Originally published by tcg on August 27, 2014
Post image for #Ferguson: They Who Have the Guns Have the Power

Torie Wiggins as Mimi, Meggy Hai Trang as Anita, Keisha Kemper as Harry, Burgess Byrd as Shilo, Ken Early as Maddox, Darnell Benjamin as Knox, Jon Kovach as Overseer Jones, and Sola Thompson as Vivian. Photo by Daniel R. Winters

(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MOThis series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia AlickMica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

I was on a plane back to Los Angeles from Cincinnati the day Michael Brown was shot. Having been on the road for 11 weeks, it was a few days before I could focus on anything other than sleep. When I came to and took in the full weight of what was going on in Ferguson, I was saddened and horrified, but not surprised. And as with all of these kinds of shootings, I was very aware of my privilege as a white woman – I have never had to fear the police – and also as an artist who has the chance to make and remake the world through theater. Theater has the potential to remind us who we are, who we have been, and who we might become.

The play I just directed at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati , Harry and the Thief, by Sigrid Gilmer, has become the lens through which I am interpreting the unfolding events in Ferguson; through which I am finding relief from my anger about police brutality and the evolution of America’s prison-industrial complex, especially as it affects poor people of color; and through which I am able to see Ferguson as what it is: American history repeating and repeating and repeating itself.

This is not just because the play is funny (it is) and I really, really need a laugh right now (I do). It’s not just because the writing, acting, and design are really, really good (they are). And it’s not just because the play reminds me that America’s original sin – that of slavery – reverberates and challenges and corrupts our culture on every level and at every moment in our history, including now (it does). It’s because the play creates an alternate reality in which the people with the power to decide who lives and who dies are black.

Harry and the Thief, a play in which a woman travels back in time to provide weapons to Harriet Tubman, is the definition of “empowering:” It uses the fact that Tubman’s life was so fantastical as to seem fictional to create a world in which black people have much more power than they had then and now. In real life, a teenaged Tubman intervened in an argument between a slave and the overseer to whom she had been hired out that day, and she was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight for her trouble. When she was 27, she ran away with her brothers, who promptly got scared and forced her to turn back. Two weeks later, she left on her own and made it to freedom. When Tubman became involved with the Underground Railroad, she gladly accepted the title of Moses, declaring that God had in fact called her to go down South and bring up her brothers and sisters. Though she was a woman, the majority of the slaves she led to freedom were men. She not only attended abolitionist meetings in the North but also spoke from the stage to audiences composed primarily of white males. Tubman, in short, had some serious, if metaphorical, balls.

Ann Petry on Harriet Tubman

Image from the cover of Ann Petry’s book on Harriett Tubman

This manly degree of strength is epitomized in the iconography, established long ago and exploited by Gilmer in the play, of Tubman wielding that most phallic of tools: A gun. Depictions of Tubman with a weapon have always been controversial, especially to those who would rather think of her as a religious leader than as a soldier, but they are truthful nonetheless. During the war she almost certainly carried the rifle shown in most images of “the General”. During her time as Moses, she carried a pistol, and as Gilmer dramatizes, she used that pistol to intimidate scared escapees into continuing. Significantly, however, no record exists of Tubman ever actually injuring anyone.

Just as the real Tubman never shot any of the fugitives in her care, in Harry and the Thief, when the fictional character of Vivian is provided with multiple opportunities to shoot the unarmed white overseer who repeatedly raped her, she chooses not to.[1] Though Mimi, modern gunslinger and time-traveler, questions Harry’s decision to even let the overseer tag along on their journey, Harry and Vivian see him as a person just as in need of freedom as anybody else. In fact Gilmer goes so far as to redeem both of the white characters in the play by having them be sorry, making the “fiction” part of her “historical fiction” the provision of a kind of closure to that period of our history that in reality, neither white nor black Americans have ever had.

