that uses grants and donations to grow continually, pay continually increasing rent and AEA wages while still supporting the staff who writes those grants and gets those donations, is over in most areas of the country. It had almost the same life span as The American Dream.

It’s a damaging thing, this denial of a Place to Belong. People are evicted from their “homes” and scramble to find a new place, a more expensive place, forced to shell out thousands of dollars in moving costs and deposits to pay for the privilege of being tossed out. Theatres are cutting budgets further and further and further, doing two-person shows, cutting salaries, postponing much-needed equipment upgrades, facing spiraling costs against dwindling grants, donations, and sales, and being told “I deserve money though” by everyone on all sides, all the while knowing that they could be the next closure, knowing they’re one big grant denial or missed sales goal from closing, and wondering, maybe we should just do a wheezy old standard guaranteed to sell instead of a new play that really deserves to be seen, or maybe we should do all public domain plays next season, saving thousands of dollars, so we can pay another grantwriter. Knowing that closure means yanking “home” away from everyone relying on us to keep the doors open.

The rising generation’s often chastised for their perceived lack of loyalty, but it’s a predictable response to a country that no longer has any loyalty to them, throwing up roadblock after roadblock (impossible tuition costs, impossible housing costs, lower and lower pay with fewer and fewer benefits) while scorning their inability to thrive. Older generations are constantly bragging, “At your age, I owned a house, had two kids, and was debt-free.” When you were her age, honey, you made 250% more in real dollars for the same job, the cost of living was half what it is now, and tuition was $300 a semester. That world is gone, and yet they blame the rising generation for living in the world they created for them.

But we do find “home,” we MAKE “home.” We have artistic homes in theatres that are nomadic or in nontraditional spaces, but rooted in unique, important voices. We have homes in friends and, yes, family. We go on living and try not to think about the instability of this new world, an America that’s become far, far more difficult and unforgiving than it’s ever been for any living generation. An America that’s focused primarily on personal gain rather than cultural benefit. An American as sharply divided between the rich and everyone else as we were in the days of the robber barons.

But I was at rehearsal last night, and my wickedly talented and brilliant and funny and warm theatre family felt like home. I came back to our soon-to-be-not-ours house, saw my sweet and loving and wonderful husband and son, and they felt like home. I’ll go to school soon, look at the inspiring and brilliant staff and students, and they will feel like home. And for that, for all of it, I am so, so thankful.

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Oh, THAT Play

Here I am reading a cover letter . . . jk, I don't read cover letters.

Here I am reading a cover letter . . . jk, I don’t read cover letters.

So I’m in heavy season planning right now, and reading many many many plays a day.

Yesterday I cracked open four plays in a row that were all two-person plays with people in some kind of romance, all MALE PERSON, 30s; FEMALE PERSON, 20s and set in New York. This is something I see a lot.

I have questions.

Can we not at least IMAGINE that a man in his 30s would find a woman in her 30s potentially fuckable? That there is SOME POSSIBLE OTHER location than New York? That a white man in his 30s is not DEFAULT HUMANITY? That male ennui + banging younger women is not particularly interesting as such?

I’m exhausted by:

THE SPACE BETWEEN THE NIGHT AND THE STARS

“Quote I always just skip over.” – Søren Kierkegaard

MAN, 30s. Any race lol/jk I mean white. White privilege drips out of the character like warm mayo dripping out of a sandwich.
WOMAN, 20s. Boobs.

LOCATION: An apartment in New York City. The universe.

MAN sighs and rolls over.
WOMAN: What are you thinking about?
MAN: Man things and life. My life. I wish I could make you understand.
WOMAN: Tell me.
MAN: No. My broody mansecrets are in their 30s and you wouldn’t understand. Let’s fuck.
WOMAN: OK!
……………………….
WOMAN: I hope you like my blowjob stylings.
MAN sighs and rolls over. He lights a cigarette. He smokes.
WOMAN: Tell me something nonlinear about life.
MAN: [2 page monologue about stars, dreams, and Captain Crunch]
WOMAN: Let’s fuck.
………………………….
MAN: I see the future when I look at you.
WOMAN: Our future?
MAN sighs and rolls over.
WOMAN: I am leaving you for reasons I will not explain because my character was never developed far enough for anyone to care.
MAN: But I told you about stars and Captain Crunch! I was nonlinear and poetic!
WOMAN leaves.

MAN looks up as the entire theatre space explodes in a million stars. A marching band enters, playing “Hallelujah,” but they all turn into ants. The ants spell out “I <3 New York.” MAN weeps.

~FIN~

Of course, having spent my entire life here, I understand that most plays don’t do this. As I dive back into my giant pile of scripts, I’m hoping I won’t encounter more of the above. But I probably will.

pouring a drink

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Most-Read Posts of 2014

It’s already 2015? Seriously? OK, I need to make a rehearsal schedule for Richard 3 STAT. While I’m doing that, here’s something to look at.

