Celebrating Thin White Women

Sometimes it seems like our whole entire culture is one huge celebration of thin white women. Ogling them, collecting them, advertising products to help other women become more like them, giving them all the awards for everything ever. It’s not just that the pinnacle of American womanhood is seen as thin and white (and cis, and able-bodied). It’s that thin white women are framed as “normal,” “neutral,” and every other woman is measured by her distance from that “norm.” “Black woman,” “transwoman,” “plus-size woman.”

Maybe this is changing, maybe not. Like you, I live on the internet, where one can find pictures of all types of women, from professional shots to vacation snaps, and plus-size (I know, I know, bear with me) women are everywhere. There are plus-size models (both professional and indie, some with huge followings), fashion bloggers (also with huge followings), sex bloggerssingers in various genres, photographers who specialize in gorgeous shots of plus-size people, and, of course, a handful of famous plus-size actors cast in film and television roles. The body positivity movement is extremely popular, and has a significant presence on every social media platform and the internet in general, where it promotes self-acceptance and stands against the shaming, bullying, and body policing with which women (and some men) are victimized every day, as well as the tsunami of relentless backlash the movement itself faces.

Model Tess Holliday (Source: Vogue Italia, vogue.it)

Model Tess Holliday (Source: Vogue Italia, vogue.it)

Nothing brings out the angry, outraged commenters faster than a picture of a woman who’s not rail-thin.

Humans LOVE bigotry. We LOVE grouping together in “us” vs. “them” to shame, disparage, and belittle “them,” shoring up our “us” identity and placating our own insecurities and self-doubts. This makes us feel like we’re part of something larger, something strong, something, above all, superior. This is an intense human impulse that is expressed in things as damaging as racism and as benign as choosing a sports team. When we claim membership to a group, along with that comes shaming, disparaging, and belittling people who are not in that group, either good-naturedly when we have no real power over “them” (“Dodgers suck”) or with devastating consequences when we do. Every single group that ever existed has a list of “known,” “true,” or even “scientifically proven” reasons that people outside their group deserve disparagement. Science has been used to confirm literally every racial bias the west has ever had.

Science only gets answers to the questions it asks. The cultural biases of researchers very often generate results that confirm those biases. Biases lead researchers to create studies or aggregate data in ways that are designed to produce results that confirm their biases. Science understands this and attempts to correct for it with things like double-blind studies and peer review, which are all, of course, still deeply influenced by the culture.

Don’t get me wrong– I’m very pro-science. But I’m also realistic. The well-known cultural trope of “overweight = unhealthy” is being problematized in study after study (after study), while other studies confirm it (as relentlessly reported in every corner of the media). Which studies are “true”? The ones that confirm your pre-existing biases, of course. The rest are “junk science.”

Marie Denee, founder and editor of The Curvy Fashionista-- curvyfashionista.com. (source: Glamour.com)

Marie Denee, founder and editor of The Curvy Fashionista– curvyfashionista.com. (source: Glamour.com)

There’s an enormous amount of conflicting information about what an “ideal” weight is (the ranges were ratcheted lower several times in the 20th century), how people become overweight, lose weight, or maintain weight loss, yet our culture “knows” that overweight people are that way through choice, laziness, gluttony, lack of self-control, or even a lack of moral fiber, thereby excusing and even lauding the bigotry against fat people.

When an image of a woman who is not rail-thin is publicly displayed in any context other than one specifically discussing her weight in a negative light, even if the context has nothing whatsoever to do with weight, people go out of their way to make disparaging comments. The comments fall into two main categories: insults/slurs, and some version of “I’m just concerned about [this total stranger’s] health”/”this promotes an unhealthy lifestyle.”

You can’t determine the health of an individual by looking at a picture. If you look at a picture of a fat person and think, “they’re unhealthy,” you’re engaged in an act of bigotry stemming from cultural bias, not making a medically sound diagnosis. And if you’re not posting similar comments on images of high heels, MMA and boxingbacon, or other well-known public health concerns, then you are a concern troll: someone who uses “concern” as a cover for shaming, belittling, and bullying.

Actress Gabourey Sidibe at the Golden Globes in 2014. ( Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Actress Gabourey Sidibe at the Golden Globes in 2014. ( Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Someone cannot “promote” any kind of lifestyle simply by existing. Yet I’ve seen– we’ve all seen– “this is promoting an unhealthy lifestyle” comments on shampoo ads, fashion photography, celebrity profiles, and even photos of fat women working out.

The August 2015 cover of Women's Running featured model and runner Erica Schenk, drawing both widespread praise and criticism. (James Farrell, WomensRunning.com)

The August 2015 cover of Women’s Running featured model and runner Erica Schenk, drawing both widespread praise and criticism. (James Farrell, WomensRunning.com)

And let’s pause for a moment and remember that this issue is intersectional, and that larger women of color are the targets of unfathomable bigotry and hostility. Most people don’t even bother to cover their bigotry with “concern” like they do for white women.

We’re in a cultural moment where people are pushing back against thin privilege, and are being met with culturally-approved, flat-out HATRED. As content creators in the entertainment industry, who impact culture more than any other single source, we need to work against this hatred.

Indie model Sydney Sparkles, from her Instagram account, @aussieplussizebarbie

Indie model Sydney Sparkles, from her Instagram account, @aussieplussizebarbie

We stand up for gender parity, yet the only women our industry feels are worthy of inclusion are thin ones, or women like Robyn Lawley, whose “plus size” (at 6’2″) is 12. We need to stand up for the inclusion of ALL women, which includes stepping away from the constant, constant focus on women who only fit a certain body type unless the script explicitly calls for it. The adamant defense of thin privilege throughout our industries has got to stop, and the only way to get there is to make a conscious decision to stop it. This is our choice to make, and we must make it.

Robyn Lawley is considered a

Robyn Lawley is considered a “plus size model,” the first to be featured in Sports Illustrated. Photo: James Macari/si.com

We need to be realistic about the ways our current fight for gender parity often ignores intersectionality. Here in the Bay Area, there’s been some discussion about adding a marker to theatre listings that indicates which shows have gender parity (cast, crew, and playwright) so people can support them.  This ignores a raft of crucial issues. A show about four thin, white, wealthy women would be starred and therefore recommended and publicly congratulated, yet a show devised and performed by four young Black men speaking the truths about their lives would not.

Of course many (perhaps most) people fighting for gender parity are also fighting for greater racial diversity, but I’ve personally seen industry professionals say things like, “Gender is a more important issue than race, which is basically just a look.” I’ve seen multiple times: “We have to cast beautiful women because actors have to be desirable objects for the audience,” which begs the question: What is “beautiful?” Because I will bet the farm that means thin, white, able-bodied, and cis.

Yet WE CONTROL what “beautiful” is. We change the definition of beauty by creating cultural content. We’ve done it over and over and over, from Gibson Girls to Clara Bow to Marilyn Monroe to Farrah Fawcett to Scarlett Johansson. This is our choice to make.

Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

There’s no reason we can’t open our definition of “beautiful” to include more diversity– more intersectional diversity that better reflects the women in this country– the people who are buying most of the film and theatre tickets. But first we must open our definition of “woman” to include more intersectional diversity, and cast women who aren’t thin, white, cis, AND able-bodied, because right now, you need all four to be considered “right” for the role of “woman.” If you’re missing even just one of those, you’re only “right” for “Black woman,” “overweight woman,” or “disabled woman.” This is our responsibility to change.

Fashion blogger Stacey from Hantise de L'oubli. Photo: hantisedeloubli.com

Fashion blogger Stacey from Hantise de L’oubli. One of my personal favorites. Her instagram is @hantisedeloubli. Photo: hantisedeloubli.com

If we’re going to push theatre and film companies for gender parity, let’s make sure we don’t enable yet another cultural space that celebrates thin, white, cis, able-bodied women and ignores (at best) everyone else.

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Please Stop Asking if Shows Are Appropriate for Children

7brides7bros3

Unless your show is called “Seven BJs for Seven Brothers,” (someone get on that), or unless you’re specifically doing TYA, people will contact your theatre and ask questions like this on the regular:

“I’d like to bring my nine-year-old to see your show. Is it appropriate for kids?”

black.shakespeare.meme

No one likes this question. This question can strike deep anxiety into the heart of the most stalwart producer. Why?

We have no way of knowing what that means to you. All you’re really asking is, “Will I, a person you’ve never met, be uncomfortable seeing this play with my kid, who already knows much more about the topic than I am ready to confront, plunging me into a parental and emotional crisis, all of which I will blame on you for failing to psychically pinpoint my particular issue?”

I have kids, and my personal boundaries around what was or was not appropriate for them at any given age were just as arbitrary as anyone else’s, so believe me, I’m not faulting you. I just need you to recognize that your boundaries are unknowable to me unless you tell me what they are. People almost never do, and then they get angry if we don’t guess correctly.

Don’t make the hungover 23-year-old intern who answers emails going to ask@LORTtheatre.org guess what your boundaries are.

He doesn't know. Source: http://www.independent.co.uk

He doesn’t know.
Source: http://www.independent.co.uk

Instead, ask us specific questions, like:

“I’m hoping to bring my 10-year-old, but I’m not comfortable with taking her to see a play with:

graphic sex

graphic violence

any violence

onstage drug use

any drug use

adult language

adult language apart from “damn” or “hell”

full nudity

partial nudity and/or underwear

discussions of [something]

depictions of [something]

or any combination of the above,

Do you have anything like that in your play? If so, how graphically/realistically depicted is it?”

