Theater


2018_Manahatta_2_jg_2118Originally 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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photo by Richard Termine

In the aftermath of the presidential election, economist and political science professor Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD wondered, like so many people, whether Clinton would have lost if she were man and whether Trump could have won had he been a woman. Hypothesizing that in a gender-flipped race, Clinton would have come out the winner, she devised an experiment: To restage the debates with the roles flipped, so that Trump is a woman who not only said everything Trump did, but also acted the same way he did, with Hillary becoming a man who spoke and acted just like her. Guadalupe turned to NYU professor Joe Salvatore to direct while she created the script for Her Opponent, a debate between Brenda King (a female version of Trump) and Jonathan Gordon (a male version of Clinton), performed on January 28.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one 35-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s ethnodramatic technique in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. A 25-minute post-show discussion followed in which Guadalupe and Salvatore were amazed to find that even as a woman, Trump still came out the favorite.

In the discussion and in an online survey completed later, audiences found King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they found Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacked, Gordon didn’t fight back; she just nodded and smiled. In the body of a man, this response was disconcerting at best and at worst, one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

Cut to one-month later and an article about the show on NYU’s news page goes viral. Salvatore is drowned in press inquiries and requests to see the footage they captured when they filmed the performance. Much of the coverage is from right-wing sites and individual bloggers, where they rejoice that two liberals were proved so wrong by their own endeavor. This proves, they argue, that Trump’s win was not the result of sexism but rather of the strength of his message and the inherent unlikability of Clinton.

That Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis was wrong does not, by itself, prove that Trump deserved to win. Rather, it shows 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.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that audiences assumed that the actor playing Gordon had been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. (Commenters on right-wing websites that picked up the story were thrilled to call him a faggot.) In reality he had not been directed that way; that impression arose purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

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 has probably been told all of her life to smile more, and even planned when to smile during the debates. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it didn’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 a bitch.

Guadalupe and Salvatore are remounting the experiment for an off-Broadway run beginning March 22 at the Jerry Orbach Theater and are working on a film that replicates, shot by shot, the debate broadcast. They hope that the discussions after the next round of performances can help them further unpack why Gordon’s femininity was quite so off-putting and how even people who reject Trump’s policies could have found themselves inclined to vote for King, whose policies are exactly the same, rather than Gordon, whom they had in many cases already voted for in the form of Clinton.

Guadalupe told me that her theory is that their experiment says nothing about the appeal of the two candidates’ platforms, because when audiences watch a play instead of an actual debate with real world consequences, they are free to react almost entirely emotionally rather than intellectually. She believes that this decontextualization reveals not the power of Trump’s ideas but rather the power of the way he conveys them. The film, she hopes, can be used as a teaching tool, whether in political science or gender studies classes, to show how deeply reception of content is shaped by context.

Though Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis that Clinton would have would won were she a man was wrong, their experiment still proved that it is sexist assumptions – in this case, the one that women can be liked only when they act super feminine – that brought her down. Had Clinton had the liberty Trump had to act in a manner as bold as her ideas, or had Trump been forced by coaching to smile the whole time and nod even as his opponent beat the crap out of him, the election might have turned out differently. Trump didn’t win based on the power of his message, nor did Clinton loose on the issues. Trump won because he came across as the most direct, strong, and yes, masculine, candidate.

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Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame in Jacqueline E. Lawton’s Intelligence at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, February 24-April 9, 2017. Photo by Tony Powell.

Originally published by HowlRound on February 24, 2017.

Exactly eight days after Donald Trump was elected president, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth”—defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”—as 2016’s international word of the year, citing a 2000 percent increase in usage compared with 2015.

However, those of us who followed the second Bush administration closely became familiar with what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness” much earlier. The sixteen words George W. Bush used in the 2003 State of the Union address, for example, claiming that Saddam Hussein had sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” could have been called a lie, but, given that Bush says he believed they were true when he spoke them, they have instead gone down in history as “contested.” As playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton explores in her new play Intelligence, the ensuing Plamegate scandal—involving the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame—was full of its own deep truths not just about American politics but also about life in America at the time.

Our audiences were flocking to—hungry for—stories about politics and power in the whole diversity of how those are told—drama, musicals, all of that. These were the stories we were seeing our communities be inspired by. I think we’re all really hungry to understand who we are as Americans, in all of the delicious complexity, contradiction, beauty, and joy that that identifier can hold.

Lawton’s play is inspired by real events …

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