Tag Archives: acting

The Real Story of Clarion and Lloyd Suh

I don’t have any insider information. But I’ve been both teaching theatre in the university system and producing professional theatre for over 20 years, and I’m sick of the articles being written about this that have no understanding of what we do or how we do it.

Marilouise Michel of Clarion University wanted to produce Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, but never completed the licensing agreement, or responded to the agent when asked about casting. Michel cast with all white actors, including the roles written for East Indian actors. The rights, having never been granted, were denied.

Here’s what happened: In January, Clarion asks for a copy of the play. In May, they inform Lloyd they’re adapting it into a musical. For those of you unfamiliar with IP copyright, this is illegal if done without author permission. Lloyd generously tells Clarion that’s fine if it’s just a classroom exercise, but he (obviously) has questions if it’s for public performance. The director never responds. Meanwhile, she’s begun negotiations with the agent, who has asked her about casting. The director does the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check to the agency, but never completes the actual rights negotiations or licensing agreement. On October 30, five months after Lloyd asked about the musical adaptation, the director emails Lloyd asking if he would be able to skype with the actors who are currently in rehearsals. Lloyd, thinking WTF? heads over to google and sees that the production (still without the legal permission to adapt or even perform the work) has been cast with all white actors. He emails his agent. The agent emails the director. The director says LOL, we couldn’t cast it any other way, and I forgot you even asked. Lloyd discovers from his agent that the licensing agreement was never completed. He clearly restates what the agent was (obviously) trying to discuss with the director five months earlier: the Asian characters need to be played by Asians, or the rights will not be granted. The director says no. The rights were not granted.

And the world goes nuts BLAMING LLOYD.

The coverage of this has been enraging, painting Lloyd and his agent (the marvelous and wonderful Beth Blickers) as bullies, when nothing could be further from the truth. Clarion is completely to blame, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. 

The director maintains the agent never mentioned race in her email. That may very well be true. The email may have said something along the lines of, “Before we release the rights, how do you plan to handle the specialized casting in this play?” or even just “How do you plan to cast the play?” It’s disingenuous to assert that a question like that doesn’t, at the very least, make clear that casting is an important consideration in rights negotiations. I’m willing to bet Michel didn’t complete the licensing agreement because she didn’t want to have to confess to Beth that she had an all-white cast, knowing full well that would be a problem. I’m willing to bet Michel, who had a provisional yes and had already sent the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check, believed she was far enough along in the process that she wouldn’t get caught if she kept her head down.

I have had innumerable conversations with people in education about paying performance rights, rewriting scripts, or violating the playwright’s express instructions, and invariably I’m trying to convince someone that Yes, you WILL get caught, because internet. (I’m of course also discussing Ethics, and IP rights, and OMG are you even kidding me with this?) It’s depressingly common for my fellow educators (and even more so for administrators) to believe they won’t get caught violating contract or performing without rights, so I have no trouble believing that this director believed a little of both.

The people out there howling that Lloyd shouldn’t have cashed the check are spurred by misrepresentative coverage. First of all, Lloyd didn’t even see the check. The agency deposited the check along with every other one they received that day, and would eventually disburse payment to Lloyd for all the shows for which they’d contracted. It’s not at all uncommon to send a check before all the details of an agreement have been finalized. If the agreement isn’t completed for whatever reason, the agent returns the money. Cashing the check is not a tacit way of saying “I would love for you to violate my IP rights and do whatever you like with my play.”

Playwrights, agents, and publishers pull the rights for ALL SORTS of reasons. Beckett’s estate famously won’t allow women to be cast in Waiting for Godot (with some notable exceptions). Tams Witmark once shut down a production of Anything Goes because the company wanted to use a drag queen Reno Sweeney. MTI shut down a Bay Area production of Godspell— with a C&D!!–because the company changed the lyrics. Neil Simon refuses the rights to schools and companies that want to edit out his swear words. Lloyd owns his play. If he wants to refuse rights unless a production agrees to put a full-page elegy to Mr. Jingles the Sock Monkey in the program, he has that right. He sets the rules, just as you set the rules for who uses your property.

Clarion is in the wrong here, period, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. Which, in 2015, is just nonsense.

I’m sick of the mainstream articles (and posts and comments) wherein the years of activism, resistance, discussion, and progress around casting and diversity in theatre are invisible. Is the director at Clarion misrepresenting the issue deliberately? Or is she really so disconnected from the theatre community that she doesn’t know about these issues? Why are the writers of these articles so ignorant of the years of discussion, the hundreds of articles, and the massive national controversies around casting and diversity in theatre?

At least 95% of the available roles in any given season are open to white people. It’s embarrassing to watch white people throw a tantrum over the remaining 5%. We’re not entitled to everything just because we want it. I’ve written repeatedly about the many reasons non-white characters should be played by non-white people (search “diversity” if you’re interested). Many writers far better than myself have written about this issue repeatedly. In brief:

  1. History. Theatre, film, and television all have a long history of casting white people as people of color while shutting actors of color out. Those portrayals have almost always been insulting and racist. The historical context has made this issue a sensitive topic for people of color, and rightfully so as they have had to watch themselves portrayed in insulting ways by white people while being shut out of opportunities to play themselves. If you think this is a matter of the past, think again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
  2. Representation. Actors of color are still underrepresented in theatre. Most of the available jobs go to white actors, who are disproportionately represented. White men in particular have always dominated, and continue to dominate, the industry. It’s unethical to push people of color aside to allow even more white people to have even more roles, especially the tiny handful of roles written specifically for people of color. This is also why it’s not at all the same when a person of color plays a role written for a white person. That’s a step toward proportional representation, not “racism against white people.”
  3. Ethics. People of color in the theatre industry have been very clear that the continued use of yellowface, brownface, and blackface, as well as the continual whitewashing of characters, is hurtful to them in multiple ways. White people have three choices and three choices only: “We hear you and we’ll stop,” “We hear you, but we don’t care if it hurts you, so we’ll keep doing it,” “We don’t believe it should hurt you; you are incorrect about your own experience of the world.” The first choice is ethical; the others are not.

So when we discuss issues like the cancellation of Clarion’s production of Jesus in India, let’s focus on the facts. Let’s insist on accurate coverage. Let’s hold each other accountable. And let’s have the self-respect to admit when we’re wrong.

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BUT I GET TO BE RACIST BECAUSE ART: The Mikado

artist

With last year’s massive national controversy about The Mikado in Seattle, it’s difficult to believe that anyone, anywhere, would be doing The Mikado in yellowface, right? I mean, Rick Shiomi at Skylark Opera in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts in Minneapolis showed us all how it’s done back in 2013: Since the work is actually meant to lampoon British Victorians, why not actually dress them as British Victorians? A few very small, non-invasive line changes and voila. Now you get to have Mikado sans racism. That’s what we all want, right?

