Tag Archives: casting

Theatre Resistance Plan, 2017 – 2020

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Pete Seeger’s banjo

There is no more powerful tool for changing ideas, shifting cultural zeitgeist, and resisting authoritarianism than art. While theatre is not the biggest bat artists wield, our impact on the culture is not nil, especially if you include community theatre and school plays, and we must. Resistance to the Trump regime is the most crucial political battle of our lifetimes because this regime– and the zeitgesit behind it– stands to undo progress in every area of our society. Trump, Pence, McConnell, Ryan et al are actively seeking to impoverish you to enrich themselves, roll back every civil rights and workers’ rights gain of the past 100 years,  eliminate every consumer protection, eliminate the social safety net, and pretend you begged them to do it. It’s telling that the very first appointee of the incoming administration was an amoral white nationalist, and the very first act of the new Congress was an attempt to eliminate their own ethical oversight.

One of the most dangerous aspects of this regime for us as artists is its leader’s relentless attacks on free speech. He has always attacked the freedom of expression to the fullest extent of his ability as a private citizen, and has publicly stated his desire to use the power of the office of POTUS to continue to do so.

Trump takes power in just a few days, and we must be ready. The theatre community must form a resistance to this regime and to the cultural zeitgeist that supports it. We have a very specific, very powerful tool, and we must use it effectively.

1. All artificial divisions between theatres need to be dropped. A commercial Broadway offering is no more important to this fight than a community theatre production. Every show, every company, every artist is important. Denigrating shows for being “commercial” or “community theatre” serves no one in the resistance. Brushing off a show because it’s a “college production” or a “kids’ show” demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about what we’re trying to do here. We’re prepping for a long game. This is not just a resistance to one regime; it’s a resistance to the ideas that put that regime in place. From now on, when we say “theatre,” we are consciously including everything from the smallest storefront indie show to Hamilton, from street theatre to Ashland, from the elementary school play to Roundabout. Everywhere our art is practiced is an opportunity for effective resistance.

2. Define for yourself what the goals of your resistance will be. You will not be able to resist everything all the time, and you will burn out quickly if you try. Define for yourself the specific resistance goals you wish to focus on, and understand that those goals can shift from show to show, decision to decision. Here’s a partial list: fighting racism and white nationalism, fighting sexism and misogyny, fighting bigotry against religious minorities (such as antisemitism and Islamophobia), fighting homophobia and transphobia, fighting ableism, protecting and expanding health care, protecting free speech and freedom of the press, protecting consumer protections, protecting public education, protecting workers’ rights, fighting against “post-truth” and misinformation, fighting for action to slow climate change, fighting for voters’ rights and election integrity. Are you a 501c3? You already exist to act in the public interest. Nothing about your mission needs to change in order to incorporate these goals, and “acting in the public interest” over the next four years can only mean doing whatever is in our power to resist this regime and its dangerous goals.

3. All theatre is political theatre and all art is activist art, whether you consciously know what message you’re sending or not. We must consciously consider what messages we’re sending with our art and make decisions that specifically work to further resistance goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean staging overtly political shows. It means you have a critical obligation to assess what you’re saying with the content of your work. It means, “Oh, it’s just a fun comedy” doesn’t cut it any longer, especially considering comedy is one of the most powerful tools any resistance ever has. Examine the content of the work you’re considering. What is it saying? Does it speak honestly to your audience (and to your staff) about our nation? Who we are, who we want to be, who we fear becoming? Does it work to further our goals in any way? Can it be staged to do so? Remember that some of the most effective art is subversive art. The resistance goals you’re meeting with your show need not be overtly political. Creating empathy for transgender people, immigrants, or Muslims in a small, personal show with no overtly political content would be powerful support for resistance goals, for example. You know best how to speak to your audience. Just be conscious of what you’re saying to them.

Artistic directors, the best tool at your disposal is your diverse staff. When they read the plays under consideration for your season, ask them to look at messaging and/or political and social content in addition to the usual things you ask them to look at. If you are white, believe people of color on your staff when they tell you a script is racially problematic. If you are male, believe the women on your staff when they tell you a script is misogynistic. If you are able-bodied, straight, or cis, believe the disabled, queer, or transgender people on your staff when they tell you a script is ableist, homophobic, or transphobic. Actively seek out the opinions of others and believe them. What’s at stake is too important to allow for fragile egos. When a script you love by a playwright you love is, for example, considered misogynistic by the women on your staff, set it aside. You can love the script at home. We have far more excellent scripts than we have slots within which to produce them. Believe your staff.

