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Genocide? Rock on!

Earlier this weekend I sat in the audience of BU on Broadway’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Going into the play I knew almost nothing about it. I’d heard a couple of the songs, but mostly out of context. I really only knew that it was about Jackson. Let me say, I am a little dismayed that people I respect and love decided they liked this show so much that they wanted to produce it.

Production Photo from BU on Broadway’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

The production value of the show was good. The actors and technicians did their jobs well, but I don’t understand why anyone in 21st century America could support the message of this play. The show is structured as a rock concert around Jackson’s life. He’s a pretty sympathetic character throughout, despite some of his rather questionable choices. The climax of the play centers around Jackson’s a minor breakdown concerning whether or not to enact his Indian Removal policy. Apparently, we are supposed to feel bad for him because being a president is hard, and there are a lot of voices to consider in making decisions. In the last scene one of the characters brings up the fact that some consider Jackson to be the greatest president ever, and some consider him to be the American Hitler. That is true; there are a lot of opinions in this country. But this play doesn’t really pick one. It mostly says, being Jackson must have been hard, think about it from his perspective, instilling a sense of sympathy in the audience. I AM SUPPOSED TO BE SYMPATHETIC TOWARDS A MAN WHO COMMITTED GENOCIDE?!? Even in the 21st century we can’t admit one of our own presidents made a huge mistake. Why is that? Is it out of a severe aversion to saying we were wrong, or is it just out of sheer nationalism? Part of what is so infuriating about this is that no one seemed to notice. They were too swept up in the fun punk aesthetic of the show to realize that this play was telling them that committing genocide is okay because it was inevitably going to happen no matter what. But the thing is, there is always a choice. You could commit genocide or you could not. Andrew Jackson said yes, I will forcibly remove these Indians. It doesn’t make him the worst leader in the world, but it also doesn’t mean that I should feel bad for him. Furthermore, what implications does this have about contemporary foreign policy? Am I supposed to believe that the war in Iraq was all groovy cause the president didn’t really have a choice? Or how should I feel about the Holocaust? “Ehhh if Hitler didn’t try to scapegoat the Jews, somebody else would have” just doesn’t seem like a viable answer to me.

Beyond that, we just talked about two plays in class that celebrate Native Americans overcoming difficult past experiences. Both Spiderwoman Theater’s Power Pipes and William S. Yellow Robe Jr.’s Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers tell stories of resilience. Despite things like rape and war, the characters in these plays overcome with grace, proving that the world could still be full of hope in light of past destruction. Neither of these plays denies the horrible past; they both commemorate what happened and then decided that the best thing to do was move forward because it was the only thing to do. That is what I want to say about Andrew Jackson. He was our President, and he made the decision to forcibly remove the American Indians from their land. The Native communities will never recover from that. But they have continued to strive towards success. That is what is important here. They survived genocide. We should be celebrating their resilience instead of wasting our time acknowledging that Jackson was a complicated person who had a hard choice to make.

Also, upon completion of this blog post I found an article on Howlround that better expresses the historical and cultural place my frustration comes from. I encourage you to read it.

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Spiderwomen Theatremakers

Spiderwoman Theater as been cited by many as the longest-active feminist theater group in North America. So why the heck had I never heard of them?

The group was founded in 1976, and emerged from the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. Muriel Miguel created Spiderwoman with her sisters Gloria Miguel and Lisa Mayo, as well as a company of other women of all races, ages, identities, and sexual orientations. The Miguel/Mayo sisters are of Native American heritage, and were raised in Brooklyn, New York. Their work is highly influenced by their experiences of being Native American women and, more specifically, “city Indians,” but also creates a platform for stories that are incredibly relevant to all women.

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Spiderwoman Theater created a technique of storytelling rooted in the Native American tradition which they call “storyweaving.” The company’s name, in fact, has its origin in Spiderwoman, the Hopi goddess of creation, who in Hopi tradition taught the people h to weave.

The play I examined as part of my final project for Contemporary Drama was called Power Pipes (a filmed version can be found here!). This play very much encapsulates the storyweaving technique that is central to Spiderwoman Theater’s work. The women’s individual stories rise from the group, as the rest of the group supports their telling. Different ideas and themes such as mixed-race identity, homosexuality, sexual assault and violence, sisterhood, immigrant status, and more all have space to live within this work. In addition, traditions of many different Native American tribes – Kuna, Iroquois, Hopi, Rappahannock, Kiowa, and more – are represented through the various stories and actions. Sound, music, dance, movements, and visuals are important layers as part of the storyweaving technique. All of these elements help to tell the story in a way that feels cohesive but is rich with many diverse parts.

