Songs for the Struggling Artist


The Beginning of Authority in Theatre (and Beyond)
July 31, 2017, 12:48 am
Filed under: advice, Leadership, theatre | Tags: , , , ,

At the end of the evening, the young actors were hanging on his arms, pleading for an audition for whatever he did next. He had just joined a company four months before and directed his first show in the months previous. The last time I’d seen him, a year before, he’d asked me for advice about beginning. Now he was asking if I wanted to be his assistant. I have had a company for 16 years and a Master’s Degree in Directing. But no young actors hang on my arms or tell me they will stalk me until I let them audition.

My friend is a white man with an authoritative air. As an actor, he is at his best when playing ridiculously rigid authority figures. If you’re casting a buffoonish General, he’s the best man for the job. He exudes authority. I do not. When I’m returning to acting, I like to perform with this authoritative friend because I enjoy playing characters who subvert authority – the more restrictive the authority figure, the more fun it is to subvert them. My friend is a genius at playing this charismatic authoritative type and it is tremendous fun to be his subversive second in performance.

I understand that I am not an obvious leader. I don’t think anyone would pick me out of a crowd to lead them. But while I don’t project power or authority, I do lead. I can lead. I make space for people and make things happen. I am not a novice at this – and I am happily finding that there are more and more new models for my style of leadership. Jill Soloway is probably not an obvious leader either but I’d follow her anywhere.

I’m thinking about this because I’m thinking about how these kinds of patterns replicate themselves over and over. How men who project a certain kind of authoritarianism are not just taking power but are also given it. This creates and recreates the same authoritative structures in theatre that we’ve always had and all it takes to replicate itself is one charismatic authority announcing himself and a few people to agree to that proposition and enlarge it with adulation and obsequiousness.

The young actors hanging on the arms of my friend wanted to make theatre like the show they’d just seen and they asked my friend if he made work like that. He said “not really no.” But they didn’t care. They just wanted to work with him, whatever he was doing. They could see he exuded authority and they wanted in, no matter what he was doing, their own interests aside. What is ironic is that I DO make work like the show they’d seen and I am always looking for actors are hungry for it. But they weren’t looking at me. And I didn’t need them to. I have zero interest in the fawning.

I suppose I’m writing this now to help those young actors think more broadly than the obvious. Who knows what other connections they failed to make because they were busy responding to the most authoritative voice in the room?

Extrapolate this out a bit and you can see how we ended up in the political situation we’re in – many Americans saw an authoritative charismatic white guy declaring himself to be the greatest, despite the fact that he had zero experience – and they hung on his words and his arms and swore a sort of blind fidelity to wherever he would lead them.

An authoritative person is not always the best authority. It is a kind of gut response to authoritative behavior, I think, to give over to someone who declares himself a leader. It is probably a primal response that is worth investigating with a more reasoned part of the brain. I mean, evolutionarily speaking, there was probably once a good reason to follow the person who stood up, shouted loudly and said, “Follow me!” I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, so I’m not sure what that reason was. But now, given all I’ve learned, I’m less inclined to follow anyone who claims to have the answers. From the Dunning-Kruger effect, to the No True Scotsman fallacy to Confirmation Bias and the Optimism Bias, social science shows us that our instincts, our gut responses are often way off base. Authoritarianism works, not because someone is a good authority, but because people are so willing to follow someone who declares their authority. It’s time to open up what it means to have authority. This passage from Douglas Adams says it best:

“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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The Kind of Story I Never Want to See Again

At a recent festival, the audience favorite was a show that re-told a fairy tale – one that featured a king reckoning with his power. It won an award, people loved it so much. But it made me furious.

I don’t blame the creators, really. The source material was tried and true and they tackled it well. The aesthetics and storytelling were expertly executed. But. In watching it, I thought to myself, “I never need to see a story like this again. In fact, maybe I should make a list of stories I don’t need to see anyone.” In this case, a show about the difficulties of being a young white male king just didn’t resonate with me. I have seen a lot of these in my life. Maybe because I spend a lot of time in the trenches of Shakespeare, I feel like I’ve heard this story just about as thoroughly as I’d ever hope to and with much more scintillating language. And who knows, one day I might want to see one again.

However, meanwhile – I never want to see another story about how a young man should assume authority. Young men know how to do this. They got it. There are tons of models. If you want to show me a story about how a young woman assumes authority, I’m all about that. Extra points if she’s a woman of color. But I don’t need any more authoritarian stories. Please.

I think, too, this particular show triggered my fury because it did a lot of things at the beginning that made me think something else entirely was going to happen. I thought we were going to go in and subvert authority. I thought we were going to understand our power as a group. I thought we might even learn how to overthrow a king and become a true democracy. These are all lessons I actually need right now. That’s the show I needed to see and I didn’t get it. That’s not the company’s fault. They didn’t know what show I had in my head.

