Monthly Archives: May 2014

Our Role in This as Artists

Like pretty much every blogger, the plan I had for my next post got chucked out the window after the violence at UCSB. I’ve been closely following #YesAllWomen on twitter, the news stories, the many, many blog posts, the many discussions on facebook. Like we all have been. Like so many women, I’ve been repeating the truth: This isn’t at all surprising. This is just the extreme example of what women experience all the time.

The reaction to that, honestly, has surprised me far more than the attack itself. I expected some blowback, but I didn’t expect the AMOUNT and TYPE of blowback I got. Things like, “We need to wait for more information because I didn’t believe a word of that manifesto,” “You need to have more compassion for men. We’re sick of this vitriol,” “You’re just making men angry and scared,” “A lifetime of being nice to women down the drain because of one asshole,” and “Man hating is just as destructive as misogyny.”

I was shocked, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I still have that much potential for naiveté. I have a husband and two teenage sons, as well as a host of friends I count as male allies in this fight. I’m well aware of “not all men.” I never expected that simply pointing out that cultural misogyny exists, that women experience this kind of violent misogyny regularly, and that the events at UCSB are only exceptional by degree, would cause so many men (and even a few women) to flip so directly out in so many bizarre directions.

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I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that. The responses fall into two categories: You’re making men feel bad, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. When a woman is saying “I have, like all women, experienced harassment, abuse and/or violence at the hands of men, so this recent misogynistic violence is no surprise in that context” what makes a man respond with some version of “MY FEELINGS COME FIRST” or “SHUT UP, YOU’RE WRONG”? And of course “NOT ALL MEN,” a combination of both. What makes that small handful of women respond with “STOP MAKING MEN FEEL BAD”?

I’ve read a lot of the excellent blog posts about this issue (examples are here and here), and they all say more or less the same thing: Americans are force-fed a master narrative from birth that describes a man’s place in the world: You deserve access to a woman’s body because you are “nice.” You should be rewarded with a woman (or women) for performing certain tasks and/or succeeding in certain areas. If a woman you want rejects you, just keep trying until you wear her down because you know better than she does what she “wants” or what’s “good for her.” The corollary, of course, is that women who reject a “nice” guy or complain about male harassment, abuse, or violence are committing an act of gross wrongdoing against men as a group.

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Enough people have completely bought into these fantasies to make them a pervasively destructive part of our culture. Both men and women have internalized them, perpetuate them, and, when challenged, angrily defend them. They frame anything that might prevent a man from achieving the master narrative as massively unjust. The many Elliot Rodger fan pages on facebook alone attest to that. The conservative backlash that’s working overtime to equate “man-hating” with cultural misogyny is another example. It would actually be funny if it weren’t such a dangerous idea– it’s like equating calling a straight person a “breeder” with a fatal gay bashing.

Where does this destructive master narrative come from? Where is this disseminated in our culture? Film, TV, theatre, books– narrative art. WE MADE THIS. Not alone, but we did, indeed, make this, and we need to start thinking about that. Hard.

Sure, parts of the narrative are thousands of years old. But there are plenty of old ideas we no longer choose to disseminate. We have the choice whether or not we continue to tell this narrative. We have the choice whether or not we continue to reinscribe this into our culture.

I’ve long had the desire to fire every romantic comedy into the sun. I despise romcoms, and I never spent time figuring out why. Now that the answer is in my face, it’s undeniable: they’re one way we disseminate all of the worst ideas about relationships we have as a culture, including (especially) the male master narrative. What was once just an annoyance to me now looks like the worst kind of reprehensible irresponsibility. And that’s just one tiny corner of the art we produce.

It’s easy to say, Oh, it’s just a play; it’s just a movie, etc. But there is no “just.” The narrative art form is POWERFUL. The human brain can experience narrative as if it’s happening in real life. The brain of a person telling a story and a person listening to that story experience neural coupling. Art is where we discuss who we are as a culture; our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our past, our imagined future. It’s the most important aspect of how our culture is created and how it is changed. Stories are the building blocks of culture, and we’re the ones who create and tell those stories.

