When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”
The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems.
The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.
This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.
The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.
The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.
So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist? We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.
That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.
This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.
Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.
This is, of course, bunk.
For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.
There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)
While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.
There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”
For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.
Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.
There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.
So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.
Recently director Tim Burton was asked by Bustle writer Rachel Simon why his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, features an all white cast with the single exception of Samuel L. Jackson (who is cast, disappointingly yet unsurprisingly, as the murderous villain), Burton had this to say:
“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding film diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”
“Things either call for things, or they don’t.” This is an alarmingly incorrect position to take.
By “things” one can only assume he means “films” or perhaps “film casts.” The idea that a film can, all on its own, cry out for an all white cast with a single black villain while the humble director, helpless, must obey without question is, of course, preposterous. “Things” do not “call for” anything– directors make specific decisions. You cannot abdicate responsibility for your casting by blaming it ON THE FILM YOU MADE, in which you personally made or approved every artistic decision.
If by “things” he means “the source material,” meaning that initially the book series was all white (adding characters of color later on in the series), once again he is abdicating responsibility for his personal decisions by pretending that he’s but a faithful reproducer of the source material. Where was this desire to faithfully reproduce the book when he was directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example? While Burton’s version is closer to the original 1964 Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Burton still deviated in multiple ways from the book. Is whiteness the only inviolable aspect of source material?
As directors, we make the decisions that bring the world of the play, the film, or the show to life. We create the worlds you see on screen and on stage. We can choose a diverse world that reflects the one in which we live, or we can choose an all white world that shuts out people of color, denies opportunities for actors of color, and creates the illusion that white people are the only people whose stories are worthy of telling unless something is specifically about being Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. When a work is just about “people”– when the story has nothing to do with race specifically–if you then think the work “calls out” for whiteness because you see white as “neutral,” you have, at the very least, a failure of imagination. But that failure goes much deeper.
The alarming aspect of Burton’s abdication of the very basics of film directing– the artistic decisionmaking– is that he imagined the work itself somehow told him he needed to create a group of wonderful white people whose major threat is a murderous black man. This kind of reinscribing of whiteness as superior, innocent, and good alongside blackness that exists solely as a dangerous threat to that whiteness is a trope that literally gets innocent black people killed every day. This isn’t “just a film.” There’s no such thing. Our culture is primarily impacted by the narratives of popular culture. Films are massively important cultural artifacts that have the power to shift an entire culture.
When police officers have a split second decision to make, why do they imagine seeing a gun in the hand of an unarmed black man, or imagine a black man reaching for a gun when he reaches for his wallet as instructed, or imagine a black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air is a threat, or imagine a black child with a toy gun is an adult threatening their lives, especially when police bring in European American active shooters alive routinely? When our culture pumps out narrative after narrative after narrative equating blackness with DANGER, that has a massive impact on the real world.
When we talk about police “retraining” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives– which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before black people with their guns drawn.
As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better. It’s an insult to their lost lives to say that the “thing” magically “called for” you to use an all white cast with a black villain.
It’s telling that Burton imagines that a lack of white people in blaxploitation films of the 1970s is somehow equivalent to his all white cast/black villain in 2016, as if the obvious race privilege of white people in the 1970s didn’t exist and the films at the time were racially problematic– yet magnanimously forgiven by Burton– for not including white people. As if we’re not now all aware of the massive social injustice faced by black people who are treated unfairly at every level of the criminal justice system, and who face police use of force– from small acts of violence to fatal ones– at far greater percentages than white people, and what it means in 2016 to make a group of innocent white children the heroes battling against a murderous black man. It’s astonishing, really, that anyone who makes his living from creating art– from understanding the value of symbols and tropes and narrative– could miss this. It’s alarming. These tropes, unchecked in our culture, are complicit in the deaths of far too many people of color, including children.
