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earnest isn’t an excuse, boys

Throughout my theatrical career, especially at Boston University, I have been surrounded by almost exclusively women in rehearsal rooms. The first three shows I was in here were 90-100% female casts. And man, there is something special in a female-dominated room. Safe, powerful, someone probably has a tampon if an emergency arises.

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However, within the past two months, I found myself in two different rehearsal rooms where I frequently was/am the only woman present.

These have been rooms of my friends, classmates, and most trusted collaborators. These men are kind, worldly, and well-trained in empathy.

I have grand respect for each of these recent artistic partners – and I’d like to think it is reciprocated. These men are no f*ckboys, they respect women as equals, would never do anything to capitalize on their male privilege, and would probably feel pretty bummed when reading what I am about to say.

Here’s the bummer –

The male presence in rehearsal still remains to be insidiously oppressive, even when they are friends.
Feminists.
All of it.
Being the only woman in the room is more difficult than I had even imagined.

For me, it manifests itself in conversation. Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen observes that men often enter conversations with the goal (conscious or not) of achieving dominance. Have you ever noticed that conversations between men become this strange ritual of exchanging and exhausting their fact database? They are literally sizing each other up.

In rehearsal conversation, amongst the fact-flying, I sometimes find myself just a liiiittle more invisible than I’d like to be, a liiiittle less-heard than the men in the room, interrupted a liiiittle too often, and that thing kept happening when I would speak an idea, but a man would repeat it and get a response.

mrs triggs.jpg

Recently, a well-meaning actor mansplained to me in the first 10 minutes of rehearsal. While I was internally  filled with fury, I did nothing other than passive aggressively tweet about it.
In moments like this, it is tempting to get snarky or bitter towards my fellow collaborators – but what good does that do? Pointing out microaggressions is hard enough – nevermind laying them out bitterly in the rehearsal room, where unnecessary conflict, hurt feelings, or animosity may develop.He earnestly had no idea that he had done anything wrong. (That is an explanation, not an excuse.) It is undeniably the earnest and blissfully ignorant oppressor who is extra frightening.

The question is … how do I navigate these rooms then? I guess I possess solid wit, and have a decent database of facts to throw out in the conversation…

Yet, am I doomed to a life full of people laughing at my one-liner repeated through a man’s mouth!?

I am sure I will be in many more male-heavy rehearsal rooms in my future. Moving forward, I am looking for more methods to communicate effectively with them, make sure that my voice is heard, while slowly but surely chipping away at those nasty male-interruption habits.

To the men reading this, simply remain alert and aware of your voice in a rehearsal (or any) room in relation to the non-male voices.

love you.
but stop stealing my jokes.

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Autistic Identity: In History, In Theater.

For those who don’t know, I am autistic and I tend to wear that on my sleeve. I have recently realized that it might behoove me to figure out what exactly being autistic means, from a historical perceptive. As a result, I have recently been doing a lot of research about the history of autism. I have recently been doing a lot of thinking about the history of autism. During this time, I noticed a narrative that was happening in this history, and it occurred to me that, I think this narrative potentially parallels a narrative about autism’s place in the theater community. By looking at one of these narratives, I was wondering if maybe I could revel something about the other. Conducting an exploration of sorts. Seeing if one informs the other, or not.

Through most of autism’s history, the primary advocate for the autistic community has been the parents of autistic child. Across the board, the first cases of studied autism were in children, starting with Leo Kanner’s landmark articles about Donald Triplett. Naturally then, most early issues in the autism community, steamed from the perceptive of children’s issues, developmental and otherwise. Therefore, the most passionate and effective advocates for these children, more often than not, were their parents.  These brave parents fought for their children, fought for them not to be institutionalized, fought for them to be able to go to school, and fought for them to be able to have the same rights as their non-autistic peers. Fighting established order after established order to do right for their children.

