Having Kids: Worst Idea, or Worst Idea Ever?

Jonah and Jacob, 2003

Jonah and Jacob, 2003

I have two kids, one I made myself and one I got free in a marital acquisition merger. So of course the title of this article is a joke, but the kind of joke that feels like the comedy equivalent of a right cross.

The truth is, it’s really, really, really difficult to have kids while you’re working in the theatre, most of us do it anyway, and most (all?) of us who decided to have kids while in this madness of a “lifestyle” believe it was totally worth it.

I’ve been asked many times about how I made parenting and a life in the theatre work. The sad truth is, there’s no magic formula that will make those early parenting years less difficult, but the happy truth is, it goes by in a blink. Your life as an artist will last decades, and your kids will only need direct supervision for 15ish years. It’s over before you know it. I know that’s not much consolation to people with a screaming baby who somehow have to teach three classes and rehearse for four hours on 37 minutes of sleep, but believe me, it’s true. Your screaming baby will be 15 and able to come home, do his homework, make his dinner, take a shower, and get himself to bed at a reasonable hour sooner than you think. It will be bittersweet, but it will happen.

Jonah and Jacob, goofing off on a road trip, 2014

Jonah and Jacob, goofing off on a road trip, 2014

How to make it to that point is the trick. When the kids are little, you’re living your life day-by-day. Just getting through each day with everyone fed, clothed, and alive is a minor triumph. On some days, a major one. My kids are now 16 and 17. I taught university classes and a high school summer intensive their entire lives. I finished my PhD when my son was three– one of my favorite pictures of myself is carrying him the day I was hooded. I went through four surgeries on my hips and pelvis. And I was doing theatre the entire time. Impact Theatre was founded in 1996, and my son was born in 1998. In 2003, my stepson, also born in 1998, came into my life. So I’ve been there, and I know how difficult it is.

Jonah and I, 2001.

Jonah and Mommy, May 2001.

Here’s my best advice about how to survive as a theatre parent.

1. Make sure your partner is wealthy, unemployed, and uninterested in doing theatre. The people I know with this set-up have a significantly easier time as a theatre parent. It’s even better when your partner has wealthy parents with an apartment or house you can live in rent-free. Did you already mess this one up, like I did, and marry someone awesome but lacking a vast, personal fortune? Or are you going it alone and made the mistake of being born into a family without a vast fortune? Read on.

My handsome husband on rehearsal break with fellow actor Ariel Irula, May 2015.

My handsome husband on rehearsal break with fellow actor Ariel Irula, May 2015. Stolen from his instagram. <3

2. Do fewer shows, and stagger them. My husband and I each did one show a year, and staggered them so there would always be someone home with the boys while the other one was in rehearsals and performances. The fact that I’m the artistic director of the theatre and control the scheduling (to a certain extent) and the casting (to an enormous extent) made this significantly easier for us, but I do know other theatre parents who use this method, even parents who are separated. If you’re not controlling your own scheduling, however, there may be nights of overlap, even when you’re staggering, when you’re both called somewhere. And of course, some of you are raising kids on your own. Here’s where your network comes in handy.

3. Make connections with young actors who like kids. These babysitters are lifesavers. In the Bay Area, pro babysitters are charging a mint, sometimes with surcharges for more than one kid, so you could be looking at an extra $100 for someone to watch little Shaw, Wycherly, and Dekker for one evening while you’re at rehearsal. A friend who loves kids but otherwise has a day job isn’t going to charge you $100 to watch your kids. On the contrary, a young actor will often do it for a few bucks and a bottle of wine, or even for free if you’re exchanging other types of favors– rides to and from the airport, monologue coaching, writing letters of recommendation, recommending them for roles, paying for the occasional dinner– the usual kinds of things we do for the younger actors in our lives. A major plus to this set-up is seeing adorable pictures of your kids pop up on the actor’s facebook or instagram while you’re at rehearsal. Young designers, directors, and playwrights are in shorter supply and usually busy– in rehearsal, feverishly completing a design or a script edit, or drunk. Sometimes all three, lucky bastards. But hey, if you can set that up, your kid might know how to use a sawzall by the time you get home. Score!

Jacob and Jonah in their WonderCon costumes, 2011.

Jacob and Jonah in their WonderCon costumes, April 2011.

4. Make connections with other theatre parents. Childcare exchanges with these families can be lifesavers, sometimes for both families. When the kids are old enough to entertain themselves for a bit, a playdate can keep little Kazan, Wolfe, and Malina busy while you sit down and answer some emails.

5. Moving closer to family isn’t a solution. I see people take this option all the time, and while it seems like it would be easier to be closer to the free babysitting that a grandparent or aunt can provide, in reality, those people have their own lives and problems, and aren’t always available on your schedule. Now you’re in a new location with no contacts, no network, and no one to watch Albee and McCraney while your parents are in the Catskills. And remember that you’re also on tap to help with their problems, issues, and kids as well, so not only do you have no babysitter for this weekend’s performances, but you’re also feeding your parents’ cat and committed to making treat bags for your nephew’s 3rd birthday party Saturday at a park 20 miles away with no bathroom the week after little Gotanda decided she would only wear princess underpants and no pull-ups, ever again, no, no, NO. Move closer to family because you want to be closer to family, not because you think they will be a big help to you.

