10 Tips for Choosing an Audition Monologue

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

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

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The Class Divide in Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Things Playwrights Do That I Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Six Female Characters You Really Need to Stop Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

This is happening right now somewhere on your street.

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

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Why Forced “Audience Participation” Doesn’t Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I should be sorrier for this than I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Jon Wolter, from keepingwolteraccountable.tumblr.com

 

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Why I Don’t Watch the Tonys

 

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

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

But I don’t watch the Tonys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes, THAT Paula Vogel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I recommend pin curls.

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

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

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HUG IT OUT

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Our Role in This as Artists

Like pretty much every blogger, the plan I had for my next post got chucked out the window after the violence at UCSB. I’ve been closely following #YesAllWomen on twitter, the news stories, the many, many blog posts, the many discussions on facebook. Like we all have been. Like so many women, I’ve been repeating the truth: This isn’t at all surprising. This is just the extreme example of what women experience all the time.

The reaction to that, honestly, has surprised me far more than the attack itself. I expected some blowback, but I didn’t expect the AMOUNT and TYPE of blowback I got. Things like, “We need to wait for more information because I didn’t believe a word of that manifesto,” “You need to have more compassion for men. We’re sick of this vitriol,” “You’re just making men angry and scared,” “A lifetime of being nice to women down the drain because of one asshole,” and “Man hating is just as destructive as misogyny.”

I was shocked, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I still have that much potential for naiveté. I have a husband and two teenage sons, as well as a host of friends I count as male allies in this fight. I’m well aware of “not all men.” I never expected that simply pointing out that cultural misogyny exists, that women experience this kind of violent misogyny regularly, and that the events at UCSB are only exceptional by degree, would cause so many men (and even a few women) to flip so directly out in so many bizarre directions.

feminist-cartoon

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that. The responses fall into two categories: You’re making men feel bad, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. When a woman is saying “I have, like all women, experienced harassment, abuse and/or violence at the hands of men, so this recent misogynistic violence is no surprise in that context” what makes a man respond with some version of “MY FEELINGS COME FIRST” or “SHUT UP, YOU’RE WRONG”? And of course “NOT ALL MEN,” a combination of both. What makes that small handful of women respond with “STOP MAKING MEN FEEL BAD”?

I’ve read a lot of the excellent blog posts about this issue (examples are here and here), and they all say more or less the same thing: Americans are force-fed a master narrative from birth that describes a man’s place in the world: You deserve access to a woman’s body because you are “nice.” You should be rewarded with a woman (or women) for performing certain tasks and/or succeeding in certain areas. If a woman you want rejects you, just keep trying until you wear her down because you know better than she does what she “wants” or what’s “good for her.” The corollary, of course, is that women who reject a “nice” guy or complain about male harassment, abuse, or violence are committing an act of gross wrongdoing against men as a group.

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Enough people have completely bought into these fantasies to make them a pervasively destructive part of our culture. Both men and women have internalized them, perpetuate them, and, when challenged, angrily defend them. They frame anything that might prevent a man from achieving the master narrative as massively unjust. The many Elliot Rodger fan pages on facebook alone attest to that. The conservative backlash that’s working overtime to equate “man-hating” with cultural misogyny is another example. It would actually be funny if it weren’t such a dangerous idea– it’s like equating calling a straight person a “breeder” with a fatal gay bashing.

Where does this destructive master narrative come from? Where is this disseminated in our culture? Film, TV, theatre, books– narrative art. WE MADE THIS. Not alone, but we did, indeed, make this, and we need to start thinking about that. Hard.

Sure, parts of the narrative are thousands of years old. But there are plenty of old ideas we no longer choose to disseminate. We have the choice whether or not we continue to tell this narrative. We have the choice whether or not we continue to reinscribe this into our culture.

I’ve long had the desire to fire every romantic comedy into the sun. I despise romcoms, and I never spent time figuring out why. Now that the answer is in my face, it’s undeniable: they’re one way we disseminate all of the worst ideas about relationships we have as a culture, including (especially) the male master narrative. What was once just an annoyance to me now looks like the worst kind of reprehensible irresponsibility. And that’s just one tiny corner of the art we produce.

