HowlRound


Originally published by Howlround on January 28, 2016

Lynn Nottage’s newest play, Sweat, a co-commission by Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) and Arena Stage, originated in OSF’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. Nottage’s contribution to this ten-year program of commissioning “up to thirty-seven new plays from moments of change in United States history” deals with the moment of change that we are in right now, a moment she calls the “de-industrial revolution, the bookend to a century that began with the shaping of America through the Industrial Revolution.”

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage had been struck by a 2011 New York Times article about the impact of the Great Recession on the town of Reading, Pennsylvania, and, along with director Kate Whoriskey, decided to approach this project the same way they approached Ruined, Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play about Congolese women living in a war zone: by immersing themselves in a place and getting to know the people who live there.

Speaking by phone from New York, Nottage shared her love of that process:

There is something lovely about the playwright and the director going through the same process, having the same reference. I know that the experience we had in Uganda is that we made these lists. She’d write down everything she was experiencing and I’d write down everything that I’d experienced and what we found is that a lot of time our eyes pick up and see different things, which I think complement each other and fill out the experience. So when I reached out to Kate it was with that same concept in mind: that we go and do the research together, sharing the same experience but writing it down and then comparing our lists. For me it was kind of eye opening. For so many directors, theatre is a visual medium and for so many playwrights it’s a literary medium. So she would describe textures and colors whereas I would tend to describe the nature of the encounter.

What they found in Reading was a town in which the economic contraction that began in 2008 and has nearly disappeared the middle class in the ensuing years is realized literally in the architecture. Whereas Reading used to be the site of a thriving shopping economy, now “the outlet malls are all closed and you see the shells, these hollowed out buildings that still have the Kenneth Cole logo painted on them but there’s nothing inside.”

When things became fractured, they became fractured along economic lines but also racial lines. What we experienced was that everyone is sort of pointing over the divide at everyone else and placing blame. So instead of placing the blame on those who are really responsible, the greedy corporate interests, we tend to cannibalize each other. We say “it’s your fault, person of color, for coming in and taking our jobs” rather than really examining what’s happening on a larger and broader scale, which is that the companies are making decisions to move the factories to a right-to-work state, or out of the country so that they can exploit workers in different ways.

Wary of pillaging Reading for their stories and leaving, Nottage is now working with the Labyrinth Theater Company on an installation project that aims to create a space that puts people in Reading in conversation with one another, allows them to tell each other their stories, and hopefully shows them what Nottage saw, which was that despite their differences, they actually share one fundamental narrative. Labyrinth and Oregon Shakespeare Festival will also co-produce a reading of Sweat in Reading this spring.

(L-R) Stephen Michael Spencer as Jason and Tramell Tillman as Chris in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Asked whether she’s concerned that the upper-middle-class audiences that frequent large theatres in metropolitan areas might not be able to connect with her working-class characters, Nottage was optimistic: “There’s a fear that upper-class audience members can’t see themselves in the characters, but I think that that’s not true of everyone who goes to the theater.” She continued:

One of my frustrations with what happens on the stage a lot of the time when working class people are put up there, it’s like poverty porn. They’re laughed at, or they’re the villains, or they’re ridiculous. I think the struggles folks are going through are really real. It affects you physically and emotionally. And I think about America where you have the majority of people living in that state and we’re seeing what it’s doing to us in the level of gun violence and the level of sexual abuse and assault that happens around the country. I think it’s a result of the stress that we’re under to survive.

Despite the underlying economic and social critique and the painstaking research that went into creating the play, the people it renders are familiar, and the audience encounters these people in a very familiar place—one that has served as an apt home for classics from Eugene O’Neill and William Saroyan to John Patrick Shanley —a bar.

(L-R) Tramell Tillman as Chris and Tyrone Wilson as Evan in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey in Sweat at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nottage chose the setting in order to write the kinds of conversations people have in neutral, relaxed spaces like bars, and she based her bar on one of many that she and Whoriskey visited in Reading:

There was one that we walked into where the architecture definitely affected the design impulses: You could see it was filled with history and knick-knacks and little things that told the story and told you how much the space was kind of beloved.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t bet on the relatable characters and familiar setting keeping the play from hitting a few nerves, but that’s part of Nottage’s goal:

What I see in New York is that the shows are shrinking down. I don’t see a lot of politics on stage. And I think that when work is confrontational the confrontation is about people taking off their clothes, it’s not about ideas and ideologies being challenged. It’s interesting what people think provocation is.  I think that provocation is when you enter in the space and everything you believe in is challenged.

