Category Archives: Theatre

Worldbuilding: Your Secret Weapon

Cartoon image of Melissa in a red-orange shirtwaist dress with orange details, including a pumpkin brooch. Melissa has short red hair with bangs and wears black-framed glasses.
Art by Asia Ellington! I only own this dress in my dreams.

I’m giving a workshop in worldbuilding for playwrights! Come play with me!

Worldbuilding isn’t something we talk about often in playwriting and screenwriting. It’s more common to writers of fictional prose, especially SF/F writers.  Careful attention to worldbuilding, however, can level up your scripts significantly. Conversely, its lack can sink a piece, distancing or even confusing your audience. 

When people give examples of excellent worldbuilding, they’re always rich, deeply crafted fantasy scapes like the Lord of the Rings films, NK Jemisin’s fiction, or Game of Thrones. When you ask people about worldbuilding in playwriting, people will offer high concept musicals like Wicked or Seussical. But all well-crafted plays have richly detailed worldbuilding.

At its heart, worldbuilding is about consistency and detail

This Sunday at 4PM PST, I’ll be giving a Zoom workshop through PlayCafe on worldbuilding in playwriting. We’ll discuss the basics of intentional worldbuilding, troubleshooting common pitfalls, building inclusive worlds, and navigating authenticity.  Reserve your tickets here! The workshop is free, with a suggested donation of $10-20 to support the great work PlayCafe does for local playwrights. 

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The Future of Theater in the US

Everything is in flux, our future is uncertain, and we’ve never been more important.

Delacriox’s “Liberty Leading the People” with “The Arts” on her flag and “Remember Who You Are” below

Are we really that important?

The arts are always important, but they’re critical during cultural inflection points, and right now, the US is in a doozy. The GOP slide into authoritarianism is unraveling our democracy, emboldening racists, and pushing the horrific stance that everyone but the GOP base are “the enemy,” and, in the words of Eric Trump, “not even people.”

Republicans have radically shifted their approach to the problems facing our nation.

In the past, we discussed problems in terms of: “What do we do about this fact?” Republicans have altered the terms of the debate to: “What is true?” They dismiss factual evidence by claiming that the source of that evidence is liberal — “the enemy.” The circular logic is dizzying — they claim that publishing a “fake news” story is “proof” that a source has a “liberal bias” while simultaneously claiming that the “proof” that the story is “fake news” is that it comes from a “liberal” source. Only stories that confirm their world view — no matter how outlandish or contradictory — can be “true,” and all stories that contradict their world view, no matter how well supported by evidence, are “fake news.”

While the point of this is discrediting any source that could cast their agenda in a negative light, that short term gain for Republicans comes at a major long term expense. If we can no longer agree that facts, evidence, & expertise = truth, then we can get nothing accomplished, there’s no point in thorough, serious debate about any issue, and the only consideration becomes: Who has the most raw political power?

Republicans now have fully committed to Bully Politics. Using their newfound ability to define “truth” politically rather than factually, they feel perfectly entitled to ignore factual problems and substitute a list of wholly invented problems, like “Antifa,” (which Trump’s own FBI determined was an ideology, not an organization), the imaginary idea that trans women are a danger to cis women, or the dire predictions they’ve made about every Democratic politician for years that never materialize — they’ll send jack-booted thugs to confiscate your guns; they’ll outlaw Christianity; they’ll put conservatives in concentration camps; they’ll institute communism; they’ll kidnap, sexually assualt, and eat your children (which, while new for everyone else, is familiar to Jews as one of the primary antisemitic lies, known as the “blood libel”).

Republicans have evacuated all serious discussions facing our nation and the world — climate change, systemic racism, authoritarianism, public health, Russian aggression, North Korean nuclear capabilities, losing our place as the economic center of the world, losing our place as a political world leader, alienating our allies while courting & flattering brutal dictators — by locating the argument in gaslighting rather than in discussing the issues. Republicans have bet the farm on “none of these problems are true” because they have no answer for “what do we do about these problems?”

This inflection point will decide the entire future of our culture. Are we a nation of evidence, careful consideration of the facts, and serious debate? Or are we a nation that prefers to ignore our problems and focus instead on sifting who is in the “in group” and who is in the “out group,” distributing rights and rewards accordingly?

At major cultural inflection points, the role of the arts becomes critically important. The arts are where we, as a culture, determine who we are, what we want to be, what we hope for, what we fear, what we’re willing to fight for. The stories of a culture reflect that culture and shape it. The storyteller shapes the narrative; the narrative shapes opinion and belief; opinion and belief shape the culture. There is no greater power than controlling the narrative, which is precisely why conservatives have radically shifted the terms of the debate and focused on the fictional narrative that the left are not, as previously believed, fellow Americans whose opinions differ, but “the enemy,” hell-bent on “destroying America,” whose statements are always calculated lies.

At this point in our culture’s history, we must fight for a shared acceptance of reality. We must fight for a return to the critical cultural narrative that evidence and expertise are more important than opinion and belief, and that facts should shape our worldviews, not the other way around.

The arts have more power to shape culture than any politician or political pundit. There are examples of this throughout our history. Sometimes it’s an art-led movement, and sometimes the arts distill, reflect, and popularize something already stirring in the cultural fringes — usually both. But one thing is certain:

This is the most important cultural moment for arts leadership that there has ever been in our lifetimes. We must fight for the existence of observable, verifiable truth.

So what do we do?

Pete Seeger's banjo says "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."
Pete Seeger’s Banjo, photographed by Annie Leibowitz.

We’re arts leaders. It’s time to lead. What does this mean in practical terms?

1. Honor and promote expertise. This means recognizing that an industry centered around white male able-bodied gatekeepers is limited in its understanding of the issues that face our industry and our nation. Hire, center, promote, & share power with marginalized people. Disabled people & BIPOC in particular have been pushed to the margins in our culture and our art. BIPOC are pushing theater, film, and television into a diversity, equity, and inclusion reckoning that’s been a long time coming. Embrace this rather than push against it. Disabled people are still almost completely ignored in DEI work in the theater. LEAD by putting both BIPOC and disabled people into real positions of power at your company and listen to what they have to say about every issue, not just about BIPOC-specific or disabled-specific issues. BIPOC and people with disabilities will have perspectives on general issues that white and able-bodied people lack. We recognize that professional experience grants expertise; this is not controversial. A development person with 20 years of experience has expertise in development; no one questions that. We must also value expertise gained through lived experience as a marginalized person.

2. Act on your principles. Move DEI from an “initiative” to a foundational component of your mission. Move DEI from vague and general to specific and direct. Several white men I was working alongside for the past few years publicly supported Black Lives Matter and #MeToo while simultaneously insisting that Black women in our own organization were “exaggerating” and “wrong” about sexism and racism in our own workplace. Online support is great. It helps shift the zeitgeist. But performative support for victims in high-profile cases of abuse, marginalization, and bigotry in which your personal influence is minimal becomes a depressing joke when you actively work against victims in your own workplace, where your personal influence is deeply consequential. It’s great that you show public support for women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people, but it’s critical to stand with them in your own organizations. I understand that it’s much easier to denounce someone far away than it is to examine and admit your own complicity, learn and grow from the experience, and commit to finding better ways to navigate your cultural privilege. But it’s work that can’t be avoided if we’re committed to justice. 

