Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Oscars: As Silly and Useless as Ever, and Yet Crucially Important

The Oscars are nonsense. They’re Hollywood’s Homecoming Queen elections, as insular, as clique-ish, and as disconnected from any actual merit as any Homecoming election in any rich white high school. Rich white people congratulating each other for the kinds of achievements attainable only by people sitting atop an obscene amount of money– their own or someone else’s. They ask you to believe that the actual best acting, best directing, best editing, and best design of the year just always happen to be located in the one narrow strip of filmmaking that (entirely coincidentally!) has the most funding.

So the Oscars are more or less the Tonys of the filmworld– limited to a very narrow strip of exceptionally well-funded work while we all pretend the awards somehow represent the best of the nation’s work as a whole.

Most of the artists who receive Oscars or Tonys did a fine, in many cases excellent, job. I begrudge them nothing and honestly wish them nothing but the best. But it’s important to remember that we don’t give awards for the “best” work in theatre or film because we don’t even consider most work, and, most importantly, there’s no objective way to measure whose artistry is “the best” once you’ve eliminated some of the obvious worst– and, let’s face it, when it comes to Oscars for acting, even that’s seldom done.

We give these kinds of awards based on how an artist makes us feel; generally, how an artist makes us feel about ourselves. There’s an old saying: “When the audience cries, it’s not about you; it’s about them.” The people who vote for these awards are no different.

Despite the fact that these awards are meaningless as measures of artistic merit, they contain an immense cultural value. A great deal of that stems from the narrative of artistic supremacy created by Broadway and Hollywood. There are an entrenched group of extremely wealthy and powerful people whose fortunes depend on you continuing to believe that Broadway and/or Hollywood represent the pinnacle of American performative art. They’ve built and expertly marketed a superstructure of dreams and wishes that will make people who’ve never worked in either Broadway or Hollywood defend their artistic supremacy as if they’re defending their own children. I actually admire the way Broadway and Hollywood have controlled that narrative. There’s a terrible beauty to that level of cultural manipulation.

An immense part of that narrative of supremacy is rooted in the cultural supremacy that comes from cultural saturation, something only money can buy. A film like Fifty Shades of Grey–a film of questionable merit on many fronts— had the financial backing to play in theatres all across the country (and the world, but our cultural exports are a story for another blog), saturate the market with advertising, and command enormous press attention, garnering $166 million at the box office ($570.5 globally) and a basket of award nominations for The Weeknd for Best Original Song (Oscars and Golden Globes among them), while literally hundreds of much better films lacked the financial backing to receive such culturally potent– and lucrative– attention. Fifty Shades of Grey becomes, therefore, a permanent part of our culture, attaining a position of influence unrelated to merit, created by the wealth of its backers. People in the BDSM community were largely aghast at the misconceptions about themselves and their lives now lodged like a tick into the national consciousness. Now people who have never met anyone in the BDSM community “know” what “those people” are like, will make decisions about “those people” based on that. The power of cultural saturation coupled with the myth of artistic supremacy is immense. Everyone sees X + X comes from an “important” source = X is truth, even when X is demonstrable bullshit.

This is why, despite the fact that I will laugh in your face if you tell me the Oscars have artistic meaning, I think it’s crucial that we look closely at the messages we’re sending when we shut people of color out of those awards, because those messages have immense power in the real world.

First of all, do not bother to comment that a number of people of color were nominated for the Oscars this year, including Best Director and Best Original Song, mentioned above. I know many people who work behind the camera, and I am keenly aware that the current discourse is limited to the actor awards. It irritates me that tech people, directors, designers, and writers are so easily disregarded, and that the work of actors is regarded as so much more important in a medium where the work of the actor is actually of far less import than the underscoring, cinematography, and editing. The cultural primacy of the film actor exists, whether I like it or not. There’s a culturally important mythology around film actors that just doesn’t exist for most of us behind the camera. They are our mythological figures– our Achilles, our Ajax, our Helen, even our Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Apollo. We create unending mythology about them and their lives. The mythological Jennifer Lawrence is a combination of Artemis and Dionysus in our culture right now. Yet the real Jennifer Lawrence is just a young woman, no different than any other. We have raised her (more accurately, a mythologized version of her) to a mythological height that makes what she eats, what she wears, what she says, what she does, and who she sleeps with a matter of national interest, just as humans once created stories about what their gods ate, wore, said, did, and nailed. Film actors are seen, in essence, as metaphors for Human.

