“Sorry it’s so late, it’s the only time I could” the son mumbles to his father, on a call at the top of the play. My heart panged and the guilt bubbled up as I counted the days (weeks?) since I last spoke to my mom in a way that didn’t involve emojis, feeling the tension between my words “I can’t find time” and my fear of their hidden meaning “I can’t find time for you”. In This is Who I Am by Amir Nizar Zuabi, we experience a late night zoom call between an estranged father and son as they struggle to perfect a mother’s recipe from memory. At the same time, they struggle to see and be seen by each other, each hoping for a connection that feels just out of reach. Continue reading “This Is Who I Am Transcends Politics and Makes the Palestinian Identity Personal”
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,
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.
WHAT WE DO is a visual interview series where we briefly talk to Chicago theatre artists about their art — what they do, why they do it, and what their creative process is like, even as it shifts in the midst of a pandemic. We’ve given each artist 8 written questions, as well as 3 prompts for photographs that capture their current headspace.
Today we’re hearing from Lavina Jadhwani, Chicago-based director, adaptor, and activist. She’s directed for Writers Theatre, Silk Road Rising, Remy Bumppo, the side project, and many others.
SELF-CAPTURE: A selfie, self timer portrait, a baby photo, or just a really awesome picture of yourself that you love.
In early March, Emma Durbin was midway through writing her capstone project for her playwriting BFA at DePaul University. The workshop of Durbin’s landscape was to be the first time she had worked with a team of professionals on a script of her own. The self-titled “playwright, dramaturg, and amateur sports climber” had been developing landscape for over six-months: drafting proposals, consulting with mentors, researching rock climbing in early-1900’s Scotland — and, of course, writing, rereading, and revising. She was halfway through a full draft when DePaul announced that the university would be switching to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the announcement, Durbin’s workshop was promptly canceled. Canceled and moved to Zoom.
Durbin’s landscape was one of many rehearsals, workshops, and performances that met their untimely end on account of the pandemic. Artists around the country, from community theatre hobbyists to BFA students to Tony-award-winning veterans, have been forced to find new ways to create live theater. More often than not, this has meant producing work over online platforms such as Zoom.
It is no secret that Steppenwolf Theater Company is one of my artistic homes in Chicago. When the news came out about Brooke Flanagan’s appointment for Executive Director, and David Schmitz’s departure to OSF, I was excited and disappointed all at once. David deserves an excellent opportunity such as this, and Brooke seemed highly qualified for the job, but there had been no job search for the Executive Leadership position.
Once during my fellowship at Steppenwolf, Anna told me she saw my value to the institution, and to our field, in my ability ask the hard questions. With that in mind, I made a phone call, at first asking for a conversation, which became an interview.
Rarely do our leaders seize an opportunity to tell the truth. When controversial decisions are made, I often ask arts leaders if they will sit down and speak to me about their decision-making process. They will always speak to me off the record, for my own education as an aspiring artistic leader. When it comes to going on the record? To date, every single leader has said no. Until now.
On May 27th, we spoke at length about not only Brooke’s transition, but her own transition into the position of Artistic Director, board relationships, racial inequity, the mysterious career “pipeline,” and police violence against Black people. The world has already changed so much since then. I encourage you to read this in its totality. This is a rare offering of truth, and I hope it invites other leaders to be more transparent in their processes. My questions are in bold, all other responses are Anna’s unedited thoughts. Continue reading “Behind The Curtain: Anna D. Shapiro Speaks About Steppenwolf’s Executive Leadership Transition, Board Relationships, the Pandemic, and the Epidemic of Racism”
If you have not been following the ball of confusion that is Victory Gardens Theater’s leadership transition, let me catch you up:
1) On March 2nd, 2020 over 60 artists sent an open letter to the board asking for a transparent and equitable leadership search which you can read here.
2) On May 5th, 2020 Erica Daniels was appointed Executive Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater internally after serving as the Executive Director. There was no transparent search, which caused the community to speak up in opposition of her appointment.
3) The Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens Theater resigned in protest in an open letter originally published on Medium that you can read here.
“How can we do our best work when the basic tenets of trust and leadership are not guaranteed? We are calling on artists, audiences and donors to examine closely what happens when an institution like Victory Gardens Theater purposely ignores the mission it made for itself and abuses the very resources it claims to value and support.” – Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens
4) The playwrights of the Ignition New Play Festival resigned in an open letter originally published on Medium you can read here:
“As the 2020 Ignition Festival of New Plays at Victory Gardens approaches, we four emerging playwrights have decided to pull our respective plays from this development opportunity. We demand that leadership in Chicago theaters dispense with hollow gestures of solidarity, hold themselves accountable for past mistakes, and listen to the needs of their community and artists.” – The playwrights of the Ignition Festival.
5) The opposition to her appointment revolves around many factors but that are exacerbated by the following professional concerns: Rumors persist that Daniels facilitates unsafe work spaces in the theater per her tenure teaching classes for Profiles and managing Second City. You can read about her involvement with Profiles in the Chicago Reader, and the exodus of Artists of color at Second City was widely reported on, including by CBS Chicago.