However, while I cannot stress the importance and bravery of these parents work enough (and I’m doing a real disservice to the scope and complexity of their story), there was an unforeseen consequence of this advocacy. Because this work was so parent driven, and so childcentirc, it never allowed room for self-advocacy in the autism community. And for much of its history, autistic people didn’t really have a voice in their own community. And that came with a lot of problems.

Jim Sinclair was the first person to point this out in a public way. And he does so in a very scathing manner. In 1993, he makes his landmark speech, Don’t Mourn for Us (reading which I would recommend to anyone). In this speech, which he presents to a room of parents, he calls out some of the problems that were a result of parent led advocacy. Primarily he attacks the, at the time, unchallenged rhetoric around curing autism, and seeing autism as a disease, as opposed to an identity. This is the first time we get the idea of autism as identity, and from that notion, other very important milestones are birthed. Including Judy Singer’s concept of neurodiversity, and Ari Ne’eman’s founding of the Autism Self Advocacy Network.

So in short. Parent led advocacy was wildly successful, and important. Giving autistic people a footing in society and the proper resources to help families navigate having a child with a different Neurological make up. However, as a result of this work, the identity around autism was completely ignored, and autistic people were left lost in a community that was meant to be their own.

So that’s a lot (actually it was an unfairly short version of what’s a lot), but what does this have to do with theater? This is where I get cautious. I think there might be a parallel between the narrative above, and where autism stands today in than theater world.

It seems to me, that when autism is discussed in the theater world, the vast majority of the conversation falls into three categories. Autism friendly performances, education of Autistic people through theater, and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Like the parent driven advocacy of the previous narrative, all three of these things serve a very commendable service, and ought to be applauded. Autism friendly performances give autistic people access to art they may not have otherwise had. Theater education helps inclusivity, as well as helping autistic children with social skills. And, we’ll get to Dog in the Nighttime, but first let’s deal with the other two.

I want to reiterate, this is important work, and I do not wish to criticizes anyone who engages with work that is so valuable. However, these works cannot be the sole places where autism and theater intersect. And it can really feel at times like these are the sole things that define where the two intersect. One deals with the intersection of autism and witnessing theater, or autism as audience. The other deals with the intersection of autism and education, as well as autistic people being welcomed into the theater. But, to no fault of either of them, neither deals with what it means to be autistic in the theater community. Neither deals with what our specific role as autistic people in this community are. This work is important, but there has to be room for the identity of autism to be part of the discussion. Which I suppose, in part, has to deal with the question of, what is the role of autistic stories in the theater?  Which leads me to…

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime”. As some of you may know, in the past I have been very critical of this play (and book). Now that some time has passed, I realize retrospectively, that this play has immense value. It puts unheard voices on stage as subjects, it does it’s best to portray them as three dimensional characters, and, above all else, it is really well written. I had clearly misplaced some difficult feelings I was having at the time. However, though slightly misplaced, I think those feelings were not entirely unwarranted.

This play is fine when discussing it as a story about autism. The problem arises when it is the definitive story about autism. And honestly, that’s what it feels like right now. This problem is somewhat outside the power of the production, so it’s tricky to navigate. Autism is such a wide spectrum, and as a result, we hit a problem when this one, very specific depiction of autism, defines the entirety of the autistic experience in the theater world. Now don’t misunderstand me, they should strive to be specific, autistic people are just as different to each other as any other character is to another. Specific is good. But like I said, the fault is not necessarily that of this production. The production just happens to exist in a theater world where autistic voices, aren’t really defining the identity of autism. Just as when autistic people had very little say in defining autistic identity during parent advocacy.

And it doesn’t help when, in this definitive story of autism, the person who wrote the source material, the person who wrote the script, the director, the person who plays the autistic person, are all people who are not autistic.

And in theory, that’s fine, to an extent.  After all, to deny we can tell stories outside of our own experience, is to deny the power of theater itself. But it would be a much easier pill to swallow if this show wasn’t seemingly the only mainstream autistic story that the theater has to offer.