On the excellent advice of fellow theatre blogger Jonathan Mandell, I give you my year-end retrospective: Bitter Gertrude’s most-read posts of 2014.

Clocking in at number one: Why You Didn’t Get Cast. “The pure, unvarnished truth about why you didn’t get the role.”

Second place goes to: The White Guy Problem. “This subset of white men cannot comprehend that ending street harassment is a more urgent issue than their desire to approach women whenever and however they like; that actual rape is a more urgent issue than their fear that one day someone might possibly accuse them of rape; that the killing of unarmed Black men (and BOYS) is a more urgent issue than their fear of Black “thugs”; that the killing of unarmed Black men is a more urgent issue than a few broken windows.”

Third place: Directing, Creative Freedom, and Vandalism. “There’s an entire subset of directors and producers who see the playwright as a necessary evil; a hindrance to their more important creative process, and who see the contract as something that exists more as a formality between the producer and the playwright than a legally-binding document that applies to their work. Here’s what they say.”

Fourth place: Six Things Playwrights Should Stop Doing. “Dear Goddess of Theatre, may none of the plays I read in 2014 have these characteristics.”

Fifth most-read post of 2014: The Class Divide in Theatre. “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.”

Thank you all so much for reading Bitter Gertrude in 2014. Happy New Year, and have a truly fantastic 2015!

newyear

The White Guy Problem

Before you start limbering up your fingers to write NOT ALL WHITE GUYS before you even read the article, lemme just say this: I KNOW. The only reason I’m able to track the performative phenomenon I’m about to discuss is because it only occurs in a small subset of white guys. Since most white guys are NOT doing this, but a solid and vocal minority are, it’s been easy to spot, track, and wonder about.

Earlier this week a friend of mine posted Cera Byer’s Salon article, “To My White Male Facebook Friends.” The article, originally a facebook post that was reposted so many times Salon asked Byer for permission to publish, has a basic thesis: White guys, don’t immediately get defensive when women or people of color tell you about their experiences. Listen and believe them.

Like everything ever in the history of ever, the reaction to that article proved the need for it repeatedly, thoroughly, and with no room for doubt.

In one thread of which I was a part– a public post (I know, I know, I usually know better)– a young Latina grad student was commenting in support of the article and about her experiences with white men as a queer woman of color, and one man– let’s call him “Jake”– posted this in response to her:

“Ah yes, the fiery Latina, hot in the sack, but not much going on upstairs if you catch my drift, and that temper? Yikes. It’s cool if you’ve nothing substantial to contribute, I’m good at ignoring. Just let me know if you’re going to slap those bongos of yours, ’cause I’d like to watch. “

He was immediately called out for his racism and misogyny, of course, by a healthy percentage of the people still actively participating in the thread, many of whom were white guy allies. Shocked, and, quite frankly, exhausted by the public racism and misogyny we’ve seen so much of in recent weeks, I copied and pasted the above into a status of my own and told people where to find the public thread.

His response to the censure he received for such open racism and misogyny was enormously telling, and, as it dawned on me that I was seeing a predictable pattern, the impetus for this article.

For the past few decades, our cultural norm in cases where someone has been caught in public making a racist or sexist comment has been some kind of apologetic (or half-assedly apologetic) performance. “I never intended to offend anyone” is a popular (half-assed) performance in these cases. Think Mel Gibson. Think Michael Richards. Think Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson. Think Paula Deen. Public racism, in particular, has been long considered the kind of activity that can ruin a business, get someone fired, destroy reputations. But something has changed, and quickly, spearheaded by a small but vocal minority of white men.

When “Jake’s” comment was first posted and subsequently called out, I fully expected, given the egregious nature of the comment and the fact that it was in a public thread (and thus viewable by his boss, clients, whoever), some kind of, “While I disagree with you and the article, I should not have said what I said. It was inappropriate and I apologize.” Standard American CYA behavior.

Instead, he opted for a new pattern of behavior I’ve since begun to think of (after Byer’s article) as “the Defensive White Guy performance.” While I realize this has always been happening *privately*, I’m seeing a new, widespread willingness to behave this way *publicly*.

This Defensive White Guy performance is particular and predictable the moment it begins. Of course I understand that a LOT of human behavior is predictable, for all types of people– I live in Berkeley and can predict a knee-jerk liberal reaction to the letter and the link– but this DWG phenomenon is representative of a widespread willingness to perform and then defend racism and misogyny publicly.

