Speaking from Privilege

I posted the other day on facebook and twitter that white privilege and thin privilege are the toughest scrappers in the game– they’ll throw any kind of punch they can think of to preserve their privilege.

I posted that because there have been a handful of responses in the blogospere to my blog post of the other day, The Weapon of Invisibility, that advocate for “taking a step back” and “approaching these issues with nuance” and “allowing for respectful appropriation.” In other words: Go easy on the privileged when we cross boundaries, because sometimes we do so accidentally, or with respect in our hearts. Not one had a word to say about the thin privilege portion– the point wasn’t even WORTH MENTIONING. Ah, the weapon of invisibility. But I digress.

Listen, I get that you’re frustrated and want activists to go easier on people who cross boundaries of cultural appropriation. I see it all the time. You’re terrified of fucking up– or that you have already massively fucked up in something you wrote, staged, or said. Relax– of course you fucked up. So did I. So has everyone. But that doesn’t mean you get to decide what respect looks like for marginalized people. You have to live with the fact that, if you have privilege and you wish to fight for social justice, you do not create the terms of that and must listen carefully to the people who have been marginalized. If the privileged are the gatekeepers, then nothing has changed.

And yes, I completely understand how scary it is. But you cannot sit from your place of privilege and decide which cultural appropriation has crossed the line and which is respectful because, quite frankly, that is not your decision to make. What does that look like? “Dear people of color, sorry you’re all so pissed, but I believe that production was respectful borrowing, so please calm down”? Privilege cannot decide the terms of this if the goal is social justice. All that accomplishes is preserving privilege.

We all have some types of privilege and we all have some areas wherein we lack privilege. In those areas wherein you have privilege your job is to listen and allow those without privilege to set the terms of the discussion– WHAT crosses boundaries and HOW.

In those areas wherein you lack privilege, you get to set the terms of the discussion. You get to decide when boundaries have been crossed. And when, as so often happens, someone with privilege you lack comes along and tells you that you aren’t approaching the issue with “nuance” or that you should give someone the benefit of the doubt because they were appropriating with “respect” (as if intent erased results, but fine), then you have every right to be outraged at the attempt to silence you, at the attempt of privilege to retain its privilege by seizing control of the terms of the discussion and turning it into a debate.

I understand that we’re all scared. I’m scared, too, both for the areas in which I have privilege– How many times will I get it wrong today?– and the areas in which I don’t– How many times will I be told that my outrage is unjustified today? How many times will my feelings of marginalization be met with “You people are too sensitive” or “I didn’t mean it that way, so relax,” or “It’s just a joke/play/school production/Hollywood film/etc”? Because EVERY SINGLE TIME I speak out, someone with privilege I lack is there within moments to say ALL of those things to me.

Just take a deep breath and listen. When people who lack privilege you have are speaking out about that lack of privilege, and how it looks every day, and how their culture is appropriated, LISTEN. BELIEVE THEM. And use your place of privilege to speak out as an ally.

When you lack privilege and want to speak out, know that there are allies who WILL listen to you, support you, and yes, screw it up, but still keep trying. Don’t let the people who tell you that your outrage isn’t justified silence you. I see you. I stand with you. And I know you stand with me, in my fear, in my outrage, in my strength, in my mistakes, in my triumphs. There are millions of us, and for the first time in history, we’re all saying NO.

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The Weapon of Invisibility

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Jered McLenigan in Lantern Theater’s Julius Caesar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

This is a piece about the Wooster Group’s production of Cry, Trojans!, Lantern Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, the Lean In/Getty stock photography collaboration, and my head finally exploding all over my computer.

Privilege is a squirrelly thing. When your privilege is working for you, it’s undetectable to you. That’s its job: to silently ease your way through life by protecting you from the thousand little (or big, or enormous) roadblocks people without your privilege face every day.

Two examples from my own life on both sides of privilege:

I taught for a long time at a film school. I taught early-career filmmakers about casting, working with actors, and script development. One semester, a young Black man had written a short film script about four young Black men being pulled over. The police officer asked all four for their IDs. I told this young filmmaker that he would need to clean up his narrative– that it didn’t make sense for the officer to ask for the IDs of passengers unless he had some reason, and the script needed to provide that narrative bridge. I had four young Black men in that class and all four were immediately astounded. They had been asked for their IDs as passengers every single time they had ever been in a car that had been pulled over. They believed it was normal. I had never once been asked for mine as a passenger, and had never even heard of such a thing. I had been protected by my privilege so completely that I had had no idea I was even being protected. I began to wonder what else these young men were experiencing that was invisible to me.

When my son was little, he went to a Jewish preschool. I didn’t talk to him much about Christmas or Easter. When he was almost three, we were headed into a supermarket that had just been decorated for Christmas, as they are always an orgy of Christian heritage between September and January. My son pointed at a giant Santa and said, “Look, Mommy! A king!” And I was overwhelmed with unexpected gratitude that my son was, for the moment, protected from the full knowledge of his outsider status in our culture. It wouldn’t take long for him to understand. But for the moment, his lack of Christian heritage privilege was completely unknown to him.

What we know about our own privilege is always a process, and one we have to struggle for, since it involves active curiosity and empathy, two things humans are just abysmal at, despite our constant assurances to each other of the contrary. But an understanding of the shape of one’s privilege, as hard-won as that is, is just the first step if you’re interested in social justice. The second step is, you know, WORKING for social justice. Unfortunately, that involves actively working against your own privilege, and there is nothing humans hate more than that.

So we find subtle ways to fool ourselves (and others) into IMAGINING we’re working for social justice while ACTUALLY reinforcing (in grad school, we called this “reinscribing”) our own privilege and cultural superiority.

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Cry, Trojans! Photo by Paula Cort.

The Wooster Group is well known to you if you have a degree in theatre, or were plugged into the theatre community in the 80s. Most people know about it as the New York-based company that gave birth (so to speak) to Spalding Gray. Some people will recall its tradition of experimental deconstructions of classic works and nonlinear, aggressively designed original works in what we once called a “postmodern” style. Headed by Liz LeCompte, Wooster Group has an almost legendary status for what was, for its time, very experimental theatre. Lantern Theater is a company in Philadelphia that’s in its 18th season. A quick glance at their production history reveals a very prosaic aesthetic, featuring unremarkable, utterly safe works such as The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, The Liar by David Ives, Private Lives by Noel Coward, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonough, in addition to lots and lots of Shakespeare.

So here comes the part where my head begins to explode:

These two companies, almost at completely opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum, both pulled the exact same stunt at the exact same time: They staged shows featuring non-white characters and cast those characters with primarily white actors. Cry, Trojans!, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, was originally conceptualized as a collaboration with the RSC and performed in London, and was reconceptualized for an American run. Originally, the Americans played the Trojans and the British played the Greeks, rehearsing the scenes separately until coming together just before opening. Wooster Group played its Trojans as “Native Americans” against the British playing the Greeks as modern soldiers. For the American run, LeCompte decided to make both sides “Native American,” using a fusion of appropriated costumes, props, and other imagery gleaned from books, films, and other materials– and an almost entirely white cast. Lantern Theater, remarkably, staged Julius Caesar in feudal Japan– but without Japanese actors, instead casting seven white people and one Latino, with African American actor Forrest McClendon as Caesar. (I highly recommend looking at actor Makoto Hirano’s letter to Lantern Theater about the cultural appropriation in their production.)

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JC Guzman and Forrest McClendon in Lantern Theater’s Julius Ceasar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

At this point, when the national theatre community has been decrying cultural appropriation, yellowface, brownface, and the like loudly and vigorously and at great length, it seems almost a deliberately retrogressive act. But here’s where privilege steps in and allows people to make decisions like these without understanding how deeply problematic they are.

Both Liz LeCompte and Charles McMahon (the director of Julius Caesar) believe they are working for a HIGHER CAUSE.

“Plus it’s not about that. It’s about everything bigger…We love the piece, we love the stories, we love the films, we love the people…We wanted to tell the story in this way and make it so big that this [lack of direct Native American input] wouldn’t be a problem.” — Liz LeCompte, quoted here (emphasis mine)

“’We wanted to get away from all of the clichés and assumptions about classical Rome, with people walking about in togas and looking like statues from antiquity,’ says artistic director Charles McMahon. ‘Our associations with that make it feel like we’re saying, ‘This is old, this is long in the past” . . . McMahon also wanted to avoid the specificity that comes with updating the play to the modern day. ‘We didn’t want to say this play is like Libya, or this play is like Central America or Russia or North Korea, because that’s not the point either. I think there’s something universal about it.‘ McMahon soon realized that the stoicism of Caesar’s Rome had strong philosophical parallels with Japan’s tradition of Zen Buddhism. ‘The ideas in this play of being detached from the results of actions and being emotionally remote from the events of the world are present in the great samurai epics. So these themes all seemed to add up to feudal Japan being a very resonant scenic and thematic environment to put the play in.’”– read Shaun Brady’s  whole article here, emphasis mine

LeCompte clearly thinks that her artistic vision is “bigger,” and therefore more important than issues around cultural appropriation or racism. She believes that the importance– the “bigness”– of her artistic point of view about Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida should eliminate the need for an examination of the racial politics she puts onstage. She overtly asserts her artistic vision’s cultural superiority over any issues of race. She has no interest in an artistic exploration of Native American cultures. She’s appropriating various aspects of Native American cultures to make what she overtly states is a more important artistic point.