As it turns out, no. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players is doing a production of The Mikado this upcoming holiday season, with most of the characters in yellowface. Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler wrote a fantastic piece about it on her blog that was picked up by Angry Asian Man, in which she expresses her shock and calls for people to speak out in solidarity with the Asian American theatremakers (and audience members) who are fighting for better representation of Asian people on American stages. If you want to contact the Skirball, she lists all the contact information you need.

Several of the usual (awesome) suspects in the theatre blogging community are writing about this production as well (Howard Sherman, Erin Quill). With all these articles burning up my feed, I’m seeing the inevitable backlash comments as well, defending The Mikado in particular and racism in art in general. I’ve covered this issue before. We’ve all covered it before. And yet the apologia for racist content never stops.

So, I’m thinking it’s time to play Racist Art Apologia Bingo! EVERYONE PULL UP YOUR FACEBOOK FEED. Find the first article about this set to “public” and open the comments. Get ready to check those comments for these well-known racist apologia statements as Millie calls them! Ready? GO.

I'm ready!

I’m ready!

(Tumbles wheel full of racist apologist statements) OK, I’ll just reach in here and pull these out one by one. See if you can find them in your feed!

Source: bossip.com

Millie draws the first one! (Source: bossip.com)

B17: “The one who points out racism is the REAL racist.” Quote from my feed:  “[The Mikado] is only racist in the eyes of a racist.”

Analysis: ILLOGICAL. I get that you’re going for the time-honored “I’m not the nerd; YOU’RE the nerd” you picked up in grade school, but it doesn’t fly in grown-up discussions. Let’s think about this for a second. The primary voices speaking out against yellowface are Asian American. So Asian Americans who say The Mikado is racist are the real racists? Because . . . ?

race.meme.hayseed

Here comes the next one!

N44: “Why should we pander to political correctness/SJWs/liberal demands?” Quote from my feed: “A work of art shouldn’t pander down to ignorance but insist that an audience rise to its challenge.”

Analysis: BELITTLING. Treating people of color with respect is never “pandering.” You only “pander” to demands when those demands are unworthy of consideration. Making this argument is tantamount to saying that racist portrayals of people of color on our stages, including yellowface, are so perfectly acceptable that the protest against them is worthless, and any consideration of that worthless protest is pandering. This quote is even worse, as it assumes that people who protest the racism in The Mikado are just “ignorant” and unable to “rise to the challenge” of art.

racist.joke.meme

Did you get both? Get ready for the next one:

I29: “It’s actually anti-racist if you think about it.” Quote from my feed: “What always matters in the question of whether something is racist is intent. It is actually making fun of an Englishman’s condescending attitude towards other cultures…or specifically, the Japanese.”

Analysis: WISHFUL THINKING. So let me get this straight: The cartoonishly stereotypical characters in The Mikado are actually fighting racism because they’re mocking Victorian racism through modern white people performing cartoonishly racist Asian characters. This is like claiming you punched someone to show other people that punching is bad. MY INTENT WAS CLEAR. I am anti-punching. Therefore, I get to punch whoever I want. QED.

satire

Ooh, I bet you guys are getting close! Just a couple more spaces to fill……

042: “You just don’t understand.” Quote from my feed: “[The claim that The Mikado in yellowface is racist] is an astonishingly simple and one-dimensional understanding of this lighthearted but really profound and many layered work of comic art.”

Analysis: NONSENSE. We understand; we just disagree. We see all the layers that you do, sweetheart, we just don’t agree that the “profound” message that Victorians were racist and Orientalist (lol, “profound”) does not earn the right to perform yellowface in 2015.

racismfunny

One more . . . Come on, Millie! I’m so close!

G8: “This is ART.” Quote from my feed: “There’s a very good reason these works have endured…why they are admired.”

Analysis: IRRELEVANT. This is an apologia favorite. “Art needs to be protected; art should be pushing boundaries and making people uncomfortable; pieces like The Mikado have have endured and long been admired; we should never censor art.” No one is claiming these works should be demolished. We should continue to study them. Pretending our history of racism never existed is a dangerous idea. But what we’re choosing to perform as “light-hearted” comic performances, what we choose to put on our stages, and how we choose to present work, are all completely different considerations. The work didn’t endure because of the racism in it, and often, as Rick Shiomi demonstrated, there’s a wonderful workaround that makes the piece relevant to an audience for whom racism is no longer acceptable.

The main problem with the “preserving ART” argument is that racism and racist caricatures had one cultural context in the Victorian (or Elizabethan, or Classical, or what you will) era, and have completely different contexts now. Fighting to preserve a racist work as written most often vandalizes that work’s original intent. The racist symbol was created to convey a meaning it can no longer convey. Yellowface can no longer convey the meaning Gilbert originally intended when writing The Mikado because that meaning has been superceded by a modern understanding of yellowface’s inherent racism. Even if you believe the yellowface in The Mikado means “Victorians are racist; isn’t that funny?” it can never mean that to an audience in 2015 because yellowface is read as racist in and of itself, and stomping your feet and insisting that Gilbert’s intent was completely different does exactly nothing to change that.

But purism is a smokescreen to hide the real issue at hand. If people are fighting so hard to perform classic works as originally performed, where are the castrati? The boy actresses? The act intervals? The on-stage audience seating? These people have no interest in purism as such. They’re upset because they feel entitled to the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not. White people have always had that right, and the idea that people of color might have the cultural power to contradict them and be heard galls them. An issue these white people find acceptable– racism in performance– is being challenged, and they will fight as hard as they can to retain the cultural supremacy that entitles them to continue to define racist performance as “acceptable.” They’re fighting more and more furiously because they know they are losing.

I, however have WON!

RACIST APOLOGIA BINGO! B17, I29, N44, G8, O42! BAM!

Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

P.S. Shana Tova to my fellow tribespeople and Jew-ish affiliates! I hope you all have a wonderful 5776.

UPDATE 9/18/15: NYGASP has announced the production will be cancelled and replaced with Pirates of Penzance. I still think a better solution would have been to update the work like Rick Shiomi did, but I understand why they felt they should just shut the whole thing down. I hope this opens a conversation at NYGASP (and elsewhere) about representation and diversity on our stages.

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“Too Street”: Hypocrisy in Policing the Speech of our Actors

Idris Elba, the living embodiment of

Idris Elba, the living embodiment of “suave,” was labeled “too street” to play James Bond by Bond author Andrew Horowitz.