In reality, black women, who are both more likely to experience assault and less likely to report it than white women, rarely have the chance either to punish or forgive their attackers. In reality, racists, rapists, and human traffickers rarely say that they are sorry even when they are caught. In reality, it is not militarized black women who are a threat to unarmed white men. Rather, black Americans are profiled, discriminated against, segregated, jailed, impoverished, and denied access to justice at astonishing rates. A black man in this country can be shot for holding a toy gun. A black woman who fires a warning shot to fend off an attacker can be put in jail for the rest of her life. A black teenager can be stalked and killed by a vigilante who is later found innocent by a jury of his peers. It goes on and on.

But Harry and the Thief does not just offer insight to people who already agree with me about race, guns, and power in America. It can also be enlightening to people who are wondering whether the alleged petty crime Michael Brown committed or the marijuana in his system somehow did make him a threat and to people who think that a few looters and a Molotov cocktail that didn’t light might justify bringing attack dogs to peaceful protests, using tear gas, and calling in the National Guard. Gilmer’s humorous flipping of the script can enable anyone to see that, whether in fiction or reality, it’s the people with the weapons that have the power.

Theaters looking to do something to spark discussion of Ferguson in their communities should take a look at Gilmer’s play. Whether your audiences are primarily composed of people whose legitimate rage over injustices committed against black people in Ferguson needs the temporary remediation of laughter, or people whose sympathy with a white cop’s fear of a tall black teenager needs the remediation of witnessing a truly disempowered person holding a gun on someone who is actually a threat to her very existence and choosing not to shoot, this play has much to offer. People in the second group might even be prompted to ask themselves, if a young fugitive slave who was forced to carry her rapist’s child against her will can believably hold her attacker, who has hunted her down at night in the woods, at gunpoint and yet choose to let him live, then why, in the middle of the day, can a white cop with a gun not manage to do the same for an unarmed black teenager who, to the cop’s knowledge, had done nothing worse than walk in the street instead of on the sidewalk? [2]

In Ferguson, the police and the National Guard have the guns. They have the dogs, the riot gear, the batons, and the tear gas. They have the power. They are the threat to the lives, safety, and freedom of the citizens living there, not the other way around.

If you’re in Cincinnati, check out The Know Theatre’s production of Harry and the Thief, which runs through Saturday, August 30.

[1] Vivian does use her gun to shoot Confederate soldiers during the war, which is completely different from shooting an unarmed man in peace time.

[2] This is according to the police department’s original statement. The shooter has since changed his version of events.

Originally published by The Know Theatre of Cincinnati on July 17, 2014

10429246_10152366692474261_3680419330091930245_nIn preparation for directing Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry & the Thief, I’m reading a book called Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History. In it, the author, Milton C. Sernott, traces the development of Harriet Tubman as American icon by examining primary sources, children’s books (there are more than 100), and historical biographies. Quoting historian David W. Blight, Sernott explains how myth develops from a combination of history and memory:

Memory is often treated as a sacred set of potentially absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage of a community. Memory is often owned; history, interpreted. Memory is passed down through generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sacred sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts and the complexity of cause and effect. History asserts the authority of academic training and recognized canons of evidence; memory carries the often powerful authority of community membership and experience.

Gilmer’s new play about one of the most famous African Americans in history draws on both history and cultural memory to depict Tubman as we’ve never seen her before.

Whereas first-hand accounts of Tubman telling her own story use the dialect typically ascribed to illiterate slaves – “I saw de’ oberseer raisin’ up to throw an iron weight at one ob de slaves an’ dat wuz de las’ I knew” – Gilmer’s Tubman speaks with the voice of a modern leader. Whereas many accounts of Tubman’s life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad conflate historical fact with received memories without comment, Gilmer uses contemporary songs and film tropes to emphasize the fact that when we tell the story of Harriet Tubman, we are telling a story on a scale as epic as that of any ancient mythology.

When the Know approached me about directing Harry, I responded with enthusiasm but also asked that every attempt be made to find a black woman to direct. Though as a journalist I have covered successful collaborations between black playwrights and white directors (see here and here), and one between a white playwright and a black director (here), I am extremely wary of co-opting the story of a black woman as told by another black woman.

