Theater


Originally published on HowlRound on January 30, 2020.

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Tonia Sina in rehearsal.

In case you haven’t noticed, we are experiencing a revolution in the way artists and entertainers rehearse and perform intimacy.

The seeds were planted at least ten years ago, when a few highly trained movement specialists started noticing that they were often called upon to handle scenes of sexual intimacy in rehearsal rooms. Working in isolation, they all realized that while many of their existing skills could be applied to that task, new techniques were necessary to choreograph intimacy in an ethical, efficient way. Today, Laura Rikard, Chelsea Pace, Tonia Sina, Siobhan Richardson, and Alicia Rodis …

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Originally published by Ms. Magazine on September 16, 2019. 

holland-taylor-annI’ve always looked forward to being old enough to play Ann Richards in a one-woman show—so imagine what happened when I saw that Holland Taylor’s Ann was on Broadway HD and running at Arena Stage, with Jayne Atkinson in the starring role.

I was eager to talk to the actor and playwright about her career, the things that led to her one-woman show and how she feels about handing it over to other actors. Taylor opened up to Ms. about how it is that Ann came to be—and what comes next.

I know you studied theater in college, so I’m guessing you knew before that you wanted to be an actor. When did you know? What drew you to the theater?

It’s always been a little mysterious to me, in a way, because

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Originally published by HowlRound on June 13, 2019.

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#MeToo has raised many questions about what kinds of intimacy are created in rehearsal rooms and classrooms, and to what end. As I’ve listened to the stories of survivors, I’ve been struck by the fact that the abusers in these cases, mostly men, weren’t doing anything that their predecessors in the American theatre didn’t do openly and without repercussions. At least three of the fathers of the American Method—Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Elia Kazan—had reputations for treating men and women differently, as well as for treating both women actors and women characters as sex objects. It made me wonder: Is there a connection between use of the Method and the behavior called out by #MeToo?

Since the 1930s, American theatre has been operating under the spell of the oh-so-seductive Method, a psychological acting technique that …

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Originally published by Ms. Magazine on April 15, 2019.

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Hope Singsen.

Hope Singsen had done very little producing before she began putting together The #HealMeToo Festival, which just wrapped in New York City.

She started with a plan to find a space to produce Skin, her solo show about the road and obstacles to healing and reclaiming intimacy after childhood sexual trauma, and to share that space with other women with similar stories to tell. From there, the ideas and connections just kept coming—and a successful crowdfunding effort gave way to the #HealMeToo Festival. The three-week event features …

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Originally published on HowlRound on April 11, 2018.

MeToo_hashtag_digital_text_on_RGB_screen_2017-12-09_version_24_(pattern)My #metoo theatre story is from high school. Our theatre department consisted of five women and whatever hapless guys we could convince to come play a part so that we weren’t limited to just doing Steel Magnolias over and over. The women referred to our teacher as the Dirty Old Man, or D.O.M. for short. He did everything guys like that do—touched us for too long, stood too close, talked about our bodies, stared at our breasts. But we liked making theatre, so we put up with it. None of us even thought to tell an adult what was going on, but years later I did hear he was fired when a student more woke than we were went to the principal.

Thirty years later, the zeitgeist has shifted towards condemning sexist behavior, but some people—primarily women—in the theatre are still forced to navigate …

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Dutch West India Company director Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King) and Lenape matriarch Mother (Sheila Tousey) have an interaction in 1600s Manahatta that will change lives for centuries to come. Witnessing are her family members Le-le-wa’-you (Tanis Parenteau) and Toosh-ki-pa-kwis-i (Rainbow Dickerson). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Originally published by HowlRound on April 2, 2018.

As an advocate for creating equity in the American theatre through consciously changing whom we choose to represent on stage, I am often told, “but that would interfere with the creative process.” The playwright’s vision, some argue, would be compromised by any effort to pursue casting quotas. The dictum “don’t tell the playwright what to write,” though generally sound dramaturgical advice, can be used as an excuse not to do the hard work necessary to creating change.

Not so with Manahatta, by Mary Kathryn Nagle, which premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in March 2018. Since being chosen for OSF’s 2018 season almost a year ago, Manahatta has undergone not only the usual rewrites, but also a very specific transformation initiated by Artistic Director Bill Rauch: Nagle flipped one of the main characters from being a man to being a woman. Not only did this not interfere with her vision, but she is actually able to better represent the cultural reality of her subject matter.

