Tag Archives: audience engagement

My Book Is Out!

AudRevBooks

This image is shamelessly heisted from the TCG website. Link below.

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 MosesJules 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!

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Celebrating Thin White Women

Sometimes it seems like our whole entire culture is one huge celebration of thin white women. Ogling them, collecting them, advertising products to help other women become more like them, giving them all the awards for everything ever. It’s not just that the pinnacle of American womanhood is seen as thin and white (and cis, and able-bodied). It’s that thin white women are framed as “normal,” “neutral,” and every other woman is measured by her distance from that “norm.” “Black woman,” “transwoman,” “plus-size woman.”

Maybe this is changing, maybe not. Like you, I live on the internet, where one can find pictures of all types of women, from professional shots to vacation snaps, and plus-size (I know, I know, bear with me) women are everywhere. There are plus-size models (both professional and indie, some with huge followings), fashion bloggers (also with huge followings), sex bloggerssingers in various genres, photographers who specialize in gorgeous shots of plus-size people, and, of course, a handful of famous plus-size actors cast in film and television roles. The body positivity movement is extremely popular, and has a significant presence on every social media platform and the internet in general, where it promotes self-acceptance and stands against the shaming, bullying, and body policing with which women (and some men) are victimized every day, as well as the tsunami of relentless backlash the movement itself faces.

Model Tess Holliday (Source: Vogue Italia, vogue.it)

Model Tess Holliday (Source: Vogue Italia, vogue.it)

Nothing brings out the angry, outraged commenters faster than a picture of a woman who’s not rail-thin.

Humans LOVE bigotry. We LOVE grouping together in “us” vs. “them” to shame, disparage, and belittle “them,” shoring up our “us” identity and placating our own insecurities and self-doubts. This makes us feel like we’re part of something larger, something strong, something, above all, superior. This is an intense human impulse that is expressed in things as damaging as racism and as benign as choosing a sports team. When we claim membership to a group, along with that comes shaming, disparaging, and belittling people who are not in that group, either good-naturedly when we have no real power over “them” (“Dodgers suck”) or with devastating consequences when we do. Every single group that ever existed has a list of “known,” “true,” or even “scientifically proven” reasons that people outside their group deserve disparagement. Science has been used to confirm literally every racial bias the west has ever had.

Science only gets answers to the questions it asks. The cultural biases of researchers very often generate results that confirm those biases. Biases lead researchers to create studies or aggregate data in ways that are designed to produce results that confirm their biases. Science understands this and attempts to correct for it with things like double-blind studies and peer review, which are all, of course, still deeply influenced by the culture.

Don’t get me wrong– I’m very pro-science. But I’m also realistic. The well-known cultural trope of “overweight = unhealthy” is being problematized in study after study (after study), while other studies confirm it (as relentlessly reported in every corner of the media). Which studies are “true”? The ones that confirm your pre-existing biases, of course. The rest are “junk science.”

Marie Denee, founder and editor of The Curvy Fashionista-- curvyfashionista.com. (source: Glamour.com)

Marie Denee, founder and editor of The Curvy Fashionista– curvyfashionista.com. (source: Glamour.com)

There’s an enormous amount of conflicting information about what an “ideal” weight is (the ranges were ratcheted lower several times in the 20th century), how people become overweight, lose weight, or maintain weight loss, yet our culture “knows” that overweight people are that way through choice, laziness, gluttony, lack of self-control, or even a lack of moral fiber, thereby excusing and even lauding the bigotry against fat people.

When an image of a woman who is not rail-thin is publicly displayed in any context other than one specifically discussing her weight in a negative light, even if the context has nothing whatsoever to do with weight, people go out of their way to make disparaging comments. The comments fall into two main categories: insults/slurs, and some version of “I’m just concerned about [this total stranger’s] health”/”this promotes an unhealthy lifestyle.”

You can’t determine the health of an individual by looking at a picture. If you look at a picture of a fat person and think, “they’re unhealthy,” you’re engaged in an act of bigotry stemming from cultural bias, not making a medically sound diagnosis. And if you’re not posting similar comments on images of high heels, MMA and boxingbacon, or other well-known public health concerns, then you are a concern troll: someone who uses “concern” as a cover for shaming, belittling, and bullying.

Actress Gabourey Sidibe at the Golden Globes in 2014. ( Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Actress Gabourey Sidibe at the Golden Globes in 2014. ( Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Someone cannot “promote” any kind of lifestyle simply by existing. Yet I’ve seen– we’ve all seen– “this is promoting an unhealthy lifestyle” comments on shampoo ads, fashion photography, celebrity profiles, and even photos of fat women working out.