4. Ensure that your process supports resistance goals. This means hiring a diverse staff and treating them as well as you possibly can. We are long past the point when we can continue to discuss gender parity and diversity and still hire white men for each and every position of power. White men are 31% of the US population. Do they hold 31% of the leadership positions in your organization? They sure as hell make up more than 31% of the AD positions and director positions in the US. How many transgender or genderqueer people do you have on staff? How many disabled people? When you’re hiring, consider diversity a specific desirable characteristic. Living as, for example, a Black woman or a disabled transwoman in the US creates a certain skillset in a person that will enrich your organization in multiple ways, not the least of which is identifying and understanding politically and socially problematic content in plays you’re considering that you will otherwise miss if you do not have that same lived experience. Treat your people as well as you possibly can. I realize that your cash-strapped organization cannot always pay people what you would like to pay them. I realize funding is a massive, industry-wide problem. All I ask is that you ask yourself at every juncture, in every decision, if you are acting in accordance with your goals to the best of your ability.

5. We must set aside making compromises for financial gain. Yes, we must keep our doors open, but we do not need to pull back from our values to do that. More often than not, decisions that are presented as compromises for financial gain do not actually work to increase income; they’re decisions made out of fear of risk where no real risk exists. It’s not financially risky to do a play by a woman or cast people of color. We have a mountain of stats to prove this. There is always a way to act in accordance with your goals. Do not allow the fears of others to push you into poor decisions. Push back. We must prioritize resistance goals over financial ones, which leads me to:

6. We must re-evaluate our funding system top to bottom. Funders, you must work closer to the 501c3 ideal we all say we support. This means going back to the creation of the 501c3 as a way to fund theatres that releases them from needing to rely on ticket sales. The ultimate goal is radical hospitality– free tickets for all who need them– but of course implementing that industry-wide is a long way off. For now, we must step away from consolidating funding at the very top and work to distribute funds in a way that furthers resistance goals. We must keep our flagship theatres open, but we do not need to continue shutting out smaller theatres. Nowhere is this more vital than in initiatives to reach audiences of color. We fund large white theatres when they do an “ethnic” show to reach “under-served” audiences, while we routinely starve theatres– especially smaller theatres– run by people of color that have been serving those supposedly “under-served” communities for decades.

What does this mean in practice? It means living up to our liberal values and initiating a small redistribution of wealth by peeling a small amount of the funding currently going to the top 1% of theatres and using it to fund smaller companies who are able to reach audiences larger companies cannot. It won’t take much. A $20K grant is chump change to a $20 million dollar a year theatre, but it’s lifesaving to a small theatre. We must also re-evaluate the bizarre funding culture that funds projects instead of companies. When we do fund projects, we must look to fund more joint projects between smaller theatres and larger theatres. When you want to fund flagship theatres’ initiatives to do outreach to an “under-served” audience, make that a grant for joint projects between flagship theatres and smaller companies already reaching that target audience. Funders, you are the life-blood of our resistance. You must make your funding more effective for the health of the community as a whole. There are things smaller theatres can do that larger theatres cannot, and vice versa. Every tool at our disposal needs to be supported.

7. Think about what you can do in addition to– or in tandem with– the actual shows that furthers your resistance goals. We’re all strapped for time, money, and energy, but many of the things you can do are fairly low maintenance, and some of them you’re likely already doing. Can you hold a Q&A for audiences after the show that focuses on issues raised within the show? Can you host a panel discussion with local theatremakers about diversity in casting, about an issue discussed in your show, about gender representation? Can you allocate a certain number of tickets for radical hospitality– free tickets for teachers, for members of the local community, for students? Many companies are already doing free student matinees, a radical act that changes lives. Can you provide free workshops for actors, playwrights, designers, admins? Or, if you have a space, can you provide free space to a local theatremaker already giving workshops, enabling that workshop to offer a certain number of scholarship spaces? Can you create a staged reading series for local playwrights of color, LGBTQ playwrights, women playwrights, disabled playwrights, giving them opportunities to develop their voices? These are just a few ideas– there are limitless things you can do.