Manahatta tells the story of the 2008 financial crisis alongside the story of the “purchase” by the Dutch from the Lenape of what is now called Manhattan. In what is becoming a Nagle trademark, every actor plays a role in each time, often transitioning without leaving the stage, so that history becomes the present and the present becomes history right before the audience’s eyes. One actor plays …

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(L to R) Kalani Queypo (John Ridge), Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross), Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty. Photos by Tony Powell.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine Blog on January 10, 2018

As a student at Tulane Law School, activist, writer and lawyer Mary Kathryn Nagle once persuaded her Critical Race Theory professor to let her write a play as her final paper that was based on Worcester v. Georgia, an 1832 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that tribal nations have sovereignty over what happens on their lands. President Andrew Jackson, who appeared as a character in the play, refused to enforce the decision. That final project became the seed for Sovereignty, a new play commissioned by Arena Stage which begins previews on January 12 in Washington, D.C.

In the intervening years, Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation, became a lawyer for Pipestem Law—where she works for the restoration of tribal sovereignty, Indian civil and constitutional rights, and the safety of Native women—and an accomplished playwright. (This season, Nagle will have …

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Photo by Peter Lewicki.

Originally published by HowlRound on December 17, 2017.

A little over a year ago, America elected a president who bragged on tape about committing sexual assault. What a difference a year makes. Today, charges being made against men in entertainment and politics for abusing their colleagues, with a few prominent exceptions, are believed and action is being taken to stop the abuse.

The time is ripe for an examination of misogynist practices in theatre programs. Full on harassment and assault may not be happening in your department as far as you know, but places where women are devalued and set against one another are fertile ground for predators. Eliminating and preventing abuse requires more than riding offenders out of town on rails—it requires creating a culture in which …

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Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinched and vexed
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb, which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers.—Henry IV Part 1 III.i.25-31

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Hannah and the Dread Gazebo: Mother (Amy Kim Waschke) and Grandmother Tiger (Jessica Ko). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Originally published by HowlRound on January 2, 2018.

August 2017 saw Houston under water, Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, and large swaths of the Pacific Northwest on fire. In response, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt declared that now is not the time to talk about climate change.

In a way, he was right. The time to talk about climate change was decades ago. Now, the greenhouse effect has caused temperatures and sea levels to rise enough that coping with the seemingly endless succession of natural disasters made worse by climate change keeps us too busy to talk much about the underlying causes.

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR, climate is an inevitable topic. This summer, smoke from wildfires burning to the west, south, and northwest occupied the Rogue Valley on and off throughout August and into September, drastically decreasing visibility and often holding unhealthy levels of particulates in the air. As a result, the Festival had to cancel nine performances in its outdoor, twelve hundred-seat Allen Elizabethan Theater.

The man-made contributions to these fires are …

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Originally published on HowlRound on May 26, 2017

Johnny Saldaña, author and Professor Emeritus of Theatre in the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts’ School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at Arizona State University (ASU), began his plenary speech on the second day of the NYU Steinhardt Program in Educational Theatre’s Forum on Ethnodrama by asking what role ethnodrama has to play in a “post-truth” world. He identified President Trump’s personal driver as “the art of fabrication,” a description frightfully similar to the definition of theatre. Yet while Trump’s lies are fabricated with the purpose of deceiving, theatre lies to the audience in order to tell the truth.

Ethnodrama is, roughly speaking, the dramatization of data. It is theatre that is made out of research, often conducted in the form of interviews but also including primary sources like journal entries, field notes, and media artifacts. Saldaña calls it “reality theatre,” the ultimate goal of which is understanding.

In his speech, he urged ethnodramatists to blur genres and embrace aesthetics—to think theatrically even as they attempt to parse reality. The artistic offerings I saw in the course of merely the second day of the forum reflected the vast range of subgenres within ethnodrama. (In his seminal book on the subject, Ethnodrama: An Anthology of Reality Theatre Saldaña identifies more than eighty terms that can be applied.) I spoke with the chair of the forum, Joe Salvatore, clinical associate professor of educational theatre at New York University’s Steinhardt School, who said the performances along with papers and workshops digging into the what, how, and why of ethnodrama, ultimately raised a larger question for him: “What is ‘a play’?”