I just had an interesting conversation with someone whose white teens are using the slang words “finna,” “aight,” “brah,” etc. She characterized it as “shortening words to sound hip.” I’m almost certain she just didn’t know where the terms came from; I don’t think she was trying to be erasive. But it brought to mind how poorly we’re handling political issues around language, especially in the theatre.
Those slang words aren’t about being hip and cool– they’re about being Black. I’m not trying to stop Black people from influencing the language as a whole. Black slang is, and has always historically been, one of the most important influences on the way English is spoken in America. But understand the context here. When a Black person uses the slang they create, they’re slammed for not being “professional,” not being “articulate,” but when that slang finally makes it to white mouths, it becomes “hip” and “cool.” Usage changes language, and language is political. Our culture constantly appropriates Black invention as “hip” and “cool” while deriding and marginalizing Black people for using their own inventions. Language is an enormous part of that. If it’s become “hip” for white kids to say “finna,” how are we approaching Black people who use their own slang? Because right now, I see a hallway full of shut doors for Black people who aren’t speaking perfect English at all times.
black.shakespeare.meme
I corrected a girl for saying “ax” in my class last year, and I’m deeply ashamed of that now. I read up on that usage, and I came to understand how wrong I was. Language is political. We have to understand what we’re enforcing, and why we’re enforcing it, when we police usage.
I know a Black actor who was told by a Black professor at the university where I used to teach that he would never be cast in Shakespeare because his speech was “too Black,” and that he needed to amend his speech in order to be cast. The actor told me this after I had cast him in several Shakespeare plays at my company (as well as several new plays– this actor is phenomenal). As a white director whose approach to classic work deliberately eschews stiffness and formality, I’ve always had an eyeroll for “American Standard,” which we still teach actors to this day. Even actors completely untrained in it will often fall into its faux-British, formal tones when doing Shakespeare. A couple of years ago at my company’s general auditions, I had a very diverse bunch of college actors, all from the same university (perhaps not coincidentally, where I used to teach), and every single one came in with a cookie cutter, faux-British, semi-Standard American accent. I actually considered contacting the chair with a “What are you teaching these kids?” email, but I knew exactly what they were doing: prepping them to perform in a world that rejects anything that doesn’t reek of privilege.
studio-180-tweet

When we cast Shakespeare, when we cast new plays, when we teach actors, when we go to the theatre, when we choose our seasons, what choices are we making that reinforce privilege? How often have Black actors heard they were “too urban” or “not urban enough” for a certain role? How often have Asian and Latino actors been asked to “do the accent”? How often are we shutting people out because their speech– or their writing– does not conform to the expectations of white privilege?

The evidence is everywhere. Critics who slam plays because they don’t conform to the values and expectations of white privilege. Actors are told by white directors and casting directors in auditions to be “more urban” or “less urban,” meaning, “perform Blackness in the way I expect you to.” Black comedians Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer wrote a fantastic sketch, performed by Byer, called “Be Blacker,” mocking the many auditions in which Black actors are told to “be more urban.”

What does it mean to ask an actor to perform Blackness in a way white people expect or want? How often are we encoding the enforcement of privilege in our casting? How often are we encoding the enforcement of privilege when we say we’re teaching actors “speech and diction”? How much policing of speech is enforcing privilege?
American culture– and that includes American theatre– needs to take a long, hard look at the multitude of ways we police speech, especially the speech of people of color and people without class privilege. I’m including both spoken speech and written speech in that. If we’re making commitments to diversity, then we need to think about the multitude of ways in which we’re reinforcing the idea that diversity must be performed only in ways that are acceptable to white privilege. White people are measuring the acceptability of people of color by how closely they resemble whiteness off stage, and how accurately they can portray Blackness to white specifications in various situations on stage. I’m not claiming this is limited to Black people– cis people measure the acceptability of trans people by how closely they resemble cis people, and so on. But the topic at hand is how we believe Black speech is acceptable coming out of white mouths, but reject it coming out of Black mouths unless we can directly profit from it.
pygmalion
 In other words, if white America is talking about how hip and cool it is that white kids today are saying “finna,” then we need to look long and hard at the actors we’re rejecting because their speech isn’t “ready,” is “too urban,” or who “aren’t articulate.” We need to look long and hard about how we teach our students. We need to look long and hard at the people we’re not hiring at all levels because we perceive their speech– or their presence– as performing a kind of Blackness (or Asianness, or any other kind of identity that differs from straight, white, cis, class privileged) with which white people are uncomfortable.
I’m not excepting myself from this. Quite the opposite. I’m saying: This is a place wherein we’re falling down, and dragging far too many people down with us. Let’s examine what we’re doing more closely, and find a better way forward together.
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Please Stop Asking if Shows Are Appropriate for Children

7brides7bros3

Unless your show is called “Seven BJs for Seven Brothers,” (someone get on that), or unless you’re specifically doing TYA, people will contact your theatre and ask questions like this on the regular:

“I’d like to bring my nine-year-old to see your show. Is it appropriate for kids?”

black.shakespeare.meme

No one likes this question. This question can strike deep anxiety into the heart of the most stalwart producer. Why?

We have no way of knowing what that means to you. All you’re really asking is, “Will I, a person you’ve never met, be uncomfortable seeing this play with my kid, who already knows much more about the topic than I am ready to confront, plunging me into a parental and emotional crisis, all of which I will blame on you for failing to psychically pinpoint my particular issue?”

I have kids, and my personal boundaries around what was or was not appropriate for them at any given age were just as arbitrary as anyone else’s, so believe me, I’m not faulting you. I just need you to recognize that your boundaries are unknowable to me unless you tell me what they are. People almost never do, and then they get angry if we don’t guess correctly.

Don’t make the hungover 23-year-old intern who answers emails going to ask@LORTtheatre.org guess what your boundaries are.

He doesn't know. Source: http://www.independent.co.uk

He doesn’t know.
Source: http://www.independent.co.uk

Instead, ask us specific questions, like:

“I’m hoping to bring my 10-year-old, but I’m not comfortable with taking her to see a play with:

graphic sex

graphic violence

any violence

onstage drug use

any drug use

adult language

adult language apart from “damn” or “hell”

full nudity

partial nudity and/or underwear

discussions of [something]

depictions of [something]

or any combination of the above,

Do you have anything like that in your play? If so, how graphically/realistically depicted is it?”