It’s a very particular performance I’m seeing more and more of, and it’s always the same: the Defensive White Guy makes a racist or misogynistic statement, is called out for it, then immediately begins claiming he’s the victim, either in the discussion, in American culture, or both. He claims that he is not racist or sexist. He labels any oppositional commentary, no matter how bland, as an attack, often conflating the commenter with entire groups, such as “liberals,” “feminists,” or “SJWs.” Often he will double down on the original racist/misogynistic statement by posting more of the same, even while claiming not to be racist or sexist. His attacks are filled with horrible insults. He claims perfect entitlement to the usage of those terms because he is being “attacked,” or because the people who disagree with him “deserve” it.

In this particular case, “Jake” responded with accusations of slander (playing the victim) and responses to women like, “Don’t you have dishes to do?” (doubling down), in addition to a wide variety of attacks of various types. While attacking me publicly, he came to me privately, begging me to take the status down, claiming he was receiving “threats” from my “friends.” I hid the status and then asked him for specifics, stating that, if that were true, it’s not OK, and I would speak with those friends and personally ask them to stop. In response, he accused me of being a (somehow anonymous) participant in these supposed “threats,” said he would give my name to “the authorities,” and blocked me, forcing me to conclude this was just another “playing the victim” performance. Despite the fact that he was almost certainly lying, I reopened the thread and posted a request for people to leave him alone, left it up for 24 hours, and then re-hid the thread.

So what’s happening here? Why would a guy be all bluster, racism, and misogyny in public, then come privately to me and ask me to protect him from the consequences of attacking me (and others) and expect me to comply? Why couldn’t he just man up and sincerely– or even somewhat sincerely– apologize to the woman he originally attacked, utilizing the same CYA performance that’s been the standard for the past several decades?

Again, just to head off the inevitable YOU’RE BEING RACIST AGAINST WHITE MEN reactions, most white guys are great. Most white guys are empathetic people trying to understand the lives of others. But the entire nation is currently being dragged down by a small group of people whose reaction to the pain of others is MY PAIN IS MORE IMPORTANT, whose reaction to racism and the role of their own privilege in that is LALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU, or worse, PRIVILEGE IS MADE UP BECAUSE MY LIFE IS HARD.

Here’s what I think is happening:

We all see ourselves as the “good guy” in the narrative of our lives, and these Defensive White Guys are no different. They believe in their hearts that they understand racism, and believe they understand the experiences of others. They believe in their hearts they are not racist or sexist, and that assertion is almost always a loud component of the DWG performance. They BELIEVE it. They grew up with Free To Be You and Me and learned in school about the many laws and customs we once had that barred women from participating in public life– voting, higher education, certain kinds of employment. They learned about the income disparity. And they said to themselves, “I am not that.” And they believed it. In school they learned about lynchings and listened as their teacher played “Strange Fruit” or read to them about Emmett Till. They saw pictures in their grade school textbooks of drinking fountains marked “WHITES ONLY,” they learned about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, they learned about brave little Ruby Bridges, they learned about racism and they said, “I am not that.” And they believed it.

As they grew up, they demonstrated this by talking about how little they cared that their co-workers were Black, or their boss was a woman. They voted for women or people of color. They didn’t see anything wrong with interracial marriage. They BELIEVED they were not sexist or racist, and for that, they believed they were one of the “good guys.”

As our culture progressed, however, and became more and more willing to study racism and misogyny, and how they both operate systemically within our culture, we articulated the concept of privilege, we studied it and created a mountain of statistics to show its existence, we began to examine the myriad ways in which racism and misogyny are encoded into our culture. We realized the problem was deeper and wider than we thought.

And the definition of “good guy” changed. It was no longer just a public declaration that you weren’t bigoted and a lack of active oppression of women and people of color. Being a “good guy” now meant engaging in a difficult and complex process of understanding privilege, including your own privilege, acknowledging that, and understanding how racism and misogyny are created and disseminated, how much of that we’ve internalized, and how we work to end that. Suddenly a stated belief in “equality” and a simple lack of active oppression– both relatively easy to understand and believe you can accomplish (despite the fact the we now know this is much more complex than originally thought)– were no longer enough. Many white people had the courage and/or resources to meet these new challenges head on. Many had to slowly come to understanding. Most of us are still struggling with these issues and our place within them every day. But some white people, including these men I’m discussing, whose personal narratives and self-conceptions, like all of us, rely on being “the good guy,” are LIVID. The definition of “good guy” changed. It requires understanding and accepting something they do not have the will and/or ability to understand, and they are angry. They feel betrayed that “good guy” went from easy to difficult, was taken away from them while they weren’t looking, and is something to which they feel entitled, but is in reality something they now have to earn.