Remember, though, that self-care is crucial. Don’t take on more than you can handle. There’s no way you can do everything. Delegate– which also provides opportunities for others. We all must get our shows up, and the work we do is grueling. Do what additional things you can, and don’t waste time beating yourself up for not doing more. This is a long game. Protect yourself from burnout. Sometimes you won’t be able to do anything extra, and that’s fine– and that concept should be supported by funders as well. The work on our stages is paramount. We make theatre. That must come first. The art creates the empathy. The extras around the art are excellent and useful, but not critical. Do what you can, but prioritize the art.

8.  A lot of these action items are directed at theatre companies, but individual theatremakers are just as important. Use whatever power you have, and never stop using it. When I cast, I call in a diverse group of actors for every role unless the role calls for an actor of a specific race or ethnicity. When I work with actors on audition monologues, I make sure the monologue choices I give them are by a diverse group of writers. When I teach, I make sure my reading lists are diverse. As theatre makers, we are one of the primary audiences for theatre. See shows that are working to further resistance goals. Donate to companies that are working to further resistance goals. Even signal boosting a show on social media is a concrete action you can take that genuinely helps– buzz sells more tickets than anything else. Actors, did your show just lose an actor? Suggest an actor who is a female, of color, transgender, genderqueer, disabled. Directors, are you giving acting workshops? Can you create one scholarship spot for an actor of color, disabled actor, transgender actor, or genderqueer actor? Playwrights, when you have readings, be sure to invite people whose lived experience and intersectional identities differ from yours. Ask for their perspective and listen to them. This is just a tiny taste of what’s possible. You know far better than I do how you can use your power.

9. Listen. Listen. Listen. The artistic director of Theater MadCap here in the Bay Area, Eric Reid, often uses this hashtag: #thelisteningmovement. He’s created a facebook group (linked above) that’s “a place to speak/share/post your personal truths.” He also uses #thelisteningmovement on articles he posts as well as statuses he writes or shares. It’s something that makes me pause every time I see it– I pause and pay closer attention. Partially because I know Eric and know him to be brilliant, so the things he posts are worth my attention, and partially because of the very power of the idea: The Listening Movement. We must commit to listening– truly listening– to each other.

One of the most crucial aspects of resistance for those of us with privilege– and we all have some aspects of privilege in our intersectional identities– is listening. Listening and believing. Listening without challenge, without defensiveness, without fear. Just listening, believing, and learning. It’s not easy to do, to be honest. It takes mindful effort. But it is crucial.

It’s easy to think you understand a situation because you thoroughly understand those aspects of it that you recognize. Privilege, however, blinds you to other experiences. Privilege often means that you aren’t even aware of how much you don’t know. The only cure for this is listening. Listen to your staff. Listen to your friends. Listen to people when they share their lived experience. Listen and believe.

Theatre creates empathy. We know this. Yet we still have trouble listening empathetically to others. This is hard. But it is worth doing. It’s what we ask our audiences to do every day.

10. Your resistance as an individual citizen is also important. This piece is specifically about how we can resist as a community, but your work as an individual is powerful as well.

Read Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. It’s free to read online.

Do what you can, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for your efforts. Foolish people will condemn social media posts as “meaningless,” but they are deeply incorrect. If a post on social media is meaningless, so is a news article, so is a blog post, so is any form of human communication. Just ensure that the articles you post are accurate to the best of your ability. The list of fake news sites compiled by Professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College remains the best resource available to check the accuracy of your source. Contact your Senators and Representative to encourage them to vote in favor of your goals, or to praise them for having done so. The phone numbers for their local offices are easily found online. Call the offices in your area– not the one in Washington DC– for maximum effectiveness. Save the numbers in your phone so you can call quickly and easily. (Find your Representative here. Find your Senators here.) Donate to theatres and to other causes that further resistance goals. After the election, my family looked for an LGBTQ center in a deeply red state and began donating to them in addition to the causes we have in our regular rotation. We don’t have much money, but we do what we can. Every little bit helps.

These ten points are just the beginning. You know your audience, you know your company, you know your heart. There are surely many things I have left out, and I encourage you to comment with your ideas.

The most important takeaway is that you are not powerless. On the contrary: as artists we have immense power. And with great power, comes great responsibility. (You knew a nerd like me would not be able to resist that one.)

We’re at the beginning of a long, difficult struggle, but, as artists, our voices are critical. Art shapes culture. Art creates empathy. Art has the power to create the kinds of massive cultural shifts that change societies. We can do this. All we need to do is approach our art consciously.

