Monthly Archives: April 2013

Actors: This Is Why We Have Auditions

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A casting call for showgirls, 1920s. This is exactly how I’m running callbacks for Troilus and Cressida.

I love auditions. I always have and I always will. I will happily sit through day-long auditions. I recognize, however, that auditioning is a deeply flawed process with huge limitations.

For that reason, I also hate auditions. Their artificiality makes it difficult to understand how an actor works in a rehearsal and performance process. There’s also a hierarchical feeling to auditions that makes me uncomfortable. I see actors as co-creators rather than as puppets who execute my vision. I think I’m auditioning for them as much as they’re auditioning for me. But the reality is: I have more actors in front of me than I have roles to fill. Some will hear “yes” and some will hear “no,” and I hate that. The fact remains that I must find a way to make decisions about who will populate the plays I direct or produce.

Taylor Mac wrote a great article about casting a couple of years ago, saying that we should completely do away with auditions and instead cast people we get to know through work in the community or working with them directly. This is, of course, a fantastic way to get to know actors– I’d even say the best way. But it’s not something that can replace auditions outright.

I use a combination of both techniques. I cast people without an audition (or bring them straight to callbacks) if they’re someone I’ve worked with before, or someone whose work I’m familiar with. But I just can’t envision completely giving up auditions, because I think, as flawed as they are, they offer something unique to theatremaking that we can’t do without.

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One of the PR shots for my production of Othello at Impact Theatre. Skyler Cooper, my Othello, came in to audition for Macbeth the previous year and blew us away. I had never heard of her as she was new to acting after spending years in the Air Force. Impact’s lesbian Othello was one of the most successful shows we ever did, and I would never have found Skyler were it not for our open auditions. Pictured: Marissa Keltie and Skyler Cooper. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The New Kid on the Block. Over and over again, I’ve had someone I’ve never heard of before walk into an audition and blow me away. They’re new to the area, recently graduated, or new to acting. Often an open audition is the only chance they have to break into a new market. This is especially true for actors who are traditionally marginalized. If you’re not getting cast, I have no way to get to know your work unless I hold an open audition. An open audition allows actors who have no other pathway access to directors, casting directors, and artistic directors. I think preserving that access is crucial.

Growth and development. Yesterday we had our first day of season auditions, and no less than three actors I’ve seen multiple times before gave auditions that almost knocked me out of my seat. Three actors showed up with auditions that were leaps and bounds better than anything I’d ever seen them do before. One did a piece outside of what one of my directors had considered her type, based on the pieces and shows he’d seen her do previously, and changed his entire conception of her abilities. There’s a special kind of joy in watching an actor develop over the years. I’ve seen actors go from green, timid, and wobbly recent graduates to powerhouses in just a few years. I’ve seen powerhouse recent graduates mature into wider and wider ranges and abilities. I’ve seen mid-career actors push through to new levels, mature into new types, discover new approaches. It’s deeply satisfying to see, and it’s something we might not see outside of auditions. If I “know” what your type, range, and abilities are, I might not prioritize coming to see your show in favor of seeing a show stacked with actors I don’t know. I can only see so many shows, so I have to pick and choose. Additionally, you might get cast consistently as a certain type, but have the ability to push out of that range into something new. An audition will give you the opportunity to show us that.

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Impact resident actor Mike Delaney in the world premiere of Toil and Trouble by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Josh Costello. Mike auditioned for a show I was directing at CSU East Bay years ago. Now he’s a core member of my company. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Actors as co-creators. When you do an audition monologue, theoretically, at least, this is material you’ve chosen for yourself, performed with choices you’ve made. The choices you make show me something about who you are. I want to work with people who bring something special to the table, who have interesting things to offer as co-creators of the work. When I go to see a show, often I have no way of knowing which choices you’ve made and which choices the director’s made, and that balance is going to differ depending on who the director is, how s/he works, what kind of relationship the director has with that particular actor, what kind of relationship that actor has with the director’s concept, etc. There are a huge number of variables that affect how deeply an actor is directed in any given production.

