Songs for the Struggling Artist


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.

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

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O God, that I were a man!

The interviewer had asked me about my early career as a classical actor. I was explaining the math I did after a few years of acting wherein I realized how terrible the odds were for me in classical theatre. I’d realized I had little interest in performing in contemporary work and that the jobs in Shakespeare for women were so few that I had really very little chance of continuing to work. Then she asked me, “Do you think it would have different if you were a man?”

I did not hesitate for even a second as I said some variation on “Absolutely. Definitely. No doubt.”

And it’s interesting how this question caught me by surprise. I have written streams of words on sexism in theatre and sexism in Shakespeare. I could lay out structural and institutional bias and break down a host of examples.

But somehow I had never before considered what my life would have been like were I a man. Like, if I were me and I had all the same ambitions, desires, interests, personality – all of it and I just was a man instead. And there is no question that things would have been very different for me if I’d come in with a different gender.

It’s like the story Dustin Hoffman tells about his first encounters with being dressed as a woman to work on Tootsie. After the first test with the make-up and hair designers, he asks them to make him beautiful and they tell him that what was there was as good as it was going to get. He describes becoming very sad at realizing that he would never have talked to the woman version of himself if he’d met her at a party. It wasn’t just that he, as a woman would never have had his opportunities, it’s that she would have been entirely overlooked. It’s a very moving speech. (Unfortunately, the speech is now undercut for me by another story about 17 year old he sexually harassed – but that’s another subject.) I feel a little like I had the reverse experience as Hoffman when the interviewer asked me that question. I don’t think I’d have been Dustin Hoffman – but I bet I could have worked for much longer than I did.

I knew from the beginning that I had a very limited window for working. It’s partly why I was so on fire to do it. The women’s parts in Shakespeare tend to be mostly young women – young wives and love interests. There is very little middle space. Maybe Lady Macbeth, Regan, Goneril, Paulina, Tamora and Emilia. But often they’re played by young women, too. You don’t really graduate from Juliet into something juicy. You age out and hope to play maybe the Queen in Cymbeline? You won’t be the lords, the thieves, the politicians. You won’t be the kings or the emperors or the princes. Men age into these sorts of roles and they are the bulk of the jobs. Maybe a guy gets too old to play Romeo but then he’s Hamlet-age and Macbeth age and then Lear and if not Lear, there’s Gloucester, Wooster, Egeus, Egeon, Claudius ,etc. No such journey awaits women in the classics. You go from ingénue to maybe a queen, if you’re lucky.

I played a fair amount of men in my time. Not just the “pants” roles – the Violas, the Rosalinds, the Imogens – but actual male characters: Poins, Quince, Vernon, Holofernes, Feste. And I was grateful to be able to expand my repertoire beyond being in love.

But I knew if I wanted to play Hamlet, for example, I would have to make that sort of thing happen myself. If I’d been a man, it might have been just as difficult to get someone to see me as Hamlet – plenty of male actors don’t get to play Hamlet either. But their gender would not have been one of the obstacles.

Classical acting is a tricky business no matter what your gender is. The men I know from my time in it have quit in the same numbers as women. They mostly just quit later. They got a few more years in.

The male version of me probably would have moved on to writing and directing just like this lady version of me did – but I suspect he would have had longer to build up his contacts. He’d have been given some pats on the back, gotten some brotherly advice, received some introductions that I never had a shot at.

If he’d started my theatre company, he’d have had some donors lined up or some mentors in the background. He’d have portions of the road paved for him before he ever set off driving on it. I had to build the dirt road and, also, the car.

Let me just state for the record that I am very happy to be a woman and have no desire to trade my gender. But this thought experiment got under my skin in a way that I have not been able to shake.

It is somehow easier for me to look at all the systemic blocks and institutionalized sexism as not personal – to feel like those things have been blocking all of us, not me specifically. But they HAVE blocked me specifically and I find that I envy the man version of myself who would have had a few more years on the boards – who, even if he never got to play Hamlet, would probably have gotten to kill him as Laertes, or be killed by him, as Polonius.

