Philly reviewers, it is Tim-on to get your shit together

Excuse the bad joke. I can’t help it. I pun when I’m pissed.

Ooo-hoo. Adrienne is angry.  (Can you hear it in the typing? CLACK! CLACK CLACK CLACK!)  I would write in all caps (LIKE THIS!) because that is how I feel, but you would probably stop reading, and I do NOT want you to stop reading.

If you frequent this blog you likely have a sense of what I think about the role of women in the contemporary theater scene.

(In the off chance you are new here, feel free to go back and read this, or this, or this, or this…)

So when I heard that the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (or PAC) was doing a production of a Shakespeare play – Timon of Athens – that included a bunch of cross gender casting I was interested. Interested because I will be doing a similar (even more substantial) gender re-assigning in Clark Park’s Tempest this summer. Interested to see how they handled this gender switcheroo in context of the classical cannon. But most of all interested to see how people reacted to what they were doing.

And, like one sometimes does when one is intrigued by a colleague’s choices for a production, I read a few reviews about the show to see how it was received.

And now, as previously mentioned, I’m really really angry.

First off: my job here is not to defend this particular production. In fact, I have not yet seen this play. I will, next week. But I write this now, not yet having seen this play, quite intentionally.

There are statements in the reviews of Timon assessing creative choices that I cannot substantiate or discredit.  I do not know if the actors in the various roles are interesting to watch. I do not know if the opulence and greed of the play is borne out in the staging. I do not know if some of the problems that reviewers cite around this particular staging are true. Indeed, given that some of them appear in multiple assessments, perhaps some of the points they mention are quite valid.

But then again, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet. And my problem is not with the specifics of one stylistic choice or another.

Indeed, my problem here is quite the opposite.

I will say upfront that there are several actresses in this production I admire and respect, whose work I tend to like very much. And I am making such a long and belabored point of not knowing anything about the show’s specifics because I know that once I have seen the performance I may well be inclined to defend these performers’ specific choices. And I really don’t want that to get all muddled up with what’s really problematic here: the thing that’s really sticky and challenging.

I want to be absolutely and unwaveringly clear that my issue has nothing to do with giving specific critique to these particular people – be positive or negative – and everything to do with the blithe and blanket notions undercutting the women in this production that I see made under the banner of “criticism.”

“Them’s is fightin’ words.” You might be thinking.

You betcha.

Let’s start with  You can read the whole thing if you want to, but I’ll skip to this sentence starting off the final paragraph:

As director, Dan Hodge makes a tactical error in casting women in many of the male roles; it knocks the play off balance (tiny women playing cutthroats and shrill senators), and confuses the issues that have nothing to do with gender.

Ok. (deep breath)

Let’s play a little mad libs game. Pretend this statement isn’t about a play but a business. Everywhere there’s a statement about theater, I’ll replace it with a corresponding business word. Let’s see what we get:

As CEO, Dan Hodge makes a tactical error in hiring women in many of the male jobs; it knocks the company off balance (tiny women working as cutthroats and shrill managers), and confuses the business plans that have nothing to do with gender.

You wanna publish that in a newspaper and see what kind of letters you get?

I didn’t think so.

Having no women in a play doesn’t mean the play has nothing to do with gender in the same way that having a play with only white people has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with gender: about our conception of what greed is, what it looks like, who is allowed to display it, and the gender with which we associate that quality.

If the play’s issues – greed, ruthlessness, heroism unrewarded – are indeed not about gender, than it really shouldn’t matter if a man or a woman displays those things. The point of the review should be whether the specific actor embodying that role is successful in doing so.

That you make a point to say that “tiny women” should not be onstage displaying those things says to me that you have now made this a play about gender in a way that Shakespeare did not. It says to me that you don’t think tiny women, in general, as a whole, are not suited to being greedy or ruthless. That you can look at a tiny women and know by virtue of her tiny woman-ness that she is neither of those things.

You dislike this particular actress? Fine. Cite the specifics of their performance. But to lump women as a category under the “not viable to play this role” category is demeaning and ignorant.

And don’t get me started on the misogyny inherent in the word “shrill.”

The lesson here is that men playing aggressive roles have the potential to be booming and commanding while aggressive woman onstage are annoying and screechy.  Ladies interested in Shakespeare’s works, please stick to Desdemona or Ophelia or Juliet or Cordelia or Lavinia and go die because you love a dude who is kind of an emotional asshole to you.

Or go be Lady Macbeth and kill yourself.

Or go be Cleopatra and die (again) because you’re an oversexed “gipsy.”

