race

This is the Cost

I see a lot of theater.

If you know me well, you know that this is a thing that too often makes me grumpy. There are a lot of reasons this is so, but in a conversation with a friend the other day I lamented that the biggest reason I needed a break from theater was because lately everything has started to blend together. I know that what I see are different productions and I know that the people making them have worked very hard and I do not want to denigrate that effort. But at some point, good lord, they all start to feel like the same story told in the same way by the same people.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing An Octoroon at The Wilma and for once I didn’t have that feeling.

ocotoroon

There are lots of things I could say about the craft of the production. I could talk about the smart script or the direction that allows a clarity and precision but doesn’t over explain. I could talk about the pleasure of watching ILL DOOTS in their jangly musical splendor as people in the audience sank into their rhythmic loop. I could talk about leaning over to my fellow viewer after watching Jaylene Clark Owens’ killer performance in the first half and saying, “Who the hell is that actress? She’s amazing. Why isn’t she in all the plays I see?” I could talk about a moment with a sudden image dropped on an audience, one that made them gasp, literally pulling breath into their bodies to gather strength in order to deal with what they’d just seen. I could talk about seeing familiar theater faces perform with a purpose and drive that must surely come from making something they deeply believe in.

I could say these things and they would be true. And in saying them it might lend one small additional assent towards a general consensus that this was a very good play done very well.

But at the same time, walking out of the theater the overwhelming thought I had was not of this praise. Instead it was this: This is the cost.

It’s a phrase that has rolled around in my head all week. This is the cost. This is the cost. This is the cost. Like a mantra I keep going over in order to unravel why it is repeating in my mind.

This play, this lauded work, this celebration of something so surprisingly and vibrantly alive, this is the cost of our prejudice. Because for every work like this that manages to sneak by the barriers our collective cultural illiteracy puts up, there are so many that are trapped and denied. For every work that makes us gasp and think and feel, offers us the chance to understand something new about the world we think we know, there are myriads more that have been shut out.

And this is the cost. We are costing ourselves exactly this thing that when given we proclaim to value.

This is the cost. This is the cost. This is the cost, I keep thinking. This is the cost of safety. This is the cost of comfort. This is the cost of apathy and weakness. How ironic that the farther something looks from those in power, the less likely it is to survive. Shouldn’t it logically be the opposite? Shouldn’t it be that the more something has capacity to move us into deeper and fuller wonder and newness, the more likely we are to risk bringing it into being? This this is the cost of such unreasonableness. This is the cost of such ignorance.

In person and online I see a vast collection of regrets for the passing of An Octoroon. I wonder if some of the intensity of feeling towards its ending is due in large part to its uniqueness, to its rarity. We should not need to mourn so deeply for the end of a work like this. It points out that we recognize its anomalism. It shows that our system is not set up to support that which might feed us best. It points out the embarrassment of riches we systematically and voluntarily deny ourselves.

Our cultural myopathy is blinding us and this is the cost.

White people, straight people, cis people, able bodied people, all the people who have never had to question the default of their existence, we people with our luck un-earned, those of us who have had not the opportunity to see from a different point of view, we must strengthen ourselves to better carry our discomforts. We must better learn to shoulder our fear and widen our empathic abilities. The rest of the world has been practicing while we have sat idly by. We must do it, if not for the obvious reasons of altruism and empathy and respect for our fellow companions on this earth, if not for these reasons than for no other than as an act of charity to ourselves that we might reap the benefits of a richer understanding of experience.

For if we do not do it, this is the cost.

– A

A Million Female Gandalfs

Today I had my final class of the semester at one of the schools I teach at. For our final class of Voice For The Stage, I ask my students to perform a monologue they have worked on for several weeks on the large stage in front of each other. They pick these monologues themselves and I allow them to be from movies or television, from a favorite play, anything that they are genuinely interested in. I do this because it is the chance for these learners to test their abilities, honed over the last 14 weeks, to hold the stories they have chosen to tell in their bodies. I want, and encourage them, to choose words thrilling for them to inhabit. It is their chance to see if they can transmit those narratives’ feelings and emotions out of their imaginations and through their voices and into the audience.

Earlier this semester a girl stepped onto that stage and performed a monologue from Lord of the Rings, playing the wizard Gandalf. I think about this now as I watch the same girl again. I think about the fact that a year ago I was watching another girl performing another Gandalf monologue during this culminating performance day and that earlier this semester I heard another female Gandalf at another school.

I think about how every year there is a female Gandalf.

Last week I sat in my living room and heard six fast and sharp pops from somewhere to the south and west of my window.

Oh no, I think. I know what this sound is. I hope that it is something else, though if I am honest I know exactly what this sound is, but I keep working, hoping somehow that I am mistaken. Minutes later when I hear the parade of several sirens in the distance I cannot pretend any longer that what I know is not true.