MacMahon states that the way he could get his (mostly white) audience to associate emotional distance with Julius Caesar was to visually associate the play with SAMURAI FILMS. He has no interest in an artistic exploration of feudal Japan. He’s interested in importing a feeling of stoicism, manliness, and ass-kicking fighters to a mostly white audience, and is appropriating the cultural artifacts of fuedal Japan as an artistic shortcut. He’s appropriating a very specific culture and calling it “universal” because he’s imagining the feeling he gets from watching Kurosawa, not the cultural heritage of a real people whose descendants are alive and marginalized.

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Cry, Trojans! Photo by Paula Cort.

LeCompte and McMahon are using artifacts of other cultures– both groups currently marginalized in the US– while shutting out the people of those cultures from the artistic process because they believe their artistic vision is MORE IMPORTANT. They see these cultures as visual art available for their use, not as an inextricable part of the heritage of real, living people. They have reinforced their own privilege and cultural superiority, maintained the invisibility of those marginalized peoples, AND set themselves up as answering to a higher artistic calling– in LeCompte’s case, the “bigger” nature of her artistic vision, and in McMahon’s case, “universality.”

The Lean In/Getty stock photo collaboration is pretty much the same thing, but even more blatant. It purports to be a massive new tool for social justice while instead overtly reinforcing privilege to an almost shocking degree. I SHOULD BE USED TO IT. I knew what to expect. But I was still shocked.

If there's one thing the Lean In/Getty collection has taught me, it's that photographers love to take pictures of young white women running. It's like CATNIP to them.

If there’s one thing the Lean In/Getty collection has taught me, it’s that photographers love to take pictures of young white women running. It’s like CATNIP to them.

The Lean In/Getty stock photography project crashed onto the internet in a loudly self-satisfied manner, proclaiming itself to be a feminist project– a revolution in stock photography that shows women in new, “more empowering” ways, claiming it will change the way women are perceived in America by changing the imagery associated with us. I reviewed all 2763 images. I set aside any containing children, as that’s a discussion for a different day. I also compared the images to the ones you can already find on existing stock photo sites.

One thing that’s immediately apparent, and for which the Lean In/Getty collection deserves a basket of high-fives, is its inclusion of older women. There are many more older women depicted than you would expect to find in such a collection, and it was damn refreshing. I loved the inclusion of photos of older women being active– biking, dancing, swimming. Another thing the collection does right is show pictures of women doing jobs, as opposed to sexy models pretending to do jobs.  Although the vast majority of workplace photos show upscale offices or studios, the few that show blue-collar workplaces do show women who look like they actually belong there, as opposed to a scantily-clad model licking a hammer.

This . . .

This . . .

. . . as opposed to this.

. . . as opposed to this.

On the other hand, exhaustingly, almost ALL of the women in these photos, elderly women included, conformed to traditionally acceptable, thin body types.

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Out of all the images of adult women without children, exactly FORTY-THREE (by my count) of the pictures in which women’s bodies were visible depicted women who were not thin. That’s one and a half percent. Of those 43, only FIVE showed non-thin women performing any kind of fitness activity, although the Lean In/Getty collection is rife with with women performing fitness activities (especially white women, whose workout depictions make up 10% of all photos, compared to 2.2% of all photos depicting women of color performing a fitness activity or in fitness clothing).

Unbelievably, depictions of professional women were even WORSE. Exactly ONE picture (that I could find– maybe you’ll find one more and bring the grand total up to two) depict a non-thin woman in anything that could be remotely construed as a professional or business setting, although the collection features literally hundreds and hundreds of business-oriented pictures. Searching “business” gets over 600 results, while “professional” gets over 800 results, and they are almost all of thin women. Considering 60% of women in the US are not thin, that’s an aggressive shut-out that feels deliberate. It’s just not believable that such a result was entirely accidental. Since the Lean In collection has been non-stop screaming its feminist awesomeness as empowering for all women since even before it dropped, one is left wondering why the only women worth “empowering” are the 40% who already enjoy thin privilege.

The few non-thin women depicted in a workplace are depicted in low-wage blue collar or service industry jobs (factory workers, custodians). There are a few portraits, mostly of older women. Very few young, non-thin women were depicted at all. For the record, there are precisely two pictures of a visibly disabled woman, both of the same very fit athlete.

Let’s look at some of these pictures:

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From the Lean In/Getty collection, from the first page of images returned from the search “business”

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From the Lean In/Getty collection, from the first page of images returned from both searches “business” and “professional.”

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From istockphoto.com, from the first page of images returned from the search “business.”

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From shutterstock.com, from the first page of images returned from the search “professional.”

Lean In/Getty gets a high five for returning images such as this when searching "professional."

Lean In/Getty gets a high five for returning images such as this when searching “professional.”

But most of their images look like this.

But most of their images look like this.

One of a tiny handful of pictures in the collection of almost 2800 depicting a young, plus-sized woman

One of a tiny handful of pictures in the collection of almost 2800 depicting a young, plus-sized woman.

For every picture of a plus-sized young woman, there are literally over 700 of a woman with this body type.

For every picture of a plus-sized young woman, there are literally over 700 of a woman with this body type.

While the Lean In/Getty collection is doing much better with older women than other stock photography sites, it is actively reinforcing the thin privilege the woman behind the Lean In brand, Sheryl Sandberg, and the woman from Lean In who supervised the stock photo project and curated its imagery, Jessica Bennett, currently enjoy, and it can’t be completely irrelevant that Sandberg is now in her mid-forties. What the Lean In project has done, under the guise of “empowering women” through “changing imagery” is reinforce the cultural privilege and dominance of women of Bennett’s and Sandberg’s body type while making an attempt to create more cultural acceptance for women of Sandberg’s age and older, all while blatantly shutting out women without thin privilege, rendering them virtually invisible. While pretending to empower women as a whole, they have instead reinforced their own privilege.

Celebrating with salad! Yes, this was one of the photos the Lean In collection returned when I searched for "celebration."

Celebrating with salad! Yes, this was one of the photos the Lean In collection returned when I searched for “celebration.”

Invisibility is a weapon, and it’s the one we most often use to reassert or reinforce our privilege and cultural dominance. If THOSE PEOPLE aren’t there, it’s because they aren’t IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO BE THERE, and the project’s focus is on “more important issues” anyway. You only get answers to the questions you ask, so be prepared, if you want any credibility in this fight for social justice, to ask WHO IS MISSING? And WHY?

Not every project needs to have a representative from every single group, but when we appropriate someone else’s culture while keeping them invisible, or when we purport to stand for a group’s empowerment while shutting out over SIXTY PERCENT of them, we have a problem.

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Fathering Daughters: You’re Doing It Wrong

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I’m choosing to accompany this article with pictures of gorgeous women who don’t conform to the beauty myth. This is Malaysian model Loretta Lucia Kwek Leng Choo. Picture from thestar.com.

I’ve seen several articles about fathering daughters recently, all focused on combating the beauty myth, and they’re all about things dads should SAY to their daughters. This is bullshit. Or, more accurately: It’s less than half of the story.

Most men have only a vague understanding of what it’s like to live as a woman under the constant, unrelenting onslaught of cruelty the beauty and fashion industries deliberately create– an onslaught supported wholeheartedly, and continually reinscribed, by our culture. No matter how much you try to “protect” her from Disney, or the media, or whatever you think sends her the wrong messages, she is getting those messages, all day, every day. That she MUST be unhappy about her body. It’s not lean enough, strong enough, hairless enough, light-skinned enough, shaped properly. That she MUST be unhappy about her face. It’s not pretty enough, “refined” enough, it’s not perfectly even-toned, blemish-free, “flawless.” Unhappiness sells products. Our culture is exceptionally supportive of the idea that women’s bodies are in constant need of some kind of product or procedure to attain acceptability.

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Mollena Williams, photographed by Substantia Jones for adipositivity.com. Check out Mollena’s blog, The Perverted Negress, at mollena.com.

It’s inescapable, relentless. It’s so normative that people who speak out about it are slammed for overreacting, or said to be speaking from a position of sour grapes. It starts at birth. You cannot be in public or consume media for more than a few minutes without encountering it. I’ve barely described the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot to be said about the beauty myth, misogyny, and fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters, or mothers and sons, or parents and their gender non-conforming kids. The existence of those important issues, however, does not erase or even diminish the importance of this one. The father-daughter relationship is powerful.

Rei Bennett Photography - Kitty Creme 07

Clothing Designer Catriona Stewart, photographed by Rei Bennett. Catriona’s blog, Lingerie, Latex & Life, can be found at catrionastewart.blogspot.com, and Bennett’s site can be found at reibennett.co.uk.