So, does this parallel work? Is the narrative here one of a series of noble actions, that while still invaluable, cultivate a community in which autistic identity hasn’t had the opportunity to grow? Or do we have two different narratives, with two different sets of problems? Or maybe one of them isn’t even a problem at all?

Honestly. I don’t know? I don’t know the answer to that. I hesitated to write this because, I have no answers. But I think this is precisely why I needed to write this. Sometimes arguments have to be made definitively, presenting itself as truth, and that has value. But sometimes, perhaps it is ok to present something that only might be true, or might not be. Maybe this idea is spot on, maybe it’s way off, maybe some of it is spot on, and some of it is way off. But maybe there is value for me to just put it out there, and see what happens. Because if I don’t, then I stay just as lost as before. The only definitive I have, is that the autistic voice is a valuable one. And that being autistic is part of who I am, and therefore it must be a part of how I engage with theater. So therefore, I must put it out there.

And that, is all I’ll say for now…

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Frida(m)

(Again, this is blog post is by Línda Vanesa Perla. #ThankYouLily)

Imagine yourself walking through CVS. Let’s saying your looking for your favorite shampoo that you just ran out of the night before. You NEED this shampoo. No questions asked. And as you walk through the aisle you say to yourself “Hey I have a few extra minutes and have also been meaning to buy some new nail polish for my gross nails so why not?” So you walk on over to the nail polish section and as you make you way through the array of colors your eyes fall on Frida Kahlo’s face. You don’t think twice about it in that moment because you realize CVS doesn’t carry your favorite nail polish brand and you actually don’t have enough time and you NEED that shampoo. So you run on over to the hair section, grab your beloved shampoo, check out, and head out of the door to your next class.

A few days later as you help move in your best friend you realize that she has bought, and is incredibly excited about, some new Frida Kahlo bed sheets and duvet cover.  You remember the CVS nail polish that also had her face on it. And now that you think about it you have come to realize that a lot of your Instagram feed is full of Frida Kahlo references and images. So you stop for a second too long and your friend asks “What’s wrong” and you say “nothing” because you don’t actually know yet, you just know that something is not right.

So a few more days pass. You keep doing your thing. You keep roaming the internet. You keep going to all your classes. And in one class you realize you are beginning to cover the great Three Muralists of post-Revolution Mexico. As your professor lectures about their influence backed by a slide show of their work Frida pops up. He is standing in front some of Frida’s most acclaimed–and provocative — works and you realize the images that you’ve seen of Frida in CVS, on your friends bed spread, on Instagram, are not the paintings that you are accustom to viewing. They are not the politically inclined paintings that are filled with her innermost vulnerabilities and rich Mexican culture.

From that moment on you find yourself gaining a serious awareness of Frida Kahlo’s presence in pop culture. You being to notice how Frida is ALL OVER THE PLACE! 

And SO…

I began to ask myself: Is Frida Kahlo being appropriated? Is this cultural appropriation? And what does it mean when other artists use Frida as a diving off point?

So–after numerous attempts to get my thoughts into something that is not a dissertation–I came up with this:
My own understanding of even whether or not I should be commenting on the possible appropriation of Frida is unclear. I am not Mexican. I am Salvadoran. These are two different nationalities, identities, and cultures. Where do I stand in this conversation? Personally, I feel I share a stake in the way Latinx artists and culture is being portrayed by pop culture. Especially during a time when a lot of political rhetoric surrounding Illegal Immigration, Mexico, and Undocumented Immigrants is degrading and humiliating. I may be Salvadoran but my identity as a child of undocumented immigrants stands before the borders that separate Mexico. My identity as a Latina Artist. My identity as a brown body in America. However, how to actual Mexican feel about this?
Before writing this blog post I never got to ask my Mexican friends on how they feel about other Latinx nationalities fighting for the possible white pop culture appropriation of Frida.
Somethings, however, that makes me find solace in this confusing and heartbreaking conversation are the art and exhbitis that are currently also paying much attention to Mexican Artists–especially Frida Kahlo.