6. Remember that it’s good for your kids to see you pursuing your passion. You’re not neglecting them if you’re showing them that Mommy is living her dream– you’re teaching them that it’s possible. Yes, they will sometimes guilt-trip you about leaving them and beg you to stay, but showing them that sometimes it’s Mommy’s turn to pursue Mommy’s interests is a valuable life lesson. It teaches them that their desires are not paramount every time (something some adults have yet to learn) and that taking time to pursue dreams and goals is a good thing. Sure, you could take it too far and actually neglect them if you’re doing back-to-back shows and out of the house every evening and weekend for six months. But if you’re doing one show a year, or some other reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine. Honest. One day they’ll be old enough to see your work, and that, I promise you, is an irreplaceable joy.

Jacob and Jonah, December 2012

Jacob and Jonah, December 2012

7. Don’t compare yourself to other parents. It’s undeniably true that a theatre family likely won’t have the resources (money or time) to schedule their kids into 57 extracurricular activities, have a leisurely homecooked family dinner every single night, or take little Rylance and Redgrave on European or tropical vacations every summer. And so what? Stop worrying about the fact that you don’t have the money other parents have. Stop worrying about the fact that you have a life and aren’t devoting every second of your free time to your kids. For one thing, there are children living all over the world in extreme poverty, so intense self-recrimination because, for example, your boys had to share a room in a safe and warm Bay Area house filled with food and videogames until they were teenagers (ahem) is patently ridiculous. For another, remember that very soon your kids will be teenagers, then adults and out of your house. If your entire life was devoted to those kids, when they’re gone, you’re screwed. Raising kids is a temporary gig, but your lifelong dreams and goals will always be there. While you’re in that temporary gig, make room for both– don’t devote yourself wholly to one or the other.

Jacob and Jon, September 2014.

Jacob and Jon, September 2014

8. Don’t compare yourself to childless friends, don’t criticize their choices, and just nod and smile when they say their pets are their children. Having kids is not for everyone. I don’t understand the pressure we put on people to have kids. The environment is stretched to the breaking point, maybe past it. Kids are demanding of your time, money, and energy. There are plenty of great reasons not to have kids, but some people will make it sound like a life is not complete without them. That’s bullshit. I wanted kids, and I had them, and I do not regret it for one moment, but I don’t see my voluntarily childless friends as some invalidation of my life choices, or as missing out on something necessary. Yes, having children is a unique experience. Having pets or nieces and nephews compares to it in the same way that jumping off a curb compares to flying a jet. There are joys and pains and mysteries and magic that only people with children experience. But living a childless life is ALSO a unique experience that I will never have, with its own joys and pains and mysteries and magic. Sending the kids to Grandma’s for the weekend probably compares to living a childless life like jumping off a curb compares to flying a jet– unlike my first example, I don’t have the experience to know, but I can guess from seeing the spontaneity and freedom my childless friends have. I would love it if we could all stop pretending that one experience is more valid or “real” than the other. Own your choice, love your choice, and be cool about people who make different choices.

Having pets is nothing like having children, and I know it’s annoying as hell when people say that it is. I know it’s irritating when people use that study that shows brain scans revealing that people love their pets like they love their children as proof, when they never read far enough to find out the differences discovered. They’re looking for confirmation about the way they feel, and they have no idea what the differences are between kids and pets because they haven’t experienced them. They don’t know, they can’t know, and I swear you will be happier if you don’t try to force the issue. Telling them they’re wrong does nothing in the world but annoy you both. Smile and nod and move on. If childless people with pets could stop telling people with seriously ill or lost children that they totally understand because they lost a pet, though, that would be cool. In those circumstances, raging at someone may be more of a sanity saver than letting it pass. I sincerely hope you never have to find out.

Jonah, May 2015

Jonah, May 2015

9. Always remember: THIS TOO SHALL PASS. I know I keep saying it, but it’s so true– it goes by in a blink. Do your best. Show your kids that you don’t have to trash your dreams to have kids. Love your kids lavishly, but never stop loving yourself or your art. It’s one of the most valuable things you can teach them.

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Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and “Freedom of Expression”

America has been exploding with issues surrounding the concept of “freedom of expression.” Like many freedoms, “freedom of expression” sounds great in the abstract. In the abstract, pretty much everyone outside of political and religious extremists are for “freedom of expression,” and the very fact that political and religious extremists are most decidedly not in favor of freedom of expression makes a certain kind of person even MORE in favor of it.