My feelings about romcoms.

My feelings about romcoms.

I thought a lot about why there are people with relative privilege who can read (for example, this is in no way meant to be comprehensive) “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women,” “cis people oppress trans* people,” or “white people marginalize people of color” and see the truth in those statements without freaking out, while a whole wagonload of men (and a handful of women) have recently demonstrated they can’t see “men harass, stalk, rape, and kill women” without having a butthurt rodeo and calling it “vitriol” and “betrayal.” Here’s the answer: Some people with privilege are actively committed to social justice, and have been working their asses off. They already know they’re part of the problem and that they contribute to misogyny, transphobia, and racism unwittingly all the time. They’re working hard to root out all the little hidden places where those exist in their psyches. They listen to women, trans* people, and people of color. They’ve committed to the process of figuring it out. They’re not consciously misogynistic, transphobic, or racist, but they’re aware the culture has drilled into them a million little bigotries they’ll always be in the process of locating and squashing.

The people who cannot handle hearing that they, or others of their group, are responsible for systemic cultural injustice or violence are people who are either so protected by their privilege they are truly ignorant of that, and/or who are so invested in their privilege they can’t abide anything that might potentially challenge it. In this case, male privilege is connected to the internalized male master narrative. Women all over the internet have been talking about their experiences with male violence, and the pervasive fear women face every day. The man who responds “NOT ALL MEN” is someone who is far more concerned with how he is being perceived, and his feelings about that, than about her actual experience of violence because from birth he’s been exposed to a culture that has TOLD HIM that anything that impedes his access to her is an injustice TO HIM, including her fear; that he is a better judge of her experience than she is, and that his experience is more important than hers in all cases, even when the match up is rape vs hurt feelings. That’s something we need to change, and because that is, I truly believe, a minority of men now, this change is achievable. I have an idea where to start.

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We have to own our part of cultural bigotry if we’re going to be productive adults fighting for social justice, and it’s useless to say “not all men/white/cis people.” Because A. Truckload of duh, everyone already knows that; B. It’s derailing someone else’s story of oppression with your story of butthurt; C. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference that it’s not all men/white people/cis people because it’s CLEARLY still FAR TOO MANY; and D. Uh, yeah it is. It really is all men, all white people, all cis people, even if you’re trying. Even if you’re trying hard. All you can do is KEEP TRYING. There is no bigotry master cleanse you can go on that will allow you to excrete all the bigotry the culture put into you. All you can do is keep trying. And listen.

We, as artists, however, are uniquely positioned as creators of culture to effect real change. We need to start thinking about all the many ways we create the culture that instills misogyny (and all bigotries against difference) into people.

As artists who create culture, we can take the first step by pinky swearing to each other that we will STOP disseminating that male master narrative. Stalking a girl, hitting her boyfriend in the face, or tricking her into having sex will not “win” someone a woman in real life. A woman who rejects a man is not in a “pre-yes” phase of the real-life narrative. (“Just give him/me a chance” is a line that should automatically cause your computer to crash as you type it.) Being the “nice guy” will not automatically “win” someone a woman in real life. (As many have said before me, women are not machines into which you put “nice” coins and sex comes out.)  Winning a contest, landing a great job, or overcoming some kind of adversity will not automatically “win” someone a woman. Women are not prizes granted for achievements. The male master narrative is a destructive lie, and we need to stop using our platforms to tell that lie. Writers and producers: I am looking at you. WE CAN DO BETTER.

