Tag Archives: casting

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.
black.shakespeare.meme
I corrected a girl for saying “ax” in my class last year, and I’m deeply ashamed of that now. I read up on that usage, and I came to understand how wrong I was. Language is political. We have to understand what we’re enforcing, and why we’re enforcing it, when we police usage.
I know a Black actor who was told by a Black professor at the university where I used to teach that he would never be cast in Shakespeare because his speech was “too Black,” and that he needed to amend his speech in order to be cast. The actor told me this after I had cast him in several Shakespeare plays at my company (as well as several new plays– this actor is phenomenal). As a white director whose approach to classic work deliberately eschews stiffness and formality, I’ve always had an eyeroll for “American Standard,” which we still teach actors to this day. Even actors completely untrained in it will often fall into its faux-British, formal tones when doing Shakespeare. A couple of years ago at my company’s general auditions, I had a very diverse bunch of college actors, all from the same university (perhaps not coincidentally, where I used to teach), and every single one came in with a cookie cutter, faux-British, semi-Standard American accent. I actually considered contacting the chair with a “What are you teaching these kids?” email, but I knew exactly what they were doing: prepping them to perform in a world that rejects anything that doesn’t reek of privilege.
studio-180-tweet

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

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

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

crowe

About a month ago, I tweeted a little snark at Cameron Crowe about the poster for his upcoming film, Aloha. I was shocked to get a response. I wasn’t shocked, however, when the film turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be— a film about white people with some HAWAII used as, essentially, set dressing. Perhaps Crowe was assuming I might be pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of Hawaiian sovereignty activist Bumpy Kanahele (in a bit role as himself). But I think, most likely, he was assuming I’d be pleasantly surprised by the fact that one of the female lead characters is hapa, a Hawaiian term (now in common use, at least here in the Bay Area) meaning a mixed race person who is part-Asian/Pacific Islander, part-something else. The character is named “Allison Ng,” and is described as “one quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and one-quarter Swedish,” and one-quarter . . . ? It must be white, because white is the default position for all Hollywood casting. But still, half Asian/Pacific Islander, eh? That most certainly is a pleasant surprise!

Aloha_poster

The poster about which I snarked at Cameron Crowe. The hapa actress must have been left off the poster, right?

Wrong. I would have been pleasantly surprised if the character had been played by a hapa actress, from which there are many to choose if one cares to look. The role, however, is played by Caucasian actress Emma Stone. Cue sad trombone.

British actress Jessica Henwick. This is what a hapa actress looks like.

British actress Jessica Henwick. Henwick is one of many hapa actresses living and working in the world today.

American actress Emma Stone. I pulled both these headshots from their imdb pages, and neither were credited. If anyone has photog info, let me know and I will update.

Emma Stone. I pulled both these headshots from their imdb pages, and neither were credited. If anyone has photog info, let me know and I will update.

There are many reasons this casting is shocking and unacceptable. Actors of color have had to fight for centuries for the right to play characters of color, first in theatre, now in film and television. Those roles historically went to white people in some kind of “ethnic” drag– blackface, yellowface, and the like. While many argue that our most egregious examples are far in our past (such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) we DO still cast white actors as characters of color all the time, sometimes using makeup, and sometimes, as in this case, just putting a white person on screen or on stage as is and calling it a day. We’re also notorious for whitewashing characters– taking a pre-existing property (like a novel or a fairy tale) or real-life story and remaking it as a film or a play, but changing the people of color in the narrative to white people. If you haven’t seen playwright Prince Gomolvilas’ “21 Reasons This Movie Sucks,” about the whitewashing in the film 21, you should.

It’s shocking that whitewashing still happens so frequently in Hollywood, particularly considering the massive controversies it causes much of the time–  the casting in Airbender created a firestorm back in 2010, and there have been many like controversies since (The Lone Ranger, Peter Pan, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Ghost in the Shell are a few examples). What’s even more shocking to me personally is how often both whitewashing and yellowface (and brownface, and all permutations) happen in the theatre, even as we talk all the time about how much more progressive we are than Hollywood.

It’s depressingly common for white people to see the ability to play people of color as their due, and for white people to see their own ethnicity as a kind of “neutral.” It’s a bias (often an unconscious bias) that has enormous, far-reaching effects. A great example is how some white people react whenever a character of color is included in an otherwise very white context, or whenever a character of color is a lead in a story not specifically about their race or ethnicity. “Why does [insert name of character] have to be [insert ethnicity]?” is something I often hear, as if white is “normal” and “neutral” and anything apart from that is a particular, aggressive decision. And while it’s undeniable that race has meaning and cultural weight (which is precisely why you can cast a Black man as Hamlet but you can’t cast a white man as Othello), white people too often ONLY apply that to people of color, seeing their own race as a universally accepted neutral instead of something just as particular, but currently in a culturally dominant position.