Now THAT’S a question I can answer, and it will result in information you can use.

fonz1

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Maybe we should pretend black people are lions

cecil

Cecil.

I was sad for the killing of Cecil the lion. I really was. I’m softhearted about animals and haven’t eaten meat in over 20 years because of it. But with the nonstop public outrage, and now the support for extradition, I have reached my limit.

Are we seriously going to create an internet outrage machine to extradite that dentist fuckwit for shooting a single lion? Let’s put this into perspective.

People who eat meat every single day are screaming for this man’s head. And no, it’s NOT “different.” The difference between that lion and the cow you ate for dinner is imaginary, created in your head and in our culture to make you feel better. I’ve seen literally hundreds of posts about how disgusting it is to shoot a “defenseless animal,” and the hypocrisy is wearing me down. I’m seeing post after post about how disgusting hunters are. I saw post after post outraged over that dog meat festival, written by people who eat cows and pigs without a second thought. The difference is cultural, imaginary, artificial. And I would be a lot less irritated with that hypocrisy, and probably even laugh it off, if it weren’t part of a performance I’m tired of seeing.

Yes, I’m going to be one of those people bringing up #BlackLivesMatter, because this extradition thing has pushed me over the edge. The entire country is screaming for extradition, but a 12-year-old boy was gunned down in the street for playing with a toy gun– something I am willing to wager 95% of the men, and a large chunk of the women, in this country have done at similar ages– and white people charged onto social media to explain why it was OK for a police officer to shoot this CHILD within literally 2 seconds of rolling up, let him bleed while he cried for his mother, and not even bother to call an ambulance himself. This case is ongoing. And people are calling for the EXTRADITION of this idiot who shot a lion.

BlackLivesMatter-AllLivesMatter

Tamir Rice? I chose him at random, because I’m a mom, and my heart aches and I tear up every time I think about him. But I could have put any one of HUNDREDS of names here of unarmed Black Americans killed by police just in the past few years.

Here’s what’s going on.

People love to play out scenes from “The Lottery” when they believe someone has done something wrong, but only when it’s something to which they can feel morally superior. They’re not calling for the head of this dentist (in some cases, literally) because they care so much about a lion they had never heard of a week ago. They’re calling for his head because it makes them feel like Crusaders for Justice. It’s a performance: I AM OUTRAGED OVER WRONGS COMMITTED AGAINST THE INNOCENT. I am GOOD. I am a good person. We will hunt down and eradicate evil together.

I am just as susceptible to this as anyone else.

But white people aren’t fighting anywhere near as hard, or in anywhere near the numbers, for Black lives. The movement for Black lives is different than Cecil. White people can’t participate in hunting down and scapegoating evil against Black people, because we’re the ones who are fucking up. White people are terrified of being called “racist,” seriously. And to be an effective ally, hell, to be an ally AT ALL, step one is to realize that we live in a white supremacist society that puts racism into our hearts and minds, and that being an ally means acknowledging that racism, and fighting it in ourselves and in the culture every day, forever. You don’t get a “Not Racist” trophy for hiring a Black guy as shift manager. It’s a process, and it requires honest self-examination, and white people do not get to be the hero.

WHITE PEOPLE DO NOT GET TO BE THE HERO.

But with Cecil the lion, they do get to pretend they’re the hero, and they create little performances about it, little LOOK AT HOW DISGUSTED I AM BY VIOLENCE AGAINST INNOCENT ANIMALS performances they use to play Good Guy. While eating a different animal they don’t give two fucks about because reasons.

And I am angry enough to delete any comments that try to “prove” how it’s OK to kill cows but not lions, because we EAT cows, and we need to eat, and lions are different. First of all, you have choices about what you eat, and you no more needed to kill that cow than that dentist needed to kill that lion. Secondly, focus your outrage on Black lives, not on creating a performance about how you eat meat but you still get to be the Good Guy.

blacklives.matter

Yes, I am angry. I was sad for the lion. I really was. And I still am. But the ongoing firestorm of outrage over that while your brothers and sisters get killed in the street and my fellow white people ARGUE with me, tell me they “hate” Black Lives Matter because they don’t want to have to tell their children about racism, or because it doesn’t include them (the ridiculous “All Lives Matter”), or because they might have to, for one second, not believe they’re the GOOD GUY all the time. They’re charging after this dentist because doing so makes them feel better, makes them feel like champions for justice, protectors of the innocent. And they fight against Black Lives Matter because they don’t get to be the Good Guy, because the fight requires that we admit our place in this oppressive system.

It’s time to step up, white America. You desperately want to be the Good Guys. Well, here’s your chance. Allow someone else to take center stage for one freaking minute, and focus your attention on the hundreds of unarmed Black men, women AND CHILDREN killed in this country each year. You can be mad about the lion, too, although I still have an eyeroll for you if you’re mad about this one creature and you ate 7 creatures last week. Just please remember that being a Good Guy takes more than being upset about a hunter.

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Time to Retire the Word “Offended”

Julian Bleach as Ariel and Patrick Stewart as Prospero in The Tempest at the Novello Theatre in London, 2007. Photo by Alastair Muir. The Tempest has come under fire in certain circles for its implied criticisms of colonialism and racism.

Julian Bleach as Ariel and Patrick Stewart as Prospero in The Tempest at the Novello Theatre in London, 2007. Photo by Alastair Muir. The Tempest has come under fire in certain circles for its implied criticisms of colonialism and racism.

There’s almost constant talk online about what’s “offensive,” or who’s “offended,” and it’s high time we retired this word.

“Offend” means “to annoy, upset, or anger.”  Usually people use it to mean, “This has made me personally uncomfortable.” People use “offended” when they hear someone say “Jesus Timberlake Christ,” see part of a boob on TV, or find out their kids read The Tempest or Harry Potter. In other words, they’re complaining that something they’ve encountered opposes their personal tastes and beliefs. They are having a personal experience that they find upsetting. “Offended” does not extend beyond that– it’s entirely personal. It’s an emotional opinion that doesn’t differ in the slightest from any other emotional opinion, like, “Picard is the best captain,” or “I hate Nickelback.”

Sorry.

Where the term becomes insidious, however, is when it’s used to belittle the concerns of people fighting bigotry. When someone is objecting to bigotry in, for example, a news item, they are speaking out against injustice. A racist news article hurts real people. It contributes to the very real oppression people of color face every day. It perpetuates an aspect of our cultural mythology that literally kills people. And then someone in the thick of white fragility comes along and says, “I’m sorry you’re offended,” or “you get offended too easily,” or any number of variations. “I know this will offend some people but [racist comment supporting the article].”

racist_news

Black people “loot”; white people “find.”

Resisting bigotry is not the same as being “offended.” Resisting bigotry is to resist injustice against groups of people. It’s far bigger and more important than someone’s personal comfort level, and the people who use that word as a weapon against the fight for social justice understand that completely.

People who are resisting bigotry are often dismissed with the belittling idea that they’re “offended,” as if fighting cultural oppression and the tools with which it creates, disseminates, and preserves that oppression are equivalent to an imaginary schoolmarm shocked at finding the word “fuck” carved into a desk. No, we are not “offended.” We’re fighting bigotry, and it’s belittling to pretend it’s just about offending our personal, delicate sensibilities.

When someone points out an example of racism, misogyny, fat hatred, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any other kind of bigotry, people with privilege often reduce that act– a call for equality that’s at its core a challenge to privilege– to a matter of someone being personally “offended.” People who are white, male, thin, straight, cis, able-bodied, young, and/or who have Christian heritage (not the same as being a practicing Christian, as you experience all the privilege of your group regardless) will sometimes seek to preserve that privilege by characterizing resistance to bigotry as nothing but “taking offense”– having an easily-dismissable, personal opinion based in emotion. We must call this out whenever we see it.

When we’re talking about a casting practice, a review, or a play, that’s bigoted and perpetuating dangerous, oppressive cultural mythologies that have real-world consequences, we must call out and resist that belittling when it happens, and refuse to be lumped into the same category as people who are upset because they heard the word “fuck.”

We need to watch our own usage of this word as well. Do we really think the most important aspect of a racist play is that the racism is “offensive”– that someone would be upset by it? Shouldn’t we be calling attention to the larger fight– that perpetuating racism in our cultural mythology is dangerous and literally killing people of color? Do we really think the most important aspect of a misogynistic article is that it’s “offensive”– that someone would be upset by it? Continue to extrapolate this– Is the most important aspect of the preponderance of transphobia in our cultural mythology just “offensive”– upsetting individuals? Do we really believe the most important aspect of fat hatred, homophobia, ableism, etc, etc in our cultural mythology is their ability to upset people? Then why are we using that language? Why are we using the language of personal discomfort to describe our resistance to artifacts of our cultural mythology that oppress and even kill people? Why are we using language that makes us easy to dismiss– language people use specifically to belittle resistance?

I don’t mean to imply that people don’t experience personal discomfort with bigotry. But let’s not make the mistake of confusing personal discomfort with the way bigotry makes its targets feel unsafe; or, rather, be reminded of their existing lack of safety in our culture. That’s part and parcel of cultural oppression. When you (for example) target people of color with racial slurs, or otherwise use dehumanizing language about them, you’re not “offending” them– you’re terrorizing them. You’re invoking a cultural mythology that has real, material power at its back. You’re flexing a muscle that you know can harm or even kill. A person of color objecting to a racial slur is a human being resisting real, ongoing, culturally enforced oppression. That’s not personal discomfort caused by offense; it’s a visceral reaction to living through the kind of violence and oppression that lends bigoted speech and cultural artifacts their power. This is why jokes about people in power (“punching up”) are funny, but jokes about oppressed people (“punching down”) are furthering that oppression. You’re not “offending” people of color, women, trans* people, disabled people, fat people, or Muslims. You’re reminding them that our culture dehumanizes them, sees them as lacking worth, and continually devalues and violates their bodies, rights, and property. You’re reminding them that you belong to a group with power over them.

