Songs for the Struggling Artist


Theatre Is Dead. Long Live the Theatre.

For the last few months, I have been trying to grapple with the loss of my primary art form. When theatres shut down back in March, it was painful but we all hoped it was temporary – just a little disruption in our theatre lives. As time has worn on, and the virus has gotten worse here in the US than it was when they shut the theatres down (Florida reported 12,000 cases this week, which is twice what New York had back in April at the height of things.) it has become increasingly clear that theatre won’t be back any time soon. The art and business that we knew and loved is dead. There’s a small chance of zombification but theatre as we knew it is probably over.

The actually real theatre folks over at Beef and Boards may be giving their dystopic socially distanced dinner theatre a shot there in Indiana, but not many are clamoring to follow their very disturbing example. Institutions are crumbling (maybe this is good?) smaller venues are closing and many a former New York theatre maker has moved back to the place they came from. As unemployment benefits expire, the small inner tube that was keeping many a theatre person afloat is floating away with their future, hopes and dreams. Without some support, the American Theatre, which was already struggling, will start to lose its limbs and then fall apart entirely.

Maybe it will reassemble into something more equitable and beautiful but it is falling apart, no question. And despite much more substantive support, I wondered, too, if the UK theatre was also in decline. I wondered if theatre was dying all over the world.

And then, I tuned in to the live-streamed production of The Persians at the Epidaurus Theatre in Greece. I assumed we’d be watching performers in an empty theatre, doing their work for the cameras – but when I opened the link, half an hour before the show, the camera revealed an audience settling in, making their way to their seats, the way an audience does. I found myself weeping at the sight. An audience! There’s an audience! I had convinced myself we’d never see their like again and there was a giant crowd assembling to watch a play. There went the President of Greece and her entourage to go and sit in the front rows! They’ve brought the country together for this!

And here was the world, on the internet, gathering to watch an ancient play in an ancient theatre – and there, in the seats, were the people who lived there. (I’m assuming the majority of the people in the audience were Greek, since no one’s really traveling these days.) It was all very moving, even before the play began.

It was the sight of Theatre, alive and well and vibrant in a place where it has thrived for over two thousand years. Theatre may be dead here in the United States (along with over 140,000 people who might still be with us if we’d handled this crisis with anything like the skill of the people of Greece – or New Zealand where they are currently resuming live performances again) but in other parts of the world, theatre is bringing people together and demonstrating its extraordinary power.

Theatre may be dead for us here but it lives elsewhere and I have to hope it will live for us again one day. It won’t be any time soon, except for at, the actually real and not a satire, Beef and Boards, but one day we might all sit in a room together and cheer at an expression of our national pride the way the Greeks did during The Persians. I don’t know what will make us feel proud in that far away future – but I have to hope we will be proud of something, If only our survival of this moment, this administration, this mess. We will have theatre in the future and we might feel pride again, too.

Not now. We’ve let our theatres die alongside so many humans – but theatre will rise, I hope. It lives and thrives elsewhere. We can look to those places for inspiration. Long live the Theatre.

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Who Gets to Rage in American Theatre? Or, Some Stuff I Learned from American Moor

The show nailed the standard white American male theatre director so well, I found I had fantasies of kicking his head down the road a few days later. Forgive me the violent imagery but I guess I’m a little bit furious.

American Moor is a show about an actor grappling with the weight of Othello. Caught in a tug of war between the demands of the racist American Theatre system and his African American peers, the character rails and resists. He wants to rage against the injustices that rain down but he keeps himself in check. He also attempts to audition for the role.

The last half of the piece is a glimpse of both that audition and the internal struggle of adapting to its demands.

While much of the show addresses the specificity of this actor’s experience – specifics that, as a white woman, I do not share – I found myself relating to it deeply.

One of the themes that kept arising was the way the actor’s black male body was a source of fear for white theatre makers. This character had to continually manage the racist fears of the people around him. His getting a job depended on his presenting a minimized self – a nice, safe, unchallenging version of himself, one that has never known anger and would never need express it.

I relate to this despite the fact that, much to my dismay, no one is ever frightened of me. No one assumes I am powerful and aggressive. Not ever. I don’t have to adjust my presence in a room to placate that fear – because no one ever fears it. I have, however, in my acting days, turned myself WAY down in order to appear ladylike, like I could be an ingénue. I have shrunk myself into a girlish form so as to be seen as a possible object. I know what it’s like to bring all my intelligence to a part and then be asked to ingratiate myself, to seduce, to giggle, to be more malleable. And anger? What is anger? Why would I be angry? I’m sweet! And nice!