An actor came in to auditions yesterday doing a piece from a show he had performed, directed by someone I know very well. While he was a skilled performer, his piece looked, smelled, and tasted like the director. All I could see was the director. He came recommended by another actor whose opinion I trust, so I’ll call him back, specifically to see who he is as an actor. His audition just didn’t answer that question for me.

I’m not just looking for actors; I’m looking for collaborators. I don’t want minions; I want accomplices. I’m auditioning people so I can see both what their skills are and what kinds of choices they make.

Change Our Minds. Every so often, I think I know what I want for a certain character, and then an actor shows up who changes my concept completely. I had a short list of actors I was considering for a particular role in the show I’m directing this fall, and an actor I’d never seen before came to auditions yesterday and changed my mind. In the middle of his monologue I suddenly realized that I wanted something completely different for the character. I could see him as the character, and it brought a different context and more depth to the role than I had previously considered. Now he’s my frontrunner for the role. 24 hours ago, I had never heard of him.

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Chris Quintos in Impact’s production of The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel, directed by Ben Randle. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Despite their drawbacks, auditions are a very useful tool. I have a love/hate relationship with them, but I’ll continue to rely on them.

P.S. I have some articles about audition tips you can check out here and here, and some casting advice for actors here.

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My Birthday Was Far Too Eventful

Impact Theatre's production of Steve Yockey's The Fisherman's Wife. Pictured: Eliza Leoni. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. I think this accurately represents my day.

Impact Theatre’s production of Steve Yockey’s The Fisherman’s Wife. Pictured: Eliza Leoni and Maro Guevara. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. I think this accurately represents my day.

OK, most of the people who read this blog are theatre people, so you already know that we don’t have birthdays. We have rehearsal. The most any theatre professional can hope for is a surprise cake at break before you get back to work blocking 21-36. WE KNOW THIS. It’s one of the hazards of the job, and that’s fine.

I decided to buck that hazard for one year out of my life (I started in theatre when I was 12) and have an actual birthday. I kept Monday, April 15 clear of rehearsals, meetings, coaching, auditions, readings, and performances. It was a challenge, but I did it. I was going to have a BIRTHDAY, DAMMIT. I was going to experience the magic of civilian life.

What I imagine happens to non-theatre people on their birthdays while we're all at rehearsal

What I imagine happens to non-theatre people on their birthdays while we’re all at rehearsal

There was already a wrench in the works when the sink started leaking on Sunday. The garbage disposal had a screw stuck in it (WHERE THE HELL DID A SCREW COME FROM AS I DID NOT HANDWASH A BATTLEMECH) and was therefore refusing to work and leaking water all over the place. We tried calling the plumber but it was Sunday and we were out of luck. So I knew going in that part of my CIVILIAN NON-THEATRE BIRTHDAY EXTRAVAGANZA on Monday would be meeting the plumber. So maybe the mani-pedi (one of the very few girly things I do) can wait until another day.

We go to bed Sunday. Tomorrow is going to be AWESOME. I’m going to play way too much xbox, wait for the plumber (slightly less awesome but working sink = AWESOME, so OK), blog, thank everyone for the birthday wishes as they roll in on facebook, maybe still squeeze in a pedicure, maybe do a little work on the script WAIT NO I MEAN some work on the dramaturgy for my summer class WAIT. OK, this is harder than I thought. MORE XBOX and then a no-kids dinner date with my husband, whom I had planned to ravish afterwards. A perfect day. I get a midnight birthday kiss and we go to sleep.

Just a quick picture I took of myself before I went to sleep.

Just a quick picture I took of myself before I went to sleep.

Fifteen minutes after the “go to sleep” commences, my husband sits up, yelling “I CAN’T BREATHE.”

This gets my attention.

I vault awake and ask him what’s going on. I’m fully into my “Calm In A Crisis” Mode, a mode I discovered I had during my mother’s many health odysseys. He tells me he’s having trouble breathing, he has a crushing pain in his chest, his left arm is tingling, and he feels like he’s going to faint. It’s 12:20 by now and I’m throwing my clothes on, ready to take him to the ER. I give him a choice: ambulance or car? By the time I have enough of my body covered to be able to make a public appearance, his symptoms are subsiding. He decides to call the Kaiser advice nurse first. I take nothing off, because I’m still certain we’re going to the hospital.