Salvatore’s own most recent ethnodrama, Her Opponent, just closed at the Jerry Orbach Theater at the Snapple Theater Center in New York. An early staging was presented at NYU in February, and for that event Salvatore embraced the term ethnodrama. Yet when moving Off-Broadway, he found that “documentary theatre” made more sense to theatregoers than the more academic term. Her Opponent is, regardless of what the press release says, ethnodrama. It restages excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates with gender-reversed casting in an attempt to understand how reception of the two major candidates was influenced by gender. Salvatore and his partner-in-creation, Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD, discovered that their experiment reveals as much about politics in general as it does about gender.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one thirty-five-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s technique, in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. Trump’s character is known as Brenda King, and Clinton’s as Jonathan Gordon. A twenty-five-minute post-show discussion follows the performance, in which Guadalupe and Salvatore have been continually amazed to find that even as a woman, the Trump character still comes out the favorite.

Audiences are finding King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they find Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacks, Gordon doesn’t fight back; she just nods and smiles. In the body of a man, this response is disconcerting at best and, at worst, at least one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

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Rachel Tuggle Whorton as Brenda King and Daryl Embry as Jonathan Gordon. Photo by Justin Rogers / One March Photography.

At the performance of the off-Broadway production that I saw, audience responses largely repeated these same tropes: Gordon was received as too wonky and phony, while King was easier to understand and more emotionally appealing.

Emotions ran strong in everyone’s responses, with one audience member going so far as to call the performance a “horror show” that felt like a “slow-motion replay of a murder.” Guadalupe, who moderated the discussion, noted that these emotional responses might stem from the fact that this is a theatrical performance and not a real debate. In other words, there are no real world consequences for policy or governance for an audience watching Her Opponent, only the space and time to revisit the election with a little distance, with that distance being provided not only by the passage of time but also by the gender-flipped casting. As with Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect, the emotions of Her Opponent’s audiences are not removed from the equation by this distance, but are, rather, heightened.

Audience members note that King, not being a man, is less threatening than Trump, which allows them to see Trump’s pacing less as stalking and more like a toddler on the verge of a tantrum. The fact that he simply exercised much more ownership of the space than she did also becomes more apparent when the threat is removed. Audiences also note Gordon’s tendency to use uptalk—a feminine tendency to use an upward inflection at the end of a sentence, a tactic we use in order to invite a response from our listener—when they had never noticed it in Clinton before. It was always there, but only once embodied in a man did it come into stark relief.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that some audience members assume that the actor playing Gordon has been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. In reality he has not been directed that way; that impression arises purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

All of these responses reveal that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.

Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she likely has been told all of her life to smile more. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it doesn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King—a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump—may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as bitches.

Aside from the performance of gender, what becomes crushingly clear from this experiment is that even when the debate has real-world consequences in terms of policies and governing, voters are swayed as much by their emotions as by which candidate’s positions they agree with. In a fascinating twist, Salvatore told me that multiple female audience members have been shocked by their dislike of Gordon and their like of King and have realized as a result that perhaps they give women candidates a free pass because they want to have more elected women in government. Indeed, I heard this very comment the night I attended the performance.

One other audience response has fascinated Salvatore: On Show-Score the audience reviews have been largely positive, but even the people who liked it the most have said, “But…it’s not a play.”

What, then, is a play? Does everything have to be entirely made up for the show to be a play? Under that rubric, even Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by Lynn Nottage and the Broadway hit Indecent by Paula Vogel would not count as plays, as they are firmly based in research.

Just as the term ethnodrama includes at least eighty subgenres, the idea of “a play” needs to be thought of as broadly containing many types of performance. In today’s post-truth world, no doubt we need as many of them as we can collectively muster. In fact, I would argue that ethnodrama, as a kind of play, might be the perfect mode of theatre to meet the moment. If the excitement around Sweat and Indecent tells us anything, it’s that audiences are hungry for theatre that tells them the truth about our past and our present, and this is exactly what ethnodrama aims to do.

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