Monthly Archives: October 2013

Emotional Isolationist

I was deeply honored to be asked to participate in Lit Crawl by the head of Limina Magazine— an online journal of women writing about faith that will have its inaugural issue in January. Because the piece was supposed to be about faith or spirituality in some way, I needed to write something for it rather than pull something from here. I took a deep breath and, without thinking too much about it, wrote a piece that was more vulnerable and frightening to me than any other piece I’d ever written. It was about how I had become an emotional isolationist, and how that functions in my life.

God, I used to just hand my heart out to people like passed hors d’oeuvres. I look back on it with astonishment. And it was just a few years ago, which is even more astonishing, because it feels like a distant, foggy past. I had an intensely shocking, painful experience, and the whole machine just shut down. There are a few people I still confide in, people I knew from Before, but even with them, even with people who’ve demonstrated trustworthiness for years, I’m guarded, fearful. This event knocked the emotional wind out me, and I still haven’t gotten back up.

I understand why it happened. Sometimes it takes strength to do the right thing, and not everyone always has that strength. People will lie to make themselves look better because they can’t stand the disapproval of others. They create casualties to stand on to get their heads above water instead of learning how to swim.

I once handed my heart out, invested myself deeply in the people around me, and gave of myself lavishly. I was, in a word, an idiot.

I told myself I was just pulling away from the two people responsible. Instead, I just . . . shut down.

So now I’m an emotional isolationist. A different kind of idiot. This is the story I read for Lit Crawl about it.

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“I want to go home.”

This phrase pops, unbidden, into my head at least five times a day, almost always when I’m at home. Fives times a day. For over two years. You can only respond to yourself, “You ARE home, dumbass” a certain number of times before you’re forced to acknowledge there’s something happening to which attention must be paid.

Homesickness. Longing. Loneliness. Ah.

A few years ago, I had an experience so full of high school-style drama nonsense I’m cringing as I write this. I knew a young woman in a bad relationship. She and her boyfriend both confided in me regularly about their unhappiness. She was naïve and confused; he was troubled and controlling. They were both miserable. I loved them both expansively and did my best to help them. I trusted her. I trusted her so deeply and completely that it never crossed my mind that there could be any other possibility. And then, in order to save herself from his disapproval and shift blame for something, she told a series of horrible lies, accusing me of something monstrously unethical. My trust in her impeded my ability to understand what had happened, and it took me weeks to put it together. She told him I had done something monstrous. He believed her (of course!) and accused me, angrily. She told me she had said no such thing. I believed her (of course!) and accused him, angrily. My relationship with both of them shattered. Not only did these lies destroy our friendships, but they also completely destroyed my ability to trust. She has a very sweet, caring personality that no one could have predicted contained within it the capability of such intense betrayal. If she, of all people, had been hiding the ability to commit such an act, who was not? I stopped trusting—everyone. I became incapable of trust. I locked myself down and became an emotional isolationist.

Like everyone, I live on the internet. I have a whole network of friends I talk to every day, people I would truly consider friends, people whose lives, whose triumphs and failures mattered to me. And of course I shared with them my day-to-day ups and downs, my own triumphs and failures. But the deep secrets, the true face of my soul, I showed no one. My husband and I had been through a rough patch (like everyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship) that left us further apart than we wanted to be, and with a difficult pathway ahead to re-establish connection. Instead of reconnecting, I went further into myself. I had pulled my innermost, vulnerable self deep inside me and locked the door.

Then it started: “I want to go home.” At first examination, I took it as a sign that I was done living on earth and ready to check out. When that idea occurred to me, it felt right. I’m a firm believer that we must live out all the life we’re given, and that my continued existence means there’s some part I’m playing in something bigger than myself. I believe that we’re all interconnected and that our life’s work is service to others, so my continued existence was, must be, about someone else’s need. My children. My father. The young artists who work in my company. My continued existence was proof that my service was still needed. So I began to wait. My life became about waiting for my service to be over, and wondering what the last act, the one that would release me, would be. I filled my days with tasks. I was ready to go home.

