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Common Sense

I kind of awkwardly galumphed my way through freshman year performance core. Going from a world of clearly defined rules, a high school of strict academics and a family of engineers and scientists into a world of art and impulse was jarring to say the least. I quickly came to recognize that my dewy-eyed conception of what being an actress meant was about 40,000 hum mum mum mah’s short of reality.

I climbed through to the end of the year a bit dazed and confused. I felt like I had spent a year faking it. The beginning of the shift of acting turning into work after years and years of it only ever being fun was not an easy journey to start and I found myself craving the practicality of formal classrooms (if you allow a definition of “formality” to mean classes where students can keep their shoes on). But at some point that summer I picked up “A Practical Handbook For the Actor” and the introduction written by David Mamet finally put words to this huge inner battle I had been fighting. In it, he writes:

“If you have studied acting, you have been asked to do exercises you didn’t understand […] As you did these exercises it seemed that everyone around you understood their purpose but you–so, guiltily, you learned to pretend. […] As you went from one class to the next and from one teacher to the next, two things happened: being human, your need to believe asserted itself. You were loath to believe your teachers were frauds, so you began to believe that you yourself were a fraud.” (If this jives with you I highly recommend checking out this book. I think about it all the time in my acting and my directing)

After two years trying to make myself fit into a mold I wasn’t comfortable in, I came to submit to the will of my common sense. Sometimes, my logical brain is just going to straight up refuse… and I’m not going to be able to beat her down (no matter how many times I imagine a pool of sound in my diaphragm). I am proud to still own a voracious love for theatre but it is now coupled with a clarity I am becoming as an artist. (And thank god for the theatre arts major.)

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Message in a Bottle to Another Young Asian Actor:

For the past few years, when an audition comes up, I have always fantasized have a conversation with a director about their vision for the show.

Especially when the director is white.
More especially when I’m one of the few, if not the only Asian-looking person auditioning,
And the show does not explicitly have any Asian characters (which in my experience has usually been the case).

I essentially wish I could make a pitch to these directors on:
how I, with my Asian body can add a layer of meaning to their show,
or how a character, when specified of race, doesn’t have to be white by default,
or how being “historically accurate” is a skewed defense because historical records can be subjective, biased, or selective of the actual truth that none of us were there for,
or how trying to hide my body on stage or ignore my race actually just doesn’t do anything.

Basically: “Hey, if you are interested, we can actually take this opportunity to do something different and interesting here, it won’t be a huge shift, and I want to collaborate on this and please don’t be afraid to deal with me or just hide me in the background because you don’t want to seem racist or have an Asian agenda.”

Or something like that.

Because it really has just felt like, (back in white suburban PA really)
Directors don’t know what to do with me.
Maybe they’ve never seen a young Asian-American actress before,
And truly, I just want to help.
“Sorry you have to deal with me sticking out of the crowd, here’s how we can turn that negative into a positive!”

But alas, those conversations will pretty much stay a fantasy – I should probably stop acting and pursue a position with more creative control right?

There came a point  in my young life where to save myself from the roller coaster of high hope to disappointment, I taught myself that there were entire genres of plays I will never be in: anything that required me of a non-Asian dialect, period plays that had nothing to do with an Asia, Asian and Asian-American culture, or historical events concerning Asian-looking people, modern classic plays, or honestly any of the musicals I loved listening to as a grew up loving theatre (I mean, maybe in the ensemble, but also I’m not a trained dancer). Better gear myself up toward only contemporary plays, new plays, Miss Saigon, King and I, Allegiance – maybe I should consider moving to an Asian country to get better work??

In the present moment and going forward I still ask myself these questions because the journey towards more diverse representation in media is slower than I wish it could be. But in this past week, I have truly been thrown off that course, shocked, and kind of questioning reality because…..I

 

get to

 

play

 

EMILY??????

 

in

 

OUR TOWN????????

 

Sure, I have seen articles of the first Asian-American Ariel in The Little Mermaid, and the first Asian-American Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and recently at the 2017 Emmy Awards there was the first Asian man to win an acting award – and locally in Boston we have Downtown by Kyle Chua (BU School of Theatre Fringe Festival), Proof by David Auburn featuring Michael Tow (Central Square Theater), Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sakata starring Michael Hisamoto (Lyric Stage Company), and Allegiance the Musical (Speakeasy Stage Company)  — GO WATCH ALL OF THESE Y’ALL! —

But I never thought that I would get to celebrate my own accomplishment in addition to the many things happening in the Asian American community (also Justin Chon’s Gook, John Cho and everything he’s doing right now, Crazy Rich Asians coming out soon….just to name even some more).