Now THAT’S a question I can answer, and it will result in information you can use.

fonz1

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AEA Waivers: Not Your Enemy

While everyone’s in a great mood about the SCOTUS ruling, I figured now is a good time to post something controversial, right? It’s always a good idea to bring up the fact that you changed your major from biology to theatre while your parents are still partially buzzed from the craft brew your brother brought on 4th of July. So pull up a bottle of Red Dead Redemption (that really should be a craft beer– one of you get cracking on that), keep your rainbow flag in view, and hear me out.

Everything related to AEA is a hot topic. Publicly discussing its policies and procedures is like navigating a minefield. So I’m going work to be as dispassionate as possible in laying out my point of view.

AEA stringently restricts waivers, and it’s easy to understand why. They’re a union, after all, and one of the main functions of a union is to get the most money possible for its members within a given industry– unions seek to insure that a fair percentage of a company’s operating costs are allocated to its workers. They exist to protect workers from exploitation.

Theatre is an odd industry. It’s actually many disparate industries, which makes any AEA issue a bit more complex. Commercial theatres run by global megacorporations like Disney exist alongside nonprofit companies ranging from 50K a year indie storefronts to multimillion dollar LORTs, which exist alongside community theatres, touring companies, multimedia events, TYA, solo performances, you name it.

Because AEA is working within such a complex environment, it has multiple contracts and agreements of varying sizes differing by geographical area, which makes perfect sense. A Disney Broadway production has very different working conditions, requirements, and expectations than, say, a staged reading at a small nonprofit, and the AEA members in one geographical area may agree that their needs are different than members in a different geographical area.

And then there’s the waiver. A waiver enables a union actor to perform with a company small enough to meet certain requirements for less than the lowest union wage for that area. Waivers are not currently available in all areas of the country, and they vary widely in requirements and restrictions. All agreements and codes are publicly available on the AEA website, if you’re interested in checking out their differences.

Here in the Bay Area, the waiver is called the BAPP– Bay Area Project Policy. BAPPs require companies to be under a certain annual budget, they require the production to be under a certain budget, they require the space to be 99 and under, they limit the number of rehearsals and performances the actor is allowed to do, they limit the number of rehearsal hours the actor is allowed to do, and they require the actor be paid the same as the highest paid person working on the production, not counting the playwright. A theatre company is only allowed to use a BAPP for three years. Once a BAPP is used, a company has three years to use the agreement a limited number of times, and then the agreement times out. Theoretically, exceptions to those rules can be made, but they are exceedingly rare. Once a company times out of the BAPP, it must either work within one of the existing Bay Area contracts or join the ranks of the indie scene. The Bay Area has one of the most active, vibrant indie scenes in the nation in addition to the many excellent companies working under union contracts. Of the 350 companies producing in the Bay Area, 50 are AEA theatres.

I believe that the terms laid out in the BAPP are perfectly reasonable– apart from restricting usage. (MINEFIELD!)

I don’t believe waivers should be so deeply restricted in our industry. AEA actors should be given the power to choose when (and how often) they will work under a waiver. Companies and productions small enough to meet AEA’s requirements for the BAPP should be allowed to finally say yes to the AEA actors who want to work with them. Apart from the very reasonable restrictions on size, budget, stipend, and production schedule, waivers should be unrestricted, and nationwide. There are many benefits, and no downside.

I’m very pro-union– if I weren’t pro-union, and unwilling to violate AEA rules, I wouldn’t have any need to question its policies, but because I respect the union, I think it’s important to honestly discuss the impact its policies have on our community. Whenever I’ve publicly discussed this issue, I’ve received a deluge of responses. The arguments I regularly hear against waivers are discussed below. But– and this will likely be the most controversial thing I say in this post, but it’s the truth– every time I have publicly discussed this issue, I get private responses from AEA actors who support expanding the waiver but believe they cannot say so publicly or in meetings. Every single time. So I think it’s important to make a space for honest, respectful discussions about them.

1. Waivers reduce the value of the work and bring down wages. This is not possible under our current system. Denying waivers cannot protect union wages, or impact them in any way, because the two have no functional overlap. AEA controls who qualifies for waivers, restricting their use to the smallest of theatres. Larger theatres working under AEA contracts are following a wage schedule set by AEA. They may wish to use a waiver or pay actors less, but they cannot. Companies may claim that waivers have devalued the work when their contracts are up for re-negotiation, but AEA will not– nor should they– agree to reduce wages accordingly. Since contracts are already in place that control the wages paid to union actors, there simply is no function for waivers at small companies to impact wages at large ones unless AEA agrees during contract negotiations.

When there have been controversial AEA decisions around new agreements, like with SETA, where some union members felt they were unheard or even screwed over, the membership should hold them accountable. But when, as with SETA, the union is attempting to take nonunion jobs and turn them into union jobs, waivers in use by much smaller companies elsewhere have zero impact on that wage-setting. What the nonunion actors were being paid for those jobs at those companies may have some impact. What similarly-sized companies are already paying union actors has some impact. But what a tiny waiver theatre, by definition far too small to be covered by the contract being negotiated, pays its actors is completely irrelevant– again, unless AEA agrees.

If anything brings down “the value of work” (meaning: compensation), it’s funding. In an industry where labor supply far outstrips demand, actors are making a very respectable percentage of overall operating costs. The nonprofit theatre allocates 53.1% of their operating costs to payroll, according to TCG, which, when evenly divided between administration, artistic, and production, would be 17% each, but in reality breaks out to 18.1% artistic, 20.6% administrative, and 14.4% production. The issue is that the industry has very, very little money, and 18.1% of the nonprofit theatre industry’s operating costs doesn’t amount to much. TCG reports that in 2011, their 1876 reporting member theatres made 2.04 billion dollars combined, from all sources of income, earned and contributed. That’s 1.09 million a year per company. TOTAL. Google spends that much in a quarter on break room Snapple. There just isn’t much to go around in our industry. (The idea that administrative costs should be reallocated to artistic costs is a conversation for another day, but remember that that would require a complete overhaul of our system, top to bottom. Right now, theatre companies must work every single day at tasks like payroll and bookkeeping, keeping insurance up to date, filing forms with the IRS and the state, paying bills, doing maintenance and janitorial work, generating production earned income statements and reconciling performance rights owed, in addition to the never ending, daily development work required to pay for it all. For every fighter pilot, there’s an entire support staff doing the hard work required to keep that pilot in the air. We can’t allocate more money to artistic unless artistic takes on those daily admin tasks in addition to their own artistic tasks, or unless we devise a system that does not require that level of admin support but still somehow generates that level of income. Again: a conversation for another time.)

With so little money to go around, it’s impressive that AEA has achieved such a strong foothold in a market that could theoretically go completely nonunion. I don’t advocate for that– I think the union provides extremely valuable protections. All I’m saying is that waivers, no matter how many you allocate to the tiny companies that qualify, cannot impact AEA wages at larger theatres without AEA consent, and that we already know what impacts wages the most in our industry, whether we care to admit it or not.