I think that what surprises people with this show is the alliances that they forge with characters that are then undermined. I think that that’s what people respond to—that the whole show exists in the gray area. Everyone in the play makes a compromised decision that ends up having implications that hurt someone else. There’s no character in the play that doesn’t do that, and I think that’s challenging.

Originally published by HowlRound on November 10, 2015

This piece is a follow up to an earlier preview of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Read the original piece here.

Was it Oz? Well, it took me about as long to recover from my weekend in DC as I imagine it took Dorothy to settle back in to Kansas. I was on a theatre high for weeks after a visit to see as much of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as I could over three days—which is actually not much given that forty-eight women have new plays in this festival.

Destiny of Desire
First up was Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela, at Arena Stage. When I spoke with Zacarías in September, she described her show featured a troupe of actors doing a telenovela. The women in the acting company, she said, are not pleased with where their characters are going, so it becomes about “What happens when women take destiny in their own hands and start changing the script? What happens when we go off the path that is expected of us and test new things?”

Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo, Elia Saldaña as Victoria del Rio, and Fidel Gomez as Doctor Diego in Destiny of Desire. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Given this description I was therefore surprised that, though the show contained many Brechtian elements, such as visible lighting apparatus and the interruption of the action by actors delivering sometimes humorous, sometimes sobering factoids about love, marriage, family, and Latina/o life into microphones, the actors in the telenovela never actually acknowledged that they were actors or that they were “changing the script.” The reality was something much more subtle, wherein all of the typical devices of a telenovela were employed (swapped babies, mysterious deaths, fabulous costumes) without question, yet merely by focusing the narrative on the two young women— who according to the usual structure, have little authority over their own lives— Zacarías allows us to watch them, in the most Brechtian sense, nevertheless persist in making their own choices about how to get what they want. The overall effect was hilarious, moving, and a truly insightful look at Latina/o life in relation to pop culture.

Animal
Saturday I treated myself to a matinee of Animal by Claire Lizzimore, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, at Studio Theatre. Animal was in one of the theatre’s smaller spaces, while Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica played the main stage. (Because Chimerica was not a world premiere, it could not technically be part of the festival.)

Animal, on the other hand, is the kind of new play that, like an adolescent human, is still actively forming its neural pathways. The theatre provided copies of the script to attendees at their afternoon panel discussion, “Playwright as Hybrid Artist,” featuring Lizzimore and other Festival playwrights who also act, direct, or design. Studio Literary Manager, Adrien-Alice Hansel, made sure to let us know that the script has changed just since that recent printing.

Joel David Santner and Kate Eastwood Norris (foreground), and Cody Nickell (background) in Animal at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

For a play so tender its formation, Animal packs a powerful punch. The artful blend between what is real and what is not subtly invites the audience into the worldview of the protagonist, Rachel—a woman enduring a mental illness, the diagnosis of which we only learn at the end. Kate Eastwood Norris’ defiant yet empathetic portrayal drives the show and the audience’s emotional response, and though she doesn’t miss a beat, our hearts do.

This show is written to be done with a small cast in a small space with a minimal set, so the next time anyone tries to tell you that they just can’t find plays by women that they can afford to do, or that have central protagonists that both men and women can connect to, tell them about Animal.

Queens Girl in the World
Saturday night I saw Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge at Theater J. Developed by Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art initiative, this one-woman show tells the story of a young black girl (Jacqueline) whose parents transfer her from a neighborhood school in Queens to a progressive school in Greenwich Village. Set in 1962, references to historical events like the assassination of Malcolm X resonate as strongly as the decision of the heroine to stop wearing bobby socks, a moment that becomes both personal and political when uses this a period-specific metaphor for the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Jacqueline’s encounters with Jewish culture awaken her to the vast world outside her neighborhood just as the Civil Rights Movement is awakening her political consciousness and awareness of her own racial identity. All the while, Jacqueline endures everything most young women do, like crushes and BFFs. Turns out, you can learn a lot when you look at the world through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. This show is a tour-de-force for its lead, played by Dawn Ursula.