The advice nurse says to come in if any of the symptoms return, but otherwise come in the next day. He makes an appointment for my husband for 10:40AM. My husband gets up to file a lesson plan with his school and contact sub finder. I follow him and sit next to him the entire time he does this because I don’t want to let him out of my sight. My night owl Managing Director, the awesome Cheshire Isaacs, sees that I’m up and we chat for a bit on facebook. It’s a serendipitous moment of comfort while I’m in Handling It mode.

The next day, I get up early, pack a lunch for the son not on spring break, and check my email before we head off to Kaiser. Sitting in my inbox are two comments on this blog waiting for approval. One is from a dude mansplaining dramaturgy to me because my understanding of dramatic structure is ALL WRONG (I might approve his comment and just reply with a scan of my PhD diploma). The other is special, though: MY FIRST MRA TROLL! Every female blogger of note has them. I feel like I’ve arrived. He’s angry because I’ve used the word “dick” as a pejorative in the word “Dicklandia,” which he believes renders every comment I’ve ever made about sexism inoperable. He says it’s comparable to using “Pussylandia” or “Asianlandia.” I toy with approving his comment just to see what your responses would be, but I have bigger fish to fry. I leave my mansplainer and my MRA troll where they are.

hugo-understand

We spend five hours in Kaiser, most of it in the ER. My poor husband has two EKGs, a chest xray, a bunch of blood work, and an ultrasound (I have now seen my husband’s actual beating heart).  I read about Boston on my phone and my heart breaks. I put my phone down– I need to focus on the crisis in front of me. We wait for the test results to see if the doctor will let us go home or admit my husband.

Through it all, we are how we always are– joking with staff, not making a fuss, doing our best to ease their working day. We are Good Customers. When they wheel him out for the chest xray, I’m left in the room alone. For the five minutes I am unseen behind the closed door, I lose it. I cry and cry.

And then I realize, for the first time in two decades, I have left the house without a handkerchief. There are no tissues in this exam room. I tear off some 20-grit paper towels and attempt to wipe my face and blow my nose without scraping off half my face.

Not the look.

Not the look.

The tests are inconclusive and they send us home. The good news is that it wasn’t a heart attack; the bad news is they don’t know WHAT it was. He’s told to rest and follow up with his GP.

We go home, exhausted. We sleep for a bit. Too tired to put pants on, go out in public, or, you know, move more than 20 feet, I shuffle out to the kitchen and make popcorn for dinner (ON THE STOVETOP THE WAY GOD INTENDED). I always make too much popcorn, so I had leftover popcorn in the bowl, which I set near the tower of books by my bed. Ehhhhhhhhhhh. I’ll get it in the morning. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m afraid to go to sleep– I think if I’m not watching him nonstop something terrible will happen. Exhaustion finally wins out and I turn out the light around midnight.

AGAIN WITH THE 12:15. I hear suspicious sounds coming from the popcorn bowl. I grab my glasses, turn on the light, and

A FUCKING MOUSE leaps out of the bowl and makes a mad dash for the closet.

Tom-and-Jerry-0

Whatever I said (possibly “HOLY SHIT A MOUSE”) wakes up my husband who gets out of bed, semi-excavates the closet, and sets a mousetrap. I sit up for way too long listening to the mouse scurrying around until it hits the trap (or maybe cleverly disarms the trap and makes off with the peanut butter; we haven’t checked it yet), and quiets down so I can finally get to sleep.

And that was my birthday.

Lesson learned, universe. Theatre people: DO NOT EVEN TRY. Giving up birthdays and anniversaries are just part of the darksided deal we made.

I Have Zero Tolerance For Your One-Upmanship: A Rant

just-be-nice

Why do some people want to make everything into a damn contest or a display of one-upmanship? The foolery alarm goes off the minute they start a sentence with “Try.”

1. “Teaching middle school is so damn hard!”
WRONG RESPONSE: “Try teaching second grade.”
RIGHT RESPONSE: “I bet! That sucks! I teach and it’s hard for me, too! Let’s be annoyed together! YEAH!”