An interesting part of Spiderwoman’s mission is their educational work, and included in that is a “storyweaving workshop” that can introduce participants to the techniques and exercises of the Spiderwoman technique. This workshop is available for any group to participate in, not just Native American or women’s groups, and results in a final product for performance. This is another example of how Spiderwoman Theater creates a platform for stories to be told, in this case by generously sharing the techniques they’ve developed with other groups who have their own unique stories and concerns.

I was thrilled to delve into this group’s origins, history, and body of work. Spiderwoman Theater has created more than 20 original pieces over forty years, toured them across North America, Australia, New Zealand, and China, and most importantly, continues to create ground-breaking work today. Their latest project in process is called Material Witness, which you can read more about here. Though unfortunately Lisa Mayo passed away in 2013, Gloria and Muriel Miguel continue to perform, direct, write, and create works for Spiderwoman even at their advanced age (both are in their 70s). Gloria performed just last Fall in a staged reading of her play One Voice, which was directed by Muriel. These women have lived their values throughout their entirely productive creative lives, and their continuing to do so inspires me.

I invite you to watch Power Pipes and learn a bit more about Spiderwoman Theater, a company which I would count not only as central to Native American and feminist theater history, but also one with a specific, compelling mission that is an important component of our contemporary theater landscape.

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Big Kid Stuff

So, you want to be an artist? Great! You’ve gone bout the appropriate steps: applied to theatre school, put some time (and money) in an institution learning the basics of acting, voice work, reading the classics (and hopefully the contemporary too), cultivating your general awareness of the world, have worked on some plays, and hey.  Now you’re finally, officially an artist.  Congrats.  The degree in your hand proves it, right?

Now what?

Oh right. The world.  You’ve left the shelter (and/or cage) of the institution and are now responsible for carving your own path.  Maybe you pursue the “traditional” path: moving to a big city and auditioning for roles in plays that will hopefully pay you monies so you can continue to live in an expensive apartment and go to auditions.  Maybe this works for you.  Congratulations on being the minority.

Maybe your path is different: you try the audition thing and YES… you land a role in a play…that doesn’t pay you for your work.  So you spend more time than you want at your mindless barista job with your other young, struggling artist, musician, and generally vagabond friends.  But now you’ve been out of the institution for a year, maybe two, and you’re more than ready for a change.  You want to work and make work, and you want to get paid for your work.  It’s time to take things into your own hands, young artist. How will you do this?  What will set you apart?  Here’s the thing… you gotta know the business.   You have to be an entrepreneur.  This, at least is the biggest piece of advice I’ve been hearing in the past few months of my final year of undergrad.

This week I had the pleasure of listening to the wise words of Antonia Lassar, a theatre artist and recent graduate of the Boston University School of Theatre.  Antonia more or less went through a version of my second hypothetical post-grad situation before taking things into her own hands, and drastically changing her situation.  Luckily for her, she was already accustomed to making her own opportunities, and had a solo performance piece in her back pocket she’d been working on for a number of years.  This piece is God Box, a one woman show that had its beginnings in living rooms, and just recently closed it’s first professional production at the New Repertory Theatre.  Along this journey, Antonia learned several important lessons: you have to know how to market yourself.  What is the product you are hoping to present?  How will your audience receive what you give them?  How can you make your potential audience think they need your product?  When Antonia began reaching out to colleges to pitch her performance, she tacked on an academic element to her play, making the whole package more appealing. Sacrifice is necessary.  Persistence is necessary.  Business smarts are necessary.  A well formatted email with interesting graphic design is more likely to grab and hold attention than one that lacks these things.

This is all emphasized in an article on HowlRound by Seth Lepore, an artist Antonia discussed learning a lot from.  Seth’s article, Facing Facts: artists have to be Entrepreneurs, details his own experience as a theatre artist and the pivotal moment he realized the importance of a skill set still not taught in most theatre programs nationally.  After years of inadvertently building up a skill set, Seth realized, “My interest in so many subjects, my ability to juggle various administrative duties, to change focus quickly and see how things overlapped, to realize when to drop an idea that wasn’t panning out… this way of being in the world wasn’t scattered, it was actually entrepreneurial.”  After encountering a student in the MFA Contemporary Performance program at Naropa University who didn’t understand the different fundraising, marketing, and other business related things he was talking about, he created a syllabus of information to disseminate among young artists, to whom this information is vital.

