April 11, 2017
We need to talk.
Last week, I attended the Rally to Save the Arts in front of City Hall in NYC.
It was a really lovely rally in a lot of ways. I’d been feeling not great the night before and considered not going, but David Byrne was supposed to speak. I couldn’t miss that. It was a gorgeous, sunny day outside, I met up with a friend waiting in line to get in, and I got to wear my “Noncompliance is a social skill” t-shirt. The crowd was not large, but not bad for the middle of a week day, and there was even a little marching band, complete with drums and fifes, that showed up.
The memorial statue of Nathan Hale looked out over it all.
We were all gathered on the City Hall steps flanking the podium where city council members and union representatives spoke.
And no one there could hear a damn thing.
There was no amplification for the assembled crowd. There was a whole bouquet of microphones, but they seemed to only be there to feed sound to the television cameras–there was absolutely no amplification for those of us there in person.
We cheered and clapped when it seemed like we were supposed to. Somebody tried to get a chant going, but no one could hear well enough to pick it up. Somebody tried to start a sing-a-long of “Over the Rainbow,” but no one could hear well enough to follow and it fizzled out.
I stood less than 20 feet from David Byrne, but I did not get to hear him speak.
It was particularly, painfully ironic given that this was a Rally to Save the Arts. At least half the people in the crowd, which included stage managers, musicians, and sound engineers, could probably have set up a sound system for them.
You absolutely need to consult a professional to set up appropriate amplification at your event. Particularly when we’re talking about the importance of support for the arts, respect for the arts, and how Arts = Jobs (at least, I presume so, but I couldn’t really hear), it’s really…telling, when it’s obvious that you didn’t think to hire one to make sure your event goes the way it’s supposed to. It’s also a matter of respect for your audience and rally participants. We took time out of our days, we took off work, we made signs, we went waaaaay downtown. Which is fine! Everybody wants to do our part right now. If it’s important that a lot of bodies show up for the TV cameras, you can say that! But when we cannot so much as hear what’s going on at an event we came out to support, it kind of looks like you just see us as props.
This is 100% avoidable.
The other thing that happens is somebody did set up a sound system, but super obviously didn’t soundcheck, or doesn’t know how to prevent things like popping and feedback, leading to scenes like the Rally for Planned Parenthood in Washington Square Park earlier this winter, where virtually every time somebody moved on stage, I wound up huddled on the ground clutching my ears in pain while the people I was with asked if I was okay. Yes, I have more-than-typical hearing for neurological reasons, but I also work in the performing arts, I attend rock concerts on a semi-regular basis without any problem, and I know this is not inevitable.
There are people who do this professionally. Please find one. Make sure the message you worked so hard at crafting can actually be heard.
March 28, 2017
Got to see something incredibly cool this past week. I’ve been working on a staged reading of a new musical that did a presentation up in Binghamton/Johnson City, NY, at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage. Next door is the Goodwill Theatre, which will eventually, when restored, be part of a four-venue performing arts complex. Our technical director was kind enough to take us on a guided tour.
It was a vaudeville house before it became a movie theater, one of the first in the country to show X-rated films before abandonment in the 1970’s or early ’80’s.
View of the stage from back of the house. The un-amplified sound from the stage is almost unbelievable.
Old note from the stage manager!
View from stage.
Second floor passageway to balcony seating and restrooms.
I feel incredibly privileged to get to do the job I do a lot of the time, but especially when I get to have experiences like this.
June 10, 2016
This article (content warning for literally every variety of abuse) is all over my news feed this week, and I’m not terribly close to the particular situation at hand, but I wanted to highlight something that was more obliquely addressed in the article than the acute issues of physical and sexual abuse. (This is adapted from a previous Facebook post of mine.)