In the concrete, the issue of “freedom of expression,” like everything else in the world, is much more complex and nuanced, and if there’s one thing political and religious extremists– and the people who love to piss off political and religious extremists– hate, it’s complexity and nuance.

loren-anthony-adam-sandler-640x400

Adam Sandler on the set of The Ridiculous Six. Photo courtesy of actor Loren Anthony’s Instagram, which you can follow at @lorenanthony

 

When Native American actors walked off the set in protest over the racism in Adam Sandler’s latest film, the ensuing controversy was unsurprising. The internet exploded with the coverage, and the backlash was instantaneous and fierce. Those who supported the actors were accused of suppressing freedom of expression, and misunderstanding the boundary-crossing nature of comedy. When PEN announced that Charlie Hebdo would be receiving its Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, the ensuing controversy was also unsurprising. When 145 PEN members formally protested (that number has now grown to over 200), they were met with another predictable backlash that included a wealth of BUT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION scolding. A lesser-known, but equally important, controversy happened earlier this year when stand-up comic Ari Shaffir viciously attacked fellow, lesser-known stand-up Damienne Merlina both for her disability (Merlina lost an arm in a car accident) and her weight, in his Comedy Central special. When Merlina posted a YouTube video calling Shaffir out for the attack, she was met with a barrage of criticism– and even mockery– for daring to speak out against her own attacker. A major part of the backlash Merlina received was centered around the fact that comedy was meant to cross boundaries, and that those attacked should understand that, shut up, and take it.

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

“Freedom of expression” is an emotional issue. It’s difficult to have productive conversations about its complexities. People have knee-jerk emotional reactions around protecting it in the abstract that prevent them from considering its complexities in the concrete. But it’s well worth the effort to at least try.

You may have heard the expression “punching up” and/or “punching down.” It’s fairly easy to understand. “Punching up” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups in power. This is the kind of humor most often used throughout history by progressive political and social movements. Imagine a cartoon making fun of a political figure, or Christianity’s active oppression of LGBT rights. “Punching down” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups who are marginalized, oppressed, and targeted by bigotry. Imagine a film mocking Native Americans. Imagine a cartoon mocking the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram just to make an unrelated political point. Imagine a comedian with a national spotlight attacking a young woman by name– a woman who wasn’t even there and had nothing to do with the event– for her disability and weight.

Comedy that “punches up” has long been a tool for political and social change. Punching holes in the cultural and political power of dominant groups is what people do when they want to call that power and dominance into question, when they want the culture to begin considering how that power and dominance is wielded, and whether such consolidation of power and dominance is, actually, a good idea. “Punching up” requires extreme bravery. “Punching up” is more than speaking truth to power– it’s speaking truth to power while telling power its fly is open. Punching up is dangerous because it challenges power, and power retaliates brutally. Thousands of people have been jailed and executed for punching up. There are people sitting in jail right this moment in many areas of the world for punching up, and they will not be the last.

Bassem Yussef, an Egyptian satirist often compared to Jon Stewart, was arrested in March, 2013 for allegedly insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam. He was released on bail. In April 2013, he was named one of Time's 100 most influential people.

Bassem Yussef, an Egyptian satirist often compared to Jon Stewart, was arrested in March, 2013 for allegedly insulting President Mohammed Morsi and Islam. He was released on bail. In April 2013, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.

Comedy that “punches down” has long been a tool for political and social oppression. Mocking groups that suffer bigotry and oppression is what people do when they want to solidify that bigotry and oppression, when they want to solidify their own cultural and political power and dominance over that marginalized group. Punching down requires no bravery whatsoever, because it’s done from a place of cultural primacy. Occasionally extremist members of a marginalized group will retaliate in reprehensible ways. Murder is never an acceptable response to comedy, period. But that kind of retaliation is rare. No one in their right mind believes that murdering people who work at Charlie Hebdo is an acceptable response to the content they publish, no matter what it may be. But no one in their right mind believes– or should believe– that Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam in a nation where Muslims are common targets of bigotry puts it in the same position as a North Korean drawing cartoons mocking Kim Jung Un.

Many people are quick to point out that Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir punch both up and down. Charlie Hebdo, apologists are quick to point out, mocks Christianity as often as it mocks Judaism or Islam, and mocks right-wing politics even more. But that argument is the height of intellectual laziness. Punching up does not inoculate you from the effects of punching down. Mocking the powerful is one thing; mocking people who are daily victims of bigotry is entirely another. Despite France’s humanist bent, Christianity still holds enormous cultural power there, while Jews and Muslims suffer routine bigotry and discrimination. (Attacks against Muslims since the Charlie Hebdo attacks have focused primarily on women.) Despite Adam Sandler’s willingness to mock himself and other people in power, Native Americans suffer routine, institutionalized, daily bigotry in America. Despite Comedy Central’s willingness to air comedy that mocks people in power, the disabled suffer enormous daily bigotry in our culture. Punching up is a completely different activity– culturally, politically, and morally– than punching down.

Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas and anti-semitic slogans in the Jewish cemetery of Brumath close to Strasbourg, October 31, 2004. Jewish cemeteries have been, and continue to be, targeted as antisemitism rises in France. (photo: Reuters)

Graves desecrated by vandals with Nazi swastikas and anti-semitic slogans in the Jewish cemetery of Brumath close to Strasbourg, October 31, 2004. Jewish cemeteries have been, and continue to be, targeted as antisemitism rises in France. (photo: Reuters)

 

Muslim cemeteries are similarly vandalized. Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery near Arras, northern France, April 7, 2008.  Photo: Reuters/Sadouki

Muslim cemeteries are similarly vandalized. Although anti-Muslim attacks have skyrocketed in France since the Charlie Hebdo shooting, anti-Muslim bigotry and attacks were well underway beforehand. Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery near Arras, northern France, was vandalized in April, 2008. (Photo: Reuters/Sadouki)

And yet, because power rewards power, PEN granted an award for courage to Charlie Hebdo. Because power rewards power, Netflix continues to give Adam Sandler millions of dollars to make his crappy movie. Because power rewards power, entertainment corporations continue to shower Ari Shaffir with money. And so it goes.

I believe in freedom of expression, both in the abstract and in the concrete. I don’t think we should be censoring bigotry. I am adamantly opposed to censorship. But I also think– because this issue is complex– that we need to be thinking hard about the difference between tolerating the expression of bigotry and rewarding it.

We need to stop pretending that speaking out against the expression of bigotry is “anti-freedom of expression,” when in fact it is the exact opposite– it’s exercising one’s own freedom of expression. Being told your opinion is nonsense is not the same as being denied the right to express your opinion. Being told that your employer is not interested in paying you for expressions of bigotry is not the same as being denied the right to express bigotry at all. And speaking out against giving an award for courage to a magazine that routinely mocks marginalized groups is not equivalent to speaking out against that magazine’s right to print whatever the hell it wants. Supporting your right to freedom of expression need not include rewarding you for that expression, nor need it include freedom from criticism.

I think Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, Ari Shaffir, and anyone else should be allowed to punch down as often and as viciously as they like. And I think those with the power to dole out awards– whether literal awards or financial awards– should stop and think for a moment about whether they actually wish to reward punching down.

We spend millions of dollars on anti-bullying campaigns, initiatives, and education in schools. We’re fooling ourselves that kids can’t see through the hypocrisy of adults telling them bullying is always wrong and then turning right around and rewarding bullying done by adults. What’s the difference between a playground bully mocking a Muslim kid, a disabled kid, an overweight kid, or a Native American kid, and what Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir have done? If the bully says, “But I make fun of everyone,” does that excuse the rest of his bullying? Of course not. So why is that used to excuse adult behavior?

An anti-bullying poster from National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment. Learn more about them and their anti-bullying initiatives, at nveee.org.

An anti-bullying poster from National Voices for Equality, Education, and Enlightenment. Learn more about them and their anti-bullying initiatives at nveee.org.

And before you even bother posting comments defending any or all of the three I’ve discussed, the principle remains whether I’m right in my analysis of those particular three or not. We punch down in this culture all the time. We reward that kind of bullying with accolades, money, and power. We defend it with “it’s just a joke,” “you’re too sensitive,” and a barrage of like nonsense from privilege stomping its feet and throwing tantrums because their bigoted fun is being spoiled with our dissent. “It’s just a joke” is perhaps the most intellectually lazy argument of them all, as if the presence of humor evacuates its long history of keeping marginalized people “in their place.”

And while I will be the first one to defend your right to punch down– your right to freedom of expression– I’m appalled at the fact that we reward that behavior. It’s long past the time we stopped confusing tolerance with appreciation and reward.

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Handheld Technology Has Not Ruined Today’s Youth Any More Than Dig Dug Ruined You

If there’s one thing that grinds my gears, it’s the disingenuous concern trolling over the rising generation’s “addiction” to technology, and how it has impacted their ability to [fill in the blank] the way WE DID WHEN WE WERE KIDS AS GOD INTENDED !!11!

Because this is a blog about theatre, I’m going to limit myself to speaking specifically to the outrageous idea that technology prevents the rising generation from appreciating art.

This picture is blowing up my various feeds right now:

Photo by Alvaro Garnero

Photo by Gijsbert van der Wal

This is one brief snapshot. We have no idea what these kids were doing just before or just after. Yet there are approximately 17 shitloads of “tsk tsk” and “This is our future” in my feed. Speaking as someone who has personally witnessed hundreds of high school and college kids blown away by art, I implore you to think more deeply about this.

We’re unthinkingly and unfairly using this picture (and the entire concept of handheld tech) to condemn an entire generation. Think for a moment: were kids enthralled to go to museums in the 1950s? Were kids enraptured by Mozart in the 1960s? Were kids stampeding Joan Didion lectures en masse in the 1970s? What pretend past are we mourning here? Sure, there have always been kids who were enthralled by classical art at an early age (and I was one of them), but the vast majority of kids– and adults– are not. Why are we condemning kids for looking at their phones instead of Rembrandt when most of you would be doing the exact same thing? How long have these kids been on this field trip? How tired are they? How many paintings of white men standing around have they been dragged past? And we dare to use this snapshot to condemn not just them, but their entire generation?