In addition to the fact that the qualification for “good guy” status has changed, the culture is changing all around them. While white men still hold almost all of the positions of power in our culture, and control almost all of the wealth, demographically their numbers are shrinking, and the culture is changing slowly to reflect that. The entire shape of the economy slowly changed since the Reagan Revolution, tipping the nation’s wealth to the hands of a few families, shutting people without wealth out of the political process, and almost entirely ending the American Dream of upward mobility. Many white men are hurting economically. Since all white American-born men have lived their entire lives in a culture that always put their needs first and was structured around their narratives, the idea that someone else’s narrative could be just as important, or, possibly, for even just a moment, more urgent and important, is, for some white men, literally impossible to understand. This subset of white men cannot comprehend that idea as anything but a MASSIVE injustice against them. They’ve been first in line for so long THEY NEVER EVEN KNEW THE LINE EXISTED, and they believe that being asked to wait in line like everyone else is bigotry against them. This subset of white men cannot comprehend that ending street harassment is a more urgent issue than their desire to approach women whenever and however they like; that actual rape is a more urgent issue than their fear that one day someone might possibly accuse them of rape; that the killing of unarmed Black men (and BOYS) is a more urgent issue than their fear of Black “thugs”; that the killing of unarmed Black men is a more urgent issue than a few broken windows.

This subset of white men cannot comprehend that the expression of the pain and anger of a long-oppressed group of people is a more urgent issue than their need to be seen as “a good guy.” It takes a truly mind-blowing amount of self-absorption, entitlement, and privilege to answer “White people are hurting us; please help make it stop” with “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE.” What this response is saying is: “My need to be seen as a ‘good guy’ is more important than your pain. Please direct your attention to that and confirm that I am ‘good’ before I will consent to recognize your pain.” It’s the social equivalent of demanding that someone compliment your bitchin’ Camaro before you agree to roll it off their foot. OR HEAD.

In the face of the changing culture, and the changing job description of “good guy,” this subset of white guys, these Defensive White Guys, have sunk into their anger and resentment and are filling the culture with a level of unapologetic, overt racism and misogyny that we haven’t seen in decades. And while I don’t have the answer, I suspect it’s because they resented having to make room in their social concept for women and people of color to begin with– they were only playing along so they could secure the title of “good guy” and be liked, not because they truly believed it was the right thing to do. And now that the culture has progressed and these DWGs have discovered that they are no longer the “good guy” without a little more work and direct engagement, they’ve reached a “fuck it” moment. They are reasonably sure– and they’re right, at least for now– that the culture at large will protect them in some way because it always has.

So when they express their resentment, anger, and feelings of betrayal by making these public racist and misogynistic statements, and are inevitably called out for them, they cry victim because they BELIEVE they’re the victims– the victims of a culture that changed behind their backs and deprived them of being the well-liked “good guy” without meeting new qualifications; the victims of a culture that deprived them of the American Dream; the victims of a culture that tricked them with social issues that everyone knew were inevitably lost into voting for conservative politicians who had no intent of doing anything but further distancing that American Dream from everyone but the wealthy; the victims of a culture that suddenly “doesn’t care” about their issues because the issues of other groups are starting to be seen as equally important; the victims of a culture that no longer posits “white guy” as the one human in constant possession of the benefit of the doubt.

These DWG performances reek with fear, desperation, panic, and the hatred those three inevitably create. The world is changing, and their role in that world is changing, HAS changed, and there’s precisely nothing they can do about it. The panic is as thick as tear gas.

Most white guys are up for the challenge the new America presents, especially the rising generation. Eventually this DWG phenomenon will die down, just as anything succumbs to cultural inevitability. They’ve already lost the battle they think they’re fighting– a battle best represented by the ultimately meaningless slogan “Take Back America!” The knowledge of the loss is, of course, what’s driving much of the anger.

But I think it’s important that these guys are so pissed in part because they believe they’re “good guys,” and believe the culture betrayed that by changing the terms of the agreement. They’re attacking and attempting to discredit everything and everyone they can find that represents, disseminates, or even just discusses the new “good guy” job description. I have to believe, despite everything, that there’s hope in that “good guy” self-image. I have to believe that eventually, at least some of these guys will come to an understanding of the truth, and put in the work required to really be good guys– good citizens of a diverse America– because (again, I have to believe) they honestly want to be. Maybe that’s naive, and my internalized white privilege is making me give these guys too much of the benefit of the doubt even as I condemn their actions. But I do. I still do. I have to have hope for change.

(NOTE: This is my personal blog. I am under no obligation to approve any particular comment. Racist, sexist, or threatening comments will be trashed.)

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The Most Important Thing in Theatre You’re Not Talking About

There’s a massive disconnect between theatre intelligentsia– bloggers like me– and what’s actually happening on the ground.