It’s telling that Burton says “oh, let’s have an Asian child and a black” in decrying the tokenism of shows– again from the 1970s (dude, that was 40 years ago)– like The Brady Bunch. Apart from the dehumanizing phrase “a black” (a black what?), Burton cannot imagine diversity as anything but tokenism, as if people of color do not exist outside of whiteness, as if including people of color is automatically tokenism, as if he can only imagine a single token actor of color in a film. Tim, why not cast people of color in lead roles? In lots of roles? In all the roles? Why not consider a diverse range of actors for every role and see who best fits the part when race is removed from consideration? Yes, sometimes race needs to be a foremost consideration in casting. If you direct A Raisin in the Sun (please no one ever let Burton do this), Mr. Lindner needs to be European American and everyone else needs to be Black. But in, say, Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, race is not central to the narrative. Nothing would have been lost by hiring a diverse cast, and much would have been gained. No one is asking you to cast a single token Black actor, and yet THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID in casting Samuel L. Jackson, making that even more egregious by casting him as the villain. But The Brady Bunch‘s dippy 70’s “we’re all one big happy melting pot” nonsense is “more offensive” to you?
I’m not going to criticize Jackson for taking the role, since I have no idea how much he really knew when he signed the contract, and his statement about it does read like, “I am under contract to do positive PR for this film.” He’s an actor whose job is to act. Who knows what he was told about how the film would be created.
I am, however, flat out astonished that someone of Burton’s level of talent with symbol, narrative, and trope would create such an obvious lie as “things call out for things” as a cover for his own decisionmaking. Then again, I’m not surprised at all.
This article is also available on the Huffington Post here.
Please also check out “An Open Letter to Tim Burton from a Black Fangirl” by DeLa Doll, posted to HuffPo yesterday.
In theatre and in academia, my two worlds, we talk a lot about “diversity.” In theatre, we talk about diversity in casting, we talk about diversity in programming, we talk about diversity in audiences. In academia, we talk about “attracting and retaining diverse students” and “the diversity of our faculty.” But there’s a massive elephant in the room that we continue to ignore.
Diversity is not enough.
Do not confuse “diversity” with “equity.” I have been in far too many situations where an organization hires a handful of people of color, plunks them into the lowest rung (either by title or by treatment) and then never thinks about them again. I have been in far too many situations where faculty believe they are “working to retain” students of color by designing classes with titles like “Keepin’ It Real: African American Performance,” taught by a fussy middle-aged musical theatre professor, instead of engaging the students directly to discover what support they actually need. I have been in far too many situations where highly skilled and qualified women are hired and then passed over for promotion in favor of mediocre– or even demonstrably unqualified– men. I have been in far too many situations where a white man who is new to the organization is suddenly and dramatically promoted and given plum assignments in secret, announced to the stunned women who were passed over as a fait accompli.
Diversity fails if it’s not combined with equity.
Too many white male-run orgs frame diversity as bending down to lift up women and people of color. Women dominate the indie theatre scene as artistic leaders. They’re already out there, creating art every day. People of color aren’t just creating art– they’ve created most of popular American culture.
It’s telling when you hear people say things like, “Black children in the inner cities have no access to art,” and “We need to find ways to help people of color access theatre.” When we discuss “art” or “theatre” in these contexts, we mean “white art” and “white theatre.” We mean the work white people have deemed “important.” If there’s one thing inner cities have never lacked, it’s art. Most of popular American culture originated with artists of color in inner cities. Hip hop revolutionized music across the globe. Graffiti became a global school of art. Both hip hop and graffiti are already studied and taught in universities globally alongside other important artistic movements like minimalism and abstract expressionism, both of which, I’d like to point out, were originally held in as much disdain as hip hop and graffiti have been. You don’t bend down to grant art to people of color. They’re not starved for art, waiting for a white savior to show up and grant them access. People of color are lapping white culture artistically.
The problem isn’t a lack of access to “art” for women and people of color. The problem is lack of access to funding and well-paid positions of power. The problem is equity.
If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing important topics like the glass ceiling– how larger theatres across the nation give almost all the positions of power to white men and show no signs of improving over the years we’ve been discussing this. How universities still give the majority of their tenure track positions to men and the majority of their poverty-level adjunct positions to women, despite that Cornell study that measured hypothetical attitudes. The hard data is clear, and those numbers widen when you add race to the mix.
If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how grantors and individual donors give white-run arts orgs far more funding than they do arts orgs run by people of color. We’re discussing how the study I linked above had the audacity to suggest that lower-funded orgs run by people of color should be left to “wither” and close.