It’s easy to say, Oh, it’s just a play; it’s just a movie, etc. But there is no “just.” The narrative art form is POWERFUL. The human brain can experience narrative as if it’s happening in real life. The brain of a person telling a story and a person listening to that story experience neural coupling. Art is where we discuss who we are as a culture; our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our past, our imagined future. It’s the most important aspect of how our culture is created and how it is changed. Stories are the building blocks of culture, and we’re the ones who create and tell those stories.

My feelings about romcoms.

My feelings about romcoms.

I thought a lot about why there are people with relative privilege who can read (for example, this is in no way meant to be comprehensive) “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women,” “cis people oppress trans* people,” or “white people marginalize people of color” and see the truth in those statements without freaking out, while a whole wagonload of men (and a handful of women) have recently demonstrated they can’t see “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women” without having a butthurt rodeo and calling it “vitriol” and “betrayal.” Here’s the answer: Some people with privilege are actively committed to social justice, and have been working their asses off. They already know they’re part of the problem and that they contribute to misogyny, transphobia, and racism unwittingly all the time. They’re working hard to root out all the little hidden places where those exist in their psyches. They listen to women, trans* people, and people of color. They’ve committed to the process of figuring it out. They’re not consciously misogynistic, transphobic, or racist, but they’re aware the culture has drilled into them a million little bigotries they’ll always be in the process of locating and squashing.

The people who cannot handle hearing that they, or others of their group, are responsible for systemic cultural injustice or violence are people who are either so protected by their privilege they are truly ignorant of that, and/or who are so invested in their privilege they can’t abide anything that might potentially challenge it. In this case, male privilege is connected to the internalized male master narrative. Women all over the internet have been talking about their experiences with male violence, and the pervasive fear women face every day. The man who responds “NOT ALL MEN” is someone who is far more concerned with how he is being perceived, and his feelings about that, than about her actual experience of violence because from birth he’s been exposed to a culture that has TOLD HIM that anything that impedes his access to her is an injustice TO HIM, including her fear; that he is a better judge of her experience than she is, and that his experience is more important than hers in all cases, even when the match up is rape vs hurt feelings. That’s something we need to change, and because that is, I truly believe, a minority of men now, this change is achievable. I have an idea where to start.

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We have to own our part of cultural bigotry if we’re going to be productive adults fighting for social justice, and it’s useless to say “not all men/white/cis people.” Because A. Truckload of duh, everyone already knows that; B. It’s derailing someone else’s story of oppression with your story of butthurt; C. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference that it’s not all men/white people/cis people because it’s CLEARLY still FAR TOO MANY; and D. Uh, yeah it is. It really is all men, all white people, all cis people, even if you’re trying. Even if you’re trying hard. All you can do is KEEP TRYING. There is no bigotry master cleanse you can go on that will allow you to excrete all the bigotry the culture put into you. All you can do is keep trying. And listen.

We, as artists, however, are uniquely positioned as creators of culture to effect real change. We need to start thinking about all the many ways we create the culture that instills misogyny (and all bigotries against difference) into people.

As artists who create culture, we can take the first step by pinky swearing to each other that we will STOP disseminating that male master narrative. Stalking a girl, hitting her boyfriend in the face, or tricking her into having sex will not “win” someone a woman in real life. A woman who rejects a man is not in a “pre-yes” phase of the real-life narrative. (“Just give him/me a chance” is a line that should automatically cause your computer to crash as you type it.) Being the “nice guy” will not automatically “win” someone a woman in real life. (As many have said before me, women are not machines into which you put “nice” coins and sex comes out.)  Winning a contest, landing a great job, or overcoming some kind of adversity will not automatically “win” someone a woman. Women are not prizes granted for achievements. The male master narrative is a destructive lie, and we need to stop using our platforms to tell that lie. Writers and producers: I am looking at you. WE CAN DO BETTER.