3. Reject “balance.” Reject “neutrality.” Now is the time to take sides. Side clearly with the idea that reality exists and that evidence is unchanged by opinion. We’ve gone well beyond Rashomon-style examinations of subjectivity. In our culture, the terms of the debate have been deliberately shifted from “How did this murder happen?” to “Did the murder even take place?” and “Did this person even exist?” We’re seeing it in the shift from “What do we do about Covid?” to “Is Covid really dangerous?” and even “Is Covid even real?” We’re seeing it in the attempted ban on diversity training and the words “systemic racism.” But Covid is a public health crisis no matter how many times they deny it, and systemic racism exists whether they yank federal funding or not. Reality cannot be blackmailed. What does this mean for us in practical terms? Refuse to stage work or host discussions that feature false equivalencies between reality and propaganda. The terms of the discussion must be “What will we do about this issue?” not “Is this issue real?” Do not allow the terms of the debate to include calling hard evidence into question for ideological purposes. In other words: Do not stage Oleanna or any other work that pretends racism, sexism, ableism, or other forms of bigotry might actually just be tools to destroy good white men. These works are not “controversial” or “provocative.” They’re dishonest. No one needs to explore Oleanna’s silly, disingenuous central question “Are accusations of sexism just women exacting revenge because they aren’t smart enough to understand the brilliance of white men?” Stage works that deal with problems honestly. There are plenty of “controversial” and “provocative” plays that honestly explore issues. Remember that everything is political, so all of this applies to fluffy romantic comedies just as much — and likely more — than it does “political theater” with an outwardly political agenda. This extends to all programming. Do not host audience engagement events that include discussions that claim to feature two people from “both sides” of an issue when one side is just dismissing or minimizing the issue. And do not be afraid to ask for help. If you’re unsure, reach out to someone in your org or in the community, or hire a DEI consultant to confidentially help you navigate the situation.

4. Remember who you are. Remember your magic. Remember your power. Make “Guardian of Truth” part of your work. Remember that “truth” includes diverse perspectives. Remember that “truth” doesn’t mean “linear political theater.” Remember that “truth” extends to how you treat every human who touches your organization — staff, audience, press, donors, board, grant officers, passers-by, the dude at Office Depot ringing up your printer cartridges — everyone. I know times are tough. I know not every company will survive. But we will go down fighting. REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. Your work makes a difference. Your work is powerful.

There’s so much more to discuss, and so much more we can do. This is just the Starter Pack.

Now is the time for arts leaders to lead. Suit up, theater. Let’s go.

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Protect Historically Accurate Casting

A black-and-white drawing of a Black man, barefoot and wearing a short white belted tunic, blowing on a musical instrument that looks like a shofar to me. He's carrying a tall staff and stands among flowers. He has a piece of cloth tied around his head that blows in the breeze around him.
Detail from the Kalender of the Shepherdes, 1490s, Paris

Well, they’re at it again! This time they want to take away our precious American and European heritage with their aggressively political casting. The snowflakes are whining about diversity (as usual). They’re insisting that historical films, TV shows, and plays be cast with no regard to historical accuracy.

They’re insisting that shows about Western history be cast with all white actors.

All jokes aside, whatever era in western history in which your production is set, I assure you that people of color were there. “Historical accuracy” is not an excuse for turning away BIPOC actors; in fact, historical accuracy should compel you to cast them.

The reason people believe there were no BIPOC in certain historical eras is because there are so few BIPOC in historical plays, films, and TV shows. Refusing to cast BIPOC, or relegating them to servant roles or stereotypes, just shows the world that the only dramaturgy you’ve done is on Netflix.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Cheddar Man. The earliest skeletal remains that have been found intact in England belong to “Cheddar Man,” a mesolithic skeleton found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. DNA testing revealed that he had dark skin and blue eyes. Cheddar Man lived 10,000 years ago. White skin only developed about 8000 years ago, almost certainly a mutation that was likely genetically successful due to its increased ability to absorb vitamin D in areas of the world with less sunshine. Yes, white people: If Northern Europe had more sunshine, we would all still have dark skin.

Roman-occupied Britain. Many people of African descent came to Britain as Romans with the occupation. Two notable examples of the archaeological evidence are the Beachy Head Lady and the wealthy Ivory Bangle Lady.

A painting of the face of a young Black woman facing outward.
A reconstructed image of the beautiful and wealthy “Ivory Bangle Lady.” Wikipedia has images of the grave goods with which she was buried, including a hand mirror (!!!) and a blue glass jar in addition to the eponymous ivory bangles and more jewelry.

The Knights of the Round Table. One of the Knights of the Round Table was Black– Sir Morien. In the tale of Sir Morien, written in Middle Dutch in the 13th century, Sir Morien is described repeatedly as “black” of skin and hair, and repeatedly called “the Moor.” Morien’s praises are sung throughout the tale as one would expect from the genre; he’s as skilled a fighter as Lancelot, handsome, brave, and, although young, taller than all the other Knights of the Round Table. In the tale, Sir Morien is searching for his father, Sir Aglavale, who had pledged himself to Morien’s mother, an unnamed Moorish princess, and then disappeared before Morien was born. Eventually Morien locates Aglavale, who returns with him, accompanied by Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, to “the Moorish lands” to wed Sir Morien’s mother. No one seems to find anything unusual about white Sir Aglavale marrying a Black Moorish woman in a tale written in 13th century Europe.

The head of a Black man wearing a chain mail coif. The statue's nose is slightly damaged.
Detail of a statue thought to be Sir Morien, brought to Magdenburg Dom and called Saint Maurice– also Black— in the 1220s.

Feirefiz. Another Arthurian legend written in 13th century Europe is Parzival, written in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which the main character, Parzival, has a Black half-brother, Feirefiz. Feirefiz and Parzival share a white father, Gahmuret, but Feirefiz’s mother is Belacane, queen of the fictional Moorish nation of Zazamanc. Feirefiz travels to Europe with a huge Saracen army to find his father, but meets his brother instead. Feirefiz cannot see the Grail because he’s not a Christian, but only agrees to convert after determining it will help him “in love.” He marries the Grail bearer, Repanse de Schoye.

It’s not at all surprising that these 13th century Europeans would be familiar with Moors. Why?

Al-Andalus. Most of the Iberian Peninsula, which now comprises both Spain and Portugal, as well as a bit of southern France, had already been under Moorish rule for 500 years by the time the tale of Sir Morien was written. The Moorish Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula was called “Al-Andalus.” Portugal regained its independence in the mid-13th century, but most of Spain would continue to be under Moorish rule for another 200 years. For seven hundred years, most of the Iberian Peninsula and a slice of southern France were ruled by Muslim Moors. And before you jump in to claim that these were all light-skinned Amizigh, the art of the period begs to differ, showing a range of skin tones that include both light-skinned people and people who are unmistakeably Black.

