HowlRound


Originally published by HowlRound

Theatre_Movement_Bazaar_01_0 (1)The 2013 Radar L.A. interdisciplinary theater festival brought artists from around the world to perform alongside and in collaboration with Los Angeles theater artists. Presented by REDCAT and CalArts in association with Center Theatre Group, and curated by Mark Murphy of REDCAT, Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group, and Mark Russell of The Public Theater in New York (yeah, it was that collaborative), this year’s festival featured 18 productions from the United States, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Netherlands.

The first Radar L.A. was held two years ago when TCG held their annual conference here. Co-curator Diane Rodriguez told me that she and her collaborators had already begun discussing creating a festival with national range, and the conference provided a perfect opportunity to launch it. This year, she says, though some professional theater makers came from elsewhere for a symposium that was part of the festival, the local audience also turned out in droves.

The festival expanded its geographical reach to include The Getty Villa in Malibu, the Grand Central Market, and theaters downtown as well as the Kirk Douglas Theatre and REDCAT. And this time around, the festival not only presented existing interdisciplinary theater pieces, it also commissioned and co-produced new work from both local and international artists.

I managed to take in five shows, including two solo performances, a collaboration between a Los Angeles theater company and one from the Netherlands, a deconstructed version of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters created by a local group, and Prometheus Bound.

Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King and Trieu Tran in Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam used the instability of identity inherent in solo shows to tell stories about that most volatile of subjects: race in America. Theatre Movement Bazaar‘s Track 3 used a combination of spoken text, song, and dance to tell the whole story of Three Sisters in seventy five minutes using nothing more than a table, chairs, a few books, and some teacups.

One of my favorite shows, Hospital, resulted from a collaboration between a local performance group called The Los Angeles Poverty Department and the Netherlands-based collective Wunderbaum. Reminiscent of the WPA’s Living Newspapers—a Depression-era theatrical tradition that showcased current political events, Hospital uses the story of one real-life participant in the health care systems of both the United States and the Netherlands to address the larger health care issues facing both countries.

This combination of music, dance, video, and personal narrative, delivered both through reenactments and direct address, was at once both a defense and a criticism of Obamacare as well as of the Netherlands’ entirely nationalized health care system. Much like Living Newspapers existed to address national problems with concrete proposals, Hospital even goes so far as to pose a possible long-term solution to our collective health-care woes.

The largest-scale production I saw was Travis Preston‘s Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Preston, who commissioned this new version of Aeschylus’s metaphysical tragedy, said he was looking for a translation that uses language to clarify the internal action that moves the play—after all, the only physical action dictated by the text is Prometheus getting nailed to a rock.

What movement existed in performance derived from Preston’s use of the amphitheater, such as the aisles between sections of the audience and the acoustic effects of such open-air stone theaters; a chorus of twelve women that moved and spoke as one; and the turning of a massive metal wheel that represented the rock to which Prometheus was tethered.

Preston added that through extended workshops and rehearsals, he found that “the piece resisted any decorative impulses.” He aimed rather to invoke the kind of iconography that would allow the audience to infer and project their own meanings onto the performance. The wheel spoke simultaneously of industrialization and of the medieval wheel of fortune, while the Chorus seemed to embody both water and birds. Live musicians gave even the most philosophical portions of the text forward motion, while also creating a meditative rhythm that harkened back to the communal nature of Attic tragedy as originally performed.

Based on audience feedback, Preston found that audiences brought their own interpretations to the images on stage, including that of a black man in bondage (Prometheus was played by Ron Cephas Jones). Preston shared, “I didn’t cast Ron because he was black, but he was black. It’s undeniable that people saw it through the prism of slavery and the condition of people of color throughout the world.”

By not making the production an explicit commentary on slavery or race relations, Preston enabled the audience to make that connection themselves, providing for a far more imaginative and less didactic experience than simply setting the play in antiquity would have.

Similarly, though Preston believes the play to be proto-Christian in its emphasis on sacrifice, the lack of overt Christian symbols allowed the audience to read the performance both from a religious perspective, in which the essential questions it asks are about obedience and sacrifice, and from an existential one, in which the question is whether life really consists of anything more than suffering.

The combination of dance, music, and spoken text used in Prometheus Bound perfectly encapsulated Radar L.A.’s interdisciplinary focus. As to the future of the festival, Murphy shared the specific role he wants Radar L.A. to play in creating new work in Los Angeles.

“It’s important that the local work and local artists have a larger context in which the field is evolving and what important developments there are elsewhere that might influence the way we work. In particular because of the unique geographical location of LA and its demographics, some of the cultural influences that are most relevant are from Latin America and the Pacific Rim,” he continued. “Aesthetically, which is where we can blur the boundaries of states and governments, we’re interested in finding new ways to tell story, a narrative that is expressed or constructed through imagery, choreography, and other forms in addition to spoken word.”

The feminist in me cannot help but point out that ticket prices for Radar L.A. and the connected symposium are high enough that audience members and participants are, as one symposium attendee pointed out, “sitting in seats of privilege.” Nonetheless, Radar L.A. confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for some time now: That Los Angeles is currently one of the most interesting places to make and see theater in America.

[Mic drop. She exits.]

***

Images:
Track 3 by Theatre Movement Bazaar. Photo credit: Joey Bernheimer.
Marleen Scholten, Maartje Remmers, John Malpede, Linda Harris, Walter Fears, and other cast members in Wunderbaum/LAPD’s Hospital at Radar L.A. festival. Photo credit: Steven Gunther.
Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus; Mirjana Jokovic as Io carried by the Chorus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.