So what is your daughter learning from YOU? She sees what you look at, how you look at it, and what you say, especially when you do not want her to. If you think she isn’t silently comparing herself to the pictures, people, and videos to which you react positively, you’re delusional. Before she experiences the male gaze from any other source, she’s experiencing it from you, and she’s learning ALL OF IT. I’m not saying don’t watch porn, or don’t look at women. I’m not here to Carrie Nation your cock. Just remember that everything you say, do, and consume while she is within earshot of you is making an impact on how she sees herself. (Determine how far away you can hear a whisper and add 20 feet if you want to calculate Child Earshot Value.)

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Cassie Rosenbrock. Photo by Heather Elizabeth. Check out her work at heatherelizabethphotography.com.

I know you’re not critiquing your daughter’s looks because you’re not a huge jerk. But if you want to have any hope of combating the massive monolith of cultural messaging that tells her that her worth is related primarily to her looks, you have to be deliberate, and relentless. It’s not enough to just tell her she’s beautiful the way she is, or that intelligence or kindness are more important than beauty. She’s watching everything you do and say. If you’re contradicting your platitudes with your behavior every day, she knows which one to believe.

In other words, you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. If you tell her that she’s beautiful just the way she is, but she sees you react positively ONLY to pictures of photoshopped skinny young white women, you might as well have never said a word. She sees you define “good” and she is already calculating her distance from it. If you think she’s too young, you’re delusional. Can she walk? She’s old enough to understand your behavior.

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Model Amy Marie, photographed by Aug Glamour. See Amy’s portfolio at modelmayhem.com/627470.

The world is a big, messy, unfair place full of contradicting objectives, needs, goals, and desires, and that’s just in one person. Decide which of those you want to privilege in any given moment. The answer doesn’t always have to be the same. All I’m saying is: Don’t tell yourself you’re fighting for your daughter if you don’t understand that she’s watching you ALL the time, not just when you want her to.

From Ladybug Pin Up, a photography project in the Dominican Republic. Check out their work at ladybugpinup.com.

From Ladybug Pin Up, a photography studio in the Dominican Republic. Check out their work at ladybugpinup.com.

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Directing, Creative Freedom, and Vandalism

From endlessorigami.com

From endlessorigami.com

Once upon a time I worked at a theatre that received two cease-and-desist orders in two seasons– one for copying dialogue from a Disney film word-for-word and performing it without permission, and one for rewriting the lyrics to Godspell. The artistic director of the company told me, “The New Testament is so boring! Stephen Schwartz would have LOVED what we did with it if he had seen it. Ours was SO MUCH BETTER.” She then proceeded to tell me that she had learned her lesson, and asked me to write a commission contract for a playwright that would give her “total artistic control” over what the playwright wrote. “It’s my idea to adapt [name of book she didn't write nor for which she possessed the adaptation rights] into a musical, so I own it.” Instead of writing her contract, I quit.

Around this same time, Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco took an unrepentant stance regarding their contract violations and theft of material from Rocky Horror Picture Show in their production of Little Shop of Horrors. This added fuel to the fire of the longstanding national debate over what directors and producers can and cannot do with a playwright’s work, as opposed to what some believe they SHOULD be able to do with a playwright’s work.

These two things happened almost back-to-back, and I began to think long and hard about the relationships directors and producers have with playwrights.

A PR shot for Asolo Rep's Philadelphia, Here I Come. No photog credit was provided.

A PR shot for Asolo Rep’s Philadelphia, Here I Come from the press section of their website. No photographer credit was provided.

The latest controversy belongs to Asolo Rep in Sarasota, Florida. Director Frank Galati staged Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come with enormous restructuring, eliminating characters and cutting pages of dialogue, all in direct violation of contract. What’s more, it appears from the article I link to above that Asolo Rep makes a practice of this:

The theater has experimented with new approaches to older plays with some success in the past. Two years ago, for example, the theater played around with Leah Napolin’s play “Yentl,” keeping most of the script but adding in original songs by composer Jill Sobule, performed by actors doubling as musicians on stage.

Napolin had a “heads-up about what we were doing,” Edwards said. “But she didn’t know all of what we were doing. . . .  If director Gordon Greenberg had gone to Napolin with every idea for changes or additions that came up during rehearsals “it would have killed the creative process. It would have made it a two-year process,” Edwards said.

While the Yentl production differed because Napolin had a “heads-up,” and therefore had the opportunity from the start of the process to investigate and hold Asolo to the terms of their contract, the attitude is still evident. Involving a playwright in an adaptation of HER OWN WORK is something that would “kill the creative process” and drag the rehearsal period out to a “two-year process.” The playwright is seen as a hindrance; an unwelcome interloper in the director’s much more important “creative process.”

Frank Galati. Photographer: Joel Moorman.

Frank Galati. Photographer: Joel Moorman.

Friel wasn’t even given a “heads-up,” and one has to wonder if that had to do with a (well-founded) suspicion that he would have told them no. Many who have discussed this controversy have mentioned how surprised they were that a director as well-known and experienced as Galati would have willfully violated contract, but I’m not surprised at all. My guess (and it’s just a guess, as I don’t know Galati personally) is that either the producers told him he had permission, or he felt entitled to do precisely what he did.

I’m basing this latter guess on the vehement arguments of directors all over the country who are at this very moment taking to the internet to express these very thoughts. 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.

1. Playwrights should be open to collaboration, and participate in their work’s speedy irrelevancy by refusing to allow directors to change things. This is an argument I’ve heard repeatedly. In my many years of experience of working with playwrights, I’ve found them to be very open to collaboration. They are, however, much less open to willful contract violations. There’s an enormous difference between contacting a playwright with, “I have an idea . . .” and “Surprise! We violated the contract! If you don’t like it and agree to let us continue, you’re a jerk who refuses to collaborate and hates artistic freedom.”

It’s certainly debatable whether a director’s changes are better than the original play, just as it’s debatable whether those changes would make the play more relevant or just vandalize the narrative. The arbiter of that debate MUST BE the playwright, because the playwright OWNS the work.

2. Copyright hinders creative freedom. Directors are artists, and their creative freedom must be respected. But why would the creative freedom of the director be more important than the creative freedom of the playwright? Why is the playwright seen as a hindrance to YOUR creative process when your creative process involves interpreting THEIR work? And why would you sign a contract you have no intention of honoring?

I’d like to point out that this isn’t a discussion about whether or not we should have copyright law, or what should be changed about it. That’s an entirely different topic. This is a discussion from within existing law. If you don’t like the law, work to change it, but as it stands now, we are all bound by it.

I’m very aggressive when I direct Shakespeare, because I can be. But when I directed Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men, I texted him when I wanted to cut a single line. He said no. I pushed for it– and lost. That line stayed in the final production because it’s not my right– legal, ethical, or artistic– to produce work with Cameron’s name on it that I doctored without his approval.

Jonathon Brooks as Jason in Impact's production of "Of Dice and Men."

Jonathon Brooks as Jason in Impact’s production of “Of Dice and Men.”

The prevailing attitude directors and producers who violate contract to doctor work express is that they SHOULD be able to have that right, that they DO have that right as artists, that their doctoring makes the work BETTER, and that playwrights who do not approve are SPOILSPORTS who do not know what is best for their art.

One wonders how these directors would view this issue if, unbeknownst to them, the actors reblocked three scenes and the final moment, added seven costumes, and replaced all the sound cues with the Wilhelm, then continued to perform the show with the director’s name on it. One wonders how these directors would feel if their protestations were met with accusations of being against “artistic freedom” and “collaboration.” One wonders how long it would take these directors to invoke the terms of their contract with that theatre.

3. “The director’s job is interpretation, and this is my interpretation of the work.” The problem with this oft-repeated argument is that it’s only right to a point. The director’s ACTUAL job is to interpret the work within the confines of the given circumstances. If you’re not a director, you’d be amazed at how much of directing is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. Two examples from the Annals of Real Life: If your interpretation of the work includes flying something in, and the theatre has no fly space, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play. If your interpretation of the play includes passing out shots of real tequila to your audience, and the producer tells you absolutely not for both legal and budgetary reasons, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play.

Similarly, if your interpretation of Angels in America includes cutting five pages of dialogue and adding a scene from Titanic, and you have not obtained permission from both Tony Kushner and James Cameron, that interpretation needs to be adjusted to the confines of the given circumstances within which you’re directing that play: the terms of your contract and copyright law.

Even mediocre directors CAN and DO successfully work around various aspects of their interpretations hitting the cutting room floor almost every day. They do this willingly because they respect the reality of space contraints, budgetary constraints, and the like. What I don’t understand is why the reality of contractual restraints are so poorly respected so much of the time.

It all boils down to this: Respect the terms of the contracts you sign. Respect the enormous amount of work the playwright put into the play before you ever clapped eyes on it. Stop thinking of playwrights as unwelcome interlopers who are there to vandalize your work. You’re interpreting THEIR work. If your changes to their work violate the terms of your contract, you’re the one who’s doing the vandalizing.

If you don’t want to work with playwrights and you don’t want to honor the terms of the contracts you (or your producers) sign with them, you should not be producing or directing the work of living playwrights. There are plenty of works in the public domain from which to choose.

