Monthly Archives: June 2014

You Need a Dramaturg (Because Clowns are Creepy, and Other Semiotic Shifts)

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I should be sorrier for this than I am.

Like everyone (right?) I have a running joke with a friend about how scary and creepy clowns are. It’s just a joke– considering I sleep every night with a Dell’Arte-trained actor, it’s obviously not an indictment of physical theatre professionals, for whom I have enormous respect. It’s not even related to physical theatre at all– it’s about the imagery. The idea that clowns in full makeup are creepy is now a pervasive cultural trope that everyone recognizes, whether they personally agree or not. It’s now more present in our culture than any other trope about clowns. Yet this was not always the case. I’m not interested in getting into why or how this happened (I’m sure someone’s writing a dissertation about this very subject). The point is that it HAS. And that this kind of cultural shift happens ALL THE TIME.

My husband in a student performance at Dell'Arte International with a fellow student.

My husband at Dell’Arte International, performing with a fellow student.

So my friend recently sent me this 2008 BBC article about the University of Sheffield study that surveyed 250 children between the ages of 4 and 16, and found that clowns were “widely disliked,” prompting researchers to urge children’s hospitals to consult with (shocking) ACTUAL CHILDREN before decorating their hospitals. The article goes on to quote a child psychologist:

Patricia Doorbar is a child psychologist in North Wales who has carried out research into children’s views on healthcare and art therapy.

She said: “Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd. (emphasis mine)

“They are unfamiliar and come from a different era.” OK, she knows clowns do indeed exist in this era. The ACTUAL point she’s making is that the semiotics of the clown– what that imagery means within the context of our culture– has changed dramatically from previous generations to today. In my father’s generation, children’s shows featuring clowns and clown toys were much more common. The trope about the scary clown existed (this Smithsonian article blames it on Grimaldi via Dickens and Deburau via . . . um, child murder), but was far less prominent in popular culture. In two generations, the meaning of that imagery in context changed enormously. When someone creates a clown character in popular culture today, it’s more likely to be something creepy than something lighthearted and fun, because that semiotic has shifted. Clowning for children still exists in popular culture, of course, just usually out of traditional makeup. A picture of a clown on the wall of a hospital, once (evidently) a comforting sight to most children, is now a frightening sight to most children. The “creepy clown” has supplanted the “happy, funny clown” as the primary trope about clowns in full makeup in our culture, and it happened fast. Lights up on a clown in full gear 50 years ago would generate a different audience reaction, and create a different set of expectations, than lights up on a clown in full gear today.

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Seriously, what do you think is going to happen next? Balloon animals or murder? From “Top 5 Clown Makeup Ideas” on designsnext.com

And so it goes with imagery, tropes, characters, and narratives throughout the entire history of dramatic lit. When we stage classic plays, we’re looking at material that comes from a world that no longer exists– a world full of symbols and tropes that have shifted meaning. For example, Taming of the Shrew was, in context, taking a bit of a stand. It stood out from the many popular shrew-taming comedies of its day in that it did NOT advocate beating women into submission. It instead advocated isolating them, starving them, gaslighting them, and denying them sleep until they became tractable and obedient. The Christopher Sly framing device demonstrates how well gaslighting works (and it’s inescapably connected that Sly, like Katherine, is in a position of social inferiority and relative powerlessness). You can convince anyone to believe anything as long as you control what they see, hear, and, ultimately, think. While Petruchio’s techniques are horrifying to us today (you can see them all codified in Biderman’s Chart of Coercion, a tool used by Amnesty International and domestic violence organizations to help people define and understand abuse), they were a gentler approach in the context of the time. Check out the scold’s bridle if you’ve never heard of it.

The idea that a woman who isn’t obedient and who speaks her mind is a “shrew” who needs “taming,” while not fully banished from our culture, is no longer mainstream. Petruchio’s techniques are now considered abusive. But understanding the historical context of the play provides a window into the playwright’s intent and opens the possibility of a recuperative staging that preserves that intent. And while Shrew may be an extreme and controversial example that some feel is unrecuperable (I’m honestly not even certain where I land on that myself, although there’s a local production about to open with an amazing team that I’m dying to see– if anyone can do it, it’s these badasses), the point stands. A dramaturg can help you navigate the wily waters of narrative and text in historical context if that’s something you’re not already doing yourself. And even if it is, a dramaturg might have access to resources or knowledge that you don’t possess, bringing in points of view or historical context you didn’t even know to look for.