Theatre writers have been doing an excellent job drawing attention to issues of inclusion and diversity, issues of copyright and contract law and copyright/contract violation, issues of audience demographics, issues of access to arts education, issues of season selection, issues of censorship, especially in schools. Those are crucial, vital, important issues about which we need to continue to write. I have no plans to stop writing about any of those, nor do I expect (or want) anyone else to stop.

But we’re all avoiding the elephant in the room, probably because it’s simple, and boring, and all too painfully obvious.

THEATRES ARE CLOSING.

Nonprofit theatres all over the country are in trouble. While larger theatres are doing better than they were during the recession, a jaw-dropping amount of small, indie theatres and even midsize theatres are in trouble. Small theatres like mine actually did pretty well during the recession. People who wanted to get their theatre on in an economic fashion were packing our houses. But the past few seasons have been rough all over for us.

Sure, when a theatre closes, we can pretend it was mismanagement once or twice, but when it’s over and over and over and over? We have a problem. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations with key people in several companies across the country who have all told me that their small theatres are in immediate danger of going under. While not LORTs, these theatres are still important contributers to the national theatre landscape. Small companies create the playwrights, directors, actors, designers, tech, and adminstrators who populate large companies. Their contributions are important. They are the research and development wing of American theatre. And they are in trouble.

It was always difficult to be a theatre company, especially a small one. Most grants for “small companies” require a minimum of $100K annual budget, for example. But now there are fewer grants for the arts, both foundation and corporate, and those that exist are often giving lower amounts. Additionally, almost all grants support specific projects, or specific initiatives (like “audience engagement”), not a company’s general operating costs. The amount of work involved in applying for grants is enormous. Not every small theatre has the resources to meet those enormous demands routinely– grants all ask for different types of documentation and writing, all of which require many hours of work. After devoting many hours of work PER GRANT, most grant applications are declined. Musician Meeranai Shim calculates that the odds of winning a grant are the same as winning at roulette. The conventional wisdom in smaller theatres is that the development person is the first person a company puts on payroll. Everything else, including the artistic director, is negotiable.

While larger companies have the option of laying off staff (and overworking the few who remain), in most small and midsize companies, upper level admin are the last to get paid and the first to take a pay cut when times are tough. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about all those facebook memes that say: “I’m an artist. I don’t work for free.” No, you don’t, because many of us in small theatre admin stopped paying ourselves so we can pay you. I’ve heard it over and over in the past couple of seasons– “I’ve stopped taking a salary.” “I’m taking a 30% pay cut.” “We gave ourselves a 50% pay cut.” “We reduced our admin to just two people, and we both took a 25% pay cut.”

What I’m hearing from small companies all over is that individual donations are down, and the people who give are giving lower amounts. I’m hearing that subscriptions and ticket sales are down. I have to say “what I’m hearing” because the evidence is all anecdotal. Any data you reach for to “prove” me wrong (or right, for that matter) will automatically be inaccurate because small and indie companies are routinely shut out of studies. There are no comprehensive studies of small and/or indie theatre, and no studies of theatre in general that include small or indie companies in any meaningful way. We just have no data about this. So the anecdotal evidence I’m hearing over and over will have to do. Sure, there are small, indie companies who are doing great. And there are small, indie companies who *appear* to be doing great. But the stories I’m hearing– even before I started looking for them– paint a different picture. I have to believe what I hear and see.

Even if you sell out, you can’t make budget with ticket sales in most cases, certainly not if you’re paying all your show personnel a competitive stipend. You can only charge so much for a theatre ticket before people start expecting lavish production values. Commercial theatre, that can’t get grants or donations, charges a scrotillion dollars a ticket and sells tons of merch in order to make a profit. This is why commercial theatre tends to be either fluffy, splashy musicals with impressive tech or small cast plays driven by Hollywood stars. Spectacle sells. People will pay $250 a seat to gawk at Hugh Jackman’s biceps or Daniel Radcliffe’s no-no square. People willl pay $250 a seat to see a gigantic Disney spectacle with amazing tech and 50 people in sparkly costumes dancing in unison onstage. And I’m not criticizing that. I like sparkly things and biceps as much as the next human. But it’s just different than what we do in the world of small theatre. We can’t charge enough for tickets to meet our expenses if we’re going to pay people, rent, and other production costs. People won’t pay $250– or even $50– for small, indie theatre. Not to mention that it’s impossible to predict which shows will sell out and which will tank, so ticket income is just unpredictable. I’ve seen beautiful shows with glowing reviews that the theatre couldn’t sell.