2. “Wow, my day sucked because I’m sick.”
WRONG: “Try being sick for two weeks.”
RIGHT: “I KNOW! Been sick for two weeks and it blows and also sucks! Let’s complain together! BONDING MOMENT!”

You also know you’re on a ride through Dicklandia when their response starts with “Welcome.”

1. “I had a fourteen hour day today! Whew!”
WRONG: “Welcome to my every day”
RIGHT: “That’s rough! I had one, too. MILLER TIME!”

2. “Aw, damn, I didn’t get the job.”
WRONG: “Welcome to the real world.”
RIGHT: “I’m sorry. It’s been rough out there for a lot of us. MILLER TIME.”

It doesn't actually have to be Miller

It doesn’t actually have to be Miller

When you say say “Welcome” or “Try” in these contexts it belittles the other person’s experience. It implies that they’ve never had this hardship before and you go through it all the time. It implies that, no matter how difficult the person is finding their experience, yours is HARDER. It’s a dick move, EVEN IF IT’S TRUE. You can commiserate with someone without belittling them. You’ll get your chance to complain. You don’t need to bogart theirs.

And yes, sometimes people are complaining about shit they have no right to complain about. When I was selling my mother’s house (she was ill and towards the end of her life), the real estate agent bitched and moaned to me about how he used to go to cultural events in Oakland all the time, but now there are just “too many Black people.” The appropriate response to that may very well be “Welcome to 2003” with the addition, “YOU ARE A RACIST AND I AM GOING TO A DIFFERENT REAL ESTATE AGENT AT ONCE.” I’m not talking about people who are being awful, racist, selfish, or entitled. I’m talking about people complaining about their regular lives– you know, the kind of complaining we all do. Ow, my back; my kids are driving me nuts; I have no job; my job sucks; my mother-in-law is certifiably insane. You know, the usual.

The people who can’t let anyone else have a moment to do some basic human complaining are the same people who just can’t let anyone have the spotlight for even one minute to celebrate, either.

“I just did an awesome thing! Whee!”
WRONG: “My kid did that awesome thing when they were two, plus I did it seven times with Shatner on the back of a monkey-driven, rocket-powered donutmobile AND I WAS BORED.”
RIGHT: “Congratulations!”

If you find yourself responding to someone and the first word out of your mouth or keyboard is “Try,” YOU ARE NOT BEING COOL. Unless that person is saying, “OW I AM BLEEDING” and you’re saying “Try putting pressure on it,” in which case, carry on. If you find yourself responding to someone and the first word out of your mouth or keyboard is “Welcome,” YOU ARE NOT BEING COOL unless YOU ARE BEING SINCERE.

“Look at this picture of my new baby!”
SINCERE RESPONSE: “Welcome to parenthood! She’s beautiful!”
BULLSHIT RESPONSE: “Welcome to my world. Good luck getting any sleep until February.”

You really do not need to be the winner every single time. Let others have the spotlight from time to time. I promise you won’t disappear if it shines on someone else for a second. It actually feels great, and, as my wonderful former mother-in-law says, it earns stars for your crown in heaven. Not that we subscribe to the same religion. She’s a Christian and I’m a follower of Moradin, god of the dwarves.

The only god who will give you +2STR and +10HP just for asking.

The only god who will give you +2 STR and +10 HP just for asking.

Now go be excellent to each other.

excellent.laurengregg

This art is by Lauren Gregg, who is a badass. See for yourself at http://www.etsy.com/shop/laurengregg

More Tips for Playwrights

This awesome image was taken from http://vimeo.com/19440415

This awesome image was taken from http://vimeo.com/19440415

When you’re just starting out as a playwright, a lot about the industry can seem mystifying. Here are some quick dos and don’ts for people out there trying to navigate the wild waters of playwriting.

DON’T send your play to playwrights, artistic directors, literary managers, or dramaturgs asking for feedback unless you’re related to and/or sleeping with them. Maybe not even then. We’re all very busy people, and we get dozens of people a month asking us for feedback on their plays. You’re asking us to do FOR FREE something we do for a living. It takes hours to read a script, evaluate it, and craft useful feedback. Those are hours we must reallocate from our paid work or our personal lives. Then, when we provide that feedback, if it’s not what the playwright wants to hear, all too often they react angrily, ignore our advice, or tell us we’re wrong. It’s almost always a no-win situation for us.