I know what it feels like to have to hide myself and defer to the patronizing white guy with all the power and authority. It is, fundamentally, why I stopped acting. Because being asked to do only one thing when I am built to do 20 others things was more frustration than I was prepared to handle. And, for entirely different reasons than the character in American Moor, I, too, would never be allowed to express my rage in the theatre.

As I watched the show, the director in me wanted to push aside the character of the patriarchal dolt in charge and take over his show. “Oh, you can’t recognize the opportunity that is in front of you? Oh, you can’t set aside your own limited understanding to make space for the human being in the room with you? You don’t know how to do that? Well – I do. Get out of my damn way, dude.” And in part, this is why I quit directing. There are too many pricks in power. They kept wanting me to be like them.

So much of my experience in and out of classical theatre in America suddenly made sense. It made a kind of sense that made me want to run screaming through the streets – but still…sense!

Seeing the racism that this performer encountered in the worlds I have touched down was chilling. I have seen some of it with my own eyes and failed to recognize how awful it was. I have seen classical scholars or theatre makers look black men up and down and ask, “Have you played him?” I’ve seen that. It happens ALL the TIME. Just the other day, I saw a post about Denzel Washington’s upcoming performance as Macbeth and someone commented that he’d rather see him as Othello. Fact is, that commenting guy already sees Denzel Washington as Othello. It’s the only part that guy can imagine a black guy doing.

This is not something I have had to deal with. There are 1-4 women in each play and there is not one whose race is specified. No one will ever ask if I’ve played “her.” No one would know who they meant. I am lucky that way.

By the end of this show, tears were streaming down my face. I wasn’t entirely sure why. In part, I think, it’s because it ended with a possibility of transformation. The show had a hope, for a moment, that the white guy director could see a way to change and help bring forth that change. I think I was crying, though, because I didn’t believe for a minute that that guy was going to change. I knew he wouldn’t. (Spoiler Alert: He didn’t.) And I came all over mournful for the state of American Theatre and how little hope I have for its doing anything much different than it has always done. I mean, sure, the #MeToo Movement has made waves and we’ve ousted the most egregious examples in the theatre but mostly, if dudes managed to keep their hands more or less to themselves, it’s still their sandbox.

One of the themes of American Moor was how the character, pigeonholed into Othello, really wanted to play Titania and Feste and Juliet. And honestly, if I had my hands on a theatre with a budget, I would cast him that way without even hesitating. I think a lot of us on the outskirts of the American Theatre would make that choice. But the mainstream is stuck in a world where everyone has to look the part, where Desdemonas have to be tiny, beautiful and blonde and black men can only play Othello and it shall always be thus, now and forever.

And maybe it seems like it’s just classical theatre that is like this – but it isn’t. Many of the plays that continue to march through our stages enforce similar status quos. Every theatre wants to do their artistic director’s True West and almost every artistic director is the same variety of white man. White guys raging at each other is American Theatre’s brand.

There are changes coming, I know. I know there’s a wave of people of color stepping into authority at theatres across America – but while it’s still news, still an exceptional shift, it feels like that change is a very long way off.

Anyway, I’ll be over here kicking an imaginary white guy director’s head down the road for a while and hopefully someone stepping into new power and authority will cast the guy from American Moor as Titania soon. I hope his Titania rages.

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Americans Need Dario Fo

Thanks to my dad and the Friends of the Library, a parcel full of books by and about Dario Fo arrived at my door recently. It’s been years since I last looked at his work and suddenly I was up to my ankles in Fo plays and biographies.

If you’re American, you probably haven’t seen many, or any of his plays. I’ve never even seen a notice of a production here, not to mention an actual production. This work just isn’t done in the United States. The first time I read some of his plays, I could not understand why but now that I’m reading his work anew, I actually understand completely why there’s been no American embracement of his work.

First, he and Franca Rame, his wife and artistic partner, were not allowed to enter the US until the 80s. Our government would not let him in. Second, his work is funny and while the American Theatre lets an occasional comedy through the system, it is a rare occurrence. If an American Theatre institution is going to produce foreign work, it wants it to be arty and arty usually means moody. But also the odds of doing foreign work at all are very slim. Also…particularly in the 80s – artists who had some dealings with the communist party were not likely to be heartily embraced.