Jonah McClellan and Akemi Okamura in Impact's Troilus and Cressida. Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonah McClellan and Akemi Okamura in Impact’s Troilus and Cressida. Photographer: Cheshire Isaacs.

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“I’m Not Apologizing for Voicing My Opinion”: Entitlement Goes to a Middle School Play

So someone I know recently went to his kid’s middle school play. Awwwww, adorable, right?

During the event, he posted a picture of a beautiful Black woman– surely another parent or relative (because who else goes to school plays?)– in a fit-and-flare leopard print dress with short sleeves, a modest neckline, and a hem that hits just above the knee. She was also wearing boots and a vintage-inspired updo. It was a secretly taken picture. She is smiling. She looks beautiful.

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Imagine a leopard-print version of this, worn by a smiling, gorgeous Black woman with fierce boots and an adorable updo.

His comment on the picture was that her outfit is not appropriate for a “jr high play (sic),” but more appropriate for a club “or, better yet, a street corner.” He secretly took a picture of another parent at a school event, posted it online, and called her a whore. The wind was just . . . knocked out of me.

Several people called him out. The first few posts were all curious, on the order of “What? That outfit looks fine to me,” or “Why?” Mine was a little more detailed. I agreed with the other commenters that there was nothing wrong with the outfit, and that I’ve taught in similar outfits, although animal prints are not my personal style. I told him that it’s never appropriate behavior to post a secretly taken picture of a woman–a fellow parent at a school event!– that includes her face and calls her a whore, no matter what your opinion is of her outfit.

He reacted angrily. He said that my comments were “subtext crap” and refused to admit that his behavior was inappropriate in any way. He told me I needed to stop being “every females champion (sic).” He told me “If you don’t like it, that’s not my problem.” He told me, “I’m not apologizing for voicing my opinion.” He told me “I’m not going to sit here and have you ridicule me for voicing my opinion.” (Of course I wasn’t actually ridiculing him in any way, merely stating the things I’ve posted above.) He told me, “I thought you were a better friend than that.”

I received a couple of messages from people who had seen the discussion, thanking me for standing up to him. One called me her “hero for the day.” It was touching.

But the incident still nags at me, and I need to speak out. I need to speak out because this one man’s behavior reflects a pervasive cultural pattern of behavior that plagues women and people of color every single damn day in this country. Enough is enough.

This necklace is sold by the etsy shop MetalTaboo. They have a lot of great stuff, so check them out!

1. She was not dressed inappropriately. When facebookland responded with that, his response was “You weren’t there. I was,” as if being in the physical presence of her magical Black sluttiness would make her dress lower cut? Shorter? What, exactly, was he objecting to about her outfit? A brilliant friend of mine jokingly speculated a subgroup of people who get their information about sex workers from 80s cop shows and believe leopard print = prostitute. The outfit was actually quite modest. Was it her figure? She was what used to be referred to as “va-va-va-voom.” She was a busty, curvy goddess– a full-figured hourglass head-turner. Was it her weight? Her curviness? Would he have objected to her outfit had she been a skinny white girl? It’s unclear, precisely, what he was objecting to, and he refused to clarify. The truth is, he created a rule in his own mind and punished her publicly for breaking it. He targeted her for reasons of his own. He targeted her because he could.

2. He secretly took a picture that included her face. If the picture had been from the neck down, or from behind, it would at least have had some tiny, tiny speck of respect for her as a human being. But he included her face. And of course she wasn’t a complete stranger at a mall he’ll never see again. She’s a fellow parent at the school, or a relative close enough to come to a middle school play on a Thursday night after work. The chances of running into this human being again are high. The chances of having, or at one point acquiring, mutual friends is high. This woman was reasonably identifiable within his social network reach. What does he think this woman, her partner, HER CHILD would think? Would he have done this if the woman was white? Would he have done this if the woman was walking with a man? He feels well within his right to publicly point out a woman and name her a whore. Would he be OK with another man doing this to his wife or daughters? Of course not. But this woman, in his opinion, deserves it. She is not worth basic human consideration to him.

3. “I’m not apologizing for voicing my opinion.” We’ve already covered that he targeted her simply because he could, and that he felt entitled to put her face on the internet and label her a whore. Now we get to the inevitable part where he defends this behavior as his right.

When called out by multiple people, he said he’s entitled to express his “opinion.” He clearly feels that the scope of his “opinion” includes public shaming (but only for others, as we’ll get to in a moment). He does not see the difference between having an opinion and expressing that opinion publicly. He has no fucks to give about that public expression’s consequences for OTHERS. Despite our dissent, he couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that the picture he posted belied his opinion, and instead insisted that the OPINION redefined THE PICTURE– that his opinion was more REAL than the EVIDENCE. (“You were not there. I was.” “It must just be the picture. You had to be there. It was inappropriate.”) He believes he has every right to state his opinion (no matter how hurtful to others), that his opinion should be accepted as fact without question despite evidence to the contrary, and that there is no possible way the public expression of this opinion could be wrong in any way. “Voicing my opinion” is, for him, a magic formula of entitlement.

4. He believes his actions should have no consequences, and is shocked and appalled when they do. It comes as no surprise that someone who targets a woman almost at random, feels entitled to put her face on the internet and label her a whore, and defends this behavior as his right should also believe that this behavior should be completely without consequence– for HIM. One wonders what school admin would think if they discover a parent is secretly taking pictures of other parents at school events and posting them to the internet with nasty comments. One wonders what this woman’s attorney would think.

I know what I think: That all too often men think they are perfectly entitled to claim authority over women’s bodies and determine when and how we are displaying ourselves “inappropriately”; that all too often white people think they are perfectly entitled to claim authority over Black bodies and determine when and how they are displaying themselves “inappropriately.” This struggle over “appropriate display” has tentacles into every aspect of our culture, including my own world of theatre. WHO is appropriate for WHAT role– WHO determines what body is acceptable to inhabit Lady Anne or Biff Loman– and HOW those determinations are applied– are processes that many in this community are constantly fighting to open wider. Representation– and who controls the definition of “appropriate”– MATTERS.

This facebook debacle is one example out of millions, happening every day. THIS MATTERS. Am I “every females champion”? FUCK YES I AM.

One of the many Black Madonnas of medieval Europe. This one is from the 12th century and is in Barcelona.

One of the females I champion. One of the many gorgeous Black Madonnas of medieval Europe. This one is from the 12th century and is in Barcelona.

I was much less . . . fiery in the actual discussion, posting about four or five comments, most in response to his assertion of entitlement and (inevitable) accusations that I was attacking him. Of course, I never once attacked him. Instead I told him he did not have the right to attack HER. My comments were all respectful (no name-calling, no personal belittling), stating that he was not entitled to post secretly-taken pictures of other parents and call them whores, that her outfit was actually quite modest, that I have several outfits very much like it.

His reaction was unfocused rage. He accused me several times of “ridiculing” him, and twice told me, “Don’t you know when to quit?”

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And THAT, I think, reveals the heart of the matter. He felt entitled to the right to ridicule a Black woman for displaying herself publicly in a manner he found unacceptable. He did not, however, believe that *I* was entitled to the right to disagree, and that my public disagreement with him was “ridicule.” Of course I wasn’t actually ridiculing him in any way. I know how, believe me. He was automatically interpreting a woman’s dissent as ridicule. I was challenging his authority. He felt entitled to claim authority over a woman’s body without consequences, and did everything he could, including deleting my comments, to silence my dissent.

His twice-repeated “Don’t you know when to quit?” came while he was still directing comments at me– comments I was expected to take silently.

5. “This is MY facebook timeline . . . I’ll remove content from my timeline I don’t wish to have there.” Apart from the obvious (there are still ToS, harassment laws, and fucking basic human decency), he’s right that it’s his timeline and he can control its contents. He has every right to remove content from his own timeline that’s critical of his actions.

When I told him I agreed that he had every right to delete my comments, and that I would, since I had quite a bit to say about this issue, blog about it instead (assuring him I would not reveal his identity), using my own venue for my own thoughts, he accused me of “throwing him under the bus.”

He believes, correctly, that he has every right to delete comments that are critical of his actions or unflattering to him from his own timeline. But he also believes he’s entitled to post whatever unflattering content he likes about other people, and– this is the real kicker– that no one else is entitled to post anything critical or unflattering about him in ANY venue.

Of course it never occurred to him that he was throwing this beautiful Black woman “under the bus.” In his mind, she DESERVES IT by daring to appear in public in an outfit of which he disapproves. He feels that he deserves sympathy, empathy, and compassion, but she does not deserve the like.

This is the very soul of entitlement. He believes he intrinsically deserves, and should automatically receive, a level of consideration and compassion he is unwilling to extend to others.

This is an attitude I see far too often about women, Black people, people in poverty, LGBT people, people who exist outside of any of the basic markers of privilege in this country. We are not entitled to the same treatment because people like this refuse to see us as fully human, as real, as entitled to compassionate treatment as THEY are. They feel entitled to mete out punishment and shame to us as they see fit, and howl with rage when met with dissent. They do everything within their power to silence or discredit dissent.