Or be really excited to get married.

Or a witch.

Who wouldn’t be totally satisfied with that?

Moving on.

Here is what Citypaper has to say. Again, feel free to read the whole thing but I’m skipping here to the summation at the end:

And while I understand the need for good women’s roles in an ensemble company like this one, it’s still a mistake to have Apemantus and several other key male characters played by women — Timon’s wretched world of greed and infighting is, in every sense, man-made.

Is it possible that this is worse? I think it is. Worse because of the infantilizing and diminishing way that it’s phrased.  It is the casualness of these words that more than anything makes me want to punch the paper upon which the words are written:

Dan, Dan, Dan… Silly man.

Oops! I think you made a “mistake”.

FYI, this play is male-driven. You might not remember because you’ve been around so many ladies (I mean 50/50 in the cast, but come on, that’s an awful lot for a Shakespeare play).

You forgot it’s about BIG things like “greed and infighting”. It’s not that this particular female performer is not powerful commanding. It’s not that this particular actress you’ve chosen is not ferocious or greedy or money hungry. It’s not that many of the women in your show are young apprentices and might be worth evaluating based on experience or talent instead of gender.

No, no. You didn’t realize that women are not capable of such things.

This story is “man-made.”

Oh, Dan. I hope you don’t make that mistake again…

Because “while I see the need for good women’s roles,” while I see that the two female co-founders of your company are excluded from this very large and powerful portion of the theatrical cannon, while I see the incredibly limited scope of what a woman is traditionally defined as in some of these plays, while I see the subtle and casual limitations that I am placing on them, while I see the constant barrage of definition that many works put on women, a definition they constantly have to battle against, while I see that the logical extension of my argument is that because I don’t usually see women play these roles and it feels weird to me I want you to stop doing it thus ensuring that women are never cast in these roles and making sure that I, nor any audience really, will ever ever acclimate to seeing such a thing –

While I see all of these things, I’d really rather not have to deal with that.

So could you just, you know, not make me think about it?

Punch. The. Paper.

I’m out.

– A

PS –  I sincerely hope that some of these reviews are a product of bad editing. If there is a fuller version, one that addresses some of my problems with generalizing here, I’d love to read them.

And, I would like to point out and credit reviewers like Howard Shapiro who manage to give their opinion about this piece without invoking a lady’s inherent inability to be greedy.


As I sat down to write my last essay I started thinking about a single word that could sum up what I wanted from this collaborator thing. And then I started thinking about the times when I have felt at my own personal best as a creative maker. I thought about the times when I didn’t know enough to know that something should have seemed impossible. And thought about the times when something seemed so easy, so obvious, and I totally psyched myself out and was unable to complete the task.

What’s the magic sauce of the first that is missing in the second?

It’s something to do with confidence, with brazenness, with daring with to use the very best of your abilities. It takes courage to believe that you can even if you don’t yet exactly know how.

More than anything for myself and for the people I make with, I want an attitude of:

“Yeah!!! I am TOTALLY going to do this. And if I don’t know how, I will TOTALLY figure it out.”


 “This challenge is awesome!!! It is exciting to me. And above all it is one I will find a way to be capable of.”

You know that feeling, right? The one where you are on top of the world and able to tackle anything creatively thrown at you? That’s what I want: people who believe in their own badassery.

And if you are like me you also know the opposite, the feeling where supposedly you should be able to do this thing you are tasked with, but for whatever reason you keeping messing up, or feeling blocked, or actually do fine but still feel like you escaped without others knowing you’re a poseur that is just skating by on luck.

What’s up with that? I don’t actually think that about myself. So what makes me feel that way? And more importantly, how can I avoid it?

There are some things that seem obious: We prepare. We study. We learn enough so that we are armed with the info needed to tackle the situation. Without that we might literally lack the tools to achieve our aims. This is the eager student who is handed an instrument he has no experience playing. No amount of “want” will make him know the fingerings on a trumpet.

But it’s not just that.

Because there’s that other end of the spectrum where we’ve been doing something forever and then suddenly, weirdly, we start to realize the mechanics of it. We start to over analyze. We choke. We guess and second guess our choices and things that were once easy are now ending up muddy and unclear. When we know we are smart enough why do we let our own selves get in the way of just doing it?

There was a daring and obliviousness in my early work that I sometimes mourn. That stuff wasn’t as clean, as well thought out, as cogently researched or thoughtfully put together, but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter a lot of the time. It felt like it just had a kind of “heart” in it that was going to come through regardless. And often these days in my theater making I feel myself getting bogged down or distracted by knowing every cultural implication of writing this particular line or so totally aware of the piles of books I ought to read before claiming something in that particular scene.