Everyone who doesn’t run a theatre thinks they have the answer. “I did a fringe play that sold out, and it had cats in it, so I know plays about cats sell.” I was literally told this once, and many things like it. The real answer is: we don’t know what will sell. It’s easy to say “sex sells,” but that’s not always the case. Shows with glowing reviews don’t always sell. Shows with naked people don’t always sell. Shakespeare doesn’t always sell. New, exciting plays with diverse casts don’t always sell. New, exciting plays by women with gender-balanced casts don’t always sell. New plays in general are an extremely tough sell to audiences. And while I truly believe moving in more diverse and gender-balanced directions is crucial for the health of the theatre community in the long term and overall, and are goals we should work towards for their own sakes, we need to look at the acute financial problems we’re having as such– small, diverse theatres are in as much trouble as anyone else. We need to keep pushing for diversity WHILE looking at theatre’s financial problems from more comprehensive angles.

You never know what’s going to hit and what’s going to fail to find its audience. Some of the best plays I’ve ever seen were at small and midsize theatres who lost money because the show never found its audience. My guess is that the work was too quirky or unusual or complex to wrap up in a simple description, buzz was low, and audiences stayed away. But I don’t know, and neither do you. No one can accurately predict what will sell and what won’t. And almost no one in the nonprofit world, regardless of strength of sales, is making budget on ticket sales alone unless they’re not paying rent or personnel.

While income lowers, expenses continue to rise.

AEA contracts are non-negotiable for individual companies, and demand higher and higher salaries as a company ages. I’ve spoken with several companies who are going nonunion next season because they can no longer afford AEA salaries, and I know a bunch who have stayed nonunion for years because they can’t afford the contract they’d have to use with their seat count or budget, or because of that contract’s quotas. Rents in many markets continue to rise. Insurance continues to rise. The cost of almost everything continues to rise– lumber, hardware, costumes, props, paint, equipment.

So. Income is down. Expenses are up. And we’re not discussing that in any real way. We’re always complaining about the lack of support for theatre, we talk about how to create “public value,” we invite representatives from granting orgs to our meetings and conventions to try to shake out of them what, exactly, they want from us, and how we can be one of the few lucky recipients of the money they have to give, and make it to the next season. The theatre next door closes and we comfort ourselves by claiming “mismanagement,” either financial or programming, while we know– everyone running a theatre knows– one bad season and that could be us. We’re not having the real, hard discussions we need to be having as a community about this.

We all need to be realistic about the fact that there just is not enough money to go around. Small and midsize theatres in particular are struggling, and are dramatically under-supported in every single way. Everyone talks about how they should be paid more, how there should be more money for their production budget, how paying more for AEA actors is justified. Well, there is no more. Despite the fact that all those are true– we SHOULD be paying more for all our personnel, not just the AEA actors, and we SHOULD be able to give our designers more workable budgets, and we SHOULD be able to pay our admin people even half what they’d get in the professional world, or, in some cases, at ALL. But THERE IS NO MORE MONEY. There is no more money. There is. No. More. Money.

So now what?

We need to support our small and midsize theatres– support them ourselves and create support for them– if we want small and midsize theatres to survive. I’m not even saying “flourish.” Just survive. We’ll talk about “flourish” later.

That small theatre that gave you your first break. That midsize theatre that gave you your first big design gig. The new theatre dedicated to diverse work. These theatres are in jeopardy if we do not put some serious work into supporting them.

I’ve been teased for the amount of support I give other companies on social media. I’ve been called a “cheerleader.” Hell yes, I’m a cheerleader for theatre! For one thing, there’s no competition in theatre. I often say: a person who sees a show at the theatre down the street is MORE likely to see one at mine, not less. For another, this is no time to be precious about our work. Theatres are closing. We need to get our asses in gear.

The first few steps are easy:

Go see a show. Pay for your ticket. If you ask for a comp, be cognizant of what you’re asking for, and offer to come on an off night while making it clear that you’re fine with being told no. Talk about that show on social media. Check in at the theatre. Tell your friends. BRING your friends.

Find a small or midsize theatre near you. I don’t care which one. Go to their website. Make a donation. I don’t care how small. Do it today.

Yes, we all already contribute to the theatre community through our underpaid work as artists (and I include tech and bloggers and everyone in that). But if you want the theatres you love to be there next season, now is the time to do a little bit more. Because it’s not “mismanagement.” It’s the reality of making small nonprofit theatre in this economy.

If your theatre is doing well: Congratulations. Not sarcastic. Totally genuine. Now look to your left and look to your right. Help those guys, because chances are they are not doing as well as you are. Look to your left and look to your right. Those are the people you want to be there for you when YOU reach out for help.

The next step is harder: Rethinking how theatre is made, what a “theatre” is, and how we can reinvent ourselves to face a changing economy. There are more nonprofit theatres than there is money to support them. Period. What do we do about that? Can we do anything about that? Should we? These are the hard questions. These are discussions we need to be having.