Originally Published by HowlRound

Though Shakespeare created around 798 male characters, his dramatic corpus contains only about 149 female ones. That’s a ratio of roughly sixteen to three. Yet every year the best conservatories accept at least as many women as men—if not more—and every year they graduate both men and women trained to act in Shakespeare plays. The women are even trained to swordfight. Ninety nine percent of them never get to use that skill.

The difference undoubtedly accounts for why so many talented women create their own opportunities to play the full range of Shakespeare’s best roles, including male ones. This month two productions on opposite sides of the country are providing women with just that chance. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company is running Hamlet, directed by and starring Lisa Wolpe, and Taffety Punk in Washington, D.C., is producing Riot Grrrls: Titus Andronicus, directed by Lise Bruneau.

Titus is the fifth all-female Shakespeare production of Taffety Punk. Their first, Romeo and Juliet, was staged as a companion to/protest of an all-male production of the play at D.C.’s prominent The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Bruneau, inspired by Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, and Fiona Shaw’s Richard II, has always been interested in the performance of gender. However, with her Riot Grrrl productions, she’s interested less in staging a commentary than in staging good Shakespeare.

Lisa Wolpe has been running the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for 20 years. This is her second Hamlet. Like Bruneau, she doesn’t consider what she does a “concept.” She does it because the parts are great, because she loves it, and because she’s good at it. 

Though both directors are wary of doing anything in production to comment on the sex of the actors, they acknowledge that inevitably text about gender—and there is a great deal of it in Shakespeare—becomes especially loaded when the entire cast is made up of women: Just imagine Claudius as a woman in drag criticizing Hamlet for his “womanish” tears. Both directors have also dipped their toes into gender flipping. Bruneau’s Measure for Measure included a pregnant Provost, which I imagine highlighted the hypocrisy of punishing Juliet for something everyone is doing. Wolpe has made her Rosencrantz a woman and believes that doing so reveals something about the nature of the relationship between Rosencrantz and Hamlet.

“Rosencrantz is a player, a woman with an agenda, who wants certain things for herself. She is a player who then gets played by Hamlet,” said Wolpe, during our interview. “And there are women like that. There are women characters in Hamlet like that. Gertrude stands twenty feet away from Ophelia and watches her drown.”

Though the actors in these companies are in it for the opportunity to play great roles and not to study sociology, the fact that their characters are men means that acting the part is different than it is when they play characters of the same sex, and that involves understanding the ways behavior is gendered. Bruneau has interesting insights into the outside-in process of building a character, who has a different relationship to the world by virtue of his gender than the female actor.

“We have found that changing your physical stance changes the impulse,” she said. “Once you change that it can start opening doors to a different perception of information and a different way of responding. It leads to a lot of discoveries about the differences of the sexes, of which there are many.”

Bruneau volunteered an example. “One of the most basic differences we’ve found is that women tend to sort of reach their chin forward as they’re talking and listening, and really try to encourage the other person to speak. We reach forward with our whole face. Men tend to sort of sit back and to receive and they tend to not reach. So that’s a very simple physical difference that makes you realize that they are dealing with everything based on a completely different type of experience than you are.”

According to Wolpe, women tend to break the alignment and the angles in their bodies, their wrists, their elbows. “Usually they’re off their voices, their heads are tilted, their faces are going in one direction and their hips in another, their hands turned open in a helpless ‘what can I do?’ supinated position—not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because that’s what you’re trained to do as an American girl,” she said.

“You’re trained to disempower yourself, to make yourself look less strong, more delicate, more ‘oh push me off of my pumps and I’ll be unable to resist the rape’ type of a thing. It’s not believable in a man who doesn’t have any threats.”

Wolpe went on to elaborate,  “This is a crazy quick map through how to play a guy, but basically: it’s not your fault, you don’t take it on, and if you hurt somebody’s feelings, they’ll get over it or they won’t but it’s really not your problem. The thing about women is we usually anticipate having an apology before there’s even an event. Men don’t negotiate. They command.”

The end game for Wolpe is a production in which the quality of the text and the acting enable audience members to forget that most of the roles are men being played by women. However, when I saw Hamlet, I did not ever forget that the performers were all women. In fact, I yearned for the fact to be more foregrounded. Though Rosencrantz was a woman, no use was made of the possibility that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be a couple, which would have been logical and, given, the eroticism that pervades Shakespeare’s male-male pairs, not un-Shakespearean. Similarly, the revelation about Gertrude’s character did not result in her coming across as any more cold-hearted or self-serving than she usually does.

Bruneau reports similar responses from critics in D.C. who expect her productions to do more with gender, but the Riot Grrrl aspect of her shows represents a desire to be accepted as a serious artist and not be singled out for being a woman doing a man’s thing. Similarly, Wolpe repeatedly expressed frustration that people expect her to do anything other than what the greatest actors of their times have always done when playing these roles: Play them well. 

Unfortunately, productions that keep all the male characters male inadvertently preserve the gender status quo: In their play-worlds, the men still have all the power. On the other hand, flipping some of the male characters and gendering them female would reveal a world in which women can be powerful, violent, and vengeful, too. Women can woo their lovers, protect their families, and command armies. (They could in Shakespeare’s time, too, whether he represented them as such or not.) The practice also reinforces a false binary in which men are always masculine and women are always feminine, whereas in reality some men and women defy gendered norms of behavior.