Because the Academy members are nearly uniformly white men over 60, the awards are almost always given to other white people– human metaphors that are emotionally potent for the person voting on the award. When an award is given to an actor of color, these older white men are still voting based on how the artist makes them feel about themselves– in this case, self-congratulatedly “not racist.” Then, satisfied that they got the Good White Person cookie, they go right back to nominating and awarding reflections of themselves.

So when we choose a thin, able-bodied, all-white pantheon to honor for film acting, it says that the people who are the best metaphors for Human are thin, white, and physically “perfect.” Our culture is filled to the brim with negative portrayals of people of color. When children grow up, they look to the culture at large to determine what’s expected of them. Are we really OK with a culture that tells children of color– on the cusp of becoming the largest population of children in this country— that they’re not as worthy as white children? For that matter, are we really OK with telling our girls that their worth is indelibly attached to their attractiveness to men? Because we do both, all the time, and they’ve resulted in a million different kinds of cultural and personal problems.

So I applaud the Academy’s response to the current controversy. I think increasing the amount of women and people of color on the panel is the best thing the Academy can do, since that diversity will result in more diverse choices. What needs to happen concurrently, of course, is better representation of women and people of color across the board in Hollywood, just as there should be on Broadway and across the professional theatre community as a whole.

But let me be clear here: (coughs, turns on mic) NOTHING CHANGES IF ALL THE GATEKEEPERS CONTINUE TO BE WHITE MEN.

The Academy is making the best possible decision. I hope it happens in time to make swift changes, not glacially slow ones, as is too often the case. And our own best possible decision is to increase the number of women and people of color who are in gatekeeping positions of power in the rest of the film industry and in theatre.

It’s a massive problem if the solution to a lack of diversity becomes asking white men to please hire more women and people of color, thank you. We need more women and people of color in these decision-making, content-creating positions of power or all we’re doing is preserving the cultural primacy and power of white men.

 

I’m not saying that we should fire all white men and give their jobs to women and people of color. I AM saying that when these jobs become available– when it’s time to hire artistic directors, producers, and the like– let’s consider hiring someone other than the white guy every single time. I’ve been watching this for a couple of decades now, and almost every time a position of power opens up, it’s filled by a man, usually white, always able-bodied, usually straight. Out of 70 LORT member theatres, 50 (71.4%) have white male Artistic Directors, 16 (22.8%) are led by white women, 4 (5.7%) by men of color, and zero by women of color. When you consider that white men are just 31% of the population, that’s significant favoritism at play.

It’s nonsense to say that there are just fewer women qualified to produce either theatre or film. The indie world is dominated by women. We just don’t promote them to the high-paid gigs as often as we do the straight white guys because our hiring practices are exactly the same as our awarding practices– the white guys in power are looking for reflections of themselves.

We’re asking the existing people in power who created the lack of diversity in the first place to create the diversity we want. And they will, to a point, if we push hard enough. But as soon as the cultural attention moves elsewhere, those people– straight white able-bodied male people in power– will go right back to making decisions that reflect their own experiences of the world– will go on making decisions that mythologize people like themselves– because they are human, and that’s what humans tend to do. And yes, there are many white men who are committed to diversity in their theatre or film companies, but they are, obviously, the exception or we wouldn’t be here, sitting in the middle of dismal diversity stats.

All I’m asking is that we, who work in these industries, make conscious decisions to include women and people of color when we’re hiring for these gatekeeping positions. We understand the immense cultural power of the actor, but we who work in these industries– most of us behind the scenes– also understand the even more potent gatekeeping power of the people who choose the actors– and everyone else on staff.

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories from a straight white male perspective. They are humans who deserve to have their stories told. But we need to make room for the other 69% of our population as well. The way to do that is to ensure that the people making the decisions about what stories get told, how they’re told, and who tells them are representative of the population as a whole.

In case you’re interested:

Over the course of its history, 66 Black actors have been nominated for an Oscar and 15 have won; 28 Latino actors have been nominated and 9 have won; 17 Asian actors have been nominated and 4 have won. This is the 88th Oscars, meaning 352 awards to actors have been given overall out of 1760 nominees.

Black actors nominated = 3.75% of total nominations; Black actors awarded = 4% of total awarded

Latino actors = 1.6% of total nominations; 2.5% of total awarded

Asian actors = 1% of total nominations; 1.1% of total awarded

For comparison, Black people are 13.2% of the US population; Latinos are 17%, and Asians are 5.6%.

 

 

 

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Goodbye, Old Friend

 

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Marissa Keltie and Reggie D. White in the world premiere production of Lauren Yee’s Crevice, 2012, directed by Desdemona Chiang. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The news has dropped that this, our 20th season, will be my company’s last as a producing organization. It’s been overwhelming and emotional to say the least. I’ve been away from the blog, social media, and, you know, REALITY for awhile while we were working toward this decision. I have a lot of things to say and some memories to share.