If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how large, well-funded, white-run theatres are given massive grants to do “community outreach” programs to potential audiences of color when the theatres run by people of color, who are already doing that work, are left to fight for scraps. That’s diversity without equity– funding a wealthy white org’s diversity initiative instead of funding a smaller Black org that’s been doing that work for decades. Funding doesn’t have to be either/or. Where are the grants that fund partnerships or co-productions between those orgs? Or between women-run smaller theatres that attract diverse young audiences and the larger theatres that say they’re desperate for those audiences? I would have brought my theatre company into a larger theatre for a co-production in a heartbeat.
The problem with diversity without equity is that diversity can be accomplished in ways that entirely preserve the white male power structure. We congratulate diversity in programming and we ignore the fact that nearly every LORT AD position in the US from the institution of the 501c3 in 1954 to this very day has gone to a man, almost always a white one. We’re making calls for diversity that amount to asking white men to please hire more women and people of color while we ignore the fact that theatres run by women and people of color are literally starving for funding.
Diversity alone is not enough without actively seeking equity at all levels of our industry. We need to commit to both diversity AND equity.
UPDATE 9/8/16: Please read Jason Tseng’s excellent article about equity in arts funding: “The Kaiser Games.”
And by “my book is out,” I mean Caridad Svich‘s book is out. The ever-brilliant (srsly) Svich has released a collection of essays for TCG entitled Audience (R)Evolution: Dispatches from the Field. In addition to one by yours truly called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement,” it contains essays by Larissa Fasthorse, Richard Montoya, Itamar Moses, Jules Odendahl-James, Sylvan Oswald, Bill Rauch, Lisa D’Amour, Roberto G. Varea, Callie Kimball, Carlton Turner, and Svich herself, among many others.
Order your copy here!
The theatre community prides itself on its left-leaning culture, openness to diversity, and acceptance of difference. Yet we have constant problems with gender parity. Women are underrepresented in every area of our industry apart from the indie scene, often dramatically. There are so many studies and think pieces about this, I’m not going to bother choosing any one to link to– we’ve all read them.
Although we consider ourselves “not sexist,” we’re still unwittingly *saying and doing things that are sexist*. Sexism (and racism, and ableism, and etc) are actions and words as well as thoughts and attitudes. In 2016, we’re not seeing “No woman can direct a man with proper authority” and the like, but we’re all still dealing with the sexism pervasive in our culture, and it impacts our actions through unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is why people who are committed feminists are still sometimes making decisions motivated by sexism (and racism, and transphobia, etc).
And while this applies without question to women who have internalized the sexism inherent in our culture and its many systems and structures, often what we, as women, are struggling with in this industry are the unconscious biases of men.
“She’s perfect for the role!” When I cast something with straight male input, I often find myself struggling to make him understand that the woman with whom he is most taken is not actually the best actor or right for the role. Because our culture has rigid, oppressive strictures about what constitutes “attractive,” most often that woman is young, European-American, thin, able-bodied, and traditionally “pretty.” I often find myself struggling to make him understand that a woman less physically attractive to him is much more skilled, or closer to the center of the role. Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re attracted to: “She has a certain quality that just pulls the eye”; “She has the right look”; “She has so much presence”; “She has something; I just can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there”; “I think her acting drawbacks would actually be strengths in this role.” Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re less attracted to: “I just can’t see her in the role”; “She’s just not as interesting to watch”; “She lacks presence”; “I don’t believe her”; “I don’t think the audience will accept her as a romantic lead.” Or he’ll suddenly decide that the *crucial qualities* he insisted the woman to whom he’s attracted would bring to the role are *massive, problematic drawbacks* when embodied in a woman less attractive to him. Or he “just can’t see” the traditionally “pretty” woman’s massive comic skills.
To be clear, this isn’t universal. I shouldn’t even have to say it by this point, but #notallmen. However, if a director’s every lead looks the same (for example, thin, European-American, and blonde), that director should probably have a seat and take a think on it. Remember that acting on an unexamined sexist bias in casting doesn’t make you a terrible person, or even “a sexist.” We’re all struggling with finding and eliminating our unconscious biases. We could all benefit from looking carefully at our attitudes and casting habits and interrogating our decisions fearlessly, and not just about women, but about gender nonconforming people, race, ability, size, etc.
