Monthly Archives: June 2013

No, I Will Not Smile

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. More of her awesome work at: http://www.tlynnfaz.com

Art by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. More of her awesome work at: http://www.tlynnfaz.com

So lots and lots of people who are cooler than I am have written about street harassment. Whenever I post about street harassment on facebook, I get dogpiled with comments– always from men– defending the behavior, or saying things like (and I quote):

“You should take it as a compliment!”

“That doesn’t happen in [city name].”

“That never happens in [type of place, such as subway, mall, universities].”

“I’ve never seen that happen.”

“Only men of certain ethnicities do that.”

“How else are we supposed to meet women? Give us a break!”

…….and the like. I have been told by men, in no uncertain terms, just how wrong I am every single time I’ve ever spoken up about this issue. Every. Single. Time. I see you, men who are limbering up your fingers to tell me I’m just a dumb girl, or a feminazi, or that I just don’t understand, or that I’ve made the entire issue up because duh women do that all the time. Hold up. Read the rest of the article, click on the hyperlinks and read those, and if you still feel like telling me what an asshat I am, I promise you I will read your comment with a serious look on my face THROUGH THE WHOLE THING.

This is what my serious face looks like . . . IN MY IMAGINATION. And please stop telling me I'm Simon, not Zoe. I ALREADY KNOW.

This is what my serious face looks like . . . IN MY IMAGINATION. And please stop telling me I’m Simon, not Zoe. I ALREADY KNOW.

The small area of the Street Harassment Monster I want to tackle right now is the, “Smile, baby! Why don’t you smile? You’d look so much prettier with a smile on your face.”

If you are approaching a stranger with any variation of the above, you are behaving like the human embodiment of painful rectal itch. Here’s why.

Accosting strangers on the street is uncool. In addition to being fucking annoying, it makes women feel unsafe. We have no way of knowing what you’re going to do. I was pushed, HARD, to the ground, at an ATM because I refused to acknowledge a strange guy who was demanding that I smile at him. If our responses to your demands for attention are not to your liking, many of you immediately escalate the encounter to verbal or even physical abuse. We have no way of knowing whether you’re just going to walk away or whether you’re going to follow us down the street yelling, “Fuck you, you stuck-up bitch. Who do you think you are, fat bitch? Don’t you ignore me, bitch,” grab us by the arm, pin us up against a wall, or surround us with jeering companions who threaten to rape us. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WILL DO. It’s scary. Stop it.

Is it unfair that you, who believe you are a Nice Guy, have to curtail your behavior because other men are behaving like worthless chumpbuckets? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s MUCH more unfair that you’re forcing a woman into an interaction that she knows has a very real chance of ending in verbal or physical abuse.

You have no idea why she’s not smiling. Did she just get the news of a death in her family? Lose her job? Is she having painful menstrual cramps? Did she just kill a strange man who harassed her on the street and is worried about doing it again now that she’s tasted blood? Demanding that a woman construct a cheerful look on her face simply because you demand it is to ignore the fact that she is a person with a life, just like you are. You know NOTHING about that life, and therefore, you know NOTHING about her emotional state. Back off. Actually, back off and read this.

You are not entitled to cheerful interactions with women on demand. Why do you think it’s OK to make random demands of women on the street? You are not our toddlers. Do not demand juice boxes, smiles, or attention from women you do not know. This is what toddlers do. This is why mothers are exhausted: constant demands for attention. Before you demand that the woman you see walking towards you (or are following, ew) force a smile on her face, remember that you are the third man who has demanded her attention in the last 20 minutes. She just wants to walk down the damn street. If she wanted a toddler, she’d have one. If she has a toddler and you harass her with “Smile for me! Don’t forget to smile!” she is now, thanks to Olympia Snowe and her outgoing gift to American women everywhere, The American Patriot Mothers for American Patriotic Heritage Act,  legally entitled to give you a roundhouse kick to the temple.

No, your attention is not flattering. I’m just going to leave this here in case you’re wondering what women think of your commentary and/or demands.

do_not_want2

If you think this behavior is OK, remember that there are quite literally millions of men all over the world who agree with you, and many of them will start harassing your daughter once she hits middle school. They harass your wife. They harass your little sister.