Four Asian archers in armor, all facing to one side as they fire arrows at an unseen enemy.
Mongol archers painted in 1305 by Rashid al-Din.

The Mongol Invasion of Europe. This is a special valentine for the Witcher fanboys LIVID at the suggestion that Witcher 3 was too white, and LIVID that the Netflix series cast a few BIPOC actors: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. The Mongols were all over Eastern Europe in the 13th century including Poland, so your “Witcher is set in medieval Poland so diversity is solely political and unrealistic” argument dies in the dust, if it’s even still alive after everyone asked you where elves and giant spider monsters were in medieval Poland. Also for the Witcher crew: Black Madonnas.

Left: The Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus, who raises his hand in blessing. Both Mary and Jesus have Black skin and hair. Mary holds a scepter in her right hand, and both are wearing golden crowns and golden robes. Right: The same image, but both Mary and Jesus have been repainted to look like white people.
The famous Black Madonna of Chartes Cathedral was repainted white in a controversial 2014 restoration. Most Black Madonnas have been left intact, apart from a few that were repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Black Madonnas of Europe. Hundreds of medieval European paintings and statues depict the Madonna and child with dark skin. One of the most famous is the Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland. Starting in the early 19th century, white people began strenuously working to “prove” that the Black Madonnas were not “intentionally” Black, an activity that continues to this day. Wikipedia flatly states that there is a “wide consensus” among scholars that the dark skin was “unintentional.” Apart from the obvious– no, there is nothing like a “wide consensus”– assumptions such as “Mary must conform to a post-medieval definition of ‘white’ to have meaning to medieval European Catholics” is preposterous. Many of the Black Madonnas are reputed to have been painted by St. Luke himself as he sat with Mary. Whether or not this is true is far less important than the fact that medieval European Catholics believed it, and venerated their Black Madonnas as faithful depictions of the Virgin and child. The face they prayed to in Church, the face they held in their hearts as they heard the words “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” was Black.

Islam in America. Islam was in the Americas before Protestantism even existed. Many Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were literate Muslims, including Omar ibn Said, who wrote an autobiography about his life as a slave in Arabic.

Three trumpeters, all facing left. They're all on horseback, and their trumpets bear the standard of Henry the 8th. The middle trumpeter is Black.
Scholars agree that this image from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly depicts John Blanke.

John Blanke. Blanke was a Black trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. He played at the funeral of Henry VII and at the coronation of Henry VIII. Records exist of his marriage and of his request for a raise. The king doubled his pay. Tudor London had a thriving Black population, many of whom married white Londoners. Click here for an article about the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Indians in London. There’s documented history that people from the Indian subcontinent lived in London beginning in the 16th century. A man called Suleman Noor was buried in Westminster in 1550. An Indian man named Samuel Munsur married a woman called Jane Johnson in 1613. There’s much more.

Abraham Pearse and John Pedro. Pearse was almost certainly a Black Pilgrim, and John Pedro was definitely Black. Click here to learn more about the Abraham Pearse controversy, which features white people claiming the “prestige” and “fun” of being descended from Pilgrims was “ruined” if their ancestor was Black, and subsequent DNA tests that focused only the Y chromosome, carefully avoiding tests of Pearse’s matrilineal line. Test results showed that Pearse’s father was European, and the white Pearse descendents claimed a victory for white supremacy. They seem nice. To this day no one has tested Abraham Pearse’s matrilineal line.

Lemuel Haynes. He was a Black Puritan who became the first ordained African-descended person in America. He was a Minuteman and an abolitionist as well. Read more about him in this book.

A Black man in spectacular full armor.  His helmet is off, so you can see his bearded face. He holds his sword in his left hand and a standard in his right. His body is angled away, but he looks straight out at the viewer.
This isn’t related to the text; I just really like it. “The Black Knight” by Hans Krell, 16th century Germany.

Zipporah Potter Atkins. Zipporah Potter Atkins, a free Black woman, owned land in colonial Boston. Click here to learn more about her.

Colonel Tye. The most feared and respected guerilla commander of the Revolutionary War was Colonol Tye, a Black man (formerly Titus Cornelius) who took the British Army up on its offer to enslaved men— escape slavery and come fight for the Loyalists, who will pay you and see that you remain free. The unit he commanded focused on enslavers– including his own former master. They were known for hitting hard and fast, eliminating the Patriot target and liberating the people he had enslaved. The British paid him well for this, and as the war went on, his unit was given increasingly important missions. By 1780, he was a major force in the war, raiding militias and escaping with prisoners and plunder virtually undetected and with few casualties.

The Harlem Hellfighters.The 369th Regiment of the US Army was one of several Black units in WWI. These young men first went to France in 1918, and soon distionguished themselves as fighters and as ambassadors of Black American culture; introducing jazz to the French. They saw more time on the front lines than any other American unit, and suffered horrific casualties, losing half the regiment. When they returned home in 1919, they were given a parade down Fifth Avenue to celebrate their heroic deeds.

Speakeasies. To speak to a Bay Area controversy of old, there were many people of color in speakeasies. Even in segregated clubs, they were there as employees. White New Yorkers flocked to Harlem speakeasies to see their unparalleled performers. Many speakeasies that were known as “black and tan clubs”– clubs that welcomed patrons of all races– became important centers for the development of jazz and remained open for decades, such as the Sunset Cafe in Chicago and the Black and Tan Club in Seattle. Black-and-tan clubs were in cities all over the US.

There’s so much more that I didn’t include here. I have a lot about trans and genderqueer people. I have a lot about women. I have a lot more in general. Native people fought in WWI. The most decorated unit of WWII was the 442nd, made up of Japanese Americans, and remains the most decorated unit of its size in US military history. Viking shieldmaidens were real. One third of pirates in the Caribbean were Black. The oldest human culture that left written records had transgender priestesses and taught that the goddess Inanna could bestow any one of several genders on people to match their “hearts.” The world’s first known author was an Akkadian priestess, Enheduanna. I’ve now spent about a bazillion hours on this post, and I have to force myself to stop. But there’s so much more.

If you don’t see something here, that doesn’t mean BIPOC weren’t there. BIPOC have been erased from history, both through negligence and through deliberate malice. Time to set the historical record straight.

If you need something you don’t see here, I have reasonable rates for dramaturgy. Head over to Melissa Hillman Consulting to learn more. If you’re an artist who needs evidence to take to a gatekeeper who has told you that you won’t be considered for a project because “it wouldn’t be historically accurate,” I will work pro bono to get the information you need into your hands. 

Parts of this post were originally patron-only content on Patreon. Become a Bitter Gertrude patron! Your support of my work makes posts like these possible.

“Portrait of a Moor” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1525-1530. The name and rank of this elegantly dressed nobleman have been lose to time, but we do know that he was a courtier in the court of Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy and Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The symbol on his hat means he made a Christian pilgrimage, popular with the court at that time, to venerate the Virgin Mary.
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REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Seeing Place, NYC

Pictured: The poster for the show depicts the silhouette of two women, facing each other closely, with a rainbow-colored rose covering where their lips meet.

