The American Theatre is Not Built for Us

Theatre can be a world of contradictions. It’s a space, it’s an experience. It’s a service, it’s a product. It’s a community builder, it’s a gentrifier. It’s a means of education, a townhall, it’s just entertainment.  As a writer-director, I’m looking to connect to an audience, engage the local community, express myself and entertain — so how come I measure my success by ticket sales, sold out crowds and glowing reviews? How come my success as an artist can be measured at an end of quarter board meeting? The American Theatre exists under the umbrella of American Capitalism. Its survival has always depended on ticket sales and various forms of investment from the upper class. With the relatively recent advent of the non-profit theatre, we’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit and the commercial worlds are separate when, ultimately, they abide by the same rules of capitalism. We’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit is a safe space for the artistic, the creative, the developmental, but the systems in place were never built to support the artist or the financial failure that can come with further exploring the New.

The system was not built for us artists. However, this blanket statement hasn’t always been true. There have been many attempts to democratize the American Theatre, only for artists to be washed ashore by the tidal wave that is capitalism. There were the repertory companies of actors and director/managers that toured the country in the 1800s, and the revelatory Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. Then, there was the Regional Theatre Movement that modeled itself off of European theatre models in the 60s that largely influenced our administrative models today. Aesthetically, we can trace how we got from one artistic moment to another, but what’s lost on us is the Economic History of the American Theatre and how its affected Artistic Development today.  Right now we live in a moment of the in between. We have a lot of folks, purists, waiting for everything to go back to the status quo without knowing where we came from. On the precipice of societal change, now is the time for artists to look back at history, question our models, examine the possibilities, and imagine a new future.

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“We See You, White American Theatre” Speaks Out on Anonymity, Colorism and more

We See You White American Theater has grown exponentially since we last covered this dynamic and controversial movement in June.  Their Change.org petition has grown to over 100,000 signatures, and their Instagram has over 20,000 followers.

Who are they? Why are they anonymous?  Look no further for an answer. #WeSeeYouWat has launched a new Medium page. They are using the platform to speak directly to the Black, Indigenous, and POC community, answering the questions we’ve been asking.

In a series entitled “12 Days of Watchmas,” they seem to be revealing both the structure of the organization as well as the experiences of people that are motivating the movement. According to the first post on the  Medium page a new article will drop every day for twelve days.

Think of it as an advent calendar for the people, written for us and by us. Published on our terms. There are MANY voices going into this effort that reflect the multidisciplinary, multigenerational movement we’ve built.” – We See You WAT.

Rescripted firmly believes in letting artists speak for themselves, and so below we have published the entirety of the first essay originally posted on Medium.  You can also follow the movement on Twitter or Instagram.

The Anatomy of Anonymity

When we met, we didn’t know why we were meeting. We were various disgruntled BIPOC theatremakers, all fired up from the unrest in the nation. We saw the testimonies of our colleagues on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We were boiling over with discontent and we needed release. We didn’t all know each other. We weren’t being selective. It wasn’t a hot club to be a part of. It. Was. Random. When we signed onto an anonymous zoom, we had no idea who else would be on the line. We were gathered by circumstance, and began to have church over our collective fed-upness with the field-wide fuckery. Suddenly, we felt like we HAD to do something together, and allow it to be a catalyst for future action. This was how the original Dear White American Theatre letter was born.

We then all decided to call ten friends to get them to sign the letter if they felt inspired. And ultimately, we wanted to invite our entire field into the cause by creating the change.org petition. And they did. We are the mighty 101,000 and still going.

Since then, we’ve been bombarded with the questions — Who are you? Who is behind We See You? Why are you anonymous?

Then came the accusations: We are a shadow government. We are the BIPOC illuminati. We are cowards. Elitists. Exclusionists. Simply because we refuse to quench the thirst for exposing our rotating leadership. Well let us break down why…

We study history. We have activists among us who have lived through several eras of liberation movements. We have multiple generations of culture workers in our ranks. We know what happens when leaders are identified. They are pacified and movements are destroyed. We know what happened to the Civil Rights Movement. To Chicano Movements. To Black Liberation Movements. To Workers Rights Movements. Leaders have been assassinated. Our field is no different. There are multiple ways to assassinate theatremakers: stifle their voices, exploit their talents, mute their outrage, cancel their productions, bar them from auditions and crews, blacklist them. We are not having it.

Many of us have already suffered personal attacks, been hunted and cornered by White American Theatre leaders, been targeted by the press and threatened with losing our jobs in the middle of an economically stressed season in our industry. We will not allow each other to be silenced or intimidated. We have each others’ backs, and we have the backs of our entire field of anti-racism workers and bullshit-resisters. We are working to put impact and volume behind our colleagues who have stepped out individually to share their experiences of harm.

There were initial impulses among us to step out front and be the face of the cause. But how can any one of us be the face of so many? That’s some ol’ white supremacy nonsense and we are not going to copycat. In fact, ego and glory-seeking are the antithesis of progressive movement organizing. So we theatre makers made a joint decision to resist the desires for recognition and credit that often plagues our industry-wide culture. We decided to receive NO individual credit. We chose service over shine. We chose principles over personalities. We chose to stand together. And we will not be broken.

We know we don’t speak for everybody. That would be ridiculous. And some folks are perfectly fine speaking out for their own causes. Please feel free to keep ‘doing you’.

But if you are feeling expendable and exhausted, we have your backs. If you are working in the highest positions on Broadway, or if you are working in the smallest office in the regions; If you are a student frustrated with your program and feel like you have no allies and advocates, You Do. We are not superheroes or a shadow government. We are vulnerable theatremakers who have given our blood to this field at every level. We want to see it be better and more equitable for you and for all of us. We are your accomplices. And we need you to be ours. We need your amplifying, testifying and co-signing. We need your eyes, ears, and outrage. Not to hide behind you. Not to get in front of you and block you. But to soldier alongside you, in worker solidarity.