2. The existence of small theatres in general depresses wages because they take business away from larger theatres. I don’t believe this. I believe a rising tide lifts all boats, and that someone who enjoys a show at one theatre is more likely to attend another theatre, not less. How do I know this? I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years. I’ve taught thousands of nonmajor university students, all of whom I required to see plays at local theatres. Over those years, countless students have told me that their experience in my class turned them into theatregoers. One sweet older man I’ll never forget told me he believed he hated theatre when he started my class, but it was the only class he could take that fulfilled a requirement before graduation, and now he and his wife were planning vacations around plays they could see across the country. I have dozens of stories like this, and I’m hardly alone. Take your students to the theatre– especially to small theatres doing unexpected, exciting new work– and see what happens.

3. If you’re not making enough money to pay AEA wages by three seasons, you’ve failed and you should shut your doors. You don’t deserve to produce (and its cousin, Denying waivers encourages theatres to grow). This oft-cited opinion has a number of inaccuracies I’ve addressed many times elsewhere, so I’ll try to be brief. Basically, in 2015, growth isn’t a choice you can “encourage.” An enormous percentage of grants require an annual budget floor of at least 100K, some even going as high as a million dollars. The funding that used to get small companies from that 50K annual reachable goal to that first 100K tier has largely evaporated. Pointing to the few theatres who DO manage to grow is meaningless. Someone has to win the lottery, no? For everyone who gets that funding, there are hundreds who do not. But what about earned income? Surely you could increase sales? Increase ticket prices? The entire point of the 501c3 was to decouple theatre production from the need to turn a profit, so those nonprofit theatres would be free to experiment with the art form and produce new work, neither of which are usually big sellers, and make up the difference with donations and grants. For many companies, doing more commercially viable work directly compromises their mission– which was meant to be par for the course for 501c3 theatres. (And of course there’s the very real consideration that even work considered “commercially viable” loses money all the time, so there are no guarantees.) Most importantly, it flies in the face of everything for which we say we stand to equate worthiness with money. The three highest-grossing films of 2014 were Transformers: Age of Extinction ($1.104 billion), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ($955 million), and Guardians of the Galaxy ($774 million). Three films, all by themselves, made more than the entire TCG membership’s seasons combined. Does that make those three films more artistically successful, more desirable, more worthy than every TCG theatre in the nation? Did every TCG theatre in the nation fail? Then why are we assuming small theatres “should” be making a certain amount of money, “should” be willing to compromise their missions in order to do so, and are “failures” if they do not? Why do we assume small theatres all should be growing into large theatres? They’re two different animals. Some companies want to grow and some do not. Growth is a for-profit imperative, not a non-profit one.

And let’s be real– increasing sales is just not always possible. You only have so many seats in your theatre, and so many performances available to you, either contractually or practically. Just jacking up ticket prices is not always the answer either. There’s only so much you can charge for small theatre, and it’s not enough to pay the bills AND get you to that 100K threshold, let alone 1 million. This is why nonprofit theatres are always asking for donations and applying for grants. Ticket income alone isn’t enough.

It’s a sure sign that someone has no idea what it’s like to produce small theatre seasons in 2015 when their response is “just get more money.” I hear a lot of “well, I grew my theatre 30 years ago,” or “I produced 3 hit shows in New York.” OK. But I assure you that producing small theatre seasons, year after year, in the 21st century, is a completely different situation. If you’re one of the theatres getting those grants and growing your company: I sincerely applaud you. And I ask you to remember that, for every grant awarded, many are turned away. Your experience does not mean the world operates that way for everyone.

4. Actors deserve to be paid for their work. Well, of course they do. We all do. No one is arguing against that, and, for that matter, no one actually believes anyone is arguing against it, despite the popularity of this argument. Framing the conversation about waivers in this way is just disingenuous. It’s pretending that a waiver company simply believes that artists don’t “deserve” to be paid in order to make those companies sound mean-spirited instead of just poor. If we were seeing a large discrepancy between what admin at waiver companies are paid vs artists, this argument would hold water. The reality is that no one at these waiver companies is being paid much. Waiver companies are, more often than not, groups of people held together by a shared love of an artistic vision. When a union actor chooses to work with a waiver company, it’s because of the shared vision. Everyone working on that production “deserves” to be paid, but all of them have chosen to work for less than what they “deserve” because the project is personally meaningful to them in some way.

There are thousands of small theatres across the nation that are doing high-quality work on a shoestring budget. Actors, both union and nonunion, might wish to participate in that work for a variety of reasons. Theatre is art, and the money one gets from practicing one’s art is sometimes a secondary consideration if other considerations are more personally important. It’s rare to land a role that’s both artistically fulfilling and financially fulfilling– well-paid roles are rare in general due to lack of funding and the oversupply of actors. Very few actors regularly land roles that are both artistically and financially satisfying, and everyone understands that this is the case going in. For every Sutton Foster, there are literally thousands of women who didn’t get cast. People don’t become actors because they believe they will be able to make a living at it. It’s no secret that most AEA actors don’t make their living as actors. AEA’s latest report showed that just 41.3% of the membership was employed in the 13-14 season, and that 41.3% averaged just 16.7 weeks employed during that time, an average that’s barely budged in years. That means even the actors who are landing gigs– just 41% of the membership– are still spending 2/3 of the year unemployed. Of course, that’s on average. We all know the reality– a handful of actors make their living solely as actors and bring up those weeks, while the rest are only working a few weeks a year.

With such dismal employment numbers– numbers that have been this dismal for our entire lives– why go into acting? What draws so many people to this profession? We all know the answer. It’s a calling, an art. People do it for the love of it. Of course, we all would prefer to make money, but it’s a reasonable, logical conclusion that many artists would sometimes be interested in doing a show for other reasons– because it stretches them artistically, because it’s an exciting new show by a playwright they believe in, because the show is written from a perspective or about a topic close to their hearts, because it’s a dream role they may never otherwise get to play, because it’s the actor’s own company, or many other reasons people feel compelled to practice their art apart from money. We all have artistic goals and dreams that are unrelated to money. If money were our primary motivation, we would not have gone into this industry. The reality is that there are some situations for all of us where there are more important concerns than money. Not every time, and not for every person– I don’t mean to imply that money should always be a lesser concern. But sometimes, for some people, it is.