The August 2015 cover of Women's Running featured model and runner Erica Schenk, drawing both widespread praise and criticism. (James Farrell, WomensRunning.com)

The August 2015 cover of Women’s Running featured model and runner Erica Schenk, drawing both widespread praise and criticism. (James Farrell, WomensRunning.com)

And let’s pause for a moment and remember that this issue is intersectional, and that larger women of color are the targets of unfathomable bigotry and hostility. Most people don’t even bother to cover their bigotry with “concern” like they do for white women.

We’re in a cultural moment where people are pushing back against thin privilege, and are being met with culturally-approved, flat-out HATRED. As content creators in the entertainment industry, who impact culture more than any other single source, we need to work against this hatred.

Indie model Sydney Sparkles, from her Instagram account, @aussieplussizebarbie

Indie model Sydney Sparkles, from her Instagram account, @aussieplussizebarbie

We stand up for gender parity, yet the only women our industry feels are worthy of inclusion are thin ones, or women like Robyn Lawley, whose “plus size” (at 6’2″) is 12. We need to stand up for the inclusion of ALL women, which includes stepping away from the constant, constant focus on women who only fit a certain body type unless the script explicitly calls for it. The adamant defense of thin privilege throughout our industries has got to stop, and the only way to get there is to make a conscious decision to stop it. This is our choice to make, and we must make it.

Robyn Lawley is considered a

Robyn Lawley is considered a “plus size model,” the first to be featured in Sports Illustrated. Photo: James Macari/si.com

We need to be realistic about the ways our current fight for gender parity often ignores intersectionality. Here in the Bay Area, there’s been some discussion about adding a marker to theatre listings that indicates which shows have gender parity (cast, crew, and playwright) so people can support them.  This ignores a raft of crucial issues. A show about four thin, white, wealthy women would be starred and therefore recommended and publicly congratulated, yet a show devised and performed by four young Black men speaking the truths about their lives would not.

Of course many (perhaps most) people fighting for gender parity are also fighting for greater racial diversity, but I’ve personally seen industry professionals say things like, “Gender is a more important issue than race, which is basically just a look.” I’ve seen multiple times: “We have to cast beautiful women because actors have to be desirable objects for the audience,” which begs the question: What is “beautiful?” Because I will bet the farm that means thin, white, able-bodied, and cis.

Yet WE CONTROL what “beautiful” is. We change the definition of beauty by creating cultural content. We’ve done it over and over and over, from Gibson Girls to Clara Bow to Marilyn Monroe to Farrah Fawcett to Scarlett Johansson. This is our choice to make.

Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

There’s no reason we can’t open our definition of “beautiful” to include more diversity– more intersectional diversity that better reflects the women in this country– the people who are buying most of the film and theatre tickets. But first we must open our definition of “woman” to include more intersectional diversity, and cast women who aren’t thin, white, cis, AND able-bodied, because right now, you need all four to be considered “right” for the role of “woman.” If you’re missing even just one of those, you’re only “right” for “Black woman,” “overweight woman,” or “disabled woman.” This is our responsibility to change.

Fashion blogger Stacey from Hantise de L'oubli. Photo: hantisedeloubli.com

Fashion blogger Stacey from Hantise de L’oubli. One of my personal favorites. Her instagram is @hantisedeloubli. Photo: hantisedeloubli.com

If we’re going to push theatre and film companies for gender parity, let’s make sure we don’t enable yet another cultural space that celebrates thin, white, cis, able-bodied women and ignores (at best) everyone else.

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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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Handheld Technology Has Not Ruined Today’s Youth Any More Than Dig Dug Ruined You

If there’s one thing that grinds my gears, it’s the disingenuous concern trolling over the rising generation’s “addiction” to technology, and how it has impacted their ability to [fill in the blank] the way WE DID WHEN WE WERE KIDS AS GOD INTENDED !!11!

Because this is a blog about theatre, I’m going to limit myself to speaking specifically to the outrageous idea that technology prevents the rising generation from appreciating art.

This picture is blowing up my various feeds right now:

Photo by Alvaro Garnero

Photo by Gijsbert van der Wal

This is one brief snapshot. We have no idea what these kids were doing just before or just after. Yet there are approximately 17 shitloads of “tsk tsk” and “This is our future” in my feed. Speaking as someone who has personally witnessed hundreds of high school and college kids blown away by art, I implore you to think more deeply about this.

We’re unthinkingly and unfairly using this picture (and the entire concept of handheld tech) to condemn an entire generation. Think for a moment: were kids enthralled to go to museums in the 1950s? Were kids enraptured by Mozart in the 1960s? Were kids stampeding Joan Didion lectures en masse in the 1970s? What pretend past are we mourning here? Sure, there have always been kids who were enthralled by classical art at an early age (and I was one of them), but the vast majority of kids– and adults– are not. Why are we condemning kids for looking at their phones instead of Rembrandt when most of you would be doing the exact same thing? How long have these kids been on this field trip? How tired are they? How many paintings of white men standing around have they been dragged past? And we dare to use this snapshot to condemn not just them, but their entire generation?