When you see someone using the word “offend” to belittle resistance against bigotry, call it out. Recognize what they’re doing and call it out. Don’t let them equate fighting for justice with primetime side boob ever again.

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AEA Waivers: Not Your Enemy

While everyone’s in a great mood about the SCOTUS ruling, I figured now is a good time to post something controversial, right? It’s always a good idea to bring up the fact that you changed your major from biology to theatre while your parents are still partially buzzed from the craft brew your brother brought on 4th of July. So pull up a bottle of Red Dead Redemption (that really should be a craft beer– one of you get cracking on that), keep your rainbow flag in view, and hear me out.

Everything related to AEA is a hot topic. Publicly discussing its policies and procedures is like navigating a minefield. So I’m going work to be as dispassionate as possible in laying out my point of view.

AEA stringently restricts waivers, and it’s easy to understand why. They’re a union, after all, and one of the main functions of a union is to get the most money possible for its members within a given industry– unions seek to insure that a fair percentage of a company’s operating costs are allocated to its workers. They exist to protect workers from exploitation.

Theatre is an odd industry. It’s actually many disparate industries, which makes any AEA issue a bit more complex. Commercial theatres run by global megacorporations like Disney exist alongside nonprofit companies ranging from 50K a year indie storefronts to multimillion dollar LORTs, which exist alongside community theatres, touring companies, multimedia events, TYA, solo performances, you name it.

Because AEA is working within such a complex environment, it has multiple contracts and agreements of varying sizes differing by geographical area, which makes perfect sense. A Disney Broadway production has very different working conditions, requirements, and expectations than, say, a staged reading at a small nonprofit, and the AEA members in one geographical area may agree that their needs are different than members in a different geographical area.

And then there’s the waiver. A waiver enables a union actor to perform with a company small enough to meet certain requirements for less than the lowest union wage for that area. Waivers are not currently available in all areas of the country, and they vary widely in requirements and restrictions. All agreements and codes are publicly available on the AEA website, if you’re interested in checking out their differences.

Here in the Bay Area, the waiver is called the BAPP– Bay Area Project Policy. BAPPs require companies to be under a certain annual budget, they require the production to be under a certain budget, they require the space to be 99 and under, they limit the number of rehearsals and performances the actor is allowed to do, they limit the number of rehearsal hours the actor is allowed to do, and they require the actor be paid the same as the highest paid person working on the production, not counting the playwright. A theatre company is only allowed to use a BAPP for three years. Once a BAPP is used, a company has three years to use the agreement a limited number of times, and then the agreement times out. Theoretically, exceptions to those rules can be made, but they are exceedingly rare. Once a company times out of the BAPP, it must either work within one of the existing Bay Area contracts or join the ranks of the indie scene. The Bay Area has one of the most active, vibrant indie scenes in the nation in addition to the many excellent companies working under union contracts. Of the 350 companies producing in the Bay Area, 50 are AEA theatres.

I believe that the terms laid out in the BAPP are perfectly reasonable– apart from restricting usage. (MINEFIELD!)

I don’t believe waivers should be so deeply restricted in our industry. AEA actors should be given the power to choose when (and how often) they will work under a waiver. Companies and productions small enough to meet AEA’s requirements for the BAPP should be allowed to finally say yes to the AEA actors who want to work with them. Apart from the very reasonable restrictions on size, budget, stipend, and production schedule, waivers should be unrestricted, and nationwide. There are many benefits, and no downside.

I’m very pro-union– if I weren’t pro-union, and unwilling to violate AEA rules, I wouldn’t have any need to question its policies, but because I respect the union, I think it’s important to honestly discuss the impact its policies have on our community. Whenever I’ve publicly discussed this issue, I’ve received a deluge of responses. The arguments I regularly hear against waivers are discussed below. But– and this will likely be the most controversial thing I say in this post, but it’s the truth– every time I have publicly discussed this issue, I get private responses from AEA actors who support expanding the waiver but believe they cannot say so publicly or in meetings. Every single time. So I think it’s important to make a space for honest, respectful discussions about them.

1. Waivers reduce the value of the work and bring down wages. This is not possible under our current system. Denying waivers cannot protect union wages, or impact them in any way, because the two have no functional overlap. AEA controls who qualifies for waivers, restricting their use to the smallest of theatres. Larger theatres working under AEA contracts are following a wage schedule set by AEA. They may wish to use a waiver or pay actors less, but they cannot. Companies may claim that waivers have devalued the work when their contracts are up for re-negotiation, but AEA will not– nor should they– agree to reduce wages accordingly. Since contracts are already in place that control the wages paid to union actors, there simply is no function for waivers at small companies to impact wages at large ones unless AEA agrees during contract negotiations.

When there have been controversial AEA decisions around new agreements, like with SETA, where some union members felt they were unheard or even screwed over, the membership should hold them accountable. But when, as with SETA, the union is attempting to take nonunion jobs and turn them into union jobs, waivers in use by much smaller companies elsewhere have zero impact on that wage-setting. What the nonunion actors were being paid for those jobs at those companies may have some impact. What similarly-sized companies are already paying union actors has some impact. But what a tiny waiver theatre, by definition far too small to be covered by the contract being negotiated, pays its actors is completely irrelevant– again, unless AEA agrees.

If anything brings down “the value of work” (meaning: compensation), it’s funding. In an industry where labor supply far outstrips demand, actors are making a very respectable percentage of overall operating costs. The nonprofit theatre allocates 53.1% of their operating costs to payroll, according to TCG, which, when evenly divided between administration, artistic, and production, would be 17% each, but in reality breaks out to 18.1% artistic, 20.6% administrative, and 14.4% production. The issue is that the industry has very, very little money, and 18.1% of the nonprofit theatre industry’s operating costs doesn’t amount to much. TCG reports that in 2011, their 1876 reporting member theatres made 2.04 billion dollars combined, from all sources of income, earned and contributed. That’s 1.09 million a year per company. TOTAL. Google spends that much in a quarter on break room Snapple. There just isn’t much to go around in our industry. (The idea that administrative costs should be reallocated to artistic costs is a conversation for another day, but remember that that would require a complete overhaul of our system, top to bottom. Right now, theatre companies must work every single day at tasks like payroll and bookkeeping, keeping insurance up to date, filing forms with the IRS and the state, paying bills, doing maintenance and janitorial work, generating production earned income statements and reconciling performance rights owed, in addition to the never ending, daily development work required to pay for it all. For every fighter pilot, there’s an entire support staff doing the hard work required to keep that pilot in the air. We can’t allocate more money to artistic unless artistic takes on those daily admin tasks in addition to their own artistic tasks, or unless we devise a system that does not require that level of admin support but still somehow generates that level of income. Again: a conversation for another time.)

With so little money to go around, it’s impressive that AEA has achieved such a strong foothold in a market that could theoretically go completely nonunion. I don’t advocate for that– I think the union provides extremely valuable protections. All I’m saying is that waivers, no matter how many you allocate to the tiny companies that qualify, cannot impact AEA wages at larger theatres without AEA consent, and that we already know what impacts wages the most in our industry, whether we care to admit it or not.

2. The existence of small theatres in general depresses wages because they take business away from larger theatres. I don’t believe this. I believe a rising tide lifts all boats, and that someone who enjoys a show at one theatre is more likely to attend another theatre, not less. How do I know this? I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years. I’ve taught thousands of nonmajor university students, all of whom I required to see plays at local theatres. Over those years, countless students have told me that their experience in my class turned them into theatregoers. One sweet older man I’ll never forget told me he believed he hated theatre when he started my class, but it was the only class he could take that fulfilled a requirement before graduation, and now he and his wife were planning vacations around plays they could see across the country. I have dozens of stories like this, and I’m hardly alone. Take your students to the theatre– especially to small theatres doing unexpected, exciting new work– and see what happens.

3. If you’re not making enough money to pay AEA wages by three seasons, you’ve failed and you should shut your doors. You don’t deserve to produce (and its cousin, Denying waivers encourages theatres to grow). This oft-cited opinion has a number of inaccuracies I’ve addressed many times elsewhere, so I’ll try to be brief. Basically, in 2015, growth isn’t a choice you can “encourage.” An enormous percentage of grants require an annual budget floor of at least 100K, some even going as high as a million dollars. The funding that used to get small companies from that 50K annual reachable goal to that first 100K tier has largely evaporated. Pointing to the few theatres who DO manage to grow is meaningless. Someone has to win the lottery, no? For everyone who gets that funding, there are hundreds who do not. But what about earned income? Surely you could increase sales? Increase ticket prices? The entire point of the 501c3 was to decouple theatre production from the need to turn a profit, so those nonprofit theatres would be free to experiment with the art form and produce new work, neither of which are usually big sellers, and make up the difference with donations and grants. For many companies, doing more commercially viable work directly compromises their mission– which was meant to be par for the course for 501c3 theatres. (And of course there’s the very real consideration that even work considered “commercially viable” loses money all the time, so there are no guarantees.) Most importantly, it flies in the face of everything for which we say we stand to equate worthiness with money. The three highest-grossing films of 2014 were Transformers: Age of Extinction ($1.104 billion), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ($955 million), and Guardians of the Galaxy ($774 million). Three films, all by themselves, made more than the entire TCG membership’s seasons combined. Does that make those three films more artistically successful, more desirable, more worthy than every TCG theatre in the nation? Did every TCG theatre in the nation fail? Then why are we assuming small theatres “should” be making a certain amount of money, “should” be willing to compromise their missions in order to do so, and are “failures” if they do not? Why do we assume small theatres all should be growing into large theatres? They’re two different animals. Some companies want to grow and some do not. Growth is a for-profit imperative, not a non-profit one.