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I’m not saying we need to stop creating male-centered work, or stop showing sexy-looking women in our work, or whatever it is you’re imagining if you’re having the OUTRAGE feels and getting ready to make some tiresome comment about CENSORSHIP or (ughbarfshutup) POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. Make your boob-centered posters. Make your love stories. Make art about men. There’s no need to obliterate every straight male thing. There are straight men in the world, and their stories have as much value as anyone else’s. What I’m saying is: Let’s stop telling straight-up lies about a man’s rights to a woman’s body. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that approvingly shows a man “winning” a reluctant woman because he was “nice” or won a ski-off or punched a guy. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that positions a woman’s “no” or resistance as meaning “try harder,” and that stalking a woman is romantic rather than terrifying. Let’s think about what we’re putting into the world with our art.

 

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Why You Didn’t Get Cast

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Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor rehearsing in 1956

A few days ago, I had two conversations almost back-to-back. One was with an experienced and talented actor who believed they were getting the message that their career was over just because they were in a dry spell. The other was with yet another Bay Area actor whose career had stalled the minute they went AEA. While we talked about the many reasons why that happens, this actor said to me, “I want to see if I’m good enough to be an AEA actor.” And my heart just broke because, as someone whose life is always on the other side of the table, I know how seldom casting is purely about who’s “good.” I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors.

So here you go, actors of the world. The pure, unvarnished truth about why you didn’t get the role.

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Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart performing Philadelphia Story for Victory Theater, 1942.

1. MOST COMMON: You’re just not right for it. I know this sounds like a massive, shit-eating cliche, but it’s absolutely the truth. A director walks into the room with a character conceptualized in a certain way, and is looking for the person whose type or energy matches the character. The truly amazingly badass Leslie Martinson of TheatreWorks taught me this years ago, when I was first starting out: Every conceptualized character has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Every actor has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Casting is about finding the best match. I pass over actors I flat-out adore all the time because the fit isn’t right. For example, a director might have Orlando conceptualized as a man in his 20s with a gentle, soft-spoken energy, while your audition presents a man in his 30s with a bright, aggressive energy. While your audition might be fantastic, you’re not going to be that director’s Orlando.

2. Your skillset isn’t developed. This is the second most common, and the one people like to think of as “not good enough.” That way of thinking is total bullshit. How do I know? Because year after year, I see actors grow and develop. I see actors go from maaaaybe having the skills to handle a small supporting role to being ready to carry a play in one season. Either they took a class that unlocked something, or worked with a director who stretched them, or went on a spiritual quest in the New Mexico desert, or had mind-blowing sex with Ian McKellen, whatever. But I see it happen all the time, because dedicated actors are constantly working on their skillset.

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Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Joe Melia rehearsing Too True to be Good at the RSC in 1975.

3. The role was precast. Some directors are superstitious and will read people for roles that are already cast. It’s unfortunately common for actors to commit to roles that they later bail on (a better-paying gig, a family emergency, a medical situation), and if you auditioned other actors for that role, you have some go-to options. One casting director told me she was so superstitious that she didn’t get rid of the casting data for a show until it CLOSED. On the flip side, lots of theatres are upfront about which roles are precast. Don’t let that necessarily discourage you. You may want to consider coming in for a show where your dream role is precast– you may end up playing that role after all.

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Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun, 1959

4. The role went to someone they’ve worked with before. This is incredibly common. You know an actor’s work, you have a shared language, you understand how to work together. A known quantity is less of a risk, even if the known quantity didn’t crush the callback like you did. The director knows from past experience that the other actor can give them what the work needs.