Theatremakers are divided into three categories: Those who have no idea what a dramaturg does, those who think dramaturgs are for new plays, and dramaturgs. OK, that’s a joke. But I see people approaching classic work all the time with misguided points of view. Either they’re beating the playwright’s intent to death on the rocks of fussy (and ultimately egotistical) purism, or they’re making changes in the name of modernization that don’t make sense in the context of the work, that obfuscate rather than illuminate the work. If you’re not into historical linguistics or history, and/or if you don’t have a clear understanding of the culture and semiotics of your audience, get a dramaturg. Work with her before the first rehearsal. Let her help you conceptualize the work in a way that will preserve the writer’s intent, which means the engine of the play– what makes it kick ass, what makes it endure, what makes it work for audiences for decades or even centuries– remains intact and clearly presented for a 21st century audience. And that’s IMPOSSIBLE to do by just “doing the play” without thought to the distance between the play’s original cultural context and current one. Insisting on a purist interpretation is essentially insisting on changing the meaning of the play. The older a play is, the more this is true.

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Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Even in plays that are much closer in time to us– Miller, Williams, O’Neill– there are symbols and tropes that either have completely lost their meaning, or whose meaning has shifted. For example, a man enters a living room where his sister-in-law is standing. The man removes his outer button-down shirt and is now just wearing a T-shirt. In 2014, that symbology would likely go completely unnoticed– a T-shirt has become perfectly acceptable public attire. Even an A-line undershirt is acceptable public attire. It’s no longer inappropriate for a man to take off an outer shirt and wear a T-shirt in his own living room in front of his sister-in-law. The original semiotic attached to that moment has been lost. If you want to preserve the intent– a man doing something that most people in the audience would consider inappropriately intimate– you need to do it another way, such as create that feeling through the acting. And if you don’t understand the historical context, the playwright’s intent for that moment is completely lost on you, or you may misread it as something else entirely. If you’re not well-versed in the history– and that’s no shame, plenty of great directors aren’t– a dramaturg will help you find and work with moments like these.

Conversely, a working knowledge of contemporary (and local– geography can change everything) symbology, popular culture, and slang can be crucial to speaking successfully to your audience. Terms change meaning, and the new usage may be obscure. You may think a line or a word means one thing to your audience when it really means another. I once saw a local director post on facebook that the community here is far too supportive and uncritical, so much so that people refer to it as the “Yay Area.” Or take, for example, the way words such as “mod” and “ratchet” have taken on new meanings. Think for a moment: There will be people in your audience who have never heard either term used ANY OTHER WAY. Sure, older people will think first of the Kinks and socket wrenches– but that’s my point. Understanding how meanings change in different contexts is important, and if that’s not your jam, then find a dramaturg, because I assure you, it’s hers.

I’m barely covering the beginning of what a dramaturg can do. A dramaturg is your in-house expert in research, narrative, semiotics, and history. Consider working with one! Wondering where to find a dramaturg in your area? I bet the fine folks at LMDA can help you.

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By Jon Wolter, from keepingwolteraccountable.tumblr.com

 

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Why I Don’t Watch the Tonys

 

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Tony winner and all-around excellent human James Iglehart as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Photo by Cilla von Tiedemann.

Before anyone starts calling me out, Yes, I did watch part of the Tonys for the first time this year. My husband and I went to undergrad with James Iglehart, who may actually be the sweetest man in the world (or a strong contender), and we watched his number and his acceptance speech. It was a moment of pure joy, especially when he thanked Celestine Ranney-Howes, one of our lecturers. It’s always wonderful to see someone you know deserves recognition get it, doubly wonderful to see them thank a teacher, and triply wonderful to see a teacher you KNOW is fantastic get thanked. He sent my husband a beautiful note thanking him as well. It was lovely all around.

But I don’t watch the Tonys.

I don’t care about the Tonys and people give me a surprising amount of shit for it.