In the moment I am afraid, I am scared, and I am sad.

I think, I should call Brad and make sure he’s ok. Even though I know he is at the theater, having left nearly 40 minutes ago, I should still just make sure.

I walk to the window and I see two police cars parked on the corner and several police walk into a mini market. Moments later I see several people, males of varying ages from teenager to thirty something adult, all walk quickly out of the store. They are all African-American. They are looking at their phones. A microsecond-long thought passes through my head, “What are the police doing? Why aren’t they stopping these men? What if they need to question them? What if they are involved?”

This is the first thought that instinctually comes into my head. That they are guilty. It isn’t one of reasoned or rational thought. It is gut reaction. It is fear. It is instinct. It is the first story that comes to mind.

A moment later I am actually thinking about that thought that first flashed in my mind and I feel disgusted with myself.

In that moment later I say, literally, as in actually, as in out loud to the room, “What is wrong with you Adrienne? Why would you think that?”

I think, Why is the first narrative construction you have built around these humans who are leaving a store and looking at their phones one of guilt? What is it about them that makes you think this way before you even have a moment to think? Why is the story you instinctually tell one of guilt and violence and implication? Why is the story you tell not one of a person scared and wondering if the people they know are alright? Why is their looking at of phones something that nonsensically becomes something nefarious rather than the EXACT SAME INSTINCT you yourself had?

And of course it is because they are black.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize this.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that I do not want this in me.

And in this moment, it is painful to realize that even though I do not really think this, something about the world I live in has made this the gut instinct.

And in this moment I hate the world and I hate the gut instinct and I feel privileged and stupid and small.

I think, Why on instinct do you not assume that these fellow humans are going to their own friends and families and making sure they are ok, that they hurry from this place because they too are scared and worried and want to feel comfort in a moment of stress and tension and possible tragedy?

I think, Why, why, why on earth is this not the story you instinctively picture?

I think about how quickly that default story comes to my mind. I think about the fact that I am a storyteller by trade. I wonder about whether I am telling stories that make it easier or harder for this kind of terrible default story to emerge.

I think about all this and I am ashamed.

There is a darkness in you, I think. There is something dark and sticky and terrible and it is not something you put there on purpose but it is part of a much bigger problem that is so so so terribly sad. I think about the color connotations of the words that my brain has just used, ones that again simply came to mind. I think about how these too are problematic color tropes that also infect so many kinds of the stories we tell.

This is not darkness, I think. You cannot think of the terrible thing that feeds the bad stories as darkness. You need to think of it as evil and hatred.

I am ashamed of the story that emerges from my brain without my asking it to appear. I hate it and I stand at the window and I look at the people walking by and imagine a new story. In the new story I can see the lines of worry in their faces. I think, You need to step back and work harder to see the world better. You need to work harder to get these instinctual stories out of yourself, to find their roots and pull and pull and pull. You need to create new stories that are better to plant in their place.

Today between the myriad of moments in which I smile and clap and laugh with the group there is a different kind of moment, one where I pause and purse my lips for a moment and feel very very sad.

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fight wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

I am sad because every year there is a female Gandalf.

I am sad because there are a million female Gandalfs it seems. I am sad because though I have seen students play sponges and mutants and demons and even a human embodiment of a font, though every year I see so many of my female students find power and depth in speaking like Ian McKellen playing a bearded wizard I have never, not once, not even one single time in seven years of teaching, seen a male student decide that they would find something exciting and inspiring about speaking words originally intended for a woman.

I am sad because this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for my female students.

I am sad because if the first story that comes to my mind when I see a group of African-American men reacting to a gunshot the story that I have for them is the worst kind of story. I am sad because this is not the story that should be brought to my mind. If it is this must mean we are not doing well enough in the stories we have for them either.

I am sad because I know that I get so tired hearing stories about women that conform to all the stupid and terrible gender norms. I am sad because I get so tired of having to hear these same stupid stories that are such a tiny part of the larger whole of what being feminine can mean. It hurts me that there aren’t a larger number of better stories for the women who stand on that stage.

I think about the times someone has created a story for me that I do not want to be a part of, of the effort it takes to remove this story from myself. I think about the way that I must do the same to others without even realizing it, without wanting to, and that I need to keep striving to find a way to stop.

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

I think about how we are literally wasting people’s lives by casting them in shitty stories.

I think about how even a million female Gandalfs can’t outweigh the imbalance.

And I think that this rooting, this active undoing and this need for rewriting for the better must be the job of our lives as artists. If we are not doing this, what good will our stories be? At this moment, as storytellers, we must take responsibility for the telling. If we don’t, what on earth are we here for?

