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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

How lucky am I? As a feminist theater director, I seek out plays written by women about women. They are, statistically speaking, more likely to be feminist and on the whole they provide more opportunities for women actors. But one of the benefits of having an established reputation for doing a certain kind of theater is that when producers I know read plays that deal with women’s issues, they think of me. I directed a gender-confused Twelfth Night at the University of California at Riverside in 2011, so when they contacted me about doing Adam Rapp’s The Metal Children and I read it, I thought, “Awesome. They get what I do.” Little did I know.

At first I connected to the play primarily on the basis of it’s frank discussion of abortion, it’s illumination of the troubling valorization of teenage mothers that has necessarily resulted from the Bristol Palin debacle, it’s recognition that total reproductive autonomy for women necessarily calls into question the role of men in reproduction and fatherhood, and it’s stylistic representation of these issues through the tortured point of view of the artist. It wasn’t until we began rehearsal that I was forced to confront the fact that the play is also about an writer suffering an identity and creative crisis as a result of his divorce. Ha.

Whereas I often choose material that is foreign to me because I love an excuse to do research, this time I have been hired to direct a play that I feel, more than ever before, is about me. How to deal with that while also providing undergraduates with an experience to make something that is about them? Aesthetic distance, of course: an Expressionist concept that makes use of the fact that the story is told from the point of view of the main character and his creator, Adam Rapp. The play is essentially an expression of a very personal worldview: One forged in pain, confusion, and fear, and one which leads us back to the central issue of abortion.

Of all the plays by women and about women that I have directed before, no other play has given me the opportunity to do feminism in the classroom that this play has given me. Not only do I have to, as a director, make the personal political (in other words use my personal experience to tell a universal story), I actually have to make sure the students understand the difference between medical abortion and surgical abortion, the difference between vacuum aspiration and dilation and extraction, and the rare and yet over-represented-in-the-imagery details behind intact dilation and extraction or late-term abortion.

And it’s not just that I have a chance to clarify the facts on these issues. I assigned a student dramaturg the task of researching those facts and differences and explaining them to her colleagues, and what did she, after a Google search for “side effects of abortion” come in with? Articles from I don’t blame her for it. In fact she accidentally made for me the point of the play: Accurate information on abortion is hard to find, and extreme emotions on the subject tend to be inspired by extreme ideas about what it entails. As a result of this, I asked all of the students to compare the information on Life News (an anti-choice site) with the information available from Planned Parenthood (a pro-choice site) with the info on WebMD (a presumably neutral source of medical information). In a few days, the student dramaturg will present the points of view of pro-“men’s rights” group and anti-“men’s rights” groups as well as the positions of men and women genuinely interested in addressing the effect of reproductive legislation on both women and men.

Again, this is not an opportunist exercise. Rapp actually cites a particular abortion apparatus by name: the SU-507 180-watt Crown Suction Unit. To act a line that includes a reference to that, the student must know what it is. But the opportunities as well as the dangers of this are evident: I do not wish to impose my point of view on anyone, but rather hope to engage them in a discussion of the issue based on a clear understanding of the facts.  Likewise I do not wish to make the show about my particular grief upon the end of a marriage, though I share many experiences with the main character and the author. These precipices are dangerous but they are necessary, it seems to me, to the practice of feminism in the classroom.

Despite the misconceptions of Fox News and their fellow travelers, it is not the goal of feminism in academia to persuade people to our point of view. It is our goal to educate citizens about the facts and to teach them to think critically about any and all information they may encounter. That I get to do this while also directing a play about an archetype of me, starring some outstanding students who are invested in the liberal arts’ goal of connecting fields of study through the act of critical thinking, is lucky for me indeed.

The Metal Children will run at the University of California at Riverside from November 8 – November 17.

When I’m asked to describe my work as a theater director (as anyone in this field is often asked to do), I make sure I use a few keywords: Viewpoints and Composition, gender, Epic Theater, performance of identity. When talking to artists with whom I collaborate, I sometimes say post-modern, and then I explain what I in particular mean by that.

There are other isms and ists. Feminist. Post-colonialist. I also use reconstruction instead of deconstruction. And I invoke Brecht, namely in the context of narrative (as opposed to plot) and history.

So it’s always interesting to go back to those sources and take a fresh look at what I actually do versus what the theory that inspires me asks me to do. I’m working on two unrelated productions at once right now – As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath and Rimers of Eldritch – and with both I have invoked “historicization” as a design and performance aesthetic. But what do I mean by that?

In answering that question, I decided to remind myself what Brecht (might) have meant. Historicization. “Perhaps the incidents portrayed by the epic actor need to be familiar ones, in which case historical incidents would be the most immediately suitable,” he says in “The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting.”