Broadway is, for the most part, commercial theatre that exists as a business enterprise to return profits to investors, and, as such, is entirely risk-averse. That’s not even remotely controversial– we all know Broadway is big business where some of the biggest players (like Disney) have set up shop. That doesn’t mean Broadway is “bad,” but it does create some specific outcomes. Broadway has massively high production values with incredible technical innovation, but shies away from anything even a little risky. Broadway is the Harlem Globetrotters of theatre– flashy, fun, technically marvelous, an amazing spectacle, an ambassador for the art, but not where the meat of the American Theatre lies. The risk is too high to do any kind of experimentation apart from tech, so the choices must be safe, tried-and-true. When the risk is 10 million dollars (or more), you’re going to choose a revival starring Hollywood celebrities or a splashy, safe musical almost every time because you have a reasonable assurance they’ll sell tickets and merch by the wagonload. You’re going to take on a new show only when it’s already proven to be a smash hit elsewhere. There are currently 45 Broadway productions with tickets on sale. 70% are musicals, and 42% feature a Hollywood star– and I didn’t count Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster. If I had, the count would have gone up to 50%. This is the model for Broadway today. It wasn’t always. But it is now.

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While Walter Lee’s exact age isn’t given, his sister, Beneatha, is 20 and a college student. Denzel Washington’s daughters are 27 and 23. For producers, his star status overrides the fact that he is far too old for the character. His characterization is far less important than his ability to sell tickets. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who plays Walter Lee’s mother, Lena, is just five years older than Denzel Washington.

Broadway is a tiny percentage of the theatre that happens in this country, yet we talk about it as if it’s the most important theatre in the country– or the ONLY theatre in the country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an article about “theatre” only to find that it’s just about Broadway, ignoring 99% of American theatre. Audience trends that apply to an industry where ticket prices are $200 each are not applicable to, for example, the thousands of indie theatres across the nation charging $20 a ticket, where the supposedly non-existent under-40 audience is thriving, or gospel musicals, where the supposedly non-existent African American audience is thriving. I run one of those indie theatres, and my theatre would have to close its doors were it not for the under-40 audience I’m told repeatedly do not exist.

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One of my favorite moments in the entire history of my theatre company. This group of high school students brought spoons to Titus Andronicus, and held them up when the pie came out. I snagged them for this picture after the show.

Whenever I talk about the issue of overvaluing Broadway (and the attendant undervaluing of everything else), I get inundated with OUTRAGE!!11! I think, first and foremost, a lot of people grow up with Broadway as their Big Dream, and, as it’s inextricably tied to their personal dreams and identities, they can’t bear to see it discussed as anything other than the Holy Pinnacle of Theatrical Achievement. But what it really is (let’s be honest) is the Pinnacle of Theatrical Employment, which is a very different thing. It’s truly fantastic that there’s a theatre industry that employs so many people. I’m 100% behind that. But let’s not go off the rails and confuse money with quality. Money imparts a certain kind of quality– the kind that comes with technical achievement and jaw-droppingly gorgeous spectacle– but no amount of money can purchase genius, emotional impact, or transformative experience. They’re not mutually exclusive, but neither are they mutually dependent. Money does not automatically equal quality, nor does it automatically eliminate it. Let’s not go off the rails in the other direction and get pissy about corporate theatre. But money is a completely separate consideration from quality.  To equate the most money with the highest quality and the most importance dosn’t make sense. Although Amy Herzog is one of the most produced playwrights in the country, she’s never been produced on Broadway. The legendary Maria Irene Fornes has never been produced on Broadway. Likewise Lynn Nottage, Ping Chong, Tarell McCraney. Paula Vogel has never been produced on Broadway.

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Yes, THAT Paula Vogel.

Another point of outrage I’ve encountered about my opinion that Broadway is not the Mothership of All American Theatre is that many people hold Broadway up as one of the most important ways kids get interested in theatre, creating the theatremakers of the future. I deeply question this. First of all, sure, it gets the kids whose parents can afford to drop $600 on tickets for ONE SHOW for the family. And those kids are going to be the actors whose families can support them for several years after they graduate with their MFAs 67K in debt and can only find work at tiny indie theatres paying just enough to cover transportation– if they’re lucky. We know that far too many theatremakers are drawn from those relatively privileged classes, and more open accessibility for people not from the middle and upper classes is a conversation we’ve just begun as a community. But for now, most of Broadway is a closed ecosystem for the privileged. It’s expensive to get there, it’s expensive to stay there, and it’s expensive to see the shows. Sure, there are ways to game it to make it less expensive, but you have to be really driven to find those, and the people we’re talking about here are the NOT driven– the ones who aren’t theatre families, whose kids are potentially about to be awakened for the first time to the magic of live theatre and the possibility of making that magic central to their lives.

