Post image for Beyond the Aristocratic Theater (This post was part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game Change, originally published in June, 2015. The following questions informed the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

HOLLY L. DERR: The most game-changing production I ever saw – or at least the one that changed me the most – was Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. I had grown up listening to the soundtracks of classic musical theater because my Mom is a huge fan, but I had this idea that musicals were all fluff with little substance. I remember that the first time I saw Noise Funk, I was sitting in the front row, right at eye level with the dancers’ feet, and I was blown away by their skill. It wasn’t just the artistry that changed me, though, it was the realization that musicals could be as entertaining as a rock concert, as full of history as a college-level class, and as political as anything by Augusto Boal. That’s the kind of work I want to make.

The production I made that changed me the most was my thesis show at Columbia. I had chosen Timberlake Wertenbaker’s New Anatomies because the five female actors in it play characters who are male, female, Western, and non-Western, and because it required me, as the director, to learn about something I knew nothing about – Sufi Mysticism. Well, my timing was terrible, because three weeks before we opened 9/11 happened, and three of the five actors in the show quit because they didn’t want to play Muslims. I was about to cancel the show all together when a friend and dramaturg encouraged me to at least do a reading of the it, and I ended up doing what I called “A Reconstructed Production,” that involved three new actors. Everyone read from their scripts, and we completely redesigned the costumes, the set, and the projections, put me and the assistant director onstage as narrators, and added sketches between each scene that provided context about the differences between Sufism and fundamentalist Islam, the colonization of North Africa, the still-unfolding drama of the attack on the World Trade Center, and the process the artists had gone through in getting the show up. It was a huge lesson for me in never giving up, knowing whom my friends are and listening to them, and using theater to educate, heal, and bring a community together.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

HLD: Shortly after Noise Funk opened on Broadway, I got a job as the assistant to the general manager at The Public Theater.  I had been a huge admirer of George C. Wolfe for years, having come up from North Carolina, where I went to college, to see Jelly’s Last Jam and Angels in America, so I was pretty psyched to be working at the institution he was running. The first thing that blew me away about working there was the diversity at every single level. It wasn’t just that the programming was incredibly diverse, from the new plays to the color-blind cast Shakespeare, it was that every department included a mix of people of all colors, ages, sizes, and orientations, and so did the audiences. Today when I hear theater leaders say, “We’re trying to diversify, but it’s hard,” I think to myself, “It can’t be that hard. I’ve seen it done.”

The other thing that struck me about working for one of my heroes was the realization that he’s just a person like everybody else. George is very private and very protective of the space in his inner circle, and though at first I was disappointed that we couldn’t just sit down and shoot the sh*t, the realization that the artists and leaders we idolize are just as human as we are was really important for me. I had a similar experience when, after idolizing Anne Bogart from a distance for years, I finally went to study with her at Columbia and found her to be warm and funny and curious and totally open to whomever is sitting in the chair next to her. I’m lucky now to call her not just a teacher and a mentor but also a friend, and I think her ability to form long-lasting friendships – not networking relationships but actual friendships – with the people she works and learns with is part of what makes her a great leader.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

HLD: Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. (I’ll say it again. Diversity.) Obviously racial/ethnic and gender diversity are a big topic of conversation right now, but I think we need to focus on economic diversity, too. Making a career in the theater almost always involves going to college, having time while at college to do shows instead of work a part-time job, do summer theater programs that cost thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board, and then work for free for years upon graduation. This is a totally untenable situation for someone who doesn’t have family money, and it is the number one reason that the work made in professional theaters is very aristocratic in both subject and tone. How can we tell stories about people whose life experiences aren’t upper class when all of the people making theater are upper class?

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

HLD: Economic inequality, both within countries and between them. The distribution of resources in our world is so off, and yet most of the people with the resources don’t even realize it because we don’t see the people who are living without. We live in different neighborhoods, we go to different schools and different parties, we use different medical facilities, and we have different government representatives. If theater can manage to diversify economically – can stop making working for free the price of admission to the profession – we can confront audiences with stories about what life is really like for 98% of people on this earth. Right now theater is a ghetto of privilege, and if we don’t want the world to work that way, we can’t let theater work that way any more either.

Holly L. Derr is a writer, director, and professor specializing in Viewpoints and the performance of gender. Her most recent productions were Harry and the Thief by Sigrid Gilmer at The Know Theatre and her own play American Medea at Skidmore College. Holly holds an MFA from Columbia and has taught/directed at Smith College and The ART Institute, among others. She is an Artist-in-Residence at Skidmore where she will direct Macbeth this fall. Holly is also a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’

 Originally published by tcg on August 27, 2014
Post image for #Ferguson: They Who Have the Guns Have the Power

Torie Wiggins as Mimi, Meggy Hai Trang as Anita, Keisha Kemper as Harry, Burgess Byrd as Shilo, Ken Early as Maddox, Darnell Benjamin as Knox, Jon Kovach as Overseer Jones, and Sola Thompson as Vivian. Photo by Daniel R. Winters

(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MOThis series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia AlickMica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

I was on a plane back to Los Angeles from Cincinnati the day Michael Brown was shot. Having been on the road for 11 weeks, it was a few days before I could focus on anything other than sleep. When I came to and took in the full weight of what was going on in Ferguson, I was saddened and horrified, but not surprised. And as with all of these kinds of shootings, I was very aware of my privilege as a white woman – I have never had to fear the police – and also as an artist who has the chance to make and remake the world through theater. Theater has the potential to remind us who we are, who we have been, and who we might become.