In “Indirect Impact of the Epic Theater” he espouses,

[Scenes] must be portrayed as emphatically and significantly as any well-known historical episodes, though without sentimentalizing them. In this epic theatre serving a non-Aristotelian type of drama the actor will at the same time do all he can to make himself observed standing between the spectator and the event.

From “On the Use of Music in an Epic Theater:”

The epic theater is chiefly interested in the attitudes which people adopt toward one another, wherever they are socio-historically significant (typical). … The concern of the epic theater is thus eminently practical. Human behavior is shown as alterable; man himself as dependent on certain political and economic factors and at the same time as capable of altering them.

I’ll be honest. I often choose historical subjects for productions simply because I think history is really interesting. I like having an excuse to learn as much as I can about a particular period – to devour the music, the images, the words and sounds of an age.

But I also chose to adapt Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath partly because its historical material so perfectly speaks to our current economic concerns. (Also partly because it’s brilliant and beautiful and the things he does with words are wow.) Part of my point is that we can learn from the ways history repeats itself – we can see ourselves in the past and understand that we can’t keep making the same mistakes. When we see how history repeats itself, surely we will realize that we have to change, or so my thinking goes.

Though I was sure I got the idea from him, Brecht’s take is actually a little different. He actually goes to great length to argue that we should perform history in order to show people how different the times are, not how similar. In a contradiction to his earlier thinking that historical material might prove most suitably familiar to the actor, in “Short Description of a New Technique of Acting” he argues:

The actor must play the incidents as historical ones. Historical incidents are unique, transitory incidents associated with particular periods. The conduct of persons involved in them is not fixed and ‘universally human’; it includes elements that have been or may be overtaken by the course of history, and is subject to criticism from the immediately following period’s point of view. The conduct of those born before us is alienated from us by an incessant evolution.

So whereas I want to use the way that things don’t change to convince the audience that we must change, Brecht wanted to reinforce change by showing all the changes we’ve already made. The endpoint, I would argue, is the same: to get the audience to think critically about the ways we behave. But the means are actually pretty different.

Now, if you’re still with me, you have either have some preexisting interest in me or in Brecht, so bear with me a little longer, because what’s fun is how these things manifest in rehearsal. For As Long as Fear Can Turn to Wrath, it’s in 4 ways in various combinations: what is historical, what is Steinbeck, what makes our political point, and what is good theater.

Two examples: the women actors in the show play both Women characters and a Used Car Salesman, a Truck Driver, and a Manager. They do not have time to change costumes (we can’t afford more than one costume per actor anyway), and the question came up of whether they should wear dresses. The dresses would be historically accurate when they are First, Second and Third Woman, but not as the other characters. So the question becomes what will the audience believe (“believe” in the sense of “be able to make meaning out of”), and the answer is they are more likely to believe Women in pants than Truck Drivers in dresses. So then the question becomes do I want to challenge what the audience believes? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. In this case, the gender of the characters is not the main point I’m making, so I’m not interested in defying the audience’s expectations with that particular choice.

At the same time, because I am adapting text that was not written as dialogue, I have the opportunity to assign lines by gender in ways that empower the Women characters. My choices here have also involved going against historical assumptions, though in a different way. Together with the actors, we have created three distinct man-woman marriages, in some of which the women are equal partners with the men, and in all of which the women have genuine thoughts, feelings and opinions and take genuine action. But here I can argue that though it was not the norm, inevitably some women in 1935 had fairly equal relationships with their husbands. Inevitably some women lived as the subjects of their own lives. I can therefore justify the fact that in the adaptation I create a world in which that is true. (I cannot similarly argue that some truck drivers wore skirts.)

But in making these sorts of choices, am I in fact perverting history? Am I encouraging people to believe in a falsehood? Am I “Oliver Stone-ing” the Okies? This is a work in progress, but right now, I’m thinking no. And here’s why.

My work is Brechtian. I’m not actually trying to convince the audience that women wore pants in 1935. Nor am I suggesting that they actually had social or economic power. I’m actually assuming people know the truth on both scores, and that they know that this is theater and therefore a fiction. And I am hoping that in seeing real women with their own thoughts and motivations living in 1935 circumstances, we can get closer to understanding how absurd assumptions about gender are in all times.

Or maybe my work isn’t actually Brechtian at all. Either way I’ll leave you with this: Women always have been and always will be fully human subjects of history. How we document that, as far as I can tell, has always been pretty much up for grabs.