With less than a month before my undergrad days are officially behind me, I feel lucky enough to at least know that I need to further develop these skills.  I’m about to enter the “real world” and I feel… more prepared than some people.  I vaguely know the direction I’m heading, and am confident that I’ll learn the necessary lessons along the way.

On to the next thing!

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An American meets Japanese Horror Story: Temporary Distortion Theatre’s Exploration of 21st Art

What is it about horror films that attract us so much? Is it the fear, the thrill of the suspense, or is it an intrigue into the dark acts committed in this world? Personally, my far too vivid imagination cannot handle scary movies and I  never understood why people enjoy being scared so much! Adrenaline, however, is one hell of a hormone and Temporary Distortion theatre company knows exactly how to get your heart racing in Americana Kamikaze an East meets West Japanese psychological horror story.

While searching for a production to watch on OnTheBoards.tv I am always a little distrustful of filmed or taped versions of live theatrical shows. So much of the experience of theatre is being in the theatre itself. Watching Temporary Distortion’s filmed show of Americana Kamikaze however worked perfectly as a large part of their mission statement is to fuse  music, cinema, visual art and theatre. I had never heard of this theatre company before and found in my research that their work was unlike anything I had come across before. Founded by Kenneth Collins in 2002, all of the work produced by the company is performed in claustrophobic box structures that separates the actor (actors) in the box from the audience by glass and often required actors to whisper their text through a microphone. Americana Kamikaze is part of a trilogy (Welcome to Nowhere & NewYorkLand) that explores popular film genres that have been deconstructed. These performances consisted of “larger boxlike structures built from steel scaffolding, industrial lights, speakers, televisions and video projection surfaces.”(Temporary Distortion).

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The play was about 4 people (two couples) experiencing, betrayal, affair, murder, haunting ghosts, and an ever looming evil presence on the streets and in the subway stations of New York City. As someone who is not very familiar with J-Horror as a genre I was unsure of what to expect from the production. Much of J-horror (although it can be bloody and brutal) the genres unique identity lies in its supernatural and suspense filled plot lines. In this production there was one multimedia screen in the center and two actors on either side speaking in a spooky monotone voice detailing their dreams of murder and violence all while trying to express love for one another. The story in itself was an experience that I can only describe as seeing theatrical performance of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City meets Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge. Projections where a large part of this theatrical experience as the images of a train station, a bedroom, and ominous stairwells aided to the suspense of this story. The hauntings that these characters were experiencing very much paralleled their own actions haunting them as they crawled back into bed with their significant other.

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As an audience member watching I did not fully understand the story this production was trying to tell. With that being said as an experience it was overwhelmingly effective. I was terrified watching this production on my computer screen as demons, bloody faces, and the ever present fear of the unknown loomed over the entire 70 minute production. I can only imagine how terrifying the experience must have been for someone who was present at the show and am thankful in that regard that I could watch it on my computer screen. The incorporation of musical, cinematic, and visual art forms were extremely present in their body of work and has really changed the way I experience a “theatrical” event. Temporary Distortion is a company that is changing the view on what theatre is by incorporating other expressions of art into one overarching artistic piece of theatre. I began to ask myself why is it easier for me to call their body of work film instead of theatre? Temporary Distortion is a theatre group worth knowing as they continue to expand the theatrical 4th wall and force audience members to experience all of our 21st century art forms at once.

http://temporarydistortion.com/

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Goooooooooooo Sports!

This Friday The Clark Museum in Williamstown, MA is unveiling Albert Beirstadt’s 1870 painting “Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast.” As far as landscapes go, Bierstadt did a pretty good job (this is an understatement). As far as museums go, The Clark is my favorite (Western Massachusetts has a special place in my heart). But this painting is particularly exciting for Clark goers because it was won in a bet. The Clark had a bet with the Seattle Art Museum during the Superbowl. Because the Patriots won, The Clark gets the Beirstadt painting for 3 months. Had Seattle won, The Clark would have had to say goodbye to a Winslow Homer piece for the same amount of time.

“Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast” (1970) by Albert Bierstadt.