If a theatre, contest, or individual has already stated that feedback will be provided for free, have at it. Otherwise, don’t ask for feedback on your script from someone who isn’t one of the first ten people you’d call to bail you out of county.

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DO invite these people to come to informal readings. Feed them snacks. Serve them beer. Have them read your play aloud, then open a dialogue about it. This can be an incredibly useful tool. There’s no substitute for hearing your work out loud. Feel free to invite all the playwrights, ADs, turgs, and LMs you like. If they show up, they’re agreeing to give you the feedback you seek. LISTEN TO THEM. Take their advice to heart. You don’t need to follow every piece of advice everyone gives you, of course, but don’t reject criticism out of hand. If all you want is praise, give the play to your mother, a call girl (tip well), or your imaginary friend. I’d advise against having a public reading of an early draft if you’re just starting out. There are a million reasons, but the most important is that professionals will give you advice about how to make your play do what YOU WANT it to do. It’s a specific skill. Save the public readings for a more solid draft or until you’ve found your footing as a writer.

DO consider hiring a dramaturg. Professional dramaturgs often specialize in helping playwrights develop new work. Another option is to find a director who understands your vision and will be on board throughout the development process. I understand (oh so intimately) that most people don’t have a lot of extra money, so this may not be an option for you. Perhaps you know a dramaturg who’d be into a barter agreement. I’d trade dramaturgy for massage therapy in a hot second. Now if I could just convince Karin Wertheim to start writing plays…. (If you’re located in the Bay Area, you really need to check her out. Her bodywork is INSANELY good.)

cthulhu1

DON’T make rookie mistakes in your cover letter. Don’t tell me in your cover letter how “hilarious” or “moving” your play is. If it’s a comedy or a drama, it’s fine to say that. But don’t praise or otherwise evaluate your own work. Also, always proof read. I don’t mind when playwrights have the name of another AD or company at the top of the email due to a copy and paste error (it’s fine, really), but I do mind when the email is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. I don’t think you need to be a Grammar Ninja to be a good playwright, but a cover letter riddled with errors shows a lack of care and attention. The squiggly red line is there for a reason, chaps. Finally, I’m very interested in your play. I am completely uninterested in the letter of recommendation you’ve attached to it from a famous playwright. I have nothing but respect for Theresa Rebeck, but she knows nothing about my theatre or its needs, so her recommendation is useless to me.

DO follow all the submission guidelines. They’re there for a reason.

DON’T expect a personal response. No, it’s not “just polite” for a company to respond with a personal note to a submission. We all get hundreds and hundreds of submissions, even theatres without paid staff. The workload is nuts, so most of us are barely keeping our heads above water. Many have stopped responding to submissions entirely. And please don’t come out with, as I’ve heard some people say, “Then don’t accept unsolicited submissions at all if you can’t respond to them.” There are an increasing number of theatres who have decided to do exactly that.  I don’t have any plans to stop accepting submissions, but I understand why a company would make that decision. I think playwrights would want to encourage those avenues of access to stay open. So don’t always expect a response, don’t imagine that the reason you didn’t get one is because the theatre is impolite, and don’t tell us we should stop accepting submissions if we’re not sending out personal notes to all 412 playwrights who submit each season. I assure you, we’re all doing our best.

This week's submissions

This week’s submissions

Another thing I hear frequently is “You should state in advance whether or not you respond to submissions and how long it takes.” While I agree that companies that don’t respond to submissions should state that in their guidelines, remember that even theatres that do not accept submissions at all get hundreds of them, and playwrights are often sending submissions based on a third-party post. (I’ve sent numerous emails to various playwriting sites attempting to correct errors about our submission process, to no avail.) There’s no reason why a theatre that does not accept submissions should respond to yours, and a theatre may have in their guidelines that they don’t respond to submissions unless they’re interested in producing, and yet that fact never made it onto the third-party website you’re reading. Again, don’t assume the reason a theatre isn’t responding to you is simple twattery.