Many times in the history of American entertainment, the creative endeavors of African Americans have been stolen, imitated, corrupted, and otherwise used for profit by white Americans. Sometimes it’s done poorly (see my piece on Miley Cyrus at the VMAs), and sometimes it’s done with amazing artistic integrity. But even Jenji Kohan, who means well and is making a hugely important contribution to diversity in entertainment with her series Orange is the New Black, has not been able to avoid turning a story about something largely experienced by women of color and poor women into a partial regurgitation of the lie of the rich, white savior.

In Harry and the Thief, there is no white savior.

First Read

In fact, there are only two white characters, and though their arcs are fascinating and integral to the play, this is story about fugitive slaves, about contemporary black men and women grappling with the ongoing legacy of slavery in American culture, and about the malleability of history, especially when it comes to the disenfranchised.

As a director, I often describe what I do as translation. I translate writing on the page into action on the stage. I translate actor impulses into narrative structures. I translate history and memory into stories being told right here, right now, right in front of the audience. My hope with this production is that I can serve primarily as a translator for the epic myth of Harriet Tubman, for Gilmer’s voice, and for the memories and thoughts and feelings of the actors embodying these characters. Because I can read about the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad, I can read about modern-day discrimination, and I can imagine myself walking in the shoes of a person who experienced/s that. But I cannot remember it.

One of my favorite teachers and mentors, Anne Bogart, has a new book out, What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling, in which she advises readers on the value of telling stories even about things you the storyteller and your audience have never experienced:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the hegemony of isolationism is not a solution to our present global circumstances. Our understanding of action and responsibility is changing. We know that our tiniest gestures have large-scale effects, as do the outward ripples of a pebble thrown into a pond. In moments such as these, of upheaval and change, stories become necessary to frame our experiences. … From their ancient origins and continuing through today, stories bind societies by reinforcing common values and strengthening the ties of a shared culture. But they do more than that. Stories give order and meaning to existence and are less costly than direct experience because with stories it is possible to collect information without having to personally undergo the experience. … In the theater we construct journeys for audiences utilizing the tools of time and space. An effective production communicates in ways that infiltrate the audience in multiple layers, weaving details and scenes, narration, imagery, symbolic action, plot and character. We create societies, tell stories, and propose means by which people can live together with increased humanity, empathy, and humor.

Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry and the Thief not only provides a new version of the Tubman myth, it also endows that myth with the possibility of engendering even more dramatic social change.

I can’t wait to get started translating this play into a production that can provide audiences with the opportunity to dream and imagine a future on a scale as grand as Gilmer’s fictional one.

Originally posted on The Sappy Critic:

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Sola Thompson, Ken Early, Burgess Byrd, Darnell Pierre Benjamin, and Keisha Kemper in HARRY AND THE THIEF at Know Theatre / Photo by Deogracias Lerma

If you saw Know Theatre’s production of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON then you have a pretty decent idea of what to expect from HARRY AND THE THIEF, minus the music.  HARRY, billed as “a hilarious and socially relevant mashup of action movie swagger and historical melodrama, where a mad scientist sends his thieving cousin back in time to arm Harriet Tubman – with lots and lots of guns” lives up to its advertising.

Essentially, the show is an action movie on stage and scenic designer (and Know Artistic Director) Andrew Hungerford makes the most of the space by using a projection screen to set time and place, often with outrageously funny slides and sight gags.  Director Holly L. Derr places her wonderful cast on the…

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photo1I’m staring at a blank screen, trying to figure out how to write about the thing I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I won’t say his name: I won’t give him that. I won’t read his manifesto: I won’t give him that. I won’t watch his video: I won’t give him that. The Jagweed of Isla Vista, as I prefer to call him, doesn’t deserve our attention. So why can’t I stop thinking about him?