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Alyssa Bostwick in a PR shot for Scab, 2003, the production that introduced the work of Sheila Callaghan to the Bay Area. Directed by me. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

 

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One of our earliest flyers. This was 1997. Pictured are the people who wrote and directed the short plays, since that’s who we had on hand. L to R: Charlie Marenghi, Alex Pearlstein, Tonia Sutherland, and Christopher Morrison.

I’m deeply grateful for all the love and support given us over the years by our artists and audiences, local critics, and theatremakers and writers nationwide. Impact’s mission was always one of service. Our mission was to provide early-career actors, writers, directors, designers, and tech professional opportunities while producing work that spoke to a younger generation of theatregoers– early-career audience, if you will. We felt that mission was underrepresented in the theatre community, so we set out to change that. Watching our artists grow– both in-house and as they moved on to bigger things– has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my life. Right this moment, there are artists who came through Impact working Off Broadway and at OSF, and, of course, in TV and film, whose voracious appetites for playwrights support emerging writers with regular salaries, a development I never could have predicted when we began this company in 1996. I know one day someone who came through Impact will be accepting that Tony, Oscar, or Pulitzer.

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Andrea Snow and Marissa Keltie in Disassembly, one of the six Steve Yockey plays (5 of which were world premieres) Impact produced, including the short play he wrote for Bread and Circuses, which he also curated. The first, Cartoon!, introduced his work to the Bay Area. Steve Yockey is the one who came up with the name “Bitter Gertrude” for this blog. I will always be grateful for his trust in us and his friendship. Plus he introduced me to Bitch Pudding. Steve’s plays are now done all over the country, and he writes for HBO’s The Brink. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs, production directed by Desdemona Chiang)

 

If I had a coat of arms, it would be a pair of hands giving someone a boost-up. My only regret is that I couldn’t help more artists. Thank you for trusting us with your talent, your time, your attention, and your work. I love you all, you magnificent bastards.

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Reggie D. White and Anna Ishida in Titus Andronicus, 2012, directed by me. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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Jonathon Brooks as the character Jason portraying Kester the Younger, his D&D character, in Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men, 2011. When Of Dice and Men premiered at PAX, I was immediately contacted by a bunch of people asking me, excitedly, “Did you know there’s a D&D play?!” Evidently I was the leading nerd AD in the US at the time. I found Cameron, asked for the script, and knew within twenty minutes I had to produce and direct it. Cameron is yet another good friend I made working with this company.

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One of our PR shots for Macbeth, 2003, directed by me. Second from the left is Skyler Cooper (as Lenox), who would go on to play Othello in our lesbian Othello (picture below). Next to Skyler is Pete Caslavka (as Macbeth), a key member of my company for many years, now living in LA. I still miss him so much. Next to Pete is Casey Jackson (as Banquo), who would go on to play Iago in that same Othello. Photo by Kevin Berne in the alley behind our theatre. Skyler brought with her to this shoot the most beautiful woman any of us had ever seen in person. This was our introduction to Skyler’s power over women. They would show up at the theatre, dropping off gifts (like hand-dipped chocolate-covered strawberries for the cast) and cards, seeing if Skyler was there yet. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. She’s also an amazing actor and a wonderful, big-hearted human. You may have seen her on RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2011.

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Marissa Keltie as Desdemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs, 2005.

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Prince Gomolvilas and Brandon Patton in one of the three incarnations we produced of their amazing show, Jukebox Stories. I adored all three of these shows. One day I’ll have to find a way to produce another one.

WHAT COMES NEXT

Impact 2.0 will exist online. Impact’s mission has always been one of service, so we’re discussing ways we can continue to be of service to the theatre community. We’re looking at providing profiles of artists and writers whose work we recommend, articles with advice for emerging artists, articles from varied and diverse perspectives in theatre, reviews of local indie shows, resources for teachers, and more. Nothing’s set in stone, but the new Impact will likely cover at least some of that. Our annual season planning retreat is MLK weekend, so we’ll be planning a new Impact for you then. Stay tuned. And again: THANK YOU.

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Pete Caslavka in The How-To Show, a collection of shorts directed by Alyssa Bostwick, 2006.

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Cheshire Isaacs created so many incredible posters for us. I’m partial to this one, because the actor on it is the Spawn of Gertrude– my youngest, Jonah, as Antenor, 2013. Jonah had tech instead of a 15th birthday party. We had cake and then got back to work. “Now you’re a real theatre professional. We don’t have birthdays– we have tech.”