As pleased as I am to watch well-trained women deliver fantastic performances of the kind they too rarely have an opportunity to give, I yearn for a production that reveals that behaviors defined as masculine can be embodied both by women playing men, and by women playing women. Changing gender pronouns does not disrupt the verse—he, she, her, and him are all monosyllabic. Though Anglo-Saxon names like John might require some tinkering, modern audiences are unused to Latin, so they can easily accept most character names as either male or female. If anything, the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare’s stories become even more apparent when they are populated by people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and sexes.

In the meantime, both companies continue to receive rave reviews. Though some Shakespeare purists may still wring their hands at the prospect of women playing men’s roles, Wolpe says her experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

“There’s never been a negative comment about an all-female production. There never has been in twenty years. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘You’re ruining the play.’”

Now that these companies, along with Judith Shakespeare and The Queen’s Company in New York as well as others across the country have proven that women are capable of playing roles with all of the depth and complexity of Shakespeare’s male characters, I hope they’ll turn to creating play-worlds in which women don’t have to pretend to be men in order to be powerful.

**

Images: Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo credit: Kevin Sprague. Riot Grrrls production of Julius Caesar. Photo credit: Abby Wood.

DSC_0045Originally posted at HowlRound

In just one September weekend, Los Angeles theater patrons had at least three totally different productions of Shakespeare plays from which to choose. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company‘s all-female Hamlet was running at The Odyssey Theatre; a three-person adaptation of Richard II opened at The Theatre @ Boston Court; and Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum presented an outdoor Taming of the Shrew. Each production offered an alternative way of doing Shakespeare: Hamlet was performed in Elizabeth dress on a traditional set; Richard II was a modernist/dream-play take on one of Shakespeare’s most psychology-driven plays; and director Ellen Geer turned Christopher Sly and his tricksters into modern urban archetypes who watch/present Taming of the Shrew in Elizabethan dress.

Not only was Los Angeles host to three productions of Shakespeare in one weekend (and there may very well have been more), but all three productions were directed by women—all of whom are the artistic directors of their own companies. According to Douglas Clayton at the LA Stage Alliance, there are about twenty five female artistic directors in the greater-Los Angeles area.

Though I was initially cheered, that number, it turns out, represents only about 8 percent of Los Angeles’ artistic directors. The numbers break down further in telling ways. Los Angeles’ four LORT theaters are all run by men, whereas half of the city’s mid-size companies are either run by women or are collectives that include women as part of their leadership teams, Clayton points out in an email. The number then drops to around 5 percent for ninety nine-seat theater companies.

To find out more about the women running these companies and the challenges they face, I convened a roundtable of seven fairly representative women. Five years ago, Elina de Santos co-founded Rogue Machine Theatre, which presents works that are new to Los Angeles by “up-and-coming playwrights.” Lisa Wolpe, the director and star of the all-female Hamlet, has been running The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company for twenty years. Jennifer Chang and Ruth McKee are two of six all-female artistic leaders of Chalk Repertory Theater, a multi-cultural site-specific group in their sixth year. Deborah Devine has been running the youth and family-oriented 24th Street Theater for sixteen years. Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy founded Towne Street Theatre, “Los Angeles’ premiere African-American theater,” twenty years ago. Jessica Kubzansky, director and adapter of Richard II, has been co-artistic director of The Theatre @ Boston Court since it opened its door ten years ago.

The lively discussion that ensued was as heartening as it was depressing. Everyone agreed that eight percent is too small a number, but perspective on how much progress women are currently making in the theater differed widely by generation. While Kubzansky reports discovering more and more women directors all the time, Wolpe has to take a centuries-long perspective to see any real gains. As she put it, “Women would have been killed for being on stage when [Shakespeare’s] plays were written, so I mean I can see the progress.” Likewise, 24th Street Theater’s Devine, who served on the first board of Women in Theatre (a Southern California support group for women in the arts) in 1978, said, “In thirty three years we haven’t come far enough.” Chang and McKee report that their company has purposefully and successfully provided equal opportunities for men and women at all levels.

These fearless leaders did agree on two things:

1) The reasons they began producing are not the reasons they keep producing. Ruth McKee joined up with Chalk Repertory’s other founders because, though she had a national career as a playwright, once she had children she wanted to stay near home. Five years later, she has found that “the influence I have is ultimately making a more profound impact on culture than I could having a play go up in New York for a couple of weeks.”

Kubzansky was so addicted to directing that she never wanted to be an artistic director and accepted the job only with the agreement that the theater would find her a co-artistic director to share the more unpleasant tasks like fundraising.

“When I think about the opportunity I have to potentially make a difference in the artistic landscape of Los Angeles, to influence what types of plays are being programmed at my theater, to birth a whole lot of new work by exciting new playwrights—the scope of influence feels so profound that it feels like something I have to keep doing.”

Davis-Bellamy’s experience, or as she called it, “creative evolution,” mirrored that of some of the other women who have been at it for a while.

“When I first started I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I learned I was producing. Somebody asked me, how do you do this? And I said you just do it,” said Davis-Bellamy.

“The twenty-year mark has been very reflective for us, because a couple of years ago I was ready to forget it, it was too consuming, I had had it. And then we had a recharging of sorts. We got a bunch of new members in and they were younger, they were more producer-oriented. The impact that we have is so profound, particularly for people of color in this city. We fill this large void, because LA theater is majority white. It just is,” she added.

Which leads me to my second point: 2) Despite explicit multi-cultural missions, developing multi-cultural casts and audiences is a huge challenge. Davis-Bellamy founded her theater to produce plays by all people of color, but, unable to attract the Latino audiences to the African American plays and vice versa, she narrowed the mission to producing new plays by African Americans and black classics by historically neglected authors. 24th Street Theater’s outreach focuses on their immediate neighborhood, which is fairly diverse.