The thing, too, that I find upsetting about my particular experience is that it will never be better for anyone else. If you are a woman who loves classical theatre, it will always be thus. The plays will always have way more men than women. They will always have screwy old fashioned gender roles. There will never be new full exciting roles for women in Shakespeare. We’ve got some great ones. But not a LOT. And it will always be thus. Always.

That frustration led me to write plays, which is ironic given how little interest I had in new plays when I started. But…like me, our theatres are obsessed with Shakespeare. They’d rather produce Hamlet than some new play no one ever heard of.

When I came to grad school, Macbeth was the first show I directed and many people told me how happy they were to be doing Shakespeare instead of all those other plays that no one had ever heard of before. (I showed them. The next year, I directed my own play which, for sure, no one had ever heard of.) We have a major underlying problem in our field. Theatre is in love with Shakespeare and it means there are never enough jobs for women. I also am in love with Shakespeare so I get it. I understand, truly. Ask me to recite a speech, it’s going to be Shakespeare. Partly, it’s that I don’t remember any other ones but also, I love it. I’m guilty, too.

This problem has hit me many times in my positions as a Shakespeare educator as well. I have often been in the fortunate position to introduce young people to their first Shakespeare and when those girls light up with love and tell me how they’ve found THE thing they want to do – I start to worry I’ve not done QUITE right by them.

But this question…this “would it be different if you were a man?” – it has to change. There has to be a future for theatre where it WOULDN’T make a difference.

I don’t know what the answer is. It’s probably a combination of things. Maybe we call a Shakespeare break for a decade. Or increase the numbers of women’s Shakespeare companies. Or increase the funding and profiles of already existing women’s companies. Or just exclusively do reverse gender casting for a while. Or maybe we could, as a society, just really chill out about gender and let the fluidity run through the plays so gender wouldn’t matter at all anywhere.

I want a future where a Shakespeare loving person could have the same opportunities, the same road, no matter their gender.

In the end, Beatrice’s line from Much Ado About Nothing, “O, God, that I were a man!” continues with, “I would eat his heart in the marketplace.” And I guess I feel pretty strongly that if you want to eat a man’s heart in the marketplace, you should be able to do it – even if you’re not a man.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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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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The Hamlet Project – ‘Tis a knavish piece of work

The café where I came up with the idea is long gone. I think it’s three to four businesses ago in that spot now. But the project that was born there took me through eight to nine years.

It started in that café out of a need to goose my creative practice. I was finding my writing process to be a little less smooth than I liked. When I turned on the faucet, the creativity didn’t always flow the way it used to.

I felt I needed a structure within my daily practice that might drop me in to a better state of flow. Hamlet came to me because – at the time – I was working toward playing the role. I had a goal of getting back to acting and Hamlet was the top of that mountain.

I thought if I wrote in response to Hamlet, I’d tackle two goals at once. I could prepare to play Hamlet while goosing my writing practice.

I didn’t play Hamlet, really, and now I’m probably too old for it – but I did perform a soliloquy for my friend’s Hamlet rave performance and my other friend and I organized a reading wherein I got to prepare for and read the part. So I scratched the itch, even if I never held Yorick’s skull in front of an audience.

As for the writing practice – well, it was always a practice for me. It was part of a process to get me into a state of flow for whatever I thought was my “real” writing for the day. So it served me very well in that respect.

I’m not sure why I decided to share the process, really. I think I figured that only a handful of people would read it, like everything else I put on the internet, so it wasn’t really a big deal. I think I was interested in a kind of transparency of creative process so why not?

As of this writing, The Hamlet Project has received 94,113 views – so, despite my not paying it much attention – it has become the most seen thing I do. Oh, the irony!

When I wrote the last line in my notebook a few weeks ago, I thought I might feel some sense of finality – like I’d just closed a show or something. But I didn’t, really. I gave it some ceremony – just to mark the moment – but the next day, I just began the same process from the first line of Cymbeline.