The Jagweed was born and raised in Hollywood. The Jagweed was “treated” by a Hollywood psychiatrist – in fact, this is the second client of note of that doctor to kill himself. The Jagweed also announced his intentions to the world not just through written words but also through a reportedly well-made video that included a scenic background of Hollywood’s iconic palm trees.

Why did the Jagweed of Isla Vista kill six people and injure thirteen more? Because he couldn’t get laid. He hated women for it, and he hated men that do get laid almost as much.

Initial media reports, of course, chose to focus on the Jagweed’s mental illness rather than his misogyny. Luckily feminists were not willing to let that stand, and they have since covered his relationship to the Men’s Rights Movement and Pick-Up-Artist Hate groups extensively. Washington Post media critic Ann Hornaday even went so far as to wonder whether Hollywood culture, as created by rich, white men, had given this Jagweed the mistaken notion that his money and his masculinity entitled him to sex. As you can imagine, the rich, white males running Hollywood did not take kindly to that.

photo2The most powerful response to the tragedy appeared on twitter in the form of the massively trending hashtag #YesAllWomen. A response to #NotAllMen, which provides men with the opportunity to claim that sexism is not their responsibility because they’ve never personally done anything sexist (to which I say, really? Are you sure?), #YesAllWomen allows women to give voice to the constant sexual assaults and harassment that all women suffer. No, not all men are sexist. But all women are the victims of sexism. All the time. Every day. Every where.

I don’t imagine that #YesAllWomen will persuade MRAs and PUAs and PUAHaters or the men behind #NotAllMen that they bear any responsibility for creating a culture that views women as objects to be “gotten” and men as totally within their rights to punish women who refuse to be got. Hornaday didn’t even name Seth Rogen in her article (though she did name Judd Apatow), yet Rogen felt the need to defend himself and debunk her to his two million twitter followers, effectively silencing any conversation on the notion that film creates culture. Fan pages honoring the Jagweed have popped up on Facebook and, despite being flagged as hate sites, they have not been taken down. And of course MRA and PUAHate sites are ablaze with comments supporting his act of revenge on a world that refused to give him his due.

The truth is, film does create culture. So does Facebook. So does Twitter. So do YouTube videos like the one the Jagweed made. So do reality-TV shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, which featured a husband who beat his wife, sought mental health care from the same psychiatrist that “treated” the Jagweed, and eventually killed himself.

Is Hollywood to blame for a psychopath’s killing spree? Of course not. Is the Jagweed’s psychiatrist to blame that he refused to take his medicine? Probably not. Are his parents to blame for his inflated ego and sense of entitlement? Well, possibly. Are MRAs to blame for validating his hate and adding fuel to his fire? Definitely. Are lax gun laws to blame for putting weapons in the hands of a killer? For sure.

photo3Hollywood is, in this case, the least of all the evils that plagued this fucked up, deranged, misogynist Jagweed. But Hollywood is not an innocent bystander, either. Film creates culture, and when film is created entirely by rich, white men, the culture created by film inevitably validates men like them and often invalidates the lives and desires and bodies of everyone else.

One of my favorite pieces of writing to come out of this so far is actually by a dude: Arthur Chu, a self-declared Nerd who is nevertheless able to recognize that just because he doesn’t fit the Hollywood stereotype of the alpha male does not mean that he is being systematically denied his rights as a man to “get the girl.” Chu exhorts his fellow men to accept the fact that it’s not up to them whether and with whom women have sex. It’s up to women:

We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.

What did [the Jagweed] need? He didn’t need to get laid. None of us nerdy frustrated guys need to get laid. When I was an asshole with rants full of self-pity and entitlement, getting laid would not have helped me.

He needed to grow up.

We all do.

A few weekends ago, I made a pass at a guy at a party who not only rejected me, he also spent much of the party flirting with someone else. Sure, my pride was injured. Sure, I was disappointed. And it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been rejected. I was never the popular girl: in fact I’ve had all of two boyfriends in my whole life, one of whom became a husband who ultimately rejected me in the most profound way possible: he left me for another woman, told me that it was because I didn’t make enough money, and blamed me for everything from his failed career to his dysfunctional relationship with his mother.