And let’s be real– increasing sales is just not always possible. You only have so many seats in your theatre, and so many performances available to you, either contractually or practically. Just jacking up ticket prices is not always the answer either. There’s only so much you can charge for small theatre, and it’s not enough to pay the bills AND get you to that 100K threshold, let alone 1 million. This is why nonprofit theatres are always asking for donations and applying for grants. Ticket income alone isn’t enough.

It’s a sure sign that someone has no idea what it’s like to produce small theatre seasons in 2015 when their response is “just get more money.” I hear a lot of “well, I grew my theatre 30 years ago,” or “I produced 3 hit shows in New York.” OK. But I assure you that producing small theatre seasons, year after year, in the 21st century, is a completely different situation. If you’re one of the theatres getting those grants and growing your company: I sincerely applaud you. And I ask you to remember that, for every grant awarded, many are turned away. Your experience does not mean the world operates that way for everyone.

4. Actors deserve to be paid for their work. Well, of course they do. We all do. No one is arguing against that, and, for that matter, no one actually believes anyone is arguing against it, despite the popularity of this argument. Framing the conversation about waivers in this way is just disingenuous. It’s pretending that a waiver company simply believes that artists don’t “deserve” to be paid in order to make those companies sound mean-spirited instead of just poor. If we were seeing a large discrepancy between what admin at waiver companies are paid vs artists, this argument would hold water. The reality is that no one at these waiver companies is being paid much. Waiver companies are, more often than not, groups of people held together by a shared love of an artistic vision. When a union actor chooses to work with a waiver company, it’s because of the shared vision. Everyone working on that production “deserves” to be paid, but all of them have chosen to work for less than what they “deserve” because the project is personally meaningful to them in some way.

There are thousands of small theatres across the nation that are doing high-quality work on a shoestring budget. Actors, both union and nonunion, might wish to participate in that work for a variety of reasons. Theatre is art, and the money one gets from practicing one’s art is sometimes a secondary consideration if other considerations are more personally important. It’s rare to land a role that’s both artistically fulfilling and financially fulfilling– well-paid roles are rare in general due to lack of funding and the oversupply of actors. Very few actors regularly land roles that are both artistically and financially satisfying, and everyone understands that this is the case going in. For every Sutton Foster, there are literally thousands of women who didn’t get cast. People don’t become actors because they believe they will be able to make a living at it. It’s no secret that most AEA actors don’t make their living as actors. AEA’s latest report showed that just 41.3% of the membership was employed in the 13-14 season, and that 41.3% averaged just 16.7 weeks employed during that time, an average that’s barely budged in years. That means even the actors who are landing gigs– just 41% of the membership– are still spending 2/3 of the year unemployed. Of course, that’s on average. We all know the reality– a handful of actors make their living solely as actors and bring up those weeks, while the rest are only working a few weeks a year.

With such dismal employment numbers– numbers that have been this dismal for our entire lives– why go into acting? What draws so many people to this profession? We all know the answer. It’s a calling, an art. People do it for the love of it. Of course, we all would prefer to make money, but it’s a reasonable, logical conclusion that many artists would sometimes be interested in doing a show for other reasons– because it stretches them artistically, because it’s an exciting new show by a playwright they believe in, because the show is written from a perspective or about a topic close to their hearts, because it’s a dream role they may never otherwise get to play, because it’s the actor’s own company, or many other reasons people feel compelled to practice their art apart from money. We all have artistic goals and dreams that are unrelated to money. If money were our primary motivation, we would not have gone into this industry. The reality is that there are some situations for all of us where there are more important concerns than money. Not every time, and not for every person– I don’t mean to imply that money should always be a lesser concern. But sometimes, for some people, it is.

When a small theatre that would otherwise qualify for a waiver but is denied one due to timing or geography, does a show that a union actor wants to be part of for reasons that are related to personal fulfillment, the union currently prevents that actor from making that choice. The denial of the waiver doesn’t create a union job, or have any effect whatsoever on union jobs elsewhere. The role goes to a nonunion actor and the production proceeds as planned. The only person impacted in any way is the AEA actor denied the role. The choice to play that role was denied that actor. I’m approached every season by union actors who want to play specific roles, or who want to be part of specific shows because they’re excited by the project or the playwright, and I must always turn them down because we timed out of the BAPP. A few seasons ago, a union actor called me wanting to play a certain role s/he would have crushed, and I called AEA to go to bat for this actor to see if I could plead for a BAPP even though we had timed out. Of course, I was turned down. The AEA rep I spoke to said, “Actors need to be protected from what they want.” A total of 28,763 AEA actors did not work at all last season (58.7% of their 49,000 members). They need to be “protected” from doing waiver shows? “Protected” from practicing their craft? How is forcing them to sit home idle “protecting” them? It’s not like they’d be choosing a waiver show over an available union one, since there are many more union members than there are union gigs, many more waiver theatres than there are union theatres, and almost no available funding to change that in any meaningful way.

Who does it harm to allow AEA actors who would otherwise sit at home to act in indie shows if they so choose? Who does it help to deny actors that choice, given that there’s no possible way for that choice to impact union wages elsewhere unless AEA makes that happen? The show is still getting produced, and that role will still be played by an actor who will still be paid that stipend. What does it really accomplish to force that AEA actor to sit home idle? Waivers do not have the power to impact other contracts. They do not have the power to convince AEA theatres to go indie. They do not have the power to depress wages. They are not magic. Their terms are completely controlled by AEA. The only power they have to is to put an AEA actor who would otherwise be idle back where she belongs, when she chooses, on her own terms.

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I Wrote a Thing for TCG

The wonderful Edgardo de la Cruz, my undergrad directing teacher/cult leader

The wonderful Edgardo de la Cruz, my undergrad directing teacher/cult leader

I was asked by the wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton to participate in the latest TCG blog salon, “Artistic Leadership: How Do We Change the Game?” She sent me a series of questions wickedly difficult to answer:

What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

My answers reference the late Edgardo de la Cruz, African American Shakespeare Company, Lauren Gunderson, Howard Sherman, Annoyance Theatre, and Lawton herself, along with issues of representation, money, and empathy.

Please check it out! You can find it here.

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That Religious Person Next to You in Rehearsal

I looked for ages for a photo credit for this. If anyone knows this super-adorable kid, or the photographer, drop me a line. I found it onh beautyofhijabs.tumblr.com.

I looked for ages for a photo credit for this. If anyone knows this super-adorable kid, or the photographer, drop me a line. I found it on beautyofhijabs.tumblr.com.

Theatre has a certain . . . reputation, no? That professional theatremakers are an iconoclastic, irreverent community that ignores or even outright disrespects religion?

The reality is, as reality always tends to be, much more complex. It’s not uncommon, however, for religion to be invisible, or even denigrated, in some professional theatre circles.

People who grow up in Christian heritage families (and note that that isn’t the same as being Christian or practicing Christianity) have massive privilege in this country. Privilege creates a certain world view that, when left unexamined, deeply marginalizes people outside that privilege. Christian heritage privilege functions no differently than any other kind of privilege. It’s not that people with Christian heritage privilege overtly believe that Christianity is superior to all other faiths. Obviously, some do, but that’s not what I’m discussing here. What I’m talking about is unconscious bias.

Most people with Christian heritage privilege who have not examined that privilege have an unconscious bias that all religion functions like American Christianity (privilege believes “my experience = reality”); that all religion shares certain basic characteristics, beliefs, or principles with American Christianity (privilege believes “my understanding = truth”), and that Christianity is the dominant religion in the world (while Christians make up 70% of the US, they’re just 32% of the world).

Even people who have no real contact with religion apart from what they glean from popular culture, but who have unexamined Christian heritage privilege or have internalized its world view just from living in this culture often have this bias. Conservative Christianity is the most highly publicized religion in the nation. Every other type of Christianity is so completely overshadowed in popular culture as to be rendered invisible or tainted by association. Every other religion is either ignored or represented in wildly inaccurate or reductivist ways that are deeply colored by the world view of Christian heritage privilege. Conservative Christianity, the public face of religion in America, is taken by those with unexamined Christian heritage privilege and those who have internalized that world view as the basic definition of “religion.”

A certain kind of morality (anti-LGBT, anti-feminist, “pro-life”), certain political stances (anti-public assistance, pro-death penalty, anti-separation clause), certain practices (evangelizing, praying as wish fulfillment, tithing), and certain religious beliefs (male god in the sky, eternal hell for nonbelievers, original sin) are taken together as all the defining factors of “religion” rather than a certain type of Christianity.

This could not possibly be more inaccurate. Not all religions are exclusive, and not even all of the tiny handful of the world's religions depicted on this meme are exclusive.

This is a great example. Not all religions are exclusive like conservative Christianity. Not even all the religions depicted on this meme are exclusive.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that some people who don’t come from observant families and aren’t observant themselves– an enormous, ever-increasing percentage of Americans– conflate this public, conservative Christianity with “religion” and conclude that “religion” is bad, whether they personally believe in a god (or gods) or not. And while most “nones,” (people who claim no religious affiliation) including atheists, are accepting of difference, a small but unfortunately vocal subset are actively hostile to all religion.