Nevertheless, Devine reports that their audience remains “extremely Balkanized” because “the brown people come to the brown shows and the white people come to the white shows.”

Though The Theatre @ Boston Court’s casting notices encourage individuals of all ethnicities to audition, Kubzansky noted, “Actors don’t believe we really mean it.” Chang, an Asian American actor as well as artistic leader of her company, shared her own experience as an actor of color, “I think it’s institutionalized. I went to NYU and UCSD [for acting], and the message I got was, ‘You aren’t going to be cast as the protagonist.'” Davis-Bellamy, who is black, chimed in, “At Western Michigan University, I remember auditioning for a Molière play and the professor telling me point blank that he couldn’t cast me as the ingénue because the audience wouldn’t accept it.”

Despite gains in opportunities and representation, women—and particularly women of color—who want to have an impact on American theater have to be producers as well as actors, directors, and playwrights. Davis-Bellamy put it this way: “If you really, really want to have something, you have to create it and you have to control it.”

-1Originally posted at HowlRound.

Actor Lake Bell has been making the press rounds promoting her new indie movie, In a World …, about a female voice over actor whose gender (and father) have kept her from achieving the same level of success as her male peers. Bell plays Carol, a goodhearted vocal coach that finally stumbles into success, despite industry sexism, when a producer with a point to make hires her to be the first female voice to begin a movie trailer with the iconic phrase “in a world …”.

All of the actors in the film—not just the ones who play voice over artists—use their voices to amazing effect in creating character and telling story. Bell, who studied theater at the Rose Bruford College in London, says she has always been hyper-aware of voices, accents, and languages. She’s on a mission now to stop the spread of what she calls the “sexy baby voice virus:” a combination of a high pitch, vocal fry (a kind of creaking caused by restriction of breath and tension in the muscles around the larynx), and uptalk (sending the pitch of your voice up at the end of the sentence).

Though linguists disagree on whether we can say for sure that vocal fry and uptalking are more common among young women or whether we just notice it more with them, voice professionals and social critics identify the trend as beginning with the Valley Girls of the ’80s and being more common with young women than men. Bell contrasts this to previous vocal trends, such as the way actors talked in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, which included both women and men, and posits that women are diminishing themselves by speaking in this way.

When young women use this voice, it’s most often with each other. I talked to Nancy Houfek, the Head of Voice and Speech at the American Repertory Theater/Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, who said that members of social groups often adopt similar manners of speaking. While it’s possible that uptalking and vocal fry will spread so much that everyone will speak that way in order to fit in, right now it mainly signifies belonging to a particular demographic subset.

While Bell has been widely lauded for making an explicitly feminist film, she has also been accused by young feminists whose voices fit Bell’s description, of demeaning women who talk that way. Surprised that there are young feminists who talk that way? Don’t be. Though uptalk can make women sound vapid, it doesn’t mean that they are vapid. Similarly, vocal fry is not necessarily the result of being insecure, but it is caused by restricting your breath and tightening up, and that conveys insecurity to people outside of the shared culture of that demographic subset.

Bell’s irritation with young women’s voices is a result of her training: It comes from the knowledge that women are physiologically capable of sounding different and that in many situations—such as a job interview, debate, or public forum—sounding different would help them come across as more powerful, confident, and grown up. She’s less demeaning women for talking that way and more encouraging them to make full use of their instruments in situations where it would be to their benefit.

Interestingly, Bell isn’t saying that women need to sound more like men. In fact, in the film, her character explicitly says that women need to sound more like women instead of little girls. Nor is she saying that women should never use vocal fry or uptalk. Many successful singers use vocal fry quite effectively, and uptalk is a great way of using your voice to lead your listener into the next thought. (Houfek cites Senator Elizabeth Warren as a master of this.) But our voices are one of the primary instruments of self-expression, and if we want to convey the full range of our thoughts and feelings in a wide variety of given circumstances, we’d better know how to use that instrument to it’s fullest potential.

In a World .. makes a compelling case for vocal training as part of both conservatories and undergraduate theater programs. Though the film’s overt use of voice acting is rare in Hollywood, even in movies where the voice work is subtler, the difference between actors who know how to use their voices to create character and those who do not can be profound. In the theater, vocal training can be the difference between booking or not booking a job. And I share Lake Bell’s perspective that even non-actors can benefit from voice work. As Nancy Houfek put it:

Being able to use your voice and your breath without tension makes you sound more confident, more relaxed, and more connected to what you are saying. The words have more power and will land with listeners more effectively. And this is a human thing, not a gendered thing.

Los Angeles is a very naturally post-modern city. There’s no center. There’s disparate elements jutting up against each other. It’s just so jagged and fragmented–even the start stop in the traffic. But I feel like it’s going to be the 21st-century American city because the internet makes it less important how the physical organization of the city works. This is the geographical articulation of our moment in time.

— Alice Tuan

1aat

Originally posted at HowlRound.

The country’s longest running theater of color, Los Angeles’ East West Players, is approaching it’s 48th season. Founded in the wake of the Watts Rebellion (1965) to promote healing in the city by sharing stories from within ethnic communities, East West Players has premiered over 100 plays and musicals about the Asian American experience.

Artistic Director Tim Dang explained that in the early days of the company, Asian American actors were eager to play Chekov and Shakespeare in traditional productions, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began a writer’s program to develop work specifically by Asian American writers. Today they do new plays and musicals and classics resituated in an Asian context.