In “Making Modern”–a five-gallery exhibition on the third floor of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Wing –Frida Kahlo alongside Pollock, Picasso, Beckmann and Hofmann take center stage.
“Kahlo and Her Circle”  features the work of Frida Kahlo in the context of works by her family and friends in Mexico City; anchored by the MFA’s recent acquiring of “Dos Mujeres” by Kahlo herself.  frida

I also can across many modern, young artists that are having a conversation with Frida’s work in the context of the questions I highlighted above:
Yasumasa Morimura 
An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo

friidaRenate Reichert
Frida mi vida
Fantasy in variations on Frida Kahlo’s painting The Two Fridas”
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If you want more information on Frida and Cultural Appropriation from another young mind: Sordxradical and Mohadesa Najumi

Now, I understand that I may have brought up and opened the door to more questions than I have answered. But I hope this post, if anything, raises an awareness to the way Frida and her image, her art, her life, is being portrayed through our every day pop culture.
I believe the question to be of utter importance to the eventual answer.

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Sunday in the Park with Adam Chanler-Berat

A disclaimer:
Sunday in the Park with George (Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine) is my favorite musical. Ever.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s even close to perfect: the book certainly has it’s inconsistencies, and the time gap between Act I and Act II is difficult to reconcile in terms of emotional investment in the leading characters, George and Dot.

However, I’m not here to provide a critical or compositional analysis of the musical, I’m here to discuss casting. Specifically the practice of casting celebrities.

The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Sunday in the Park with George stars Adam Chanler-Berat as the title role. You may know him from various television programs, or if you were fortunate enough to catch the Broadway production of either Next to Normal (Henry) or Peter and the Starcatcher (Boy). He is clearly a successful actor on the Broadway circuit, and I’d imagine would pull in a somewhat significant amount of ticket sales. That’s a necessity for a company as large and monolithic as the Huntington if it’s to continue to operate on the scale that it does.

However, the star system, especially in a regional market like Boston, often obscures the theatrical event: it becomes about who’s on stage rather than the story of the play. The Huntington’s production takes it a step further. By casting Chanler-Berat as George, the production, by necessity, altered the fabric of the show.

I have absolutely nothing against Adam Chanler-Berat, but it’s very clear his skill set and technical vocal ability differs greatly from the skill set that the role demands to be played authentically to the text. Some musical phrases were transposed up the octave (“Finishing the Hat,” “Move On”) , and in sections of the score the tempo was noticeably altered (“Color and Light,” “Putting it Together”).

The Huntington Theatre Company is a Tony Award winning regional theatre with a plethora of resources. The producers of this show were not confronted with a shortage of actors to play George, they intentionally chose someone who does not have the technical capability to play the role and reshaped the show around the actor. They took a play about a painter who never sold a painting in his life and commodified it.

This is not a review, but rather a jumping off point for system of theatre-making that prioritizes the financial and critical success over the intent of a piece of theatre. Celebrities are famous for a reason: most have unique talents that inspire a group of fans to follow them. But when casting a celebrity, it is essential to make sure they serve the needs of the play, the needs of the story.

Otherwise, a production of Sunday in the Park with George can quickly become a production of Sunday in the Park with Adam Chanler-Berat.

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The Art of Conversation

When I was 18, I ran away to the circus.

I attended a devising intensive in a horse-barn in Maine with theatre and circus practitioners alike. Yes, I learned how to create a ten-minute rendition of a Shakespeare play, how to tell a story with a trapeze act, and how to partner-juggle. But the hardest part of those two-weeks was learning how to speak at a dinner table. To be clear, I grew up in a tightly-wound WASP household where children, especially girls, were seen and not heard. In Maine, however, I would sit for hours and absorb this newfound dinner conversation. I would eat bean by bean, grabbing seconds and thirds just to make myself look occupied enough so that no one would expect me to contribute. The first time I spoke on my own volition was three dinners into the program when I asked if anyone would like to share my dessert. The truth is, I had no idea what I was supposed to say. These people, whose ages ranged over four decades, held no hierarchy in the conversation, nor did they censor any topic of conversation that naturally emerged. I may have learned how to perform handstands and mime tricks, but what does that matter when I couldn’t ask how someone’s day was without my stomach doing backflips?