The play I just directed at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati , Harry and the Thief, by Sigrid Gilmer, has become the lens through which I am interpreting the unfolding events in Ferguson; through which I am finding relief from my anger about police brutality and the evolution of America’s prison-industrial complex, especially as it affects poor people of color; and through which I am able to see Ferguson as what it is: American history repeating and repeating and repeating itself.

This is not just because the play is funny (it is) and I really, really need a laugh right now (I do). It’s not just because the writing, acting, and design are really, really good (they are). And it’s not just because the play reminds me that America’s original sin – that of slavery – reverberates and challenges and corrupts our culture on every level and at every moment in our history, including now (it does). It’s because the play creates an alternate reality in which the people with the power to decide who lives and who dies are black.

Harry and the Thief, a play in which a woman travels back in time to provide weapons to Harriet Tubman, is the definition of “empowering:” It uses the fact that Tubman’s life was so fantastical as to seem fictional to create a world in which black people have much more power than they had then and now. In real life, a teenaged Tubman intervened in an argument between a slave and the overseer to whom she had been hired out that day, and she was hit in the head with a two-pound iron weight for her trouble. When she was 27, she ran away with her brothers, who promptly got scared and forced her to turn back. Two weeks later, she left on her own and made it to freedom. When Tubman became involved with the Underground Railroad, she gladly accepted the title of Moses, declaring that God had in fact called her to go down South and bring up her brothers and sisters. Though she was a woman, the majority of the slaves she led to freedom were men. She not only attended abolitionist meetings in the North but also spoke from the stage to audiences composed primarily of white males. Tubman, in short, had some serious, if metaphorical, balls.

Ann Petry on Harriet Tubman

Image from the cover of Ann Petry’s book on Harriett Tubman

This manly degree of strength is epitomized in the iconography, established long ago and exploited by Gilmer in the play, of Tubman wielding that most phallic of tools: A gun. Depictions of Tubman with a weapon have always been controversial, especially to those who would rather think of her as a religious leader than as a soldier, but they are truthful nonetheless. During the war she almost certainly carried the rifle shown in most images of “the General”. During her time as Moses, she carried a pistol, and as Gilmer dramatizes, she used that pistol to intimidate scared escapees into continuing. Significantly, however, no record exists of Tubman ever actually injuring anyone.

Just as the real Tubman never shot any of the fugitives in her care, in Harry and the Thief, when the fictional character of Vivian is provided with multiple opportunities to shoot the unarmed white overseer who repeatedly raped her, she chooses not to.[1] Though Mimi, modern gunslinger and time-traveler, questions Harry’s decision to even let the overseer tag along on their journey, Harry and Vivian see him as a person just as in need of freedom as anybody else. In fact Gilmer goes so far as to redeem both of the white characters in the play by having them be sorry, making the “fiction” part of her “historical fiction” the provision of a kind of closure to that period of our history that in reality, neither white nor black Americans have ever had.

In reality, black women, who are both more likely to experience assault and less likely to report it than white women, rarely have the chance either to punish or forgive their attackers. In reality, racists, rapists, and human traffickers rarely say that they are sorry even when they are caught. In reality, it is not militarized black women who are a threat to unarmed white men. Rather, black Americans are profiled, discriminated against, segregated, jailed, impoverished, and denied access to justice at astonishing rates. A black man in this country can be shot for holding a toy gun. A black woman who fires a warning shot to fend off an attacker can be put in jail for the rest of her life. A black teenager can be stalked and killed by a vigilante who is later found innocent by a jury of his peers. It goes on and on.

But Harry and the Thief does not just offer insight to people who already agree with me about race, guns, and power in America. It can also be enlightening to people who are wondering whether the alleged petty crime Michael Brown committed or the marijuana in his system somehow did make him a threat and to people who think that a few looters and a Molotov cocktail that didn’t light might justify bringing attack dogs to peaceful protests, using tear gas, and calling in the National Guard. Gilmer’s humorous flipping of the script can enable anyone to see that, whether in fiction or reality, it’s the people with the weapons that have the power.

Theaters looking to do something to spark discussion of Ferguson in their communities should take a look at Gilmer’s play. Whether your audiences are primarily composed of people whose legitimate rage over injustices committed against black people in Ferguson needs the temporary remediation of laughter, or people whose sympathy with a white cop’s fear of a tall black teenager needs the remediation of witnessing a truly disempowered person holding a gun on someone who is actually a threat to her very existence and choosing not to shoot, this play has much to offer. People in the second group might even be prompted to ask themselves, if a young fugitive slave who was forced to carry her rapist’s child against her will can believably hold her attacker, who has hunted her down at night in the woods, at gunpoint and yet choose to let him live, then why, in the middle of the day, can a white cop with a gun not manage to do the same for an unarmed black teenager who, to the cop’s knowledge, had done nothing worse than walk in the street instead of on the sidewalk? [2]

In Ferguson, the police and the National Guard have the guns. They have the dogs, the riot gear, the batons, and the tear gas. They have the power. They are the threat to the lives, safety, and freedom of the citizens living there, not the other way around.

If you’re in Cincinnati, check out The Know Theatre’s production of Harry and the Thief, which runs through Saturday, August 30.

[1] Vivian does use her gun to shoot Confederate soldiers during the war, which is completely different from shooting an unarmed man in peace time.

[2] This is according to the police department’s original statement. The shooter has since changed his version of events.