And because people on the inside never talked to people who had left, and because they were so inexperienced themselves, they thought that the way things were done at Profiles was the way theater was supposed to be. They weren’t paid because young artists were supposed to suffer for their art. They stayed up all night painting sets because young artists were supposed to be devoted. The interns worked full-time hours because Cox and Jahraus told them they were the “lifeblood” of the theater. The theater didn’t provide safety goggles or other gear because in a gritty place like Profiles, doing things the proper way was a luxury.
I just really, really want to emphasize the above paragraph from the article to everyone who is a new graduate, who is new to their city, who is an intern or young performer or stage manager.
If you’re being yelled at all the time, if the way you’re being criticized is belittling or demeaning or condescending, if your ability to do your job is being constantly undermined, if your concerns about basic safety practices are mocked or brushed off, and someone tells you “That’s just the way it is in the real world” and that you just have to be able to deal with it, know that that is not true. In my experience, someone who says that–That’s just the way it is in the real world and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it–is almost always trying to take advantage of your inexperience to make their misbehavior or incompetence or just plain meanness seem normal. It isn’t. These things really are not normal or okay features of the professional world. Not being able to deal with them does not mean that you just can’t hack it.
If someone lies (to you or to the cast) and misrepresents what’s going on all the time…If someone expects you to help them ignore or break Equity rules…you are not too uptight or too scrupulous or too “by the book” for not being able to go along with that. (Young stage managers especially–your actual job is to uphold that rule book. Someone doesn’t get to hire you and then expect you not to fulfill the most basic requirements of your job so they can get away with whatever they’re trying to get away with. If the terms of the contract weren’t acceptable to them, they shouldn’t have signed it.)
You will always have to deal with conflict and criticism in theater, but that’s not what this is. All of these things do happen in the professional world, but that does not make them accepted or acceptable.
There will probably be times when these things will happen and your best bet is just to keep your head down and do your best and get through it. There may be a time when you decide you need to leave the situation.
But what that doesn’t mean is that you’re just not good enough or smart enough or tough enough to work in theater.
October 13, 2015
Months and months ago now, I saw an early preview performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on Broadway.
There were things I liked a lot about the show (most of the design, most of the acting), and things I didn’t like (the conclusion of a plot line involving abuse by a parent). I found the show not un-problematic, but powerful and well-executed in many ways. I was looking forward to discussing things like how well-rendered Christopher’s internal life and thought and emotional processes were, or whether the sensory intensity of the design was effective in conveying the experience of an autistic person to a largely non-autistic audience.
But I didn’t get to have a lot of those conversations, because most of the autistic community was occupied primarily not with critiquing the show or its protagonist’s portrayal, but with protesting the casting of the actor who portrayed Christopher, Alex Sharp, specifically with the criticism that an openly autistic actor should have been cast to play the role, and that going forward, theatrical productions should commit to having openly autistic actors play autistic characters.
I profoundly disagree with this stance for several reasons.
1. It has every potentiality to hurt and not help the situation.
Almost every argument I have seen for imposing an expectation that autistic characters be played only by autistic performers is equally applicable to argue that only non-autistic or non-disabled actors can play non-autistic or non-disabled characters.
Arguments that having life experience as a disabled person is the only way that an actor could realistically portray disability, or that physical, first-hand experience of autism is necessary to accurately “embody” an autistic character on stage, are perfectly reversible to argue that since people disabled from birth have no life experience of being non-disabled, their ability to represent non-disabled characters is necessarily inferior. Or that since autistic people have no first-hand, innate experience of being non-autistic, then how could they have the capacity to portray non-autistic characters?
If non-autistic actors can’t realistically portray autistic characters because of their lack of life experience, then how can autistic actors realistically portray non-autistic characters, when they don’t have that life experience?
This framing of the issue stands every likelihood of enshrining a bias that autistic actors are only capable of playing autistic roles.
2. It’s not the source of the problem.
The writing is, usually.
Of all the stage and screen portrayals of autistic characters I’ve ever seen, ranging from very bad to so good they took my breath away, and all played by actors who are non-autistic as far as I know, I have practically never thought that the problem was the actor. It’s almost always the writing—the attitude of the writer and of the other characters towards an autistic character. Are they positioned in the narrative as an object or a plot device or as a fully-fledged character central to their own story?