If you want to know who we are, look around. We are all over this field. We are its backbone. And we are not playing games. We will continue to push for it to be best, because it is what we all deserve.

Yours in Love and Action,

WSY

How the Pandemic is Impacting Theatre Parents Nationwide

ABOVE: Costume designer Valérie Thérèse Bart with her infant during a Zoom meeting. Says Bart, “This was in August back before baby had mastered crawling and pulling himself up to stand. He could sit still for longer periods then.” Photo Credit: Rick N. Ho

A Homecoming Turned Convalescence 

When Chamblee Ferguson caught COVID-19, he’d been performing eight shows a week in the national tour of Broadway’s “Come from Away.” Playing to packed houses in dozens of cities amounted to infinite vectors of exposure. On March 12th the tour was playing his hometown of Dallas and his long time company, the Dallas Theatre Center, was hosting a celebratory reception when news broke of the citywide shutdown. Four days later he was symptomatic.

“I woke up on the 16th feeling, I’m sick, thinking, I hope this isn’t—but, it turned out to be, yeah.” Ferguson’s wife, actor Lynn Blackburn (who happens to be my stepsister), her mother, and their 6 year-old were ill for two weeks with respiratory symptoms Ferguson describes as “comparatively moderate.” Eight months later the couple find themselves unemployed while parenting their first grader full time, one of countless theater families whose lives have been upended by this crisis.

Parenting in theater was challenging before the pandemic. Now, embattled families must endure school closures, a collapsing daycare industry and skyrocketing positivity rates. As our industry reels from a tidal wave of layoffs, furloughs and canceled shows (virtual work notwithstanding), theater parents have the additional stressor of keeping their children healthy, learning, and fed at moment so many have lost, or will soon be losing, their health coverage and a quarter of American families struggle with food insecurity.

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Boys Like That: How two ‘West Side Story’ adaptations are perpetuating harassment and assault

CONTENT WARNING: This article contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault. 

Like the state of 2020, no one could have predicted the show that would mark this year would be West Side Story. To some, it refers to the Ivo van Hove-helmed Broadway revival. Van Hove made drastic cuts from the original, which tracks with his reputation for re-imagining classics. These included eliminating Maria’s only solo, “I Feel Pretty,” and the quintessential “Somewhere” ballet (buh-bye Jerome Robbins) while compressing the three-hour musical into one act. Van Hove also added multi-racial actors, but sent mixed messaging by casting them as the Jets, originally intended to be white. He brought on choreographer Sergio Trujillo and ballet dancer Patricia Delgado for consultation to make the dance more “authentically Latino”, but only after the cast requested it. Did I mention there were also cameras?

Another recent adaptation that had the theatre community on its heels was Steven Spielberg’s film penned by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) still scheduled to premiere this December. Boasting the film debut of many young talents including newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Hamilton) as Anita, it has come with a lot of buzz.

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Where is the Vision? A Future Without Artistic Directors

In the future, art is not created it is produced.

In the future, there are no questions, only answers.

In the future, diversity is a statistic and not an ethic.

In the future, budgeting decisions rule out artistic ones.

In the future, our audiences remain predominantly white, and privileged.

In the future, theatre is solely a product for entertainment.

In the future, every Story You See will be the Story You Just Saw Only Better and More Diverse.

In the future, judgement replaces empathy.

In the future, artistic vision is a business plan.

This future is not so distant.

“We are at the precipice. Everything in our society could change tomorrow, simply because it cannot sustain its way of being any longer. How are we envisioning that future, in the arts and beyond? At Rescripted we are envisioning an empathetic future, driven by advocacy and dialogue, rather than this present cycle of trauma and fear.”Regina Victor, Letter From the Editor: Artistic Visions for 2020. December 31, 2019.

We are experiencing a vital shift in the landscape of American Theatre that requires our attention. We cannot afford to look away for another moment. Do you know who determines your future?  Continue reading “Where is the Vision? A Future Without Artistic Directors”

Court Theatre’s ‘Radio Golf’ Rings True Today

It’s 1997 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh at Court Theatre and Harmond Wilks (Allen Gilmore) is running for Mayor. Radio Golf transforms the Court Theatre  into an authentic depiction of a small office and its’ surroundings. The detail remains strong from the graffiti on the billboards to the discoloration in the ceilings. This set makes me feel at home in a place I’ve never visited, the raw attention to detail really captures the true essence of places we hear about but never see, such as the parking lot or infamous Aunt Ester’s home. Continue reading “Court Theatre’s ‘Radio Golf’ Rings True Today”

Nostalgia Consumes in a Fiery ‘Buried Child’

“I thought I was dying but I  just lost my voice.” – Tilden, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child.

This line perfectly describes the devastating loneliness that reverberates throughout Sam Shephard’s Buried Child, currently playing at Writers Theatre. The large house is empty at top of show except for the elderly Dodge (Larry Yando) who is coughing and watching TV all alone as rain falls outside. Dodge looks up at the roof to listen to the rain, which is wonderful because there is no roof in the living room of Jack Magaw’s set. In fact, the entire front of the home is excavated like an ancient archaeological site, preserved so we can see the relics inside. Adding to this jagged, exposed feeling is a massive crack that runs through the middle of the floor. Largely ignored by the family that resides in the house, I could not help but notice that the two outsiders in the play either noticed or tripped over the crack. Continue reading “Nostalgia Consumes in a Fiery ‘Buried Child’”