Until then: Send your favorite theatre company a few bucks today. Or one you hate; I don’t care. Any small, indie theatre would see your $25 as the best news they’ve had all day. Buy a ticket, see a show, and talk about it on social media. Let’s all pull on the rope together and see how many small companies we can pull out of the ditch. And then let’s sit down together and talk. Maybe together we can solve these problems. Let’s stop putting on our Brave Faces and tell the truth to each other, instead of whispering it in hallways or in “EAT THIS EMAIL” communications. Theatre, that beautiful bitch goddess, is hurting. And we need to figure out what to do about it.

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The Performance of Protest vs The Performance of Excusing Apathy

Once upon a time I met an actor with mental health issues. Just . . . save that joke for later; I’m serious times right now. He told me that the Korean government was trying to kill him because of his political street theatre. When I tell this story, it never fails to get a laugh. Political street theatre? Harhar. No one cares about political street theatre that much! Harharhar.

In the wake of the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, protests have exploded all over the country. The internet has also predictably exploded with people condemning the rioting and looting that have been an unfortunate component of some of the protests. The theatre around this issue is fascinating, and enormously telling.

There have been peaceful protests in Ferguson (and elsewhere) literally every single day since Michael Brown was killed. Here are some shots:

Ferguson, August 11. Photo by Robert Cohen, AP.

Ferguson, August 11. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP.

People march in Washington on September 6, 2014 to protest the killing of black teen Michael Brown whose killing by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited violent protests and debate on race and law enforcement in America.    AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington, DC, September 6. Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.

Ferguson, September 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Ferguson, September 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

St. Louis, October 11. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

St. Louis, October 11. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images. You’ll see Scott Olson’s name on a lot of photos of Ferguson and St. Louis. You’ll also see photos of him being arrested by Ferguson police for taking pictures. Some of his fellow professional photographers caught his arrest on camera. Because evidently we’re the kind of nation that arrests journalists now.

Protestors staging a "die-in" in St. Louis, November 16. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Protestors staging a “die-in” in St. Louis, November 16. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Protests are political street theatre. The last picture shows an example of the kind of actions we’d more normally associate with “theatre,” but a protest of any sort is a performance intended to capture attention and make a certain point. The problem is: the peaceful protests were almost completely ignored. Sure, we saw some pictures early on, and the “die-in” got a little press, but by and large, Ferguson disappeared off the cultural radar within a few weeks of Brown’s death, only resurfacing as the grand jury decision was nearing. Headlines roared impending violence: “Police in Ferguson Stock Up on Riot Gear Ahead of Grand Jury Decision.” “State of Emergency Declared in Missiouri for Grand Jury’s Decision on Ferguson.” “Officials Prepare for Ferguson Grand Jury Decision, Urge Calm.” Everyone knew the grand jury would fail to indict. Even those who still had hope knew. Everyone expected there would be riots. And, amid the many peaceful protests over the past few days, there have indeed been many incidences of property damage and looting.

This shot, seen round the world, of a looter in Ferguson. November 24. Photo: David Carson/AP.

This shot, seen round the world, of a looter in Ferguson. November 24. Photo: David Carson/AP.

Dellword, MO, November 25. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Cars burned during the riot the night before in Dellword, MO, November 25. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Despite the violence and looting, most protesters are still peaceful.

Protestors in Oakland, CA, November 24. Photo: Jim WIlson/New York Times.

Protestors in Oakland, CA, November 24. Photo: Jim WIlson/New York Times.

Times Square, New York City, November 24. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.

Times Square, New York City, November 24. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.

The peaceful protests have been nearly completely ignored while America obsesses over the images of violence. That message is loud and clear: WE WILL NOT PAY ATTENTION TO YOU UNTIL YOU DO SOMETHING DRASTIC. And when you do something drastic, well, then you lose our respect and your issue becomes secondary to our scorn.

A significant chunk of America is terrified of the future diverse America they can do nothing to stop, or don’t care about people of color, or any marginalized people, and are livid that the culture is slowly lumbering towards expecting them to care. They’re in a flat-out panic trying to stop immigration (but only from the brown countries), trying to roll back the gains of feminism either overtly (denial of birth control) or covertly, pretending it’s all about a different issue entirely (Gamergate), trying to roll back marriage equality, trying to roll back the separation of church and state, trying to roll back diversity anywhere they find it. These are the people who use “social justice warrior” as a pejorative. The terrified and the indignant.

That chunk of America is comforting itself with those images of African American looters. They make an enormous amount of theatre about the rioting and looting– little performances on TV, social media, blogs– scolding African Americans, claiming they’re demeaning their cause with riots, or that the cause itself is just a fabricated excuse for violence and looting. Thousands of little performances that accuse Black people of expressing “sadness for a death” by rioting. Performances where Martin Luther King is trotted out to posthumously scold Black people. (White people always reach for MLK when they want to scold Black people without looking racist.) Performances scolding Black people for “honoring Michael Brown with looting.” Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend this is about the death of one man, an isolated incident. Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend the looting and property damage are the most important aspects of this cultural moment.