What’s the diff between me and the Jagweed? I haven’t been hearing the message my whole life that I should get whatever I want whenever I want it, so I didn’t pick up a gun and punish the world because I couldn’t get laid.  Instead, I grew up.

Nicole Shalhoub and Corey Brill in South Coast Repertory's 2014 world premiere of FIVE MILE LAKE by Rachel Bonds

When I hear producers say, “Plays by women don’t sell tickets” (and they seem to say that a lot), I always find myself asking, “Which plays by which women?”

The classification “plays by women” denotes nothing other than the author’s sex, and any two plays by any two women are as likely to be as different as any two plays by men. Would anyone, for example, group plays by the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre with those by the humanist William Shakespeare in the single category “plays by men” and assume that that tells us anything about those plays?

The fact is that an author’s sex does not dictate her content, and plays don’t sell tickets based on the sex of their authors. They sell tickets based on whether the play is any good or not.

Two shows opening in Southern California this month illustrate perfectly the fact that one woman’s play is not  another’s, and whether either of them is right for your local theater to produce really depends on its mission and your aesthetic, not the author’s sex.

Rachel Bonds’ Five Mile Lake—a 30-something life-crisis play about a group of friends from the same small town—begins performances at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa on April 13. Premeditation, by Evelina Fernández—a black comedy performed by The Latino Theater Company—opens April 17 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

Bonds, Rachel

Producers looking to attract audiences younger than the typical baby boomer ticket buyer would be wise to take a look at Five Mile Lake. Playwright Bonds says her own small-town upbringing inspired this why-haven’t-I-come-of-age-yet story about family, friends and the struggle to find a home, both literally and metaphysically. Mary, whose brother has just returned from Iraq, works in a bakery alongside Jamie in the town where they both grew up. Jamie’s brother, Rufus, comes back from NYC to visit for the weekend with his girlfriend, prompting everyone to look closely at the past, the present and their dreams for the future.

Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, the play provides a different perspective with each character. Jamie respects tradition—he has stayed in town, poured his savings into the family lake house and is taking care of his aging mother. Rufus, who lives in the big city, is working on his Ph.D without much progress and becoming increasingly directionless. His girlfriend, Peta, an ethnically ambiguous transplant from England, has left her family a whole continent behind. Mary wants to move to New York but is staying home to care for her brother, who has returned from war with PTSD.

Refreshingly, the play does not provide solutions to anyone’s problems. In fact its dramatic effectiveness depends upon a certain amount of ambiguity. Depending on their values and experiences, audience members may come away with completely different ideas of what will happen to these characters once the play is over and they return to their day-to-day lives. Director Daniella Topol says this complexity is reflective of that generation at this moment:

It’s about the anxiety of what it means to be 30-something and trying to find your path, not having a family, not knowing if you want one, not knowing what it means to be rooted. It’s about people looking for individual purpose, family purpose and the purpose of the nation. What do we and don’t we do for our families? How do we care for our aging parents? How do we care for our siblings? How do we have room in our life for children?

Though it may add to the experience, you do not have to be from a small town to appreciate the complexity of defining home.Five Mile Lake runs through May 4.

PREM0238 copy

Premeditation is recommended for producers looking to bring in more diverse audiences, particularly in the Southwest. Evelina Fernández wrote and stars in this production about a disgruntled wife who hires a hit man to kill her UCLA-professor husband. (The show is directed by Fernandez’ husband, José Luis Valenzuela, who, not coincidentally, also teaches at UCLA.) When the wife, Esmerelda, meets up with the hitman, Mauricio, in a hotel room, her husband Fernando and Mauricio’s wife Lydia find out and suspect an affair. When they show up at the hotel to confront their spouses, hijinks ensue.