When a small theatre that would otherwise qualify for a waiver but is denied one due to timing or geography, does a show that a union actor wants to be part of for reasons that are related to personal fulfillment, the union currently prevents that actor from making that choice. The denial of the waiver doesn’t create a union job, or have any effect whatsoever on union jobs elsewhere. The role goes to a nonunion actor and the production proceeds as planned. The only person impacted in any way is the AEA actor denied the role. The choice to play that role was denied that actor. I’m approached every season by union actors who want to play specific roles, or who want to be part of specific shows because they’re excited by the project or the playwright, and I must always turn them down because we timed out of the BAPP. A few seasons ago, a union actor called me wanting to play a certain role s/he would have crushed, and I called AEA to go to bat for this actor to see if I could plead for a BAPP even though we had timed out. Of course, I was turned down. The AEA rep I spoke to said, “Actors need to be protected from what they want.” A total of 28,763 AEA actors did not work at all last season (58.7% of their 49,000 members). They need to be “protected” from doing waiver shows? “Protected” from practicing their craft? How is forcing them to sit home idle “protecting” them? It’s not like they’d be choosing a waiver show over an available union one, since there are many more union members than there are union gigs, many more waiver theatres than there are union theatres, and almost no available funding to change that in any meaningful way.

Who does it harm to allow AEA actors who would otherwise sit at home to act in indie shows if they so choose? Who does it help to deny actors that choice, given that there’s no possible way for that choice to impact union wages elsewhere unless AEA makes that happen? The show is still getting produced, and that role will still be played by an actor who will still be paid that stipend. What does it really accomplish to force that AEA actor to sit home idle? Waivers do not have the power to impact other contracts. They do not have the power to convince AEA theatres to go indie. They do not have the power to depress wages. They are not magic. Their terms are completely controlled by AEA. The only power they have to is to put an AEA actor who would otherwise be idle back where she belongs, when she chooses, on her own terms.

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How To Rock Your Musical Theatre Audition

I understand that there are something like 47,000 books on this topic, but I’m going to give you some succinct, usable advice right now for free.

In addition to running Impact Theatre, I’m also the casting director at a TYA company, Bay Area Children’s Theatre, which is a blast. For one, it’s incredibly relaxing to be in a space where the final decision isn’t mine (Me: “Wow, what a tough choice– all three of those actors are great. Welp, I’m headed home– lemme know what you want to do!”) Secondly, it’s been fun to learn more about TYA and casting musicals, two things I knew very little about before I started. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was an opera singer, so I have a solid working knowledge of singing and singers. By the time I got to BACT, I had been casting shows for over 20 years, so I had a solid working knowledge of what makes a good audition and what should be avoided. I was bringing years of experience to the table, which helped me learn very quickly what makes an excellent musical theatre audition and what amounts to self-sabotage.

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

An audition is a fact-finding mission. We’re looking for answers to specific questions, and everything else is pretty much irrelevant. I’m not going to get into general audition tips– I’ve already written about that quite a bit (here, here, here). I want to speak specifically about your song.

1. I’m surprised how many people choose songs that tell us pretty much nothing about their voices. So many songs from the past 10 or so years of musical theatre writing are very poor choices for audition pieces– they’re conversational, almost recitative-like in places (if you know opera) and it’s impossible to tell what your voice can really do. You want a song that shows off your vocal quality and capabilities. It doesn’t impress us if the song is from a new musical or if it’s a song we’ve never heard before. That kind of thing is more relevant with monologues. We’re looking for answers to specific questions, like– What is her vocal type? Does she have a belt or is she more of a “legit” singer? What’s her legato like? How accurate is her pitch? What kind of volume can she attain, and is she showing the kind of throat tension that will cause her to lose her voice by the end of opening weekend? There are so many more, some dictated by the type of musical we’re casting (more on that below). If you’re interested in new musicals, there are so many great choices out there. Choose a song that shows off your vocal chops. Choose a song you love to sing because it’s right in your sweet spot. Don’t choose a song that’s cool, and has a lot of depth, but has a five-note vocal range. It just doesn’t tell us what we need to know. We’re not looking for someone to choose material– we’re looking for someone who can perform it.

Zero Mostel in the original 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, © Photofest, Inc., courtesy of Gret Performances, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

Zero Mostel in the original 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, © Photofest, Inc., courtesy of Great Performances, Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

2. Don’t choose a song that’s overly ambitious. Every role has its own, specific needs. Some roles require a great deal of virtuosity, some require the ability to navigate tight harmonies without pushing your way to the front of the group, and some can be Rex Harrisoned through. Take realistic stock of your abilities and show us what they are. No matter where you are, there’s a role for you somewhere in the world of musical theatre. If you assume you need to reach for something you can’t actually do, all we know is that you can’t do something– we never got to see what you CAN do.

3. You are not Kristin Chenoweth. Unless you’re Kristin Chenoweth, who I assume, doesn’t read Bitter Gertrude. ANYWAY. Are you singing with your natural voice? Or are you pushing it out your nose to try to get that signature Kristin Chenoweth nasally sound? She has a very distinctive, fun quality to her voice, and that’s just how her voice sounds. You honestly don’t need to imitate her to get roles. Be yourself. When you push your voice out your nose, we can hear it, and we wonder what your voice really sounds like. BECAUSE WE DON’T KNOW. Let Kristin do Kristin. You do you. Nothing against KC, but I’ll be happy when women stop imitating her.

Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus.

4. We tell you it’s OK when you don’t bring sheet music, but it’s actually not. I mean, it kind of is? We still want to see you. But a large part of performing a musical is being able to match pitch with the accompaniment. Can you hear the piano (or the guitar, or the orchestra) as you’re singing and match pitch? When you sing a capella, we’re left with partial information. This is why we’ll often asking you to sing scales, or Happy Birthday, or something along those lines with the piano if you come in with an a capella audition. Better to sing the song you’ve practiced than suddenly be asked to bust out the Star Spangled Banner on the spot, no? Bring your music.

5. Choose a song that’s contextually appropriate. If you’re not familiar with the musical, or if it’s a new musical in development, find out what kind of singing the role requires. There’s a world of difference between Dreamgirls, Into the Woods, American Idiot, and The Sound of MusicBringing a song that’s appropriate for one won’t necessarily give us the knowledge we need if we’re casting one of the others. If we ask for an “uptempo musical theatre song,” don’t bring in a rock song, a ballad, or a nine-minute Sondheim extravaganza. (In fact, avoid Sondheim completely, which of course is the advice you get everywhere, and you’re not going to find any disagreement here.) If you need clarification about the music in the show, or what’s expected at the audition, ask!

Nell Carter and Ken Page in the original Broadway production of Ain't Misbehaving, 1978. Photo by Bill Evans.

