Tag Archives: producing

Arts Marketing and Alignment

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(This piece is by guest blogger Adam Thurman.)

It has been a while since I wrote something in depth about arts marketing but this current exciting moment in the field where new leaders are coming in prompted a moment of reflection that is hopefully worth sharing.

In marketing we talk about a lot of things like branding, audience development, the impact of social, etc.

I want to talk about alignment.

Alignment is defined as a position of agreement or alliance.

And when you look at great companies that earn more then their fair share of attention, dollars, etc., what you see is significant alignment.

The visuals, the messaging, the customer service, the programming all make sense.

The sales goals, the selected audience target, and the marketing mediums all make sense.

And of course the reverse is true. If key elements are misaligned then your marketing message will be too weak to break through.

So as you hit your new roles keep your eyes open for misalignment movements.

Does your pricing say elite but your message say “theater for all”?

Does your messaging say customer service is important but the level of pay and training for your FOH staff say “you guys are replaceable”?

Spoiler: That’s probably the case.

Note those things. Note them even though you may not be able to do anything about them yet. Talk about them before you have a solution. That’s the value of your fresh perspective.

And the spend your precious time and energy working to bring those things into alignment. That’s your opportunity. It’s your opportunity to create an organization that makes sense when you look at it critically.

When the marketing aligns with the goals, values, revenue model, people, etc., then the marketing can do incredible things.

I’ve got one of those fancy credit cards. You know the type, made of metal, high annual fee, that sort of thing.

Whenever I have to call that number I get straight through to a human representative. No phone tree, no holding. It takes me maybe two minutes to handle any need.

The same day I have to call one of those no-frills airlines to pay a fee. It is the exact opposite of the other experience. Call center. Long hold time. It may have taken 30 minutes.

It is fair to call the first customer experience good and the second bad. It would also be fair to call both experiences properly aligned.

The fancy credit card folks are making a set of implicit and explicit promises about what they offer card holders. So they have to make the significant investment of time and money to make it work.

The no-frills airline is making an entirely different promise. They don’t promise friendly or warm service. They promise a cheap flight. Being cheap about their customer service is one way to achieve that goal.

So let’s say an arts organization decides to highly value customer service. That implies a series of alignment choices.

You probably need to pay above market rate.
You probably need to invest in training.

If you can’t do that then you are out of alignment.

But let’s say you legitimately cannot afford the investment. Then a smart choice may be to reduce the emphasis on service and try the following:

Limit the hours your box office is open.

Prepare yourself for high turnover and make sure you have a good pipeline for finding new candidates.

Maybe you can change the way people enter or exit the venue in a way that reduces the need for FOH staff.

I’m not saying these are good ideas, but they are aligned ideas. They make sense when the end goal is considered.

But the mistake I see so often is to say one thing, do the other, and hope no one notices.

We notice.

Smart marketing is about pushing toward that alignment.

Adam Thurman is an experienced arts marketing professional and consultant. To contact Mr. Thurman, email mission.paradox@yahoo.com.

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Representation Matters: People with Disabilities Are Done Being Your Inspiration

 

 

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Photo of a version of the American flag with the stars configured to look like the symbol for disability. (Photo credit: money.cnn.com)

We need a long, hard examination of the way we’re representing people with disabilities on our stages and screens. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, but almost always ignore people with disabilities in those discussions, leaving our industries far behind where they should be on this issue.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs as PwDs is controversial. Able-bodied people fight hard for their “right” to cast able-bodied actors to play us, then shut us out of every aspect of the process. Able-bodied people insist they’re doing “extensive research,” yet portrayals of PwDs are more often than not astoundingly inaccurate, more about how you see us than how we really are.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs has been called “exploitative,” as if our physical presence must always be measured by the gaze of able-bodied people. It reminds me of the way sexist writers claim women are “flaunting” their bodies by simply appearing in public. Our physical presence in the world as PwDs (or women, for that matter) is not about you. Our physical presence as PwDs is so deeply othered that any public performance is automatically suspect– it must mean something. Add to that the relentless infantilization of PwDs by able-bodied people, and our every appearance as actors results in a flurry of pearl-clutching about how we’re being “displayed,” “used,” or “exploited,” as if PwDs are children who need protecting instead of actors who need jobs.