While there are certainly people who have come to an intolerantly anti-religion stance from non-Christian families, assuming all religions are like the ones they (or their forebears) left, the vast majority of anti-religious people in America, like the vast majority of people in America in general, come from Christian heritage privilege. Anyone who grew up in this country grew up surrounded by the erroneous concept that Christianity = “religion,” and that all religions function like Christianity in most ways. Some examine that world view and discover that it’s inaccurate, while others never examine it, some even expressing extreme fragility around the idea that Christian heritage privilege and its attendant world view exist at all. I’ve heard any number of people talk about all the “studying” they’ve done about “world religions,” yet claiming they’re “all alike,” a sure sign that their “studying” amounted to a Buzzfeed article on The Craft and half a documentary on Netflix about Orthodox Jews before they got bored and fired up Bloodborne.

Open hostility to religion and religious people is one of the few acceptable public bigotries left to liberals, so people will go to great lengths to protect it by crafting all sorts of justifications, asserting that religious people are all hateful of nonbelievers, “stupid,” “delusional,” and responsible for the majority of society’s ills, bolstered by unexamined Christian heritage privilege bias that unquestioningly sees “religion” as identical in form and function to conservative Christianity. This point of view highlights where that’s the case (as in fundamentalist Islam’s anti-LGBT stance) and minimizes or ignores where it’s not, rather than accepts that “religion” is a category so diverse that there’s not a single thing that could be said to define it across the board, not even a belief in a god or gods.

The impact in the theatre community is clear when you begin to look for it. More professional theatremakers than you think are religiously observant, and it’s no surprise that many hide that fact because they worry about their colleagues’ potential reactions.

white-feminist-scrapbooking

I’ve been thinking about these issues for awhile. When you start to look for something, you see it everywhere, and it became clear to me that there is a large, but largely invisible, segment of our community that is religiously observant and, in many cases, hiding it, or hiding its full extent, anxious about their colleagues’ reactions. And while I’m not advocating for pushing this issue to the forefront past other issues of privilege and inclusion like race and gender, I am advocating for deeper thought around this issue, more kindness, and more acceptance, from everyone, on all sides, religious, atheist, and everyone in between.

A number of religiously observant theatre professionals volunteered to be part of this blog post. I wanted to give these people a voice, but allow them to retain their anonymity if they so chose, so some of the names below are real, and some are pseudonyms, but they are all real answers from real people. So here you go, theatre community. The religiously observant people with whom you’re already working, in their own words, discussing theatre and their faiths.

A Wiccan wedding, called a "handfasting." Photo cred: leavemetomyprojects.com

A Wiccan wedding, called a “handfasting.” Photo cred: leavemetomyprojects.com

What are the largest challenges you face as a religiously observant theatre professional?

Rowan, Wiccan director, Chicago:

Scheduling around events. Sometimes there are just unavoidable conflicts, and most of the time, I let my career come first. Discrimination against Wiccans is common, so most of us are in the broom closet, as we say. You can’t be open unless you know you’re in a safe space.

Larissa, Christian playwright, Santa Monica:

Scheduling during Christmas and Easter. I have performed shows on both holidays, but when it is a matter of rehearsal I let them know up front that I am one of two altos in our choir so if it is possible to give me an hour on Sundays to come in later if everyone isn’t always called, I would appreciate it. Sometime people are cool with it, often not, which is fine. I made the choice to accept the job so I don’t press it. However it is hard to hear the snide remarks about my being a Christian and missing church, which I never mention in the work place unless asked directly.

Nick, Quaker actor, San Francisco Bay Area:

I used to be really challenged whenever taking on roles. My concern was not so much about whether or not I am going to do something bad or sinful in a performance, but whether or not the piece of art as a whole that I am helping to create is creating goodness and beauty in the world. I am less concerned about that now, because my values have changed and I have more faith in the goodness of people than I used to. I was never super fundamentalist and felt like if it wasn’t a Christian message then it is evil, but I leaned more in that direction. However, this does still matter to me. I feel like my job as an artist is to create goodness and beauty in the world, to create the new heaven and new earth. For that reason I try to join artists who are doing that. The most important role I’ve been in was 8, a staged reading of the overturning of Proposition 8.

Linda, Buddhist stage manager, San Francisco Bay Area:

SCHEDULING. The best and the worst thing about being a Buddhist juggling production schedules is one and the same: how I practice is flexible. (The biggest challenge is not specific to theatre: the general public is very confused about Buddhism.) When a schedule conflict unexpectedly arises, I am more likely than not automatically expected to forego my commitment to my practice just because I can and just because ultimately I “only” answer to myself. Most productions have been good about keeping to a previously agreed upon schedule and being accommodating when schedules change. (Most, but not all.)

Andy, Christian playwright, Rhode Island:

I would probably say my biggest challenge is translating what are essentially religious themes into a modern idiom that is accessible to people from diverse backgrounds. This doesn’t mean watering down the religious content of my plays, but it does mean grounding them in real human emotions. What religion essentially is to me is a deep affirmation of the dignity and worthiness of each human, and as such is provides a very useful frame to examine long-standing conflicts of the human condition.

Alona, Jewish actor and director, New York:

I am a modern orthodox Jew. Every Friday night at sundown, until three stars appear on Saturday, I go into full-out Sabbath-mode: no using electricity, no driving or using public transportation, no cooking, no listening to or making music, no money, no writing, no carrying items outside of buildings. The list goes on and on, and it doesn’t mix with the world of professional theatre.

By acting in professional theatre, you are agreeing to a life of of Saturdays spent using microphones, being lit by stage lights, getting paid for working. You are also probably agreeing to work in theatres that are not a walkable distance from your home, and even if they are, you are agreeing to come to rehearsals prepared, which often means carrying your script (and food and a water bottle) outside. Usually you are expected to be ready to write down blocking or line changes, to be reachable by phone or email for last-minute schedule changes, and to listen to whatever music is included in the show or rehearsal or workshops. And while some theaters don’t perform on Sunday, I can name only one theater that never has Friday night/Saturday shows or rehearsals (shoutout to 24/6 in NYC). All of these things become extremely problematic very quickly.

In sixth grade, I moved to New Jersey and auditioned for Paper Mill Playhouse’s summer conservatory. At the time, my family and I were incredibly naive about all things theatre: my father answered the call and gave the casting director a grateful thanks-but-no-thanks. I wouldn’t be able to go to rehearsals or do shows on the Sabbath, he explained, and besides, opening night would be on Shavuot, a Jewish holiday. The casting director thanked my father and hung up. I was devastated. Fortunately, she called back, promising to work around any conflicts with Judaism. Looking back, I see how incredibly rare and accommodating that second phone call was; it’s a gesture I’m not going to forget. Paper Mill was wonderful about everything. They set up the double casting schedule so I’d have as few Sabbath performances as possible. That press opening coinciding with Shavuot was an unavoidable conflict, but they let me and my mother stay in an apartment just across the street from the theatre so I could walk over, and continued to let me do so for every Shabbat throughout the run.

I thought I’d solved the dilemma. But I was wrong. As I did more and more theatere, the conflict got harder and harder to deal with. Each show presented a new set of obstacles, a new set of decisions to navigate and compromises to make. Because where do you draw the line? If you’re signed on to a show and suddenly you have to eat onstage, do you ask the stage manager to buy (often more expensive) kosher food? What if painting or writing is written into a part? I can decide to listen to the orchestra playing, but what happens I’m asked to accompany myself with an instrument onstage? It’s a very tenuous balance to strike — and potentially destructive, too, because making too many compromises on either side has the potential to alienate you from either community. Taking on a high-profile role at a local theater could mean publicizing the fact that you’re breaking Shabbat, which could mean that some people in the Jewish community might stop trusting your standards of keeping kosher, and no longer feel comfortable eating at your house. Conversely, it’s easy to be “too difficult to work with” in the theater: being associated with a set of mysterious rules and conflicts could raise red flags for companies who don’t know what to expect. So there’s a balance between being up-front about potential conflicts and not scaring off theatre companies. If I anticipate any big problems or conflicts I’ll note it on the audition form — holidays like Rosh Hashana or Passover, for example. Sometimes I’ll even write something like: “talk to me about the Sabbath — some restrictions but shouldn’t be a big issue.” Being reassuring is important – people who are dealing with this situation for the first time might think it will be impossible. Part of my side of the bargain is letting them know that I’ve successfully struck a workable balance in the past, and that this can work out this time too. In fact, it will hopefully (probably?) be barely noticeable to them.

Jerry, Christian playwright and actor, San Francisco Bay Area:

I feel that I have been fortunate that my theater practice and Christianity have not been much in conflict, except the occasional timing issue between church letting out on Sunday morning and a tech rehearsal or performance. Belonging to a Lutheran church, there has been no onus about working in the theatre, and as a devout Christian, my writing is primarily focused on good and evil with good being an active verb rather than a responsive partner. Does that make sense? Based in my Christian faith, I believe that good is something one does, not merely something one is. As an actor, I have never been asked to do a part that was in conflict with my faith. Of course, I am not so sure it is the same for more dedicated actors. There are more of them than roles, and desperation can be a mighty powerful influence. I suppose it all comes down to values, and are we as artists true to them, whether they are faith-based or general personal ethics. I know what my values are, what kind of work I want to be a part of and what kind I don’t. For example, I don’t think I could be involved in a theater production of any kind where evil acts or evil people are glorified. Even for good money.