Welcome to the resistance.

 

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“Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

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“Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein (photographed by Harry Shunk), 1960

When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”

The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. 

The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.

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Subtle. 

This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.

The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.

The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.

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Land that I love. (Source: berkeley.edu)

So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist?  We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.

That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.

This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.

Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.

This is, of course, bunk.

For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the  church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.

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Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production. 

There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)

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Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who lost his husband to a Collector attack.

While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.

There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”

For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside  all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.

Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.

There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.

 

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Casting, Race, and Why Tim Burton is Alarmingly Wrong

 

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Tim Burton. Photo: Petr Topic/SIFA/Getty Images

Recently director Tim Burton was asked by Bustle writer Rachel Simon why his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, features an all white cast with the single exception of Samuel L. Jackson (who is cast, disappointingly yet unsurprisingly, as the murderous villain), Burton had this to say:

“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding film diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”

“Things either call for things, or they don’t.” This is an alarmingly incorrect position to take.

By “things” one can only assume he means “films” or perhaps “film casts.” The idea that a film can, all on its own, cry out for an all white cast with a single black villain while the humble director, helpless, must obey without question is, of course, preposterous. “Things” do not “call for” anything– directors make specific decisions. You cannot abdicate responsibility for your casting by blaming it ON THE FILM YOU MADE, in which you personally made or approved every artistic decision.

If by “things” he means “the source material,” meaning that initially the book series was all white (adding characters of color later on in the series), once again he is abdicating responsibility for his personal decisions by pretending that he’s but a faithful reproducer of the source material. Where was this desire to faithfully reproduce the book when he was directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example? While Burton’s version is closer to the original 1964 Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Burton still deviated in multiple ways from the book. Is whiteness the only inviolable aspect of source material?

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A PR shot for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children released by Fox.

As directors, we make the decisions that bring the world of the play, the film, or the show to life. We create the worlds you see on screen and on stage. We can choose a diverse world that reflects the one in which we live, or we can choose an all white world that shuts out people of color, denies opportunities for actors of color, and creates the illusion that white people are the only people whose stories are worthy of telling unless something is specifically about being Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. When a work is just about “people”– when the story has nothing to do with race specifically–if you then think the work “calls out” for whiteness because you see white as “neutral,” you have, at the very least, a failure of imagination. But that failure goes much deeper.

The alarming aspect of Burton’s abdication of the very basics of film directing– the artistic decisionmaking– is that he imagined the work itself somehow told him he needed to create a group of wonderful white people whose major threat is a murderous black man. This kind of reinscribing of whiteness as superior, innocent, and good alongside blackness that exists solely as a dangerous threat to that whiteness is a trope that literally gets innocent black people killed every day. This isn’t “just a film.” There’s no such thing. Our culture is primarily impacted by the narratives of popular culture. Films are massively important cultural artifacts that have the power to shift an entire culture.

When police officers have a split second decision to make, why do they imagine seeing a gun in the hand of an unarmed black man, or imagine a black man reaching for a gun when he reaches for his wallet as instructed, or imagine a black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air is a threat, or imagine a black child with a toy gun is an adult threatening their lives, especially when police bring in European American active shooters alive routinely? When our culture pumps out narrative after narrative after narrative equating blackness with DANGER, that has a massive impact on the real world.

When we talk about police “retraining” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives– which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better. It’s an insult to their lost lives to say that the “thing” magically “called for” you to use an all white cast with a black villain.

It’s telling that Burton imagines that a lack of white people in blaxploitation films of the 1970s is somehow equivalent to his all white cast/black villain in 2016, as if the obvious race privilege of white people in the 1970s didn’t exist and the films at the time were racially problematic– yet magnanimously forgiven by Burton– for not including white people. As if we’re not now all aware of the massive social injustice faced by black people who are treated unfairly at every level of the criminal justice system, and who face police use of force– from small acts of violence to fatal ones– at far greater percentages than white people, and what it means in 2016 to make a group of innocent white children the heroes battling against a murderous black man. It’s astonishing, really, that anyone who makes his living from creating art– from understanding the value of symbols and tropes and narrative– could miss this. It’s alarming. These tropes, unchecked in our culture, are complicit in the deaths of far too many people of color, including children.