Originally located in a church basement in Silver Lake, East West Players moved to its current home in Little Tokyo in 1998. Dang relates,

We thought would be easy to become part of the neighborhood and grow our audience from a 99- to 240-seat theater, but that did not happen. We definitely had to work very hard to get our audience come to a new destination and to make sure other Asian ethnicities didn’t think we were just a Japanese theater.

Today their audience is 54% Asian and 46% non-Asian. 75% of all Asian Pacific performers in the acting unions living in Los Angeles have worked there. The company has become a leader in Hollywood in advocating for Asian American story lines and characters and has contributed to the national dialogue around whitewashing (casting white actors to play ethnic roles).

To meet the demands of their multicultural productions, East West Players has developed a very specific casting policy which states that if a character has to speak a foreign language or is from another country, the actor has to be of that country’s descent. If the character is Asian American and only speaks English, they consider any Asian actor for the role. Dang thinks this casting policy will continue to evolve as America’s racial landscape does:

In two decades 50% of Americans under the age of 30 will be mixed race. Mixed-race actors now have trouble getting cast because they either don’t look Asian enough or they don’t look white enough. Interestingly, Equity has okayed the moniker “ethnically ambiguous” for casting. So when we look for actors now, we look for Pacific Highlander, South Asian, and ethnically ambiguous. And as more and more children are born out of interracial marriages, East West Players’ casting policy will have to continue to evolve.

The head of the playwriting program at the California Institute of the Arts, Alice Tuan–who grew up in Los Angeles but ironically has never had a full production here–articulated a similar notion of the shifting moment she is experiencing as a writer:

Originally, I wanted to write myself into the culture. I spent 20 years building a body of work presenting the perspective of ‘If we all are citizens and self-determining and self-defining then we are constantly narrating who we are in the culture.’ Now life has gotten more subjective because everybody has more possession of what determines and defines their lives: blogging, texting, internet-ing. People are really expressing themselves a lot. And so as things are shifting the reason for narration is changing.

Tuan’s play Iggy Woo was read as part of a spring reading series produced by Artists at Play, an three-year-old Asian American theater company whose model Tuan says reflects the fact that 20th-century institutions can not always represent the complexities of our time.

2aatAn affiliation of four producers (Julia Cho, Peter J. Kuo, Stefanie Wong Lau, and Marie-Reine Velez), Artists at Play has done one full production per year and a reading series as part of their mission to present theatrical productions “missing from our local landscape” that tell the stories of underrepresented communities.

According to the producers, the script for their first production, Ching Chong Chinaman, by Lauren Yee, had been passed over by traditional institutions because of it’s satirical portrayal of offensive stereotypes. Cho says that’s what it made it perfect for Artists at Play:

Ching Chong Chinaman would have been a huge risk for a theater with a subscription base. For us it was a way of making a mark and establishing what we’re about. This play delves into stereotypes in an absurd, inappropriate way that turns them on their head. We’re focused on finding new plays that tell new stories in new ways.

Though the shows that the producers are drawn to are by and about Asian Americans, they hope to move beyond a term that they say feels limiting because of the assumption that Asian American theater is always about the immigrant narrative and generational cultural identity. Velez put it this way:

The last show we did and our upcoming production involve Asian American characters but their race doesn’t dictate who they are, it’s just a part of who they are. We explore the intersections of Asian American identity–like sexuality, class, all the different aspects that make a whole person.

Cho elaborated:

Our next play deals with interracial dating and contains specifically Asian characters, but you can broaden it out to be about interracial dating between any races because there’s always assumptions people bring to the table based on the stereotypes of those races.

The youth of the producers and the collective rather than institutionalized structure of Artists at Play is reflected not just in their content, but also in their fundraising and use of social media. For each production, they create an Indiegogo campaign. They’ve held several “Epic Yard Sales” during which they sell items donated by audience members. They once held a rock-paper-scissors tournament in which supporters paid to participate. At present, Artists at Play has no plans to rent an office, nor do the producers want to quit their day jobs. They meet in person once a week and use Google Hangout to work together online.

Los Angeles’ geographic size, it’s status as home to the entertainment industry, and it’s 15% Asian population mean that the city has plenty of room for Asian American artists and theaters of all kinds. And yet, you can see more diversity in a quick glance around any neighborhood than you can on the non-ethnic-specific stages of the city. Cho wonders if Hollywood has a trickle down effect on Los Angeles theater:

Maybe it’s an LA thing because the industry is so afraid to take chances. Asians are still seen as the other. People can’t wrap their heads around justifying the presence of this person who looks different. But it’s 2013 and theater involves suspension of disbelief. Shouldn’t we be able to play and take risks and have a family of actors that are all various shapes and colors? It’s theater. Why can’t we do that?

Hollywood Fringe PicOriginally posted at HowlRound.

This year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival–only the fourth in it’s history–featured 212 separate productions in 50 different spaces for a total of more than 1,000 performances. They took in $258,000, all of which went directly back to the individual productions. For a city not known for its theater, that’s no small beans.

The Hollywood Fringe, like most Fringe Festivals, places a premium on being uncurated: Provided you can afford the $250 registration fee, the rental of a theater, and your own marketing and production expenses, anyone can participate.  Unlike with the New York International Film Festival, which is curated and provides space and publicity for its shows, participants in the Hollywood Fringe are required to be their own producers, from choosing a suitable venue to targeting their audience to setting their own ticket prices. As with individually mounted productions, every show keeps 100% of their ticket sales.