While this pandemic is, as the youngsters say, for the birds (my imaginary youngsters are all living in 1943), one of its silver linings is the accessibility of performances all over the world. As a Californian, I would have had no access to a production in New York. Now it’s as easy as clicking a link.

Artists always find a way. You can’t stop art, and the supposed “death of theatre” has been breathlessly reported many times, with the cause of death listed first as radio, then film, television, and, of course, the internet. Art is life, and life– according to the sage Jeff Goldblum– finds a way.

So I was excited to see what The Seeing Place Theater in New York had done to make Midsummer, often a very physical show, work on the Zoom platform. I know many people decry Zoom-based theater and long for a return to in-person shows. I long for in-person shows as well, but the creativity artists are showing as they play with this new format is, honestly, delightful.

Pictured; the logo of The Seeing Place Theater, white lettering on a black background, accompanied by a white S-curve with a blue eye in both parts of the curve.

The Seeing Place’s Midsummer is a small-cast show with each actor playing multiple roles. TSP utilizes animation, designed by Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, as costuming, and while its execution was not always perfect, it was a lot of fun to see. The standout effect was Bottom’s animated ass head, which was a lot of fun. The fairy ensemble– Moth, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom– were animated fairies with the actors’ faces. Major character fairies like Titania & Oberon had animated effects that gave their eyes, hair, and/or faces magical elements. Again, the technology wasn’t perfect, but I would have killed to have the ability to make lightning shoot out of a fairy’s eyes in any of my live productions of Midsummer.

The actors appear in individual squares against a magical forest background. Puck is wearing a black lace shirt and Oberon has lightning shotting out of his eyes. Titania wears a flower crown. Two of the three minor fairies appear as tiny, flying fairies with the actors' faces. The third is human-sized with digital fairy makeup.

Pictured from left to right: Top row: Jon L. Peacock as Puck, Erin Cronican as Peaseblossom, and William Ketter as First Fairy. Bottom row: Weronika Helena Wozniak as Moth, Laura Clare Browne as Titania, and Brandon Walker as Oberon.

One thing that’s challenging for some actors is code switching from theater acting to camera work, especially the monologue-like format of Zoom theater. Most of the TSP actors had this down, but the star of the show was co-director Erin Cronican, who played both Helena and Peter Quince. Her character creation and immaculate comic timing were a real treat to watch. I was constantly engaged by Cronican’s performance, and found myself laughing out loud alone in my Ready Room at Cronican’s well-crafted and deeply detailed comic moments. Cronican’s Peter Quince monologue at the top of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play is one of the best renderings I’ve seen in years. Cronican knows exactly what’s funny about every moment of this play, and serves it up to her audience masterfully. Other standouts were William Ketter’s blustery and egotistical Demetrius, Brandon Walker’s fatuous Theseus, and Laura Clare Browne’s joyful Titania. The adorable Ellinor DiLorenzo had some very nice moments as Hermia as well, but there were some moments she seemed to lose focus, which, admittedly, is really easy to do in this new format, where actors are juggling technology in addition to acting directly to a camera. Perhaps the greatest challenge of this kind of acting is to maintain your focus on the camera when your scene partner is (generally speaking) below it. But overall, the cast was solid and enjoyable to watch.

I’d like to tip my hat to stage manager Shannon K. Formas, who made the tech smoother than most Zoom performances. She had a lot on her plate and pulled it off seamlessly.

The LGBTQ+ theme was evident in the Hermia/Lysander love story, as both were cast with women. Some of the minor fairies and Puck were given androgynous looks, and the actor playing Puck, Jon L. Peacock, identifies as nonbinary. Pronouns were included in the program, which should be industry standard. Importantly, this production is a benefit for the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth.

The actors appear in individual squares against a nighttime forest background.

Pictured: Top row: William Ketter as Demetrius and Erin Cronican as Helena. Bottom row: Weronika Helena Wozniak as Lysander and Ellinor DiLorenzo as Hermia.

One of the main reasons I was interested in this production is that two of the actors– Cronican and Ketter– are people with disabilities, and PWDs are deeply underrepresented in theater. Both of them have invisible disabilities, often glossed over in discussions of disability outside the PWD community. In a culture in which PWDs are relentlessly bombarded with accusations of “exaggerating” for “attention,” “drugs,”or “special treatment,” and often go through months (or even years) of doctors insisting symptoms are “imaginary” until finally running the right test and landing on the correct diagnosis, those whose disabilities are invisible face a very specific kind of cruel marginalization.

The fact that the disabilities of the actors aren’t visible doesn’t make their identities as PWDs any less real or important. What I appreciated most about Cronican and Ketter in this show is that their disabilities aren’t the focus of the story. When PWDs are represented in the theater, it’s almost always a story about disability in some way, and cast with an able-bodied actor. PWDs haven’t even reached the most basic level of inclusion in theater, let alone equity. Disability is still almost entirely ignored even just in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Including actors with disabilities in roles that are not defined by disability, in a play that isn’t about disability, is a refreshing change.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable production of Midsummer, and it couldn’t be for a better cause.

A recorded version of The Seeing Place’s Zoom production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is streaming through September 5th. Click here for tickets. Click here for more information about TSP’s 2020-21 season.

Want me to review your Zoom production? Email bittergertrude@gmail.com.

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Autonomy and Disability on Stage: The Seeing Place’s Midsummer

Pictured: The poster for the show depicts the silhouette of two women, facing each other closely, with a rainbow-colored rose covering where their lips meet.

The Seeing Place’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays August 28 at 7PM EDT and August 29 at 3PM EDT. For tickets, click here.

Yesterday I sat down (virually) with Erin Cronican and William Ketter of The Seeing Place Theater in New York to talk about their upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening tonight! The production is, of course, on Zoom, so wherever you are, you can still grab a ticket and attend. I’ll be attending this afternoon’s performance (7PM Eastern; 4PM Pacific) and doing a longer write-up later, but I wanted to give you some highlights about why I’m excited to see this piece and give you a chance to see it with me before the piece comes out. (If not, one of the live performances will be recorded and posted online after the show closes).

First of all, it’s a benefit production for homeless LGBTQ youth. To quote their site: “This play is being presented as a benefit for The Ali Forney Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting LGBTQ youths from the harms of homelessness and empower them with the tools needed to live independently.” What’s not to love about that?

aliforney_logo

The Ali Forney Center is located in New York. Learn more about them by clicking here

But here’s what really hit home for me: This production of Midsummer is part of their 10th season, themed around “The Body Politic.” They’re presenting Midsummer as a story about the fight for autonomy and self-determination.

In this production, Lysander and Hermia are a lesbian couple, foregrounding the difficulties faced by LGBTQ youth in accessing the community acceptance needed to support self-determination. You can only determine your own destiny if people with power are not hostile to that destiny and using their power and privilege to disrupt it.