And has anyone bothered to note that this painting is hanging in a museum with an app-guided tour?

Elvis Presley was shot from the waist up when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 to protect teenage girls watching at home from his hip-shaking and its perceived sexuality.

Elvis Presley was shot from the waist up when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 to protect teenage girls watching at home from his hip-shaking and its perceived sexuality.

We talk a lot about wanting to engage the rising generation in theatre, and I’m seeing a lot of “what can we do about this?” commentary on this picture. Listen: If you want to engage the rising generation, the first thing you need to do is stop lying to yourself about them. You’ll fail to engage them if you don’t approach them with honesty. You can start by dropping the lie that our generation was any better in any way. Kids can smell dishonesty, and self-congratulation masked as concern is about the most dishonest approach you can take.

This is exactly why 99.999% of “audience engagement strategies” fail miserably to bring in young, diverse audiences. This is why “tweet seats” failed. We’re not looking at this generation honestly. Instead we look at studies designed from the outset to confirm our hypotheses. We make assumptions about how the rising generation thinks and feels based on how they make us think and feel. We refuse to engage them on their own terms, instead dictating the terms to them and then blaming them for boorishness when they fail to meet them.

Gorgeous young Franz Liszt, seen here in an 1839 portrait by Henri Lehmann, inspired a  frenzy in his young, usually female, fans, known at the time as

Gorgeous young Franz Liszt, seen here in an 1839 portrait by Henri Lehmann, inspired a frenzy in his young, usually female, fans, known at the time as “Lisztomania.” Women would wear vials containing his discarded coffee dregs and bracelets made of his broken piano strings. He was chased through the streets by young women attempting to grab a lock of his hair. The older generations were horrified and believed it to be a literal psychological disease.

Young people are no different now than they ever were, and the current pearl-clutching over tech is no different than the worry that comic books would ruin childrens’ minds, reading would make young women hysterical, jazz (and then rock and roll) would turn teens into sex-mad beasts, and television would “rot” children’s minds.

“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.” – Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, May 8, 1940

There’s no need to fight a battle we’re creating in our own minds. If we don’t look at the rising generation honestly, but instead seek to confirm our own biases about them, we are only going to speak to them in ways they know are dishonest, and get nowhere. Remember how lame older people sounded to us when we were teenagers, and how little they understood about our lives? That’s how we look to kids today when we post stuff like the museum photo above as proof of their lack of worth and how they are, essentially, a problem for older generations to solve.

The rising generation? They are wonderful. They are more politically active than your generation was at the same age. They are more supportive of equality than previous generations. They are brilliant, creative, funny, bold, and bright. And most importantly: They create and consume TONS of art. Whether or not it’s art you like is entirely irrelevant.

Are they perfect? Of course not. But approaching them as a problem to be solved is not going to create the kind of engagement we want. Give them room to speak. It gets us nowhere to tell them what they should be interested in, and then condemn them for their lack of interest. When Ms. Nelson made you read Keats in the 6th grade, and you hated it; when Ms. Sciambi made you look at all those Goya paintings, and you hated it; when Mr. Rodriguez made you listen to Wagner, and you hated it, what did that say about you? When you went home from school and read your D&D Player’s Handbook, listened to Run DMC, and played Dig Dug, what did that say about you? Right, nothing, apart from the fact that you were a normal kid who liked normal kid things.

Yes, we need to expose kids to the arts. We need much much more arts education than we have now. Art saves lives– I believe that. BUT. I was that nerd kid grooving on Keats, Goya, and Wagner in class, and everyone (apart from my nerd clique) gave me no end of shit about it. So now, while the rising generation behaves exactly as you did, you’re talking about how they need to be saved from themselves?

You were fine. They’ll be fine. Keep making art and inviting them. Keep trying– always keep trying. But appreciate them on their own terms. Do not ignore their art, or dismiss it as worthless. And please keep your judgypants in the closet or I will start publishing those pictures of you all from that middle school museum field trip where you were wearing sunglasses and Hammer pants and refusing to look at the paintings that didn’t have naked ladies in them.

Le Sommeil, Gustave Courbet, 1866. Turning middle schoolers into art lovers for 150 years.

Le Sommeil, Gustave Courbet, 1866. Turning middle schoolers into art lovers for 150 years.

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Rethinking the Conversation Around “Diverse Audiences”

There’s a lot of handwringing over the dismal stats released on a regular basis about audience diversity in the theatre. I’m not going to retrieve the stats for you– you’re already on the internet and can find the eleventy brazillion articles about it on your own– but suffice it to say, they are dismal, even in ethnically diverse communities like the Bay Area.