I’ve been fascinated with religion my entire life. I was raised Jewish by very Reform Bay Area parents. I’m the fifth generation of my family to live in the Bay Area, so we were a long way from the Old Country. I belonged to one of two Jewish families in my school in Fremont, so I was detached from any kind of Jewish community as such. From the moment I had heard of such a concept, I longed for a female deity. I had been told the Greek and Roman Gods, all the Pagan Gods of old, and all the Gods of existing polytheistic religions, like those of the Hindus living all around us, were “pretend,” and I was bitter about being denied female divinity, and suspicious about why a male God was “real” but a female Goddess was “pretend.” I envied, intensely, my Catholic friends’ ability to pray to Mary. I prayed to her in secret—not because I thought she was the mother of God; I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus—but because I thought she could hear me. She was a kind of Goddess—a Jewish woman who sits at the right hand of God. This appealed to me. I wondered about people who felt they had the authority to make the decision about which Gods were “real” and which were “pretend.” I would sit in the backseat as we drove past the rolling hills of the East Bay, and I would see them between imagining and believing as the curves of a Goddess lying asleep beneath the blanket of the grass. When I was twelve, I finally decided that all religions were “the same song in different keys”—that was the phrase I used, and still use sometimes. My Goddess was real; she was in the hills, she was without question in the ocean, she was in the trees, in the earth. I sat in her cupped palm like a baby bird.

I got older and discovered that there were people who were practicing Pagans, even Semitic Pagans, and that my need to understand at least some aspects of divinity as female was not at all unusual. I found meaning in why one of the primary words for “God” in Hebrew, “Elohim,” was plural, and what I believed the Shema was actually about. Even now, as an adult, no Jewish (or, for that matter, Christian) explanation of why “Elohim” is plural has held water for me—it’s plural, they say, but not really. There’s only one God, therefore it has to be singular and we’ve been jamming it into singular sentence structure since the Torah was written. OK. Neither Judaism nor Christianity have ever been much good at monotheism. “Who was this Asherah,” I asked myself as a child. But I already knew. Christianity in particular always seemed to me to be overt polytheism, and I mean that as a compliment. Elohim: This made sense to me. The Shema is the central tenet and most important sentence of Judaism:  Hebrew Listen, Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Even as a child, it seemed unlikely to me that the central declaration of our entire faith was just, “We’re monotheists.” There had to be more to it than that, I thought. Distanced as I was from Jewish community, I had less than no clue about the intricacies of Jewish mysticism. I had to sort it all out for myself armed with my wits, such as they were, and what I could find in the Fremont Main Library. Discovering Paganism snapped the Shema into place for me: The mystery of unity, of The One, where all aspects of God unite in one divine element that connects all living things, where all Gods and all Goddesses become the same God seen from different angles, sung into focus in different keys by people who were both part of and apart from that divinity. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery.

When I was a child, I also liked to hide in closets. That dark, quiet hiding spot meant safety. If no one could find you, no one could hurt you. I would hide in closets and be alone with my thoughts about God. I believed solitude, quiet, and darkness were sacred, and I knew they were safe. And now, decades later, I’m doing exactly the same thing, only instead of hiding my body, I’m hiding everything else. I sit every day with the divine, this all-encompassing Goddess, her counterpart, the God, the earth, the sky, the air, the flame of a candle, the electricity that animates my cells, my blood, my breath. I created a sacred solitude of the soul, a safe place, and made it a prison. And I do want to go home. That phrase is still part of my daily inner monologue. But I’m ready, or maybe I just want to be ready, to step away from this isolation and learn how to trust again.

I experienced an event that destabilized my ability to fully experience my web of connections to the people around me. I didn’t choose to become an emotional isolationist. One day I realized that it had already happened, past tense. One day I realized I was alone, and I had created that solitude, and although it’s safe, and sacred, it’s not enough. We experience our personal connection to the divine both as individuals AND through communion with others. Separate and the same and connected and apart. The central mystery. In retreating to this safe, sacred space, I’ve cut myself off from experiencing the sacred that exists in true, deep, intimate connection with others. The sacredness of the world I live in is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it is half a world. Stepping away from solitude and back into the world has to be a deliberate act, and I don’t know what those actual actions entail. I love to bake. There are many recipes I know so well I can bake them almost without thinking. Step One: Get the big bowl out of the cabinet. I want to trust others. I want communion. Step One: who knows. Maybe Step One: Open your mouth and pour out your story? Maybe.