It’s “exploitative” when we play ourselves, but ennobling when you play us.

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During preproduction for the film The Upside, released in January 2019, producers refused to consider actors with disabilities for the role of Dell Scott, a quadriplegic character, instead first casting able-bodied actor Colin Firth, and then replacing him with Bryan Cranston, drawing criticism from disability rights activists. (Photo by David Lee/The Weinstein Company depicts Cranston seated in a wheelchair on a busy city street, laughing as actor Kevin Hart stands on the wheelchair behind Cranston, leaning down and laughing.)

We’re still so far behind it’s considered a special kind of acting triumph when an able-bodied actor plays us because, like actors who gain weight or allow themselves to be made “ugly” for a role, they’re working hard at lowering themselves, appearing less glamorous, less desirable, less perfect. The actor is ennobled by their humility, by the sacrifice it took to present themselves pretending to be what we are every day of our lives. 

We’re still so far behind that the types of stories we tell about PwDs all center around our difference: inspiration porn, tragedies, the Manic Pixie Sick Girl (and as she’s lowered into her grave, he realizes he has finally learned how to live), and the DEI Sidekick (Hi. I’m here to make the producers look inclusive and the protagonist look sympathetic oops time to die to provide motivation for the protagonist). There are more (so many more) but you get the idea.

Please note that all of these are almost always played by conventionally beautiful, thin, able-bodied white people, and that these issues are intersectional. While this piece focuses on PwDs, bear in mind that people of color with disabilities are facing two major hurdles; female-identified and genderqueer people of color with disabilities are facing three, etc. Women of color are in fact the vanguard of disability rights activism.

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Writer and activist Imani Barbarin, who runs the blog Crutches and Spice, is the force behind #DisTheOscars, an advocacy campaign around disability representation in the media. (Photo by Madasyn Andrews depicts Barbarin, a Black woman with long, thin dreads, smiling in a garden setting, wearing a blue flowered dress and a black jacket, with one of her crutches visible on her arm.)

In the United States, between 13 and 19% of the population are PwDs. That’s a sizable population, yet we are aggressively shut out of every aspect of visual narrative, our stories stolen from us and told by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people.

This begs the question, “What are our stories?” It’s an important question, because the answer is: ALL OF THEM, KATIE. We’re a massively diverse population occupying every race, gender, sexuality, age, belief, and socioeconomic status. The vast majority of our stories are not “disability stories.” We are people with disabilities– people first– and the majority of our lives are spent wrapped up in the same issues everyone else has. Yet nearly every film, play, or show that hires an actor with a disability is doing so specifically to tell a “disability story”; when that narrative is over, the actor is released. We’re rarely allowed to tell any other kinds of stories. Disability is only represented when the story is about disability in some way.

Because we are hired far less frequently than able-bodied people, even with similar training and experience, we’re seldom in the room when these stories are developed, and if we are in the room, we’re one voice– often brought in late in the process as a low-ranking temporary hire (“disability consultant”). It’s no wonder that stories about PwDs are so often about the impact the PwD has on an able-bodied person.

Lack of representation is a vicious circle. Because we are so seldom represented as anything but life support for able-bodied inspiration, PwDs are almost never considered for “straight” roles. It never occurs to producers and directors to cast an actor with a disability in a story not specifically about disability, because they, like the rest of us, live in a world where PwDs are dramatically under-represented throughout all of our media and have come to see that under-representation as “normal.”

Our industries create fantastic, imaginary worlds, but we can’t imagine a Juliet with a mobility device? Our imaginations can comprehend time travel, dragons, talking animals, alien cultures, telekinesis, and 500 different kinds of afterlife, but a disabled Hedda Gabler is incomprehensible? You think that if you cast a PwD, the narrative becomes about the disability because those are the only stories we allow PwDs to tell. 