DO NOT LET THEM SILENCE YOU. Enough is enough.

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Six Things Playwrights Should Stop Doing

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Because what says “HAPPY NEW YEAR” better than a judgmental listicle?

One thing I want to say right at the start is that this is a list borne out of my own personal experience. These are things I personally see early-career playwrights do over and over and over. I also expect that there will be people who disagree with me, or who say, “But [name of play] does that and it’s the BEST PLAY EVER.” Sure. A genius can take a tired trope and use it ingeniously. But these tropes, I’m telling you, are tired.

The second thing I want to say is that your play is not irrevocably in the suck pile if it uses some of these. I know you’ll iron these out in development. Brilliant writers make a lot of mistakes early in their careers, or copy what writers of the past did when these things were new or acceptable, without understanding that times have changed. A few mistakes don’t make a writer– or even that play– worthless. Rewrite and keep pushing forward.

All of that said, here’s my list. Dear Goddess of Theatre, may none of the plays I read in 2014 have these characteristics, as precisely ONE FARTILLION of the plays I read in 2013 did.

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“Please, please tell me now, is there something I should know?”

1. Making a song a central trope. Emerging playwrights love to make a song THEY love into a central trope. The song is deeply meaningful to the characters; the song has a connection to their past and carries some exposition (“Mom always made us sing this song on road trips before the accident”); the song lyrics are quoted out of context; the song is played or sung at a climactic moment. Apart from the obvious– that this trope is overused– there are a few problems with this technique. Often the song that the playwright loves does not fit well within the world of the play. Sometimes the rights are not available for a certain song. But most importantly, early-career playwrights choose a song because it has a certain emotional content for THEM that other people do not necessarily share.

If you use a very well-known standard that has an undeniably certain context within American culture (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” for example, or “God Bless America”), generally that context is understood by your audience, even if it is not shared. Personally, I hate “Born to Run,” but every time a playwright uses it, I understand what they’re trying to say. However, when you use a random song by, say, Neko Case, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell (all examples taken from real plays) most of the people in your audience will have never heard the song before. I know you don’t believe me (“EVERYONE knows that song!”) but I’m right. Everyone YOU KNOW knows that song, but imagine a theatre audience filled with strangers, many of whom are not from your social class, ethnicity, or generation. Most people do not know MOST SONGS, no matter how popular that song is within your particular social group. I’m not talking about every usage of a song in a play. I’m talking about relying on a song to carry a particular narrative function. Before you include a song in your play, ask yourself: “Can someone who has never heard this song before, or who dislikes it, still understand everything I need the audience to understand?” If the answer is YES, then by all means, include it. If the answer is, “No, but I don’t care about people outside of the subgroup who know and like this song,” then include it. Otherwise, find a clearer way to do what you need to do. And either way, you might want to consider a trope that’s less overused.

2. Spelling out accents. This one is highly controversial when it comes to “ethnic” accents, but it’s annoying whenever it happens. For one thing, I have yet to see a playwright do this accurately. No amount of mangled spelling is going to correctly convey all the complexities of ANY accent. Most importantly, you’re attempting to dictate to the actor how the lines are said. While the problems inherent in a white writer attempting this with an “ethnic” accent are clear, it’s a pain in the ass when any writer does it for any accent. It’s awkward to try to sound lines out through the mangled spelling you chose to reflect the accent, and while you may believe you’re accurately reflecting the accent even within the limitations of what spelling can do, you may not be in the context in which the line is said, or due to the position of a word creating elision, or any number of things about how an accent works in practice. Just write the lines out properly and let your actors handle the accent. (And YES, I know some great writers of the past have done this, but that doesn’t make it a good idea for you today. If these writers were writing today, would they still be spelling out accents? I will bet you a box of doughnuts and my Cherno Alpha action figure the answer is NO.) Just trust that actors and directors are skillful enough to handle the accent on their own without you having to painstakingly spell it out for them.

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3. The Magical Person of Color and/or Drag Queen and/or Gay BFF and/or disabled person. Many writers will use race, sexuality, ability, or gender expression as a metaphor. You’ll often see this referred to as the “Magical Negro”– a black character with special insight or mystical knowledge who runs around helping white main characters with no narrative or objective of his/her own. I’m saying “Magical Person of Color” because writers will also use an Asian or Native American character (ANCIENT MYSTICAL KNOWLEDGE) or a Latino character (SEXUAL AWAKENING AND ALSO MINDBLOWING FOOD). And now we’re seeing the Magical Drag Queen and/or gay BFF as well (MAKEOVER! SASS! COCKTAILS! HELPING STRAIGHT PEOPLE FIND LOVE!). The Magical Drag Queen is more often than not also a person of color, so two-for-one! We’ve seen disability used this way forever. Two examples: Mystical Blind Person (HE CANNOT SEE BUT HE SEES YOUR FUTURE) and Beautiful Person With Disability That Does Not Impact Their Adherence to Beauty Standards (basically just a deaf Manic Pixie Dream Girl). All these tropes are so common that I’ve seen a number of plays engage brilliantly with them, disrupting them or interrogating them.

If you’re writing a play where the main characters are able-bodied, white, and straight, and you want to include a person of color, an LGBT person, a drag queen, or a disabled person, high five! Now your play looks more like the world most of us live in. But think for a moment: If you have a character who is an active part of the narrative with objectives of their own, excellent. If your white main character runs into a Black homeless man who Imparts Words of Wisdom, or has a drag queen neighbor who appears in one scene to give her a makeover and Impart Words of Wisdom, or goes to the blind Asian psychic who magically solves a problem with Words of Wisdom, you have a tired (and problematic) trope on your hands.

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4. Writing a play like you’re writing for film. There are some things film does much, much better than theatre does, and vice versa. I don’t get my knickers in a twist like some do about the difference between “theatrical writing” and “cinematic writing” when it comes to things like realism, or certain kinds of narrative. I don’t mind if you write a play about a family that primarily takes place in their living room and has a linear narrative. A play can be all those things and deeply moving, brilliant, and transformative. I’m talking about technical or structural things that can be done easily in film but present enormous difficulties in the theatre. One thing I see quite often is the use of microscenes of a line or two (or fewer) that shift back and forth from place to place requiring a detailed set change or a massive playing space. Here’s an example inspired by every play I’ve ever read that does this, and before you think I’m exaggerating for comic effect, I assure you that I am not.

Lights up on Josh in his hospital bed, sleeping. The phone rings. He wakes up and struggles with his IV as he attempts to answer it. He is too late– the line is dead. He sinks back on his pillow. Sung, the ancient and wizened former Kung Fu master in the next bed, slowly rises and looks at Josh thoughtfully. Lights out on the hospital as lights up on Katie’s office, a drab but busy downtown cube farm. Katie is sitting in her office cubicle, staring at the phone receiver in her hand as Terrence, sitting in the cubicle next to hers, leans across the aisle between them and hands her a piece of chocolate. Janeen, sitting in the desk behind Katie, slowly appears over the wall of Katie’s cubicle, shaking her head, while through the office window we see a delivery truck arriving. Terrence sees this and jumps up, crosses to Mr. Taylor’s office door, and opens it, through which we see Mr. Taylor in a compromising position on his desk with a young woman whose face we can’t see. Blackout.

And of course this is the only time in the play we see either the hospital room or Katie’s office. The next scene takes place on the bench outside the hospital or in the office break room. I’ve seen examples like these dozens of times, and while there’s a way to do almost anything if the playwright is fine with stylization, more often than not a play with this kind of writing is filmic in many other ways as well.

If you’re requiring on onstage fire that must be set, rage out of control, and then get put out, for example, or a character who “suddenly transforms into a glorious angel of light” onstage, please at least throw in a sentence or two somewhere about how realistic you need this to look. If you’re imagining actual fire, or an actual being of light, you’re imagining a film.

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5. Older characters whose sole purpose is to impede the awesome young characters from whatever the hell it is they want to do because old people JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. I can get all I need of this trope through Scooby Doo and 80s movies.

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6. Prostitutes, Porn Stars, and Strippers. 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?

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I could write an entire blog post on this one.

And now . . . to end on a positive note, FOUR THINGS PLAYWRIGHTS DO THAT I LOVE.

1. Send me their own work and recommend other writers to me. I have had excellent luck with writers I know through the theatre community, social media, or other channels who know what we do, understand our aesthetic, and send me their work. But I have had even better luck with writers who send me SOMEONE ELSE’S work. I think this is because playwrights are out there marketing themselves as hard as they can, and will send their current play to a wide variety of theatres in case something sticks, even if the play may not be the best fit for that theatre, because who knows? Maybe they’re looking to branch out in some way. But when a playwright sends me someone else’s play, it’s because they believe that play is a particularly good fit for my company. They read the play and it made them think of my company. This is THE BEST. When I get an email from a playwright saying, “Have you read [title of play]? I think you’d love it” I get The Tingles.