Eventually I will find the door out of this sacred, dark room or it will be shown to me. I won’t be left here unless I refuse to leave. I love sacred solitude, and I want to be able to come back here, often, but living here permanently is not living completely. There has to be a way out. For now, I’m still in the dark closet, safe, sacred, and close, like the womb of the Goddess. I don’t breathe. I don’t talk. I just wait.

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Stop Complaining that Young People Don’t Like Shakespeare

Janette Penley and Will Hand in Lauren Gunderson's Toil and Trouble. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Jeanette Penley and Will Hand in Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Once upon a time, I was ALL ABOUT the new plays. I wrote my dissertation on appropriating and subverting canonical narratives around gender, sexuality, and race in theatre by young artists.  I helped found a theatre, the one I head today, whose initial stated goals were all about new plays for an under-40 audience. New plays by emerging playwrights were going to be my life, and, for the most part, they are. I’m hip deep in the new plays community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alyssa Bostwick in the PR shot for Impact's 2002 production of Scab, by Sheila Callaghan. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Alyssa Bostwick in the PR shot for Impact’s 2002 production of Scab, by Sheila Callaghan. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Even though we were focused primarily on new plays, early on at Impact we started talking about what an Impact Shakespeare would look like. We all loved Shakespeare and we wanted to be able to convey that to our audience, who we believed felt alienated from his work solely due to how it was framed and staged. Founding Artistic Director Josh Costello was very focused on the story of Prince Hal as being analogous to the stories of many young people– working very hard to live up to the scorn and underestimation of the older generation, but able to throw down when the need arose. We began to develop a script that took a little of Richard 2, a lot of Henry 4 Part 1, and a little of Henry 4 Part 2. I was slotted to direct, and we went forward with our first Impact Shakespeare: Henry IV: The Impact Remix. This was 2002.

Falstaff and the tavern dwellers surround Prince Hal in our production of Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Falstaff and the tavern dwellers surround Prince Hal in our production of Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was how we always did things back then, and still do now: We did something we thought *we* would want to see. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how people would take it. I have a theory about Shakespeare: Because there were no period costumes or period sets as such in the Renaissance, making Shakespeare’s mise en scene essentially contemporary, and because no matter where or when the plays are set, they’re riddled with contemporary references, the plays are written to be staged in a manner contemporaneous to the audience viewing them, and are at their most effective in that staging. I’m not saying that your 1887 staging of Merchant is crap– I’m saying that a period setting adds an additional roadblock to the audience finding a point of entry into the play, and I believe the plays are at their most effective when as many roadblocks as possible are removed.

Our Hamlet PR shot by Cheshire Isaacs. That's Patrick Alparone, Cole Alexander Smith, and me. That shutter speed was crazy slow, so my back was killing me holding this pose. Cheshire said I bitched more than anyone he's ever shot except Olympia Dukakis. 2005.

Our Hamlet PR shot by Cheshire Isaacs. That’s Patrick Alparone, Cole Alexander Smith, and me. 2005.

Whenever I talk about this, there are always plenty of angry remarks from people who consider themselves “purists” and believe the plays need to be staged in some kind of period. But I maintain that I’m a purist– I’m preserving Shakespeare’s intent. He staged his work with contemporary sets, costumes, props, music, acting style and conventions. I’m doing precisely the same thing. I’d also like to point out that almost none of these “purists” are staging these plays anything like they were originally staged– in Renaissance dress, with Renaissance accents, Renaissance acting styles (as far as we can reconstruct them), all-male casts with ingenues played by underage boys, Renaissance set and props, Renaissance music played live. Such an experience, while historically exciting and thoroughly badass, is prohibitively expensive, not to mention problematic for other reasons– staging lark and nightingale with a young man and an underage boy in drag could get you arrested now.

In my experience, most “purists” are pleased enough when a play is set in any period of the past, as long as it isn’t contemporary. However, a production set in 1887 is no different than one set in 2013 as far as difference from Renaissance norms goes. In fact, in many ways, we’re closer to the earthy Renaissance in taste and customs than the (at least publicly) prudish Victorians. A production of Lear set in 768 BCE makes very little sense within the context of the play’s narrative (for one thing, the play assumes the main characters can read and write), references, and language, even though the play is ostensibly set then, in Britain’s pagan prehistoric past. Lear is set in 8th century BCE Britain in name only, and the culture of 2013 is much closer to the English Renaissance, where the play’s social structure, references, and narratives were originally located, than prehistoric Britain’s is. So unless they’re advocating for a full-on Renaissance reconstruction, “purists” have no leg whatsoever on which to stand when bitching about modern-dress productions. Let’s leave them aside to work on their production of Coriolanus in Napoleonic dress and move on.