At the start of this show, we all practiced our bows for the King we were due to meet. I played along, because it’s fun to play. But I really don’t need to practice bowing to authority. Too many of my people are already too good at this, metaphorically speaking. Bowing to authority is one of the things that got us into this current political mess. What I’m seeking are lessons in resistance. I need people who can show us how to refuse, to resist, to make change.

I’m now trying to work out how to write the show I wanted and didn’t get. But there are very few models in this realm. I can only think of one or two. If you know of one, please send it along, I need some inspiration of radical democracy, of collective power.

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The Discomfort of Being Different Part Two

Occasionally, right after I push PUBLISH on my blog, I get a flood of additional ideas on the topic. I start to think of ways I should edit it or concepts I want to add. Sometimes I’ll go back in and edit or add – other times I’ll just let it lie. And sometimes I need to continue the thought in an entirely new blog post. That’s what happened when I opened up the floodgates on sexism in theatre. Thoughts just kept rushing in and I had to write follow-up-post after follow up. Some of those were based on the feedback I was getting and some of it was the swirl of it all marinating in my brain.

This post is of the marination variety. In thinking about being different – from the social science around non-conformity to my own history, I realized there was an additional factor that I didn’t factor in to my initial thoughts on the subject. That factor, in my case, was gender.

Because, in theatre (as in almost everywhere else,) the best way to be the Same – to conform, is to be a middle class white man. The numbers mean that nine times out of ten when I’m in a theatre doing someone else’s show, I’m in the minority. I am already different, just by being born a woman. And because of that, there is an added pressure to fit in, to do things the way they’ve always been done. Working female directors (all 22% of them!) mostly make their names directing plays about men. Women playwrights get more productions if their plays are about men. In order to assimilate, one has to take on the dominant culture – and that culture is male and white. (This all applies to race, too, but I will save that post either for someone else or the moment after I push publish on this one.)

What this all adds up to for me is the sense that I’m already a foot behind in the FITTING IN GAME and it is tricky to be perceived as the Non Conformist I am, rather than the woman who doesn’t know the rules because she’s a woman. There is a presumption, right at the outset, that I don’t know what I’m doing, based on my gender. There are theatre companies who will baldly state that they don’t hire women. So if I’m DOING the job of directing, for example, I’m expected to be too feminine, to be doing things wrong. There’s a sense that I should be doubly aggressive to make up for my gender.

The fact that I refuse to do this has been a problem throughout my career. And I think it’s a problem throughout the culture, too. We lose so much potential by leaving out the female experience of leadership. Jill Soloway’s work on The Female Gaze is the FIRST TIME in my decades on the planet, that I have heard a woman in a position of prominence able to advocate for a female aesthetic and style of leadership. It is incredibly inspiring. And incredibly unusual. It requires a great deal of tolerance of that discomfort of doing things differently. Soloway asks her camera operators to feel with her subjects. She hires a crew that can cry. I can only begin to imagine how the established film crew guys react to that. What I don’t know is how she manages those confused and angry folks used to doing things the usual way. That is the trick I’d like to learn to master.

I think a lot of that finessing of the world around one comes with age. The older I get, the less I care what other people think – that is, the desire to fit in has begun to diminish dramatically. At the moment, I’m still straddling the line. I’m not yet able to wholly reject the dominant culture. Probably because I’m not really part of it.

Soloway, having already achieved traditional success in film and TV has the credentials to tell the patriarchy to go fuck itself. She can say something as radical as: men should just stop making movies and make space for women’s voices and while I’m sure that blowback is intense, she can perhaps, watch it roll by from the top of the heap. I’m still hoping to make a little mark and it is hard to do from the fringes. So – time, I hope will help me to tolerate more and more the feeling of my own differences. Every decade I live, I lose more of that people-pleasing shame that limits me now.

photo by Cassidy Kelley

 

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“I’m encouraging her, actually.”

In a round table discussion featured in The Hollywood Reporter last year, – five white male directors (Richard Linklater, Bennett Miller,  Christopher Nolan, Morten Tyldum and Mike Leigh) and one white female director (Angelina Jolie) discussed their trade. When someone asked Mike Leigh why he was picking on Angelina Jolie, he said, “I’m encouraging her, actually.”

This phrase blew my mind. Because it seemed to me (and probably, also, to the guy who asked the question) that Leigh had been particularly condescending and rude to her. It seemed like a case of the playground phenomena of boys hitting the girls they liked. Mike Leigh’s idea that he was being encouraging was baffling.
This made me question all the times I’ve been condescended to and (seemingly) discouraged over the course of my career. It’s possible that all of those men in power genuinely thought they were being encouraging by being assholes.

This also made me think of all the ways this develops over time. If there’s a whole swath of the population that genuinely thinks they’re encouraging and does it again and again – they must be so baffled by why so many women leave the business or fail to go on to become directors or leaders or whatever it is. Because this kind of “encouragement” is actually incredibly discouraging for almost every woman I know. And if you endure enough of it – it can be enough to get you to quit.