This focus on entrepreneurship constitutes one of the central aims of the company behind the Hollywood Fringe. Los Angeles is flush with actors and directors, but despite all the film producers, the city has relatively few theatrical producers. Festival Director Ben Hill says he structured the Fringe as a collective of self-produced shows in order to solve that problem:

To run any kind of theatrical endeavor in this town you can’t just throw a bunch of actors together and think that fantastic things are going to happen. You need at least one person that is business-minded, that knows how to put a marketing plan together, to create the financial environment in which great art can thrive. Otherwise all the actors are always stressing about money and they shouldn’t be. They should be stressing about creating great art.

In addition to providing participating shows with discounts from marketing vendors and affordable theater rental prices, the Hollywood Fringe offers artists a kind of producer-training program in the form of town halls and workshops that guide artists through creating a budget, a Kickstarter, and a marketing plan.

As a result, the Festival hosts productions of all sizes, from one person sitting in a chair to multi-media productions to musicals with live bands, reflecting an astonishing variety of ways to make theater. The downside to this structure is that groups with more money can afford a nicer space, better design, more marketing, and ads in the Fringe program, which constitutes an advantage over other participants in attracting audiences and winning the coveted Festival awards.

The awards ceremony was the first time I had the opportunity to see all of the Fringe participants in one place, and though I thought I had seen a number of shows, I was astonished by the number of productions I hadn’t even heard of. Because the central Fringe organization provides no marketing for the actual productions, the only way for shows to get the attention of the press is to have the money and know-how to pitch us on their own. I therefore chose what to see not based on content, style, or on what the HowlRound audience would be interested– in fact the Fringe website provides little guidance in sorting through hundreds of offerings–but rather on which individual shows invited me.

At the ceremony, I was disappointed to see that though I had attended a number of shows by people of color, I had actually seen most of the shows by people of color at the Festival. Furthermore, many of the shows I saw were by black writers, but I was unable to find any productions by or about Latinos or Asians at all. When asked why he thinks the Festival lacks the same diversity that characterizes the city–Latinos make up 48% and Asians 15% of the Los Angeles population–Hill responded,

The thing about open access is we don’t invite, we don’t solicit. We put the flag out there and say gather round the flag. It’s just a matter of who responds. We don’t recruit, but everyone is invited.

This perspective, common to people in positions of privilege who have been taught to assume they are always welcome, fails to take into account the fact that without a pre-existing sense of belonging to a shared community–a problem the Festival says it aims to redress–not everyone is in a position to see the metaphorical flag. In terms of future outreach, Hill believes that,

The best thing we can do in terms of outreach is to have a giant, huge, and successful festival so people can read about it and say, ‘Oh that looks really interesting, I can produce whatever show I want, I want to do that.’

Unfortunately, the longer the Hollywood Fringe is known as a relatively homogeneous event, the less likely other groups will be to participate. If Hill and his team want a Fringe that reflects the reality of life in Los Angeles, they will have to make a concerted effort to diversify before the Festival gets any bigger.

Though I question whether anything so market driven can actually be “open-access,” as the Fringe calls itself, the emphasis on producer-training is sure to serve the Los Angeles theater community immeasurably. Judging from the bonhomie among the parts of the Los Angeles theater community involved in the Festival, it is well on its way to achieving what Hill calls their larger purpose:

Los Angeles is tricky when it comes to theater because it’s so vast and dispersed, a problem public transportation hasn’t been able to solve. There is no one place to see theater. So one month out of the year we provide a true sense of place, a sense that if you come to this place you will see people you know, you’ll see people you saw theater with, made theater with, talked about theater with. And any time when artists are congregated in the same place for any period of time, that’s when movements happen.

eternal_thou2_webOriginally posted at HowlRound.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was wary of attending the theater. LA is an industry town, and if there’s one thing I’m not interested in, it’s staged screenplays. Don’t get me wrong–I love film. I just don’t want to see it on stage. Because technology allows for far more realistic representations on film than we can ever hope to achieve live, I want to see theater that is truly theatrical–that makes use of the presence of the performers, the visibility of the apparatus, and the constraints of space and time. On film, moment-to-moment story is created through editing. In the theater, all we have is our bodies, the room, and the audience.

At the same time, the world we live in is increasingly technicized and increasingly virtual. “Reality” is no longer defined simply as “real life.” Today we have many “realities:” who we are in-person, who we are on social media, our avatars, our handles. We are now capable of creating as many realities for ourselves as we desire. If theater is to speak to our current conditions, it therefore must deal with the effect technological advancement is having on human relationships.

So where does an Angeleno go for theater that is explicitly theatrical but that also deals with contemporary realities that are increasingly technological? I missed Matthew McCray‘s Eternal Thou when it opened in L.A. last year, so I was pleased to see–via social media, natch–that it was being remounted at South Coast Repertory in Orange County (an affluent and politically conservative area just south of Los Angeles). South Coast Repertory is known nationally for it’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival of five readings and two productions of new plays. Less well-known is a program designed to strengthen ties to the local theater community and provide “alternative programming” to their traditional main stage: Studio SCR.

In order to bring their audience into contact with theater from the surrounding environs and to bring audience from those environs to South Coast Rep, Studio SCR provides brief residencies for companies and artists not located in Orange County. One of six productions mounted through the program this year, Eternal Thou is simultaneously a story about the invention and development of the internet and a philosophical meditation on the nature of human relationships.

