Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Politics of Accents

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This guy.

While I could write plenty about nonsense like Asian actors being asked to do “the accent” in their audition for “Prostitute #3” and “Kung Fu Master Criminal,” or Black actors being asked for a more “urban” accent or audition piece, I’m actually heading in the opposite direction.

There’s a “Shakespeare accent” that American actors are taught to use, or sometimes just pick up on their own through exposure. I’ve seen plenty of teachers throughout the years refer to this as “RP,” “Standard American,” or “Mid-Atlantic” (not to be confused with the actual accent of people in that region– more on that later). The terminology is confused and not always accurate. “RP” stands for “received pronunciation,” which is in actuality a British dialect considered “proper,” and “Standard American” refers to an accent that uses a harder final R than these actors are being taught. But the accuracy of the terminology is not the point.

We all know that accent. It’s slightly faux-British, posh, and its main feature as practiced seems to be the dropped R.

We know from the study of OP (“Original Pronunciation”) that the British accent of Shakespeare’s day was actually nothing like this “Shakespeare” accent American actors use, or than British RP for that matter. Check out this comparison between RP and OP. So why do we teach actors to speak in these faux-British tones? Why do actors adopt this fabricated accent when they do Shakespeare?

The answer can’t be “because the text suggests it,” or “the text sounds better that way due to the way it’s written.” A notable part of OP is its harder final R. This entirely contrived  “Shakespeare accent” is most notable for its soft R. In fact, that’s its main (and often sole) feature as practiced across American stages. So “because Shakespeare” cannot be the answer.

What *IS* the answer? We know that what’s often called the “Mid-Atlantic” accent, popular in pre-1960 America, was a deliberate, acquired marker of wealthy white privilege, and was therefore cultivated by people looking for upward mobility and acceptance in the upper classes of America, or by actors whose careers would be built on playing upper-class roles. In 2013, we still use a version of it to denote “posh” or “privileged” in popular culture– look for it in films, cartoons, video games. It’s everywhere.

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There are some teachers out there now teaching an accent they call “Classical American,” as in, American accents for use in classical theatre.  “Classical American” is a reverse-engineered accent that labels and codifies the semi-British “Shakespeare accent” that has evolved from (and is still sometimes labeled as) Mid-Atlantic or RP. There’s a book originally published in 2005 flogging “Classical American” as “an intermediate option between well-pronounced Neutral American and Standard British. It builds upon Neutral American, blending additional rhythmic and sound elements, which result in more formal or heightened speech without sounding British to an American ear” (emphasis mine). Precisely. I’ve heard this accent referred to innumerable times as “formal,” “heightened,” and “elevated.”

“Formal.” “Heightened.” “Elevated.” “Formal” has long been code for “posh.” But what’s being heightened here? What are we “elevating” when we drop our American accent and move to a semi-demi-faux British accent? CLASS.  That’s what’s being heightened. The appearance of privilege. Poshness.

The “Shakespeare accent” has nothing to do with acting Shakespeare and EVERYTHING to do with acting “posh.”

Those of us in the theatre talk a good game about how Shakespeare is for everyone, and whine a great deal when our audiences are less diverse in race or age than we’d like. Although we have a long way to go, we’re slowly getting better at looking to ourselves for problems with racial diversity in our audiences, but we epic fail with looking to ourselves for problems with age diversity in our audiences, generally blaming lack of swarms of twenty-two year-olds at our productions on their boorishness and lack of interest in “culture.”

Maybe the way we frame Shakespeare is to blame for the homogeneity of its audiences. When people talk about Shakespeare as “lofty poetry,” it makes me cringe. Not because they’re wrong– there’s certainly enough lofty poetry in Shakespeare to keep your lofty poetry needs happy for quite some time before you have to turn to Blake or Donne– but because Shakespeare ON STAGE is less about poetry as such and all about stories– rich, passionate, violent, emotional, heart-ripping stories at that. Shakespeare uses poetry to tell stories, and he will drop the poetry or jack up its rhythmic demands in a hot second to make an emotional point. The poetry is in service to the stories. These stories tell all the secrets of the human heart, and we continue to frame them in popular culture as staid and boring “high culture,” as if Shakespeare is medicine that you must take because it’s good for you rather than ZOMG THESE PLAYS ARE AWESOME.