And in a way, I’m facing these lessons all over again with blogging, except this is an infinite dinner table and there’s no telling what sort of conversation sparks at any given moment. This is the scariest part of my week, silly as that might sound. It’s worth noting that today I’ve consumed two lunches to put off this looming “publish” button.

Although I give credit to the art of observation, I’m too old not to sing for my supper. If I want to provide opportunities for writers to share their voices onstage, I can start by responding and contributing to those online.

So, if I may chime in, would you like to share some dessert?

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MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM Theatre

I do theatre and watch theatre to commune with something:

OVERWHELMING

POWERFUL

LARGER-THAN-EVERYTHING

EVERYTHING.

 

After a good show:

I am ELECTRIC

Every cell in my body is dancing to techno at a Berlin nightclub

I can run across the country in a single blink (.)

I am INJECTED with life force

MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM

TREMENDOUS, TREMENDOUS, TREMENDOUS

AWE

Twentieth century German philosopher, Rudolf Otto, points to this very thing in his Das Heilege. The feeling of Mysterium Tremendum

“may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy…It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of – whom or what?”

Applause means nothing. Audiences should, rather, SPASM. CONVULSE. TREMBLE IN ECSTASY. THAT’s a way to say thank you.  OR simply stay put: I know I’ve seen something good when I cannot applaud. My hands won’t do it; Clapping my palms to each other will CLAP me back into this world, and why should I return when I’ve been transported somewhere better? So I choose PARALYSIS. I like to call it my “speechless humility of the creature.”

So, as a theatre artist, how the hell do I make theatre that feels like an electric chair to the spirit? How do I make theatre that makes audiences convulse or freeze in awe of the tremendous? It’s what I want to do more than ANYTHING.  How do I make theatre that’s a vessel to this sort of power? Is this sort of thing even in my power? Or does it lie outside of my control? Does the power come through simply when IT wants to come through? Do I just continue to make theatre and hope it’ll visit my audience at SOME point?

Happily, I think I have a hunch. One way of going about getting to an answer would be to revisit the moments that, as an audience member, made my arm hair raise or my tears tear away from their tear ducts. But while I can remember what and when those moments were, it’s of no use to describe what was happening on stage at the time to get to the answer I search for. Because maybe the vital ingredients can’t be described in an image. The sort of thing I’m talking about lives in the back-and-forth silent conversation between those performing and those receiving it.

After attending a talk at BU by Tony Award-nominated director and dramaturg Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Director of Broadway’s and West End’s Hand to God), I was reminded that this magnificent power is generated by this performer-audience exchange. Once the tennis game of energy and ideas is being played there is great potential for the enormous force to come through. And the way to get the audience to play tennis is by making work that is completely and utterly HONEST. Get to the CRUX of the piece. Find the HUMANITY. Find the head AND the guts. Find the beautiful AND the ugly, because the two are very much alive in the human experience. Be as TRUTHFUL to the human experience as possible, and THEN the gateway is open to something

OVERWHELMING

POWERFUL

LARGER-THAN-EVERYTHING

EVERYTHING.

For info on BU alum Moritz von Stuelpnagel visit http://www.moritzvs.com/

Otto, Rudolf, and John Harvey W. “Mysterium Tremendum.” The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry Into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational. New York: Oxford UP, 1958. 12-13. Print.

 

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The Audition

Actors act. But before they can act, they must audition. That’s what they do. Right?

Recently someone I know auditioned for a show they really wanted to be in. For the purposes of this post, let’s call them Janice. Janice found a deep, personal connection to the script and found that being cast in a role in this production would truly strengthen and challenge her as a performer and artist. She decided that this would be one of the most important auditions of her career and was adamant about being cast.