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Marilee Talkington, a brilliantly talented actor, has a long career of playing both blind and sighted characters. Talkington has played blind characters on several TV shows recently, drawing praise from the National Federation of the Blind and their #letusplayus campaign. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs depicts Talkington from the shoulders up: a white woman with curly red hair, blue eyes, and coral lipstick, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless top.)

Allow people with disabilities to tell all kinds of stories, including our own. The right to portray someone different than you is not the exclusive province of the able-bodied. Able-bodied people defend their right to play us with “It’s called ‘acting'” without ever once considering that we can do it too.

Hire people with disabilities at every level, from conceptualization to casting to audience management, not just in temporary positions meant to shield you from controversy. When you talk about “inclusion,” remember: we’re here, and we are not going away.

 

 

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Your Nonprofit is “Committed to Diversity”? How Diverse Is Your Board?

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“People ask me sometimes, when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Few consider it odd that almost all Supreme Court justices in the court’s 229 year history have been white men, but many considered Justice Ginsberg’s statement to be highly controversial. The idea of an all-female court seemed upsetting and threatening to many people, but an all-male court has always seemed unremarkable.

In nearly every nonprofit company in the US, the board of directors is overwhelmingly white and male. One or two white women or Black men on an otherwise white male board is considered “diverse.” And when they get a seat at the table, women and people of color struggle to be heard in white male-heavy environments, their voices discounted, their points of view ignored. Endless studies and articles discuss this problem. Entire industries have developed around corporate diversity consultants.

This has enormous repercussions on every aspect of our lives in the US. Health services, education, social services, legal services, civic and environmental advocacy, the arts, and international relations all have significant nonprofit presence. White men– usually white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight men with Christian heritage– control these industries, set their priorities, and determine how resources are distributed without significant input from other points of view.

Few people outside of the nonprofit world know how much power the board of directors has. Most of us know that the board hires the head of the organization, a decision that has enormous repercussions for the institution as a whole. The head is the gatekeeper for every aspect of the organization, and it has been an ongoing, pervasive problem that the people boards choose for the big chair are almost always white and male.

Just as importantly, boards approve annual budgets, and where the money goes– and where it does not– directs everything about a company. Is your building ADA compliant? Do your staff go through regular diversity and equity training? Do you do hiring outreach to communities that are under-represented in your staff? Is budgeting for any of those a priority or considered an “extra”? What we choose to fund has far-reaching effects on every aspect of our organizations.

You cannot be “committed to diversity” unless your Board is diverse. We need to ensure that our boards have an understanding of a multiplicity of experiences, have a wider range of contacts, and can speak with authority to a wider range of people. A diverse board has innumerable benefits while a homogeneous board has just as many drawbacks and limitations.

When boards hire a new company head, they see a white man with little experience as “a fresh new voice” but a woman or person of color with the same (or even more) experience as “not ready.” They see a white man who has failed in other places as “a risk-taker” or “a maverick” but see women or people of color who have failed in other places as just failures. White boards give white men the benefit of the doubt while judging women and people of color too harshly. They see white men as being able to speak to a “universal human experience” while seeing, for example, a Black woman as having a limited, specifically Black and female, perspective.

Our culture assumes that all positions of power are rightfully white and male, and any diversion from that is a deviation from the norm– a place made specially for difference. We assume that white men are “neutral,” able to make decisions unweighted by identity-related points of view, and that everyone else is irrevocably marked by their identity, their judgment skewed by their distance from white maleness. Yet it is a certainty that whiteness and maleness are very specific points of view that clearly impact judgment.

A white person will not have the experience to always recognize and understand racism when they see it. A cisgender man will not have the experience to always recognize and understand sexism or transphobia when they see it. When confronted with racism, many– perhaps the majority– of white people reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. When confronted with sexism, the majority of men reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. Men insist that stories about women can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about men are. White people insist that Black, Latinx, or Asian stories can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about white people are. A film with an all-Black cast is a “Black movie,” but a film with an all white cast is just “a movie.” We label any story that’s not white, male, cis, hetero, and able-bodied as a creation for a niche audience, but the truth is, there is universality in any story, because there is far more that binds us than separates us. White men have been trained to see themselves as “neutral” and everyone else as marked by their distance from that neutrality. This is all summed up by the images below. These are male:

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And these are female:

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Even in simplistic cartoon icons, something extra is needed to denote “female,” because neutral is read as “male.” Every position of privilege is “neutral” and everything else is measured by its distance from that privilege, requiring modifying adjectives or visual markers.