Dawn Ursula as Jacqueline in Queens Girl in the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Women Laughing Alone with Salad
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, is both the most financially supported production of one of Callaghan’s plays I have ever seen, and probably not coincidentally the best. In fact, the question of whether or not new plays by women can really be expected to succeed when they are given only half the resources of productions of new plays by men came up at Woolly’s post-show panel discussion on gender parity. At the panel, Callaghan and other activist theatre women spoke about the Summit, the Kilroys, the Pipeline, and The Count, and shared their successful strategies and tactics to advance gender parity in the not-for-profit theatre. During the panel, Callaghan barely managed to contain her frustration with inequality in professional theatre. In her play, she gives full voice to the frustration she feels at the way women are treated and places the blame squarely on the media for promulgating the mythology of beauty as value. The production was loud, bold, angry, funny, sexy, disturbing, disorienting, political, and personal, with a second act that is Churchill-ian in both structure and effect.

Kimberly Gilbert, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Meghan Reardon in Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The post-show panelists repeatedly pointed out that no hard evidence suggests that shows by women do worse than those by men when they are given the same resources for development and production. If you invest in the works of Sheila Callaghan, you will reap the rewards.

Uprising
Uprising by Gabrielle Fulton, directed by Thomas W. Jones, at MetroStage was my surprise find of the weekend. As industry weekends are intended to do, I met Fulton at the “Playwright as Hybrid Artist” panel and was able to get tickets to see her show in Alexandria, VA, on my last night there.

Set in pre-Civil War America in a community of free blacks, the inciting event of this play is the arrival of Osbourne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African American at the Harper’s Ferry Raid, seeking refuge after John Brown’s failed revolution. The play with music goes on to question the nature of freedom, work, love, motherhood, and history through an epic use of music, dance, sound, dialogue, and projections. The quality of the production rivaled all that I saw at the area’s more metropolitan theatres and the intimacy of the space was well suited to a story at turns philosophical and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Anthony Manough as Ossie and Cynthia D. Barker as Sal in Uprising. Photo by Chris Banks.

Union is particularly adept at decentering the historical figure of Anderson in favor of the fictional Sal, a free black and a repository of the history of being enslaved, raped, and separated from family that is particular to women of color. While Osbourne remains a fixed figure whose fate is determined before the play begins, Sal, though influenced and affected by the forces around her, makes her own decisions, using what little freedom she has to determine her own fate, ignoring the dire warnings of everyone around her. Despite all she’s lived through and even when no one else seems to trust her, Sal trusts herself.

Trust in women is not something you find often today—in some cases we are not trusted to make our own medical decisions, to raise children, to be single, to be married, to manage budgets, and to work at the highest levels. But the people who put together the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the collaborators that made world-premiere productions possible for so many playwrights clearly placed not only their trust, but also their resources, behind women.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival has also set a precedent and created a template that can be used across the country. Assuming you invest in the production, there is simply no truth in the excuse that producing plays by women is a financial risk. In fact, I’m willing to bet that almost any producer in DC who participated in the festival will tell you: Trusting women pays.

Originally published by HowlRound on October 7, 2015

HowlRound readers and social media revolutionaries may remember an event that occurred in our nation’s capital in February 2014 that became quickly known as the Summit. Convened by Washington Post critic Peter Marks around the issue of gender inequity in theatre, a panel of metro-area artistic directors discussed their collectively abysmal records at producing plays by women. As the discussion proceeded, more than one panel member was called out on social media for the tepidness of his/her approach.

Lost in the ensuing shuffle was the fact that the month before word leaked to the press of what would eventually be dubbed the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an entire fall of world premieres of new plays and musicals by women. When the Summit was held, forty-four theatres signed up to participate. The total is now forty-eight, two of which are offering multiple premieres.

Despite the rocky start of this venture, the seven artistic directors from Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company formulated the idea behind the festival. They quickly regrouped and hired coordinating producers Nan Barnett and JoJo Ruf to organize the festival and reframe it as a concerted, collaborative effort to do something about the problem.

Cut to about sixteen months later, and the whole country is abuzz about the Festival, its origins, its possibilities, and its realization of world premieres by fifty female playwrights. I spoke with Ruf and Barnett; Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA; and Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth. I also talked with Caleen Sinette Jennings, who is a professor at American University, a founding member of a DC playwright collective The Welders, and author of two premieres in the festival; Jami Brandli, a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Technicolor Life, which will premiere at Rep Stage; and Karen Zacarias, a professor at Georgetown University and author ofDestiny of Desire, premiering at Arena.