Macbeth. Harold Reid, Skyler Cooper, Pete Caslavka, and Casey Jackson. Photo by Kevin Berne. 2003.

Macbeth. Harold Reid, Skyler Cooper, Pete Caslavka, and Casey Jackson. Photo by Kevin Berne. 2003.

Henry IV: The Impact Remix was an enormous success for us, and was a life-changing event for me personally. I had approached this play with respect, love, and admiration, but without reverence. I believed that my main duty was to tell this story in a way my audience would find exciting and emotionally powerful. It was life-changing for me because it was the first time someone said this to me:

“I hated Shakespeare until I saw this play.”

Jonah McClellan in what will eventually be our Troilus and Cressida poster image. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonah McClellan in what will eventually be our Troilus and Cressida poster image. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I’m in the middle of rehearsals for Troilus and Cressida, so, counting that and Henry, I’ve directed 10 plays by Shakespeare at Impact, along with one other classic play (Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford). Every single time we’ve done one of these, at least one person, usually many people, and almost all under 40, say the same thing: “I hated Shakespeare until I saw this play.”

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Am I just a genius director who wields my personal genius to create once-in-a-lifetime Shakespeare experiences? Hahaha no. Not at all. I’m a solid director, but I’m no standout genius. I don’t have LORTs scrambling to fly me out to lay down some King Lear on them. I don’t have some kind of cult following. I’m just a regular director.

The heart of my point here is that ANYONE can do what I do.

It’s exhausting to listen to person after person after person bemoan how few young people like Shakespeare. They blame it on their lack of culture and general boorishness. They blame it on the language. They blame it on the internet, iphones, and video games. They blame it on hip hop. They lay the blame everywhere but where it lies: In boring, lifeless productions.

All of these off-base theories result in “solutions” that are ultimately, of course, unsuccessful. They result in things like that abomination, No Fear Shakespeare. They result in a massively unpopular Romeo and Juliet with “updated” language that was provided as a “translation” of the Shakespeare by Julian Fellowes. “I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge,” says Fellowes. They result in poorly conceptualized productions that cram popular markers of “youth” such as hip hop or live feed cameras into the production without any regard to the storytelling or any attention paid to the acting style.

But here’s the thing: You don’t need ANY OF THAT to get young people to like your Shakespeare production. A stiff, formal production that doesn’t know what it’s about and privileges poetry over storytelling is not going to be compelling just because you used a hip hop soundtrack or “multimedia” or let people tweet during the show.

I get asked all the time how I get so many young people into our Shakespeares. And again, I want to reiterate that I’m no genius by a longshot, which I think is key to my point that ANYONE can do what I do. The trick is wanting to.

Carlos Martinez and Vince Rodriguez in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Carlos Martinez and Vince Rodriguez in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Here’s what I do. Use it or ignore it as you will, but this is the answer to “How do you get so many young people to see Shakespeare?”

I refuse to allow my actors to put on fake British accents or use RP. If you’re actually British, fine. My point is: use the accent you use everywhere else in your life. I don’t scan in rehearsal unless I absolutely have to, and you’d be amazed at how little that is. Unless your actors have deep experience with scansion, it results in stiff, formal dialogue that becomes rote recitation of poetry and loses all sense of storytelling, especially if you make your actors scan all their lines on the first day. I love codes as much as the next nerd, but it’s just not productive if what you’re trying to produce is relevant, passionate, narrative-based storytelling in a six week rehearsal period.

“Talk like you talk; act like you act” is what I tell my actors. “You’re modern people with access to heightened language. Approach this in the same way you’d approach Sarah Ruhl.” When I edit, I privilege narrative over poetry. I find contemporary analogues for every character and situation and stage to that. Staging and costuming provide context that takes care of the language barrier. I approach the  plays as if they’re living, relevant stories that tell all the secrets of the human heart in glorious, heart-stopping language instead of historical artifacts or holy writ. Most importantly, I approach the plays as if they’re both FOR and ABOUT the people sitting in my audience.