Of course this point of view is a direct result of living in a culture that bombards us with this messaging relentlessly. It’s a catch-22: If we want to change our cultural messaging to embrace the universality of all human experience, not just white male human experience, we need to create that messaging in our culture– through the art, the marketing, the writing, and all the other cultural artifacts currently produced by organizations that overwhelmingly favor the work of white men, hire white men, and promote white men to positions of leadership.

While the gatekeepers are mostly white and male, gatekeeping throughout our culture will have a necessarily limited perspective. When the gatekeepers are homogeneous, outside perspectives, outside needs, and outside trends will always be imperfectly understood or even missed entirely. Having a diversity of voices in the room so dramatically improves an organization’s ability to serve its community, one would think a diverse board of directors would be a requirement for obtaining and retaining the 501c3 nonprofit status. As nonprofits, we exist as “public benefit corporations.” Who are we benefiting if the gatekeepers in our organizations are all drawn from the most privileged demographic in our culture?

It all boils down to this:

There is no “commitment to diversity” without diversity. 

We need to diversify our boards or stop claiming we have a “commitment to diversity.”

 

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A Memo to Gatekeepers Regarding Whiteness

Bitter Gertrude is thrilled to host our first guest blogger ever, the brilliant Ming Peiffer! 

 

Hand holding a metallic vintage key
Dear People In Positions Of Power,

When you decide to NOT produce a white artist’s work do NOT tell them it’s because they are white.

Using POC as scapegoats for why you can’t program a white artist’s work not only devalues the POC work you are (finally) giving a chance to see the light of day, BUT it also absolves you of your responsibility and complicity in creating an unfair media world that portrays the world as white and not how it actually is. You’re basically saying, “Normally this would be given to a white person but look where we are! We just can’t! Maybe the pendulum will swing back next season!” And you’re not paying attention to the fact that it “normally going to white person” is not normal at all. And is a prime example of systemic racism and systematic erasure of POC and “Other” voices. (It also signals to me that somewhere you believe this is a passing fad instead of real institutional change you are embedding.)

Moreover, it’s re-enforcing the false narrative that whites are not succeeding right now. C’mon. Look at the TV. Look at your seasons. Look at the rest of the country. Look at the president.

White people are doing fine.

It is certainly easier to blame a faceless POC than hurting the feelings of a white artist you have a relationship with but y’all need to pony up and take responsibility for the necessary and commendable changes you ARE making in your programming and explain to them that your definition of “worthy” work has expanded and that their work simply did not make the “worthy” list this year. And that your previous definition of “worthy” was racist. Was white.

DO NOT MAKE IT SEEM AS THOUGH DECISIONS WERE NOT RACE-BASED BEFORE.

They were race-based before, you just couldn’t see it.

Do the work people in power. You might have to have some hard conversations and disappoint some of your friends but it’s better than creating more animosity towards POC and spreading an abhorrently false narrative that their whiteness is what’s keeping them from success.

It’s hard to be honest but it will be worth it and everyone will make better work because of it.

 

mingpeiffer

Ming Peiffer is a playwright, screenwriter, and activist from Columbus, Ohio. Her play USUAL GIRLS will be produced at the Roundabout Underground as part of their 2018/19 Season. Her work has been developed and/or presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Roundabout Theatre Company, The Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, HERE Arts Center, The Flea, The Wild Project, New Ohio, Soho Playhouse, The Gene Frankel Theater, C.O.W., Theater for the New City, FringeNYC, Horsetrade Theater, Yangtze Repertory, among others. Awards/Fellowships include: NYTW 2050 Fellowship, The Kennedy Center’s Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award Recipient (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), The Relentless Award Honorable Mention (USUAL GIRLS), The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center NPC Finalist (USUAL GIRLS), Playwright’s Realm Fellowship Semi-Finalist, Princess Grace Award Semi-Finalist (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award Finalist. In TV/Film, Ming has been a staff writer at Netflix and Hulu, and is currently developing her own series with Color Force and F/X. Additionally, she is adapting Weike Wang’s “CHEMISTRY” into a film for Amazon and a comic book into a series for AMC.