The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. And it makes it that much harder to feel like that brazen “I know I’m right” confident creator I want to be. I’ve been burned with saying or displaying things I didn’t know enough about in the past. And I’m now smart enough to know that I might not always be right, know that not every choice is the right one. But in creating you have to act like it is. You have to choose and commit or you hesitate and end up doing even more damage than if you’d just gone ahead.

Sometimes I look at others and think, “How do they know they are right? How do they just continue to believe their art is so good?” I wonder where that magic ability, the one that allows them not to question whether they have made the right decision, comes from. And I want to know if I can have some of it.

I suppose there are people that might think the same about me.

Because I try very hard to look like I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I do. But there are plenty of times I have to make a decision or answer a question and I am simply flying by the seat of my pants. Or rather, feel like I am falling by that pants seat. I want to fly. I want to stop looking at the ground fast approaching and stop worrying if I’m going to hit it. I continue to want that confidence in the people I work with. I want it in myself. I want to be in a state of flow in which my high level of challenge is matched with an equally high level of prowess. I want us all to feel like the beasts of creation I believe us to be.

How do we do that? Literally, in a way that I can implement today, how do I start to nurture that? Do I ask more questions of the people that I think do know stuff so that I can steal their wisdom? Do I just assume that everyone is in the same boat and fake it until it feels real? Both? Neither?

I was talking to someone the other day about how I sometimes wish I weren’t a deviser. I said that I wished that there was a single method or cannon that I wanted to subscribe to. Wouldn’t it be awesome to believe that there was one way, one method, to pursue? To know what success looked like and how I could emulate it? To find the art in every finer and more beautifully crafted depth of a detail rather than starting anew with each and every project?

Then I started to think, maybe it’s a kind of an out, this starting over and over from scratch. Is starting from nothing every time a little bit like waiting until the night before a paper is due to begin?

“I would have researched and written a better paper but I only had one night.”

“I would have made a richer play but I’ve no one’s ever done this before.”

I do believe that it is important to question how and why we make the choices we make. I believe we need to make our work useful to contemporary audiences. But a little part, a hidden part, knows that a little bit of the thrill of starting from a blank canvas is that it’s an impossible task. Create something revolutionary that has never been done before. Defy everything that’s come before and do something richer, better and more relevant to today’s audience. And if one gives oneself an impossible task, any success, even a partial one, is a win.

And it’s in the midst of this that I sit right now heading into a summer project – The Tempest – whose measure of success will be just the opposite.

This is no Lady M. This is a straight up, no f-ing around with it, in the park, saying all the lines, Shakespearian drama. For the first time, I have to think about how to make a cut of a script that a lot of people know a lot more than me about. That’s not self deprecating, that’s just true.  Think about it. There are people that spend their whole lives on this one play. There are people who study single lines for years. So when I decide to get rid of this or that, I’m claiming dominion over all that expertise.

Can I stress how different this is than in a work in which I am the originator, where the only person I answer to is myself and my co-creators?

I was reading a scene in The Tempest in which Miranda meets Ferdinand and I was looking through to see if there were any cuts I wanted to make. Then I read this line where she talks about her modesty being the jewel in her dower. Initially, I passed over it, leaving it in. Cutting it doesn’t really help shorten the play and the whole keeping her pure thing is a big undercurrent in their relations with each other and Prospero’s oversight of their courtship.

And then I stopped and said, “What the hell? Would I ever in a million years let a female character in a show I created tell a dude that her modesty was the jewel in her dower?”

No. Emphatically no. I think that is bullshit. I know it’s a historical text. But it’s a historical text that will perform in a modern world and speak on behalf of how I think it should be shared with a modern audience.

And then I started to think, “Oh god. But there’s probably a million scholarly reasons that thing is in there. It’s probably so important for reasons I am not noticing. And they’re all going to be upset if it’s gone.”

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I just can’t. I guess people will have to yell at me. Because if I am doing this play, I have to believe in its message. And leaving that line in is a tacit and casual agreement that the foremost concern in that young woman’s mind should be staying a virgin until marriage. And that’s not a world I want people to see, or a view I personally espouse. I want Miranda to be the weirdo, awesome, strange wild child of this island. The same one to whom it never occurs not to carry logs like a man when the guy she has the hots for gets tired.

Because while I want the benefit of others’ expertise and analysis, I can’t let it stop me from my own opinion.  I can’t let it stop me from my own confidence, because that’s the thing that really makes me the artist I am.