It’s telling that Burton says “oh, let’s have an Asian child and a black” in decrying the tokenism of shows– again from the 1970s (dude, that was 40 years ago)– like The Brady Bunch. Apart from the dehumanizing phrase “a black” (a black what?), Burton cannot imagine diversity as anything but tokenism, as if people of color do not exist outside of whiteness, as if including people of color is automatically tokenism, as if he can only imagine a single token actor of color in a film. Tim, why not cast people of color in lead roles? In lots of roles? In all the roles? Why not consider a diverse range of actors for every role and see who best fits the part when race is removed from consideration? Yes, sometimes race needs to be a foremost consideration in casting. If you direct A Raisin in the Sun (please no one ever let Burton do this), Mr. Lindner needs to be European American and everyone else needs to be Black. But in, say, Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, race is not central to the narrative. Nothing would have been lost by hiring a diverse cast, and much would have been gained. No one is asking you to cast a single token Black actor, and yet THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID in casting Samuel L. Jackson, making that even more egregious by casting him as the villain. But The Brady Bunch‘s dippy 70’s “we’re all one big happy melting pot” nonsense is “more offensive” to you?

I’m not going to criticize Jackson for taking the role, since I have no idea how much he really knew when he signed the contract, and his statement about it does read like, “I am under contract to do positive PR for this film.” He’s an actor whose job is to act. Who knows what he was told about how the film would be created.

I am, however, flat out astonished that someone of Burton’s level of talent with symbol, narrative, and trope would create such an obvious lie as “things call out for things” as a cover for his own decisionmaking. Then again, I’m not surprised at all.

This article is also available on the Huffington Post here.

Please also check out “An Open Letter to Tim Burton from a Black Fangirl” by DeLa Doll, posted to HuffPo yesterday. 

 

 

 

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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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The Sexism in our Non-Sexist Industry

The theatre community prides itself on its left-leaning culture, openness to diversity, and acceptance of difference. Yet we have constant problems with gender parity. Women are underrepresented in every area of our industry apart from the indie scene, often dramatically. There are so many studies and think pieces about this, I’m not going to bother choosing any one to link to– we’ve all read them.

Although we consider ourselves “not sexist,” we’re still unwittingly *saying and doing things that are sexist*. Sexism (and racism, and ableism, and etc) are actions and words as well as thoughts and attitudes. In 2016, we’re not seeing “No woman can direct a man with proper authority” and the like, but we’re all still dealing with the sexism pervasive in our culture, and it impacts our actions through unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is why people who are committed feminists are still sometimes making decisions motivated by sexism (and racism, and transphobia, etc).

And while this applies without question to women who have internalized the sexism inherent in our culture and its many systems and structures, often what we, as women, are struggling with in this industry are the unconscious biases of men.

“She’s perfect for the role!” When I cast something with straight male input, I often find myself struggling to make him understand that the woman with whom he is most taken is not actually the best actor or right for the role. Because our culture has rigid, oppressive strictures about what constitutes “attractive,” most often that woman is young, European-American, thin, able-bodied, and traditionally “pretty.” I often find myself struggling to make him understand that a woman less physically attractive to him is much more skilled, or closer to the center of the role. Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re attracted to: “She has a certain quality that just pulls the eye”; “She has the right look”; “She has so much presence”; “She has something; I just can’t put my finger on it, but it’s there”; “I think her acting drawbacks would actually be strengths in this role.” Here’s what I hear men say about the woman they’re less attracted to: “I just can’t see her in the role”; “She’s just not as interesting to watch”; “She lacks presence”; “I don’t believe her”; “I don’t think the audience will accept her as a romantic lead.” Or he’ll suddenly decide that the *crucial qualities* he insisted the woman to whom he’s attracted would bring to the role are *massive, problematic drawbacks* when embodied in a woman less attractive to him. Or he “just can’t see” the traditionally “pretty” woman’s massive comic skills.

To be clear, this isn’t universal. I shouldn’t even have to say it by this point, but #notallmen. However, if a director’s every lead looks the same (for example, thin, European-American, and blonde), that director should probably have a seat and take a think on it. Remember that acting on an unexamined sexist bias in casting doesn’t make you a terrible person, or even “a sexist.” We’re all struggling with finding and eliminating our unconscious biases. We could all benefit from looking carefully at our attitudes and casting habits and interrogating our decisions fearlessly, and not just about women, but about gender nonconforming people, race, ability, size, etc.