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One of several poster images Cheshire designed for Impact that became the cover of the published version. (We did the west coast premiere of Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, directed by Desdemona Chiang, in 2008.) Cheshire’s graphic design and production photography are the best in the nation. You can hire him for freelance work for your company by checking out Cheshiredave Creative at cheshiredave.com.

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Hamlet, 2006. The only Impact show I was ever in. L to R, Patrick Alparone as Hamlet, Cole Alexander Smith as Claudius, and yours truly as Gertrude. I was usually very ahem “hands on” in PR shots for our shows, but I obviously couldn’t be for this one. I couldn’t see what was going on, and my back hurt like fire trying to hold that position. Desdemona Chiang was my Assistant Director, and she kept stepping in to push my shoulder back to maintain that twist. Cheshire Isaacs was the photographer, and he later said that I complained more during this than anyone he’d ever shot apart from Olympia Dukakis. GOALS.

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Stacz Sadowski as Charles the wrestler and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando in As You Like It, 2013. Directed by me, photo by Cheshire Isaacs, fights by Dave Maier. Dave and I tend to exacerbate each other when we work together. Our stage combat work has been so, so much fun. Miyaka became a core member of Impact during this show. It was only three years ago, but it seems like he’s always been with us. You can see him in the upcoming Comedy of Errors.

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Mike Delaney as Adam in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble, 2012, directed by Josh Costello. Mike has been a key member of Impact for years, as well as (with Sarah Coykendall) half of the mad genius behind the half-filmed, half-staged cult classics The Sadist, Eegah!, and the upcoming Plan 9 from Outer Space, the last show of our 20th season, and our last show as a regularly producing company. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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Maria Giere Marquis as Zombie Marlene Dietrich in JC Lee’s “The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich,” one of the short plays in Bread and Circuses, directed by Desdemona Chiang. Maria has been a core company member for years whose rock-solid brilliance in both comedy and drama has been recognized by critics all over the Bay Area. Maria will be in our upcoming Looney Tunes Comedy of Errors. JC Lee is now co-producing How to Get Away with Murder. Des Chiang is currently directing Nick Payne’s Constellations at Seattle Rep, then going on to direct Impact alum Cindy Im in The Winter’s Tale at OSF. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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Cindy Im as Feste in Twelfth Night, directed by me in 2010. Maria Giere Marquis as Viola and Seth Thygesen as Orsino in the background. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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George Sellner and Sarah Coykendall in a PR shot for The Dragon Play, 2015, that introduced the work of Jenny Connell Davis to the Bay Area. Sarah has been a core company member for years. I can’t imagine what we would have done without her immense talents as a stage manager, designer, and actor.

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Carlye Pollack and Marilet Martinez in the world premiere of Learn to be Latina by Enrique Urueta, 2010. Marilet is a company member whose excellent work in comedy, drama, and stage combat is highly sought after all over the Bay Area. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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One of my favorite Impact production shots. Chris Quintos in The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel, photo by Cheshire Isaacs, 2011.

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One of my favorite Impact poster images. My husband painted the mini to look like the actor playing our paladin, Jonathon Brooks. He painted minis for each member of the cast. Photo and design by Cheshire Isaacs.

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This was a picture Cheshire took to be used as a framed photo on the set of Richard III. Jon Nagel (my husband, an Impact actor and tech since 2003) as King Edward IV and Tamaaron Ishida-White as the little prince. Tamaaron is a reborn doll we bought to be used as the baby prop in Titus Andronicus. The actor playing Aaron, Reggie D. White, named the prop after its in-show parents (Tamora and Aaron) and the actors playing those roles (Anna Ishida and himself). The name stuck. Tamaaron has been one of the hardest-working babies in show business, going on to appear as the baby in the world premiere of Lauren Yee’s Crevice, as the infant Astyanax in Troilus and Cressida and as pretty much every baby we’ve ever needed.

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This is a quick snapshot my husband, Jon Nagel, took of himself and Ariel Irula during an early rehearsal for Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail, (directed by Ariel Craft) the play that introduced Bekah’s work to the Bay Area, 2015. For some reason, he’s wearing his show hat and she’s wearing her normal hijab. Ariel played my husband’s younger daughter. She’s more than a foot shorter than he is, so he’s either scrooching down or she’s on a box. Because she’s so tiny, we called her “pocket daughter” through the whole thing. I still do, tbh. Ariel is a young actor I believe in with all my heart. I would have loved to have made her a company member. Cast her in everything, you guys.

 

 

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