Staged and designed in the style of film noir, the play uses tango music to set the scene for the battle of the sexes that these two couples play out. Esmerelda worries that after devoting herself to supporting her husband’s career and raising their kids, she hasn’t accomplished anything in her own life and therefore her husband no longer appreciates her. She regrets that she doesn’t have a college education, and has dedicated herself to learning by carrying around a large thesaurus. Her use of both English and Chicano words to parry and riposte in the noir style is better than that of most accomplished women, and her sensuality is evident as she proceeds to instruct Mauricio in how to put some romance back into his own marriage. Meanwhile, Lydia,  mistakenly convinced that her husband is cheating, also manages to help Fernando understand what’s wrong in his relationship.

Evelina Fernandez

The Latino Theater Company has been creating theater together since 1985, so developing the script as an ensemble led by a husband-wife team naturally involved a certain amount of intimacy and willingness to explore their own marriages. Fernández shared that, early on, the men and the women working on the show disagreed about whether Esmerelda would ultimately end her marriage or not. The men had a hard time imagining that she would really do it; the women believed she would be able to build a new life for herself. I won’t tell you who won that battle: Go see the play.

Since 1990, when the Latino Theater Company produced August 29 about journalist Rubén Salazar, who was killed by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department, they have focused on plays about middle- and middle-to-upper-class Chicanos. Regarding this particular play’s role in fulfilling the company’s mission, Fernández shared,

Once we started [doing plays about middle-class Chicanos] that’s been what we do—not because we don’t think the other stories are valuable or important, they are—but our goal is to tell stories of the middle class. We have also learned that the way to approach serious issues with a Chicano audience is with a lot of humor. It’s a big part of our culture to laugh. This play is about relationships and marriage, and regret and fulfillment, but it’s very funny. Says the playwright.

Trust me—it is. Premeditation runs through May 11.

No doubt some plays by women won’t sell tickets at some theaters, just as some plays by men won’t. However, an audience interested in questions of how and why to live in an increasingly fragmented modern world would definitely buy tickets to Five Mile Lake. An audience that believes in the power of language to reason us through our darkest moments will gladly pay to see Premeditation.

I’m looking forward to both.

photo1Originally posted at Ms. in the Biz

It’s staffing season for television, and many of us are playing close attention to gender and race of writers getting hired. A report from the Writer’s Guild of America revealed that in the 2011-2012 season, female writers made up only 30.5% of TV staffs. Racial minorities fared even worse, comprising only 15.6%. (A UCLA study based on publicly available data put the number for women at 32.8% in broadcast television and 27.1% in cable. That study found that only 7.4% of cable writers are minorities while only 10% of broadcast writers are.)

A number of causes collude to keep staffs primarily white and male, with one of the big ones being cumulative advantage. Originally an economic theory, cumulative advantage posits that “once a social agent gains a small advantage over other agents, that advantage will compound over time into an increasingly larger advantage.” In other words, the rich get richer. As social theory, cumulative advantage is what creates white, male privilege. When young white boys are encouraged by their parents, teachers, and communities to aim high while girls are told to focus on marriage and minorities on service-industry jobs, when white boys are praised over their lifetime for whatever they do while the hard work of the girls and minorities around them goes unnoticed, and when they are put in leadership positions more readily than girls and minorities, they begin their careers as grown men with the advantage of an impressive resume and an unparalleled sense of confidence. Women and minorities with the same levels of experience and confidence have inevitably had to work twice as hard with half the support.

In television writing, white male advantage continues to accumulate as they find themselves more easily staffed, more quickly promoted, and more readily offered opportunities to develop new shows than women and minorities. Though diversity programs have begun to open doors for new writers, the best known of which provides a financial incentive to shows to staff a diverse writer by paying that writer’s salary, these programs rely on the idea that the opportunity will be the beginning of an accumulation of advantage for that writer. In a recent interview, Director of Diversity at the WGA, Kimberly Myers, told me that success of these programs depends on the extent to which showrunners and producers support diversity hires:

You have to get everybody at the network level and the development level out of the mindset that diverse writers are only staff writers. It’s great to have a way in, but once they are in the ranks, are you developing pilots with them, and if not why not? It only works if the writers are properly integrated into the staff and not marginalized and supported—it’s a mentoring business, that’s how the business works.