Part of sequestering Shakespeare into the special, rarefied, and (most importantly) exclusive domain of “high culture” is this pretend, contrived, completely non-regional “Shakespeare” accent; an accent created solely and specifically to denote “upper class.”

This accent is part of the mythology that Shakespeare is “high class” art for the privileged. If we as directors or audience demand that Shakespeare actors adopt an accent that was created specifically to signal “rich and white” and still signals that to this day in popular culture, what are we saying about Shakespeare?

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I know an exceptional Black actor with enormous range who was told by one of his college professors (also a Black man) that he would never be able to do Shakespeare because of his “Black accent.” Of course he was wrong. Apart from this particular actor’s massive flexibility, the professor’s own experience as an actor was decades ago, and this is the 21st century in the Bay Area, where that kind of thinking is thankfully now on the wane. However, there are still too many directors out there who will absolutely refuse to cast a Black actor– or ANY actor– who does not adopt the upper class white accent our culture has come to associate with Shakespeare, and too many universities and training programs that teach that as NORMAL. At general auditions for my company last spring, I had a batch of diverse, newly-hatched college grads all from the same Bay Area university (not the same one I discuss above, depressingly) whose actors, each and every one, came in doing the “Shakespeare accent.” I almost wrote to the department. I probably should have. But even more depressingly, there are plenty of teachers and directors who still think that’s necessary.

Let me just say: Balderdash.

BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays were written for an accent nothing like this contrived “Shakespeare accent,” but an accent no one anywhere today would mistake for “posh,” and BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays are the greatest plays ever written in the English language and tell all the secrets of the human heart, and therefore belong to everyone, and BECAUSE we recognize that more diversity of all types on our stages and in our audiences is a good thing, and BECAUSE this is almost 2014, FFS, I RESOLVE:

THE DEATH OF THE SHAKESPEARE ACCENT IS AT HAND.

Listen, if that’s how you really talk, then I have no problem with you using that accent when you do Shakespeare. In fact, that’s my entire point. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH JUST AS YOU ARE for Shakespeare. Your body, your voice, just as they are, are worthy carriers of these stories, whether your speech is “posh” or straight outta Compton. Talk like you talk. YOU ARE WORTHY OF SHAKESPEARE, just as you are.

And directors? Please stop. Just stop. These stories are yours to tell. You don’t need to overlay fake poshness to prove you’re worthy to enter the club. You’re already worthy.

These stories are part of the human literary heritage. They already belong to you. They’re about you, whoever you are. It’s time to liberate these plays from the mythology of exclusivity.

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The Remarkable World

I’m speaking to you from the center of two mind-blowing experiences.

Cassie Rosenbrock as Audrey in Impact's production of As You Like It. Warden Lawlor was her Touchstone. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Cassie Rosenbrock as Audrey in Impact’s production of As You Like It. Warden Lawlor was her Touchstone. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The first involves a close friend of mine, the amazing and wonderful Cassie Rosenbrock. She’s been going through an incredibly difficult time, including the sudden and unexpected death of her father and her husband’s mysterious and debilitating illness they’re now hoping the Mayo Clinic can diagnose. All while giving birth to her second baby. This family is generous, warm, and full of love and humor. No, seriously– you would LOVE THEM. A few of her friends and I set up a donation site to help cover their ballooning medical expenses, and the money just roared in. We’re overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

Lauren Spencer as Ulysses and Rogelio Landaverde as Paris in Impact's production of Troilus and Cressida. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Lauren Spencer as Ulysses and Rogelio Landaverde as Paris in Impact’s production of Troilus and Cressida. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The second involves my theatre company, Impact Theatre. We’re a small company, living close to the bone. The first two shows of this season were huge successes– we were artistically satisfied, we got great reviews, and we had very happy audience members whose responses were very positive. We also raised artist stipends this season to match what other companies our size are paying. We’re still at the low end of that, to be honest, but we had to at least get on the board to remain competitive and continue to attract the best local talent. We have three upcoming shows this season we’re very excited about. We just made a local critic’s (the awesome Sam Hurwitt) list of top ten productions of 2013 with our summer show, Thao P. Nguyen’s Fortunate Daughter. On the surface, things couldn’t be better at Impact.

We have a commission opening this spring by rising star Christopher Chen called Mutt. It's a political comedy about the hapa experience in America.