Poster for Technicolor Life by Jami Brandli. Courtesy of Rep Stage and Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Collaboration and Cross-Pollination
Unlike the discussion at the Summit and the media firestorm that followed, producers and artists alike gave positive, forward-thinking feedback, and, on the part of Boland and Shalwitz, were refreshingly self-critical. The story goes that the artistic directors of the Big Seven regularly get together for brunch to talk about the state of DC theatre. Following on the mild success of a citywide Shakespeare festival a few years ago, they began to discuss another collaboration to highlight the range and quality of DC theatre and to promote cross-pollination between artists and audiences.

“I think there was about ten seconds between the idea of a festival and the idea of focusing it on women. It just seemed like a no-brainer to put the focus where we could provide leadership by creating a model of something that could be part of the solution,” shared Shalwitz.

Boland puts the time between inception and definition at closer to twenty seconds, but both she and Shalwitz have found that the simple fact of working on the festival while also planning future seasons has forced them to place more of a priority on diversity. Boland shared:

“One incredible side effect of this citywide conversation is that every single conversation we have internally about season planning and about artistic vision involves a discussion of who are the artists and are we doing enough to represent a diverse set of voices.”

Signature is offering three shows by women this year and Boland expects to continue doing this many shows every year, consciously diversifying in other ways as well. She notes:

“We’re not trying to wear a hair shirt about our past, we’re just trying to do better. We’re trying to look at the talent pool that Signature is drawing from at every level of the organization, onstage and off, and make sure that we’re being thoughtful and specific about having different kinds of humans around our building.”

Yet, playwright Brandli is a little more skeptical, but still inspired:

“I’m hoping that the festival really does cause a ripple effect. I’m not ungrateful at all—this is the best thing to happen to me in a long time. But what I don’t want to hear is, ‘Well you had your festival, so now you can be quiet.’ I don’t want all us female playwrights to have our ‘queen for a day’ moment, but when it’s over, we’re told to go back into the corner, and to not bitch as much if there aren’t as many female playwrights in the next few seasons of American theatre. I’m tired of being polite about it. I know I sound pretty ornery, but you get to a point in your life where you’re like: fuck it.”

Jumping All Together


Sherri L. Edelen (Rita Gaw) and Todd Buonopane (Paul Hubbard) in Cake Off at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shortly after hiring Barnett and Ruf, the Festival consciously included representatives from more than the originating seven companies on committees devoted to marketing and publicity, development, and programming. This resulted in a genuine community-wide effort to celebrate and promote the work of women writers. Sinette Jennings has been in DC since ’84 and from the moment she arrived, she was struck by the collaborative and supportive relationships between local playwrights. She still feels like the Festival is a game changer, saying:

“I feel like part of a mosaic to know that all of these stories are going on at the same time. It’s an amazing affirmation of our talent and the power of our stories. We have artistic directors here who have always gotten it—they didn’t need a festival to recognize the power and importance of women. But this has been a fabulous way to make other artistic directors aware that this wealth of material is out there, and it’s not all touchy feely kitchen sink drama. I’ve got female playwright colleagues who scare the pants off me in terms of how edgy and tough they are. So any assumptions people have about a woman is X, they need to throw that out the window.”

The offerings range from Woolly’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s overtly feminist Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which examines the ways sexually charged representations of women in the media effect both men and women, to a new musical at Signature called Cake Off that tells the story of the first man to win the Pillsbury Bake Off. Then, Zacarias’s Brechtian telenovela is about what happens to a troupe of actors doing a Mexican television series when the women, dissatisfied with the way their roles are written, take destiny in their own hands, and start changing the script.

Although Zacarias, a founding member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, is one of the few Latina playwrights represented in the whole festival, she is still struck by the camaraderie behind the event. She remarks:

“It’s usually a very solitary moment when a theatre does a new play, like you’re the only one jumping off the cliff, while everybody else is doing some golden nugget that you know the audiences will come to. Because we’re all taking the risk at the same time, it takes away the competitive nature of things and everybody just wants to do as well as they can. We’re all jumping off at the same time and we’re hoping that everyone makes a beautiful dive.”


Artwork for Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarias. Courtesy of Arena Stage.

Barnett is already looking to raise money to gather data about the festival and to produce a handbook for cities looking to do something on their own turf. She states:

“I want to know what the long term effects of this are. Three months from now, I want to be able to do a really great analysis of what tickets were sold. Did we accomplish the goal of making people outside of DC aware of how much theatre there is here? Did we get people to go to different theatres than where they normally go? And of course in the long run, are the DC theatres continuing to program more female writers than they were before the festival? Will we see subsequent productions for the plays that were supported by the festival? These are questions that will need to be answered. It’s important to make sure that the lessons learned are shared.”