More about Ming Peiffer here

(Top image courtesy of Creative Commons license CC.BY.3.0; bottom image provided by author)
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“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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The “Playwright’s Intent” and the Dangers of the “Purist”

It’s always exasperating to see people scolding directors for “desecrating” a canonical play or a canonical playwright’s “intent” because they cast actors of color, cast a disabled actor, or removed something racist (or sexist, antisemitic, ableist, etc) from the work. It’s exasperating because it’s the smallest and least artistically viable point of view to have about modern stagings of canonical work.*
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Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.

Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”

When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”

There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.

It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.

We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.

When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.

What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?

The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.

This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it. 

We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.

*Of course I am only referring to interpretations that have received permission from the writer or estate, or stagings of work in the public domain. This is not– at all– an argument in favor of running roughshod over someone else’s IP.
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Disability, Expectations, and Disruption in The Glass Menagerie

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Phoebe Fico as Laura and Karen Aldridge as Amanda in Cal Shakes’ The Glass Menagerie. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was an honor to be invited to view a rehearsal of California Shakespeare Theater’s upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie and write a piece for their blog. An excerpt:

“Lisa Portes’ tight, muscular staging of Glass Menagerie at Cal Shakes creates yet another layer of disruption…by using all actors of color. The actor playing Laura (Phoebe Fico) is a young woman of color with a visible mobility disability. The physical presence of the actor’s disabled body onstage as Laura disrupts the other characters’ strenuous and relentless efforts to create a ‘Laura’ that is acceptable, both to themselves and to others, paralleling our culture’s relentless efforts to contain and define women, people with disabilities, and people of color.”

Read more here.

Tickets for The Glass Menagerie, playing July 5 – 30, available here.

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Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

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Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

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Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

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A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

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Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

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Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

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.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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Julius Caesar: Suddenly Controversial

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A marble bust of Julius Caesar dating from the 1st century CE

The Public Theatre is staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as part of its annual Shakespeare in the Park, and hauling out that most overdone of concepts: Julius Caesar is POTUS! They’re all in suits! It’s AMERICA! This is exactly why I never directed Julius Caesar— it’s just about the only approach that makes sense in modern America, and it’s been done approximately infinity times. The Public’s approach is about as controversial, given every past production of the last half century, as your niece’s school production of “Transportation and You” where she plays a Happy School Bus.

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You were great, McKayyLyee! (Source: Toddlerapproved.com)

I’m not saying the Public’s production won’t be great theatre. I’m saying that concept is not exactly unique or controversial. And yet, because this is Trump’s America, this old-as-the-hills concept is suddenly Not Acceptable, and both Delta and Bank of America pulled their funding from the Public, joined shortly afterwards by American Express.

THAT. IS. INSANE.

Has no one read Julius Caesar? I mean, obviously Trump hasn’t since he can’t make it through an intelligence briefing unless “TRUMP <3” is inserted into every other sentence. I mean– has anyone complaining about this concept ever read (or seen) the play? Anyone at Delta, BofA, or AmEx? The play does not condone the murder of Caesar. While Caesar’s desire to be king, his arrogance, and his deafness to criticism all threaten democracy, murdering Caesar results in disaster. The Public released an excellent statement, which says, in part

Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.

In  2012, the Guthrie, another high-profile theatre, staged Julius Caesar with (unsurprisingly) the same concept, but of course POTUS at the time was Obama. Delta funded that production without a peep of complaint.

So what is this hypocrisy about? Why is Delta pretending to be offended about the Public production? Why is anyone pretending to be offended by this production, considering they’ve never been offended by that oft-used concept before?