“I don’t understand this play. It’s not for me.” Straight European-American men make up less than a third of the US population– a definite minority. Yet the stories of straight European-American men are considered “neutral”– stories for everyone, universal. A play starring a straight European-American man, written by a straight European-American man, is never considered to be coming from a particular, unique point of view– it’s never about being straight and European-American. It’s about, for example, overcoming loss, or reconciling with family, or forgiveness and healing. The social positionality of the work fades into the background as irrelevant– “universal.” However, work by and featuring women, people of color, disabled people, gender nonconforming people, is marked by its distance from the straight European-American male “universal.” It’s a “Black play” or a “woman’s play.”
Because we posit the straight European-American male experience as “universal,” we never expect straight European-American men to translate– to find ways to see the work of people unlike them as relevant to them– because we define that work by its distance from them. Yet they expect without question for everyone to automatically translate work from a European-American male perspective, both seeing and relating to the “universal” message inside. When you’re sitting in a season planning meeting or a development meeting, and the European-American men around you claim they “don’t understand” a play or that a play is “not for them,” but they fully expect you as a woman and/or person of color to relate to stories from a European-American male perspective because they’re “universal,” you’re seeing unconscious bias in action.
There’s an easy way to tell if the play is actually incomprehensible or if men on the team are just refusing to translate, and that’s to see whether opinions of the play are divided by gender. Repeat as necessary for race, ability, sexuality, etc. Part of privilege is that the world pretends the privileged experience is universal. Part of fighting systemic injustice is actively working to learn how to translate.
When you’re ready to toss aside a play as “not for everyone,” “not universally appealing,” or “for women,” take a second and think: “Am I just refusing to translate?”
“I’m all for diversity. . . I have a Black female intern!” If you’re a European-American man who is proposing that diversity be a key consideration for every position but your own, I see you. Let’s focus on hiring actors, directors, designers, techs, and/or playwrights who are women or people of color, you say, and we all rightfully applaud. Except the European-American men in positions of power and gatekeeping at those theatres retain every scrap of their power, and the fact that theatres over a certain size in this county are almost exclusively run by European-American men does not change. Too often “diversity” means “we hired some Black people” or “one director is a woman.” We have diversity without equity, because the decision makers and gatekeepers preserve that power for the privileged.
Theatres, almost every single time you’re looking for a new Artistic Director, you hire a man. It’s so pervasive I’m finding myself involuntarily assuming that every decision is rooted in sexism, assuming the man was hired because he was a man. I find that thought popping into my head even when I know better, even when I personally know and respect the man and would hire him myself. I wonder which women they refused to seriously consider. I look at so many young women with so much promise, and it breaks my heart thinking they’ll have to watch man after man they hired and trained be promoted over them.
There’s a lock on the boys’ club of artistic leadership, and current artistic leadership, including boards, holds the key. A few festivals of plays by women, or giving a Black woman an internship, is not bringing meaningful change. Put women and people of color on your boards. Hire women and people of color for positions of power. Remember that Black female intern when a position of artistic leadership becomes available. Until then, you’re making me wonder if you’re not just trying to quell dissent to shore up your own cultural and professional power by committing to diversity without committing to equity.
“I would love to hire more women. I just can’t find any.” The indie scene is dominated by women and people of color. What I don’t understand is why those women and people of color seem to fade to invisibility when larger theatres dip into the indie community to look for new talent, bringing up European-American men with far more frequency, and at far earlier stages of their careers, than women and people of color. I’ve run an indie theatre for 20 years, and I’ve seen it happen over and over and over. What makes you look at a young European-American man with very little experience and see “promise” but look at a young woman of color with more experience and see “she’s not ready”? Keep your eyes on the local scene, wherever you are, and make an effort to seek out women and people of color. Wherever you are on the budget spectrum, there’s someone working at the level “below” you that you can bring up, and every time you bring someone up, you’re putting them into the pipeline that ends at LORT and Broadway jobs. Be conscious of whom you’re putting into that pipeline– think about to whom you’re giving opportunities. Are you hiring with gender parity? Are you hiring people of color? Or are you hiring 84% European-American men?