Ruf added, “There’s already musings happening in Philly, Denver or broader Colorado, and elsewhere. I think that would be phenomenal. This is a first step towards gender parity; I certainly hope that eventually we won’t need a festival and it will happen on it’s own. But this is a good step in that direction.”

Take the Challenge
I’ll be heading to DC in October to check out as much of the festival as I can in one weekend and I’ll let HowlRound readers know whether I find the metro-area to be the Emerald City that I’ve been lead to expect, where every Dorothy has her glittering day.

In the meantime, the effects of the social media revolution that followed the Summit are obvious. Ryan Rilette, Producing Artistic Director at Round House Theatre and the receiver of the most severe Summit-prompted Twitter lashing, issued a challenge on Facebook. He’s willing to buy a drink for any and every one who sees more plays by women this fall than he does.

People, let me hear you say it: “Challenge accepted.”

Originally published by HowlRound on March 26, 2015

Hayes Thigpen, Austin Smith, and Amber Gray. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, first presented in New York in 1859, bears more than a striking resemblance to its better-known stage sister, George Aiken’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which premiered in 1852. Both plays, in their attempts to create sympathy for slaves while also depicting actual black people as minstrels, have been called both abolitionist and racist. Both writers attempted to appease Southerners by making the villain and “bad” slave owner a transplant from the North, while the Southerners themselves are shown as loving and gentle with their slaves. Both plays encourage the kind of spectacle that mid-nineteenth century audiences expected: Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s flight of Eliza with her child across the river, while being chased by bloodhounds, can easily be likened to the explosion of a steamboat in Act Four of The Octoroon. Most importantly, both plays aim to create sympathy for enslaved people by centering their plots on a female octoroon (a person who is 1/8th black). White audiences then, were encouraged to empathize with a slave who looked just like them—not only do real octoroons often look white, but in both original productions, the characters were also played by white actors.

The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin spawned dozens of different adaptations, and the stage plays quickly became proto-minstrel shows, advertising the use of “real negroes” alongside live dogs and, in one case, an elephant, as part of their spectacle. But while Eliza’s flight across the ford has lived on in shows as recent as The King and I and resonances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Topsy can be seen everywhere, The Octoroon has largely faded from American memory and is only occasionally taught in American theatre history classes, probably because anthologists and professors find it slightly less offensive than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Until now, that is. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted The Octoroon into An Octoroon. A Theater for a New Audience remount of Soho Repertory’s original production, directed by Sarah Benson, runs through March 29th at the Polonksy Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version keeps many of the original characters, much of the dialogue, and the entire plot of The Octoroon. In fact most of his take on the story is embodied in the actors and staging instead of the text: Whereas in the 1859 production, the black characters were played by white actors in blackface, in An Octoroon, a black actor (Austin Smith) plays both the white hero, George, and white villain, M’Closky, in white face; a white actor (Haynes Thigpen) plays the Native American character, Wahnotee, in red face; and a “racially ambiguous ” actor (Ian Lassiter) who looks Native American plays two black characters, Pete and Paul, in blackface.

Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

Jacobs-Jenkins also reframes the play by writing a sort of prologue in which Smith plays a character named BJJ, who introduces himself as a black playwright and bemoans the tendency of critics to assume that all of his plays—even the one about farm animals—are attempting to deconstruct the race problem in America. Thigpen enters, watching BJJ a while before introducing himself as Dion Boucicault and bemoaning the fact that today he is all but forgotten as a playwright at all.

Smith and Thigpen don their respective white and red faces on stage, and, after Thigpen performs a stereotypical Native American dance to techno music under rave-like lighting, we enter Boucicault’s world, where George; M’Closky; Pete; Paul; the white woman, Dora; and the octoroon, Zoe, speak much of Boucicault’s text with the same melodramatic flair one can imagine actors in 1859 employing, but without most of the spectacle. Set designer Mimi Lien beautifully evokes a plantation with nothing more than a white stage covered with cotton. The playwright characters of Smith and Thigpen narrate the explosion of the steamboat. Director Sarah Benson adds to this Brechtian style by ending several violent scenes with the actors helping one another off the ground and offstage, as if to remind us that these people are not really trying to hurt one another.

