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.

Tagged , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

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.

Tagged , ,

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

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

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

loren-anthony-adam-sandler-640x400

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

 

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

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

Damienne Merlina, photographed by Jeff Forney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , ,

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

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

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

This picture is blowing up my various feeds right now:

Photo by Alvaro Garnero

Photo by Gijsbert van der Wal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , ,

How To Rock Your Musical Theatre Audition

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

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

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , ,

The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

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

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

luke.no

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

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

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Why Is Race the Line?

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

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

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

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

Why is race the line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , ,

Go Ahead and Start Your New Company. But.

briefs1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tumbleweed

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

Tagged
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,654 other followers