– A

Context

The other day I spent my lunch chatting with a group of apprentices from Interact and then immediately went and had a meeting with a soon to be graduated student from a small liberal arts college. In both cases the conversation centered on navigating a career as a maker and producer of theater. In both cases I had plenty of concrete advice about resources to look for, things that I had tried in the past and either found successful or not, and how to keep a hold on the reasons one starts making art in the first place. I found myself repeating this phrase a whole lot:

“I’m not sure if it’s like this everywhere, but I know that here in Philadelphia…”

This combined with the recent discussions in relation to grad school and collaborators has me wondering how environment affects our work. A bad rehearsal space can hinder creation. An underwhelming performance locale can limit the scope of one’s imaginings. But what about a city? These smart young women I met last week have all had to weigh the question of context. They are all in the midst of deciding if this city is fertile ground from which to plant their artistic seed/selves. And I started thinking, “Why?”

Why Philly or why not? What does this city have to offer an artist and how does that offer change as they grow? I started to think about how I have been shaped by the place in which I now live and create my work. I started wondering how the daily backdrop of Philly and the people within it have made me the artist I am.

I’m interested in what questions a city can raise. What thoughts and ideas does it bring out of us? How does being here in particular color us as creators?

For the record, I didn’t intend to live here. I moved to the east coast for school and always thought that eventually I’d go back to Chicago. Somehow everything in the east coast cities I visited felt like it had a little less breathing room than back home. My family was there and at heart I felt like a Midwesterner. People here seemed a little harder, a little more closed off. I didn’t want the scale and exhausting competitiveness of New York. Boston seemed too small and insulated. And Philly was… a little off-putting.

I knew very little about this place before I came here. In college the entirety of my sense of the city was limited to taking the R3 from Swarthmore and bumming around South Street. I thought Olde City was cute but small. I had a few bewildering encounters with Fringe shows. I capped every expedition with a wait for the train in Market East. In short, my sense of the whole place was a bit gritty, a little dated and a lot dirty.

I see it differently now. That one-year gig after college turned into more. I grew up a lot while being here. I found a strong and supportive community. And something about this place now feels like a familiar if sometimes frustrating kind of home. So here I am. But going back to the initial questions – what influence does the city have on its artists? If it had gone another way, would I still be the same?

So for those new folks, looking to weigh the city on its artistic-potential inducing merits, here are a few observations:

Philadelphia feels like a small city, at least artistically. “Philadelphia County” is listed 5th most populace US city.  We’re bigger than Dallas according to 2010 census data. But I don’t think most of us think of this place as having a big city feel. The areas of Philly you move within are likely rather confined. It feels like a city of neighborhoods and we tend to stay loyal to the areas we inhabit. The artistic community in particular feels small. This can be great to be so familiar, to watch people grow and change, but it can also be limiting, difficult to be honest in critique. With the web so interconnected each shake or tear carries more weight.

This place feels like a family in the best and worst ways. It is hard to define oneself entirely out of context of the artistic family members that one is surrounded by. Sometimes it feels like funders are like parents with only so much love to go around. As a second generation experimentalist there are times when I feel like a second sibling who will always be in the shadow of those who came on the cultural landscape earlier than myself. I can’t help but wonder about those that will come after me. Will they have any room?

Philly is a place of genuine artistic fraternity and support. The arts are where the real brotherly love lies. I have shared stories with friends of mine in other communities about the help and mentorship I have received here. They are often jealous or astonished. No one can believe me when I tell them that things like Artist U are free. I have been amazed at the kindness of those ahead of me in sharing their knowledge, skill sets and literal stuff. It makes me want to do the same. We are a familiar folk, we Philadelphians, and in general we pay it forward and want to love and support each other.

We are also a city with a lot of history and legacy. It creeps into works in small and big ways. We employ a lot of theater folk in our historic cultural centers. We make stuff in sites of history. We have stuff that’s older than most US cities. There have been lots of “Philadelphia”s – from Ben Franklin’s to Rocky’s. We are still figuring out how to blend them together both in life and our work.

We are a relatively cheap city that feels like it’s on an economic upswing. An artist can own a house here. Let me repeat that. An artist can own a house here. Do not underestimate how radical that is to people living elsewhere. You can get space for cheap or free. There’s a bit of breathing room in a city that isn’t so expensive. People are easier with giving things away. You hustle a lot less. Art is more of your actual income. And at the same time, it doesn’t feel like that is at the cost of the city falling apart. Even in the midst of the worst housing crisis, many neighborhoods (mine included) have not lost property value.

There’s that Quaker thing. Maybe it’s because of my Quaker college that I feel so aware of it, but I do think there’s something about the large presence of Quakerism in the early history of this city and the quiet witness it continues to bear here that raises a sense of consensus and social justice in its people.