Another reason more women and minorities don’t get staffed and promoted at the same rates as white men is the idea of “fit.” When a show is hiring, they’re looking for someone who fits into the culture of their writer’s room. In a recent article on how this phenomenon works in newsrooms, writer Aboubacar Ndiaye put it this way:

Fit is the unquantifiable variable which makes you think that you will be able to gchat stupid gifs with someone, or drink craft brewed beer/fair trade coffee/single terroir wine with them, or bemoan the sorry state of the local sports franchise with them. It is the bro/homegirl quality, the affability borne out of similar backgrounds and similar experiences. The truth is that we organize our lives around this feeling. We seek spaces that provide the maximum amount of conviviality, from the right kind of city, to the right kind of neighborhood, to the right kind of friends and romantic partners. But when this ethos is transferred into the workplace, it leads not just to a comfortable environment, but to an exclusionary one and a moribund one.

Even once a woman or minority writer has met the “good fit” requirement, actually being in the room requires that they continue to prove their fit daily. In an article on The XX Factor/Slate, Dan Harmon (Community) said that in his experience, female staffers “do more dick jokes than anybody, because they’ve had to survive, they have to prove, coming in the door, that they’re not dainty.” Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under) shared that, “When I used to be in writers’ rooms with men, I would always try to be the most inappropriate person in the room, to tell the dirtiest jokes. It was a way of communicating that I could play with the boys. It made it harder for them to count me out.”

But this approach can backfire. Whereas men who are crass are seen as funny, crass women and minorities can be dismissed as inappropriate. Men who speak up about and defend their ideas are seen as visionary, whereas women and minorities who do the same thing are often seen as pushy or, when it’s a woman, bitchy. Being the only woman or minority in the room puts a person in the position of having to choose between a rock and hard place: S/he can conform to fit in or be themselves, but either way, s/he will face resistance from someone.

Imagine if all the energy these writers have to spend fitting in could be spent on, you know, writing. Imagine how much less time these writers would have to spend navigating sex and race if they weren’t the only ones of their kind in the room. Imagine how much better television would be.

Unfortunately, the continued lack of diversity in writer’s rooms makes me think too many people lack the ability to imagine that. So next time you find yourself in conversation with a showrunner or producer who just doesn’t see why having a diverse writer’s room is important, here’s a few reasons that may speak to them on their level.

 10 Reasons Your Show Should Staff a Diverse Writer

10. Because they generally earn less than white men, they can save you a lot of money.

9. Women will inevitably bring moderate to major room-odor improvements.

8. When viewers of color get pissed that the one character you wrote that represents them is an offensive stereotype, your minority writer can explain why they’re so angry. Better yet, s/he may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

7. When women viewers get pissed because all of your characters are defined entirely as mothers, wives, nurses, or sluts, women staffers can explain why that sucks. Better yet, she may be able to keep you from making that mistake in the first place.

6. Chicks dig dudes who hire chicks.

5. Being able to say, “Some of my best writers are minorities,” upon committing a racial faux pas can get you out of some sticky binds.

4. Prostate exam jokes: Cliché. Gynecological exam jokes on the other hand …

3. White dudes making jokes about people of other races: Not cool. People of color making jokes about white people: Hilarious.

2. Even some zombies are women and minorities.

1. Women and minorities represent a paltry percentage of writing staffers but are far and away the majority of the viewing audience, and their jokes, stories, and perspectives make for damn good television.

In their pieces, “Women Directors: Language Worth Repeating” and “The Revolution Will Be Systemic: A Response to ‘Women Directors‘,”Jess K. Smith and Hannah Hessel Ratner have started an important conversation about the language that directors use in rehearsal and the extent to which it is gendered. As Ratner pointed out, this is a conversation that’s happening in many fields, and it has been happening ever since women started making it into upper-management positions.