Hermia is given the choice to marry the man her father chooses, become a nun, or die. And while this play is 400 years old, many LGBTQ youth are forced into similar choices. Some legal progress has been made, but LGBTQ youth are still 140% more likely to experience homelessness than their peers. Parents are still throwing their transgender kids out into the street, or abusing them because they can’t perform their gender or sexuality according to parental specifications, driving LGBTQ youth to run away to seek a safer environment. The Ali Forney Center has a waiting list of over 100 kids a night just looking for a safe place to sleep.

While LGBTQ-focused productions of Midsummer are admittedly no longer rare, what is rare is The Seeing Place’s understanding that these issues are intersectional in casting two actors with disabilities: Erin and William.

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Erin Cronican is also the Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place. (Source: seeingplacetheater.com)

People with disabilities, especially PWDs whose intersectional identities include other marginalized aspects, such as queer PWDs and BIPOC with disabilities, face enormous roadblocks to bodily autonomy and self-determination. Youth with disabilities must struggle against an ableist society that relentlessly seeks to infantilize PWDs, deny our self-determination, deny our autonomy, and frame us as sexless beings whose primary purpose is to provide a framework for able-bodied people as they perform “generosity” and “gratitude.”

Disability is routinely– even aggressively– shut out of discussions of privilege and marginalization. In my last teaching job, I pointed out that we had disability mentioned as part of our “commitment to diversity,” but that we had not even done any information gathering around disability, let alone begun anything approaching equity and inclusion work. Instead of committing to beginning that work, they responded that they would just remove disability from the list.

Disability is almost invisible in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, exacerbated by the fact that PWD representation in media is almost nonexistent, and when we do appear, it’s mostly inspiration porn.

So I’m very excited to see how they approach this play with these issues in mind! I’ll be posting a longer write-up about it early next week. See you at the theatre!

Theatres! If you would like to me write about your Zoom production, contact me at bittergertrude@gmail.com. 

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Your Best New Employee? A Theatermaker.

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Pictured: The cast of Black Angels Over Tuskeegee takes a bow, as seen from backstage at The Actors Temple in New York. (Source: TripAdvisor)

This pandemic means a lot of theater professionals are out of work. I know most corporate people think “flaky actors” and “workplace drama” when thinking about theater people, but the truth is exactly the opposite, and now is the time to jump on actors, playwrights, directors, casting directors, designers, technicians and more who have found themselves newly out of work.

Working in professional theatre requires intense discipline, the ability to leave all your issues at the door, and a level of multitasking and focus that most employers only dream of finding in an employee. Allow me to give you nine solid reasons to see years of theater experience as a major plus in a new employee.

1. Discipline, Focus, and Grace Under Pressure. I don’t care what’s happening, that curtain is going up at 8PM, and you must be ready for it. There’s no “Can I get it to you Thursday?” That schedule is utterly unforgiving, and every aspect of your work will be scrutinized in real time by hundreds of people, some of whom are journalists specifically there to evaluate the quality of your work and publish their evaluation on the internet for all to see, forever. Focused, disciplined work is the only way we function. If you can’t work efficiently with a team to deliver excellence on an unforgiving deadline, you won’t get far in theater. We are focused, disciplined, hardworking people, because there’s no other way to function in our world.

2. There’s No Drama in Drama. Theater workers are human beings and have messy lives like everyone else. But our work is deeply collaborative, and we work long hours in close quarters. The type of people who thrive in the disciplined, deadline-focused collaborative work we do are usually the kind of people who leave their drama on the stage. I’ve experienced far more drama working outside theater than I have within it. Everything you’ve seen in the movies about theater professionals being “dramatic” and “flaky” is as realistic a portrayal of our professional work as The Witcher is of medieval Europe.

Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg, a light-skinned woman with dark eyes and long black hair parted down the middle, from the Netflix series The Witcher.

Actually, very few people with disabilities were purchased by the headmistress of Abusive Hogwarts and trained as professional court witches. (Source: Netflix)

Oh, and don’t believe anything Jared Leto says about “method acting.” Actual professional actors don’t “become” their characters all day long off set. It’s embarrassing that this is such a prevalent myth that even actor-adjacent people like Jared Leto believe it.

3. Making Magic Out of Nothing. Theater is woefully underfunded. I tell my students that most of directing is finding artistic solutions to technical problems, and the most common technical problem is lack of budget. If you want something done beautifully, quickly, and exceeding expectations given the budget constraints, you want someone with professional theater experience. If you want a creative thinker who can craft an elegant solution to an intractable problem after everyone else has come up dry, you want a theatermaker. That props person built a 10-foot long sea monster puppet that squirts “ink,” is fully washable, AND lights up, all for $200 in one weekend. They’ll have a soltuion for you before lunch, and it’ll be under budget.

4. Project Management. If you’ve never run a theater company, you might not know how organized and efficient your project management skills need to be just to be minimally effective, let alone to succeed in professional theater.  Let’s take casting as an example. To cast a single season, a casting director needs to know the types, abilities, union status, and availability of hundreds of actors and successfully interface that with the script and with the director’s concept for each role, then manage the audition process, often a combination of video and live auditions. She must constantly manage an enormous amount of interlocking qualitative and quantitative data that all needs to be analyzed, processed, and applied in a rapidly changing environment that also requires deep personnel management and, in most cases, developing and maintaining a network of connections all over the nation.  The casting director is doing most of this work solo, on a tight deadline with little budget. That’s just casting, and I have barely scratched the surface of it. It’s the same level of complexity to produce, direct, manage a set build, or stage manage. The best project manager you will ever have will be that theatermaker you picked up in 2020.

5. Program Management. Producing theater is all about creating programming and ensuring its success. Most larger companies have an education arm as well that requires in-depth management to offer value, service, and– importantly– community. Competition is so fierce for after-school and adult education programs that a sense of community and belonging are critical for both initial buy-in and later upgrading. Look for “Artistic Director” and “Education Director” if you want to go right to the top, but people at all levels will have deep, relevant experience, and there are many companies that have other types of programs, such as a script development program or a teen outreach program. Creating programming for a specific group of end-users that succeeds only when it exceeds expectatons is our bread and butter.

A smiling redhead wearing a black beaded sweater, a black dress, black-framed glasses, and red lipstick sits in a theater with her hands folded in her lap.

A picture of me in my theater taken for the East Bay Express by Stephen Loewinsohn.

6. Personnel Management, Sales, and Customer Service. Anything with “Director” or “Manager” in its title will be an expert in personnel management in the theater. Everyone is working very hard on a very tight deadline, and keeping staff spirits high and minds focused is a basic requirement of the job. Additionally, staffing is a perennial challenge. We don’t have high salaries or stock options to lure top shelf talent; we have to rely on our skills as personnel managers. We are nothing without our ability to attract and retain talent.

While many people already see the benefit in acting training for sales people who must be able to give engaging presentations (hence the many acting seminars designed for business people), what you may not know is how much of our administrative work relies on marketing, sales, and customer service. As a service-oriented field, customer service is a critical aspect of what we do, and every theater employs marketing people with expertise in storytelling– remember, we’re selling an experience rather than a product. But also look for people in development. These are the people whose job it is to convince donors, foundations, and corporations to give them money. Asking someone to just give you money is some next-level sales work that involves storytelling, customer service, and the kind of relationship-building that creates brand loyalty in families for generations.