All we’re asking is that you remember that women are people. All we’re asking is that you treat women on the street with the same respect you’d treat your daughter, your mother, or a heavily armed level 20 dwarf fighter.

Did I just hear you demand that I smile? I will smile over your bloody corpse, human.

Did I just hear you demand that I smile? I will smile over your bloody corpse, human.

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Why Cold Readings Are Almost Always Useless

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

I’ve been steadily working on a post about auditions for directors and producers (what drives actors crazy, what they love, what works, what doesn’t) and I keep getting hung up on specific issues that end up taking on lives of their own. The homogeneity of the women on our stages was the first one, and now this. Eventually I’ll have a post for you (PINKY SWEAR) but I think we all need for it to be less than 38,000 words long, so I’m breaking these larger issues out into posts of their own.

So, cold reads, amirite? They’re almost always completely useless. Let me count the ways.

1. The information a cold read gives you is beside the point. When you hold an audition, especially a callback, you’re attempting to obtain a specific set of answers to a specific set of questions about an actor. Chiefest among them are how the actor makes choices, shapes narrative, engages with scene partners, handles the language, physicalizes choices, and takes direction. You need to know how the actor inhabits the character for which she’s auditioning. You need to see her make emotional and physical choices within that, and make thoughtful adjustments to those choices. You need to see what her style is– does her approach to the material fit with your own well enough to ensure a productive rehearsal process? An actor who has not had adequate time to prepare will be able to show you almost none of that, because that work is complex and takes time– which is why we have a rehearsal process instead of just having actors memorize the script on their own and show up to tech to get their blocking. We expect actors to come into rehearsal prepped, and it’s without a doubt that auditions, as artificial as they are, will provide you with the most accurate information about how your actor will rehearse (and, therefore, perform) if they can replicate as closely as possible the conditions of rehearsal.

A cold read is a completely different experience than either rehearsal or performance in almost all cases. What a cold read shows you is whether an actor can make choices QUICKLY and how adept the actor is at reading aloud. While either of those skills can be useful in some very limited situations (soap opera acting and voice over work spring to mind), they are of limited use in casting your production of, say, Hamlet or Eurydice, where creating a space for the actor to show you her talent, skill, and craft will be of much better use than seeing how good she is at pulling something out of her ass on the spot that will be, of necessity, superficial.

In case you needed any more evidence that cold reading skills are only loosely related (at BEST) to acting skills, I am an EXCELLENT cold reader and LOVE to cold read. Ahem. ‘Nuff said.

OK, I'm not THAT bad.

OK, I’m not THAT bad.

2. An actor who lacks the time to prepare is an actor glued to the script. Of course no one expects an actor to come into callbacks with the sides memorized, but a prepared actor is an actor whose head isn’t constantly buried in his script. If he’s unfamiliar with the lines, the basic narrative of the scene, or the emotional narrative of the character for which he’s auditioning, he’ll be unable to connect with his scene partners as his head will be glued to his script trying to piece together what comes next and what he’s going to do about it. If being able to engage scene partners is an important skill to you (SPOILER ALERT: it is), then you want that kid’s head out of his script as much as possible. Giving him the opportunity to look it over in advance is the way to do that.

3. Dyslexic actors are more common than you think. While many mildly dyslexic actors have found ways to work around a cold read situation, you’d be surprised at how often incredibly talented actors are so severely dyslexic they have to turn down your callback because you can’t be arsed to send sides in advance. When I posted about this on facebook, I was deluged with grateful responses.

“I’m literally crying as I type this. You have no idea how many auditions I have had to turn down because I didn’t want to look like an idiot, stumbling over words, and sounding them out in front of the auditors.”

“Many dyslexics are incredibly expressive and artistic people, which is what makes them such brilliant performers. I am one of these people. Thank you so much for seeing us in a world that often doesn’t.”

“Yes! Thank you. I have this issue so frequently.”

Personally, I learned firsthand how useless cold read auditions were years ago when I worked with an incredibly talented actor who was so severely dyslexic he could not read aloud at all. However, he was almost always the most talented actor in the room. People can succeed if you give them the tools they need to succeed, and all a severely dyslexic person needs is a little time.