Through these devices, as well as performance on stage by cellist Lester St. Louis  and the occasional appearance of a mystery man in a rabbit costume, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps reminding his audience that race, and therefore “the race problem in America,” is not just a matter of DNA (as it is for the octoroon), but rather a matter of DNA and history, heritage, and performance. All the time that has passed since 1859 serves only to make this mix more complicated. Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

What is conspicuously missing from the play is any commentary on the intersection of sex and gender with race. Though Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the original plot, in which George falls in love with Zoe but is prohibited from marrying her because of her racial heritage, all the while being courted by Dora, a rich white woman desperate for a husband to spend her money on, none of the narration deals with the disenfranchisement of these women. Additionally, while the three male actors play characters of different races, the central character, Zoe, is played by a light-skinned, bi-racial actor (Amber Gray), the white woman is played by a white woman (Mary Wiseman), and the two female slaves are played by black actors (Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand), indicating that the same fluidity of identity embodied by the men does not apply to them.

Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Furthermore, both Zoe and Dora speak the original text written by Boucicault, with only the length of Dora’s dress in any way removing her from her historical position, and are not given any opportunities for direct address or to engage in contemporary dialogue. And whereas Boucicault’s Zoe is given the opportunity, after she is sold to the villain M’Closky, to kill herself on stage, making a profound point about her unwillingness to go back to being a slave, Jacobs-Jenkins’ Zoe leaves stage with her poison never to be seen again. Finally, the two female slaves, played wonderfully by Aharanwa and Armand, speak neither in the manner of the educated playwright characters nor in the slave dialect of Boucicault’s slaves, but rather in a kind of urbanese reminiscent of Orange is the New Black’s Tastee and Poussey. Whether Jacobs-Jenkins intends to draw a straight line from slavery to contemporary urban culture, however, is unclear, as neither he nor the actors offer any explicit commentary on the women’s characterizations.

Without the deconstruction of sex and gender that would be accomplished by cross-racial casting, cross-sex casting, or having those actors speak for themselves directly to the audience, as the men do, the use of the dialect can be read to imply that contemporary black women willingly maintain a slave mentality—one of them uses modern language to repeatedly declare her excitement at being sold to work as a slave on a boat!—despite years of progress. On the other hand, if the playwright intends to show that ghettos have replaced slavery as a means of oppressing African Americans, or that black women have not gained as many rights as black men have since slavery, some commentary from the on-stage playwrights about the women characters would have helped clarify that point.

Instead, in the midst of a very funny, very moving, wonderfully designed, directed, and acted production of a play about the complexity of American identities and their unresolvable connection to our legacy of slavery and genocide, the central female character has become not more complex but rather more generic. She is no longer the octoroon, she is an octoroon.

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.

At a recent summit of DC-area artistic directors, Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre made a reference to the infamous “pipeline” of new talent that runs from New York and London to America’s regional theaters, claiming that there are not enough plays by women in this pipeline for his theater to produce. The idea of this pipeline is nothing new, but importantly, it is not inviolable.

Pre-Revolution, the colonies actually had three equally important centers of theatrical production—Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—all of which primarily presented British plays. Theater in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania was limited by the Puritan philosophy that writing your own worlds into being is an offense to God, the ultimate playwright of our theatrum mundi. New York, on the other hand, being primarily a center of commerce, managed to develop a theater culture that continued through the Revolution (even when it was illegal) and beyond.

As the young Republic expanded, theaters founded without reference to one another sprang up in other parts of the country. It wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth-century, when railroads allowed the exportation of both commerce and culture, that these theaters became stops on tours of shows created in New York. Then, in the early twentieth-century, a locally-sourced Little Theater Movement began in Chicago and took hold throughout the country, spawning a generation of dramatists that did not live in New York. Federalism reasserted itself in the sixties, when local theaters of a certain size joined together under LORT, an organization based in New York, and regional theaters once again became aesthetic subsidiaries of Broadway, Inc.

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, local artists are again asserting control over the means of production and claiming American theater for themselves. The huge Twitter response to the reference to the pipeline made at “The Summit” revealed a deeply felt frustration at the unwillingness of artistic directors to recognize that forty-year-old notions of what makes great theater are no longer relevant. Sure, New York still has more theater than most other places, but there is no longer any reason to believe that it is any better.

Furthermore, by limiting themselves to plays, playwrights, directors, and actors based in New York, non-New York theaters run the risk of presenting material that has little relation to the lived experiences of their audiences. As anyone who follows politics can tell you, inhabitants of different regions often hold sharply distinct if not altogether contradictory beliefs. The primary industries that drive the economy in America’s various regions are vastly different, meaning that the work lives of the people who live there are vastly different. Even the environment itself, from the weather to the landscape, has an influence on the thinking and values of people who live in it.