One of my favorite moments as a director. This group of high school students came to see my Titus. They all brought spoons with them and held them up when the pie came out. I collared them after the show for this picture.

One of my favorite moments as a director. This group of high school students came to see my Titus Andronicus. They all brought spoons with them and held them up when the pie came out. I collared them after the show for this picture.

It’s not difficult. In fact, it seems to me to be a lot easier than forcing actors into some kind of separate “SHAKESPEARE” space instead of allowing them to just fucking act like they would in any other play. This is part of the reason why I’m mystified by classes in “Acting Shakespeare.” There’s no such thing, or there shouldn’t be. It’s all just ACTING. There’s no need to get precious about it. Shakespeare’s just about the least precious playwright who ever wrote in English. Are these plays the best things ever written in the English language? YES. Do any of the characters know that? NO. Othello has no idea he’s one of the most important characters ever written. All he knows is that his heart is breaking.

If we’re going to go out of our way to teach “Acting Shakespeare,” then what we should be teaching is how to step away from the idea that it’s any different than any other play that uses heightened language. It should be a detox class more than anything else. You’re discovering the language as you say it; it’s the only way you can express what you need to say, focus on your objectives rather than the poetry or states, make your characters real, complex people. Make sure you know the meaning of every single thing that comes out of your mouth, and why you’re saying it. You know: acting.

Marissa Keltie as Desemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2004.

Marissa Keltie as Desdemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2004.

If you get out of the way, you can give young people the opportunity to love Shakespeare. You have to allow them, though, to love it on their own terms. You’re never going to force someone to love something exactly the same way that you do. Once you hook someone on Shakespeare, it’s a lifelong addiction, and the plays will change for them as they progress through their various life stages. When I first read R&J at 14, I identified strongly with Juliet and was crushing hard on Mercutio– my very first literary crush. Now, as a mother of two teenage sons, the character who resonates the most for me is the nurse, the only person in the entire play who truly loves Juliet for who she is, and therefore the person with the most to lose.

Jon Nagel as Lord Capulet, Bernadette Quattrone as the Nurse, and Luisa Frasconi as Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Jon Nagel as Lord Capulet, Bernadette Quattrone as the Nurse, and Luisa Frasconi as Juliet. Ara Glenn-Johanson in the background as Lady Cap. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

I don’t think I have the one definitive answer to what under-40 audiences will like in their Shakespeare. This modern, story-focused approach has worked really well for us, and I’ve seen stiff, scansion-focused, stand-and-declaim productions fail with younger audiences time after time. That’s really all I’ve got for you. I have no doubt that there are directors out there who are working on genius approaches that will excite younger audiences in ways I’ve only dreamed about, approaches that are neither of the two above. All I can say is what I’ve seen fail, and what has worked for me.

If your taste differs, that’s fine. If you want a very poetry-focused, static Shakespeare set in some distant period, that’s great. But don’t bemoan the fact that younger people aren’t flocking to something made to YOUR TASTE.

Tim Redmond as Oberon and Pete Caslavka as Puck. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2009.

Tim Redmond as Oberon and Pete Caslavka as Puck. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2009.

I want to address one last thing before I head off to the grocery store while the I WILL MURDER YOU WITH MY RIVERSIDE comments roll in (probs not going to approve those, guys). We get a sizable chunk of OVER-40 people in our audiences as well. Modern stagings won’t push your subscribers out the door. Some of my favorite audience members are retirees. We used to have a group from a local retirement community that regularly came to see our shows and loved what we did. I adored them. They all had a deep knowledge of Shakespeare and honored me with the best discussions after the show. Older people are given the shaft as audience members these days. Everyone complains about them and no one seems to value them. I *LOVE* having them in our space. They’re smart, sophisticated viewers who have been seeing shows since before we were born, and have insights and opinions well worth listening to. People who look down on older audience members don’t know what they’re missing. And bear in mind that 75 isn’t what it used to be– that 75-year-old woman in your front row was in her 20s, naked, at Dionysus in 69. So don’t judge.