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Sarah Ford, Lisa Kass, and me in our college production of Dracula: A Musical Nightmare. I ran around taking pictures in black and white because ART. I can’t remember who I asked to take this one.

Most kids– like me– got into theatre because there were theatre programs at school. There are plenty of kids falling in love with theatre because of a lively theatre program, or a great teacher, or a local youth show that came to their school– many, many more than there are who’ve seen a Broadway show, even on tour. So while I’m not denying Broadway’s ability to excite people, especially kids who are suckers for spectacle, I don’t think it’s anywhere near the primary place this happens. Again: This is one tiny geographical area most people will never step foot in. If you see Broadway as the center of the theatrical universe and the reason you started in theatre: great. I support that. And I could really do without the shock that I do not.

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Broadway’s relationship to the rest of the theatre in this country is complicated. We make what they need. We create the playwrights, actors, designers, and techs that they need to survive. They won’t touch a play or an artist unless that play or person has been field tested extensively by the rest of us. They repackage what we make, pump a shitload of money into it, put it in a beautiful dress, and then charge us all a week’s salary to see it. But they take a tiny percentage of us and allow us to make a (often temporary, but still) living at what we do, an elusive dream for most of us. They make it possible for theatremakers to create and play in beautiful, beautiful worlds. They’re theatre ambassadors for a certain segment of the population, and that segment of the population are the same demographic from which donors and subscribers come, and boy do we need those. Their technical innovations are undeniably marvelous. Their corporate backers’ influence that creates so much aggressively inoffensive material and reliance on Hollywood stars is maddening. Their over-reliance on revivals and lack of interest in plays by women and people of color are maddening. Their nonstop repackaging of Hollywood films as slick, bland musicals is maddening. The fact that people go to see these slick, bland musicals and think “this is theatre” is maddening. But everyone connected to that slick, bland musical is EMPLOYED. The tech is spectacular. A sizable percentage of the people in that audience are thinking, “This is theatre AND I LOVE IT.” And the amount of press and public attention these shows get do continue to keep theatre’s existence on the radar. Like any longterm relationship . . . it’s complicated.

The Tonys are an awards show that celebrates the achievements of this one little corner of the world, a tiny percentage of the national theatre community. Most people in the national theatre community have not seen those shows. Most people in the national theatre community are so completely removed from what happens on Broadway that it could fall into the Atlantic and, without any connection to the internet, they wouldn’t find out for months, if ever.

That’s not to say that I begrudge your enjoyment of the Tonys, or of Broadway, or even of a Disney musical. I’m a human. Humans like spectacle. I get it. I actually love Disney. I was married in Disneyland (not even joking). I would happily watch a Disney musical or a star-studded revival of an old chestnut if I didn’t have to blow my entire month’s grocery budget on it. But this insistence that Broadway should be the center of my universe as a theatremaker– of all our universes as theatremakers– is nonsense. This insistence that what happens on Broadway happens to “Theatre”– that Broadway and the American Theatre are equivalent– is now laughably untrue. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS “AMERICAN THEATRE.” We have many theatres, divided by class, with small indie theatres at the bottom and Broadway at the top– divided by one thing and one thing only: Money. I’ve seen great theatre in tiny houses and I’ve seen great theatre in big houses. We need to stop pretending that those with the most money are the ones producing the most important work.

And that’s why I don’t watch the Tonys unless I know someone nominated. A local awards show, not in my market, has nothing to do with me, and to pretend it does, and express shock at my lack of interest, is nuts. I don’t mind that you take an interest. I don’t mind that you care who wins an award at a regional award show not in your region. Live it up! Have your parties! Post your statuses celebrating the awardees you love and vilifying the awardees you hate! Complain away about the show itself! I support you 100% and will make cupcakes for your party. I will help you with your Antoinette Perry cosplay.

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I recommend pin curls.

But likewise allow me my opinion that the Tonys are no more important to me and my work than the Jeffs, Oscars, or VMAs. I have a passing curiosity, and it’s always wonderful to see a worthy friend, colleague, or former student recognized, but it’s not directly applicable to my work.

So let’s hug it out, Tony lovers and Broadway worshippers. There’s room for all of us.

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HUG IT OUT

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