 Ariel, Muslim actor, San Francisco Bay Area:

I think as a woman who wears the hijab, and a convert who is also a theatre professional, the biggest challenge so far has been more internal, figuring out what MY line is. For me having graduated college and immediately jumping into work in the city while at the exact same time jumping in and embracing my newfound faith has really had my brain cooking as to where do I set the line. We as women are so hypersexualized that it is constantly in the back of my head. I ask myself questions like, Should I wear my hijab when I audition? Will they feel weird? Should I tell them no, I don’t feel comfortable doing this? Will that hurt my chances? How will my castmates react to me? Was taking my hijab off in the audition room a good idea or not? If I show my hair will that give me a better chance? The questions sound silly, even to me, but as a woman in theatre who used to think “I’m always going to be sexualized in this game, so why turn down roles just because I feel uncomfortable,” these questions are real.

Photographer: Kris Krüg

Photographer: Kris Krüg

Have you ever had to compromise either your faith or your art due to your commitment to living as a religiously observant theatremaker?

Rowan:

I turned down a show because it had a stereotypical caricature of a Wiccan in it, just there for laughs. Just mockery.  And I couldn’t say why. I faked a response about scheduling. I would have loved to do the show. I don’t know what their relationship with the playwright was. I didn’t feel like I could ask for changes to the script. I’d rather not stick my neck out about it and get labeled a problem or deal with bigotry.

Larissa:

I keep my mouth closed a lot when people are Christian bashing at work because I don’t want to become a target. I am often amazed that the same theatre people who are intolerant of hate speech toward Muslims or Jews will openly tear apart ALL Christians during work and think nothing of it. That kind of hate speech is completely tolerated at our theatre work places.

Nick: 

When I was less progressive, I used to believe that homosexuality was a sin. The first show I did with [company] was Merchant of Venice, and Antonio was directed to be openly gay. Even though I believed homosexuality in particular was a sin, that was such a small piece of the beautiful piece of work the director created. His Merchant was above forgiveness and terrifying consequences of rumors and prejudice. It didn’t matter what my beliefs about homosexuality were. It doesn’t matter that I may disagree with this director on one particular, because overall I know that he is making the world better. If there are scheduling conflicts between rehearsals and religious meetings or holidays, I will let rehearsal win. I view my art as a religious practice, so there is no compromise for me in creating art instead of going to church.

Linda: 

I rarely compromise in theatre, which means I do often compromise going to temple. Working in theatre also involves late nights, which makes getting to temple early the next day more a chore than the joyful chance to recharge it usually is. What this usually means is I compromise on recreation and keeping up with pop culture.

Andy:

I will refuse to do any theatre that conflicts with my religious beliefs, but in a very general sense. That is, I will refuse to do plays that do not affirm the basic dignity of human beings. This doesn’t feel like a compromise to me.

Alona:

The hardest thing for me was the realization that it was impossible to practice modern Orthodox Judaism and also do professional theatre. I would have to compromise one or both, and I think that’s the saddest thing. But in the world of inevitable-compromise-making, I have been incredibly lucky to work with amazingly understanding people: directors and SMs and castmates and techs who will go out of their way to print their notes instead of emailing them, to coordinate schedules so that I’m not called on Shabbat, to make sure I’m not walking home alone without a phone at night, to sign my name on the callboard.

But there are still trade-offs. The biggest compromise I’ve ever had: a role I’d been dreaming of playing for ages, a fantastic director, a great cast. There was just one problem — one of the performances was on Yom Kippur. By that point I’d come to terms with performing on Shabbat, but Yom Kippur, the Holiest of Holy Days — that was on another level entirely. So when I got the call that I’d been cast, the classic rush of excitement was tainted by apprehension. I tentatively brought up the subject of Yom Kippur: was there any conceivable way to work around my conflict for that single date? The answer was (understandably) no.

Reconciling Judaism and theater had always happened on fluid spectrum; the decisions I’d had to make were always how-much-how-little, never either-or. Suddenly they were pitted against each other. I imagined, for the first time in my life, not observing Yom Kippur: not being in synagogue to hear the shofar blow, not fasting, not being with my family. I also imagined the pang of regret I’d feel every time I looked back at the road not traveled, the role never played. I talked myself out of taking the part, and I talked myself back in. In the end, I took the role.

The show ended up being a lot of fun, and I don’t regret signing on. But I do regret performing the night of Yom Kippur. First of all, though I was there in body, as I’d agreed to be when I’d signed the contract, I wasn’t there in mind. Ironically, though, my performance wasn’t the only thing that was a disaster that night. At two minutes to curtain, paramedics rushed into the theatre to take an elderly audience member to the hospital (she ended up being fine). During the show, lights broke, props broke, cues were missed, lines were dropped. Disaster upon disaster. It was, objectively, the worst performance of the run. And all through the performance that night, I thought about the story of Jonah and the whale, which we read in the synagogue every Yom Kippur. In part of the story, Jonah tries to flee God by boarding a ship. God sees through Jonah’s plan and creates a storm to destroy the ship: the ship’s crew panics, and Jonah, realizing that the storm is his own fault, his own punishment, tells them to toss him into the sea. So they do, the storm stops, and they are saved. I’m not usually particularly spiritual or superstitious, and my agnosticism remained (and continues to remain) sound, but that night, as the show (sometimes literally) crumbled around me, the irony of the situation was overwhelming. I wanted to shout to my fellow actors: “It’s my fault! Toss me off the stage and you’ll be saved!” Now I know: no more performing on Yom Kippur for me.

Jerry:

Pardon me for being a bit obnoxious about this one, but life is full of compromises. Still, I have never given up my core faith or artistic bearing for the other. I have never been in the position where I actually had to turn down or refuse anything because of my faith, or take part in something that was contrary to my faith. Doing good is who I try to be. Writing/theatre is my vocation. Being Christian is who I am. At least for me, all of these are interconnected. I sometimes have remarked in serious jest that as a writer/theatre artist, I have a higher calling than a minister has. (My pastor doesn’t like when I say that.) Where the pastoral calling is generally (but not always) for a specific congregation, an artist’s calling is to spread goodness, and even the good news of God’s grace (in a variety of ways, some of them very subtle) to the world.

Ariel:

I have been very fortunate to not have come across a scenario where I had to compromise my art or faith. Despite my own internal anxieties, the Bay Area theatre community in which I have been blessed to work has been really awesome in not putting me in a situation where I feel uncomfortable. I’ve also done my homework to avoid anything that won’t mesh well. I’m honestly figuring it all out along with everyone else, what I do or do not want to do. I will say this, though– when prayer time is the same as performance it does get a little tricky.

A Yiddish theatre poster, New York, 1891.

A Yiddish theatre poster, New York, 1891.

Has your faith impacted your approach to your art?

Rowan: 

We get to truths through storytelling that we can’t get to any other way. Theatre is magic, I believe that. I think people who see it as entertainment or just a job are missing out. Wicca impacts the way I see the world. I feel like the social justice focus I bring to my work is a big part of my faith. Even when the play isn’t specifically about a social justice issue, who you cast and how you treat them are.

Larissa:

I believe in a God that has a plan for my life, so I am able to be fearless and walk though doors that many theatre people cannot because of the lack of a safety net, but I always have one, God. I love that I have a place I can go to every week to remember that there are bigger issues in the world than a light cue or line rewrite. I get to go to church and think about things that are bigger than my life and share that peace with people who have nothing to do with my job. I love that time to unplug and refocus. I don’t know how non-religious people do it. I pray for God’s will in my life and walk forward with every path that is put in front of me, knowing that He will make it work out. I’m also very aware of needing my art to do something positive in the world. I don’t convert people through my art, but I need it to make a real life difference to people. To change things. I think that’s part of what draws people to my work, the desire to do something more than entertain.

Nick:

I am really biblically literate and I also do a lot of Shakespeare. It’s always fun knowing all of the Biblical references that he makes. “O Jephtha, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!” Fucking Jephtha. Each Quaker meeting (“church”) has a book called “Faith and Practice” which outlines what they try to believe and how they try to live. Being a Quaker is so much about living and practicing your faith. Like I said before, I try to create beauty in the world, so my work in the theatre (and all the work) that I do, I see as a religious practice. Even though I am a Quaker, I was raised Catholic and still love the liturgical language of the Catholic and mainline churches. I often think of theatre artists working together as communion.

Linda:

Spirituality and art are integral parts of a benevolent cycle. By cultivating compassion, sympathy, and empathy I “hear” the resonance better and that can only make me a better storyteller.

Alona:

I’ve always thought of people’s warm-ups and pre-show rituals as a kind of religion. There’s lots of tradition and spirituality in doing a sequence of stretches and repeating certain phrases – and also in holding hands in a circle before opening night, in what you’re not allowed to say backstage, and how to respond to stage managers (at the risk of sounding irreverent – I mean it very reverently, in fact – is a “thank you, five” really so different from an “amen”?). And also both theatre and religion tend to be simultaneously very communal and very internal – they both rely very much on participating with a group, be it a cast or congregation, while at the same time eliciting (and sometimes requiring) a parallel inner experience.

I also have a lot of plays in my head about Judaism and Jewish identity that have yet to be written, and I’d love to start getting them on paper to see what sort of dialogue comes out of them in rehearsal rooms and in audiences. The few times I’ve gotten to be in spaces where theatre and Judaism overlap (watching shows like Body Awareness, for example, or parts of Fires in the Mirror, and yes, also Fiddler) have been really exciting for me: theatre is a medium that I feel very at home with, and Judaism is such a huge yet completely mysterious part of who I am, so it’s exciting to see theatre used to tackle some of the questions I still have about that whole side of life. Tradition, tradition.