Additionally, theaters that insist on relying on talent that has already proven itself in New York perpetuate a theater that is inevitably elite. New York City is expensive. Self-producing, acting in showcases, assistant directing for free, and interning all require steady income streams from elsewhere. Very few people are able to do this without significant family support. Companies that aim to produce theater for a diverse audience cannot expect to do so while only producing plays written and directed by people born into privilege.

Of course some artists not born into privilege who work three jobs and do theater for free in New York do manage to find success in regional theaters. But even those people, unless they happened to grow up in New York, have uprooted themselves from their communities and families and transplanted themselves to one of the most difficult cities in which to live in the world. Yes, some artists are inspired by New York. Yes, some are glad to leave their previous lives behind. Others are overwhelmed and exhausted. How much American talent are we actually crushing by needlessly requiring that people spend years of indentured servitude in New York for the privilege of having their plays produced in theaters not in New York?

New York does have at least one quality that sets it apart in terms of its theater community. In New York, the big theaters pay attention to the small theaters. Even a small show can get reviewed, and if it does well, it can get the attention of the legacy theaters. The artists who created it will often be invited to remount the production at a bigger theater, or they may be hired, based on that success, to work there on something else. This is why a few emerging artists can develop a national reputation by working in New York.

But the synergy of the New York theater community is not an argument for regional theaters to only do plays that come out of New York. It is an argument for regional theaters to develop the same level of synergy with the other theaters in their cities. In fact, regional theaters could save a ton of money by developing new work with artists for whom they don’t have to provide housing and a per diem.

The lack of men of color and women in the pipeline is an excuse used to justify seasons that fail to achieve diversity and gender parity. But New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. If success there is the barometer by which plays are chosen for regional productions, LORT theaters would be producing plays developed by Intar, The Women’s Project Theater, and the National Black Theatre, to name just a few New York institutions devoted to developing work by underrepresented groups. Rather, the same dated notions of who and what makes good theater that lead artistic directors to rely on a mythical pipeline also keep them from recognizing the surfeit of diverse talent in New York and across the country.

Though New York remains the center of American commercial theater, companies across the country need not largely rely on plays created in that place for that audience. Today, the pipeline flows in many directions at once. Theaters genuinely interested in serving their communities would do well to develop twenty-first century ways of making theater.

Originally posted at HowlRound

When The Antaeus Company began in 1991, under the auspices of Center Theater Group, the idea was to find a way to maintain a classical theater company within the specific environment of Los Angeles where, for most actors, a living is made through a series of one-day jobs as costars, guest stars and spots on commercials. Today Antaeus operates as an independent theater company in North Hollywood, but it remains true to its vision of providing a touchstone for actors working in film and television, a place where they can “regain their creative strength by returning to the wellspring of their craft: live theater.” Today many of its founding members still perform with the company, which produces a wide range of plays by Shakespeare, Greek drama, and Restoration Comedy; American classics like The Crucible; and modern updates and adaptations of the classics.The governance of the company has changed over the years—today they have three co-artistic directors—but since the beginning, Antaeus has practiced double casting, or what they call “partner casting:” Every role in every show is cast with two actors. Though the practice began as a way to ensure that they would not have to cancel shows every time an actor booked a lucrative one-day gig, according to co-Artistic Director and actor Bill Brochthrup, it grew from there:“What we started to find after the logistics of it were implemented was that it has artistic merits and it’s an interesting thing for the actors. It’s tough for the scheduling—the scheduling is nightmarish, there’s no way around it—but we started to find that when you’re creating a part with another person and you set it up from the beginning that these two people are creating this role together, and come at it with a lack of ego and a collaborative spirit, you really find interesting things.”Over time, the company has discovered that the best way to foster the kind of collaboration necessary to building such a show together, the whole company has to rehearse as a group until tech, when the actors are finally divided up into two casts. Up until tech, whenever a character is called, both actors playing that part are called, and they alternate acting and watching their partner act.Co-Artistic Director and actor Rob Nagle described the benefits this way: “As long as the actor can set aside their own ownership of the role and start to watch it as though you are creating something together, it works. Each time Brian [his partner in a recent production] would go onstage and do something I could say ‘Oh that’s good, I like that, I want to build on that.’ So you find yourself building on the shoulders of the other person’s performance, so you both get higher and higher up into the role,” he says. “But you have to check out of this ‘I have to make it mine concept,’ which is a really hard thing for actors to do because we’re supposed to make something our own. We have to make it ours in a plural sense.”