We have a commission opening this spring by rising star Christopher Chen called Mutt. It’s a political comedy about the hapa experience in America.

Unfortunately, neither of the two shows so far this season came even close to reaching sales goals, and, with very little cushion this year, we’re facing a truly terrifying financial crisis. We weren’t even sure how we were going to pay rent over the next few months. We don’t do donation campaigns very often. I think we’ve done about 3 or 4 since we started the company 18 years ago. We’re quite open about the fact that we accept donations, and we put words to that effect in our programs and on our website, but that end of the year letter or email you get addressed to “Mail Merge” from 132 places asking for donations during this season of giving? That’s just not something we usually do. We decided we really needed to if we wanted to live to fight another day, and put out a call for donations.  And again, the money just came roaring in. It was overwhelming. I got email notice after notice after notice with donations from actors, audience members, former Impact members who had moved away. We received donations from people we only knew through social media. Twenty-four hours into it, and it looks like we might, if this keeps up, reach our goal.

I was floored going through all the emails. I could not stop crying.

I believe the “meaning of life” is to live in service to others. I have a personal mission to somehow help everyone I meet to success and happiness. I want to leave the world, and people’s lives, better for having known me. I always want to be the person who reaches out to help.

But nothing, NOTHING could have prepared me for what it was like to reach out *for* help and see 100 hands reaching back to me. It’s been one of the singlemost humbling experiences of my life.

The amazing Thao P. Nguyen, whose solo performance this summer at Impact, Fortunate Daughter, was voted one of the top ten Bay Area productions of 2013.

The amazing Thao P. Nguyen, whose solo performance this summer at Impact, Fortunate Daughter, was voted one of the top ten Bay Area productions of 2013.

The world is remarkable. Yes, it’s shit, and people are awful, and politics are awful and terrible people say terrible things on terrible TV shows about their terrible beliefs. But the world is remarkable, full of love, and hope, and kindness.

My blog will be a year old in a few days. I’m grateful for each and every one of you who read it. Thank you so much for helping to make this such a remarkable year. Happy Holidays to you and yours.

Jax Steager, Impact's resident lighting designer, Read Tuddenham, our production manager, and Sarah Coykendall, one of our resident actors.

Capturing the Impact holiday spirit perfectly are Jax Steager, Impact’s resident lighting designer, Read Tuddenham, our production manager, and Sarah Coykendall, one of our resident actors.

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High School Yellowface

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I’m not posting pictures of the actual minors in the show. Instead I’m choosing to post pictures from America’s vast yellowface past. This keeps the kids’ identities confidential while also providing some cultural context.

Someone I know recently posted some pictures of her son’s high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of course I’m stoked that the kids are doing Shakespeare instead of Grease or One Direction: The Musical or whatever. And I definitely understand the impulse to want to set these plays in a fanciful place and time, especially if you have hundreds of hours of free parental labor and thousands of dollars at your disposal. I’m not a huge fan of randomly chosen settings, like Love’s Labour’s Lost in an 18th century brothel or King Lear on the Death Star (although I might have to give that last one some serious thought). But I understand the impulse, even if I do not agree with it.

The problem with this play is that it’s set in “Ming Dynasty China.”

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I’ve written about race in casting before (this and this). But I’ve been thinking about this issue all day, for two reasons: One, the fact that this is educational theatre; and two, that half the kids in the cast are Asian American, but the faculty director is white.

There’s a reason theatre education belongs in schools. It teaches kids about the challenges and joys of creating art collaboratively. It helps kids learn how to extract meaning from text in very concrete ways. It teaches kids how to work under an utterly unforgiving deadline. It teaches kids about the massive, gorgeous, messy pile of dramatic literature available to us in the 21st century, which are all windows open to different places, times, experiences, and points of view. Theatre education is a life-changing, mind-expanding experience.