Jerry:

As a Christian, I am a disciple, and part of being that disciple is to love my neighbor. Who is my neighbor? The great theologian Martin Luther defined the neighbor is anyone who needs what I have to give. So I get to give my storytelling, my love of stories, my love of my fellow human beings, my dedication to the marginalized, my love of the wonderfulness of life to the world—through making theatre. I get to truly be a Christian, and spread the good news that we are all valuable, beautiful human beings through live-action stories. I get to serve my sisters and brothers. Golly, I could go on and on.

I love the stories of my faith, and I love the parables of Jesus Christ. As an artist, I am dedicated to doing good in the world. In the theatre I get to do this by telling stories about how wonderful and beautiful human beings are.

Andy:

I have access to an incredibly rich store of images and stories that all deal with the most profound questions of human existence. Being religious puts me in contact with people I would otherwise rarely know. I have friends who are 80. I have friends who are homeless. I have friends who are special needs. These are people I probably would never have met if we weren’t united by our faith. But the history of Christianity is also a great inspiration. Being religious in the way I am forces me to understand our present moment in its historical context, which is still deeply Christian, so I think in a way being Christian helps me understand how we got where we are. It’s a great resource, my faith.

Ariel:

I’ve been able to meet people of other faiths who share their stories and it’s been really enlightening. The most important thing for me, especially at this time where Islam in particular is being portrayed in the media as evil, and Muslims are being associated with murder, terror, evil, and radicalism, is to be able to say, “no, that is not who we are,” and it’s nice to have met people who have said, “yeah, I know,” or are just willing to listen. To debunk even the smallest of things or explain why we believe this or that, especially as a woman where there are all these misconceptions about how we are treated in Islam. It’s been nice to be able to have discussions and answer questions.

My faith has impacted my art in that I have been able to be more aware of the human condition, being able to take a piece or a character and look at it more deeply. It’s inspired me to engage more in pieces that challenge government, examine the “roles” of women and men, embrace color, sexuality, all points of view. In a way my faith as made me pickier, more selective. Thinking less “me” and more “us.”

People gathered for a Quaker meeting. Photo cred: Philip Greenspun

People gathered for a Quaker meeting. Photo cred: Philip Greenspun

Has your art impacted your approach to your faith?

Rowan:

I love props and costumes and I use them in ritual all the time. Wicca can be very theatrical. It doesn’t have to be, but being a director, I think I have a visual, spatial approach to ritual, and how its theatrical aspects can impact people.

Larissa:

I’m definitely very aware that I work with non-Christians most of the time, and that makes me super aware of the bubble a lot of Christian live in. They really have no clue how the rest of the world thinks. That ignorance grows into intolerance. I see it happening all the time and it makes me so frustrated with being a Christian. It’s embarrassing.

Nick:

I think that Hamlet’s words to Horatio at the end of Hamlet have probably become as central of a religious text in my life as the Bible. “Not a whit. We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, tis not to come, if it be not to come it will be now, if it be not now yet it will come. Since no man knows aught he leaves what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” Hamlet is also referencing Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, so it’s fitting that I dig that.

Working in the theatre has also further instilled in me that idea that we live our faith in the world in our daily lives. Sometimes when I go to meeting (church), I see a bunch of people singing songs, pretending they feel a certain way, and listening to a very intellectual heady sermon, pretending they believe certain things (defining belief not as your practice in life or even what’s in your heart but intellectual assent to ideas), and I think what the fuck is the point? Then I go to the theatre and I see a group of people working together, supporting one another, to create beauty in the world, and I think, “This is the Church.”

Linda:

Deepening the understanding of humanity in all its many facets enlightens my understanding of my own foibles and what I might be able to do about them. A lot of Buddhism revolves around not giving one’s own ego free rein and one way to do that is putting yourself in someone else’s shoe, which is a skill storytelling can hone.

Alona:

Aside from helping me recognize that tradition can be dynamic on a personal level (as opposed to just societal), I don’t think it has….Hm, I’ve never really thought about this before! Maybe it’s something I’m still figuring out. I do know that I ironically hate “performing” in religious contexts – on the rare occasions that I go to an all-women’s minyan, I try to stay away from reading from the megillah and things like that.

Jerry:

I think they are intertwined; one impacts the other. But I believe I think more deeply about my faith because I am a writer. I apply (and when I teach Christian education relate) a basic premise I use in theater to the stories of my faith: What is it about? Not just what happens, but what is the story about. I also think a lot about truths – from my art to my faith, which is a different way of saying what I just did. Is this a true story? Do I believe it? Not do I believe it is factual, but does it tell me something important about human nature, or in the case of Christianity, God’s relationship to us and our relationships to each other?

The Thai Buddhist temple in my hometown of Fremont, CA. More info at watbuddha.org.

The Thai Buddhist temple in my hometown of Fremont, CA. More info at watbuddha.org.

What would you like the theatre community to know about your faith?

Rowan:

There are people out there who try to debunk Wicca by saying it’s less than 100 years old, which is both true and not true. The loosely organized theology of Wicca as an alternative faith has developed over the past 100 years, but the pagan traditions it’s based on are thousands of years old. My grandparents on my mom’s side came here from eastern Europe. They were Catholic. My grandmother taught us all kinds of things that she believed were Catholic traditions from the old country. House blessings, little rituals she said were for “good luck” or to ward off “bad luck.” But they weren’t Catholic at all. Hang this herb above the door, stuff like that. She claimed that this was our tradition as Catholics. I later read about the Christianizing of eastern Europe, and how Slavic peasants practiced their old religion and Christianity at the same time for centuries. Some of her traditions had to come from that. I wish people had more respect for Wicca. I’d love to be able to live more openly.

Larissa:

It’s the base of all the things you like about me. It’s why I’m such an optimistic person. It’s why I have real joy in my life. It’s why I take risks and fall and keep getting up. I approach every day with an intentional desire to show love and forgiveness to everyone, in the same way I believe Christ forgives everyone. We are all equal sinners in his eyes and all equally forgiven, so I don’t judge anyone. That intention is directly from my faith and, when I’m doing well at it, makes all of our days better.

Nick:

Not all Christians are homophobic. There is a huge growing number of Christians who believe that homosexuality is not sinful. I don’t want people to know that because the opinion of Christians matters at all. What Christians believe about people’s’ sex lives is completely irrelevant, and no one needs approval from Christians. I only say that because I want LGBTQ people to know that there are less people in the world that hate them and more and more who love and accept them. Also I kind of want people to know that I really really love to talk about religion and I have no interest at all in converting you, but I wouldn’t apply that as a rule to Christians. Don’t talk to them about religion. They totally want to convert you.

Linda:

Competing with other religion/faith/spirituality does not have to be part of all religions and in fact, it’s not part of Buddhism. This is inconceivable to most Americans. Buddhist services are not on the same day of the week every week. This is also inconceivable to most Americans. Gravity is not a bitch therefore neither is Karma.

Andy:

I would like the theatre community know that there is beauty, wisdom, and nuance in these traditions. Religious people are not crazy, we just have a different way of making sense of the world that secular people do. And I don’t think that’s because we ignore or denegrate anything about the secular world. I think it’s because we see the secular world as infinitely valuable because it is the creation of a loving God. This conception of the structure of the universe forms our mind in indelible ways, and asking us to translate these ideas into secular terms does them irrevocable violence. Theatre could do a better job understanding that, but then again we could do a better job explaining. They should all read Augustine’s Confessions and Teresa of Avila’s Life and then tell me what they think about Christians.

Alona:

There is no single set of rules for Judaism. Even just within Modern Orthodoxy, there are countless different traditions based on ancestry and family and what is available for you to practice where you currently live. And even within that, I’ve picked and chosen and molded what works for me – and even THEN, tradition itself isn’t static. So there’s no definitive set of rules I can point to and say “these are the rules I live by and this is exactly how they’ll affect this theatre-making process.” In practice I often have to decide ahead of time what rules I’ll keep and what I’ll let slide, since it can be confusing to change midway through, even if I see the change as being more accommodating by deciding that I’m okay with doing something I might normally feel iffy about. But most of the time the “…But last week you said you couldn’t do that!” and possible “Can you do this also then?” isn’t worth the confusion.

When I was a child doing theatre, most of the sacrifices were on my parent’s end. I just found an email my mother cc’d me on from years ago (sent to another mother asking about balancing Shabbat and theatre for her own child). The email said: “Your eyes would pop out if you knew some of the crazy things we have done to make things like this work. Worth it???? Overall, yes. And, it helps your kids see that it is okay to let people know (and how to talk about) what your boundaries and needs are – and most of the time a balance can be reached.” When I got older, they talked me through the tough decisions. They never said: “This is what you should do,” or even “This is what I would do” — not even when I begged them to give me an answer, any answer. There was no answer, they said, just finding out what I myself was comfortable with.

Jerry:

To me it is a great shame that so much of our media, which so many of us think is full of exaggeration and falsehoods in so many other areas, has become so “true” when it comes, in particular, to Christians. Golly, if I only thought of Christians as being those who pontificate about others’ “sins” and wrongnesses, or how God is full of hatred toward certain kinds of people who were not like they, I don’t think I’d want to be a Christian either. Really, folks, Christians, like gay people, are everywhere. We are your neighbors, your restaurant servers, your doctors, your bus drivers, your actors, your designers, your playwrights. We are frail human people who are trying to do some good in the world, trying to share the love that God has blessed us with—with others around us. We bicycle, install solar panels, eat healthy, clean our parks. We are trying to make our world a better place. We are not on television talking about our superiority or how we want to condemn our fellow human beings. We don’t separate the sinner from the sin, because we know we are all blessed human creations of a loving God. This is who we are.