So what did learn from spending a little bit of every day with a line from Hamlet? First and foremost – I am not as close a reader as I would like to think. The thing is – I was already very familiar with Hamlet. My first acting job was in a touring production. I taught it fairly often in schools. The play was not unfamiliar when I decided to dive deep into it. But writing in response to single lines made it almost impossible to gloss over meaning in the ways that I was (apparently) wont to gloss. It became very clear that I had previously been pretty satisfied to just have the gist of the line. Working with single lines forced me to not cut those understanding corners.

The process of reading so closely led me to some surprising interpretative places. I developed a whole theory about Marcellus – which caused me to really wonder where he disappeared to. Previously, I couldn’t have made much distinction between Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco. By the time I got through Marcellus’ scenes, I was ready to write his own play.

I also uncovered a fair amount of experiments I’d want to see. There are a lot of What Ifs. What if that scene between Claudius and Laertes were played as a Vaudeville routine? What if Horatio was the spy? Not just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What if Hamlet Senior had killed his father to become king? What if we saw that? What if Claudius saw it and we saw him see it? Do we develop sympathy for him?

There are so many imaginary productions and/or production moments that I found I wanted to see. This is kind of interesting because after all these years of seeing so much Shakespeare, I find it hard to get excited to see my twentieth Hamlet or seven millionth Romeo and Juliet. But it’s clear that I’d be 100% bought in to see any number of text based experiments.

Other themes that came up a lot were related to Shakespeare’s genius with the little lines. I was moved, over and over, by all the lines that seem like they’re no big deal but are actually packing extraordinary narrative or poetic punch.

My relationships with the characters didn’t change much (except for good old Marcellus.) I suppose I grew to sympathize with Ophelia instead of just being annoyed by her obedience. And I have some thoughts about that English ambassador who comes in at the end and I never paid him any mind before. There are a lot of characters who I’d enjoy seeing receive the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead treatment – and getting their own plays.

Some of my favorite moments were the lines that inspired their own longer narratives – separate from Hamlet. There are stories about a carp, a monster and a witch that bubbled up out of the source. There’s also a list of rejected ways for Laertes to kill Hamlet with an organ that still cracks me up. I did a fair amount of making myself laugh.

Most of the lines ended up as just a conversation between me and the sentence. There are a lot of entries of me trying to work it out in front of you. I’m showing my work – like a math problem.

That’s probably the Shakespeare educator in me. I am never interested in explaining a line to students but I can happily take someone through a process of figuring it out. A lot of lines are just me figuring it out.

There’s a lot of project here. There are a lot of lines in Hamlet! But in a way, that’s why the internet is a good place for this. It is much too much to read all at once. I think it would be a rather relentless book. Words connected to line after line start to become too much after a while. But as a place you can just click around, it’s a reasonably fun playground. It’s a place where, if you felt like reading JUST Polonius’ lines – you could.

It’s done now. And also not done. I’m still uploading lines I wrote about two years ago. It may be a while before I reach the end of the play on the internet but my writing process is complete. The uploading goes on.

If you were one (or many) of the 94,113 views, thank you. It means a lot to be seen.

The rest is silence.
Or – actually – the rest just needs to be uploaded. Then it will be silence.

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

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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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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A Taste of Being a Patriarch in the Patriarchy

For most of the last decade, every day, I’ve been using a line of Hamlet as my prompt for daily writing. The Hamlet Project has nearly 100,000 views and most of them are not people I know. I don’t get a lot of comments on it but when I do, they tend to assume I, the author, am a man. I have been called “sir,” for example, and also “bro.” I think, even when I am not explicitly gendered in a comment, I am assumed to be a man. I don’t know this for sure, of course – but there’s something about the tenor of the comments that makes me feel like I’m being mis-gendered.

What is that tenor? Well. The comments tend to be respectful. They tend to endow me with a level of authority I am not used to receiving in situations wherein my gender is more obvious. It’s just kind of a vibe. And it is very nice, actually.