2. Pull no punches. The highest compliment I have for actors is “fearless.” I think there’s an aspect of that in writing plays as well. I received a play last year that was so fearless, so completely full of its unique approach to story and theatricality, just SO INTENSELY WHAT IT WAS, that I had to get up and walk around the room for a bit in excitement before I could finish reading it. Is it a perfect play? Fuck no. What is? But I fell in love with it because it’s 100% what it’s meant to be. It is not “nice.” It is not concerned with soft-pedalling its world view. Its unique voice jumps off the page and sits on your face. Either I will stage this play one day or I will make someone else do it.

3. State in the character list that they are open to diversity of all types. Look, sometimes a play is about race, ethnicity, sexuality, or what have you in a way that demands a certain kind of casting. If you’re staging Frances Cowhig’s [410]GONE (AND YOU SHOULD), you really need Asian actors. But often a play isn’t about race, ethnicity, or sexuality; it’s about friends who help each other escape an abusive situation, or people who work in politics, or a family trying to get over a death. When you put on the character description page something like “Please feel free to cast these roles with diverse actors. I’m open to a mixed-race family, a disabled lead, or actors of size. We don’t live in a world full of skinny, able-bodied white people, so I have no need for my play to be filled with them,” I LOVE YOU. I would have done it anyway, but when you state that openly, I just freaking LOVE YOU.

4. Believe me when I ask for more work. Most of the plays I read, like seriously 99.999%, aren’t right for my company for the current season I’m slotting. However, many of those plays are still excellent, or intriguing, or display a style or a voice we find compelling that might potentially be a good match for us. We don’t ask everyone to send us something else, so when playwrights believe me, and then ACTUALLY SEND ME SOMETHING ELSE, I am excited. We staged a play this season that I received for just that reason. “Please continue to submit to us” is not a polite brush-off. It means we’re keeping an eye on you because we think you’re worth keeping an eye on.

And PS, you magnificent bastards, I’m in the middle of season planning, so right now this minute (like seriously in the next few days) is an excellent time to send me your plays. Our wonderful literary manager can be reached at lynda (at) impacttheatre (dot) com.

Happy New Year!

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The Politics of Accents

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This guy.

While I could write plenty about nonsense like Asian actors being asked to do “the accent” in their audition for “Prostitute #3″ and “Kung Fu Master Criminal,” or Black actors being asked for a more “urban” accent or audition piece, I’m actually heading in the opposite direction.

There’s a “Shakespeare accent” that American actors are taught to use, or sometimes just pick up on their own through exposure. I’ve seen plenty of teachers throughout the years refer to this as “RP,” “Standard American,” or “Mid-Atlantic” (not to be confused with the actual accent of people in that region– more on that later). The terminology is confused and not always accurate. “RP” stands for “received pronunciation,” which is in actuality a British dialect considered “proper,” and “Standard American” refers to an accent that uses a harder final R than these actors are being taught. But the accuracy of the terminology is not the point.

We all know that accent. It’s slightly faux-British, posh, and its main feature as practiced seems to be the dropped R.

We know from the study of OP (“Original Pronunciation”) that the British accent of Shakespeare’s day was actually nothing like this “Shakespeare” accent American actors use, or than British RP for that matter. Check out this comparison between RP and OP. So why do we teach actors to speak in these faux-British tones? Why do actors adopt this fabricated accent when they do Shakespeare?

The answer can’t be “because the text suggests it,” or “the text sounds better that way due to the way it’s written.” A notable part of OP is its harder final R. This entirely contrived  “Shakespeare accent” is most notable for its soft R. In fact, that’s its main (and often sole) feature as practiced across American stages. So “because Shakespeare” cannot be the answer.

What *IS* the answer? We know that what’s often called the “Mid-Atlantic” accent, popular in pre-1960 America, was a deliberate, acquired marker of wealthy white privilege, and was therefore cultivated by people looking for upward mobility and acceptance in the upper classes of America, or by actors whose careers would be built on playing upper-class roles. In 2013, we still use a version of it to denote “posh” or “privileged” in popular culture– look for it in films, cartoons, video games. It’s everywhere.

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There are some teachers out there now teaching an accent they call “Classical American,” as in, American accents for use in classical theatre.  “Classical American” is a reverse-engineered accent that labels and codifies the semi-British “Shakespeare accent” that has evolved from (and is still sometimes labeled as) Mid-Atlantic or RP. There’s a book originally published in 2005 flogging “Classical American” as “an intermediate option between well-pronounced Neutral American and Standard British. It builds upon Neutral American, blending additional rhythmic and sound elements, which result in more formal or heightened speech without sounding British to an American ear” (emphasis mine). Precisely. I’ve heard this accent referred to innumerable times as “formal,” “heightened,” and “elevated.”

“Formal.” “Heightened.” “Elevated.” “Formal” has long been code for “posh.” But what’s being heightened here? What are we “elevating” when we drop our American accent and move to a semi-demi-faux British accent? CLASS.  That’s what’s being heightened. The appearance of privilege. Poshness.

The “Shakespeare accent” has nothing to do with acting Shakespeare and EVERYTHING to do with acting “posh.”

Those of us in the theatre talk a good game about how Shakespeare is for everyone, and whine a great deal when our audiences are less diverse in race or age than we’d like. Although we have a long way to go, we’re slowly getting better at looking to ourselves for problems with racial diversity in our audiences, but we epic fail with looking to ourselves for problems with age diversity in our audiences, generally blaming lack of swarms of twenty-two year-olds at our productions on their boorishness and lack of interest in “culture.”

Maybe the way we frame Shakespeare is to blame for the homogeneity of its audiences. When people talk about Shakespeare as “lofty poetry,” it makes me cringe. Not because they’re wrong– there’s certainly enough lofty poetry in Shakespeare to keep your lofty poetry needs happy for quite some time before you have to turn to Blake or Donne– but because Shakespeare ON STAGE is less about poetry as such and all about stories– rich, passionate, violent, emotional, heart-ripping stories at that. Shakespeare uses poetry to tell stories, and he will drop the poetry or jack up its rhythmic demands in a hot second to make an emotional point. The poetry is in service to the stories. These stories tell all the secrets of the human heart, and we continue to frame them in popular culture as staid and boring “high culture,” as if Shakespeare is medicine that you must take because it’s good for you rather than ZOMG THESE PLAYS ARE AWESOME.

Part of sequestering Shakespeare into the special, rarefied, and (most importantly) exclusive domain of “high culture” is this pretend, contrived, completely non-regional “Shakespeare” accent; an accent created solely and specifically to denote “upper class.”

This accent is part of the mythology that Shakespeare is “high class” art for the privileged. If we as directors or audience demand that Shakespeare actors adopt an accent that was created specifically to signal “rich and white” and still signals that to this day in popular culture, what are we saying about Shakespeare?

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I know an exceptional Black actor with enormous range who was told by one of his college professors (also a Black man) that he would never be able to do Shakespeare because of his “Black accent.” Of course he was wrong. Apart from this particular actor’s massive flexibility, the professor’s own experience as an actor was decades ago, and this is the 21st century in the Bay Area, where that kind of thinking is thankfully now on the wane. However, there are still too many directors out there who will absolutely refuse to cast a Black actor– or ANY actor– who does not adopt the upper class white accent our culture has come to associate with Shakespeare, and too many universities and training programs that teach that as NORMAL. At general auditions for my company last spring, I had a batch of diverse, newly-hatched college grads all from the same Bay Area university (not the same one I discuss above, depressingly) whose actors, each and every one, came in doing the “Shakespeare accent.” I almost wrote to the department. I probably should have. But even more depressingly, there are plenty of teachers and directors who still think that’s necessary.

Let me just say: Balderdash.

BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays were written for an accent nothing like this contrived “Shakespeare accent,” but an accent no one anywhere today would mistake for “posh,” and BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays are the greatest plays ever written in the English language and tell all the secrets of the human heart, and therefore belong to everyone, and BECAUSE we recognize that more diversity of all types on our stages and in our audiences is a good thing, and BECAUSE this is almost 2014, FFS, I RESOLVE:

THE DEATH OF THE SHAKESPEARE ACCENT IS AT HAND.

Listen, if that’s how you really talk, then I have no problem with you using that accent when you do Shakespeare. In fact, that’s my entire point. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH JUST AS YOU ARE for Shakespeare. Your body, your voice, just as they are, are worthy carriers of these stories, whether your speech is “posh” or straight outta Compton. Talk like you talk. YOU ARE WORTHY OF SHAKESPEARE, just as you are.

And directors? Please stop. Just stop. These stories are yours to tell. You don’t need to overlay fake poshness to prove you’re worthy to enter the club. You’re already worthy.

These stories are part of the human literary heritage. They already belong to you. They’re about you, whoever you are. It’s time to liberate these plays from the mythology of exclusivity.

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The Remarkable World

I’m speaking to you from the center of two mind-blowing experiences.