No theatre can accurately predict how long it will take to respond. Generally speaking, the longer the better. We can turn a rejection around quickly, but when a play is being strongly considered, it takes much longer as it makes its way up the chain.

Here, have some dynamite down your pants

“Here, have some dynamite down your pants” is never a good response to rejection.

DO respond courteously, if at all, to rejection. While most playwrights are awesome, often literary departments and ADs are confronted with angry playwrights who are upset their play was rejected.  I’ve personally received dozens of angry emails from rejected playwrights. Once we had a playwright resubmit a play, telling us that he had rewritten it to include a Black character “since that’s what you people seem to like over there.” I’ve been called an “asshole” more than once. I’ve been told I was an “idiot” who couldn’t recognize good writing. I was told once that I “require objects of condemnation.”

I’ve even received angry emails from playwrights who didn’t like the rejection letter itself. I’ve received emails complaining that the rejection was a form letter. I’ve received emails complaining that the rejection was NOT a form letter. I once received a lengthy email telling me I was “everything wrong” with theatre because our rejection letter had a formal greeting (Dear Mr. Malcolm Reynolds, etc).

I know rejection is hard, but I assure you it’s not personal. Since there’s no such thing as a rejection that every playwright thinks is “best” (they all want different things, vehemently at times), theatres must make a choice that works for them. So take a deep breath, and then call me an idiot who can’t recognize good writing when you’re at the bar with your friends, not in an email to me.

DO tell me anything practical you think I might need to know. Are you open to casting some of the male roles with women, or using different music than the music stated in the script? Are the difficult technical moments able to be done in a low-tech way? How do you envision that being accomplished? If the script calls for an actor to play the accordion, are you open to other instruments as well? Are you open to double casting?

bring it

bring it

DO watch your language. You can drop all the f-bombs on me you can muster. Creative swearing brings a smile to my lips and a song to my heart. However, be very careful about using words that are considered hurtful. I’ve seen in two scripts recently the usage of the word  “retarded” in stage directions: “Staring at him like he’s retarded.” I’ve seen racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. I’m not referring to characters’ points of view– of course people write all the time about characters with unsavory opinions– but language that reflects the point of view of the playwright. I’m going to trust that your statement that the right theatre could “jew you down” to a lower royalty rate comes from a place of ignorance rather than outright racism. So review your statements carefully.

That’s all for now. You know I’ll have more later, right? I can’t stop myself. I’m pathologically helpful. I know that starting out in theatre as a playwright can be confusing and overwhelming, but hang in there. It won’t take long for it all to seem like home.

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Rethinking the Conversation Around “Diverse Audiences”

There’s a lot of handwringing over the dismal stats released on a regular basis about audience diversity in the theatre. I’m not going to retrieve the stats for you– you’re already on the internet and can find the eleventy brazillion articles about it on your own– but suffice it to say, they are dismal, even in ethnically diverse communities like the Bay Area.

Scholars are insistent that theatre will “die” if the industry can’t diversify its audiences. Because the country’s ethnic makeup is getting more and more diverse, so the thinking goes,  theatre will eventually die unless it can make its audiences more diverse.

It’s true that people of color do not attend THE THEATRES THAT WE MEASURE in numbers representative of their percentage of the population. But we only measure certain types of theatre. We measure Broadway. We measure large nonprofit theatres. We measure theatres that exist within the models we deem relevant.

We do not measure small theatres, indie theatres, or any theatremaking that exists outside of the mainstream models. For example, despite the fact that it’s a multimillion dollar industry, we do not measure gospel musicals.

I think what directs that thinking is that traditionally white-dominated artistic endeavors are labeled “high culture” and everything else is “popular culture.” Then, from there, we worry about why people of color aren’t participating in the art forms and styles we’ve decided are “best” or “important.” We laud the Latino who plays the violin in an orchestra and discount the Latino who plays the violin in a mariachi band. We see this within theatre all the time– what’s “serious” theatre “counts” and everything else exists in semi-visible strata beneath that.