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William Sturdivant and Sid Solomon in the Guthrie’s 2012 Julius Caesar. (Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Here’s the paradox: Trump’s arrogance, desire to rule like a king, deafness to criticism, and complete lack of tolerance for anything other than adulation mirror Shakespeare’s Caesar, yet to say so openly is dangerous exactly because it is true– Trump will act like a king and use the power of his office and fame to retaliate. 

Trump relentlessly abuses his power. He has no qualms about using the power of his fame and, more importantly, using the power of government to quash those who criticize him or disagree with him. You’d think that was unconstitutional, and that Okieriete Onaodowan placed checks and balances in the Constitution specifically to correct for that, and you’d be right, except the GOP-controlled Congress shows no signs of reining in Trump’s dictatorial behavior, and are clearly willing to sell out our entire democracy for something as tawdry as a tax cut for the wealthy.

Congress won’t move to stop Trump’s democracy-destroying behavior unless doing so retains or increases their popularity. Trump’s approval rating is quite low, but never dips below 35%, and that is a substantial percentage of voters who seem quite content to believe that the media, people of color, feminists, Democrats, Mexicans, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and the “coastal elite” are quite literally their enemies instead of their neighbors. Fed a constant diet of fear and hatred by the right-wing media for the past 20 years, they’re happy to allow the GOP to decimate every legal protection we have in the mistaken belief that it hurts their “enemies,” and the GOP Congress in turn is happy to allow Trump to abuse his power all he likes as long as he signs whatever they put in front of him.  Our Rome applauds our Caesar’s abuses of power while our Senate winks.

Meanwhile, those of us who can see the damage being done to our democracy by these abuses of power are left wondering what to do about it since no one who is tasked with protecting us is actually interested in protecting us (apart from the courts, and Trump is trying hard to change that). Whatever the answer is, just as Julius Caesar says, it’s not violence. Having a bunch of Senators murdering Trump on the Senate floor (although arguably a real ratings getter) would eliminate a threat to democracy while actually threatening democracy itself. The cure is the same as the disease. It’s sociopolitical homeopathy, and just like real homeopathy, it’s costly and it doesn’t work.

“Violence is not the answer” is an important message to get out to a culture that is experiencing a dramatic upsurge in politically-motivated violence and violent rhetoric. Yet this is the message that’s considered “too offensive” because it depicts the violence it then goes on to condemn.

The damage Trump is doing to our democracy has already been done if companies are pulling funding from the Public’s Julius Caesar out of fear of Trump and his followers retaliating against them for speaking the truth about Trump’s similarities to Shakespeare’s Caesar and stating “Even though he threatens our democracy, violence is not the answer.”

Can we recover from the damage Trump has done when so many Americans are content to allow it as long as they can continue to believe it hurts a group of people they have been taught to hate? Can we recover from the damage Trump has done if our elected officials evacuate their constitutional duty to oppose that damage?

I have no idea if we can recover as a nation. I have to hope that we will, and that midterm elections will turn the tide. Until then, all I know is that I’m sending a donation to the Public Theater. If Delta, BofA, and AmEx won’t help to pay those actors and techs, WE WILL.

UPDATE: Classical theatres across the country are receiving threats from conservatives angry about this one production. Please support your local classical theatre! If you can’t donate, even a note of support would be helpful.

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The Albee Controversy: Throwing the Baby Out With the Racist Bathwater

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A young Edward Albee (1928 – 2016). Source: University of Houston Digital Library.