And has anyone bothered to note that this painting is hanging in a museum with an app-guided tour?

Elvis Presley was shot from the waist up when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 to protect teenage girls watching at home from his hip-shaking and its perceived sexuality.

Elvis Presley was shot from the waist up when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 to protect teenage girls watching at home from his hip-shaking and its perceived sexuality.

We talk a lot about wanting to engage the rising generation in theatre, and I’m seeing a lot of “what can we do about this?” commentary on this picture. Listen: If you want to engage the rising generation, the first thing you need to do is stop lying to yourself about them. You’ll fail to engage them if you don’t approach them with honesty. You can start by dropping the lie that our generation was any better in any way. Kids can smell dishonesty, and self-congratulation masked as concern is about the most dishonest approach you can take.

This is exactly why 99.999% of “audience engagement strategies” fail miserably to bring in young, diverse audiences. This is why “tweet seats” failed. We’re not looking at this generation honestly. Instead we look at studies designed from the outset to confirm our hypotheses. We make assumptions about how the rising generation thinks and feels based on how they make us think and feel. We refuse to engage them on their own terms, instead dictating the terms to them and then blaming them for boorishness when they fail to meet them.

Gorgeous young Franz Liszt, seen here in an 1839 portrait by Henri Lehmann, inspired a  frenzy in his young, usually female, fans, known at the time as

Gorgeous young Franz Liszt, seen here in an 1839 portrait by Henri Lehmann, inspired a frenzy in his young, usually female, fans, known at the time as “Lisztomania.” Women would wear vials containing his discarded coffee dregs and bracelets made of his broken piano strings. He was chased through the streets by young women attempting to grab a lock of his hair. The older generations were horrified and believed it to be a literal psychological disease.

Young people are no different now than they ever were, and the current pearl-clutching over tech is no different than the worry that comic books would ruin childrens’ minds, reading would make young women hysterical, jazz (and then rock and roll) would turn teens into sex-mad beasts, and television would “rot” children’s minds.

“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.” – Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, May 8, 1940

There’s no need to fight a battle we’re creating in our own minds. If we don’t look at the rising generation honestly, but instead seek to confirm our own biases about them, we are only going to speak to them in ways they know are dishonest, and get nowhere. Remember how lame older people sounded to us when we were teenagers, and how little they understood about our lives? That’s how we look to kids today when we post stuff like the museum photo above as proof of their lack of worth and how they are, essentially, a problem for older generations to solve.

The rising generation? They are wonderful. They are more politically active than your generation was at the same age. They are more supportive of equality than previous generations. They are brilliant, creative, funny, bold, and bright. And most importantly: They create and consume TONS of art. Whether or not it’s art you like is entirely irrelevant.

Are they perfect? Of course not. But approaching them as a problem to be solved is not going to create the kind of engagement we want. Give them room to speak. It gets us nowhere to tell them what they should be interested in, and then condemn them for their lack of interest. When Ms. Nelson made you read Keats in the 6th grade, and you hated it; when Ms. Sciambi made you look at all those Goya paintings, and you hated it; when Mr. Rodriguez made you listen to Wagner, and you hated it, what did that say about you? When you went home from school and read your D&D Player’s Handbook, listened to Run DMC, and played Dig Dug, what did that say about you? Right, nothing, apart from the fact that you were a normal kid who liked normal kid things.

Yes, we need to expose kids to the arts. We need much much more arts education than we have now. Art saves lives– I believe that. BUT. I was that nerd kid grooving on Keats, Goya, and Wagner in class, and everyone (apart from my nerd clique) gave me no end of shit about it. So now, while the rising generation behaves exactly as you did, you’re talking about how they need to be saved from themselves?

You were fine. They’ll be fine. Keep making art and inviting them. Keep trying– always keep trying. But appreciate them on their own terms. Do not ignore their art, or dismiss it as worthless. And please keep your judgypants in the closet or I will start publishing those pictures of you all from that middle school museum field trip where you were wearing sunglasses and Hammer pants and refusing to look at the paintings that didn’t have naked ladies in them.

Le Sommeil, Gustave Courbet, 1866. Turning middle schoolers into art lovers for 150 years.

Le Sommeil, Gustave Courbet, 1866. Turning middle schoolers into art lovers for 150 years.

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How To Rock Your Musical Theatre Audition

I understand that there are something like 47,000 books on this topic, but I’m going to give you some succinct, usable advice right now for free.

In addition to running Impact Theatre, I’m also the casting director at a TYA company, Bay Area Children’s Theatre, which is a blast. For one, it’s incredibly relaxing to be in a space where the final decision isn’t mine (Me: “Wow, what a tough choice– all three of those actors are great. Welp, I’m headed home– lemme know what you want to do!”) Secondly, it’s been fun to learn more about TYA and casting musicals, two things I knew very little about before I started. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was an opera singer, so I have a solid working knowledge of singing and singers. By the time I got to BACT, I had been casting shows for over 20 years, so I had a solid working knowledge of what makes a good audition and what should be avoided. I was bringing years of experience to the table, which helped me learn very quickly what makes an excellent musical theatre audition and what amounts to self-sabotage.