It makes me think of a concept in psychology I just heard about – a sort of cultural bias. That is – the field of psychology has found itself to be culturally biased – that it has a very Western point of view. As an example, the You Are Not So Smart podcast reported that a child in the West will do better when told what he or she has done well. A child in the East will do better when she’s told where she can improve.

In a way, I wonder if we have as big a divide culturally when it comes to gender norms – maybe a male protege of Mike Leigh’s would be encouraged by his condescension. I know I wouldn’t be. Jolie, however, handled it all with grace. She’s experienced enough as a performer to not be thrown by a condescending director. I’m sure she’s received all kinds of “encouragement” over the years.

But – I was struck, too, by the set up of this panel. They put 5 highly experienced male directors – ones who’d been directing their whole lives – in a room with a former actor who had only directed two films so far. In a way, Joile was set up by the panel to be condescended to and “encouraged.” Why not put some true female peer on that panel? Like a Jill Solloway, Julie Taymor and Kathryn Bigelow? I was not encouraged by that set up. But it did all make me think about encouragement – the word itself suggests the putting of courage into someone. Maybe, for some people, they think this means pushing someone until they snap and suddenly fight back. It’s a giving of courage by instilling fear.

But for me and most women I know, this aggressive approach is terribly discouraging – and only makes the challenging work we do against all the odds all the more challenging. In a world with so little gender parity it just feels like an attack on the most vulnerable member of a group. It feels like an assertion of the already implied idea that you don’t belong. You’re the outsider. And all this “encouragement” just serves to remind you how outside you are. I’d love to understand just exactly how Leigh thought he was encouraging Jolie – it might help me understand what’s happening when I experience such “encouragement” myself.

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Take Your Daughter to Your Last Day of Work Day

My mother retired from a company where she’d worked for over 30 years. For many of those years, she was the Executive Director. She was the leader. At her retirement party, I learned a lot – both about my mother and leadership.

As a child, I spent some time with my mom at work – not in any official “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” way – but in a “School’s Out and Childcare Is Hard to Come By” way. I thought I had a sense of what she got up to – both from what I saw while playing with the office supplies and from what she’d talk about when she came home. But as I discovered at her retirement, I had no idea.

The facts of her long and illustrious career are well documented (in proclamations and resolutions by the state, the city and various public boards) but what blew the doors off my perception was my mother’s style in the face of it all.

Here are some things I realized:
1) My mother doesn’t really have a work persona. She is herself whether she’s working with a board of directors or a birding group. She doesn’t turn off her humanity to be professional.
2) One of the things that was often mentioned by those inspired and trained by her was her compassion and kindness. I heard many iterations of the words, “compassionate leadership” spoken about my mom.
3) My mother laid all of her success at her career at the feet of her colleagues and employees. She seemed to have no ego about all that she’s done.

None of these aspects of my mother’s personality are a surprise to me. But now that I have spent some time out in the world, I can recognize how unusual these things can be in a leadership role. What I understand now is how rare a bird my mother is and how her style of leadership has inspired others. (Especially women who came up behind her in a field that was entirely dominated by men. When my mom began, she was often the only woman in the board rooms and conferences.)

I can count myself among those inspired now, but I have benefitted from growing up assuming that my mother’s way was how things were. Of course kind, compassionate women can become powerful leaders in their communities while retaining their humanity and verve. Of course, they can and should do, because that is what my mother has always done. It’s taken years out in the wilds of the working world for me to see how unique my mom’s career was, how much of a trailblazer she has been and what a difference she’s made to the people around her. There’s something remarkable about how unapologetically she’s a woman and a leader.

The conversations about women’s leadership in the press tend to fall in the “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” category. The descriptions of my mother’s leadership that I heard at her retirement party strike me as revolutionary now. I hesitate to label my mother’s style as feminine because femininity is so loaded an idea. But feminine or not, it is well outside of the model of the Big Man in Charge. In theatre (which is my field,) this ideal still holds tight. People LIKE tyrannical directors, particularly male ones.  They hire them, they promote them, they pay them to run their theatres. Some theatres will come right out and say that they won’t hire women to direct. Although no one said it out loud, most of my experience in directing school was being pushed to be more like a Big Man in Charge.  It’s why I quit directing for a while.

There’s now a leader closer to my own field that makes me think of this “feminine” leadership style. Film and TV director, Jill Soloway, is on a roll, shaking things up all over Hollywood and being unapologetically all the things we’ve been told we can’t be. For example:

You CAN cry at work—in fact, you must cry at work. In fact, if you’re going to make a movie, do me a favor and think of it as “bring your tears to work day.”

Every time Soloway gives a speech, I feel a surge of hope.

People like my mother and Jill Soloway have changed the landscape for the rest of us and I’m tremendously grateful. It is rare and wonderful.

My mother is living proof that you can achieve great things and still be the person you are, and the kind of human you want to be. So I’m proud of my mom as she leaves her career woman identity behind. And I hope to be able to honor the qualities that we share by using my own leadership to a good effect as time rattles on.

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The writing started early, folks.

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