Just the other day, someone asked me why I was so surprised, and all I could think to say at the moment was because of the time period….but maybe the blunt answer in my mind was because I’m so used to directors in the past being lazy, close-minded, and so stuck on their own version instead of collaborating with their entire production team.

But also another day, while receiving lots of congrats, support, and joy, I hear jokes about how “they must not have really cared” about how they cast the show because the actors cast to play my parents don’t look like me, or how we “totallllly look alike, like it makes sooo much seeeense.” To those people, I say challenge yourself on what you think a family looks like. Because there are many families that don’t look alike.

In the end, problematic things are still happening every day, but I have a hopeful little thing to hold on to – that there are directors that are open to those kinds of conversations or open to changing their minds and taking risks, and they are not just found in rare success stories I read online, but actually in environments I am a part of.

 

Well, maybe not a little thing. 😉

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Why heightened text is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

THE PLACE OF HEIGHTENED TEXT IN TODAY’S WORLD

Heightened text is present in a lot of the world’s best-known stories, from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to…who was the guy who wrote something that was kind of like Shakespeare, but with more blood?*

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   Source: Greenstage.org, Feb 2016

Heightened text is pretty omnipresent whenever we talk about the capital-c Canon or Precious Very Good Important Theatre. But as an individual living in the 21st century, as someone who is far from a theatre connoisseur, I question it’s overuse (or honestly, use) in the industry. Especially when we as a community come together to gripe about how theatre isn’t accessible enough to the masses: that is not just the fault of the big bad money-grubbing capitalist who owns the building.

While you could read endless thinkpieces on why theatre is expensive or exclusionary**, most end up blaming the decision-makers who think “money first, art later.” This relieves the artists actually in the room making the art from any responsibility in who their audience will be.

When it comes to heightened text, it’s often used because people think:

“It’s preserving how it was originally performed.” A library can do that, and honestly do it better. Why are you making a show?

 

WHY WE SHOULDN’T USE HEIGHTENED TEXT: CHANGE YOUR DEFAULT

There is certainly a time and a place for heightened text—a library during quiet hour, perhaps. I’m not saying we should go around burning manuscripts…But I disagree that we, the theatre community, should be holding the words of Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks precious. Consider the main ingredient of any theatrical experience: the audience. If there’s not an audience, you’re either in rehearsal or “patting yourself on the back”, in not so many words.

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But, back to the original point: to consider the audience of today. The 21st century denizens of this planet. No matter what else may be different between my life and yours, we are all creating theatre that will be viewed by an audience of 21st century humans (and possibly animals, depending on your brand.)

21st century humans do not speak in heightened text: FACT.

The majority of humans on Earth are not Shakespeare or Classical scholars: FACT.

Unless you are performing for an audience composed of those scholars, odds are your audience will not be able to adeptly handle heighten text coming at them fast in the moment: Logically, shouldn’t this be true?

I’m not saying that flowery heightened text doesn’t have a place. And I most certainly do not believe that heightened text should only be shown to some elite, “knowledgeable” group. What I am proposing is that, in the modern day, the default should be “Why ARE you keeping the heightened text?” The default should not be “Why are you doing an adaptation or rewrite?”

All I’m saying is this: if you’re trying to make your show universal to an audience whom you know will most likely not understand heightened text, then how does keeping that difficult language best serve the production? Why does the word universal mean “exactly as it has always been?” Universal TO WHOMST is a better question to ask–and making your show “universal” for the audience that will actually be seeing the show should not be a revolutionary idea.

What’s the alternative? Are you trying to be universal to Londoners of the Elizabethan age? Are you trying to hold the house until the druids arrive? Are you concerned that the time-traveling demographic will feel a bit lost?

Worry about the people that will be filling your seats. I can assure you that the dust of Shakespeare’s bones won’t come after you for copyright infringement–if you are feeling bound by holding a script in the public domain sacred, then it’s on you.

*Note: This is a reference to the Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.
**Note: Here are some of those thinkpieces: here and here. (The latter one from HowlRound.)
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Excavating Whiteness 1

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As an artist, I have come to learn that my moral compass drives most of my creative decisions. Coming from a hill town community in Western Massachusetts and attending a performing arts charter school that offered ELA electives focused on race informed my perspective in ways I’m grateful for to this day. To embody my beliefs in both my writing and in the plays I produce, I’ve done my best to include non-white perspectives. I consider this part of my duty as a woke artist.