This bet might be my favorite piece of art news ever. It is a genius move for both parties because both museums profit. Obviously the winner gets the actual painting, but because it is on loan, there’s no real monetary loss (except if SAM has to pay for a curator to travel with the painting, which as I recently found out, is a real job the people do). The people of New England are exposed to a painting they’ve never seen–perhaps even an artist they’ve never heard of (I’ll admit, I couldn’t place totally Bierstadt when I first read about the bet). But the real gain for both museums is the publicity. Though The Clark has the pull of an actual painting to go see, SAM benefits from the advertising. The people of Seattle read that their local art museum has lost a bet to a New England museum and all of a sudden they can’t remember when it was that they last partook in *culture,*  so they decide to take the kids on an afternoon to the museum. On the flip side, residents of New England get that fuzzy feeling of pride all over again, and because it is nice to bask in the glory of the Pats, they head on out to The Clark to see what exactly it is we’ve won. These two museums just used America’s most loved sporting event as the best marketing tool ever, no matter what the outcome was. Though, it probably is worth it to note that though The Clark has a fairly impressive collection, it is a much smaller museum than SAM, so The Clark probably had more to gain by winning this bet. But either way, both museums benefit.

“West Point, Prout’s Neck” (1900) by Winslow Homer at Clark Art Institute.

This light-hearted bet is an important reminder that the arts and arts institutions don’t exist in their own sphere separate from the world. For many people it is easy to write off a 19th century painting as stuffy and old. Something like this revitalizes the Beirstadt (and the Homer too). Sure, it is gimmicky. Intense art snobs might call it a cheap trick. They might say that those who come out to see the painting aren’t interested in the art for art’s sake. But who would be? Art is appealing because it is somehow relevant. People who have always been interested in art will always see the relevance. But many people won’t; they will not see relevance in something painted hundreds of years ago. But some might suddenly see relevance in a painting because it was won during a Superbowl. Arts communities are constantly looking for ways to bring in new community engagement, and this is it. This bet makes art that had previously been irrelevant to some, relevant. Art is for the masses–that is why we have museums. This is the very definition of art that is cultivated for the masses.

Post inspired by a blurb on WBUR’s The Artery

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Telling the “Truth” in Theatre vs. Great Actors who can tell Someone else’s Truth

As graduation grows closer and closer I have started going on more auditions for potential projects I might be a part of in the fall and throughout the next year. I recently got into a heated discussion with my parents on the subject of work and accepting work presented to me. I recently auditioned for a role where the character is outside of my own racial/ethnic background. I feel kind of uneasy about it and question, why didn’t this company audition someone of the racial/ethnic make up of the character? My parents response (as is the response of most I would assume is) “If they offer you the job, take it. Don’t question it. A job is a job and as a new actor in the scene, take what you can get.”

In response to these suggestions, I understand. I get it, and if offered the job I would be stupid to turn down a paid opportunity! But as someone who so STRONGLY believes that stories about certain groups/communities of people are best told by people within that community I feel very conflicted.

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My fellow classmate Abby recently wrote a post in response to Stiofán MacAmhalghaidh Âû’ HowlRound article “Casting a Non-Autistic Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time on Broadway.” The agreement that both Abby and the author of the article concluded to is that the most authentic storytelling of this specific characters experience would be from someone who identifies as autistic and lives the experience. I couldn’t agree more. As someone who  has a sister with Aspergers Syndrome (a highly functioning level of autism on the Autism spectrum) I can honestly say that if Julia (my step sister) wanted to be in a play she most definitely could carry out the task.

My stepsister Julia and I

My stepsister Julia and I

However, the author brings up an interesting point about “truth”. Speaking solely from my knowledge of my sisters experience and my experience with her, connecting emotionally, and socially with people physically is extremely hard for her to do. It took several years for Julia to learn how to feel comfortable being touched, hugged, or even expressing her feelings. When it comes to “truth telling” in the theatre, you need an actor who is going to be able to access emotions and vulnerability more easily, and speaking from my narrowed knowledge of Aspergers and Autism, that might prove to be a challenge.

Now, I can only speak to my specific experience with someone who identifies as autistic. That is not to say EVERY Autistic person faces these challenges; that may not be true. AND if that is not true for that particular actor then I say YES. Absolutely cast them in the role. My response to both my classmate and the articles conclusion is a conflicted one. I agree whole heartedly that anyone who knows the experience has more of a platform to speak and act it. However, if I were asked to play the role of someone who is autistic It is not to say that I couldn’t truthfully create that characters experience because as an actor my job is to embody the Human experience. We are asked to recreate stories and play characters outside of our own experience. That is acting. That being said, If a white actor were cast in the role of a designated black character there would be a tremendous amount of outrage and rightfully so! So why in the case of disability is there not the same amount of widespread conversation? In part, I believe it is because race is an ongoing cultural discussion while the conversation of disability has not come to the for front.

There are all kinds of actors out there in the world. If you are looking for a Native American actor, an autistic actor, a deaf actor, tri-lingual actor, or an actor who can juggle fire – you can find them, if you are looking. However I logically understand if a theatre company could stumble upon a great actor that can live that experience fully and truthfully why they might want to cast that actor. As an actor who has played characters outside of my experience my business sense tells me not to say no, but morally I’m conflicted.