Cassie Rosenbrock as Audrey in Impact's production of As You Like It. Warden Lawlor was her Touchstone. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Cassie Rosenbrock as Audrey in Impact’s production of As You Like It. Warden Lawlor was her Touchstone. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The first involves a close friend of mine, the amazing and wonderful Cassie Rosenbrock. She’s been going through an incredibly difficult time, including the sudden and unexpected death of her father and her husband’s mysterious and debilitating illness they’re now hoping the Mayo Clinic can diagnose. All while giving birth to her second baby. This family is generous, warm, and full of love and humor. No, seriously– you would LOVE THEM. A few of her friends and I set up a donation site to help cover their ballooning medical expenses, and the money just roared in. We’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

Lauren Spencer as Ulysses and Rogelio Landaverde as Paris in Impact's production of Troilus and Cressida. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Lauren Spencer as Ulysses and Rogelio Landaverde as Paris in Impact’s production of Troilus and Cressida. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The second involves my theatre company, Impact Theatre. We’re a small company, living close to the bone. The first two shows of this season were huge successes– we were artistically satisfied, we got great reviews, and we had very happy audience members whose responses were very positive. We also raised artist stipends this season to match what other companies our size are paying. We’re still at the low end of that, to be honest, but we had to at least get on the board to remain competitive and continue to attract the best local talent. We have three upcoming shows this season we’re very excited about. We just made a local critic’s (the awesome Sam Hurwitt) list of top ten productions of 2013 with our summer show, Thao P. Nguyen’s Fortunate Daughter. On the surface, things couldn’t be better at Impact.

We have a commission opening this spring by rising star Christopher Chen called Mutt. It's a political comedy about the hapa experience in America.

We have a commission opening this spring by rising star Christopher Chen called Mutt. It’s a political comedy about the hapa experience in America.

Unfortunately, neither of the two shows so far this season came even close to reaching sales goals, and, with very little cushion this year, we’re facing a truly terrifying financial crisis. We weren’t even sure how we were going to pay rent over the next few months. We don’t do donation campaigns very often. I think we’ve done about 3 or 4 since we started the company 18 years ago. We’re quite open about the fact that we accept donations, and we put words to that effect in our programs and on our website, but that end of the year letter or email you get addressed to “Mail Merge” from 132 places asking for donations during this season of giving? That’s just not something we usually do. We decided we really needed to if we wanted to live to fight another day, and put out a call for donations.  And again, the money just came roaring in. It was overwhelming. I got email notice after notice after notice with donations from actors, audience members, former Impact members who had moved away. We received donations from people we only knew through social media. Twenty-four hours into it, and it looks like we might, if this keeps up, reach our goal.

I was floored going through all the emails. I could not stop crying.

I believe the “meaning of life” is to live in service to others. I have a personal mission to somehow help everyone I meet to success and happiness. I want to leave the world, and people’s lives, better for having known me. I always want to be the person who reaches out to help.

But nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for what it was like to reach out *for* help and see 100 hands reaching back to me. It’s been one of the singlemost humbling experiences of my life.

The amazing Thao P. Nguyen, whose solo performance this summer at Impact, Fortunate Daughter, was voted one of the top ten Bay Area productions of 2013.

The amazing Thao P. Nguyen, whose solo performance this summer at Impact, Fortunate Daughter, was voted one of the top ten Bay Area productions of 2013.

The world is remarkable. Yes, it’s shit, and people are awful, and politics are awful and terrible people say terrible things on terrible TV shows about their terrible beliefs. But the world is remarkable, full of love, and hope, and kindness.

My blog will be a year old in a few days. I’m grateful for each and every one of you who read it. Thank you so much for helping to make this such a remarkable year. Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Jax Steager, Impact's resident lighting designer, Read Tuddenham, our production manager, and Sarah Coykendall, one of our resident actors.

Capturing the Impact holiday spirit perfectly are Jax Steager, Impact’s resident lighting designer, Read Tuddenham, our production manager, and Sarah Coykendall, one of our resident actors.

High School Yellowface

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I’m not posting pictures of the actual minors in the show. Instead I’m choosing to post pictures from America’s vast yellowface past. This keeps the kids’ identities confidential while also providing some cultural context.

Someone I know recently posted some pictures of her son’s high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of course I’m stoked that the kids are doing Shakespeare instead of Grease or One Direction: The Musical or whatever. And I definitely understand the impulse to want to set these plays in a fanciful place and time, especially if you have hundreds of hours of free parental labor and thousands of dollars at your disposal. I’m not a huge fan of randomly chosen settings, like Love’s Labour’s Lost in an 18th century brothel or King Lear on the Death Star (although I might have to give that last one some serious thought). But I understand the impulse, even if I do not agree with it.

The problem with this play is that it’s set in “Ming Dynasty China.”

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I’ve written about race in casting before (this and this). But I’ve been thinking about this issue all day, for two reasons: One, the fact that this is educational theatre; and two, that half the kids in the cast are Asian American, but the faculty director is white.

There’s a reason theatre education belongs in schools. It teaches kids about the challenges and joys of creating art collaboratively. It helps kids learn how to extract meaning from text in very concrete ways. It teaches kids how to work under an utterly unforgiving deadline. It teaches kids about the massive, gorgeous, messy pile of dramatic literature available to us in the 21st century, which are all windows open to different places, times, experiences, and points of view. Theatre education is a life-changing, mind-expanding experience.

This is precisely why this is so disappointing to me. These kids are being taught that it’s acceptable for white people to play characters of color. It’s nowhere near acceptable in the professional world, where a mistake like that can create national controversy. If you don’t have an all-Asian cast at your disposal, you shouldn’t be doing a play set in Ming Dynasty China, and to place high school kids into such a situation is to do them a huge disservice. There’s a reason why I’m not posting pictures of these kids. This is not their fault, and I’m not holding them up to global mockery. It’s easy to say, “What does it matter? It’s just high school theatre.” If that’s the case, then what does ANY educational activity matter? Why not blow it all off and let them all play CoD: Ghosts instead of reading Catcher in the Rye or doing those calculus problems? I guarantee you that the skills theatre kids are learning are more likely to be useful to them in their future day-to-day lives as adults than calculus will be. If you believe education is important, then it follows that teaching kids that something highly controversial and racially problematic is just fine is shockingly irresponsible. Either education matters or it does not.

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Midsummer is a play people love to set in various places, and it can be quite successfully done that way. Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco did an all-Filipino Midsummer using Filipino folklore tropes, with Tagalog-speaking mechanicals that was so fantastic I saw it TWICE. Which is insane, since I rarely get out of my own theatre. But this was a Filipino production, headed by a Filipino director, with an all-Filipino cast, at a Filipino theatre. This was about taking ownership of a classic story, coming from a deep, authentic positionality. A white director setting Midsummer in Ming Dynasty China with a half-white cast is not the same (especially when that cast are all teenagers working under an adult authority figure who makes the bulk of the creative decisions). It doesn’t have a deep message that comes from the center of Chinese or Chinese American culture. Instead, it’s a white director using a non-white culture as WINDOW DRESSING. And no matter how much research was done, or how many accurate renderings of period costumes or sets there were, this was using a culture as decoration, not marginalized people telling a story from within that cultural positionality. It’s deeply problematic.

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When I first started discussing this issue, I was told that half the cast is Asian, some of the techs are Asian, and the faculty choreographer is Asian. I was told that the Asian families coming to see their kids in the show weren’t complaining about the yellowface (out loud). I was told that the performances weren’t “stereotypical,” and that someone was playing traditional Chinese music during the show. I was told that the casting was “multicultural.” These were all held up to me as reasons it’s OK for white kids to play people of color. I actually gave it some thought. After all, the kids were in traditional Beijing Opera makeup, not actual yellowface . . .  did that matter? And I wondered for a bit if the presence of Asians working on the show changed the equation at all.

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Oh, right. No, it doesn’t. Not even an Asian director makes a difference in the ensuing controversy apart from: “He should have known better.”

It’s just not acceptable for white people in America to play people of color at all. Race has meaning. And although I suppose it could be argued that a half-white cast isn’t as egregious as a fully-white cast, or one wherein all the leads are white, race still carries narrative that cannot be erased. The meaning of a white person playing an Asian person is culturally problematic in profound, complex ways attached to a lengthy history of appropriation, erasure, and oppression. It’s a common misconception that “multicultural casting” means that white people should be able to play characters of color because we cast people of color in roles originally written for white actors. To pretentiously quote my own damn article that I linked to above (see, now you don’t have to click on it):

Using a white actor as [a character of color] has a very different impact on the narrative than casting a person of color in a traditionally white role. It erases the physical presence of the person of color and substitutes it with blackface/yellowface, imperialism and cultural appropriation. The West has a long history of casting white actors in racist portrayals of people of color, of appropriating the narratives of people of color and reshaping them through a white lens, and of shutting artists of color out of positions of importance. An American audience viewing a white person portraying a person of color will be reminded of all of these, and of blackface, of yellowface, of the history of racism with which we still struggle. These are all present in any production wherein a white actor is cast as a person of color because they are so palpably present within our culture. Again, race is always part of the narrative.

Maybe it’ll change some day, and we will be so many hundreds of years past the issues that make yellowface culturally unacceptable that it truly will not matter any longer, because race will no longer carry the same narratives it does now. Perhaps it’ll carry new, better narratives, less painful, less difficult. But that day is not today, and both yellowface and whitewashing remain culturally unacceptable.