One famous example is SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age author Mathew Klickstein’s comment about current Nickelodeon show Sanjay and Craig: “That show is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian,” as if a character needs a particular reason to justify a lack of whiteness. Klickstein goes on to state that characters should only deviate from whiteness if the show is about ethnicity: “I think that it does the culture a disservice. If I were Indian or Jewish, for example, and watched something where the characters are Jewish or supposed to be, and if it’s not specific to that, then I start to wonder, ‘Why are they doing this?’ It becomes blackface.” Because, obviously, everything Indian or Jewish people do relates specifically to that identity. I don’t blog: I JEWBLOG. I don’t sleep: I JEWSLEEP. I don’t have adventures: I have JEWVENTURES. And if your work includes Indian or Jewish people, but is not specifically about being Indian or Jewish, it’s racist. Yeah, OK. ::eyeroll::

sanjay-and-craig-silly-quotes-01

Sanjay and Craig.

Anyone who doesn’t conform to straight white able-bodied average weight cisgendered Christian-heritage male (and I’m probably leaving a few out) are defined by their deviation from that “standard.” While “straight white able-bodied average weight cisgendered Christian-heritage male” refers to approximately 15% of the population (at best), we are constantly positing it as neutral– as “normal”– and anything apart from that is so wildly different, so enormously specific, we must provide a justification for its very existence.

When the culture sees white as “neutral,” is it any wonder that a white woman can be cast to play a woman of color and (almost) no one bats an eye? Emma Stone can be just “an actor” while Jessica Henwick is an “Asian actor.” I’m willing to wager Crowe didn’t even read any hapa actresses for the role of Allison Ng, and that the casting call went out asking for “Caucasian actresses, 18-24.”

It’s depressingly common for white people to brush this off with things like, “She’s half white! Why can’t a white person play her?!” as if mixed people in America are somehow fully represented by a white person; as if mixed people in America are not struggling with racism, bigotry, and other issues PARTICULAR TO THEM; as if mixed people are fair game to ERASE COMPLETELY. As if white actors are truly neutral, the universal donors of casting.

I think the thing that’s the most depressing about this is that Cameron Crowe evidently felt so confident about this hapa character that he would personally tell me that my concerns about race in his film were unfounded, and that I would be “pleasantly surprised.” He seems to actually believe that casting Emma Stone as hapa Allison Ng quells concerns about the lack of diversity in his film, rather than creates more concerns.

Why are we still making films (and theatre) where both people of color and mixed race people are erased and replaced by white people? Ridley Scott, too old and rich to pretend otherwise, flatly stated that he cast white actors instead of Middle Eastern actors as Middle Eastern characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings because otherwise, no one would fund his film. Hollywood is notoriously risk-averse, and Scott’s statement is indicative of our cultural positioning of white as “normal” and everything else as “different,” considering a white star a certain box office draw despite constant evidence to the contrary, where the same poor decision was made and the film still tanked. There’s no question racially insensitive casting can take a bite out of sales– #boycottexodus burned up my feed before the film was released. And yet the idea that white = normal = safe is so thick in Hollywood you can walk on it.

The other excuses are no better. It’s nonsense that people “don’t see race” and are just looking for “the best actors for the role.” You’ll never see a Hollywood film with Black actors as the Continental Congress– it’s not historically accurate, right? But it’s perfectly acceptable to cast a Hollywood film with all Caucasian actors as the Egyptians and Hebrews in the book of Exodus, despite the fact that those actual, historical people were Middle Eastern, not white. And of course you never see a person of color randomly cast in a film written for white actors unless that person of color is a powerful star, but you’ll see white actors who could barely be called any kind of box office draw (Mena Suvari?) cast in roles that were either meant for a person of color, or were a person of color in the original material.

Egyptian actor Asser Yassin, from his imdb page.

Egyptian actor Asser Yassin, from his imdb page. You’re welcome.

Joel Edgerton, who played Pharaoh Ramses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo by Frazier Harrison/ Getty Images

Joel Edgerton, who played Pharaoh Ramses II in Exodus: Gods and Kings. Photo by Frazier Harrison/ Getty Images

As long as we continue to see white as “neutral,” we’re going to see directors casting white actors as people of color and feeling perfectly justified. We’ll continue to see white people getting huffy about their right to play these roles. We’ll continue to see white people try out deflection techniques like, There are so many more IMPORTANT things in the world! (If that’s the criteria, we’ll never get to talk about anything except literal genocide. And of course every person who makes that statement has just finished posting a dozen pictures of their kid, or three paragraphs about their diet. Because IMPORTANT.) As long as we continue to see white as “neutral” and “normal,” we’ll continue to see people of color ignored and erased.

So, Cameron Crowe, I’m not at all surprised, pleasantly or otherwise.

UPDATE 6/3/15:

Cameron Crowe posted a semi-apology on his blog for casting Emma Stone as Allison Ng. Tl;dr: “Sorry if you thought I effed it up; I based it on a real, redheaded 1/4 Hawaiian person; I added another 1/4 API ancestry because diversity; Emma Stone did lots of research.” So basically: “Sorry if you objected, but I’m still right.”

Evidently he never stopped to consider that he had created a character who was 1/2 API, making it unrealistic that she be played by a white actress. I understand that “unrealistic” isn’t a major concern for Hollywood, but race and representation matter in ways that shitty narrative do not.

It’s a very typical kind of half-apology issued when people in power are caught with their pants down. BUT. It’s heartening that he understands that he WAS caught with his pants down, at least. Baby steps.

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How To Rock Your Musical Theatre Audition

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

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

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

The original 1966 Broadway production of Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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