In 90 minutes, five actors–all of whom remain on stage the whole time–move in and out of a variety of realities. They enact both historical events, like the first computer-to-computer phone calls and the ongoing fight to maintain net neutrality, and metaphorical ones in which the characters move in and out of the internet itself. Essentially, Eternal Thou is sci-fi theater.

A cautionary tale of sorts, Eternal Thou perfectly fits famed-fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s definition of science fiction as that which “extrapolate[s] imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire.” The play embodies technological forces like computer code and hacking in human characters to create a world in which people are being “programmed,” whether they know it or not. Via the philosophy of Martin Buber, it warns against the objectification of the other that necessarily results from technologically mediated communication and encourages us to hold on to the holy nature of human-to-human contact.

At the same time, the production celebrates the very technologies that threaten to overwhelm us. A combination of projections, electronic and live sound, television sets, and a scrim that makes some projections appear to be holograms, the designs of Sarah Krainin, Adam Flemming, Ian Garrett,and Joseph “Sloe’ Slawinski entrance spectators even as the play warns against allowing technology to determine our fates. And yet despite the profusion of special effects, the audience never forgets they are in a theater: A mass of conduits and wires hangs in front of a table off to the side, only partially obscuring the director and stage manager running the show. The actors interact athletically with the design, and their physical presence as well as their vocalizations (some of the best sound effects are created by them) grounds the piece’s philosophical and technological underpinnings in the real time of the theater.

The Studio SCR remount of Eternal Thou gave McCray a chance to cut 30 minutes from the piece and strengthen the story as well as the central metaphor. Partly because of that and partly because of the somewhat surprising open-mindedness of the OC audience, McCray confirmed that reception was even more positive this time around than in LA:

I really worried that because of the experimental nature of the piece, the South Coast audience might not be as receptive as LA, but actually they were more receptive. In LA I was getting notes from people like, “Just look at the form of movies. Go back to movies.” At SCR I could feel them thinking. To me that’s a message that even being as abstract as it is, the play provides a universal experience.

It’s hard to imagine that Orange County residents who see these Studio productions will then travel north to see more of Los Angeles’ experimental theater, but by bringing LA artists south, SCR is certainly expanding their audiences’ notion of what the theater can be. That they can do that gives me hope that we can get the half of LA that can’t stop thinking in terms of the three-act structure to consider the possibility of new forms as well.

In California–home not just to the film and television industry but also to Silicon Valley–the media is always the message, or as the play puts it:

There’s no division anymore, no division between what’s real and what’s not.

If theater is to speak to the technological here and now in which we find ourselves, new definitions of realism are in order, and in my opinion, science “fiction” is a great place to start.

Originally posted at HowlRound

Just as HowlRound was finishing up its tweet chat on “Making a Career, Making a Living in the Arts,” the news broke that a judge for the Southern district of New York ruled that Fox Searchlight had violated the law by not paying its interns.

The U.S. Department of Labor has guidelines on what constitutes an internship and what is minimum-wage work, but those guidelines are subject to some interpretation, and many corporations have proved all too eager to interpret them liberally. Today’s ruling takes a big step towards clarifying these criteria by determining that what interns on Searchlight’s production of Black Swan gained from the opportunity was “incidental to working in the office like any other employees and [was] not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them.”

In other words, businesses can no longer claim that simply being on the set or in the rehearsal room is a benefit worthy of an internship.

Non-profits have always had some leeway in these matters because they are allowed volunteers. But there is a legal distinction between interns and volunteers, too. The Department of Labor defines volunteers as people who do not have any expectation of benefits and who are not being trained for a job. In other words, even non-profits won’t be able to simply start calling interns volunteers. Therefore over the next few years, organizations will need to look closely at their internship programs to ensure that they are really “providing training at no benefit to themselves.”

The law on this is still evolving, but as it does, we have a great opportunity to ask questions of ourselves, our economy, and our art. Though companies offering internships cannot do so in expectation of benefiting from them, the industry as a whole can and should determine what our community gains from internships as well as how to best structure them to facilitate those gains without asking workers to provide free labor.

@HowlRound Working for no pay or underpaid has created a false economy in the whole nonprofit sector (not just theatre) #newplay

— Linda Essig (@LindaInPhoenix) June 13, 2013

I was privileged enough to have the support of my parents when I was in college and was able to do two summer internships. For me, as for many people, they provided me with connections as well as valuable hands-on experience. They also involved a lot of tasks that the Labor Department would not have considered legal in the context of an internship.

I’m glad I did these internships, but it troubles me that the only way to begin a career in the theater is to have financial support from somewhere else. If you weren’t born into the middle or upper class, the primary avenue to a career in our field is not an option for you.

Let’s think about this for a second. We talk a lot about diversity in our business–about a desire to serve a variety of audiences and reflect the full spectrum of American life on our stages. Can you imagine how much our art and our audiences would change if people not born into privileged circumstances could take advantage of internships?

We are all on tight budgets–institutions, families, and artists. Clarifying the distinction between what constitutes work, internships, and volunteering will help companies clarify their mission and structure–both keys to balancing their budgets. Finding a way to pay interns for the portion of the work they do that is not training would give whole new groups of Americans a shot at a career in the theater, which in turn would exponentially expand the possibilities of the stories we tell and the people who want to hear them.

If that’s not part of your mission, well I guess I think it should be.