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I’m not going to reveal the location of this production, and I won’t approve any comments that do, because at its heart, this is about protecting those kids. They should be taught right from wrong, and yellowface is wrong, just as all whitewashing is wrong. In our current cultural context, it’s never OK for a white person to play a person of color, even in a high school. ESPECIALLY in a high school. And claiming that it’s OK because there are Asians in the room is like the guy who says “My Black friend LOVES my racist jokes.” Whether it’s true or not, the jokes are still racist, and there is a much larger cultural context to consider.

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Emotional Isolationist

I was deeply honored to be asked to participate in Lit Crawl by the head of Limina Magazine– an online journal of women writing about faith that will have its inaugural issue in January. Because the piece was supposed to be about faith or spirituality in some way, I needed to write something for it rather than pull something from here. I took a deep breath and, without thinking too much about it, wrote a piece that was more vulnerable and frightening to me than any other piece I’d ever written. It was about how I had become an emotional isolationist, and how that functions in my life.

God, I used to just hand my heart out to people like passed hors d’oeuvres. I look back on it with astonishment. And it was just a few years ago, which is even more astonishing, because it feels like a distant, foggy past. I had an intensely shocking, painful experience, and the whole machine just shut down. There are a few people I still confide in, people I knew from Before, but even with them, even with people who’ve demonstrated trustworthiness for years, I’m guarded, fearful. This event knocked the emotional wind out me, and I still haven’t gotten back up.

I understand why it happened. Sometimes it takes strength to do the right thing, and not everyone always has that strength. People will lie to make themselves look better because they can’t stand the disapproval of others. They create casualties to stand on to get their heads above water instead of learning how to swim.

I once handed my heart out, invested myself deeply in the people around me, and gave of myself lavishly. I was, in a word, an idiot.

I told myself I was just pulling away from the two people responsible. Instead, I just . . . shut down.

So now I’m an emotional isolationist. A different kind of idiot. This is the story I read for Lit Crawl about it.

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“I want to go home.”

This phrase pops, unbidden, into my head at least five times a day, almost always when I’m at home. Fives times a day. For over two years. You can only respond to yourself, “You ARE home, dumbass” a certain number of times before you’re forced to acknowledge there’s something happening to which attention must be paid.

Homesickness. Longing. Loneliness. Ah.

A few years ago, I had an experience so full of high school-style drama nonsense I’m cringing as I write this. I knew a young woman in a bad relationship. She and her boyfriend both confided in me regularly about their unhappiness. She was naïve and confused; he was troubled and controlling. They were both miserable. I loved them both expansively and did my best to help them. I trusted her. I trusted her so deeply and completely that it never crossed my mind that there could be any other possibility. And then, in order to save herself from his disapproval and shift blame for something, she told a series of horrible lies, accusing me of something monstrously unethical. My trust in her impeded my ability to understand what had happened, and it took me weeks to put it together. She told him I had done something monstrous. He believed her (of course!) and accused me, angrily. She told me she had said no such thing. I believed her (of course!) and accused him, angrily. My relationship with both of them shattered. Not only did these lies destroy our friendships, but they also completely destroyed my ability to trust. She has a very sweet, caring personality that no one could have predicted contained within it the capability of such intense betrayal. If she, of all people, had been hiding the ability to commit such an act, who was not? I stopped trusting—everyone. I became incapable of trust. I locked myself down and became an emotional isolationist.

Like everyone, I live on the internet. I have a whole network of friends I talk to every day, people I would truly consider friends, people whose lives, whose triumphs and failures mattered to me. And of course I shared with them my day-to-day ups and downs, my own triumphs and failures. But the deep secrets, the true face of my soul, I showed no one. My husband and I had been through a rough patch (like everyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship) that left us further apart than we wanted to be, and with a difficult pathway ahead to re-establish connection. Instead of reconnecting, I went further into myself. I had pulled my innermost, vulnerable self deep inside me and locked the door.

Then it started: “I want to go home.” At first examination, I took it as a sign that I was done living on earth and ready to check out. When that idea occurred to me, it felt right. I’m a firm believer that we must live out all the life we’re given, and that my continued existence means there’s some part I’m playing in something bigger than myself. I believe that we’re all interconnected and that our life’s work is service to others, so my continued existence was, must be, about someone else’s need. My children. My father. The young artists who work in my company. My continued existence was proof that my service was still needed. So I began to wait. My life became about waiting for my service to be over, and wondering what the last act, the one that would release me, would be. I filled my days with tasks. I was ready to go home.

I’ve been fascinated with religion my entire life. I was raised Jewish by very Reform Bay Area parents. I’m the fifth generation of my family to live in the Bay Area, so we were a long way from the Old Country. I belonged to one of two Jewish families in my school in Fremont, so I was detached from any kind of Jewish community as such. From the moment I had heard of such a concept, I longed for a female deity. I had been told the Greek and Roman Gods, all the Pagan Gods of old, and all the Gods of existing polytheistic religions, like those of the Hindus living all around us, were “pretend,” and I was bitter about being denied female divinity, and suspicious about why a male God was “real” but a female Goddess was “pretend.” I envied, intensely, my Catholic friends’ ability to pray to Mary. I prayed to her in secret—not because I thought she was the mother of God; I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus—but because I thought she could hear me. She was a kind of Goddess—a Jewish woman who sits at the right hand of God. This appealed to me. I wondered about people who felt they had the authority to make the decision about which Gods were “real” and which were “pretend.” I would sit in the backseat as we drove past the rolling hills of the East Bay, and I would see them between imagining and believing as the curves of a Goddess lying asleep beneath the blanket of the grass. When I was twelve, I finally decided that all religions were “the same song in different keys”—that was the phrase I used, and still use sometimes. My Goddess was real; she was in the hills, she was without question in the ocean, she was in the trees, in the earth. I sat in her cupped palm like a baby bird.

I got older and discovered that there were people who were practicing Pagans, even Semitic Pagans, and that my need to understand at least some aspects of divinity as female was not at all unusual. I found meaning in why one of the primary words for “God” in Hebrew, “Elohim,” was plural, and what I believed the Shema was actually about. Even now, as an adult, no Jewish (or, for that matter, Christian) explanation of why “Elohim” is plural has held water for me—it’s plural, they say, but not really. There’s only one God, therefore it has to be singular and we’ve been jamming it into singular sentence structure since the Torah was written. OK. Neither Judaism nor Christianity have ever been much good at monotheism. “Who was this Asherah,” I asked myself as a child. But I already knew. Christianity in particular always seemed to me to be overt polytheism, and I mean that as a compliment. Elohim: This made sense to me. The Shema is the central tenet and most important sentence of Judaism:  Hebrew Listen, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Even as a child, it seemed unlikely to me that the central declaration of our entire faith was just, “We’re monotheists.” There had to be more to it than that, I thought. Distanced as I was from Jewish community, I had less than no clue about the intricacies of Jewish mysticism. I had to sort it all out for myself armed with my wits, such as they were, and what I could find in the Fremont Main Library. Discovering Paganism snapped the Shema into place for me: The mystery of unity, of The One, where all aspects of God unite in one divine element that connects all living things, where all Gods and all Goddesses become the same God seen from different angles, sung into focus in different keys by people who were both part of and apart from that divinity. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery.

When I was a child, I also liked to hide in closets. That dark, quiet hiding spot meant safety. If no one could find you, no one could hurt you. I would hide in closets and be alone with my thoughts about God. I believed solitude, quiet, and darkness were sacred, and I knew they were safe. And now, decades later, I’m doing exactly the same thing, only instead of hiding my body, I’m hiding everything else. I sit every day with the divine, this all-encompassing Goddess, her counterpart, the God, the earth, the sky, the air, the flame of a candle, the electricity that animates my cells, my blood, my breath. I created a sacred solitude of the soul, a safe place, and made it a prison. And I do want to go home. That phrase is still part of my daily inner monologue. But I’m ready, or maybe I just want to be ready, to step away from this isolation and learn how to trust again.

I experienced an event that destabilized my ability to fully experience my web of connections to the people around me. I didn’t choose to become an emotional isolationist. One day I realized that it had already happened, past tense. One day I realized I was alone, and I had created that solitude, and although it’s safe, and sacred, it’s not enough. We experience our personal connection to the divine both as individuals AND through communion with others. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery. In retreating to this safe, sacred space, I’ve cut myself off from experiencing the sacred that exists in true, deep, intimate connection with others. The sacredness of the world I live in is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it is half a world. Stepping away from solitude and back into the world has to be a deliberate act, and I don’t know what those actual actions entail. I love to bake. There are many recipes I know so well I can bake them almost without thinking. Step One: Get the big bowl out of the cabinet. I want to trust others. I want communion. Step One: who knows. Maybe Step One: Open your mouth and pour out your story? Maybe.

Eventually I will find the door out of this sacred, dark room or it will be shown to me. I won’t be left here unless I refuse to leave. I love sacred solitude, and I want to be able to come back here, often, but living here permanently is not living completely. There has to be a way out. For now, I’m still in the dark closet, safe, sacred, and close, like the womb of the Goddess. I don’t breathe. I don’t talk. I just wait.

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