No one wants to offend. Everyone wants to tell the truth the best way they can and for myself, I am learning where I stand on this very complicated issue.

http://howlround.com/casting-a-non-autistic-christopher-in-the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time-on-broadway

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Gloria’s Cause: An Examination of Present America in Light of the Past

Dayna Hanson‘s piece Gloria’s Cause is first and foremost a collage. It is not entirely dance theater, not exactly a musical, and it is definitely not a straight play. It kind of takes place during the Revolutionary war and it also kind of takes place now. In my first encounter with it on Ontheboards.tv, I did not necessarily know what make of it. That is the nice thing about digital theater; you can watch it again. And I came to realize that Hanson’s creation exists in the in between. The entire point is that it forms bridges between past and present, between image and movement, dance and theater. The piece not only bridges these forms but finds the contradictions within America by smashing them together.

I was first drawn to this piece not because of the collage-like nature, but because of the content: the Revolutionary War, America’s favorite war. It doesn’t have the controversy around it that the Civil War has, and it happened here. It is about freedom and equality (America’s favorite subject). Yet, as we are more than aware, our present America has proven that some freedoms are greater than other freedoms, and some people are more equal than other people. This is the foundational contradiction that Gloria’s Cause sets out to explore. The opening monologue of the play (which begins after two naked women perform a synchronized dance) features an actor asserting that he was born free. He even claimed, “My freedom means so much to me that I might paradoxically put myself at risk to protect it.” This is the thesis statement of the Revolutionary War. This country’s founding father’s put everything they knew on the line so that this country could be born, and it could be born free. If this idea of freedom, no matter the cost, is central to our country’s birth, how do we understand it as permeating US culture since then?  Our country’s existence hinges on paradoxical freedom. And it occurs again and again throughout our history. Consider runaway slaves who fought for the Union. As soon as they reached the North, they could have lived free and safe. Yet, they chose to put their own lives at risk for the ideal that is freedom. Furthermore this country has seen countless movements where peaceful (and non-peaceful) protesters put their own personal safety and freedom on the line to fight to keep this country free and equal. Those protestors knew they were facing jail (and often times worse), but they stuck it out because they believed in the ideal our founding fathers put forth,

But what exactly was that initial founding ideal of freedom and equality? As Hanson’s piece (along with a number of historians and high school AP US History teachers) asserts, “It is not that all men are born with certain rights, but that certain men are born with all rights.” The ideologies of freedom and equality don’t apply to women, black people, Native Americans, and essentially anyone who is not a rich white male. Though America’s label might be “freedom and equality for all,” it has never truly been free or equal for everyone, even since its conception. Our founding fathers meant to exclude large portions of the population. The system has been flawed since it was born.

Another concept Hanson plays with is the the idealization of the founding fathers. We put so much stock in them; yet, they were just men–no better (and sometimes worse) than anyone else. One actor asserts at the beginning of the piece that he can’t read something by Paul Revere because he was going to play Washington later–it would mess him up. Throughout the play he continues to stress the fact that he will be playing Washington. This character puts Washington on a pedestal, almost anxiously looking forward to the moment he’ll get to portray him. When Washington does finally show up, he is drunk to the point of embarrassment. He won’t listen to his soldiers, and he is indecisive. While this is not entirely historically accurate, Washington did lead an aristocratic life. He had many slaves. He wouldn’t commit to a political party. Hanson’s point is that Washington was a person, not a grand figure who did no wrong. The founding fathers were flawed, and they made flawed decisions.

And all of a sudden, our country starts to make sense. It was not made by ideal men with universal ideals. It was birthed by a group of flawed and aristocratic men who believed that the universal rights we hold dear to our hearts only applied to certain people. The struggles of inequality in our country come straight from the moment our country was born. Our founding fathers are at the heart of it. Yet, Gloria’s Cause doesn’t seem to place blame on Washington and his comrades only. We are at fault for the pedestal we place those men on. And furthermore, the institution of slavery (something the US of the past upheld) is at fault. The piece ends with Washington on a literal pedestal while a soldier points a gun, and another character auctions off invisible slaves. The United States was born in violence and hierarchy, and so it stays in violence and hierarchy. Though we may not being fighting the Revolutionary War anymore, and we may not uphold slavery, those values (or lack thereof) are still at the core of our country. The birth of a thing is not unrelated to its current existence.

Also, happy anniversary of the start of the Revolutionary War.

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