I’m not trying to obscure my gender identity in this venue but in not making it obvious, it leaves a lot of people room to assume that I am the default gender. I’m also talking about one of the most famous male characters in history – featuring one of the most famous patriarchal struggles – AND – I say on my ABOUT page that the project began from an interest in playing Hamlet. Hamlet is a male character. It thus follows, as the night the day, ipso facto, I must also be male.

Except of course I am not. And depending on the piece that someone might read, it might or might not become obvious. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of feminist content that shows up but maybe I’m just a super woke feminist dude. There’s a way that once the assumption has been made, it will be hard to see the “narrator” differently.

That is, until it becomes obvious. Recently, I started getting lots of views and comments from a man whose website describes him as his country’s “most versatile living writer.” For a few days, I knew he was reading because my statistics reflected a lot of views from his country. He commented several times. I clicked “like” on his comments but didn’t respond to them. Then, he asked me a question, so I answered. The act of commenting revealed my picture and my name and thereby also my gender identity. And wouldn’t you know – I haven’t had a comment or a view from his country since.

I don’t think this is a situation of a person realizing I’m a woman and stalking off in fury saying, “By god, I don’t wish to know what a WOMAN has to say!” I suspect I just suddenly become a lot less interesting. A dedicated reader might just wander off for no particular reason, you know. It’s not sexism, no. It’s just – what’s that over there?

This is the thing a lot of people don’t understand about things like sexism (and racism and ableism and so on) – that it isn’t the overt stuff that gets to us. It’s really the indifference that’s adds up over time and wears us down.

It is actually super nice to be seen as the default. The misgendering is so pleasant because it comes with an assumption of capability, authority and collegiality. I know what those things feel like now and recognize that I don’t usually feel them in any of the other venues (like this one) wherein my gender is a lot more obvious.

Before I tuned into this experience of reading as male, I couldn’t have really articulated what experience I wasn’t having. I didn’t have any sense of what it felt like to have male privilege. I’m thinking of that email experience/experiment those two co-workers had when they switched email signatures for a week. We focused a lot on the male co-worker’s eye-opening interactions when he was perceived as female, how formerly easy interactions became confrontational when he was perceived as his female colleague. The story for me felt like, “See! It’s not all in our heads!”

But now I’m thinking more about what the female co-worker’s experience was when suddenly the way was cleared. I think I imagined it a little bit like that Eddie Murphy SNL sketch where he disguises himself as a white guy and people just give him stuff and throw white people parties on the bus. But of course it’s not that dramatic. No one gave that switched email co-worker an award or a pile of money when she was perceived as male, her job just got a lot faster and easier. Similarly, I’m not getting any special kudos or winning awards or praise or pats on the back in being perceived as male with my Hamlet Project, it’s just a more pleasant atmosphere and I get twice as many views.

I’m not saying it’s a paradise over there. An occasional dickhead makes his way there just like anywhere. But the dickheadery is somehow less dickheaded. The vibe over there is nice.

So I’m in no hurry to disabuse anyone of their perception and I might really enjoy using a pseudonym for some stuff in the future, just because it’s nice to roll around in male privilege for a bit.

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

They also bring you the podcast episode of this post. (It’s like an audio version of the blog.)

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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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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Who Is This Arts Education Experience For?

Having spent a couple of decades in arts education, in a multitude of schools through a dozen or so arts organizations, I’ve had occasion to wonder who it’s all for. Maybe it seems obvious. It’s for the kids, of course! It’s for the students! Except when it’s really not.

I’ll give you some examples. This first one happened recently to a musician I know. A group of kids came in for a musical theatre workshop and their chaperones pulled out some high-end cameras and microphones and began weaving in and out of the students who were trying to learn a song. The musician suggested to the grown-ups that having a safe, camera-free space to make mistakes would be beneficial to the learning process. The chaperone said, “No, but I’m trying to get some footage of their growth so this is great for me” and kept filming. Who was this workshop really for?