But the work is never finished, and in an effort to aid other white people on the journey to allyship, I want to share a conversation from this past weekend that helped me uncover more of my bias.

Although it is still in the prenatal stage, I’ve embarked on creating a podcast with two of my dearest collaborators, Erica Huang and Bram Xu. We got together at Café Nero this past Sunday for our first official meeting, and we began discussing our goals and aspirations for the project. Erica noted that radio is especially exciting because of the accessibility of the medium: no breaking the bank on those Nightvale binges.

There were a couple of givens: we knew our story would be set in outer space, we knew there would be two central female characters, and we wanted to further non-white perspectives. With those givens, we went into discussing the rules of this universe (hold my beer, EF).

One question that inevitably came up was what the attitude of this universe was. Was it hopeful, a la Star Trek? Was it nihilistic, a la Rick and Morty? Which attitude helped us tell the stories and make the points we wanted to? And ultimately, what perspective is this universe seen from?

This question was also tied up in post-colonialism, and therefore, whiteness.

I admitted that I’d recently realized that most of my target audiences were often white: I’d used my work to educate white people. What I didn’t say was that I wasn’t sure how to write for a non-white audience.

In an effort to make sense of this daunting task, I proposed a spectrum: on one end, a didactic series teaching white people about racism and other systems of oppression; on the other, a nihilistic world, populated by moral relativism.

Erica pointed out that that spectrum is inherently white.

We all didn’t know where to go for a moment.

Bram spoke up, and asked about the smaller moments. What about the cultural differences on these planets? Like what about food?

This took the meeting into a different direction, and we came out with more work for next time.

I kept thinking about that meeting for the rest of the day: can I ever divorce myself from seeing whiteness as the default perspective? Can I write characters/plots in which POC characters exist beyond their political implications? I had written POC characters, and many other characters outside of my experience, but what does it mean to amplify a non-white perspective in storytelling, as a white person? Can I ever do that? Am I supposed to?

I have no intention of tying this up with a bow, and I don’t think it can be. I think the act of questioning is part of the work. This will probably end up being a series over the course of the semester, and I’m hoping to start a dialogue. If you have any thoughts, please feel free to comment below!

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Hating Realism

Shakespeare really got it right. I truly believe that “the purpose of playing [is] to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” It’s too bad so many people take that line WAY to literally. SO literally, they will present an audience with an audience. (This, of course, I do not mean literally. In fact, if one was to raise a curtain and literally present an audience for an audience to watch, things would get very interesting.) What I mean to say is, the people on stage are not serving the audience with anything they do not know or feel already. What’s the point? Allowing theatre to be so passive is an insult to the art.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but think of realism in theatre when I say the word ‘passive.’ So far, my relationship to realism has been like that of a show on Netflix which I would watch to fall asleep. I may not have seen/read every play, but all of the plays I have come across that involve regular people acting regularly in a regular place where someone learns something in the end, have never been very interesting at all. I never learned anything from these pieces, maybe because they never demanded me to think further than the backdrop.

It is easy for me to blame the faults I see in theatre today on Realists and their practices but, I have been a part of a few productions while a student at BU that have changed my mind drastically. Realism is not the problem, passive art making is. Each of the productions I acted in that influenced me were new play projects that clearly open up a conversation with their audience. Weather the conversation is about race, the government, or even the single community a play is being produced in, this conversation is what will save realism. Or, for that matter, any play, of any genre that wishes to create change and remain relevant.

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Hello Shylocks

The Venetian Ghetto. Five synagogues: German, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Levantine (Eastern Mediterranean) and the Scuola Canton, built for the Ashkenazi community (descendants of Eastern European countries). The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Five scenes with Shylock the Jew. A recent production of this play, workshopped on the streets of the ghetto established roughly 500 years ago, casts “five actors of different age, size, race and gender;” one for each Shylock’s scenes.

A complex character, Shylock offers many entry points for actors of varied backgrounds and intersections. “Shylock the Jew is also Shylock the immigrant, the Other, the stranger.” With this production coming to the U.S. this week I think about the history of Jewish and racial identity in this country versus that in Europe and the Mediterranean. Jewish does not look a certain way, there is no defining feature, thus providing a privilege to hide. In a country where race is so often defined by skin color, the way someone simply is cannot be hidden. As a white Jew I am able to hide my Jewish identity behind my whiteness; so I question the translation of five different Shylocks, varying in race and gender, from the Venetian Ghetto to U.S. audiences.