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

4. When is a cold read audition appropriate? If you’re directing a film or TV show wherein you know the actors will be receiving new pages regularly and will need to be able to prep and perform those pages almost immediately, a cold read audition is a useful tool in addition to an audition that allows for more in-depth work. Similarly, many commercials and music videos require on-the-spot preparation. (Not that you need six hours of rehearsal to prep a 30 second Valtrex ad or the character “Hot Girl Dancing near Lamborghini.”) If you’re directing a play and cold read skills are required as part of the performance, such as an audience engagement piece where the actors perform material the audience has written on the spot, you’ll want information about an actor’s cold reading skills.

"Thank GOD for my RADA training or I'd never be able to get through this"

“Thank GOD for my RADA training or I’d never be able to get through this”

You might be able to get the information you need from a cold reading if you’re not the kind of director who is focused on in-depth work with actors. There are some directors who are more visually-focused, storytelling through visual imagery rather than focused on storytelling through acting and the actors’ emotional narratives, and for those directors, simply seeing an actor talk and move through space may be enough. If you’re not going to do in-depth acting work, there’s no need to see how the actor approaches in-depth acting work, right? So a cold read, which by necessity cannot ever be in-depth, could give you the information you require.

actorprepares

 

But for the rest of us, the information we get from a cold reading is just beside the point of the information we need to make informed casting choices, and marginalizes severely dyslexic actors (whose numbers are much greater than you think) to boot. So eliminate cold reading auditions unless you really need to test the actor’s cold reading skills specifically. You’ll get better information AND be more inclusive.

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Skinny White Girls are Exhausting My Eyes

I have nothing against skinny white girls. I really, really do not. I know and love many of them. I cast them all the time, which is not surprising, since the nonunion acting pool anywhere in the US is made up of something like 65% skinny white girls. And even lumping them all together in one group is needlessly reductive– they are as varied as any other group of humans.

But but but.

My eyes are exhausted from looking at skinny white girls and ONLY skinny white girls.

In nearly every representational context, “female” = “skinny white girls.” We, as a culture, are forcing the female experience, in all its variety, to be almost ALWAYS represented by and contained within the body of a skinny white girl. Skinny white girls are not seen as particular; they are seen as general, as “the female.”

In our culture, we posit the stories of straight able-bodied white people, especially of straight able-bodied white men, as universal, and the stories of everyone else as marked by difference. A romantic comedy starring a straight, white, able-bodied couple is just a romcom; but change any one of those characteristics and it becomes a genre film: a Black film, a gay film, a disability “issue” film. You wouldn’t need to change a single word of dialogue to change the perception of the film– just the casting.

What is considered “universal” in representational media is actually reflective of a particular experience– the experience of privilege, usually straight white able-bodied male privilege. Those of us who do not share that experience are always expected to translate– to find and relate to the humanity within the experiences of people unlike us. But those privileged people are rarely expected to do the opposite. Men are rarely expected to relate to plays or films about women, but women are ALWAYS expected to relate to plays or films about men. A film centered around the story of a white man is just a film culturally positioned with the expectation that all will enjoy it in its universality, but a film centered around the story of a Black woman is culturally positioned with the expectation that only Black women will relate to it.

This is a potent issue resulting in a paucity of variation in the portrayal of women. In American mainstream film, TV, and, unfortunately, theatre, what’s positioned as a “normal” and “universal” portrayal of a woman is skinny and white.  All women everywhere are expected to see ourselves, find our humanity, and relate our experiences to the experiences of skinny white girls, most of whom (let’s be realistic) are under the age of 40. AND WE DO. We do it all the time. We do it so well we don’t even think about it most of the time.

I didn’t even realize how exhausted I was by this until I started going to shows at African American Shakespeare Company. As I was watching Merry Wives of Windsor, it slowly dawned on me that I had a level of buy-in to the three lead female characters in the show that I hadn’t had in quite some time. I found myself wondering why. Was it the fantastic acting? Well, sure, but I see fantastic acting all the time. Was it the solid directing or the midcentury costumes (I’m such a sucker for vintage)? I turned it over and over in my mind. And then I realized: Because the three lead women were not all skinny white girls, I felt a level of comfort with them and, by extension, with the narrative, that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. By seeing women who were outside the circle of mainstream privilege, even though they were outside it in a different (and, I would say, more deeply meaningful) way than I am, I felt . . . welcomed. I felt like I could relax. I felt like there was a level of implied judgment that was left outside.

