I have learned so much this week from curating an interview series on the Works by Women San Francisco site, TACTICS: Theatre Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges and Strategies for gender parity advocacy.
I expected to learn a lot about what individual advocates have been doing for decades, what the idea of gender equity has been doing for centuries, and what new initiatives are popping up now in the age of technology and constant connection. I did not expect to learn how easy it is to be blind to your own biases, even when you think you’re aware of them.
The first eight TACTICS profiles we posted are stellar. I am very proud of the series so far, and very excited about the pieces that are still in the pipeline. The interviews feature a mix of longtime advocates, artistic directors, and individual artists. I was pleased to notice that they feature women from different generations and a couple of LGBT voices. I also noticed that these wonderful, intelligent, articulate, passionate women all happen to be white.
Happen to be. This is the phrase that artistic leaders use when they’re excusing their season of plays that happen to be written by, directed by, designed by, and starring mostly white men over 40. This is the phrase they use when they want to say “I don’t want gender and race to interfere with my artistic choices.” This is the phrase that suggests that women and people of color just aren’t making the kind of work that the artistic director wants to do at his/her theatre – it won’t resonate with their subscribers, or it’s not good enough.
I didn’t intend to interview mostly white advocates for gender parity. Going in, I was even consciously aware of this long-standing bias in the feminist movement. I deliberately brainstormed women of color to ask for interviews. I emailed many incredible women of diverse backgrounds. I followed up on leads from friends saying, “Have you talked to so and so yet?” As responses started to come in, my focus shifted to the logistics of getting the features up on the site. This has been a busy week for gender parity on Howlround’s blog and weekly Twitter conversation – as well as being my first week of rehearsal for The Helen Project. I stopped thinking specifically about artists of color. The diversity of the TACTICS profiles was still in my mind, but no longer at the front of my mind.
And then today, a good friend emailed me with congratulations on the interview series, and the question, “Will we see an artist of color soon?”
The easy answer is YES, in fact, the very next interview is from an artist of color. But the real answer is yes, I can do better. I can look harder. I can reach out to people I already know and I can educate myself on the organizations that are specifically serving female artists of color. I found some really inspiring companies around the country that focus on Asian American, Black, and Latina playwrights. I’m now following them on Twitter so I can continue to keep them in my field of vision and help stop the blindness coming back.
Let me be clear: I don’t want a cookie for making a little extra effort. I was missing something, got a nudge from a friend, and took some simple steps to self-correct. It remains to be seen how successful I can be at improving diversity in the interview series. It remains to be seen how I will keep diversity in the front of my mind, vying for attention with my conscious and unconscious biases. This is the effort I always need to be making, to counterbalance the input I am getting from the whitewashed world around me.
This is the effort I am asking artistic directors to make when they’re choosing their seasons. If their seasons just happen to be filled with middle-aged white men, then questions of gender and racial diversity are not getting enough space at the front of their minds.
I know many artistic directors who are consciously trying to improve representation for women and people of color in their seasons. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t. I know that season planning is insanely complex, and that gender and racial representation are intertwined with a whole host of other challenges, too. Lack of parity is a symptom of a white-male-dominated national culture, not a deliberate intention of any theatre to program more men than women in their season, or more white artists than artists of color. No individual is responsible for our white-male-dominated culture, and no individual theatre’s season can fix that culture. So why shouldn’t your local theatre do Eugene O’Neill instead of Maria Irene Fornes? What difference does that production make?
We’re asking our artistic leaders to have faith that their actions will help to change the tide, even if it takes a long time, and even if it takes extra effort. We’re looking to theatres to break the self-perpetuating cycle by deliberately programming greater diversity into their season, even when it’s hard. It requires not just awareness but active commitment and constant vigilance.
What a week! Dare I say I spent the last seven days pioneering a new way of making theatre? I love living in the future!