Coming from communities all over the globe, Jews belong to many different races. On one hand, I am excited at the prospect of Shylock the Jew being played by people of different ethnic backgrounds; especially because people from the U.S, at least in my experience, often picture Jews as having white skin. On the other, I am concerned how Americans will perceive the varying Shylocks based on the color of each actor’s skin. How does the story change? How and why does privilege shift in the eyes of an American audience? What gets lost in translation and what gets illuminated in the shift from a Jewish ghetto to a theatre in the United States? How does the symbolic value of bodies on stage change?

Merchant Production Info (also where the quotations come from)

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A Summer Away from Theatre

Little more than two weeks into classes, with a newfound major and a newfound sense of cynicism, I am left with one question on my brain: did I make the correct decision in my modified, but still fundamentally similar major?

This summer, I remained on Boston University’s campus with a 9-5+ job, working days in the Orientation Office, and scrambling about as one of two photographers during session. What began as the obtaining of an interesting job to allow me to spend summer in Boston became a question of what the hell it is I want to do with my life.

My time here last year was spent in misery, fighting desperately to stay afloat in a department that I could not feel grounded in. Early second semester, I met with people who had previously left the School of Theatre, and began to wonder if that was the right choice for me. I was ready to commit to the choice, when I was suddenly struck with an unyielding sense of nostalgia. I love theatre. I love the community, I love the art. How, I asked myself, could I bring myself to leave it? And so, I wrote a proposal and switched from a lighting design major to a theatre arts major, with an emphasis in scenic painting. I would be happy now, I thought. I could get back to my visual arts roots.

And then, the summer.

I worked a job that, though not quite as time consuming as theatre could be– with our production weeks totaling out to about 80 hours of work, along with homework on top of that– was certainly more than a 40 hour work week.

The difference, aside from the very welcome lack of work outside of the workplace, was the culture of self-care, and the feeling that something important was being done here. We were taught, time after time, the importance of advocacy, for ourselves, and for others. We were urged to take care of the students and guests arriving on campus for session, no matter what task we were in the middle of completing. More than that, we were urged to take care of ourselves similarly.

Much of the orientation programming, outside of creating academic schedules and meeting with advisors, was focused upon Common Ground, a value preached by Dr. Howard Thurman. Orientation was about not only the academic work, but about creating humanity in such a vast campus. It felt like something valuable, something that could actually evoke change.

It felt like something theatre should be.

In reading Mark Lord’s “The Dramaturgy Reader,” I found an eloquent voice to my own grievances with the theatre. I found that I do truly still love the theatre, and that I do not want to give up on it just yet. I find that I am not alone in this. Up until this piece, I had always felt that my concerns and problems were just jumbled thoughts shouted into the void that held no real impact, and had no cohesion. I felt as though they were just the ramblings of a person who was just, in fact, in the wrong major.

And yet, here is the proof that that is just not true.

In his piece, Mark Lord paints a metaphor that many people can relate to– the loss of wonder in the act of reading, caused by the monopoly of dry texts assigned to minds that yearn for the wonder of novels– and draws a comparison to this metaphor with his own disillusionment of theatre.

Further, he dissects his disenchantment, coming to the idea that “THE POINT” (Lord, pg 92) of theatre, the deep meaning that causes the wonder and engrossment with a piece of art, is absent from most all modern productions– and that theatre artists say that it is still there, though we know, deep down, that it is not.

Lord continues, bringing up the idea that theatre artists imagine the demise of the industry, wondering if the art form will be missed. And, he says, we “realize: Our work is not good enough” because “our theatre is not vital to our audiences” (Lord, pg. 93).

Lord’s work struck a chord with me. I felt more invested in his words than I have about much of the rest of my studies in the last year. I got into theatre, because as a pansexual, trans man, I felt accepted in the community in ways that I had not felt anywhere else. I got into theatre because of the reputation for inclusiveness, and subversiveness. And yet, theatre has become, somewhere along the line, an industry like any other, interested in marketing what it thinks the general public wants.

But the draw of the theatre has always been the controversy, the bravery to take stands that other forms of media and culture will not.

This is not meant to demonize commercial theatre. There will always, always, be a place for it.

But the theatre should be an industry of balance.

A balance of commercial and subversive.

And right now, the scales have tipped.

What results is a large population of theatre students, who are too jaded by what seems to be a deeply ingrained culture of denial at this point, to do anything about it.

Perhaps I am just a person who is in the wrong major. I have no concrete evidence to say that that is not true.

Perhaps I will leave theatre within a semester.

Perhaps I will leave theatre after I graduate.

But perhaps I will try and find the vital theatre there is to make, too.