7. Multitasking. Because our deadlines are so intense and our resources are generally minimal, almost all of us have numerous balls in the air at all times. Even when it looks from the outside like it’s one task, such as acting, the multitasking involved is intense. While onstage, the actor must remember the lines, the blocking (the pattern of movement), and the latest notes they’ve received from the director and/or stage manager, in addition to staying emotionally in the moment, listening and responding to scene partners, manipulating props, and timing out how long to hold for a laugh or a reaction, all with lights blaring in your face and 100+ people judging your every move. Just “staying emotionally in the moment” has several moving parts. In a fight scene, being a foot out of position can land you in the hospital. In producing, there are always fourteen things happening at once, and the need to hold them all in your mind, prioritize, and manage your time well in order to gte them all sorted within the timeframe you have available are critical skills. In professional theater, one dropped ball can mean getting to 30 minutes before the show and realizing an actor has no pants.

 

A young white man wearing a tuxedo jacket, white shirt, black bow tie, white underwear, and a smile. He's opening a bottle of champagne because of course he is.

KENT: “Is not this your son, my Lord?”

8. Improvising and Creative Thinking. With so much in flux and so many unpredictable possibilities before us, now is definitely the time to snap up some quick-thinking, creative, solution-minded people for your team. In a live performance, anything can happen, and you can’t lose focus, bail, or start over. Theater people do not lose their cool when there’s a job to be done, and we can quickly improvise a creative, workable solution on the fly and make it look like that’s what was meant all along. Ask any actor whose scene partner missed an entrance or went up on a line about improvising dialogue to cover– even in a Shakespeare play. Ask any designer or tech who has had seven and a half minutes to frantically duct-tape, rewire, staple, or drill a solution in silence backstage during a show. Ask any producer who was told a week after announcing a season that the rights to a script were pulled because Sony optioned the film rights. If there’s a problem to be solved and you need a creative solution, you need a theatermaker.

A serene swan on a lake. ABove the swan, it says "The Show." Below the swan, it says, "The Frantic Paddling You Never See."

9. But they’ll leave, right? They’ll go back to theater when this is all over? Any of your employees can leave at any time. But the truth is, most of us have some kind of day job, and even those of us without one spent years working a day job while doing theater. There’s no reason your new hire can’t continue working for you when the theatres re-open, and for decades beyond.

The next time your see theater experience on a resume, ask for an interview! You will not be disappointed.

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Arts Marketing and Alignment

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(This piece is by guest blogger Adam Thurman.)

It has been a while since I wrote something in depth about arts marketing but this current exciting moment in the field where new leaders are coming in prompted a moment of reflection that is hopefully worth sharing.

In marketing we talk about a lot of things like branding, audience development, the impact of social, etc.

I want to talk about alignment.

Alignment is defined as a position of agreement or alliance.

And when you look at great companies that earn more then their fair share of attention, dollars, etc., what you see is significant alignment.

The visuals, the messaging, the customer service, the programming all make sense.

The sales goals, the selected audience target, and the marketing mediums all make sense.

And of course the reverse is true. If key elements are misaligned then your marketing message will be too weak to break through.

So as you hit your new roles keep your eyes open for misalignment movements.

Does your pricing say elite but your message say “theater for all”?

Does your messaging say customer service is important but the level of pay and training for your FOH staff say “you guys are replaceable”?

Spoiler: That’s probably the case.

Note those things. Note them even though you may not be able to do anything about them yet. Talk about them before you have a solution. That’s the value of your fresh perspective.

And the spend your precious time and energy working to bring those things into alignment. That’s your opportunity. It’s your opportunity to create an organization that makes sense when you look at it critically.

When the marketing aligns with the goals, values, revenue model, people, etc., then the marketing can do incredible things.

I’ve got one of those fancy credit cards. You know the type, made of metal, high annual fee, that sort of thing.

Whenever I have to call that number I get straight through to a human representative. No phone tree, no holding. It takes me maybe two minutes to handle any need.

The same day I have to call one of those no-frills airlines to pay a fee. It is the exact opposite of the other experience. Call center. Long hold time. It may have taken 30 minutes.

It is fair to call the first customer experience good and the second bad. It would also be fair to call both experiences properly aligned.

The fancy credit card folks are making a set of implicit and explicit promises about what they offer card holders. So they have to make the significant investment of time and money to make it work.

The no-frills airline is making an entirely different promise. They don’t promise friendly or warm service. They promise a cheap flight. Being cheap about their customer service is one way to achieve that goal.

So let’s say an arts organization decides to highly value customer service. That implies a series of alignment choices.

You probably need to pay above market rate.
You probably need to invest in training.

If you can’t do that then you are out of alignment.

But let’s say you legitimately cannot afford the investment. Then a smart choice may be to reduce the emphasis on service and try the following:

Limit the hours your box office is open.

Prepare yourself for high turnover and make sure you have a good pipeline for finding new candidates.

Maybe you can change the way people enter or exit the venue in a way that reduces the need for FOH staff.

I’m not saying these are good ideas, but they are aligned ideas. They make sense when the end goal is considered.

But the mistake I see so often is to say one thing, do the other, and hope no one notices.

We notice.

Smart marketing is about pushing toward that alignment.

Adam Thurman is an experienced arts marketing professional and consultant. To contact Mr. Thurman, email mission.paradox@yahoo.com.

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Representation Matters: People with Disabilities Are Done Being Your Inspiration

 

 

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Photo of a version of the American flag with the stars configured to look like the symbol for disability. (Photo credit: money.cnn.com)

We need a long, hard examination of the way we’re representing people with disabilities on our stages and screens. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, but almost always ignore people with disabilities in those discussions, leaving our industries far behind where they should be on this issue.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs as PwDs is controversial. Able-bodied people fight hard for their “right” to cast able-bodied actors to play us, then shut us out of every aspect of the process. Able-bodied people insist they’re doing “extensive research,” yet portrayals of PwDs are more often than not astoundingly inaccurate, more about how you see us than how we really are.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs has been called “exploitative,” as if our physical presence must always be measured by the gaze of able-bodied people. It reminds me of the way sexist writers claim women are “flaunting” their bodies by simply appearing in public. Our physical presence in the world as PwDs (or women, for that matter) is not about you. Our physical presence as PwDs is so deeply othered that any public performance is automatically suspect– it must mean something. Add to that the relentless infantilization of PwDs by able-bodied people, and our every appearance as actors results in a flurry of pearl-clutching about how we’re being “displayed,” “used,” or “exploited,” as if PwDs are children who need protecting instead of actors who need jobs.

It’s “exploitative” when we play ourselves, but ennobling when you play us.