Nell Carter and Ken Page in the original Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehaving, 1978. Photo by Bill Evans.

6. Act your song. I’m sure you’ve heard this one million times, and here it is again. Your song is like a monologue. It has a narrative– a beginning, a middle, and an end. When something’s repeated (such as the chorus) find a reason why your character is repeating herself. “She’s happy” or “she loves him” or “she likes to sing” are pretty much the least interesting choices you can make. You can be happy, in love, or possess a predilection for something in silence, in words, or through (God help us) interpretive dance. There’s a reason your character is singing, and it’s not because “this is how it’s written.” Make clear, bold acting choices about your intro, every line you sing, the bridges, and the outro. Think, plan, rehearse.

7. REHEARSE. Prep a variety of songs you can use for the various types of musicals in which you’re interested. Then you’ll have a few songs from which you can choose, always ready to go, for most auditions. When you come in under-rehearsed, we can tell, and we wonder if you will be similarly unprepared in rehearsals. I’d honestly rather see an inappropriate song than an under-rehearsed one.

Nia Holloway as Nala and Jelani Remy as Simba in the Lion King national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Nia Holloway as Nala and Jelani Remy as Simba in the Lion King national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus.

8. Do it, enjoy it, and forget it. It’s just an audition. You will do eleventy billion of them. Coming in tense will jack your voice. I’ve seen plenty of people miss a high note or squeak instead of belt due to nerves. Try not to stress. Do whatever you need to do to come in relaxed– within reason. I know sometimes people will tell you to have a glass of wine before you go in, but the last thing you want is the casting assistant scooting in a few steps ahead of you to inform us that you smell like you’ve been drinking. Never lose sight of the fact that an audition is a job interview. But also never lose sight of the fact that, like a job interview, we’re auditioning for you as much as you’re auditioning for us. You want to work for a company that respects you, and for which you enjoy working. I think sometimes that focus can help with nerves. When it’s done, walk away. Try not to obsess about it. There are so many reasons people don’t get cast, and talent is only one of many. If you don’t get cast, don’t take it as a sign of your worth as a performer, because it’s not, at all.

I hope this was helpful! Now go rock it out.

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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10 Tips for Choosing an Audition Monologue

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Hello, you magnificent bastards. I love you all, and I’m prepping a new blog post for you while I’m also prepping a bunch of classes and a new season at my theatre, so it’s moving kinda slow at the junction. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the post up in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, to prove my love, here’s an article I wrote for Theatre Bay Area Magazine, 10 Tips for Choosing an Audition Monologue. I spoke with some of the top casting directors in the Bay Area and used my own eleventy scrotillion years of casting experience to come up with a solid, practical guide to choosing monologues. 

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Why Forced “Audience Participation” Doesn’t Work

(UPDATE: I tweaked the title a bit due to the number of people confusing me with the recent Chicago Trib article. If you’re here to read something against all forms of audience participation indiscriminately, you’re in the wrong place.)

There’s been a lot of talk in the past few years about “audience engagement.” It’s partially been driven by a few big grantors requiring some form of it, and partially driven by the psychology of trends. Because every new entertainment technology sends people right to the THIS IS THE END OF THEATRE box, frightened by the popularity of the internet and its DIY culture, some grantors and theatremakers have been scrambling to create theatre that borrows some of that mojo in order to glean a portion of that success. The problem is: It doesn’t work.

OK, that’s an exaggeration. It CAN work. For starters, “audience engagement” need not mean “audience participation.” That’s just the most prevalent (and problematic) form. There are other ways to engage your audience. Shotgun Players in Berkeley, for example, has created several excellent theatre pieces based on interviews with members of the local community, telling their stories and telling the story and history of the area. The most recent was Daylighting, for which they set up a recording booth in the lobby for people to tell their own Berkeley stories after the show, which were posted on their website. That’s what I’d call excellent, effective audience engagement that should stand as a national example for how to get it done. Interrupting an otherwise traditionally-structured performance to haul audience members onstage or force actors to put individual audience members on the spot by making them perform actions or engaging them in conversation– not so much. A recent production I saw, otherwise traditionally structured, actually had an actor begin a benign conversation with an audience member at the top of the show and then suddenly verbally attack her, shouting insults. I had enormous sympathy both for the woman being attacked– women are verbally assaulted by male strangers all the time, and it’s an extremely unpleasant experience– and for the actor forced to perform the attack. While that’s an extreme example, that kind of “audience engagement”– audience participation as surprise, forced interaction– is by FAR the most common kind. It just doesn’t work, and I have a theory as to why.

But first let me say that there are very specific ways in which audience participation works very well. One great example is the new trend toward what people are somewhat misguidedly (I’ll get to that in a second) calling “immersive” theatre– the kind of theatre partially based on narrative gaming (especially video games) and partially based on narrative ride-through or walk-through experiences (think haunts or Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean)– which works very well. The most famous example of this is Sleep No More. This is better titled “interactive theatre,” so that’s what I’ll use.

What makes audience participation work has been perfectly described in Jeffrey Mosser’s 2012 Howlround piece, “The Psychology of the Audience: Rules of Engagement.” In it, he describes how this kind of theatre must be conceptualized and constructed with the audience as a participatory element from the beginning, and that the participation must be completely voluntary. In other words, a successful audience participation piece can’t exist without audience involvement, and the degree and type of audience involvement has to be chosen by each individual audience member. This is why interactive theatre pieces work, as well as HOW they work. A video game’s narrative doesn’t exist until you play it, and in most cases now, the narrative changes according to how you play the game. You’re playing the theatre piece like a video game, and/or being taken through an experience that happens around you, and with which you interact on your own terms. You go to that type of theatre (and other types of interactive theatre structured around the concept of voluntary audience participation) specifically for that experience, and it’s a different experience entirely than traditional theatre. Megan Reilly’s excellent article in Howlround about the gamification of theatre is well worth a read for anyone interested in this kind of work. She describes both the ups and downs of the format– both which I’ll get to in a bit.

People who are fired up about the promise of interactive theatre can be very disparaging about traditionally-structured theatre– a show that’s performed for an audience that sits in the dark and watches it. It’s often touted as the “future of theatre,” as if other (both participatory and traditional) models were useless. It’s an enormously disappointing and short-sighted point of view, especially considering the fact that this kind of experience– becoming wholly immersed in a story someone is telling you– works. It works not only in theatre, but also when you’re lost in a novel or a film, or when you’re spellbound by a storyteller, even when that person is just a friend at a party. And let’s stop for a moment and look at that word– SPELLBOUND. We all know what that means– so rapt, so caught up in the narrative we’re consuming that we have a truly singular, magical experience. People aptly describe it as “losing themselves” in a story. It’s something that we’ve all experienced, and that only happens when we’re passively immersed in someone else’s narrative. That’s become a dirty word– “passive.” The “passive” audience is seen as a sack of potatoes sitting there, doing nothing but having something spoon-fed to them, detractors claim. Au contraire, neurology has discovered.