The writers of the Big Bang Theory, for instance, very clearly see Sheldon as an entirely appropriate target for the derision and mockery of the other characters. The screenwriter of Napoleon Dynamite positions Napoleon as an acceptable object of the patronizing amusement of the audience, not of true empathy or identification.
If a playwright is writing an autistic character with the attitude that they don’t need to be as fully developed and central to their own narrative arc as any other character, or based on largely inaccurate common knowledge about autism, then that is the core of the problem and is only going to be able to be partially mitigated by hiring an autistic actor to fight with the writing.
If a playwright and the rest of the creative team of a problematic work is convinced of the rightness of their portrayal because of what they think they know about autism, then putting an autistic actor into that role for the purpose of battling those misperceptions…frankly, that just sounds like an unbearable working environment.
And if actors are relying on media stereotypes or previous stage convention in order to animate their autistic characters, then what you are seeing is bad and lazy acting, not merely a result of the wrong kind of person playing a role. But most actors in my experience care about and want to empathize with their characters.
What’s the supposition about how this would work, anyway? That if productions buy into an expectation that autistic actors play autistic roles, and they can’t find an autistic actor to fill an objectionable role, then the play won’t get done? That won’t happen. Productions get done when their producers care about them getting done and think they will sell tickets. If producers are unable to find an autistic actor willing to play a problematic role, they will find a non-autistic actor who will. There is no shortage there that’s going to keep a production from getting done.
3. It’s ethically dubious at best.
I have yet to figure out, or have anyone explain, how it’s possible to require that autistic characters be played by autistic actors without requiring that an actor disclose their disability in order to be considered for employment. And nothing about that sits well with me. I’m unclear how it would be legal under the ADA, either.
It’s also requiring that an actor out themselves into a professional world in which most people, including most people in positions of hiring power, still hold conventional beliefs about autistic people including that we’re incapable of things like reciprocity, emotional expression, empathy, and seeing things from points of view other than our own. In other words, the core requirements of acting. We don’t get to dictate that somebody take that risk with their career, or that a producer demand it.
I’ve had people ask why someone who didn’t want to out themselves would even answer a casting call…and it’s that acting roles are jobs. For Actors’ Equity members, they are how we earn our health insurance eligibility, pensions, and sometimes a living wage.
I don’t think we get to hold those things hostage to someone being willing or able to take a public stance about their own disability. That’s not an intrinsic requirement of what acting is. I don’t think it’s a good or fair idea to establish a double standard under which the expectation of openness to public scrutiny about one’s personal life, identity, and medical or psychiatric diagnoses is higher for disabled actors than non-disabled actors, or actors playing disabled roles vs. non-disabled roles. That doesn’t sound to me like the fairness or equality I think we’re seeking.
Absolutely none of this is to say that I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to change the situation or that we have to just accept poor representation.
1. Some Equity agreements and codes already require that producers “actively solicit” minority, female, and disabled performers to participate or audition. More should, and maybe all of them should.
2. The responsibilities of producing companies to ensure the rights and accommodations of disabled performers needs to be strongly stated, posted at auditions, included in the information to be posted on call boards, etc…. including that if you disclose a disability or diagnosis to your employer, your privacy will be protected to the greatest extent possible. Our unions need to strongly assure disabled performers that they will back them up in asserting their rights in the workplace, and how.
3. There is a phenomenon in which non-disabled kids get to have hobbies/interests/activities because those things are considered good and constructive for their own sake, but autistic kids get everything good in their lives turned into therapy of some sort. That’s wrong. Theater education is, in and of itself, skill-building in the best ways. Turning something that someone enjoys into just another avenue for therapy, for someone trying to fix you, is a huge turn-off.
We need to keep on combating stereotypes that suggest that autistic people can’t excel in the arts or humanities–that we lack empathy or imagination, for instance, or are mainly good for low-level, ultra-repetitive tech sector jobs.