Fighting for social justice means fighting your unconscious bias all day, every day. It means continually examining your opinions and motivations. There’s no finish line where the crowd screams in envious joy as Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Obama pour gatorade on your head and hand you a NOT SEXIST trophy. This takes work. It’s OK to fail at it and keep trying. Just please keep trying.
The initial response to the devastating exposé of the abuse at celebrated Chicago theatre Profiles Theatre was swift and decisive: we were all appalled. Nearly everyone in the industry decried the abuse in no uncertain terms. We were appalled that a theatre would continue to allow such actions, even from a founding member and a widely respected (and lauded) artist like Darrell Cox. “How could this happen?” we asked ourselves. “Not in our house,” we repeated, echoing the Chicago group bravely attempting to stem abuse in Chicago theatre.
And then, because we were not the ones accused, we went about our business, which includes hiring abusers and making excuses for them.
When I posted the story on social media in June, I wrote that I would stand by anyone in the Bay Area who needed someone to stand with them. A number of people contacted me privately to share their stories. Not one was willing to come forward publicly for fear of retaliation and public scorn. A few refused to name their abusers, instead providing me with leading clues like, “won X award X year” or “directed a lot of [playwright] during [years].” One mentioned that she initially wanted to file a report to AEA, but was cautioned against it by other women– fear the consequences, she was told. For good reason– our culture is unkind, to say the least, to women who publicly speak out about their abuse, especially at the hands of powerful men. Our first impulse is to call her a liar, out for personal gain. As if anything could be gained that way but scorn, trauma, pain.
I thought long and hard about what to do with these stories. I won’t make public accusations because these aren’t my stories to tell, and I will not violate the consent of these people who bravely shared their stories with me. But I will take this knowledge and create a primer for fellow Artistic Directors and others in positions of power– including board members– at theatres to give them a clear picture of where we have failed our people over the years and how we can do better in the future. I will not name names. But I can point to where we went wrong.
1. Make sure that everyone working in your theatre understands that you have a zero tolerance policy for abuse. I never did this, trusting to our “culture of respect,” and I count it as one of my worst failures as an Artistic Director. Openly state your zero tolerance policy while clearly defining “abuse” and clearly stating consequences. Not in Our House (linked above) is developing a Code of Conduct for non-AEA theatres that they are allowing others to access online, but not to adopt unless they are a designated pilot theatre. They hope to release adoption in 2017. Until that time, it’s a great document to use as a model to create your own basic set of rules. While we cannot yet adopt their code, I feel strongly that we in the indie theatre community cannot continue to run with *zero* code of conduct. If you’re an AEA theatre, do not assume that everyone on your team knows and understands AEA rules of conduct. Make sure everyone knows what you expect, and what you will not tolerate. THEN ENFORCE IT.
2. When people come to you with stories of abuse, complaints that someone is making them uncomfortable, complaints that someone is not respecting their boundaries, LISTEN TO THEM and BELIEVE THEM. Quietly take other members of the team aside and talk to them to get a clearer picture about what’s happening if necessary, but believe me, very few take the risk to come forward without good reason. Then enforce your zero tolerance policy with its clearly stated consequences. Do not protect abusers, minimize abuse, or sweep it under the rug.
3. Pay close attention to the behavior of the people you have on staff. People will not always be brave enough to come forward about bad behavior. Sometimes people gaslight victims by claiming that the abuse is “just the way he is,” “not a big deal,” or “just because he’s a genius and passionate about his work.” Victims begin to second-guess themselves and worry about the consequences of coming forward when others are minimizing or excusing bad behavior. There could easily be problems, even abuse, in your house without anyone coming forward to tell you about them directly. We must be proactive. Think: Has any director in your theatre ever berated an actress in rehearsal until she cried? Has any director in your theatre insisted they could block a fight themselves, despite their lack of training and/or certification, putting your actors at risk? Has anyone in your company publicly derided the work of others on the project as “stupid,” “worthless,” or “idiotic”? Has a choreographer ever told an actor in rehearsal they were “talentless” or “useless”? Has anyone on your team made a racist, antisemitic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, or otherwise bigoted joke? Has a production photographer joked publicly that he was only planning to take pictures of the scantily-clad young actresses in your show? Does someone in a position of power at your company proposition young actors, start affairs with them while they’re under contract, single them out and flirt with them during rehearsal? Has someone in your company threatened to dock someone’s pay for refusing to do something that’s outside the scope of their contract? Has anyone in your company violated any contract (for example, used someone else’s writing or fight choreography without permission) and insisted that others maintain secrecy? Pay attention and nip that behavior in the bud.