Third, and this is the bit I realized while reading, the American Theatre has been much too class unconscious to welcome particularly politically progressive work. For example, in Il Ratto di Diana (the Kidnapping of Diane) – there is a recurring joke about the ruling class. And the problem is, the only theatres that could have afforded to put this show on are all funded by the ruling classes, the kind of folks who really don’t find that sort of thing amusing. The way theatre gets made in this country is antithetical to the presentation of actual working class work that might be critical of the ruling class.

American Theatre is only possible because the ruling class has, historically, donated the funds or the buildings or the grants to keep the doors open. The reason there are parties for donors and velvet ropes is that the American Theatre depends on the ruling class continuing to write them big checks.

American Theatre thinks of itself as liberal but it is rarely actually progressive. Our radical progressive theatres like Bread and Puppet and San Francisco Mime Troupe have only managed to survive by the skin of their hippie teeth – instead of embraced as the brave American changemakers they are.

American Theatre puts on a lot of plays about upper middle class families. Like, a lot. This is because those are the people who write the majority of the checks and they like to see themselves on stage. Those audiences are not so interested in being implicated among the ruling classes and so, of course, no big budget theatre has interest in translating and producing Dario Fo’s work. Of course. Of course.

Translation is part of the issue, too. The English translations we have are English, as in from England, and they read very British. In order to do these plays in America, we need to commission American writers to translate in an American style. I suspect that the way American writers are seen and supported also plays a role in keeping Fo from our stages.

But I think we need Fo’s work. We need to talk about the ruling classes. We need to develop an awareness of class. We need to put on plays that challenge our system –not just sit comfortably within it. And not for nothing, anyone deciding to produce this giant of world theatre will pick up a whole lot of hungry theatre goers who have been waiting for it. That is, if I see someone – anyone producing a Fo play any time soon, I will be purchasing tickets. I will even pay full price to actually hear and see a play that challenges the ruling class.

Also – sidebar – my Italian is passable and I’ve already done a translation of one of Rame’s plays, so I’d be happy to give Fo’s a go if you need an American translation.

Photo by D Frohman

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Everything Interesting Happens at the Edges

I remember reading about this concept in a book or a magazine or publication of some kind. I wish I could remember what the book or magazine was or who wrote it – but the memory is just at the edge of my consciousness, the way the beach is at the edge of the sea, the way the spaces between us are the places that intrigue, the way disparate parts meet each other somewhere, the way the edge of a bubble is what is vulnerable to popping. The margins, the edges, the fringes are where we are drawn again and again. That is where the action is.

I was thinking about this idea again while watching the first stages of the inspiring, intrepid Monica Byrne calling out large institutions of American Theatre. I could not help but imagine how the insiders of the American Theatre Bubble would react and respond to her criticism. I thought – “They’ll label her an outsider. They’ll question her credentials. They’ll dismiss her as someone outside the bubble, throwing stones. They’ll say she’s only criticizing because the big institutions haven’t produced her work.” I have no idea if anyone actually said that or thought or whispered it in their boardrooms – but I have seen it happen before in theatre and in many other arts and arenas. And it is why and how I am usually dismissed myself – so I’m pretty familiar with the pattern.

Seeing it outside of my own experience, though, I started to understand that criticism usually HAS to come from the edges, from the margins. Those of us at the edges have much less to lose by telling truths. (And to be clear, I think Monica is as much a theatre artist as any of the major theatres that she has tweeted to, if not more so – but there is a very narrow band of insiders that I mean to point to, the ones with deep pockets and endowments.)

Before I quit being a teaching artist, I had a lot to say about the field and what I saw happening in arts organizations but I did not feel free to share any of those things until I was prepared to give them up. My sense of freedom to say what I felt needed to be said was in direct proportion to how much I wanted and/or needed to keep my jobs. That is, while I was an insider, it was not in my interest to directly confront or address any inequities, injustices or problems in the field. Inside, I was relatively powerless to point out things that needed change.

It is not an accident that I started this blog around about the time that I realized I was not going to be enfolded into the arms of my theatre establishment. I am able to say what I say because I am in the margins.

I can almost guarantee that should, by some crazy miracle, one of my shows be suddenly snapped up by a major regional theatre or a Broadway producer and whisked into rehearsal, that you’d be hearing from me on this medium a whole lot less.

This would not be because I’d suddenly lose my brain, or my interest in changing the system. It would be because a) I’d be busy in rehearsal and b) it would not be in my best interest to compromise the one place in theatre it might be possible to make a real living. (Though you might hear a lot from me once it was all over!)