And for the love of all that is good, stop telling kids that work in the arts isn’t realistic. Parents, teachers, counselors, job coaches–stop it. People work in the arts. If a student is interested in pursuing the performing arts, help them connect with real opportunities for training and experience.
4. Autistic people and allies–attend and critique productions involving autistic characters. Companies should be taken to task for putting bad portrayals on stage, and should know that any time they are talking about autistic people, we are watching and listening.
I want more autistic and disabled actors playing autistic and disabled characters. I want more autistic and disabled actors playing traditionally non-autistic and non-disabled characters. I want autistic actors to be considered equally capable across the board of playing any character. And I want non-autistic actors to gain a deeper and more realistic understanding of autism and disability in their work. I don’t think that declaring that that work should be off-limits to non-autistic actors serves the causes of either empathy or artistry.
March 17, 2015
(Crossposted today at We Are Like Your Child)
I start to rediscover that I’m a kinesthetic learner, and it’s odd. It’s so contrary to everything I’ve ever been told about myself, and it feels so good.
When we started learning about multiple intelligences theories, kids who were described as kinesthetic—as learning most naturally through movement or action—were dancers, naturally talented athletes, the class clowns, physical actors, the kids who could never sit still. Kids who were always in trouble for not being able to stay in their seats, likely to pick up a diagnosis of ADHD somewhere along the way. High-energy, daring, uninhibited, and loud.
And I was very quiet, very still, very inhibited. I was always in trouble in PE for not knowing what in the world I was doing or being totally unable to keep up with the rest of the class. I was badly coordinated and nowhere near fast enough for any team sport. I never placed in any event in Field Day. I failed out of gymnastics.
Kinesthetic learners were generally thought not to do well in school because of their need for activity and movement. I sat quietly in class and got all A’s. I had a photographic memory. Teachers were always scolding, “You can’t expect to only study the night before and do well on this test!” But I could. I got into the gifted class and kept my hands rolled up in my sleeves.
But all the while, I just ached to be taught how to do things. I clawed my skin off from having not enough to do with my hands. And I could feel the terrifying void that existed between the fact that I knew about a lot of things, but I didn’t know how to do almost anything. The scrutiny of other people was literally paralyzing. I resented more than anything as a kid when we’d be told that we were going to learn how to do a really cool thing, but then what we actually got was obviously a fake, dumbed-down version, of making gingerbread houses or uncovering fossils. People told me a lot about how I was never going to make it in the real world, but nobody seemed to want to teach me anything real.
But writing is movement, too, and I was better at that than most people. So is beading. So is loading electrophoresis gels.
As a child, making tuna salad or cutting up fruit for myself, people try to take knives away from me, sure that I’m going to cut myself, but I never do. (They do.) I never fall on steep hills or icy sidewalks when adults are sure I will. I never sprain an ankle toe-walking.
I could feel that if I could know a thing in my body, in my joints, in my bones, in how it behaved in my hands…anything I could make a physical habit out of, was a thing I’d always be able to do, that I could never really lose or forget, the way I’ve forgotten calculus almost entirely from disuse, and chemistry, and how I’ve lost my photographic memory to other cognitive demands. (That one makes me mad.)
I start stealing opportunities to do that. Time without a well-meaning adult hovering over my shoulder was time to steal fire.
We have typing class in 9th grade, and once I start learning, my fingers twitch constantly, ghost-typing out any sequences of overheard words against my thigh. I had no idea what was wrong with me, why I couldn’t stop.
I was in high school, and may’ve been listening to a lecture from my grandfather about the difference between people who work with their minds and people who work with their hands, and thought silently, “If I don’t work with my hands, I’ll go insane.”
My acting teacher tells me to get my hands out of my sleeves. I turn out to be good at acting.
At a new job, I initially panic when I learn that my nightly duties will involve moving pianos by myself. But I quickly get a sense of the individual moods and idiosyncracies of the Hamburg, the New York Steinway, the Fazioli—their resistance and center of gravity. They almost have individual wills, like baby elephants.