Directors Lisa Szolovits, Wolfgang Wachalovsky and I met at Directors Lab West in May 2012. Having known each other a grand total of four days, we began to make plans to collaborate on a piece together, brainstorming around themes, stories, and new forms that would allow three directors to collaborate. This could have been a summer camp romance, a strong connection in a special, intense environment, followed by half-hearted promises to keep in touch. But since May, we met at least monthly via Google+ Hangout to keep talking about how we might make some theatre together. We researched residency programs and applied for a couple of small grants (which we didn’t get). We considered multiple scenarios for how to create a laboratory to test our ideas. We recruited some fantastically adventurous actors. And this week, we transformed our apartments into ad-hoc scenic designs, our laptops and iPhones into movie cameras, and the Internet into the new “Empty Space,” just waiting for someone to walk across it while someone else is watching to engage an act of theatre. (Peter Brook)
This week’s experiment sprang from questions about how three directors can collaborate on one piece; often directors are the only one of their kind in the rehearsal room, or else we’re working alongside other directors in a festival of short works, together but separate, under the curative eye of an artistic director. So one goal of the experiment was to see how we three could work together. We initially envisioned bringing Lisa and her team out from New York, and meeting up in the Bay Area with Wolfgang’s Oakland collaborators and my San Francisco ensemble, renting a theatre space and training together to develop an Exquisite Corpse methodology inspired by victorian parlor games in which players draw the head, body, and feet of a monster without being able to see what the others have drawn. Parisian Surrealists in the 1930s adopted different versions of the game using both images and language; their first word game yielded the phrase “the exquisite corpse will drink the young wine” (in French). Fast forward to May 2012, at the Directors Lab, where we wondered, what would it be like to devise a piece of theatre, only being able to see a few moments of what the others have created?
A lack of material and financial resources made us consider how we could keep working virtually, in our own cities, without springing for plane tickets or taking too much time off from our day jobs. We’ve been meeting online; why can’t we rehearse online? Why can’t we perform online? The experiment morphed to focus on the possibilities of live performance via Google+ Hangout, and within that frame, thinking about ways we could connect three pieces to feel like one whole. With such an ambitious form, we decided to make the content a fixed, known quantity; maybe working from the same source material would mean that the three pieces had the same “dramatic DNA.” We chose an episode of Doctor Who, and each of us claimed the beginning, middle, or end to translate onto our laptop screens in any way we wanted. Deliberately leaving style and tools to the discretion of each director, we ended up with three vastly different pieces to present at our mid-week showing. We shared techniques and called out strong images that could begin to tie the pieces together across our vastly different interpretations of the source material. Back in our individual ensembles, we rehearsed a second iteration of each piece, incorporating ideas from the pieces we’d seen at the first showing. To end the lab, we shared again, each piece making even more ambitious attempts to push the technology and find out what we can do.
We learned a lot this week about what Google+ Hangout can do, how to use different cameras and angles, black-and-white effects, strong POV choices, music and sound, chat functions, and even silly hats on Google Effects. We pulled together anything lying around that seemed useful, just like kids putting on a play in our back yards. Only now instead of grabbing a broom handle to stand in for a sword and pretending a treehouse was a castle, we grabbed an iPhone to stand in for a video camera and pretended my bathroom was a prison cell. We made some props. We put down spike marks on my kitchen floor where the laptop needed to be set up, and marked out where the actors could stand and still be in frame. I downloaded an app that made my webcam broadcast in black and white, and set up a laptop on the highest shelf of a cupboard, to look like a security camera feed. New tools plus old-school resourcefulness became a pretty powerful combination.
What’s next? There’s more to learn about how these pieces connect, and how our ensembles can connect within one larger work. There’s more to learn about how to interact with audiences over this medium. There’s definitely more to learn about glitch-reduction! Lisa and Wolfgang and I are regrouping this week to talk about a second laboratory and how to proceed with making a piece of theatre in this new form. In the meantime, I’m walking around totally jazzed about the possibilities and new techniques to be discovered and refined.
(and oh yeah, I start rehearsals for The Helen Project a week from tonight.)
A huge round of applause for my collaborators: directors Lisa Szolovits and Wolfgang Wachalovsky; actors Misti Rae Boettiger, Siobhan Marie Doherty, Adam Sussman in San Francisco; Maria Paz Alegre, Max Reuben, and Elly Smokler in New York; and Stephanie DeMott in Oakland. And a special thank you to our first-ever audience members Rebecca Longworth and Marilee Talkington, who tuned in on Sunday to our glitches and wild stabs in the digital darkness.
Better to be ignorant, to go into the future as into
a long tunnel, without ball of yarn or clear direction,
to tiptoe forward like any fool or saint or hero,
jumpy, full of second thoughts, and bravely unprepared.
–Theseus within the Labyrinth by Stephen Dobyns
I’m back from Directors Lab West! Helen of Troy is back! My days of hyper-dreaming with the brilliant Megan Cohen are back!