“I don’t understand this play. It’s not for me.” Straight European-American men make up less than a third of the US population– a definite minority. Yet the stories of straight European-American men are considered “neutral”– stories for everyone, universal. A play starring a straight European-American man, written by a straight European-American man, is never considered to be coming from a particular, unique point of view– it’s never about being straight and European-American. It’s about, for example, overcoming loss, or reconciling with family, or forgiveness and healing. The social positionality of the work fades into the background as irrelevant– “universal.” However, work by and featuring women, people of color, disabled people, gender nonconforming people, is marked by its distance from the straight European-American male “universal.” It’s a “Black play” or a “woman’s play.”

Because we posit the straight European-American male experience as “universal,” we never expect straight European-American men to translate– to find ways to see the work of people unlike them as relevant to them– because we define that work by its distance from them. Yet they expect without question for everyone to automatically translate work from a European-American male perspective, both seeing and relating to the “universal” message inside. When you’re sitting in a season planning meeting or a development meeting, and the European-American men around you claim they “don’t understand” a play or that a play is “not for them,” but they fully expect you as a woman and/or person of color to relate to stories from a European-American male perspective because they’re “universal,” you’re seeing unconscious bias in action.

There’s an easy way to tell if the play is actually incomprehensible or if men on the team are just refusing to translate, and that’s to see whether opinions of the play are divided by gender. Repeat as necessary for race, ability, sexuality, etc. Part of privilege is that the world pretends the privileged experience is universal. Part of fighting systemic injustice is actively working to learn how to translate.

When you’re ready to toss aside a play as “not for everyone,” “not universally appealing,” or “for women,”  take a second and think: “Am I just refusing to translate?”

“I’m all for diversity. . . I have a Black female intern!” If you’re a European-American man who is proposing that diversity be a key consideration for every position but your own, I see you. Let’s focus on hiring actors, directors, designers, techs, and/or playwrights who are women or people of color, you say, and we all rightfully applaud. Except the European-American men in positions of power and gatekeeping at those theatres retain every scrap of their power, and the fact that theatres over a certain size in this county are almost exclusively run by European-American men does not change. Too often “diversity” means “we hired some Black people” or “one director is a woman.” We have diversity without equity, because the decision makers and gatekeepers preserve that power for the privileged.

Theatres, almost every single time you’re looking for a new Artistic Director, you hire a man. It’s so pervasive I’m finding myself involuntarily assuming that every decision is rooted in sexism, assuming the man was hired because he was a man. I find that thought popping into my head even when I know better, even when I personally know and respect the man and would hire him myself. I wonder which women they refused to seriously consider. I look at so many young women with so much promise, and it breaks my heart thinking they’ll have to watch man after man they hired and trained be promoted over them.

There’s a lock on the boys’ club of artistic leadership, and current artistic leadership, including boards, holds the key. A few festivals of plays by women, or giving a Black woman an internship, is not bringing meaningful change. Put women and people of color on your boards. Hire women and people of color for positions of power. Remember that Black female intern when a position of artistic leadership becomes available. Until then, you’re making me wonder if you’re not just trying to quell dissent to shore up your own cultural and professional power by committing to diversity without committing to equity.

“I would love to hire more women. I just can’t find any.” The indie scene is dominated by women and people of color. What I don’t understand is why those women and people of color seem to fade to invisibility when larger theatres dip into the indie community to look for new talent, bringing up European-American men with far more frequency, and at far earlier stages of their careers, than women and people of color. I’ve run an indie theatre for 20 years, and I’ve seen it happen over and over and over. What makes you look at a young European-American man with very little experience and see “promise” but look at a young woman of color with more experience and see “she’s not ready”? Keep your eyes on the local scene, wherever you are, and make an effort to seek out women and people of color. Wherever you are on the budget spectrum, there’s someone working at the level “below” you that you can bring up, and every time you bring someone up, you’re putting them into the pipeline that ends at LORT and Broadway jobs. Be conscious of whom you’re putting into that pipeline– think about to whom you’re giving opportunities. Are you hiring with gender parity? Are you hiring people of color? Or are you hiring 84% European-American men?

Fighting for social justice means fighting your unconscious bias all day, every day. It means continually examining your opinions and motivations. There’s no finish line where the crowd screams in envious joy as Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Obama pour gatorade on your head and hand you a NOT SEXIST trophy. This takes work. It’s OK to fail at it and keep trying. Just please keep trying.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

In case you’re interested:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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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.
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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.
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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.
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 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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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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