I get told at a meetup that I have very loud hands, and it makes me so happy.
I start teaching myself a little ASL to make up for the apocryphal childhood gesture language I was trained out of, that I have no conscious memory of, and it feels like breathing air instead of doing complicated sorcery.
May 10, 2014
If I may engage in some excuse-making for my recent absence from writing…I’ve been working for the past couple years on a new media project which I’m very proud of and excited about, and we just finished filming our third installment, the WordPlay Shakespeare edition of Romeo and Juliet, which took up most of my past month.
Here’s another good preview in which our director and publisher/producer talk a bit about the aim of the project. Besides making Shakespeare less daunting for students in general, one of the things we’re hoping is that students with all kinds of learning differences and learning disabilities might find this a useful form of support.
It takes the actors some time to get used to working on the white cyc…it’s a pretty disorienting experience. Apparently human brains think corners are a useful thing….
A great snapshot by my ASM from the filming of the opening fight between the Montague and Capulet servants.
Pictured: Carman Lacivita, Kristin Villanueva, Drew Ledbetter
Photo by Hannah Barudin
Me in the studio, watching the script, and probably telling somebody to do something. Look at that gorgeous spreadsheet on my computer….
Photo by Alexander Parker
Romeo and Juliet will likely be available by the end of summer/early fall. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth are already available on iTunes!
It’s been a fascinating thing to work on as a stage manager as well…both in learning to work in an entirely different medium, and very different capacity than what I’m used to doing, and in getting to help make something so permanent in the world.
May 31, 2013
So the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Hank Huckaby, caused a slight kerkuffle among my alumni community this past week, when he said, in reference to the fact that apparently large numbers of jobs in Georgia are going unfilled, that “students are studying the wrong things,” and that “If you can’t get a job, and you majored in drama, there’s probably a reason.”
Where to even start. Oh, I’ll just start.
1. The point of a university education is not to fill a quota of jobs in particular industries that just happen to be available in the state. The point of a university education is to support and fulfill a student in the long term, not simply as a worker but as a learning, thinking, creating person. College education should enrich an entire society with a liberal range of thinking skills, not simply enable young adults to fill available jobs.
If industries with jobs to fill are failing to attract students and applicants by making a reasonable case that the work is worthy of their dedication for the salaries they’re offering, that is not the student body’s fault. Industries with jobs to fill are not entitled to students’ lives or attention. A graduate has no particular duty to take any given job, anywhere, or to train for any given job just because it’s available.
2. It is so easy to take the stereotype of the undisciplined, flighty, starving actor or artist and say if you studied drama and now you don’t have a job, maybe you studied the wrong thing. But who would look at an unemployed graduate who studied business, marketing, or biochemistry, and say “Maybe you studied the wrong thing. Maybe you should have studied photography or playwrighting?”
But maybe they should have. Maybe a kid who sacrificed their true interests to what they were told was more practical, responsible, stable, or lucrative, would have been better off pursuing what they were a natural at. Maybe they would have found that being educated where their strengths and intuition lie is actually more reliable and life-sustaining.
3. People do work in the arts! Maybe this is overly obvious, but I really think that some of these bigwigs who run their mouths off overlook it. People work in the arts. People really do make their livings in the arts. People who quite possibly couldn’t sustain employment in more conventional career fields do so in the arts. People with very specific and uncommon talents find a life in the arts. People study for and work in the arts who damn well know that that path is their best bet.
And it’s not like the only thing to do with a drama degree is act or direct. There are jobs in management, administration, development, and design, just to name a few areas. There is such a profound ignorance of what it really takes to run the theater world, that, just for instance, I had not even heard of what would become my own job until I was in college.