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I’m not saying we need to stop creating male-centered work, or stop showing sexy-looking women in our work, or whatever it is you’re imagining if you’re having the OUTRAGE feels and getting ready to make some tiresome comment about CENSORSHIP or (ughbarfshutup) POLITICAL CORRECTNESS. Make your boob-centered posters. Make your love stories. Make art about men. There’s no need to obliterate every straight male thing. There are straight men in the world, and their stories have as much value as anyone else’s. What I’m saying is: Let’s stop telling straight-up lies about a man’s rights to a woman’s body. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that approvingly shows a man “winning” a reluctant woman because he was “nice” or won a ski-off or punched a guy. Let’s think twice about putting time and money into work that positions a woman’s “no” or resistance as meaning “try harder,” and that stalking a woman is romantic rather than terrifying. Let’s think about what we’re putting into the world with our art.

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Why You Didn’t Get Cast

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Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor rehearsing in 1956

A few days ago, I had two conversations almost back-to-back. One was with an experienced and talented actor who believed they were getting the message that their career was over just because they were in a dry spell. The other was with yet another Bay Area actor whose career had stalled the minute they went AEA. While we talked about the many reasons why that happens, this actor said to me, “I want to see if I’m good enough to be an AEA actor.” And my heart just broke because, as someone whose life is always on the other side of the table, I know how seldom casting is purely about who’s “good.” I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors.

So here you go, actors of the world. The pure, unvarnished truth about why you didn’t get the role.

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Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart performing Philadelphia Story for Victory Theater, 1942.

1. MOST COMMON: You’re just not right for it. I know this sounds like a massive, shit-eating cliche, but it’s absolutely the truth. A director walks into the room with a character conceptualized in a certain way, and is looking for the person whose type or energy matches the character. The truly amazingly badass Leslie Martinson of TheatreWorks taught me this years ago, when I was first starting out: Every conceptualized character has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Every actor has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Casting is about finding the best match. I pass over actors I flat-out adore all the time because the fit isn’t right. For example, a director might have Orlando conceptualized as a man in his 20s with a gentle, soft-spoken energy, while your audition presents a man in his 30s with a bright, aggressive energy. While your audition might be fantastic, you’re not going to be that director’s Orlando.

2. Your skillset isn’t developed. This is the second most common, and the one people like to think of as “not good enough.” That way of thinking is total bullshit. How do I know? Because year after year, I see actors grow and develop. I see actors go from maaaaybe having the skills to handle a small supporting role to being ready to carry a play in one season. Either they took a class that unlocked something, or worked with a director who stretched them, or went on a spiritual quest in the New Mexico desert, or had mind-blowing sex with Ian McKellen, whatever. But I see it happen all the time, because dedicated actors are constantly working on their skillset.

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Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Joe Melia rehearsing Too True to be Good at the RSC in 1975.

3. The role was precast. Some directors are superstitious and will read people for roles that are already cast. It’s unfortunately common for actors to commit to roles that they later bail on (a better-paying gig, a family emergency, a medical situation), and if you auditioned other actors for that role, you have some go-to options. One casting director told me she was so superstitious that she didn’t get rid of the casting data for a show until it CLOSED. On the flip side, lots of theatres are upfront about which roles are precast. Don’t let that necessarily discourage you. You may want to consider coming in for a show where your dream role is precast– you may end up playing that role after all.

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Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun, 1959

4. The role went to someone they’ve worked with before. This is incredibly common. You know an actor’s work, you have a shared language, you understand how to work together. A known quantity is less of a risk, even if the known quantity didn’t crush the callback like you did. The director knows from past experience that the other actor can give them what the work needs.