5. You’ve had a history of behaving unprofessionally. Luckily, this one is extremely rare, but it does occasionally happen. Violating your contract (coming consistently late or no-showing to rehearsals or shows, for example), treating fellow actors or crew disrespectfully, making unreasonable demands (such as demanding the theatre violate their contract with the playwright so you can change something in the script despite the fact that the playwright declined to allow the change, or demanding the day off during tech because it’s your one year dating anniversary), deciding closing night is the time for GAGS! and IMPROV!, badmouthing the show on social media (“This play is going to be total shit!”). Although I’ve seen every one of these examples firsthand, they are, as I’ve said, pretty rare. The converse, happily, is MUCH more likely to be true– that we take a chance on an actor unknown to us because someone at another theatre is raving about how awesome they are. And believe me, I’m not trying to imply that this doesn’t happen in the opposite direction. I know plenty of directors treat actors in unconscionable ways. But that’s an entirely different blog post. My point is that, in any theatre community, companies share personnel. While we don’t necessarily go out of our way to share that kind of information, the Literary Manager at one theatre is directing a show at another theatre. The actor at one theatre is the Artistic Director at another theatre. What happens in Vegas, so to speak, does not stay in Vegas. But be happy that the converse is also true and much, much more common– we’re raving about how wonderful you are to our friends at other companies. I’ve sent many a “heads up” email to directors to let them know that an actor new to them and about to audition for them is someone I’ve worked with and believe in.

6. Conflicts. You may have been the best person for the role, but since you’re planning to be in Oklahoma for Baton Twirling Nationals during tech, they’re going to go with someone else.

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7. You tanked the audition. Oh, man, this one is a heartbreaker, and I see it all the time. It’s one of the reasons I tell my students that the best way to cast is to see as many plays as possible so you’re seeing actors in their natural habitat. Auditions are weird little creatures, artificial and forced. However, if we want to open our theatres to new people and new communities (and we do), we’re stuck with open auditions. Like standardized testing, which only measures how good you are at standardized tests, auditions often measure how well you audition and little else. While callbacks are theoretically meant to correct for that, you don’t always make it to the callback to show them. I’ve seen plenty of actors give me a crap audition and then give a beautiful performance in someone else’s play. They had a bad day, or memorized a new monologue they thought would be “better” for the role the day before, or were too nervous. There are a million reasons why a great actor would tank an audition. Don’t let it discourage you. Take an audition class or work with a coach if this is a common problem for you. Do what you need to do. But KEEP TRYING. Invite artistic directors and casting directors to see your work. Don’t give up! You won’t tank them all.

And that’s my main piece of advice: Don’t give up. If this is your dream, persevere! Nothing is insurmountable. FALL DOWN SEVEN TIMES, GET UP EIGHT.

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Playwriting is Storytelling

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Maybe this will become a series: “Directing is Storytelling,” “Acting is Storytelling.” Since I’m right in the thick of season planning and reading a ton of plays every day, writing is my current focus.

Playwriting is storytelling. The primary function of a play is to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a linear narrative, or have realistic characters, or be traditionally structured in any way. But the basic human need to tell, share, hear, and create stories is as old as the human brain itself, and theatre is one of our oldest storytelling tools.

A play’s most basic elements are the story and the characters within that story. I encounter so many clunky, unsuccessful plays that focus on something other than one or both of those.

Plays about “issues” are probably the most prevalent. You have an opinion about something– abortion, the environment, religion. You write a play wherein the central events are all arguments about these things. This is not interesting. For one, we can all have arguments like these on facebook every day. We don’t need to stage or see a play in order to have The Argument Experience. Secondly, argument is not conflict. A play that consists largely of people shouting their opinions at one another is not a story about competing objectives. And while you might want to be the kind of person who thinks conflict isn’t central to dramatic narrative, I do not. I agree that conflict doesn’t have to be violent, or linear, or even interpersonal, but dramatic narrative is created by conflict of some kind– an important choice to be made, competing objectives, a task made difficult, a journey through something challenging.

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“The Mullet: My Journey, My Struggle,” a solo performance by John Stamos

Another unsuccessful “issue” play is one that’s predictable. These plays set up a weak, obviously assholic opposition and then eviscerates that opposition with the Magical Truth and Awesomeness of the playwright’s opinion on the issue. A victory over an obviously weak-ass antagonist, argument, or idea is not an exciting victory. Would you rather watch a game that came down to the final three seconds, or would you rather watch a 67-2 rout? If you want to tell the kind of story where one side triumphs over another side, the stronger you make the “losing” side, the more compelling the narrative will be and the more satisfying the conclusion.