Do too many people study drama expecting to be able to find jobs, or sustain themselves by performing, who then can’t? Sure, probably. But so what if everyone made more practical choices and studied dentistry or engineering instead? Would the economy then have the jobs available to support all of those people? A society can’t absorb an overabundance of nurses or computer scientists any more than it can a glut of theater artists. There aren’t a limitless number of jobs for electrical engineers, either. If everyone who hears Chancellor Huckaby’s speech takes his advice and chooses their field of study based on where job openings in Georgia currently are, who says those jobs will still be so plentiful, or even exist, five or ten years from now, and what happens to those students then? And in the meantime, what happens to a society that decides it doesn’t value the education of its artists and creators?
4. Make no mistake: I am employed because I studied drama.
Beyond the fact that I still actually work in the specific career which I chose in college, my education in theater gave me opportunities to develop communication, interpersonal, collaborative and analytical skills that I just would not have had access to otherwise. I found a world in which the kind of person I was at heart wasn’t considered a fundamental problem. I found a niche that demanded my natural skill set. I got told for the first time that the way I learn is a strength and not a weakness. I deeply understood how my own mind worked for the first time when I was taught to use a two-scene preset light board. Somebody taught me how to yell.
I really and truly don’t like to think about where I’d be right now if I hadn’t studied drama. And there’s almost nothing for which I’m more grateful to my younger self than the fact that she had the foresight to not listen to people like Chancellor Huckaby.
April 8, 2013
I was reorganizing a props closet recently when I found this fellow.
I got all of his strings untangled to try to see how he works; he’s a marionette, but seems to be missing the wooden handhold that would allow a puppeteer to operate his legs independently from his arms and head.
He’s beautiful, and also clearly not a toy or a prop. He looks like a traditional puppet of some kind. (In most cultures other than ours, puppet theater is a serious traditional storytelling form for adults as well as children.) And here’s my real embarrassment: I wrote my final paper for graduation with honors in college on the religious frameworks underpinning various East Asian puppet theater traditions…and I had no idea what this guy is.
He looks Indian or Hindu, perhaps, and preliminary image Googling reveals a resemblance to the string puppets of a tradition called Bommalattam, but those marionettes are described as being about 3 feet tall, and this one is only just over a foot, and also more detailed and ornate. I dug out a copy of my paper to skim through, but he doesn’t fit the description of anything that I studied.
It’s past my bedtime, but I’m a little obsessed now with figuring out more about him. I’ll have to resume research in the morning, though if anyone else is geek enough to have any idea, I would be thankful to know.
January 17, 2012
So I’m very bad at asking people for things. Most especially money. And I know that in all likelihood, pretty much everyone you know is involved in one or more campaigns for very important and wonderful things.
However…I am very much in love with my current production, Maya Macdonald’s Leave the Balcony Open.
It’s a brilliant new play, about love and loss, the insufficiency of language to emotional experience, and deciding how to live in a shattered world. I’m very, very devoted to this show. It’s the kind of play that makes me love theater for what it can mean to people’s lives.
And we still need help to make it happen.
Our IndieGoGo campaign is here! Thank you prizes include program credits, voice-over cameos in the show, tickets, and dinner with the playwright. Watch our trailer video above, check out the IndieGoGo page, and if you’d like to have a hand in making this beautiful show all it can be, consider making a donation.
And if you’re in the New York area in February, I’d love it if you came out to see us. Previews begin February 5!
Love and thanks,
December 6, 2011
I just got home from the New York Public Library, where I went to hear to Josh Ritter, Wesley Stace, and Steve Earle discuss the relationship between music and writing. All three were lovely and marvelously intelligent, and though I went to hear Josh (of course), I think it was Steve Earle who said the most intriguing thing of the evening:
“What separates us from animals is not opposable thumbs; it’s that only humans make and consume art. That’s what separates us from the beasts.”
And while I don’t want to denigrate the quality or value of animals’ emotional lives…I suspect he may be right. I don’t tend to believe that humans are vastly superior to the rest of the animal kingdom in morals or capacity for empathy or emotional complexity…but I cannot think of another species that produces and consumes art for art’s sake.