These performances deliberately miss the point because they are only meant to comfort that terrified and/or indignant chunk of America. If the protests are just senseless riots and looting, then nothing is actually wrong and nothing needs to change. They were right all along. Case closed.

In truth, no one actually believes this is just about Michael Brown. I think, by this point, everyone understands that it’s about Michael Brown AND Amadou Diallo, John Crawford, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Kendrec McDade, Aaron Campbell, Victor Steen, Steven Eugene Washington, Wendell Allen, Trayvon MartinTravares McGill, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and, just the other day, little Tamir Rice. AND MORE. So, so, so many more cases of white people killing unarmed African Americans, usually young men, because we have a culture that frames Black as a symbol for IMMINENT DANGER. White people imagine guns in the hands of unarmed Black men while they would never imagine such a thing in a similar situation with a man of a different race. They imagine a Black man walking towards them is a threat, a Black man adjusting his waistband is reaching for a gun, a Black man standing on the street is a weapon just waiting to be used against them.

I know it’s hard for some of you to imagine the anger of a community whose youth are routinely seen this way, and subsequently gunned down in the street, more often than not with impunity or the lightest of sentences, whose pain goes completely ignored or even contradicted– the terrified and indignant love nothing better than a performance about how wonderful things are now for people of color, how people of color are upset over nothing, how Black-on-Black crime or Black-on-Caucasian crime is the real issue (as if those two types of crime erase the problem). I know it’s hard to focus on a Big Problem that needs Big Work to solve. But we MUST.

I’m exhausted by people who think the riots are the most important aspect of this cultural moment, who ignore everything else. I’m exhausted by those people both because they’re using the riots to comfort themselves into believing the cause itself is worthless, and because they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: IF YOU ONLY PAY ATTENTION TO VIOLENT PROTESTS, THEN PEOPLE MUST RESORT TO VIOLENT PROTESTS TO GET YOUR ATTENTION.

African Americans are just 13% of this nation, and this issue directly involves white people. White people MUST be involved if we’re going to have justice here. Most white people completely ignored the peaceful protests. They sent their last fuck off to seek its fortune with a knapsack and a pocket full of dreams two days after Brown was shot. The ONLY thing that got their attention was violence, and the ONLY reason they suddenly decided to pay attention was that violence gave their inattention a REASON. They couldn’t post “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because the idea of losing my privilege in the face of equality terrifies me,” or “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because I don’t give a shit about social justice or racism and I’m pissed that you expect me to care.” They stayed silent until the violence gave them a handy reason not to care, and then they finally erupted in thousands and thousands of little performances demonstrating why they didn’t need to care.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” wrote Martin Luther King. When no one pays attention to peaceful protests, that anger, depair, and rage will boil over into violence. But MOST of the protestors, remember, are still non-violent. Most of the protest performance is still peaceful. Not that anyone notices or cares.

Of course you can decry looting and property damage while simultaneously fighting for justice. But I don’t see that in the many little performances blowing up social media. The most common theme in these is open racism. Many of the memes created aren’t even using images from Ferguson– they’re using images from other places and times. I’m seeing little racist performances like these everywhere:

“In memory of how Michael Brown lived his life. Looting isn’t a crime! It’s a tribute!”

“Not a single pair of work boots was looted in Ferguson last night.”

“The best way to end the rioting and looting in Ferguson is to hold a job fair. They’ll scatter like cockroaches when the lights come on.”

There are more. I won’t link to any of them. You’ve already seen them.

If you want to decry riots and looting while simultaneously working for justice, then by all means, do that. In actual fact, that’s what most people who support this cause are doing. While we recognize that riots, looting, and destruction of property are the language of the unheard (see Tea Party; Boston), we’re still working in peaceful ways to bring about change. But right now, we’re the minority pushing against a monolith of people using the violence to comfort them in their terror and apathy, and/or using the looting and property damage as a vector through which their racism can be channeled.

I wrote an article about how our culture frames Blackness as a symbol for potential danger, and how we as artists can work to change that. I’d be thrilled if you read my own little protest performance. I’d be even more thrilled if you shared it. But I’d be THE MOST thrilled if you wrote your own.

YES. WE. FUCKING. CAN. Change the country, create justice, and end racism. It’s a Big Problem that requires Big Work, and that’s scary and intimidating. You can’t do a Big Work all on your own. But a million small works add up to the Big Work. Create your own protest performance, even if it’s as small as a single meme, a single article, a single sign. Do what you can. Together, we can create so many they can’t be ignored. Let’s do this. Drown out the apathy, the fear, the hatred, the racism.

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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?
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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.
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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.
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