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

An audition is a fact-finding mission. We’re looking for answers to specific questions, and everything else is pretty much irrelevant. I’m not going to get into general audition tips– I’ve already written about that quite a bit (here, here, here). I want to speak specifically about your song.

1. I’m surprised how many people choose songs that tell us pretty much nothing about their voices. So many songs from the past 10 or so years of musical theatre writing are very poor choices for audition pieces– they’re conversational, almost recitative-like in places (if you know opera) and it’s impossible to tell what your voice can really do. You want a song that shows off your vocal quality and capabilities. It doesn’t impress us if the song is from a new musical or if it’s a song we’ve never heard before. That kind of thing is more relevant with monologues. We’re looking for answers to specific questions, like– What is her vocal type? Does she have a belt or is she more of a “legit” singer? What’s her legato like? How accurate is her pitch? What kind of volume can she attain, and is she showing the kind of throat tension that will cause her to lose her voice by the end of opening weekend? There are so many more, some dictated by the type of musical we’re casting (more on that below). If you’re interested in new musicals, there are so many great choices out there. Choose a song that shows off your vocal chops. Choose a song you love to sing because it’s right in your sweet spot. Don’t choose a song that’s cool, and has a lot of depth, but has a five-note vocal range. It just doesn’t tell us what we need to know. We’re not looking for someone to choose material– we’re looking for someone who can perform it.

Zero Mostel in the original 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, © Photofest, Inc., courtesy of Gret Performances, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

Zero Mostel in the original 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, © Photofest, Inc., courtesy of Great Performances, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

2. Don’t choose a song that’s overly ambitious. Every role has its own, specific needs. Some roles require a great deal of virtuosity, some require the ability to navigate tight harmonies without pushing your way to the front of the group, and some can be Rex Harrisoned through. Take realistic stock of your abilities and show us what they are. No matter where you are, there’s a role for you somewhere in the world of musical theatre. If you assume you need to reach for something you can’t actually do, all we know is that you can’t do something– we never got to see what you CAN do.

3. You are not Kristin Chenoweth. Unless you’re Kristin Chenoweth, who I assume, doesn’t read Bitter Gertrude. ANYWAY. Are you singing with your natural voice? Or are you pushing it out your nose to try to get that signature Kristin Chenoweth nasally sound? She has a very distinctive, fun quality to her voice, and that’s just how her voice sounds. You honestly don’t need to imitate her to get roles. Be yourself. When you push your voice out your nose, we can hear it, and we wonder what your voice really sounds like. BECAUSE WE DON’T KNOW. Let Kristin do Kristin. You do you. Nothing against KC, but I’ll be happy when women stop imitating her.

Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

4. We tell you it’s OK when you don’t bring sheet music, but it’s actually not. I mean, it kind of is? We still want to see you. But a large part of performing a musical is being able to match pitch with the accompaniment. Can you hear the piano (or the guitar, or the orchestra) as you’re singing and match pitch? When you sing a capella, we’re left with partial information. This is why we’ll often asking you to sing scales, or Happy Birthday, or something along those lines with the piano if you come in with an a capella audition. Better to sing the song you’ve practiced than suddenly be asked to bust out the Star Spangled Banner on the spot, no? Bring your music.

5. Choose a song that’s contextually appropriate. If you’re not familiar with the musical, or if it’s a new musical in development, find out what kind of singing the role requires. There’s a world of difference between Dreamgirls, Into the Woods, American Idiot, and The Sound of MusicBringing a song that’s appropriate for one won’t necessarily give us the knowledge we need if we’re casting one of the others. If we ask for an “uptempo musical theatre song,” don’t bring in a rock song, a ballad, or a nine-minute Sondheim extravaganza. (In fact, avoid Sondheim completely, which of course is the advice you get everywhere, and you’re not going to find any disagreement here.) If you need clarification about the music in the show, or what’s expected at the audition, ask!

Nell Carter and Ken Page in the original Broadway production of Ain't Misbehaving, 1978. Photo by Bill Evans.

Nell Carter and Ken Page in the original Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehaving, 1978. Photo by Bill Evans.

6. Act your song. I’m sure you’ve heard this one million times, and here it is again. Your song is like a monologue. It has a narrative– a beginning, a middle, and an end. When something’s repeated (such as the chorus) find a reason why your character is repeating herself. “She’s happy” or “she loves him” or “she likes to sing” are pretty much the least interesting choices you can make. You can be happy, in love, or possess a predilection for something in silence, in words, or through (God help us) interpretive dance. There’s a reason your character is singing, and it’s not because “this is how it’s written.” Make clear, bold acting choices about your intro, every line you sing, the bridges, and the outro. Think, plan, rehearse.

7. REHEARSE. Prep a variety of songs you can use for the various types of musicals in which you’re interested. Then you’ll have a few songs from which you can choose, always ready to go, for most auditions. When you come in under-rehearsed, we can tell, and we wonder if you will be similarly unprepared in rehearsals. I’d honestly rather see an inappropriate song than an under-rehearsed one.