Or this one: Let’s say you’re putting on a play. And you cast little Jimmy to play the lead. But Jimmy is very quiet. You can’t hear Jimmy when he says his lines. When you tell Jimmy to speak up, the “problem” does not improve. And Jimmy’s not the only one you can’t hear. So you get a sound system and a bunch of mics. Jimmy has his very own lavalier. And Jimmy, because he has a mic now, gets quieter – so the sound guy has to pump the system up all the way just so people can hear Jimmy. But then the kids can’t hear the band so they miss most of their cues. Who is this for? What has Jimmy learned? He certainly hasn’t learned to project his voice. Or even how to use a microphone.

The audience, sure, has a better chance of hearing Jimmy now, however out of sync with the band he is. And the administration can rest easier knowing they’ve invested some money in making the students heard. But none of that was for Jimmy’s education.

Over and over, I’ve watched adults twist themselves into knots trying to put on a good show. They invest their own artistic aspirations into the students’ work and do whatever it takes to get something polished onstage. This is never going to happen. Your students aren’t that good. They’re not going to put on a Broadway quality show no matter how much you yell at them. I’m sorry to break it to you but your students are probably not good. Yet.

And once you realize that student work is not there to be good, you can start to tune in to what it IS there to do. It’s there to give the students an opportunity to learn. They will learn something in the process of putting on a show – no matter how it happens. But if what they’re primarily learning is how to please their director, they are not having the richest possible learning experience.

Putting on a school play is valuable for so many reasons. The opportunities for learning and discovery are endless, really. But for me, to me, privileging the production over the students’ learning is getting in the way of the best opportunities. One of those opportunities is failing at it. If you, for example, don’t learn your lines as well you’re supposed to and then you go out onstage and forget them, that is an excellent lesson you just learned. For me, the most potent part of every theatrical experience in education is when the students unpack all the things they wish they’d done better. That’s learning in action.

But…in my experience, most people who put on plays in schools are much more concerned with how the play looks than how the students are learning in it. They are worried about how it will look or sound to administrators, to parents or to funders. School plays (and concerts and presentations and so on) are 9 times out of 10 – not really for the people putting them on but some authority that their teacher/director wants to impress.

And the reality is, you’re probably not going to be able to change that. But it can be helpful to name it as it’s happening – to be clear that you’re getting a sound system for the principal because she gets so cranky when she can’t hear students or to be clear with your students that you’re spending time on light cues that you could have spent rehearsing because the school board decides the funding based on these shows and they need all the bells and whistles. That’s who the show is for, then. It’s an audition for the school board budgetary committee, not a learning experience. And knowing that can sometimes make engaging in those parts a little easier. You can yell at the students to be louder for the principal and do some character exercises for their growth. Personally, I’d prefer a theatre program that allows for discovery and failure and learning but most programs aren’t built that way. Which is, frankly, one of the reasons why I moved away from arts education.

But before I go completely, I want to share a chapter of a book on Teaching Shakespeare that I’ve been working on. It speaks to this question of who it’s for and what exactly you’re doing when you work on Shakespeare through performance. It’s something I clarified while teaching graduate students in education and as far as I know it’s a distinction that no one’s making and a distinction I think is crucial at this point in the field’s development Shakespeare education.

The text is here on my Shakespeare website and there is a direct line between this post and that chapter. If this topic speaks to you, particularly if you are an arts educator, click on over. But meanwhile even if you are not an educator, this perspective on learning might be useful when you go and see student work. Parents, for example, can be important advocates for more student-centered work. Or, at the very least, you can avoid complaining about not being able to hear little Jimmy. Remember, the show is for Jimmy’s learning, not for you.

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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In Praise of Violence (On Stage)

While writing my last fundraising email for my company’s feminist Measure for Measure, I found myself going on a bit of a rant about the response to the violence in our show. I realized advocating for violence was probably not a particularly wise way to ask for money, so I stopped myself before I went too far. And going too far is what I was talking about.

Many don’t experience Measure for Measure the way I do – they don’t feel the multitude of injustices stacking up against the women in this play as anything to get too upset about. It’s a comedy, after all! I mean, sure Angelo’s a hypocrite, but he just wants to sleep with an aspiring nun, is that so wrong? Sure, the Duke sits by and watches people’s lives torn apart, actively participating and lying to make their experience more dramatic and painful and setting up sadistic scenario after sadistic scenario – but it all works out in the end, right? And he marries Isabella! (Apologies if you don’t know what I’m talking about and you’re not familiar with Measure for Measure, stick around, there’s more non-Shakespeare violence to come.)