5. You’ve had a history of behaving unprofessionally. Luckily, this one is extremely rare, but it does occasionally happen. Violating your contract (coming consistently late or no-showing to rehearsals or shows, for example), treating fellow actors or crew disrespectfully, making unreasonable demands (such as demanding the theatre violate their contract with the playwright so you can change something in the script despite the fact that the playwright declined to allow the change, or demanding the day off during tech because it’s your one year dating anniversary), deciding closing night is the time for GAGS! and IMPROV!, badmouthing the show on social media (“This play is going to be total shit!”). Although I’ve seen every one of these examples firsthand, they are, as I’ve said, pretty rare. The converse, happily, is MUCH more likely to be true– that we take a chance on an actor unknown to us because someone at another theatre is raving about how awesome they are. And believe me, I’m not trying to imply that this doesn’t happen in the opposite direction. I know plenty of directors treat actors in unconscionable ways. But that’s an entirely different blog post. My point is that, in any theatre community, companies share personnel. While we don’t necessarily go out of our way to share that kind of information, the Literary Manager at one theatre is directing a show at another theatre. The actor at one theatre is the Artistic Director at another theatre. What happens in Vegas, so to speak, does not stay in Vegas. But be happy that the converse is also true and much, much more common– we’re raving about how wonderful you are to our friends at other companies. I’ve sent many a “heads up” email to directors to let them know that an actor new to them and about to audition for them is someone I’ve worked with and believe in.

6. Conflicts. You may have been the best person for the role, but since you’re planning to be in Oklahoma for Baton Twirling Nationals during tech, they’re going to go with someone else.

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7. You tanked the audition. Oh, man, this one is a heartbreaker, and I see it all the time. It’s one of the reasons I tell my students that the best way to cast is to see as many plays as possible so you’re seeing actors in their natural habitat. Auditions are weird little creatures, artificial and forced. However, if we want to open our theatres to new people and new communities (and we do), we’re stuck with open auditions. Like standardized testing, which only measures how good you are at standardized tests, auditions often measure how well you audition and little else. While callbacks are theoretically meant to correct for that, you don’t always make it to the callback to show them. I’ve seen plenty of actors give me a crap audition and then give a beautiful performance in someone else’s play. They had a bad day, or memorized a new monologue they thought would be “better” for the role the day before, or were too nervous. There are a million reasons why a great actor would tank an audition. Don’t let it discourage you. Take an audition class or work with a coach if this is a common problem for you. Do what you need to do. But KEEP TRYING. Invite artistic directors and casting directors to see your work. Don’t give up! You won’t tank them all.

And that’s my main piece of advice: Don’t give up. If this is your dream, persevere! Nothing is insurmountable. FALL DOWN SEVEN TIMES, GET UP EIGHT.

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Playwriting is Storytelling

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Maybe this will become a series: “Directing is Storytelling,” “Acting is Storytelling.” Since I’m right in the thick of season planning and reading a ton of plays every day, writing is my current focus.

Playwriting is storytelling. The primary function of a play is to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be a linear narrative, or have realistic characters, or be traditionally structured in any way. But the basic human need to tell, share, hear, and create stories is as old as the human brain itself, and theatre is one of our oldest storytelling tools.

A play’s most basic elements are the story and the characters within that story. I encounter so many clunky, unsuccessful plays that focus on something other than one or both of those.

Plays about “issues” are probably the most prevalent. You have an opinion about something– abortion, the environment, religion. You write a play wherein the central events are all arguments about these things. This is not interesting. For one, we can all have arguments like these on facebook every day. We don’t need to stage or see a play in order to have The Argument Experience. Secondly, argument is not conflict. A play that consists largely of people shouting their opinions at one another is not a story about competing objectives. And while you might want to be the kind of person who thinks conflict isn’t central to dramatic narrative, I do not. I agree that conflict doesn’t have to be violent, or linear, or even interpersonal, but dramatic narrative is created by conflict of some kind– an important choice to be made, competing objectives, a task made difficult, a journey through something challenging.

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“The Mullet: My Journey, My Struggle,” a solo performance by John Stamos

Another unsuccessful “issue” play is one that’s predictable. These plays set up a weak, obviously assholic opposition and then eviscerates that opposition with the Magical Truth and Awesomeness of the playwright’s opinion on the issue. A victory over an obviously weak-ass antagonist, argument, or idea is not an exciting victory. Would you rather watch a game that came down to the final three seconds, or would you rather watch a 67-2 rout? If you want to tell the kind of story where one side triumphs over another side, the stronger you make the “losing” side, the more compelling the narrative will be and the more satisfying the conclusion.