Originally posted at HowlRound

Slide1It was a sunny day in May and LA Stage Alliance was hosting LA Stage Day, a gathering of Los Angeles theater folk centered around inspirational presentations, workshops, and breakout sessions. So I ventured down the 5 to University Hills, just off the 10, where participants in small group discussions like “Leading Diversity on the LA Stage,” “New Media in the Rehearsal Room,” and “Blue Sky: What Are Your Dream Ideas?” were sharing best practices, brainstorming new ideas, and challenging their own assumptions about how theater works.

As part of a day geared around questions like how to engage new, increasingly diverse, tech savvy audiences, the playwriting workshop stood out for advocating the safest route to getting produced. Led by four men and one woman, “Play!: The 60-minute Everything-You-Need-to-Know-About-Playwriting-in-LA Marathon” offered such revelatory tidbits as “cast a name actor or no one will come see your play,” “every story has to have a protagonist and a resolution,” and “plays only get produced when they have small casts and one set.” Now these things are all well and good if that’s the kind of play you want to write, but what if the best actors you can get have impeccable training but aren’t names? What if the world as you see it or as you want to show it has multiple protagonists and locations, lots of people, and conflicts that don’t necessarily get resolved? What if you want to make art more than you want to sell tickets? What if you’re a woman?

In search of more fertile ground for innovative new play development, I headed up the 101 to Silver Lake for a reading of Crazy Bitch, a new play by Jennie Webb, presented by The Playwrights Union. As if the theater gods had heard my cry, Webb’s 70-minute play has not one but four protagonists, one of which is a character called The Immortal Jellyfish who is described as 4.5mm wide and lives in a petri dish. And though the play, which is set in LA, deeply investigates questions of life and death, the actual plot is left unresolved. Asked to what extent her play was consciously created in relation to the commercialism of Los Angeles, Webb said:

I’ve lived here all my life but this is the first play I’ve set here. I just got tired of all the new plays set in New York and gave myself a challenge to set one in LA. But I’m not savvy enough to write what’s producible. I write what I write and I hope it speaks to someone. I’d rather write plays where a woman loses body parts or shoes start raining from the ceiling. I call it “domestic absurdism,” with domestic meaning everyday life, because I find that life is absurd, especially for women.

In contrast to the male-heavy representation among speakers at LA Stage Day, a full five of the seven readings done that weekend by The Playwrights Union were by women. The Union, which began in 2009 as a meeting of interested colleagues in organizer Jennifer Haley‘s backyard, hosts an annual February challenge to write a play in a month. Participating playwrights gather over a long weekend to read and talk about one another’s plays. They do another round of rewrites and then host a weekend of public readings with actors. Haley, whose own play The Nether recently premiered at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater, told me:

We have about 30 members, and there was a time when we had to recruit men in order to achieve parity. Right now it’s about even, but more women participated in the February Challenge that lead to these plays.

Asked how her writing functions in relation to the commercial culture of Hollywood and the idea of what’s “producable,” Haley offered:

I’ve worked as a playwright in Austin, Seattle and all over the East Coast. Studying at Brown with Paula Vogel, I learned to play with both experimental and traditional forms.  I think circulation in a variety of theater communities helps you look at different models… there are new Playwrights arriving all the time in LA, and it will be interesting to see if this influences the kind of work being done here.

Though many playwrights are drawn to Los Angeles to write for television, others come here to study and end up making the city their home. Brittany Knupper, a recent grad from the playwriting program headed by Alice Tuan at the California Institute of the Arts–just up the 5 from the Valley–talked to me about her first year living here as a writer:

A lot of people their first year out of school have an existential crisis. Maybe mine just hasn’t hit yet but it hasn’t been that bad. Then again I constantly feel like I’m in an existential crisis, so maybe I’m just used to it. At CalArts I felt like I wasn’t being experimental enough as a writer, but in Hollywood people think what I do is too experimental. LA is such an industry town: People are trying to do anything they can to make a connection. You can feel the desperation. It’s funky and weird and gross, and I kind of like how dirty and weird it is.

Knupper has found an artistic outlet in storytelling, a popular form of Los Angeles entertainment in which people gather in theaters, bars, and homes to hear individuals read stories, usually autobiographical but sometimes fictional. These pop-up salons feature the work of playwrights, journalists, fiction writers, and essayists and provide writers with regular opportunities to present work and receive feedback from within a supportive community.

Because the nightmare of driving in LA keeps most Angelenos locked in their own neighborhoods, writers who want to reach a city-wide audience have to create communities like these, organized around the discipline rather than through established institutions. Jennie Webb and writer/mythologist Laura Shamas formed just such an association in 2009–the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative–to coordinate efforts to get more plays by women produced on local stages. Webb related,

LA is almost pridefully inaccessible. We needed an organization that would bring women together and spread the word that women writers exist. We are focused on connecting artists to one another, supporting one another by going to see each others plays, and getting the message out that it pays to produce work by women.

Clearly LA is not lacking in women playwrights, yet a study done by LAFPI in conjunction with LA Stage Alliance revealed that between 2000 and 2010, only 20% of plays produced in Los Angeles were written or co-written by women.

Hopefully next year’s LA Stage Day will address the lack of gender diversity on our city’s stages. Organizers at the Alliance should start by asking more women to speak and conduct workshops and should include breakout sessions addressing the issue. For their part, producers need to recognize that the only way to appeal to new audiences is to tell stories in new ways, which is why I’m going to stay on the trail of the LA writing underground, where work by women–and experimental work at that–is flourishing. In fact, on Sunday I’m hosting a reading of Knupper’s play, Galatea, in my backyard. If you can make it up the 405, then come on out.

follow Holly on twitter @hld6oddblend

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