So what does this mean? I’m not saying we should stop casting skinny white girls. Of course not. They’re talented, wonderful human beings who deserve roles and love and cupcakes and all the good things in life, just like anyone else. But clearly we need to step away from the formula “normal = skinny and white.”

I think we all, as a culture, need to look at the ways in which we portray women. While we always portray men in specific ways (the attorney, the action hero, the troubled scoundrel, the cop, the bad guy), we all too often portray women in generalized ways (“the woman”) connected only to their relationship with the men, or to the male-driven narrative. When we step out of that, we fear scaring away potential audience by stepping outside of the “universal” when we step outside the portrayal of privilege.

If you’re a skinny white woman, or a white man, you represent an ever-shrinking segment of the population, but the bulk of representational media still posits you as “normal” and everyone outside of you as marked by difference– the further the difference, the deeper the marking.

Here’s what you can do– here’s what we ALL can do– to have the greatest impact on creating real diversity in our representational media.

If you ever find yourself thinking, “That play/film/show/book isn’t for me,” STOP YOURSELF and ask yourself why you think that. Is it because it has a central female character? A central non-white female character? What is it about her experience or humanity that you find so foreign to your own human experience you feel like her story ISN’T EVEN POSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND? Yes, you will need to do some work to find YOUR humanity in HER story, but I promise you that you can do it, because SHE does it for YOUR stories every day of her life.

I have heard, dozens and dozens of times, smart, educated, awesome men say about plays with female-driven narratives, “I think this play is well-written, but I don’t get it.” They see the difference and stop there, because they’ve never learned to translate. They’ve never had to.

This is a learned skill. You have to TRY to do it if you don’t already know how. It has to be a conscious choice to step over your privilege and learn to translate the experiences of people who do not share your privilege, finding your own humanity within them. Will you understand every nuance? Of course not. I don’t understand every nuance of every play about the male experience. I’ve never been a closeted boy on a chicken farm, I’ve never been kicked in the balls, I’ve never been on a professional sports team. BUT NEITHER HAVE YOU. Well, maybe the balls part (sorry, that must have sucked), but certainly not the other two. Yet, because the protagonists of Joshua Conkel‘s MilkMilkLemonade and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out (both wonderful plays) are male, I’ve seen men relate to those characters and effortlessly see their own humanity in them, even while claiming not to understand plays with female central characters whose stories more closely match their own experience.

I firmly believe that being able to have a theatre community that  stages work with female protagonists– or, hell, even with female supporting characters– who are as diverse in as many ways as women actually are RELIES on having translation buy-in from the resistant members of our potential audiences AND from the resistant members of our own community– two groups, by the way, with significant overlap.

Skinny white girls are cast in almost all our female roles, and have become associated with “normal woman,” because our culture equates whiteness and thinness with beauty (an extremely problematic notion in and of itself), and the body of the actress is there to be looked at– the actress is all too often there to be “the female” in a man’s story rather than there to inhabit a particular story about a particular woman. We can change this in two ways: by expanding the concept of desirable beauty to include more types of women (good) and (even better) we can stop positioning women all the damn time as “desired object,” start staging work that features stories about different kinds of women, and stop pretending that any play that doesn’t conform to “normal woman = skinny white girl as object of desire” is some kind of crazy deviation from the norm.

In order to do this, to achieve diversity, especially a realistic diversity of women on our stages, those who are unused to translating must make a commitment to learn how to translate the experiences of others unlike themselves and see their own humanity therein. But this must be a conscious CHOICE and an ongoing process, or it’s not going to happen.

I know this is not only possible, but happening right now, because I see it myself. Not every white guy is mystified by translation. We’re in a cultural moment where everything is shifting, and our kids are growing up in a world that values diversity in ways never before seen in the history of the world. This is an achievable goal. But we must consciously CHOOSE to achieve it.

Once that choice is made, we’ll start to see more work wherein women aren’t there as decorative objects and events in the lives of men, and we’ll start to see more women on our stages who do not conform to mainstream images of beauty, because their primary function will be telling a story, a story the entire audience will be able to relate to, empathize with, see themselves in because they have chosen to. Our stages will still have room for skinny white girls, but they will also have room for every other kind of woman, and, for that matter, every other kind of man.

We just have to all make the choice, together, to see the humanity in others.

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