My classes are extremely diverse, and you’d be surprised how many of my students have participated in performance-based activities. Those activities don’t always conform to what white America thinks they should. Many people have lives that are inundated with art, but mainstream culture very often believes that that art just doesn’t “count.” We put ballet dancers in a class above Polynesian or flamenco dancers. When I tell people I used to sing opera, they react as if I’d done  something remarkable and worthy of respect. Tell someone you rap, and the reaction is completely different. I could be the worst opera singer in history standing next to the best rapper who ever lived, and I would still be accorded a measure of respect the rapper will not get. Someone who’s been to 20 church plays is not considered a theatre-goer.

We need to stop discounting performance forms that don’t conform to our expectations of “importance” or “high culture.” People of color are participating in enormous numbers in arts of all kinds, but we’re upset because not “enough” are attending the arts events we want them to attend.

In addition to opening our eyes to other theatre forms, we need to check ourselves, all of us. More than one person of color has mentioned to me that this desperation to get people of color into “our” theatres smacks of paternalism- that we’ve decided what people of color “should” be doing and we’re handwringing over the fact that they’re not choosing what we have to offer them in the numbers we want. (WE DID FENCES, WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?)

Personally, I’ve become deeply uncomfortable with the fetishization of people of color in our audiences. It’s uncomfortable to me to hear people bragging about or complaining about their audience diversity, like people of color are pogs. And I get, deeply, that much of this anxiety comes from funders who are demanding to see an increase in the number of people of color in all theatre audiences, which is a whole different discussion.

My audience is diverse because we market to young people in the Bay Area, and that demo is diverse. I don’t feel like it’s some particular achievement that we staged world premieres by Enrique Urueta or Prince Gomolvilas. But I’m as susceptible as anyone else to this conversation, and I DO talk about these things as if they’re achievements, all the time. And it’s starting to make me feel awful.

I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with the way this dialogue goes. It always ends up with talking about people of color like they’re collectible lunch boxes. We need to start examining our underlying assumptions, starting with this idea that people of color “should” be attending “our” theatres.

I’m not saying we should ignore issues of diversity. Theatremakers of the future will be more diverse and include more women in part because we insist that it be so. We need to be vigilant about creating equal opportunity for people of color and for women at all levels of theatre. When theatremakers are more diverse, theatre audiences will be more diverse, partly because of the programming they will create and partly because the entire population will be more diverse.

What I’m saying is: Theatre’s never going to die. The multimillion dollar nonprofit model might die (and it might not), but there will always be people doing theatre, always. There always has been and there always will be. We need to step away from claiming so much definitional authority over its terms and processes. We need to step away from this desperation to “save theatre” by enticing more people of color into certain doors while ignoring other doors, and realize there’s more theatre in heaven and earth than in our philosophy.

UPDATE:

The brilliant Cindy Im, former Impact resident actor and current AEA actor whom you should hire for ALL THE SHOWS, had this to say:

“After my mostly white school took me to see a play, my parents told me I couldn’t be an actor because theatre was for white people. This was not because they had other cultural outlets, but because they felt excluded. Once I dragged them to the theatre so I could see plays, they felt more comfortable and started attending on their own. Who knows how many thousands of people there are who would love to attend the theatre but don’t feel comfortable or don’t know anything about it, who might love it if they had the exposure?”

I think the issues around access and diversity are incredibly complex. While it’s true that we’re just not measuring the cultural outlets that are dominated by people of color in the same way that we measure traditionally white-dominated activities, and while it’s true that we accord traditionally white-dominated activities a level of respect that we do not accord activities traditionally dominated by people of color, the fact remains that creating avenues of access for diverse audiences is still a crucial consideration for the theatre community.

Open dialogue about these issues is the key, I think. We need to listen to each other and find a way forward, together.

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I Wrote a Letter and So Should You

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Lexi Hart, as Cinderella, poses with a student from Malcom X Elementary. How many theatre companies give you the opportunity to meet CINDERELLA? All right then.

The Bay Area’s awesome African-American Shakespeare Company is facing a 400% rent increase. This is MADE OF NONSENSE.