Marilet Martinez as Mercutio with Miyuki Bierlein as Balthasar underneath. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Marilet Martinez as Mercutio with Miyuki Bierlein as Balthasar underneath. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

But honestly, I don’t think younger people like Shakespeare or hate Shakespeare or are indifferent to Shakespeare in any sizably different proportions than any other demographic. The issue is that we believe that young people SHOULD like Shakespeare, because it’s “good for them,” but we are much more likely to leave older people and their tastes alone. There’s no question that the average American middle-aged man would rather watch football or porn (especially in Utah— high five, Mormons) than Shakespeare. However, we don’t, by and large, bemoan the fact that that football-loving, porn-watching BYU facilities manager doesn’t like Shakespeare in the same way that we bemoan the fact that those football-loving, porn-watching BYU students don’t. For some reason, their disinterest is posited by the culture as dire, while the facilities manager’s disinterest is seen as his due– just his taste.

Dennis Yen as Adam and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2013.

Dennis Yen as Adam and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2013.

I wouldn’t worry about young people not loving Shakespeare. Shakespeare is unstoppable. Those stories and that language contain an irrepressible power and beauty, and there are plenty of young people who will find them, especially if you don’t hide them behind a screen of fake accents and stiff delivery. Let them breathe. They will reward you.

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Just Out of Curiosity, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, Commercial Costume Companies?

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For little girls. But it’s OK because all police uniforms include a miniskirt, right?

This is the time of year when Concerned Citizens, such as MYSELF, like to point out how uncomfortably sexualized Halloween costumes have gotten, especially for little girls, and how the sexualization of Halloween costumes for girls and women of all ages is a symptom of the way in which women are positioned in our culture as containers for “sex,” and are valued primarily– and I mean that literally, as in, first and above all else– on how well we inhabit that role. Women are judged on how well they contain “sex” no matter how much wealth or power they have, and no matter what else they happen to be doing at the moment. You could be accepting the Nobel Prize for Physics and you would still be judged primarily on how well you are enacting the role of sex toy.

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A costume for little girls that Spirit calls “Major Flirt.”

While the sexualization of children needs to be stopped, I’m not sure what the answer is to the overall sexualization of women, especially as regards Halloween– the human brain responds to visual sexual stimuli, and this dance of display/observe is older than humans are– but working towards a major cultural shift that opens up the way women are perceived so that perception can contain both sexuality as well as other things– every scrap of humanity we allow men– should be the goal here. To be clear, sexualized costumes for adult women are not the problem in and of themselves, and women should be able to display their sexuality whenever they like. I’m not here to slut shame.

In fact, I’m not here to discuss Sexoween at all. I think most people are aware of the Sexoween issue to some degree. In prepping for this article, I dove into the many Halloween costume websites, and while there were plenty of the expected “sexy plumber” and “sexy branch manager” and “sexy ball peen hammer” costumes, I was floored by the massive amount of racist costumes for sale at major costume retailers JUST SITTING THERE ONLINE AS IF THEY’RE NOT COMPLETELY INSANELY JAW-DROPPINGLY RACIST. Many of them have the extra-added bonus of being sexist AND racist. Of course I knew racist costumes exist, but the flat-out, overtly racist, fuck-it-it-might-as-well-be-1954 straight-up racism in both these costumes and their accompanying text descriptions surprised me. Not that I believe retailers have a single fuck to give about racism, just that I would imagine there would have been public outcry long before now about this. And yet.

While Spirit was the big winner, there were plenty to be found all over. I could have done this quite literally all day long. The costumes, along with their accompanying text, I present to you without comment. OR EDITING, although it pained me.

Party City’s “Old School Tight Afro Wig.”

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“Want a ‘fro that’s totally tight? Pull on our Old School Tight Afro Wig for a look that’s all right. This Tight Afro Wig features larger-than-usual black afro curls in a slightly disorganized mop of hair that reflects your carefree attitude towards life. No job, no problem! ”

Party City: “Hey Amigo Mexican Costume.”

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“Hey amigo, this Mexican Costume is bound to be noticed! Hey Amigo Mexican Costume features a fringed poncho, long moustache, red trimmed sombrero, and pants with an attached plush donkey and rider legs, which create the illusion that you’re riding said plush donkey.”

Anytime Costumes: “Arabian Seductress”

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“Cool Arabian nights will be blazing like in the daytime when you wear the Sexy Arabian Seductress Halloween Costume. It features a halter bikini top with a rose accent and beaded chain trim, matching mini-shorts with an attached panel skirt and gold chain trim. Sheer arm sleeves also come included to make your dances more seductive and mysterious and a gold headband and rose head comb remind your significant other why royalty has everything the best. If you’re getting into belly dancing and want to put on a show, you’ll be instantly prepared to add the sultry component that makes these dances a marvel to watch. Put on a spectacular show and become the head courtesan of the harem. Stop by our accessories page to add some jewelry accessories to add some lively noise to the dances that will keep him wanting.”