Nia Holloway as Nala and Jelani Remy as Simba in the Lion King national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Nia Holloway as Nala and Jelani Remy as Simba in the Lion King national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

8. Do it, enjoy it, and forget it. It’s just an audition. You will do eleventy billion of them. Coming in tense will jack your voice. I’ve seen plenty of people miss a high note or squeak instead of belt due to nerves. Try not to stress. Do whatever you need to do to come in relaxed– within reason. I know sometimes people will tell you to have a glass of wine before you go in, but the last thing you want is the casting assistant scooting in a few steps ahead of you to inform us that you smell like you’ve been drinking. Never lose sight of the fact that an audition is a job interview. But also never lose sight of the fact that, like a job interview, we’re auditioning for you as much as you’re auditioning for us. You want to work for a company that respects you, and for which you enjoy working. I think sometimes that focus can help with nerves. When it’s done, walk away. Try not to obsess about it. There are so many reasons people don’t get cast, and talent is only one of many. If you don’t get cast, don’t take it as a sign of your worth as a performer, because it’s not, at all.

I hope this was helpful! Now go rock it out.

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

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

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

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

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

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Why Is Race the Line?

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact's production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Lord Capulet (Jon Nagel) and his nephew Tybalt (Reggie D. White) in Impact’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I had an interesting conversation with a theatremaker recently about casting. The discussion centered around multiethnic casting, particularly whether casting actors of different races as members of the same family would make the storytelling in the play unclear. The concern was that audience members would have trouble reading the actors as related and therefore have trouble following the play’s narrative.

If you’ve followed my blog for more than 12 seconds you already know what I think (diverse casting is GO), but I gave this particular aspect of diverse casting some serious thought, as this is nowhere near the first time I’ve had this discussion. Here’s where I landed:

Why is race the line?

That’s a serious question, btw, not a facetious construction meant to elicit a WOMP WOMP from my fellow SJWs. We take it for granted that we put our disbelief in suspension when we go to the theatre, but that suspension has limits. When we see something inaccurate onstage, for example, it pulls us out of the narrative. When an actor playing a medical professional pronounces the word “larynx” as “larnyx,”or says the blood type B+ as “B plus” (both of which I’ve heard), I have trouble maintaining the belief that that person is a medical professional.

In casting, however, we make enormous allowances. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of As You Like It although the actress playing Rosalind is married to the actress playing Celia, the actor playing Orlando is married to the costume designer, and the actor playing Charles the Wrestler has never wrestled a day in his life. We take it for granted that the storytelling remains intact in a production of Romeo and Juliet although we know Lord Capulet, Lady Capulet, Juliet, and Tybalt are not related and, in fact, look nothing alike. We lauded Peter Dinklage as Richard III although his disability is nothing like what Richard’s was, and we lauded both Sir Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey as Richard III, although neither has any disability at all.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

Kevin Spacey as Richard III at the Old Vic in London. Photo by Nigel Norrington.

It goes even further than that. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet’s nurse who is far too old to have plausibly given birth 13 years prior, although her entire relationship with Juliet hangs on that fact. People think nothing of casting a woman as Juliet who is visibly more than twice Juliet’s repeatedly stated age. We rarely expect an actor playing Iago to have military bearing although his years-long military experience and current military rank are central to the character and the narrative of the play. Hell, we live in a world where a major company can hire an all-white cast to do a show as vague “Native Americans” and almost no one bats an eye apart from Native American theatremakers and a few bloggers (also this).

So why is it so common for theatremakers to hesitate considering– or even refuse to consider– an actor of color to play the daughter of a white man, a Puritan farmer, the grandmother of a white woman, or a founding father (all examples taken from personal experience or discussions I’ve had with other theatremakers)? When we already are well aware that the actor isn’t the character, the characters’ relationships are (almost always) feigned, and the locations and actions are (almost always) pretend, why is that one factor– race– the line in the sand?

I don’t mean to discount the importance of race in our culture, or in the lived experience of people of color. What I mean is: Why is race so often THE most important consideration in casting, even when the production is not specifically about race? Why is race considered so much more important than other factors, such as age, suitability for the role, or skillset?

If you’re producing A Raisin in the Sun, M Butterfly, or Othello, the race of the characters is of primary importance, but most plays are not specifically about race. There’s no reason Tybalt cannot be Black in an otherwise all-Caucasian Capulet family. There’s no reason Eurydice cannot be Asian and her father cannot be white in Sarah Ruhl’s play. There’s no reason Joe Pitt cannot be Latino while Hannah Pitt is white in Angels. My own cousin is Black, and there are literally millions of other multiracial families in the US.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater's Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Julie Eccles as Gertrude and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.