I understand the prevailing feeling that these men are not so bad and therefore don’t deserve to be murdered in a blood bath at the end of the play, for example. (Yes, that was our ending. Spoiler alert!) Certainly, yes, there are worse men. Lavinia’s rapists, Imogen’s almost rapists, Kate’s rapist husband…oh wait, you probably mean murderers.

Violence is used against women over and over throughout Shakespeare’s plays and also the entirety of Western literature and entertainment. And over and over again, in text after text, image after image, women just have to sit there and take it. Men avenge women’s deaths and rapes but the women themselves are just dead or damaged. Or made dead due to their “damage.” (I’m looking at you, sweet Lavinia.) Never never do the women get to avenge themselves. Never do they get to grab a sword and make everyone pay for their agony. And you know what? That’s what I need.

Catharsis has been for men for as long as there has been drama and it’s about goddamn time women got some of that sweet sweet catharsis ourselves. When I started this Measure for Measure experiment, I was clear that catharsis is what I was seeking and clear that only violence could do the job.

Not everyone agreed with me. Despite being a cast of women, there were many among them who did not feel that blood needed be drawn. Many felt that the sins committed by the men in power in the play were not so bad. The blood bath I had in mind did not seem commensurate with the crime. That’s probably true. Probably there are many men in Shakespeare who deserve to get murdered by angry women more than Angelo and the Duke do. I’ll leave those deaths for someone else to stage – but for me, to experience a genuine catharsis at the end of a show was worth every possible injustice in it.

I have seen so many women assaulted, raped and murdered on stage and on screen. I could not begin to count the victims I’ve seen in my theatre going, TV watching, film viewing lifetime. For ages, a woman’s presence in a work of drama was for the sole purpose of getting the hero justifiably angry so he could have his catharsis at the end. Women have mostly been cast to be the victims. That’s what an ingénue is for.

I have a theatre friend who moved to LA to work in film and TV and has had a fair amount of success. She has played almost exclusively victims. Her reel is just, like, a parade of violence and abuse against her. Did she deserve any of that? Did all the women who have been abused, assaulted, raped and murdered onstage and onscreen deserve all those things?

But it was all for men’s catharsis.

I need some damn catharsis now.

You think Shakespeare wasn’t interested in violence? I mean, crack open a copy of Titus Andronicus! It wasn’t enough for Lavinia to be raped by her stepbrothers – no, they had to cut out her tongue and cut off her hands as well. Then her father kills her out of “mercy.” Did Lavinia deserve that?

I killed Angelo and the Duke (and Lucio, just for fun) onstage not just for the women in the play, for Isabella and Mariana and Mistress Overdone, but also for Lavinia. And you know what? It’s also for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford – because we can’t drag her assailant out of the Supreme Court without causing a whole heap of trouble. So we kick The Duke in the balls. If we kick The Duke in the balls, maybe just maybe no actual balls will need to get kicked.

If we don’t find outlets for our fury in the safety of our stages, if we don’t get catharsis in some way or another, I can’t promise the rage that has been building, lo, these five thousand years won’t burst forth into a real live bloody revolution. If the woman on man violence makes you uncomfortable to watch, that’s appropriate. That’s what it’s been like for women watching women be victimized all these years.

I’m kind of imagining some restorative dramatic justice. For every rape or sexual assault or domestic violence plot, I’m going to need two kicks in the balls and at least two violent murders. And we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, theatre and cinema-wise, so we might have to kick and kill in some grey areas for a while. Maybe what Louis CK did wasn’t so bad on the shitty scale, not as bad as rape, certainly, but in anything he’s in next, he’s going to need to be brutally attacked or he’s never going to work again. So sayeth the scales of theatrical justice.