This is precisely why this is so disappointing to me. These kids are being taught that it’s acceptable for white people to play characters of color. It’s nowhere near acceptable in the professional world, where a mistake like that can create national controversy. If you don’t have an all-Asian cast at your disposal, you shouldn’t be doing a play set in Ming Dynasty China, and to place high school kids into such a situation is to do them a huge disservice. There’s a reason why I’m not posting pictures of these kids. This is not their fault, and I’m not holding them up to global mockery. It’s easy to say, “What does it matter? It’s just high school theatre.” If that’s the case, then what does ANY educational activity matter? Why not blow it all off and let them all play CoD: Ghosts instead of reading Catcher in the Rye or doing those calculus problems? I guarantee you that the skills theatre kids are learning are more likely to be useful to them in their future day-to-day lives as adults than calculus will be. If you believe education is important, then it follows that teaching kids that something highly controversial and racially problematic is just fine is shockingly irresponsible. Either education matters or it does not.

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Midsummer is a play people love to set in various places, and it can be quite successfully done that way. Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco did an all-Filipino Midsummer using Filipino folklore tropes, with Tagalog-speaking mechanicals that was so fantastic I saw it TWICE. Which is insane, since I rarely get out of my own theatre. But this was a Filipino production, headed by a Filipino director, with an all-Filipino cast, at a Filipino theatre. This was about taking ownership of a classic story, coming from a deep, authentic positionality. A white director setting Midsummer in Ming Dynasty China with a half-white cast is not the same (especially when that cast are all teenagers working under an adult authority figure who makes the bulk of the creative decisions). It doesn’t have a deep message that comes from the center of Chinese or Chinese American culture. Instead, it’s a white director using a non-white culture as WINDOW DRESSING. And no matter how much research was done, or how many accurate renderings of period costumes or sets there were, this was using a culture as decoration, not marginalized people telling a story from within that cultural positionality. It’s deeply problematic.

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When I first started discussing this issue, I was told that half the cast is Asian, some of the techs are Asian, and the faculty choreographer is Asian. I was told that the Asian families coming to see their kids in the show weren’t complaining about the yellowface (out loud). I was told that the performances weren’t “stereotypical,” and that someone was playing traditional Chinese music during the show. I was told that the casting was “multicultural.” These were all held up to me as reasons it’s OK for white kids to play people of color. I actually gave it some thought. After all, the kids were in traditional Beijing Opera makeup, not actual yellowface . . .  did that matter? And I wondered for a bit if the presence of Asians working on the show changed the equation at all.

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Oh, right. No, it doesn’t. Not even an Asian director makes a difference in the ensuing controversy apart from: “He should have known better.”

It’s just not acceptable for white people in America to play people of color at all. Race has meaning. And although I suppose it could be argued that a half-white cast isn’t as egregious as a fully-white cast, or one wherein all the leads are white, race still carries narrative that cannot be erased. The meaning of a white person playing an Asian person is culturally problematic in profound, complex ways attached to a lengthy history of appropriation, erasure, and oppression. It’s a common misconception that “multicultural casting” means that white people should be able to play characters of color because we cast people of color in roles originally written for white actors. To pretentiously quote my own damn article that I linked to above (see, now you don’t have to click on it):

Using a white actor as [a character of color] has a very different impact on the narrative than casting a person of color in a traditionally white role. It erases the physical presence of the person of color and substitutes it with blackface/yellowface, imperialism and cultural appropriation. The West has a long history of casting white actors in racist portrayals of people of color, of appropriating the narratives of people of color and reshaping them through a white lens, and of shutting artists of color out of positions of importance. An American audience viewing a white person portraying a person of color will be reminded of all of these, and of blackface, of yellowface, of the history of racism with which we still struggle. These are all present in any production wherein a white actor is cast as a person of color because they are so palpably present within our culture. Again, race is always part of the narrative.

Maybe it’ll change some day, and we will be so many hundreds of years past the issues that make yellowface culturally unacceptable that it truly will not matter any longer, because race will no longer carry the same narratives it does now. Perhaps it’ll carry new, better narratives, less painful, less difficult. But that day is not today, and both yellowface and whitewashing remain culturally unacceptable.

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I’m not going to reveal the location of this production, and I won’t approve any comments that do, because at its heart, this is about protecting those kids. They should be taught right from wrong, and yellowface is wrong, just as all whitewashing is wrong. In our current cultural context, it’s never OK for a white person to play a person of color, even in a high school. ESPECIALLY in a high school. And claiming that it’s OK because there are Asians in the room is like the guy who says “My Black friend LOVES my racist jokes.” Whether it’s true or not, the jokes are still racist, and there is a much larger cultural context to consider.

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