“The classes were held at the theater on Mondays or Tuesdays when there were no performances or rehearsals. But Cox knew that studying at Profiles alone wouldn’t be enough of a draw. So he asked his friend Erica Daniels, then the casting director at Steppenwolf and, therefore, a powerful person in Chicago theater, to help out. Daniels, now president of Second City Theatricals, also occasionally cast shows for Profiles, including the production ofThe Glory of Living directed by the fictitious “Carla Russell.” – Aimee Levitt, “At Profiles Theatre the drama—and abuse—is real” June 8, 2016.
Currently there is a movement happening called #OpenYourLobby asking theatres to open their doors to protestors, and several Chicago theatres have found their lane in helping aid the current resistance movement. Steppenwolf is doing supply runs, the Goodman is opening its doors to protestors, and there are more efforts underway or in the works by our community.
The #OpenYourLobby initiative is especially relevant for Victory Gardens, outside of which protesters were arrested (photo below, Trigger Warning Police Violence). They could have provided a sanctuary space and facilitated a peaceful interaction with police, but the building was empty. As you can see, their marquis says “art will survive,” not “Black Lives Matter” which it was changed to after the incident.
On June 6, 2020, upon learning that the institution was boarded up, scenic artists decided to lead an impromptu gathering to write messages on the boards that supported #BlackLivesMatter and the artistic community at large.
Below are original images from the protest, taken by me:
“The air is charged with an indescribable emotion. It is something that this world has not seen for centuries. It’s a combination of pride, fire, fatigue, tenacity, and righteous indignation. It is oozing from our pores, onto the streets, and into the hearts of all. This is for Emmitt. For Sandra. For Rekia. For Martin and Malcolm. Get on board little children. There’s room for many a more.”
– Sydney Charles, Actor / Director / Activist.
“VG was an institution I trusted to care about their community. It was one of the first spaces I worked at and one of the first spaces that thought me about the intersections of art and activism. Their recent actions have demonstrated a shift to the VG that I admired. Their recent decisions around their change in leadership sets a dangerous precedent in the American Theatre. I joined the artists and organizers to show solidarity and to demand that VG show us they care about their artists and they care about black lives. Theatre is and has to be a civic institution.”
– Abhi Shrestha, Steppenwolf Education Associate.
“Someone told me that they wanted to ensure my legacy at Victory Gardens would be honored.
I said that legacy does not live inside of buildings. They live in the people, artists, workers, audiences and communities. And wherever they go, the legacy of stories we told and shared will live on in these wonderful people.
That legacy was alive and well on Lincoln Avenue today.
And that legacy now belongs to these incredible citizen artists who will find another home or homes in Chicago to create and to lead where their voices, their skins, their communities are valued, and are treated equitably.
I stand with them.”
– Chay Yew, former artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater in a public Facebook post.
Last year I had the privilege of attending TCG and writing almost 3000 words that ruminated on the topic: What is a Theatre Review(er) Good for?
I didn’t re-read it, because I’m busy, doing whatever the fuck I can to help Black people stay alive. I’m neurotic, immuno-compromised, and generally traumatized but my Black ass is out here keeping supply lines tight and sending bodies where they need to be. The far more urgent question I have for you today is: What have you done to help Black people stay alive today? Continue reading “What Have You Done to Help Black People Stay Alive Today? or, Why I’m Not at TCG”
On Friday May, 22nd, 2020, the Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens resigned en masse via a public letter on Medium. See the full letter below.
Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Ensemble:
Luis Alfaro, Marcus Gardley, Ike Holter, Samuel D. Hunter, Naomi Iizuka, Tanya Saracho, Laura Schellhardt
We, as an ensemble of resident artists at this venerable institution, are deeply
disturbed by the notion that our creative home aspires to be a truth-telling temple on its stage, but not in its administration.
This is unacceptable.
The Board of Directors, who are of service to our community, took it upon themselves to eliminate communication with the ensemble, artistic staff, stakeholders and artists who have labored for a decade to build up this theater and its new audience.
For over five months, and after receiving a letter signed by over 60 of its biggest supporters asking for accountability, the board sat on a plan to reorganize the institution.
It ignored the limitless possibility of what the field might have presented in terms of viable local and national leadership.
Continue reading “Mass Resignation: A Letter from the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble”
There are two types of education for the undergraduate theatre professional of color in America.
Option 1: An invigorating education where teachers can help you place your lived experiences in an academic canon and define your place in the world. This empowering approach allows you to fully step into yourself as an artist.
Option 2: An oppressive education that requires you to become an EDI expert before the age of 22, sharpen your ability to articulate yourself, and learn to facilitate your own safety and growth. This creates a very fierce, visionary, albeit traumatized artist.
A student at Columbia College recently got a steaming portion of number two when her white professor Paul Amandes decided to use the phrase “magical negro” to explain a character death in his student’s work. Look left, look right. You guessed it, not a Black person in sight. The only person who could even challenge the professor was the student of color whose work he was also critiquing: Estefania Unzueta. When she brought up that the language was inappropriate in class on May 4th, Unzeuta describes his response:. Continue reading “Columbia College Student Questions A Professor’s Potentially Offensive Language, Columbia Professors Villify Student in the Press”