Spirit: “Reservation Royalty”

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“There’s no need to send smoke signals to get your point across when you wear this Reservation Royalty adult womens costume. The fringed, microsuede mini dress comes complete with a matching feathered headband. You’ll be a smokin’ hot site in this sexy womens costume.”

Spirit: “Pimpin Da Hos”

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“Show me da money! Be a hustler on Halloween when you don this outrageous Pimpin’ Da Hos adult mens costume. It’s all flash so be ready to talk the talk and walk the walk in this over the top ensemble. Great couples or group costume…”

Spirit: “Asian Empress”

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“Explore the mysteries of the East when you don the Asian Empress adult womens costume. The satiny black dress of this seductive and sexy womens costume features purple trim and comes complete with a pair of chopsticks for your hair. Add some mystery to Halloween!”

Spirit: “Mexican Style”

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“Grab a bag of tortilla chips, open a can of salsa, and show off your spiciness in this Mexican Style mens costume. This funny costume comes with a colorful sarape, traditional sombrero, and giant mustache–sure to get you laughs both north and south of the border.”

Spirit: “Sexy Bandita”

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“Spice things up with some south of the boarder heat when you wear this smokin’ hot, Sexy Bandita adult womens costume. The brown, vest-like top comes complete with a matching low-rise fringed mini skirt, a serape-inspired striped scarf, a red bandanna and a belt with shot glasses.”

Finally, deserving its own category of TAKE A SEAT wrongness, I give you:

Spirit: “Phat Pimp Child Costume.”

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“Be the big money when you trick yourself out in this Phat Pimp child costume. The purple, polyester jumpsuit of this pimp costume features zebra print trim, attached fake money, a PVC waist loop and a matching zebra print hat.”

Like I said, I could have done this literally all day long. It stands to reason that companies wouldn’t be selling this nonsense if people weren’t buying it. There are an infinite variety of costumes you can choose that do not involve racism. Seriously. Do us all a favor and choose one.

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What Theatre is For

Arisa Bega in Monica Byrne's What Every Girl Should Know at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Arisa Bega in Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what theatre is and why we do it. It sounds like an easy thing to think about until you actually start thinking about it.

Someone I know recently referred to himself as a “provocateur” in how he creates his art, and that it’s not enough for him to just “do theatre.” I’ve known quite a few people who see themselves primarily as something along those lines– trying to “awaken” people, or provide some kind of “transformative experience.” And I think those can be laudable goals, to a certain extent. But what does it mean to “just do theatre”? Is being a “provocateur” more than “just doing theatre”?

I’m not sure if the “provocateur” approach can be, ultimately, a successful starting point all on its own.  Provoke them to do what? Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter are two of the best provocateurs in the game. So are middle-schoolers. Provoking people isn’t a laudable goal in and of itself. Awakening people to what? Transforming them from what to what? This is unspecific language that is ultimately self-serving, focusing more on our personal importance to the process than on the work itself. That’s not to say artists aren’t important– that bears repeating, especially now as our importance to culture is under constant attack– but that, if our goals are audience-focused, we’re going to need to think more deeply about what we’re doing.

Dennis Yen, Mike Delaney, and Seth Thygesen in Twelfth Night at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Dennis Yen, Mike Delaney, and Seth Thygesen in Twelfth Night at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

In the ensuing discussion with the “provocateur,” we both discovered that he meant so much more than what that word implies. He meant something for which there is no single word. He wants to engage his audience’s hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. He wants to reach down past the dross of the everyday and into a place of deeper meaning, deeper connection. And now we’re getting somewhere.

This type of engagement is about communion; it creates community. It’s one of the deepest, oldest human impulses. Hell, it’s a primate impulse. Be with me. See me. Hear me. Know me. Share this experience with me.

Chris Quintos in Joshua Conkel's The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Chris Quintos in Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I’ve had hundreds of discussions with hundreds of theatremakers, and when you dig deep enough, it all hits this same foundation: engagement, communion. How do we accomplish this communion? How do we, in the context of what we do as theatre artists, engage others in a way that creates communion?