Scholars are insistent that theatre will “die” if the industry can’t diversify its audiences. Because the country’s ethnic makeup is getting more and more diverse, so the thinking goes,  theatre will eventually die unless it can make its audiences more diverse.

It’s true that people of color do not attend THE THEATRES THAT WE MEASURE in numbers representative of their percentage of the population. But we only measure certain types of theatre. We measure Broadway. We measure large nonprofit theatres. We measure theatres that exist within the models we deem relevant.

We do not measure small theatres, indie theatres, or any theatremaking that exists outside of the mainstream models. For example, despite the fact that it’s a multimillion dollar industry, we do not measure gospel musicals.

I think what directs that thinking is that traditionally white-dominated artistic endeavors are labeled “high culture” and everything else is “popular culture.” Then, from there, we worry about why people of color aren’t participating in the art forms and styles we’ve decided are “best” or “important.” We laud the Latino who plays the violin in an orchestra and discount the Latino who plays the violin in a mariachi band. We see this within theatre all the time– what’s “serious” theatre “counts” and everything else exists in semi-visible strata beneath that.

My classes are extremely diverse, and you’d be surprised how many of my students have participated in performance-based activities. Those activities don’t always conform to what white America thinks they should. Many people have lives that are inundated with art, but mainstream culture very often believes that that art just doesn’t “count.” We put ballet dancers in a class above Polynesian or flamenco dancers. When I tell people I used to sing opera, they react as if I’d done  something remarkable and worthy of respect. Tell someone you rap, and the reaction is completely different. I could be the worst opera singer in history standing next to the best rapper who ever lived, and I would still be accorded a measure of respect the rapper will not get. Someone who’s been to 20 church plays is not considered a theatre-goer.

We need to stop discounting performance forms that don’t conform to our expectations of “importance” or “high culture.” People of color are participating in enormous numbers in arts of all kinds, but we’re upset because not “enough” are attending the arts events we want them to attend.

In addition to opening our eyes to other theatre forms, we need to check ourselves, all of us. More than one person of color has mentioned to me that this desperation to get people of color into “our” theatres smacks of paternalism- that we’ve decided what people of color “should” be doing and we’re handwringing over the fact that they’re not choosing what we have to offer them in the numbers we want. (WE DID FENCES, WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?)

Personally, I’ve become deeply uncomfortable with the fetishization of people of color in our audiences. It’s uncomfortable to me to hear people bragging about or complaining about their audience diversity, like people of color are pogs. And I get, deeply, that much of this anxiety comes from funders who are demanding to see an increase in the number of people of color in all theatre audiences, which is a whole different discussion.

My audience is diverse because we market to young people in the Bay Area, and that demo is diverse. I don’t feel like it’s some particular achievement that we staged world premieres by Enrique Urueta or Prince Gomolvilas. But I’m as susceptible as anyone else to this conversation, and I DO talk about these things as if they’re achievements, all the time. And it’s starting to make me feel awful.

I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with the way this dialogue goes. It always ends up with talking about people of color like they’re collectible lunch boxes. We need to start examining our underlying assumptions, starting with this idea that people of color “should” be attending “our” theatres.

I’m not saying we should ignore issues of diversity. Theatremakers of the future will be more diverse and include more women in part because we insist that it be so. We need to be vigilant about creating equal opportunity for people of color and for women at all levels of theatre. When theatremakers are more diverse, theatre audiences will be more diverse, partly because of the programming they will create and partly because the entire population will be more diverse.

What I’m saying is: Theatre’s never going to die. The multimillion dollar nonprofit model might die (and it might not), but there will always be people doing theatre, always. There always has been and there always will be. We need to step away from claiming so much definitional authority over its terms and processes. We need to step away from this desperation to “save theatre” by enticing more people of color into certain doors while ignoring other doors, and realize there’s more theatre in heaven and earth than in our philosophy.

UPDATE:

The brilliant Cindy Im, former Impact resident actor and current AEA actor whom you should hire for ALL THE SHOWS, had this to say:

“After my mostly white school took me to see a play, my parents told me I couldn’t be an actor because theatre was for white people. This was not because they had other cultural outlets, but because they felt excluded. Once I dragged them to the theatre so I could see plays, they felt more comfortable and started attending on their own. Who knows how many thousands of people there are who would love to attend the theatre but don’t feel comfortable or don’t know anything about it, who might love it if they had the exposure?”

I think the issues around access and diversity are incredibly complex. While it’s true that we’re just not measuring the cultural outlets that are dominated by people of color in the same way that we measure traditionally white-dominated activities, and while it’s true that we accord traditionally white-dominated activities a level of respect that we do not accord activities traditionally dominated by people of color, the fact remains that creating avenues of access for diverse audiences is still a crucial consideration for the theatre community.

Open dialogue about these issues is the key, I think. We need to listen to each other and find a way forward, together.

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