Ariel:

Don’t believe what you see or hear about Islam. It’s not about hate or killing; it’s about love and respect for the human being, for oneself, for the plants, the earth, the animals. I think every faith reaches that same consensus, love, we just get there in different ways.

Are you a religiously observant theatremaker? Feel free to answer my questions in the comments!

My boys lighting the Chanukah menorah, 2006.

My boys lighting the Chanukah menorah at my parents’ house, 2006.

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I See White People (and I’m Sick of It)

crowe

About a month ago, I tweeted a little snark at Cameron Crowe about the poster for his upcoming film, Aloha. I was shocked to get a response. I wasn’t shocked, however, when the film turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be— a film about white people with some HAWAII used as, essentially, set dressing. Perhaps Crowe was assuming I might be pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of Hawaiian sovereignty activist Bumpy Kanahele (in a bit role as himself). But I think, most likely, he was assuming I’d be pleasantly surprised by the fact that one of the female lead characters is hapa, a Hawaiian term (now in common use, at least here in the Bay Area) meaning a mixed race person who is part-Asian/Pacific Islander, part-something else. The character is named “Allison Ng,” and is described as “one quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and one-quarter Swedish,” and one-quarter . . . ? It must be white, because white is the default position for all Hollywood casting. But still, half Asian/Pacific Islander, eh? That most certainly is a pleasant surprise!

Aloha_poster

The poster about which I snarked at Cameron Crowe. The hapa actress must have been left off the poster, right?

Wrong. I would have been pleasantly surprised if the character had been played by a hapa actress, from which there are many to choose if one cares to look. The role, however, is played by Caucasian actress Emma Stone. Cue sad trombone.

British actress Jessica Henwick. This is what a hapa actress looks like.

British actress Jessica Henwick. Henwick is one of many hapa actresses living and working in the world today.

American actress Emma Stone. I pulled both these headshots from their imdb pages, and neither were credited. If anyone has photog info, let me know and I will update.

Emma Stone. I pulled both these headshots from their imdb pages, and neither were credited. If anyone has photog info, let me know and I will update.

There are many reasons this casting is shocking and unacceptable. Actors of color have had to fight for centuries for the right to play characters of color, first in theatre, now in film and television. Those roles historically went to white people in some kind of “ethnic” drag– blackface, yellowface, and the like. While many argue that our most egregious examples are far in our past (such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) we DO still cast white actors as characters of color all the time, sometimes using makeup, and sometimes, as in this case, just putting a white person on screen or on stage as is and calling it a day. We’re also notorious for whitewashing characters– taking a pre-existing property (like a novel or a fairy tale) or real-life story and remaking it as a film or a play, but changing the people of color in the narrative to white people. If you haven’t seen playwright Prince Gomolvilas’ “21 Reasons This Movie Sucks,” about the whitewashing in the film 21, you should.

It’s shocking that whitewashing still happens so frequently in Hollywood, particularly considering the massive controversies it causes much of the time–  the casting in Airbender created a firestorm back in 2010, and there have been many like controversies since (The Lone Ranger, Peter Pan, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Ghost in the Shell are a few examples). What’s even more shocking to me personally is how often both whitewashing and yellowface (and brownface, and all permutations) happen in the theatre, even as we talk all the time about how much more progressive we are than Hollywood.

It’s depressingly common for white people to see the ability to play people of color as their due, and for white people to see their own ethnicity as a kind of “neutral.” It’s a bias (often an unconscious bias) that has enormous, far-reaching effects. A great example is how some white people react whenever a character of color is included in an otherwise very white context, or whenever a character of color is a lead in a story not specifically about their race or ethnicity. “Why does [insert name of character] have to be [insert ethnicity]?” is something I often hear, as if white is “normal” and “neutral” and anything apart from that is a particular, aggressive decision. And while it’s undeniable that race has meaning and cultural weight (which is precisely why you can cast a Black man as Hamlet but you can’t cast a white man as Othello), white people too often ONLY apply that to people of color, seeing their own race as a universally accepted neutral instead of something just as particular, but currently in a culturally dominant position.

One famous example is SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age author Mathew Klickstein’s comment about current Nickelodeon show Sanjay and Craig: “That show is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian,” as if a character needs a particular reason to justify a lack of whiteness. Klickstein goes on to state that characters should only deviate from whiteness if the show is about ethnicity: “I think that it does the culture a disservice. If I were Indian or Jewish, for example, and watched something where the characters are Jewish or supposed to be, and if it’s not specific to that, then I start to wonder, ‘Why are they doing this?’ It becomes blackface.” Because, obviously, everything Indian or Jewish people do relates specifically to that identity. I don’t blog: I JEWBLOG. I don’t sleep: I JEWSLEEP. I don’t have adventures: I have JEWVENTURES. And if your work includes Indian or Jewish people, but is not specifically about being Indian or Jewish, it’s racist. Yeah, OK. ::eyeroll::

sanjay-and-craig-silly-quotes-01

Sanjay and Craig.

Anyone who doesn’t conform to straight white able-bodied average weight cisgendered Christian-heritage male (and I’m probably leaving a few out) are defined by their deviation from that “standard.” While “straight white able-bodied average weight cisgendered Christian-heritage male” refers to approximately 15% of the population (at best), we are constantly positing it as neutral– as “normal”– and anything apart from that is so wildly different, so enormously specific, we must provide a justification for its very existence.

When the culture sees white as “neutral,” is it any wonder that a white woman can be cast to play a woman of color and (almost) no one bats an eye? Emma Stone can be just “an actor” while Jessica Henwick is an “Asian actor.” I’m willing to wager Crowe didn’t even read any hapa actresses for the role of Allison Ng, and that the casting call went out asking for “Caucasian actresses, 18-24.”

It’s depressingly common for white people to brush this off with things like, “She’s half white! Why can’t a white person play her?!” as if mixed people in America are somehow fully represented by a white person; as if mixed people in America are not struggling with racism, bigotry, and other issues PARTICULAR TO THEM; as if mixed people are fair game to ERASE COMPLETELY. As if white actors are truly neutral, the universal donors of casting.

I think the thing that’s the most depressing about this is that Cameron Crowe evidently felt so confident about this hapa character that he would personally tell me that my concerns about race in his film were unfounded, and that I would be “pleasantly surprised.” He seems to actually believe that casting Emma Stone as hapa Allison Ng quells concerns about the lack of diversity in his film, rather than creates more concerns.

Why are we still making films (and theatre) where both people of color and mixed race people are erased and replaced by white people? Ridley Scott, too old and rich to pretend otherwise, flatly stated that he cast white actors instead of Middle Eastern actors as Middle Eastern characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings because otherwise, no one would fund his film. Hollywood is notoriously risk-averse, and Scott’s statement is indicative of our cultural positioning of white as “normal” and everything else as “different,” considering a white star a certain box office draw despite constant evidence to the contrary, where the same poor decision was made and the film still tanked. There’s no question racially insensitive casting can take a bite out of sales– #boycottexodus burned up my feed before the film was released. And yet the idea that white = normal = safe is so thick in Hollywood you can walk on it.

The other excuses are no better. It’s nonsense that people “don’t see race” and are just looking for “the best actors for the role.” You’ll never see a Hollywood film with Black actors as the Continental Congress– it’s not historically accurate, right? But it’s perfectly acceptable to cast a Hollywood film with all Caucasian actors as the Egyptians and Hebrews in the book of Exodus, despite the fact that those actual, historical people were Middle Eastern, not white. And of course you never see a person of color randomly cast in a film written for white actors unless that person of color is a powerful star, but you’ll see white actors who could barely be called any kind of box office draw (Mena Suvari?) cast in roles that were either meant for a person of color, or were a person of color in the original material.

Egyptian actor Asser Yassin, from his imdb page.

Egyptian actor Asser Yassin, from his imdb page. You’re welcome.

Joel Edgerton, who played Pharaoh Ramses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo by Frazier Harrison/ Getty Images

Joel Edgerton, who played Pharaoh Ramses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo by Frazier Harrison/ Getty Images

As long as we continue to see white as “neutral,” we’re going to see directors casting white actors as people of color and feeling perfectly justified. We’ll continue to see white people getting huffy about their right to play these roles. We’ll continue to see white people try out deflection techniques like, There are so many more IMPORTANT things in the world! (If that’s the criteria, we’ll never get to talk about anything except literal genocide. And of course every person who makes that statement has just finished posting a dozen pictures of their kid, or three paragraphs about their diet. Because IMPORTANT.) As long as we continue to see white as “neutral” and “normal,” we’ll continue to see people of color ignored and erased.

So, Cameron Crowe, I’m not at all surprised, pleasantly or otherwise.

UPDATE 6/3/15:

Cameron Crowe posted a semi-apology on his blog for casting Emma Stone as Allison Ng. Tl;dr: “Sorry if you thought I effed it up; I based it on a real, redheaded 1/4 Hawaiian person; I added another 1/4 API ancestry because diversity; Emma Stone did lots of research.” So basically: “Sorry if you objected, but I’m still right.”

Evidently he never stopped to consider that he had created a character who was 1/2 API, making it unrealistic that she be played by a white actress. I understand that “unrealistic” isn’t a major concern for Hollywood, but race and representation matter in ways that shitty narrative do not.

It’s a very typical kind of half-apology issued when people in power are caught with their pants down. BUT. It’s heartening that he understands that he WAS caught with his pants down, at least. Baby steps.

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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.

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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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