Remember when you were an undergrad and you thought plays that insulted, offended, and discomfited the audience were hella cool? Because: EDGY. Now that I’m an adult who relies on the goodwill of my audience and ticket sales, I no longer have a bone to pick with my audience, or with “audiences” as a concept. I don’t see myself in an adversarial relationship with “audience” at all. But my company will still do plays that are extremely boundary-crossing, that often some audience members find uncomfortable or challenging in some way. The difference between a play to which we’ll commit time and money and one we will not is simple: while watching a well-written play that crosses boundaries, audience members who are uncomfortable feel that way because of a relationship they have to the material– to the events or the characters– that comes organically out of the story. That’s a culturally valuable challenge. But when I read a play that’s just randomly insulting or (attempting to be) shocking without any purpose other than to be randomly insulting or shocking, I set it aside. It’s all one big juvenile yawn unless it comes organically out of story. A toddler can rip up a bible and then pee into the shreds, it’s the job of high school sophomores to make semen jokes during lunch, and the internet is paved with hurled insults and “offensive” material. You have to give me something more than that– and the “more” is the kind of context that comes with compelling narrative. If your goal is to “offend,” just make another offensive tumblr. The most offensive aspect of that kind of theatre is charging $30 for something we can get by the wagonload for free online.

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Wrong kind of offensive line

Another area where playwrights often lose sight of storytelling is character relationship. Often a playwright will want to draw two people from different backgrounds together, and, instead of taking the time to do this with story, will use a superficial means that only ends up feeling forced. I see this all the time with smoking, pot, and alcohol– like the very fact that someone does one of these has the power to make you take a second look, reframe your opinion of them, and let them into your heart? Hasn’t every human alive done one or more of these things at one time? I’m not inviting John Boehner up to my hotel room just because we’re both drinking scotch. The second most popular approach is the shared superficial like– some song, musician, movie, brand of something, book. “What? You like Spaghetti-Os too? I previously hated you, but now LET’S FALL IN LOVE.” It never rings true. Sure, it’s enjoyable when you discover that someone likes the same underappreciated musician you do, and just as enjoyable to see a moment of connection between characters, but it’s not enough to act as the turning point of an entire relationship.

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Not enough beer in the world, Spleen.

Often playwrights will start a play with ten or fifteen pages of throat-clearing– meaningless dialogue that theoretically “introduces” characters and lays down exposition while actually, the play loses nothing and gains real momentum by skipping those pages entirely and diving directly into the narrative. If the first ten pages of your play are characters saying “Remember when [blah]?” “Remember how [a thing]?” “Remember the time [something]?” you should probably take a second look. I don’t know these people. Their reminiscences are of limited interest to me until I have a context within which to put them. Work that exposition into the narrative itself. Does your play start like this? “CRYSTAL: Remember when Mother died four seasons ago, during the worst alfalfa harvest in Cowcatcher County history, right after Father tried to sell the farm to the mysterious Dr. Ballsworth? And remember how we laughed when we discovered that in her will she had left the entire Farthill Valley to you and I? And remember how she used to say ‘A penny saved is a penny that could have been spent on vodka?'” Yeah, you can cut all that.

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Or you could just do this.

 

I recently read a play whose intricate relationships are painstakingly revealed, bit by bit, in a lovingly tended non-linear narrative, until a gut-punch of a fucking gorgeous payoff at the end, and I almost sprained my fingers on the keyboard in a rush to ask for the rights. What is the play “about”? What love means? Sacrifice? I’m still mulling that one over. Is every detail of the exposition laid down? Newp. But the play is so painfully, heartbreakingly, beautifully rendered that the characters and their story has been haunting me ever since. Why did she make that decision? Does she regret it? Was it worth it? What will happen to her after she’s made that final choice? I can’t get these characters out of my head. And *that’s* the impact you want to have on your audience.

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