The three main arguments I hear about this go as follows:

1. But they WERE all white in that time and place. For one thing, are you certain? Because you’re probably wrong, even when you’re talking about Puritan Massachusetts or Colonial America. And also: So? There are lots of things we’re choosing not to depict accurately (some of which I’ve listed above), either because we have made a choice to believe they aren’t important, or because we don’t have the capability to. Think about this: 130 years ago, the difference between an Italian person and a white person would have been apparent to any American. To cast an obviously Italian woman as Juliet would have appeared absurd to an American audience in 1885, even though Juliet IS Italian, due to the enormous racial prejudice against Italian immigrants at the time.

2. Well, how about white people playing Black characters? Huh? Why can’t THAT happen? HUH? REVERSE RACISM. Well, it actually DOES happen, especially in Hollywood. Google “whitewashing.” I’ve already covered why this is problematic in this very space a bunch of times. Here, read this. Don’t believe me? Check out Racebending.

3. It will make the narrative hard to follow. This is the argument that arguably has the most (any) merit. A friend of mine has a daughter who looks exactly like her in every way but skin color, and did so even as a toddler. Although they looked so much alike, she was constantly asked, “Where did you get her?” I told my friend she should reply, “Out of my uterus.” People often unthinkingly assume all familial relationships are biological, and then use racial similarity as a marker for familial relationship, even though they know, if they pause to consider, that adoption, stepchildren, and biracial people exist. Stories like these underlie that. However, we can’t necessarily apply that to theatre. We don’t know the relationships of any of the characters onstage until they are revealed to us, and we already know we’re in the world of pretend. If you tell an audience that, for example, two men of different races are brothers, almost everyone in the audience will accept that. It’s not uncommon, especially in indie theatre and in areas with diverse populations, to see diverse families onstage. Yet some theatremakers still hesitate to cast people of color for reasons of narrative clarity, yet will discount literally every other physical marker as unimportant.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre's Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Sean Mirkovich as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Kelvyn Mitchell as his brother, George, Duke of Clarence, in Impact Theatre’s Richard III. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I think what’s going on here is simple. We see “white” as “normal,” the baseline: neutral. We see people of color as a deviation from that– particular,  different, “other.” Race has narrative, of course, and we must consider that narrative while casting. If you have an all-white cast apart from one Black actor who’s playing the bad guy, you’re saying something specific. But often diversity in a play that’s not about race doesn’t change the narrative at all. How much difference would it make to the narrative of As You Like It if cousins Rosalind and Celia were of different races?

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

Sarah Dandridge as Rosalind and Francesca Choy-Kee as Celia in the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s production of As You Like It. Photo by Sandy Underwood.

But because we see whiteness as “neutral,” when we look at white actors, we imagine a palette of possibilities, a narrative polyvalence, that we do not afford to people of color. A white person can be anything; a person of color is primarily and foremost “of color,” and therefore is relegated in most cases to inhabiting spaces already designated as such. A white person is read as “person”; a Black person is read as “Black person.” There are casting directors who still separate their files into “ingenue,” “leading man,” “Asian,” “Black.” White people are divided into types; people of color are their race alone. Thankfully, this is becoming less and less common, but we’re still far behind full inclusion of people of color. However, even small gains by people of color in casting are seen as a threat to white actors. We have a long way to go.

Years ago I made a personal commitment to include people of color in lists of actors I was recommending for roles wherein race wasn’t specified. Whether that had any impact on the eventual casting of the role or not, it was one way I felt like I could personally challenge the idea of whiteness as neutral in my day-to-day life. I get these all the time– people ask me for recommendations for roles like “woman, 20s, good comic timing, excellent physicality” or “man, 30s, sophisticated, witty, elegant.” All too often the implication is that a role is white if not otherwise specified, and I refuse to accept that. We’re getting better at diverse casting, certainly, but we’re still struggling with it, particularly on larger stages, where some directors can be enormously resistant.

While we take it for granted that an audience can see past a 30-year-old woman playing a 13-year-old girl (“come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen”), or a 70-year old woman playing that 13-year-old girl’s wet nurse; while we take it for granted that people will accept Kevin Spacey as disabled; we all too often refuse to take it for granted that an audience will accept a diverse family or a Black Puritan.

It’s time to rethink this. We need to slow down and recognize when we’re positing whiteness as neutral and color as a deviation from that, and we need to stop imagining that the only places audiences can tolerate actors of color are in spaces clearly designated for them. We need those ethnic-specific roles (and plays), certainly, but we also need to open our minds to making our onstage families look more like our offstage families; to giving our audiences credit for being willing and able to play pretend with us wherever we take them; and to giving actors of color consideration for their types, talents, and abilities apart from– and in addition to– their ethnicities.

Bay Area Children's Theatre's production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s production of Five Little Monkeys. Mama Monkey and her five little monkeys as one happy (and busy!) family. Photo by Joshua Posamentier.

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Go Ahead and Start Your New Company. But.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tumbleweed

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

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

Dear Mr. Clarke:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Melissa

UPDATE: (Or should that be PS?):

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

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

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

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

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Homing in on Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oh, THAT Play

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

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

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

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

I have questions.

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

I’m exhausted by:

THE SPACE BETWEEN THE NIGHT AND THE STARS

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

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

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

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

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

~FIN~

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

pouring a drink

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