Remember when you were an undergrad and you thought plays that insulted, offended, and discomfited the audience were hella cool? Because: EDGY. Now that I’m an adult who relies on the goodwill of my audience and ticket sales, I no longer have a bone to pick with my audience, or with “audiences” as a concept. I don’t see myself in an adversarial relationship with “audience” at all. But my company will still do plays that are extremely boundary-crossing, that often some audience members find uncomfortable or challenging in some way. The difference between a play to which we’ll commit time and money and one we will not is simple: while watching a well-written play that crosses boundaries, audience members who are uncomfortable feel that way because of a relationship they have to the material– to the events or the characters– that comes organically out of the story. That’s a culturally valuable challenge. But when I read a play that’s just randomly insulting or (attempting to be) shocking without any purpose other than to be randomly insulting or shocking, I set it aside. It’s all one big juvenile yawn unless it comes organically out of story. A toddler can rip up a bible and then pee into the shreds, it’s the job of high school sophomores to make semen jokes during lunch, and the internet is paved with hurled insults and “offensive” material. You have to give me something more than that– and the “more” is the kind of context that comes with compelling narrative. If your goal is to “offend,” just make another offensive tumblr. The most offensive aspect of that kind of theatre is charging $30 for something we can get by the wagonload for free online.

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Wrong kind of offensive line

Another area where playwrights often lose sight of storytelling is character relationship. Often a playwright will want to draw two people from different backgrounds together, and, instead of taking the time to do this with story, will use a superficial means that only ends up feeling forced. I see this all the time with smoking, pot, and alcohol– like the very fact that someone does one of these has the power to make you take a second look, reframe your opinion of them, and let them into your heart? Hasn’t every human alive done one or more of these things at one time? I’m not inviting John Boehner up to my hotel room just because we’re both drinking scotch. The second most popular approach is the shared superficial like– some song, musician, movie, brand of something, book. “What? You like Spaghetti-Os too? I previously hated you, but now LET’S FALL IN LOVE.” It never rings true. Sure, it’s enjoyable when you discover that someone likes the same underappreciated musician you do, and just as enjoyable to see a moment of connection between characters, but it’s not enough to act as the turning point of an entire relationship.

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Not enough beer in the world, Spleen.

Often playwrights will start a play with ten or fifteen pages of throat-clearing– meaningless dialogue that theoretically “introduces” characters and lays down exposition while actually, the play loses nothing and gains real momentum by skipping those pages entirely and diving directly into the narrative. If the first ten pages of your play are characters saying “Remember when [blah]?” “Remember how [a thing]?” “Remember the time [something]?” you should probably take a second look. I don’t know these people. Their reminiscences are of limited interest to me until I have a context within which to put them. Work that exposition into the narrative itself. Does your play start like this? “CRYSTAL: Remember when Mother died four seasons ago, during the worst alfalfa harvest in Cowcatcher County history, right after Father tried to sell the farm to the mysterious Dr. Ballsworth? And remember how we laughed when we discovered that in her will she had left the entire Farthill Valley to you and I? And remember how she used to say ‘A penny saved is a penny that could have been spent on vodka?'” Yeah, you can cut all that.

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Or you could just do this.

 

I recently read a play whose intricate relationships are painstakingly revealed, bit by bit, in a lovingly tended non-linear narrative, until a gut-punch of a fucking gorgeous payoff at the end, and I almost sprained my fingers on the keyboard in a rush to ask for the rights. What is the play “about”? What love means? Sacrifice? I’m still mulling that one over. Is every detail of the exposition laid down? Newp. But the play is so painfully, heartbreakingly, beautifully rendered that the characters and their story has been haunting me ever since. Why did she make that decision? Does she regret it? Was it worth it? What will happen to her after she’s made that final choice? I can’t get these characters out of my head. And *that’s* the impact you want to have on your audience.

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