That supposedly “passive” audience, when experiencing what we colloquially call the state of being “spellbound” by a book, film, play, or story, are experiencing hugely active and unique brain states. Researchers have discovered that while “passively” consuming fictional narrative, the human brain not only experiences that narrative as if it’s actually happening, but also improves and expands the consumer’s empathy. A different study found that when an audience is “passively” spellbound by a narrative, their brains experience neural synching with the storyteller (and therefore, in a group setting like a theatre audience, with EACH OTHER), again experiencing the narrative neurologically as if it’s real and again expanding empathy. These studies confirm what theatregoers already know: there’s something magical about being rapt in a story someone is telling you– something unique and undeniably immensely valuable. That’s the kind of theatre I would be more likely to label “immersive.”

When you’re playing through interactive theatre, you’re very much aware of your relationship to it, even more so than in a video game where your hands are manipulating the controller almost involuntarily as you navigate the world on the screen, losing yourself in your avatar’s experience. In interactive theatre, your physical body is in the game, rather than an avatar, and you become the self-aware center of your own narrative, a narrative you create with the tools the production has given you. In the traditional immersive experience, you’re in someone else’s narrative, experiencing their lives and feeling their feelings, which is the theory behind how that kind of theatre creates empathy. Interactive theatre is about having a magical, self-involved, self-aware experience of your own. It’s no less valuable, but it is different, and there are both gains and losses. The gain would of course be the wonder and magic of being surrounded by, and a part of, a fictional world. The loss, I think, is related to the loss of the immersive experience– the loss of that “spellbound” near-trance state, which loses the neurological synching experience that creates empathy.

In fact, I would say that the interactive theatre experience is more likely to deter empathy. As Megan Reilly describes, slower-moving patrons are literally elbowed out of the way as other patrons, people who are on their second or third playthroughs, are pushing their way through the crowd to be in the right place to trigger certain events or be chosen for certain special content. Anyone who’s ever been in an online multiplayer environment knows exactly what that’s like. And while face-to-face contact could lessen the rudeness one encounters in online co-op, it does not entirely eliminate it, especially, as Reilly notes, when patrons are given masks. I wouldn’t bother to see Sleep No More for that very reason– as someone who is short and has some mobility issues, I assume that I will be pushed out of seeing and experiencing a lot of the best content. It’s something I experience all the time in public spaces, so I wouldn’t expect it to be different in a show. I don’t need to spend $100 to have people push ahead of me and block my view when I can experience that for free at Trader Joe’s.

But that doesn’t mean that people, especially people who’ve never experienced it before, can’t be awed by interactive theatre, or can’t have a fun or even emotionally intense experience. The fact that something isn’t disabled-friendly or favors the aggressive player doesn’t make it a shitpile for the people who have what it takes to be high-level players. Additionally, there are interactive shows that better handle those aspects, as Reilly documents, using an “on-rails” rather than open world structure. There’s no question in my mind that some company somewhere is working on an open world interactive theatre piece that creatively corrects for both. (Reilly herself is working on an interactive piece, and I have every expectation that it will kick all of the ass.) Despite the fact that interactive theatre trades the spellbound neurology for a self-focused one doesn’t make it LESS than traditionally immersive theatre, just a different, and no less valuable, experience. Playing through an interactive theatre experience– being literally within the world of a play– can be a wonderful experience. But so can being in the audience in a traditional performance setting.

So let’s take a step back, see interactive theatre as a TYPE of theatre, not as the FUTURE of theatre, and stop disparaging traditional audience experiences as if they don’t work, because they DO. These two types of theatre do two very different things, both valuable. We’re big enough to value both for what they are, without demanding that one is better, more important, or the replacement for the other.

So to bring it all back home, my theory about the reason forced audience interaction doesn’t work in otherwise traditionally-structured theatre is based in the neurology of narrative: If your piece isn’t constructed around audience interactivity, when you force an audience member to participate rather than observe, you disrupt their neurologically synched “spellbound” state, jerking them back into a self-aware state. In most cases, that’s not just a normally self-aware state but a HIGHLY self-conscious, awkward one. It’s a matter of conjecture how long it would take for that audience member (or the audience members nervously wondering if they’ll be next) to recover neural synching with the narrative and the people around her. And of course, this is just a theory as to why forced audience participation so rarely works. When a neurologist is looking for funding for that project, I’ll be the first to contribute to the Kickstarter (award level: brain candle).

I think interactive theatre, while something that has been in and out of favor for centuries, is really hitting its modern stride with the gamification format, and I expect exciting things from it as they work out the kinks. I would love to see forced audience participation fall by the wayside completely as we explore the neurology of the audience more and more. And despite everything, I still think it’s valuable to imagine the ways in which *voluntary* audience participation can work in some forms of traditionally-structured performance (my guess is that it’s much more likely to work in direct address theatre that never establishes a fourth wall, like Always . . . Patsy Cline or in meta-theatrical and camp performance). Emphasis on VOLUNTARY.

All this boils down to: you MUST consider your audience’s experience carefully. We have more tools than ever to understand what their experience will be like. Avail yourself of them and make your decisions with open eyes.

But really, apart from the neurological experience you may want to create and nurture, and apart from the considerations of what may or may not “work,” understand that forcing someone to do something is never OK, and can sometimes even be dangerous. I’ve seen actors force audience members into conversations or physical actions that would feel HUGELY invasive and inappropriate to, say, an abuse survivor, or physically painful for someone like me– you can see the cane, but you can’t see the surgery scars or the areas of injury. I recently saw an actor climb over the seats and into the audience at a huge professional theatre, and all I could think was, PLEASE ALL YOU GODS DO NOT LET HIM COME THIS WAY, as using my shoulder as leverage (as I could see him doing) or bumping into my leg could cause me enormous pain. I stopped watching the play and started strategizing how to block the actor with my cane should he come near me.

I suppose you could sum up my entire post with “Voluntary good, forced bad,” but the REASONS for that are critical. We have more tools than ever to create amazing audience experiences. Let’s use them all to their best advantage.

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Why I Don’t Watch the Tonys

 

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

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

But I don’t watch the Tonys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes, THAT Paula Vogel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I recommend pin curls.

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

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

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HUG IT OUT

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Why You Didn’t Get Cast

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Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor rehearsing in 1956

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun, 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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