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During preproduction for the film The Upside, released in January 2019, producers refused to consider actors with disabilities for the role of Dell Scott, a quadriplegic character, instead first casting able-bodied actor Colin Firth, and then replacing him with Bryan Cranston, drawing criticism from disability rights activists. (Photo by David Lee/The Weinstein Company depicts Cranston seated in a wheelchair on a busy city street, laughing as actor Kevin Hart stands on the wheelchair behind Cranston, leaning down and laughing.)

We’re still so far behind it’s considered a special kind of acting triumph when an able-bodied actor plays us because, like actors who gain weight or allow themselves to be made “ugly” for a role, they’re working hard at lowering themselves, appearing less glamorous, less desirable, less perfect. The actor is ennobled by their humility, by the sacrifice it took to present themselves pretending to be what we are every day of our lives. 

We’re still so far behind that the types of stories we tell about PwDs all center around our difference: inspiration porn, tragedies, the Manic Pixie Sick Girl (and as she’s lowered into her grave, he realizes he has finally learned how to live), and the DEI Sidekick (Hi. I’m here to make the producers look inclusive and the protagonist look sympathetic oops time to die to provide motivation for the protagonist). There are more (so many more) but you get the idea.

Please note that all of these are almost always played by conventionally beautiful, thin, able-bodied white people, and that these issues are intersectional. While this piece focuses on PwDs, bear in mind that people of color with disabilities are facing two major hurdles; female-identified and genderqueer people of color with disabilities are facing three, etc. Women of color are in fact the vanguard of disability rights activism.

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Writer and activist Imani Barbarin, who runs the blog Crutches and Spice, is the force behind #DisTheOscars, an advocacy campaign around disability representation in the media. (Photo by Madasyn Andrews depicts Barbarin, a Black woman with long, thin dreads, smiling in a garden setting, wearing a blue flowered dress and a black jacket, with one of her crutches visible on her arm.)

In the United States, between 13 and 19% of the population are PwDs. That’s a sizable population, yet we are aggressively shut out of every aspect of visual narrative, our stories stolen from us and told by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people.

This begs the question, “What are our stories?” It’s an important question, because the answer is: ALL OF THEM, KATIE. We’re a massively diverse population occupying every race, gender, sexuality, age, belief, and socioeconomic status. The vast majority of our stories are not “disability stories.” We are people with disabilities– people first– and the majority of our lives are spent wrapped up in the same issues everyone else has. Yet nearly every film, play, or show that hires an actor with a disability is doing so specifically to tell a “disability story”; when that narrative is over, the actor is released. We’re rarely allowed to tell any other kinds of stories. Disability is only represented when the story is about disability in some way.

Because we are hired far less frequently than able-bodied people, even with similar training and experience, we’re seldom in the room when these stories are developed, and if we are in the room, we’re one voice– often brought in late in the process as a low-ranking temporary hire (“disability consultant”). It’s no wonder that stories about PwDs are so often about the impact the PwD has on an able-bodied person.

Lack of representation is a vicious circle. Because we are so seldom represented as anything but life support for able-bodied inspiration, PwDs are almost never considered for “straight” roles. It never occurs to producers and directors to cast an actor with a disability in a story not specifically about disability, because they, like the rest of us, live in a world where PwDs are dramatically under-represented throughout all of our media and have come to see that under-representation as “normal.”

Our industries create fantastic, imaginary worlds, but we can’t imagine a Juliet with a mobility device? Our imaginations can comprehend time travel, dragons, talking animals, alien cultures, telekinesis, and 500 different kinds of afterlife, but a disabled Hedda Gabler is incomprehensible? You think that if you cast a PwD, the narrative becomes about the disability because those are the only stories we allow PwDs to tell. 

marilee

Marilee Talkington, a brilliantly talented actor, has a long career of playing both blind and sighted characters. Talkington has played blind characters on several TV shows recently, drawing praise from the National Federation of the Blind and their #letusplayus campaign. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs depicts Talkington from the shoulders up: a white woman with curly red hair, blue eyes, and coral lipstick, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless top.)

Allow people with disabilities to tell all kinds of stories, including our own. The right to portray someone different than you is not the exclusive province of the able-bodied. Able-bodied people defend their right to play us with “It’s called ‘acting'” without ever once considering that we can do it too.

Hire people with disabilities at every level, from conceptualization to casting to audience management, not just in temporary positions meant to shield you from controversy. When you talk about “inclusion,” remember: we’re here, and we are not going away.

 

 

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I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On.

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Photo: Associated Press

Desperate refugees are being teargassed at the border for having the audacity to take the Statue of Liberty at her word. The economy is slipping badly due to Trump’s mismanagement. The (putative) President of the United States praises the people who financed 9/11 while disparaging the Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden, praises convicted criminals while attacking law enforcement and judges, praises dictators and white supremacists while insulting US allies, disrespects the rule of law, American tradition, American values, and the Constitution, and lies, and lies, and lies again.

Meanwhile liberal lion Nancy Pelosi’s speakership is being held hostage by conservative Democrats who are insisting she hand power to House Republicans in exchange. Climate change is poised to ruin our economy on its way to ending our ability to live on this planet and somehow– insanely– this has become a partisan issue. A new study rolled out that confirmed the findings of multiple studies over the past 18 months: people support Trump due to “white anxiety”– we used to call this “racism”– a fear of people of color “dominating” the US and “displacing” white people.

And that’s just the past few weeks.

That’s a tenth of what has happened in the past few weeks.

The US is being held hostage by a minority political faction hostile to the rest of us. A Republican recently told me, “Republicans aren’t interested in democracy. We’re interested in freedom.” Freedom to oppress, freedom to discriminate, freedom to defraud.

It’s a lot.

In the theatre community, I’m seeing a lot of despair. What good is art while racism and sexism are gleefully celebrated throughout our society? What good is art when 40% of the nation supports open hatred, open ignorance, open rejection of science, knowledge, and basic facts? Why are we fiddling as Rome burns? How can it ever be enough?

Yet we MUST GO ON. Because we are more than enough. We are the most powerful tool in the resistance.

There is no way to overstate the power of art. There’s a reason this whole destructive cycle began with the establishment of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative “infotainment” in the 90s. There’s a reason it ends up here, with Trump’s lying showmanship and conservative propaganda given more weight than actual journalism, science, or expertise.

The Cambridge Analytica papers showed that Steve Bannon invented the concept of the “Deep State” as propaganda, and that revelation had exactly zero impact on the people who believe in that lie. Why? Because art is more powerful than any one piece of factual evidence. The person who controls the story controls the truth.

Art matters. Representation matters. Art creates culture. Conservatives know this and are using it to promote the racist, sexist panic that preserves their political power.

When Donald Trump goes on television and insists that Mexicans are “rapists,” he knows that’s not true. When he claims white supremacists are “very fine people,” states that non-white countries are “shitholes,” says that Central American refugees are “terrorists,” “diseased,” “child grabbers,” or “Middle Eastern,” he knows that’s not true. When he insults prominent Black Americans, he invariably uses classic white supremacist language: Maxine Waters is “low IQ”; Don Lemon is “the dumbest man on television”; Andrew Gillum is “a thief”; Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis “does nothing” for his “burning and crime-infested” district, and many, many more. Of course he knows none of it is true.