For the, oh, seven of you out there who haven’t yet heard, the Albee estate denied the rights to a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the company (Complete Works Project in Oregon) cast a Black man as Nick. 
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First, congratulations, Complete Works Project, for being the center of a national controversy, and with such a banal play choice! I did multiple new plays that drew angry conservative picketers in other cities, and I never got so much as a pissy letter. That’s Berkeley for you. Enjoy the publicity, and I hope you take the ensuing donations and do a new play by a writer of color starring that Black actor.
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The racism of the Albee estate decision is undeniable, and it’s absolutely our responsibility as a theatre community to decry it and to pressure the estate to reverse its decision.
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 HOWEVER. Playwrights need to have the right to protect their work, even when they make stupid, racist decisions that contribute to their swiftly approaching irrelevance.
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Albee’s legacy isn’t the argument here. I don’t care if Nick is described in the text as literal Hitler, the estate could have given permission to an undergrad theatre club to stage the entire Albee catalogue with mac-and-cheese-filled sock puppets singing the lines as screamo in a university housing common area filled with cats, pot, and bike parts and Albee’s legacy would have been fine. Yanking the rights over a Black actor is far more damaging to the legacy than perhaps any other possible choice the estate could have made apart from allowing Disney to make an animated Three Tall Princesses. It’s stunningly poor management.
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Racism isn’t the argument here. The estate’s decision was absolutely racist, period, the end. That’s not up for debate. It’s the kind of racism that demeans the entire industry and requires resistance.
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Neither the preservation of the legacy nor the racism are the debate here, since both are settled matters as far as I’m concerned. The debate, for me, is about the people answering “What do we do about this” by hauling out the tired old chestnut “PLAYWRIGHTS SHOULD LET ME DO WHATEVER I WANT TO THEIR WORK.”
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I believe Albee’s estate made a shortsighted, racist decision that mismanages his work and misunderstands the basics of art. I believe the estates of canonical playwrights should bestow a certain measure of freedom to companies who wish to stage these older, canonical works in ways that engage them in healthy dialogue with the current culture and with various modern points of view. Virginia Woolf is 55 years old, and the culture with which it was originally designed to engage is gone. While there is certainly artistic merit in historically accurate works as windows into bygone eras, I believe that allowing older canonical works to acquire new relevance within a modern artistic dialogue nearly always results in more interesting work.* I believe there is real value in creating places for people of color in (almost invariably white male) canonical works, just as there is real value in queering cishet work, doing all-female productions of Shakespeare, and all of the other ways people have sought to make room in canonical works for marginalized voices. I believe Albee’s estate is working studiously to make Albee, as quickly as possible, one of those unknown writers who was wildly popular in his day that grad students encounter while researching something else. He’ll be another Arthur Wing Pinero if they keep this up, and they probably will.
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Who?

I also believe that 99% of playwrights under Albee’s stature, especially women and PoC, have traditionally and historically seen their work stolen from them, been paid a pittance (or less) for the rights to their work and told they should be grateful for “the exposure,” struggle to make ends meet with their writing or struggle to write around the demands of a day job– or both (looking at you, San Francisco writers, paying the most expensive rents in the country).
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I’m worried about those playwrights– the rank and file. The 99%. Albee and his estate and every play he wrote can sink into Oblivion, but I will stand between playwrights and people who want to rob them of their ability to protect their work, especially since so often this discussion seems to be centered around white voices convinced of their primary artistic entitlement over the living playwrights they see as a hindrance. Playwrights are currently allowed legal protections over their work, and we should, as an industry, be working to preserve that. The price for that is the occasional destructive, bigoted decision by a writer or estate. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing about those destructive, bigoted decisions. Quite the opposite. My point is: Fight the bigotry head-on, not the principle of playwright IP rights. Don’t throw the baby out with the racist bathwater.
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1. We must call out bigotry when we see it. Playwrights should have the right to protect their work (either during their lifetimes or when leaving directives to an estate executor) even in objectively terrible ways, but they do not have the right to do that free from criticism. Whether we change anything regarding the way the Albee estate is handled is immaterial. We’re changing the entire culture by demonstrating that these types of decisions are not acceptable.
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2. I state above that there’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized– women, people of color, trans* people, people with disabilities, etc.
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3. Support the work you want to see with your attendance, buzz, and donations. It is wickedly hard to sell a new play, which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work. Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate.
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We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.
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*With the single exception of Beckett’s stage directions. Beckett’s works are little, exquisite machines. Take out a cog and replace it with a dancer — why is it always dancers?– and the wheels fall off. But on principle I support your right to try staging Not I in full light with projections of Trump rallies and even dancers, if you must. (But that proscription against cross gender casting remains bunk.)
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