In fact Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, has just launched a campaign to “Ban Bossy,” so that girls who used to be called bossy start to be told instead that they are leaders. Efforts like this to change the culture, though, are long-game solutions to an immediate problem. In the meantime, how do women directors, especially those just starting out, balance the competing demands of actually leading with gendered expectations as to what constitutes good leadership?

The tendency that Smith observed in her students to end their directions with a question is so engrained in young women today that they often pitch their voices up at the end of sentences whether they are asking a question or not. This “uptalk” reads, to people older than Gen Y, as submissiveness. But, as I wrote in my article on the trend, to other people the same sex and age of the speaker, uptalk simply denotes membership in that particular demographic group. In fact, if Smith’s student was directing other people her age, they probably did not find her at all lacking in authority. More likely, they saw her as one of them and therefore trustworthy.

Young women–surrounded in every other part of their lives by women who talk just like they do–are increasingly responding to mentors, teachers, and bosses who try to help them overcome these vocal habits by, as Ratner did, arguing that they shouldn’t have to change for society. Society should change for them. People should learn that asking questions and using uptalk is a sign of caring what the other person thinks, not of submissiveness.

As with Sandberg’s plan to ban bossy, this revolution will be great. But unless young men adopt this pattern of speaking, too, it is unlikely to become normative for the whole society any time soon. Young women, then are still forced to chose between assimilating, as Smith put it, by adopting a more authoritarian attitude, or trying to get resisters in the cast, design team, and crew to accept that their director’s way of speaking does not make her weak.

The choice becomes even trickier when you recognize that we are conditioned to read the same behaviors differently depending on the sex of the person performing them.  What is seen as submissive in women is often seen as collaborative in men. Likewise, what is seen as clear vision in a man can be interpreted as inflexibility in a woman. This means that Smith’s suggestion that directors articulate “big huge messy ideas that aren’t yet perfected” is far more of a risk for a woman than for a man. A male director who does that is likely to be seen as brave and collaborative. A woman is more likely to be seen as lacking vision.

This is what feminists call a double bind. If you use more authoritative, masculine language, you risk being seen as a bitch. If you use questions and uptalk, you risk being seen as submissive. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

As a result, most women directors, especially at the beginning of their careers when most of the people in the room are older than they are, spend about half of their time and energy dealing with micro-aggressions from collaborators who are uncomfortable with their leadership style. This means these women are spending half as much time and energy as young men actually making art. It’s no wonder, then, that more young men than women make it out of “early career” status, with its fellowships and mentorships, to actual full-time employment.

When I’ve found myself in collaborations with people who reject my direction, I’ve been advised to ignore the people who don’t respect me and just refuse to work with them again, or, alternately, to confront them. Sometimes those things work, but often they don’t. The disrespect is hardly ever out right – that’s why they are called micro-aggressions – and when confronted, most people simply accuse you of misinterpreting. On the other hand, when ignored, some people dig their heels in further and become even more disruptive. Just one person bent on undermining the director can have a deleterious effect on a production and the general esprit de corps, so while it’s all well and good to never work with that person again, the director still must do whatever she can to limit the troublemaker’s impact on the current project.

After doing this for 20 years, I wish I had more concrete advice to offer women starting out about how to bridge the gap between their voices and society’s expectations. I myself have been told to be both more familiar and more distant, more open to criticism and less easily changed, more authoritative and less demanding, more specific about what I expect and less of a micro-manager. That’s the nature of a double bind – there is no right choice.

I can only tell you the one thing that doesn’t work: Blaming yourself. The fact that many people are still predisposed to distrust women in positions of authority has nothing to do with your voice or with your vision. Though you are put in a position of negotiating the competing demands of leadership and gender, you did nothing to warrant being put there. This is the silver lining of the double bind: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, so you might as well do without ever second-guessing yourself.

Over time, your dedication to your voice and vision and your increasing numbers will precipitate change. Women and “feminine” ways of leading will become increasingly acceptable. In the meantime, spend as little time as you can choosing between a rock and a hard place. Whichever someone hits you in the head with, it still hurts.