The final production of Antaeus’ 2013 season—David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar—could be seen with the “Tangerines” cast or the “Cherries” cast in alternating performances on Saturdays and Sundays, and on Thursdays and Fridays with a mash-up of the two called the “Pomegranates.” (These fruit-themed groupings derive from the play’s titular character’s elaborate lie about a great date at which “five blindfold virgins served us pomegranates on alabaster plates.”) Through the weekend, Tangerines and Cherries take alternate turns on the stage through three shows. Though technically the Tangerines and Cherries casts were two wholly different sets of actors, when anyone in either cast got another job, their counterpart subbed in.

Though Ives’ translaptation, as he calls it, of Corneille’s neo-classical comedy strays from the original in plot, character, and dialogue, it recreates, often in modern urbanese, the florid verse peculiar to the form. Likewise, the acting and design of director Casey Stangl’s production capture the essence of the period’s style without turning its stylistic elements into set pieces. In fact the rhyming couplets and physical comedy of the mistaken-identity/lost twin/life-changing events-that-nevertheless-unfold-within-24-hours shenanigans that typify these comedies make it perfect for the practice of partner casting, in which the blocking or the positioning of actors on the stage must be executed with exactitude so that any actor may be subbed in with any cast at any time.

Stangl says that the process necessary to building such a show actually suits her directing style, even though the usual “negotiations” are a little bit trickier: “You really have to talk about everything in the moment that you’re working on it so somebody doesn’t come back the next time and do it completely differently cause they think that’s how it should go. It’s a little more delicate matter juggling that so that everybody feels heard and listened to and valued.”

For her, the benefits are well worth the scheduling nightmares. Speaking of the actors’ process, she shared, “In a way it’s almost like you’re watching yourself on stage, you have a sense of your character not just when you’re up there in your bubble, but you can see it in the whole of the production. So you start to see how your character fits into the world of the play in a kind of holistic sense. And I have found that as a director to be invaluable, to have actors be able to make observations and comments based on that kind of bird’s-eye view.”

Though the blocking stays the same in all performances, Stangl, who has directed with the company before, works with the actors to find what she calls “dealer’s choice,” moments where two actors playing the same role can make different choices. As a result, when one actor substitutes for another in the cast with which she doesn’t usually perform, the subtle differences require the entire cast to be particularly in-the-moment. As Co-Artistic Director John Sloan, who also acts with the company, put it, “You are instantly that much more alive and awake and listening that much more acutely. It’s fun and terrifying.” Nagle echoed the sentiment, saying, “It’s fantastic because you get to play again like you were in rehearsals. In front of an audience. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

The roster of actors in The Antaeus Company is multi-faceted: Some ensemble members have decades of experience performing in theater, film, and television while others have only recently joined the Antaeus Academy and are still surprised to find a company so focused on the classics in the heart of Hollywood. Sloan contextualized the value of Antaeus both for actors and audience this way: “One of the founding goals of the company was to counteract the speed of Hollywood and the jobs you’re forced to do as an actor where you go, you have a couple of takes and you’re told what to do when and it’s over in 20 minutes. In a place that worships the new, the next thing so aggressively, hopefully we can offer a little oasis that says there’s value in taking time and in the practice of listening to complex language and thoughts—that there’s something to be learned from that as well.”

As to The Liar in particular, it’s not hard to find the resonances for a Los Angeles audience of a play about a compulsive liar and rake whose skills in love are surpassed only by his ability to spin a tall tale. In a land where the ability to sell oneself is prized above all else, the liar’s ode to lying really hits home:

This world’s a scrim, Cliton, a fiction,
A richly tapestried, inch-thick depiction
Stretched over some mysterious cosmic hole.
You say that you’re a servant. How do I know?
Who’s she, or he? Who is the whole back row?
How do I know the smallest thing? I can’t.
No one knows anything. So people rant,
Protest, despair, take up astrology —
For each man fears in his biology
That life’s a fraud, a fake, an empty vial.
Why else do people primp and pose? Denial.
That’s where the liar comes in. Because he knows
The truth, accepts the void, because he shows
Us the absurd commedia we’re all masked for.

Images:
Joe Delafield and Bo Foxworth as Alicippe and Jules Wilcox and Kate Maher as Clarice. Photo credit: Geoffrey Wade.
Jules Wilcox and Kate Maher as Clarice and Ann Noble and Joanna Strapp as Lucrece. Photo credit: Geoffrey Wade

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