In a similar vein, we are a city surrounding by academic institutions. There are those obviously in its borders (Temple, UPenn, Drexel, Jefferson, PCOM, UArts, St. Joe’s, Pierce, La Salle, University of the Sciences, PAFA, Curtis, Moore, Chestnut Hill, CCP) and all the ones within the city’s reach – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Haverford, Arcadia, Rowan, Rutgers, Ursinus, Cabrini, Eastern (I know I’m forgetting some). This is an insane number of schools. And all these are places we create our work, teach, attend and learn from, make money at, borrow resources from, use the libraries of, connect with students from. Whether you personally work or study you are still the beneficiary of the many intersections of these institutions with the arts community.

Philly is dirty. What is up with all the trash? In both 2011 and 2012, TRAVEL & LEISURE put Philadelphia in near the top of “America’s Dirtiest City” list, for having the most unremoved, publicly visible litter, selected and voted for by both magazine readership and city residents. What does that do to our sense of aesthetic? How does it change our relationship to beauty in our work?

Philly has a higher than average rate of crime for a city our size. As sensitive people, we take in our environment. Ask most artists and they have multiple stories of witnessing or personally being the victim of crime. That stuff can’t help but come out in one’s creations and the more it happens, the larger it weighs in your work.

It takes a long time to get anywhere. “SEPTA. We’re getting there.” Is this the most unintentionally accurate slogan ever? And given the small size of the city and the high number of artists that use public transport, this matters a lot. I think it holds us back as a metropolitan community. I think makes our city seem less professional and unapproachable (as do we, its artists, by association). I once had to give an NYC playwright friend directions on taking a Philly bus. Just one, in a straight line from the north part of 4th street to the south. I had to make sure she had two dollars, exactly. I had to promise a bus would come to the directed corner even though no sign would indicate such. I had to tell her to go 10 minutes before the schedule said because you can’t trust what’s printed (but then it might be 10 minutes late, sorry it’s cold outside). Thank god she didn’t need to get from south Philly to the Museum district.

We are a city with a deep racial divide. Last April I was lucky enough to be sitting in the “grantee” section at a Knight Arts. As I flipped through the book of other winners I noticed another listing for Theater: $20,000 for GoKash Productions to expand the Philly Urban Theatre Festival. It amazed me that here was an award winning company creating original works and an ENTIRE FESTIVAL that I had no idea existed. I thought it amazing that such a company has survived without support from the traditional funding sources and, as far as I know, with little support so many other small companies enjoy from the larger theater community. There’s been a lot flying around the major theater blogs recently about how get people of color to the theater. I thought of GoKash. They’ve already done it. How many others companies like them are out there? Why are they disconnected from the community I am connected to? What is my responsibility in that? More recently, as I gathered data for my women in theater posts, I noticed a trend, especially among larger companies, to produce a single “diversity” play in a season with a relatively small (if existent) number of actors of color throughout the rest of the year. I thought a lot about how I feel about all women shows  – incredibly protective of their importance but at the same time nervous about being set apart. Racial division is a backdrop to our lives. How can we become smart and aware about its influence in our art?

It’s not as easy as you’d think to be a solo creator. Though we have a lot of them, solo creator artists don’t have the easiest time. The funding structures in this city are pretty company (aka non-profit) oriented. Despite a few high profile grant programs, we are overwhelmingly deficient on residencies and grants for individuals. Most foundations won’t let you apply until you have the tax exempt status and a certain level of size. There are precious few folks past their 30’s still making their own work without having gotten the 501 c 3. Which means in general, if you want to make your own work in Philly you not only need to be a creator but a producer as well. This is not the case everywhere else. We are in desperate need of curatorial institutions. Yes, we have Fringe Arts. And they do a lot. But we need more than one voice. Where are our PS 122’s, La Mama’s, and HERE Arts spaces?

We have some crazily bizarre liquor laws. Alcohol, like it or not, is a huge part of how most people socialize. I’m going to guess that’s even more true for the coveted 20 – 30 something age range, one that theater in particular has a hard time reaching. Imagine a band in a place where no drinks were served. And while some people get around this, I think that it cuts out a huge social lubricant and money-making avenue for smaller theaters (who could never afford the insane liquor license fees) to access.

And finally, when I step back, I see that we are not actually one artistic community. We aren’t even just one kind of theater community. There is a dividing line in town between the generative artists and the interpretive ones. Between “straight” theater and devised. Between the experimenters and those who find meaning in tradition. But as different as we are, there’s an open curiosity that I see around me. What I like about Philly is that this division is, as the cell biologists say, a permeable membrane. I’ve found real growth in interacting with actors who have never written their own lines before or created a scene. It reminds you to questions your assumptions. I’ve learned a lot by jumping out of my usual role and ADing a super “play play.” And as I grow, I find that more and more useful, to seek out opportunities to watch how other people do what they do. And there’s a trust and respect that Philly fosters that allows that to happen. And if there’s anything that’s kept me in this place, that’s it.

A