Sure, it’s lying, but more importantly, it’s THEATRE. He’s performing for conservative white Americans who support him primarily due to “white anxiety” and “racial resentment.” He’s putting on a show for them that may as well be entitled You’re Right to Feel Superior to Black People. It runs in rep with You’re Right to Be Afraid of Brown People, Women Exist to Be Decorative and Obedient, and I Don’t Care What the Constitution Says and Neither Should You: Give Me Unrestrained Power to Shut Down The Black and Brown Infestation and Make America Great (and White) Again. It’s running eight shows a week on the Great White Way along with Fox News’ Everyone Who is Not White and Conservative is Bad, InfoWars’ The Sky Is Falling and It’s the Jews’ Fault and Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham’s experimental dance theatre piece, Hate Keeps the Closet Door Shut.

Very few people actually believe Trump’s lies. They’re just fans of the show.

You don’t fight theatre with facts. That’s why facts and logic aren’t working, why Trump’s base will swear they believe his lies over their own eyes and ears.

You fight theatre with better theatre. You fight narrative with better narrative. And we are much, much better at this than they are.

It’s hard, I know. It feels at times like all is lost, like every scrap of progress we’ve made against evil since Civil Rights is being encinerated, like every step forward we’ve made for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, Muslims, Jews, everyone is being dragged back to the 19th century. But they’re not winning every battle. And THEY WILL NOT WIN THE WAR.

We outnumber them. And we are better at this than they are.

You, the theatremakers, filmmakers, TV writers and producers, all of you making art: YOU ARE THE VANGUARD. Fill your stages and screens with stories that fight this evil. Celebrate difference. Hire and promote women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Fund that show written and directed by Black women and promote the hell out of it. Cast a trans lead. Put three nonbinary people with disabilities on your story team.

Be deliberate. Go on. Your art is your activism, and there is nothing more powerful on this earth.

Keep pushing. They will not prevail. This moment in history is temporary. They will NOT be the ones who tell the American Story. We will. We are.

Go on.

 

 

 

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Your Nonprofit is “Committed to Diversity”? How Diverse Is Your Board?

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“People ask me sometimes, when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Few consider it odd that almost all Supreme Court justices in the court’s 229 year history have been white men, but many considered Justice Ginsberg’s statement to be highly controversial. The idea of an all-female court seemed upsetting and threatening to many people, but an all-male court has always seemed unremarkable.

In nearly every nonprofit company in the US, the board of directors is overwhelmingly white and male. One or two white women or Black men on an otherwise white male board is considered “diverse.” And when they get a seat at the table, women and people of color struggle to be heard in white male-heavy environments, their voices discounted, their points of view ignored. Endless studies and articles discuss this problem. Entire industries have developed around corporate diversity consultants.

This has enormous repercussions on every aspect of our lives in the US. Health services, education, social services, legal services, civic and environmental advocacy, the arts, and international relations all have significant nonprofit presence. White men– usually white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight men with Christian heritage– control these industries, set their priorities, and determine how resources are distributed without significant input from other points of view.

Few people outside of the nonprofit world know how much power the board of directors has. Most of us know that the board hires the head of the organization, a decision that has enormous repercussions for the institution as a whole. The head is the gatekeeper for every aspect of the organization, and it has been an ongoing, pervasive problem that the people boards choose for the big chair are almost always white and male.

Just as importantly, boards approve annual budgets, and where the money goes– and where it does not– directs everything about a company. Is your building ADA compliant? Do your staff go through regular diversity and equity training? Do you do hiring outreach to communities that are under-represented in your staff? Is budgeting for any of those a priority or considered an “extra”? What we choose to fund has far-reaching effects on every aspect of our organizations.

You cannot be “committed to diversity” unless your Board is diverse. We need to ensure that our boards have an understanding of a multiplicity of experiences, have a wider range of contacts, and can speak with authority to a wider range of people. A diverse board has innumerable benefits while a homogeneous board has just as many drawbacks and limitations.

When boards hire a new company head, they see a white man with little experience as “a fresh new voice” but a woman or person of color with the same (or even more) experience as “not ready.” They see a white man who has failed in other places as “a risk-taker” or “a maverick” but see women or people of color who have failed in other places as just failures. White boards give white men the benefit of the doubt while judging women and people of color too harshly. They see white men as being able to speak to a “universal human experience” while seeing, for example, a Black woman as having a limited, specifically Black and female, perspective.

Our culture assumes that all positions of power are rightfully white and male, and any diversion from that is a deviation from the norm– a place made specially for difference. We assume that white men are “neutral,” able to make decisions unweighted by identity-related points of view, and that everyone else is irrevocably marked by their identity, their judgment skewed by their distance from white maleness. Yet it is a certainty that whiteness and maleness are very specific points of view that clearly impact judgment.

A white person will not have the experience to always recognize and understand racism when they see it. A cisgender man will not have the experience to always recognize and understand sexism or transphobia when they see it. When confronted with racism, many– perhaps the majority– of white people reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. When confronted with sexism, the majority of men reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. Men insist that stories about women can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about men are. White people insist that Black, Latinx, or Asian stories can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about white people are. A film with an all-Black cast is a “Black movie,” but a film with an all white cast is just “a movie.” We label any story that’s not white, male, cis, hetero, and able-bodied as a creation for a niche audience, but the truth is, there is universality in any story, because there is far more that binds us than separates us. White men have been trained to see themselves as “neutral” and everyone else as marked by their distance from that neutrality. This is all summed up by the images below. These are male:

smiley-face21_1kipper-the-dogpacman_icon_2

 

And these are female:

smileyfemaledog.girlpacman.ms

 

Even in simplistic cartoon icons, something extra is needed to denote “female,” because neutral is read as “male.” Every position of privilege is “neutral” and everything else is measured by its distance from that privilege, requiring modifying adjectives or visual markers.

Of course this point of view is a direct result of living in a culture that bombards us with this messaging relentlessly. It’s a catch-22: If we want to change our cultural messaging to embrace the universality of all human experience, not just white male human experience, we need to create that messaging in our culture– through the art, the marketing, the writing, and all the other cultural artifacts currently produced by organizations that overwhelmingly favor the work of white men, hire white men, and promote white men to positions of leadership.

While the gatekeepers are mostly white and male, gatekeeping throughout our culture will have a necessarily limited perspective. When the gatekeepers are homogeneous, outside perspectives, outside needs, and outside trends will always be imperfectly understood or even missed entirely. Having a diversity of voices in the room so dramatically improves an organization’s ability to serve its community, one would think a diverse board of directors would be a requirement for obtaining and retaining the 501c3 nonprofit status. As nonprofits, we exist as “public benefit corporations.” Who are we benefiting if the gatekeepers in our organizations are all drawn from the most privileged demographic in our culture?

It all boils down to this:

There is no “commitment to diversity” without diversity. 

We need to diversify our boards or stop claiming we have a “commitment to diversity.”

 

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