4. Stop hiring “geniuses.” As I say above, “he’s a genius and just passionate about his work” has long been used to excuse abusive behavior. We’ve created a mythology around the “auteur” whose passion is so great that he “can’t help” flying into rages, berating people who “aren’t on his level” or who don’t give him exactly what he wants (as it changes from day to day or he fails to be clear about it). Sometimes his affairs with young actors in the show are part of his “passionate” persona. He just can’t help himself! He makes unreasonable demands and insists others work around the clock to satisfy them. When his work is racist or sexist, lavish excuses are made for it. It’s “brave,” “daring,” or “honest.” Asshole “auteurs” are not cute. They are assholes. And more often than not in this collaborative art form, the work suffers for it. No one is doing their best work when their goal is to keep someone from screaming at them. Make “respectful” a more important quality in an artist than “mad genius.” And while I’m using the male pronoun here because the “auteur” mythology is largely white and male, these people come in all types. Stop hiring “geniuses.”
5. Stop perpetuating the mythology that anything should be tolerated because “the show must go on.” This is, in part, a corollary to #4 because it’s trotted out as an excuse for the behavior of the asshole “auteur.” “We just need to get the show up” is a fact, but you don’t “just need to get the show up” at the expense of the health and safety of the people working on it. Your “auteur” does not actually need to behave like a jackass, and only does so because it’s tolerated. You don’t actually need to hold people after the stated end of rehearsal. You don’t actually need to brush off the very real concerns of your actors about working without a fight director. You don’t actually need to brush off the concerns of your actresses about an actor creeping on them backstage. There is always a choice.
I understand these conversations are difficult to have. I understand your “genius” has been a member of your company, or its AD, for years, and contributed wonderful things to it. Perhaps your “genius” is even a founding member, like Darrell Cox, or a personal friend. I understand that your “genius” makes your theatre money and wins it awards, again, like Darrell Cox. I understand that you believe the ends justify the means, because the livelihoods of others are dependent upon the success of your theatre, and that’s a real, palpable burden. I understand that your “genius” likely believes his behavior is totally justified, and will be resentful and angry if called out. I understand– believe me I understand– that even people who aren’t protected by a “genius” status are protected by the fact that you believe you will be screwed without the work they’re doing for your company.
But you do not need to tolerate this behavior. It may be as simple as laying down the law with someone and being clear about what you will not tolerate. It may be that this person refuses to address their behavior, and they need to be let go before they demolish your mission, your reputation, and your company.
You do not need to keep hiring these people. For every “genius” you hire repeatedly despite known bad behavior or even known abuse there are five overlooked artists who are wonderful to work with.There’s no reason to tolerate this behavior.
I have made errors in my career because I believed I “had no choice,” but I did. There is always a choice. And I will carry the shame of those decisions until my dying day. I remember the names of every person I failed to protect, either because I believed wrongly that I had no choice, or because I was ignorant of what was happening in my own house (which is just as much my fault, because if someone wasn’t coming to me, or if I failed to see something, that’s on me). It’s a weight I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
As long as we continue to protect, excuse, and ignore bad behavior, it will continue to happen. As long as we continue to reward bad behavior and even abuse with future employment, prestigious awards, and coveted positions, we’re plainly stating to our community that our people are worthless to us; that people (especially white men) in powerful positions are untouchable; that speaking out will be ignored or punished; that there’s nothing that can stop the abuse.
But there is. WE CAN STOP IT by refusing to continue tolerating this behavior. By refusing to continue protecting and rewarding abusers. By refusing to continue pretending that the bad behavior of “geniuses” isn’t abuse but “passion.”
WE CAN STOP IT. It’s our choice.
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%.