This is why you I’m blogging now. I’m in the theatre bubble enough to be able to see it but not enough to be risking my livelihood or relationships in talking about it. I’m not a complete outsider. I am a part of theatre community but I’m on the periphery and it is almost always the periphery that can point to real change or possibilities.

If you’re an institution, if you’re on the inside, and you don’t know what to do to fix the status quo, look to the fringe. Look for who is missing, bring them in and ask for their perspective. I’ve seen institutions try and make change from the inside. They ask employees to fill out surveys or do exit interviews. But those folks can never be fully honest. This is not because they lack honesty or awareness. This is because even if they’re done working with a theatre this time, they’re thinking about next time, or the way this gig might lead to the next. I have been honest at such things because I was asked to be and realized too late that honesty was not the savvy move.

A while back, I wrote a post called The Woman in the Room and it was about what it takes to stay on the inside, to tenaciously hold on to the little patch of ground one might have gained. It was for all my friends who were berating themselves for their complacency in the face of sexism in American Theatre. I said then and I will say again, that if you are a woman on the inside of the establishment (and/or anyone whose representation is negligible in the theatre,) you have to do what you have to do to stay there. We need an inside (wo)man. We need you in there. Fight when you can while you’re on the inside. Maybe gain some more ground to bring more women (and people of color, disabled people, transgender people and non-binary people) inside the establishment doors. Support those on the outside who are more able to fight for you and bring them inside when you can. And hang out at the edges. They are the most interesting places after all. They are where change is happening. Where change is possible.

 

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What I wish American Theatre would learn from the Brits (#9)

No assholes allowed.

After working on a show at the Arcola Theatre in the summer of 2006, I decided I was going to move to London when I finished grad school. My friend Yvonne (who was in that show) asked me why. I gave her a lot of reasons based on the production we worked on together. Everything I said, she’d say “Well, that was really just that show.” or “That’s not really the case.”
For example, I was convinced that English Theatre was really international and inclusive. Yvonne dismissed this by saying that our production was pretty unusual in that way.
“Ok, ok.” I said and tried a few other ideas I had about the British theatre.Then I said, “And. . . I know you’re going to say that this isn’t true and that it was just this production but it feels like nobody is really an asshole there. People just seemed to be essentially nice when dealing with each other most of the time. But I know you’re going to say that was just our show. . .”
“Oh – well – that’s true actually.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, if you’re an asshole, you don’t work. It’s just that simple.
“It feels like it’s just the opposite in the American Theatre.”
“I’ll tell you. I went to Drama school with this actor who was extraordinary. He was amazing in our King Lear but he doesn’t work. And he won’t. Because he’s a world class asshole.”
(She’s a good code-switcher. She said “ass” instead of “arse” for me.)
Can you imagine a world wherein, as an artist, you didn’t wonder if you might be a bit farther along in your career if you were a bigger asshole?
I’ve been in such a world and everyday I’m trying to recreate it. I hereby declare my theatre an asshole free zone.



You can’t afford to work in theatre. Full stop.
December 31, 2010, 1:58 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre | Tags: , ,

First, go read this: “You can’t afford to be a lighting designer” It’s a blog written by a successful lighting designer about the impossibility of making a living doing what he’s doing, even from the top of his field. It’s sobering. And I don’t think anyone can afford to work in theatre. Not if you’re an artist. (Not a designer, not an actor, not a director, not a writer. . .) The only way to make any money in the American theatre (Broadway excepted – but Bway’s a whole other thing. Most of the good stuff came from England this year. Can we really call it American Theatre?!) is to become an administrator. That’s pretty much the only way you’re going to get a salary. So to make a living, you must essentially become a gatekeeper for the migrant workers (the artists) who are trying to get into your establishment to work.

This Lighting Designer calculates his hourly wage at about $15 an hour. This is for someone with a terminal degree and expertise at the top of his field. If money is a reflection of how a culture values something, we can say that we value this designer’s work slightly above a McDonald’s burger slinger and slightly less than a legal secretary. This is for someone who is working regularly in big budget theatres. There are many many talented theatre artists who don’t have that “advantage” and they’ll count themselves lucky to get a burger slinging wage occasionally.

Meanwhile, the people who guard the gates of the institutions, those standing at the top, tend to be doing just fine. (Exhibit A: See my shocking realization that the Executive Director at the Arts Org I work for makes over $154,000 a year in the previous post.) Perhaps this is just the American way now. The top 1% making all the money while the workers at the bottom are scrambling for scraps. It’s just that in this case, the scrap scramblers all have masters degrees and “prestigious” positions. Hmmm.




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