Janice did not waste any time in preparing for the audition. She read the proper materials, including Audition by Michael Shurtleff (twice, cover to cover), did extensive research on the show and its playwright, began an in-depth character analysis, read through stacks of plays to find the perfect monologue, dropped into the perfect monologue, had multiple coachings for the audition, made her fellow actor friends listen to the monologue, made her boyfriend listen to the monologue, made her parents via Skype listen to the monologue, picked the perfect outfit that was flattering, appropriate, memorable, but not memorable for the wrong reasons…

Janice was prepared. Every single day from the announcement of the show to the day before, she worked tirelessly to prepare.

And so, a few weeks later, it was the day of the audition. She got 9 hours of sleep the night before. She made sure sure didn’t eat any of the foods that are said to sabotage the voice on audition day: no milk, cheese, or any other dairy because those cause mucous, no oranges, lemons, or any other citrus fruits because those dry out the throat, no spicy food or coffee because those irritate the larynx, no Sprite, no Pepsi, or any other carbonated beverage because those cause too much air in the stomach, no ice cream, gazpacho, or any other cold foods because the cold will cause the esophagus to constrict, and absolutely nothing with salt because that’s just asking for a death sentence. Instead, Janice enjoyed a handful of almonds and a plate of rice.

Janice practiced self-affirmations in the mirror throughout the day, assuring herself that she was beautiful, talented, and was going to do excellent work in the audition room that day.

Janice ran the monologue through her head one or two times and only felt the need to practice it in the studio once, because she knew she was prepared and did not want to jinx anything.

Janice arrived to the audition 30 minutes early. She checked in with the stage manager, found a private space to do a full voice and body warm up, fixed her hair and makeup in the bathroom, and took a few laps down the halls listening to music on her headphones and doing breathing exercises until she was on deck.

Janice waited in the wings and tried not to pay attention to the incredibly talented woman auditioning before her and tried not to think about how beautiful that woman was and tried not to think about how funny she was and tried not to hear the auditors laughing at her hilarious delivery and tried not to think about how she was about to pee her pants even though she emptied her bladder three times since arriving to the building.

And then it was time. She had one minute to make the auditors fall in love with her so hard that maybe they’ll feel so inclined to cast her right there on the spot. Actually, let’s be a little more generous. About 10 seconds of walking into the room and finding the light, 10 seconds of slating to a mixture of smiling and stone cold faces, 5 seconds of a deep breath and getting into character, the minute monologue that we hope we doesn’t dare go even 2 seconds over, and the 10 seconds of the awkward “thank you” walk away.

So Janice had 95 seconds. 95 seconds to showcase an entire BFA’s worth of work. No problem.

Janice begins her monologue. She’s centered. She’s ready. She’s doing great. She’s about to reach the climax of the monologue. And then. She just. Blanks. She’s forgotten the entire English language. Everything and everyone she’s ever known and loved is just gone. She forgot the line.

How could she forget the line? After weeks of preparation, practice, and refusal to eat grilled cheese, she forgot the damn line. She tried to stay in character the best she could. It’s just a dramatic pause, they’ll never know! She stood there fiercely, with determination, searching every crevice of her brain for an inkling of text. The clock was ticking. 20 seconds left. She lets in a breath. Stay in character. 10 seconds left. Where is the damn line? Why couldn’t someone be on book? 5 seconds left. It comes to her. She’s overjoyed.

“And THAT’S why I–”

The man with the stopwatch holds up his hand. That was a minute, thank you.

“Oh. Okay. Okay, thank you,” Janice says.

Janice took one last look at the people who were in control of her destiny. The people who could make it possible for Janice to pay her rent on time and eat another handful of almonds. She walked away. She exited the building. She cried in her car.

Janice didn’t get a callback.

Janice didn’t get the part.

Janice hates auditioning.