Today I was privileged to sit in on rehearsals for SITI Company’s The Trojan Women at the Getty Villa. This company employs a specifically theatrical technique to make art that fully exploits the liveness of the space and time of performance. Composed of actors, designers, and a director who have been working together at a very high level for years, this company doesn’t just get together in a room and do a play, each bringing their own thing to the table. They collaborate on the most fundamental aspects of storytelling. Whereas in LA the discussion is “what is the emotion of the character,” with SITI it is “what is the event that is happening? What is happening between people and what is happening in the story?” (The closest I heard an actor come to talking about emotion all day was, “When your character says that, it really deconstructs my character’s confidence.”) These actors create character and tell story with their physical voices and bodies, through movement and sound.

Working quickly, with actors who have either spent their whole day in class and still have homework to do (when I am teaching) or who are late because their commercial shoot went long (anything in LA), I do not have the leisure to work the way SITI does. Very few people do. But it is remarkable to watch, and in order to apply it to other situations, I’m trying to name it, to identify what are the qualities of that collaboration, and thereby make them into tools I can use to work with any actors anywhere.

The first thing you notice is the softness to the air. And yet the energy doesn’t ever become diffuse; on the contrary it is laser-focused. Perhaps “finely-tuned” is a better way to describe the air in that room. At the same time, everything is malleable. Everything can change and does change when it needs to, whether to allow a particular actor to work out something individual or to bring everyone back into the same moment. The process is, quite literally, step-by-step: “Should I take these three steps while they’re sitting down or after?” At one point an actor addressed an issue by saying, “There are several different times existing on stage right now.” And that made sense to everyone. The blend of voices discussing the structure of the scene, both in terms of the staging and the plot, was seamless. Without ever telling anyone else what to do, everyone in the room contributed to making decisions that tell story.

What can I take from this into my own rehearsal rooms, so different in both the amount and quality of time spent in the them? Never miss an opportunity to specify. With practice, creative decision making can happen quickly, and the benefit to the storytelling is worth budgeting most of your time on it. Refined choices not only create possibility, they also rule things out, thereby making your theatrical vocabulary specific enough to create clear meanings.

Also: breathe. In particular, exhale. Clear thinking requires oxygen. Everyone in that room today was breathing. Feeling rushed by time or like I’m having to push actors to get them to do something they are not used to makes me clench my core, which makes me breathe funny, which makes me skip beats and miss moments. In order to get the actors not to do that in performance, I have to make sure I don’t do that in rehearsal.

And finally, connect the dots, even when the dots have to be further away than you wish they could be. Take the time to figure out how one thing leads to the next, and a lot of the other stuff will take care of itself.

I’m getting ready for my first rehearsal for another incarnation of American Medea tonight, and my stomach is full of butterflies. One of my teachers, Anne Bogart, always says that being nervous is a good sign – it means that you’re invested and that the work is meaningful to you. I agree, and for the most part the butterflies are fun; they are part of the pleasurable anticipation of doing my favorite thing. But there’s always insecurities, too. What if the actors don’t like the play? What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t get it? What if I can’t explain it? What if it doesn’t actually do what I want it to do?

The piece is a collage of Euripides, Seneca, the Bible, the SCUM Manifesto, Southern idiom, and the court transcripts and real media responses to Susan Smith, Andrea Yates, Darlie Routier, and Deborah Green. As a result the plot is really subordinate to spectacle, rhythm, and diction, and the characters, combinations of various real and fictional people, hardly stay on the same thought for more than a few seconds. The idea is to draw out similarities between different versions of a similar story, and to show the cumulative effect of social and cultural forces on our conception of what it means to be a mother.

But in practice, actors have to, on some level, make sense of the moment-to-moment of what they’re doing. If they cannot know why a character changes, they must at least know exactly when. Without a coherent plot or characters that are consistent within themselves, actors must find something else to hang their hats on for the course of the play.

And the audience does, too. The question I always ask myself as an artist when working in this medium is “What connects the dots for the spectator? What are they watching that takes them from the beginning to the end, even when the beginning to the end is not a chronological journey? To what extent do I want them to be confused and to what extent do I want to relieve them of that so that they can focus on something else?” A laser focus on a moment or person can bring clarity, but confusion can also be productive, particularly when the point is that an issue is more confusing than we think.

That’s what I think about this story, and about these real women, and about motherhood: the forces shaping our understanding of these things are so many and so contradictory with one another that the result really is rather confusing. The tendency to make female biology a sacred force that somehow makes motherhood perfectly natural and perfectly fulfilling obscures the complex reality composed of values, socio-economic circumstances, and psychology that is different for every woman.

I guess I will try to rely on that belief to assuage my fears about this evening. If the play doesn’t make sense, if I can’t explain it, if the actors can’t understand it, well, a little confusion can go a long way towards revealing the truth.