What’s nonsense is that they pay any rent AT ALL, considering how much the building gets in subsidies from the San Francisco Arts Commission. They should be given a 50 year lease at $1 a year, as so often happens when a theatre is in a city-run building and vital to the surrounding community. Af-Am Shakes keep ticket prices accessible and they do classic plays, so, basically, they’re not going to be able to suddenly start turning some monster profit, and anyone who’s had 15.3 seconds of experience in the nonprofit world knows that.

A 400% rent increase looks like an assassination attempt to me. We all know what happens when a company is forced out of their long-term space and into a volatile rental market.

So please join me in writing or calling the San Francisco Arts Commission TODAY in support of this fantastic theatre. The letter I wrote is below. You are more than welcome to copy and paste whatever you like from it to use for your own letters.

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Peter Temple, ZZ Moor, and Tyrone Davis in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Photo by Lance Huntley. Maggie’s about to make her big announcement.

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To the Members of the San Francisco Arts Commission:

I urge you to protect the vital theatre institution that is the African American Shakespeare Company.

This company is one of the most valuable theatres in the Bay Area. Theatres are constantly being told that we need to have more diversity on our stages and in our staffs. African American Shakespeare Company provides more opportunities than any other organization in the Bay Area for Black theatremakers to hone and showcase their skills. Theatres are constantly being told that our industry will soon die if we can’t attract more diverse audiences. African American Shakespeare is creating those diverse audiences. Their annual holiday production of Cinderella has, over the years, turned thousands of children of color into theatre lovers who will grow up to be our audience members, subscribers, and donors. Their lively, high-quality, impressive productions of classic plays attract the most diverse audiences in the entire Bay Area. The importance of this company to the health of our local theatre community, both theatremakers and audiences, cannot be overstated.

A 400% rent increase is unsustainable for ANYONE, let alone an arts organization. Like all small theatre companies, African American Shakespeare is struggling to make ends meet. This is not a situation where they have more but are just unwilling to part with it. Artistic Director Peter Callender is doing an exceptional job navigating his company through a difficult economic time. African American Shakespeare is a very successful small company, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to turn the kind of profit that can sustain such an outrageous rent increase. It’s unrealistic to expect them to turn a profit AT ALL, since almost all nonprofit theatre companies cover their expenses largely through grants and donations. If you want to keep ticket prices accessible, you simply cannot make enough earned income to cover your expenses. In this economy, where grants have become tougher to land, and donations have fallen off, a rent increase of any type can spell the end of a company.

It’s a shocking move. Such an enormous rent increase looks, to those of us in the theatre community, like an assassination attempt. Everyone knows what it means to be forced out of your space. Most companies never recover. It’s actually shocking that African American Shakespeare Company pays rent at all. Many resident theatres do not pay rent, and with the gigantic subsidy the space receives, one wonders why such a valuable asset to the space is being asked to pay rent at all. I know, as the SF Arts Commission, you are already aware that theatre is a destination business. It draws people into the neighborhood who would not otherwise be there, ready to pay for dinner, after-show drinks, and otherwise patronize neighborhood businesses. In addition to its value to the neighborhood, African American Shakespeare Company is creating the diverse theatremakers and audience members our industry will wither and die without.

Considering their exceptional value to the building, the neighborhood, and the theatre community both locally and nationally, they should be given a 50 year lease at $1 a year. Let the subsidy pay their rent. The annual $500,000 from the city is more than enough to underwrite this crucially vital company, and much, much more.

If Ms. Hayes is having trouble sorting out how to handle the finances of a nonprofit organization, and cannot generate a budget and development plan that incorporates this proposed $1 a year rent, there are literally hundreds of people in the Bay Area theatre community who are more than qualified to take the reins.

Again: Save this vital company and ensure their continued, invaluable contributions to the theatre community. Step in and stop this nonsense. Their rent should be subsidized. Negotiate a contract—like so many resident companies have—of $1 a year. It’s an investment in the health of the future of the theatre community, both locally and nationally.

Sincerely,

Dr. Melissa Hillman

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BECAUSE I BRING THE TITLE OUT WHEN IT’S IMPORTANT, OK? Don’t give me that look.

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