Every Saturday in June, Megan and I are back in our strange, surreal Helen-land, in which all things are possible and we’re going to take over the world. No kidding, it’s true. I am constantly amazed by how productive we are without even the hint of a roadmap. We met up for a delicious brunch on Saturday morning (inspiration covered in ketchup is the very best kind of inspiration), and by the time we’d finished our eggs, we had figured out a radical model of sharing this crazy new play so that director-dramaturgs of future productions would be constructing Helen just as much as we are, with our disco-ball moments organized into specific fragmented versions of Helen that can be played by 1 to 100 actors. Instead of publishing a script, we’ll make the construct-your-own-Helen-of-Troy PLAY KIT available online under a creative commons license. Every time I turn around, this thing gets even more out-of-the-box. I am so jazzed!
When we finished our tea and coffee, then we really got down to business. We never have a “plan,” but just asking “okay, what’s next” generates hours of incredible productivity. Between 11AM and 6PM, we reinvented our producing and publishing model, brainstormed on the online interactive component of the piece, dreamt about a 3-city simultaneous world premiere (12PM San Francisco, 3PM New York, 8PM London, all the time online everywhere oh my gods), and waded through about half of the 170 little bits of disco-ball text we’ve generated, beginning to structure the script into these 5 fragmented Helen characters (oh yeah, which we also defined that afternoon).
Who knows what we’re doing next time, but I bet it will be revolutionary.
Also coming up:
- Dirty Laundry, a coproduction between Inkblot Ensemble and The Collaboratory. I’m directing this devised physical theater piece based on Federico García Lorca’s laundrywomen scene in Yerma, exploring themes of gossip, cycles, clean & dirty, sin & purity, and women’s work. August 10 & 11 work in progress performances at the EXIT Theatre.
- Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Repertory at The Cutting Ball Theater. I’m assistant directing these five plays (Storm, Burned House, Ghost Sonata, Pelican, The Black Glove) under Artistic Director Rob Melrose. We’re workshopping the new translations by Paul Walsh this June/July in RISK IS THIS…The Cutting Ball New Experimental Plays Festival, and you can catch the full production in October and November. This will be the first time the five Chamber Plays have been produced together in any language, including their original Swedish.
- The San Francisco Olympians Festival is coming this December to the EXIT Theatre. If that feels far away, you can catch a few snippets on Friday, June 15 at Booksmith, where we’ll be celebrating the book launch of five published plays from the first year of the Olympians Festival. I’m writing a one-act about Phoebe & Theia, the Titan goddesses of light, and I’ll be directing Barbara Jwanouskos’ take on Hera later in the festival, too.
My brain is broken. For the last two or three days, my mouth has repeatedly stopped in the middle of my sentences, like a wind-up toy that has run out of spring force. My notebook is about full, and I’m covered in bruises, so it must be time to go home. I’ll miss the intensity and the amazing people I’ve connected with here. But I am certainly looking forward to a nap.
Our final day at the Lab began with a workshop on Spring Awakening, the text we had all prepared before we arrived. It had been sort of tangential up to that final workshop, a common ground for talking about themes and character and big ideas. And in fact, though I read two translations earlier this month, and carried them both around all week, I never needed to pull out the script in a Lab session. The group as a whole has been quite focused on new work and collaborative creation, so when we split into groups to devise a 5-minute piece yesterday morning, the exact text of the original play was not something any group used. In other sessions earlier in the week, we had split into groups and were given 5-10 minutes to generate material – so an hour to work on our final day felt like a luxurious eternity. We were actually able to arrive at a central idea together, with some inventive staging and audience placement, character, story, and even a little tech. Of course, we were still improvising in the final performance – which has got me wondering about the nature of devised work, time constraints, and performance/production. In my own ensemble work so far, we tend to set everything in stone the week before performances so that we know what we’re doing on opening night. Some companies continue to work in major flux until opening night, or even after opening night, and I know that it’s a scary way to work for most people. There is never enough time; work is never finished, but abandoned. I am very interested in exploring the looseness we found in our devising yesterday – I’d like to find a way to foster that safety to improvise and flexibility to continually refine, even in front of a public audience. Time to do some more research on companies who do this kind of work and say hello.