Anyone who tells you that what we now call “audience engagement” is the pathway to this is just completely wrong. It *can* be, but just providing ways for your audience to interact with your work will not mean they’re automatically engaged with it in a meaningful way. Anyone can write on a wall, stand on a stage, sing a song, or tweet while being bored out of their minds and wishing they were at home playing Mass Effect. The techniques we use to “engage” audiences will not, in and of themselves, work. They can be very powerful, and they can be boring as all fuck.

How we make “audience engagement” techniques work is the same way we make theatre work: narrative. We’re storytellers.

Luisa Frasconi and Maria Giere Marquis in Joshua Conkel's The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Luisa Frasconi and Maria Giere Marquis in Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

When I say “narrative,” I don’t mean any one kind of narrative. A narrative doesn’t have to be linear. It doesn’t have to be traditionally structured in any way. Theatre is a narrative art form, and if you create an “audience engagement experience” without any kind of compelling narrative, you’re not going to successfully engage them.

While some people are quick to denigrate the term “storyteller” because it doesn’t sound important to them, theatre is, at its heart, about stories. How we choose to tell those stories differs from artist to artist and genre to genre, but the human brain understands the world through narrative. It’s why religion is conveyed primarily through narrative. Narrative and poetry are how we convey all the mysteries of our existence; narrative and poetry are how we convey all the secrets of the human heart. To be a storyteller is to be both the keeper of and the maker of our culture– past, present, and future. HOW you choose to tell those stories is up to you. But we’re all storytellers in this art.

In theatre, “poetry” can be what we usually mean by the word– unexpected juxtapositions of language that create an insightful, emotional impact– but we also have the luxury of creating it in the physical world– movement, sound, sets, lights, costumes, props, the bodies of the actors, the way those bodies tell the story being told. Poetry works in service to the narrative. It illuminates it or cracks it open or reframes it or explains it or even problematizes it (Shakespeare in particular loves that last one).

Mike Delaney in Lauren Gunderson's Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshrie Isaacs.

Mike Delaney in Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

We start with something we want to say– a story we want to tell– and then we decide how we need to tell that story. The audience comes in the door and sits with us while we tell the story in the way we need to tell it. Maybe they participate in the telling; maybe not. But we– like an old woman sitting at a paleolithic campfire and every other storyteller in between that woman and us– create a world, open that world, and throw it like a blanket around our audience. Be in this world with me, feel its joy, its pain, its magic.

And through that ritual of storytelling– whether we’re creating a traditional, linear narrative or an experimental, non-linear movement piece, or anything in between— we’re attempting to engage, to create communion. When we’re successful, when we achieve that (because of course we don’t always, and we have to make room for failure if we ever wish to succeed), that engagement, that communion, can be provocative, transformative, or awakening. It can raise political consciousness. It can create an emotional journey. It can change minds, heal hearts, elevate souls. It can do ANYTHING, because a group of people fully engaged in a narrative is one of the singlemost immensely powerful tools available to the human experience.

Jonathon Brooks in Cameron McNary's Of Dice and Men. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonathon Brooks in Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

There’s a wealth of information about the neurology of storytelling– how the human brain experiences narrative and is enriched by it is especially interesting. Our brains see the world, and other humans, as a collection of narratives. When we say we’re “storytellers,” we’re saying we engage other humans through the deepest, most primitive, most mysterious means possible. We’re talking soul to soul when we tell stories. What binary is to computers, narrative is to humans.

And this is what I think theatre is for: gathering a group of people to enter into a world wherein a story can be created, shared, and fully experienced in real, physical space and time by both creators and audience. Our stories contain all the mysteries of our existence, all the secrets of our hearts, all our hopes and fears and dreams and longing and joy and pain and everything that makes us who we are, who we were, who we fear becoming, who we want to be, what we dream we can be, at the deepest, most meaningful level our brains can comprehend.

So don’t shy away from the term “storyteller.” It’s one of the most meaningful labels we have for ourselves as theatremakers. It contains within it everything we’re trying to do with audience engagement, everything we’re trying to do when we say we want to “take risks” or “provide a transformative experience.” Everything we are and everything we will be are made of narrative. Theatre is the most powerful expression of the intensely human magic that is narrative.

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