Photo from our workshop performance of Measure for Measure, featuring Connie Rotunda, Katherine Lee, Brooke Turner and Sonia Villani, with fight direction by Dan Renkin

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This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous one on Anchor, click here.

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Mature
July 20, 2018, 9:27 pm
Filed under: age, art, clown, comedy, music, theatre | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I have arrived at the point in my career wherein people are starting to call my work “mature.” It has happened with my playwriting. It has happened with my singing. And I do not like it. In both of these instances, “mature” seemed to be meant as a compliment. “Mature” is not (yet) code for “old” – but meant to suggest a kind of complexity and evolution. I think. So why don’t I like it? Surely I want my work to mature, right? I want my work to age like a good cheese or a fine wine, don’t I?

Don’t I? I don’t know. I’m trying to understand why “maturing” doesn’t please me. At the heart of my discomfort of it is the dismissal of what came before. If this play is mature, it suggests that the plays that came before were immature, just little adolescent saplings running around untethered. It implies a kind of linear artistic development and I just don’t think such a thing exists. An artistic life does not travel in a straight line. It circles. It comes back around to ideas from the past and brings them to the future.

It’s like this conversation my partner and I had about Shakespeare. He noticed that sometimes when scholars don’t have definitive evidence for when a play was written, some of them will group the plays thematically. That is, they think because Shakespeare wrote a play about fathers and with disobedient daughters in one year, that that would suggest the undated father-daughter play would be around the same time. To me, that’s bananas. While certainly we all have our artistic phases where we obsess over one thing for awhile – we also have artistic touchstones, ideas that we return to again and again, ideas that we investigate anew from a new place in the life circle.

And maybe that’s why I find the idea of maturity so uninteresting. I mean, Shakespeare, again, is a good example of this. Some might say Hamlet is his most “mature” play. It sits at the top of achievement in Western literature. And yet it sits right in the middle of his career. Probably written in 1600, Shakespeare had many more plays to write after that one. Some of those plays are very silly and some of them are quite wild (including my favorite, Cymbeline.) Which are the most “mature”?

Maybe it’s my clown training but I am not particularly interested in maturity. Maturity has airs of seriousness, waves of severity that just don’t connect with my sense of play. When someone calls me immature, they are usually pointing out my irreverence, silliness or non-conformity. I value all those things tremendously.

I know maturity doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve lost my irreverence but maturity smells like mothballs to me. What I hope people who tell me my voice has matured (either metaphorically or literally) mean is that my stuff is complex, layered and interesting. I sometimes get called “wise,” too. And I like that just fine. I like it a lot, actually. Because there is always space for a wise fool.

I suppose, too, that I can’t help but keep returning to the idea that labeling my current work as “mature” suggests that my previous work is less than. And I just don’t appreciate any compliments for my newborn that insult my previous creative children.

I don’t mean to make anyone self conscious about giving me compliments. I don’t receive quite enough of them to start getting picky about them. Believe me, I sincerely thanked every person who called my work “mature” because it feels appropriate to accept a compliment in the spirit it was given, even if it has an odor of backhandedness about it.

I will say, though, that no one has seen enough of my body of work to make such a judgment. The only human to have a thorough enough experience of my oeuvre would be my mother. She’s the only one who’s seen enough of it to make that call. And I think the last time she called me “mature” was when I was a teenager. (I was very mature then. I’m not sure I am anymore! )

So, if you are tempted to call someone’s work mature, maybe dig a little deeper. What do you mean?

Is the work complicated? Layered? Deep? Rich?

I mean – let’s look at wine and cheese. We don’t stop at describing a wine or cheese mature. We call it nutty or grassy or robust or smooth.

I would be so delighted to have my work described with the subtlety of wine or cheese descriptions. Some of my work may be mature. It may be immature. Neither of those categories is useful to me. Call it robust or nutty, though? I’m gonna eat that up.

This blog is also a podcast. You can find it on iTunes.

If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Anchor, click here.

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are now an album of Resistance Songs, an album of Love Songs, an album of Gen X Songs and More. You can find them on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

*

You can help support both my maturity and immaturity

by becoming my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

*

Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 

 

 




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