More research is also needed on… graduate school. Oh, what a can of worms. About a year ago, I got some great advice about going for an MFA: “if the idea of being in an academic environment excites you, then you should go.” So I thought, great! That was easy! I really don’t want to write papers ever again, so I’m off the hook. But this week, I have had an amazing time learning and listening and sharing and furiously taking notes and debating and considering and wondering and stretching and connecting with other directors…
I’ve also recently come across the idea that if it were not for the state of health care in this country, I might not be working a full-time job with benefits. I might be able to have a flexible schedule and piece together theater work with other work when necessary. I might be able to focus entirely on being an artist. You know where I can get healthcare? England. You know where some really amazing collaborative theater is happening? England. You know where a lot of my family lives? England. So more research is needed on MFA or MA programs in London, and more soul-searching is needed, too. I have a lot to think about in terms of my family here, as well as the theatrical connections and momentum I have built in the last five years… but it’s blowing my mind a little to seriously consider the idea that my British passport and I can head on over across the pond any time. Actually, it’s blowing my mind a lot.
So there you go. Mission accomplished, Directors Lab West! My brain is broken and my mind is blown. To the future!
Day 4 of Directors Lab, for me, was all about embracing my own intensity. After the Theatre Bay Area conference last week (I think it was last week – I’m not really sure what day it is anymore), I was “feeling like a crazy person.” After four days of the Lab with 36 of my peers and some incredible guest artists, I’m coming around to the idea that “feeling like a crazy person” might just be the only way I’ll know that I’m doing it right. Ah! Two big reliefs in one revelation: 1) that it’s OK to feel crazy and 2) oh my goodness, can you believe it, there is a way to know that I’m doing it right!
Yesterday began with Anastasia Coon’s movement workshop, an eclectic mix of exercises ranging from running from an “enemy” and getting close to a “beloved” (an exercise we’ve actually done three times now at the lab, but Anastasia was the first to endow it with emotional stakes) to neutral mask work. Oh man, mask work! I have only ever put a mask on one other time, in Eli Simon’s clowning class at UCI. Both times I was astonished by the immediate and powerful emotional response, and the inventive physicality the mask can produce (when you can’t use your face, you use your body). I’m seriously considering getting a set of masks for training and rehearsal to explore more. Let’s see how long it takes me to work that expense into a grant request…
Later in the afternoon, we visited A Noise Within at their beautiful, brand new theater. The building is incredible, sleek and modern, outfitted with a spacious and inviting lobby, rehearsal rooms, administrative offices and library all with a lovely picture-window views of the hills, a costume and scenic shop, kitchen and dressing rooms, as well as the theater itself, a 280-seat thrust stage. We had two and a half inspiring hours with the artistic directors of A Noise Within, husband-and-wife team Julia Rodrigues-Elliott and Geoff Elliott. Our session with them was entitled “What Doesn’t Kill You,” after Geoff’s assertion that “what doesn’t kill you just didn’t kill you.” A few fantastic nuggets from our conversation:
- “Starting a theater is real estate.” You’re always figuring out where you are going to be. A Noise Within started out in a Masonic Temple and recently completed a $13.5 million building in time for their 20th season.
- “We didn’t mean to do this.” This sentiment is one that I have heard echoed throughout the Lab, and elsewhere in my conversations with people who have started their own theaters. As someone who has set out to create her own company, I wonder if my experience will be easier/faster/better because of my deliberate intention, or if “whoops, I started a theater” is an essential element for success!
- “Everything is hard. You might as well do something you want to do, that you think will make a difference. You’re probably going to knock your brains out either way. Being a banker is hard, too.”
- On repertory acting company: “You want both the energy of new people challenging the status quo, but there are things that happen with an ensemble of people who trust each other that could never happen in a 5-week rehearsal period.” And “any longterm relationship is hard work. You have to continually reinvest in those relationships.”
- On audiences: “When they have opinions on the type of toilet paper we should have in our new bathrooms, you could get upset – or you could realize how great it is that they feel like the theater is their home.” With a repertory company, some of whom worked the box office in the earlier days, the audience has a long-term relationship with the actors. They have seen them onstage again and again.
- On growth: “It’s easy to get into a desperate mentality and make bad decisions. You have to step back and invest in the long-term infrastructure.” As in Hamlet, “readiness is all.” “It’s all about hard work, and then faith.” (There’s that idea again, faith.)
I’m not sure that my journey will lead me to a $13.5 million dollar brand new facility. Who knows what the next 15 years will bring for me and for Inkblot Ensemble. The possibilities are endless – and all possible. I have faith. I have drive. I have vision and taste and compassion and leadership. I embrace my intensity. I am high on the future.