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Accessibility of Form

I was listening to the Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast with Simon Stephens recently in which he interviewed playwright and screenwriter Anya Reiss. They were talking about Reiss’s three-year stint writing for EastEnders, an incredibly popular British soap opera. At one point in the conversation, Stephens talks about the estimated total amount of people who have seen his most commercially successful work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time versus the amount that have seen Reiss’s first episode of EastEnders. Curious Incident totals around 2 million viewers. Reiss’s single episode around 8 million, and those numbers are solely from the initial airing of the episode.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opened at the National Theatre in 2012 and transferred to the West End where, after its closing, re-opened due to popular demand and is still running today. Additionally, it ran for almost two years on Broadway, and has had five other international productions. Despite all of that wildly rare success, a single episode of EastEnders had four times the views the first time it aired on TV.

So when we talk about accessibility in the theatre, is it more productive to focus on pure reach, or cultivating an event that lives within the immediate community of the theatre?

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The Finish Line

There comes a point in every build process where there’s a final push to the finish line. In the TP department we see the finish line as Load-In. This week everyone in the shop has been doing their part, making their final push to get everything done so it is ready to go into the space. This year, unlike other years has been relatively easy in terms of build and load-in’s and now everyone feels pretty confident that everything will go well this quarter. Since it is the last load-in of the year some people are already becoming a little checked out. As a leader its been a struggle to keep the crews motivation high at this time. There aren’t any big jobs left on the shop floor, just little nit picky tasks that aren’t fun and just need to get done. As a carpenter these are the worst jobs to get. School teaches us to think when we work and to not just become neck down carpenters. When you start getting jobs that are for the most part pretty neck down, you don’t really take any ownership of it and don’t enjoy doing it as much. I hope that as we start putting scenery into the spaces it becomes easier to keep the crew motivated. I think that seeing all the scenery start to come together will in part motivate them on their own.


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A letter from Artistic Director, Emma Rice

There’s been a new development in the saga that is Emma Rice and Shakespeare’s Globe. Since the announcement in October that Rice would step down as artistic director in April 2018 after only two years, this week marks the first time that Rice has written publicly about the subject in an open letter to the next (not-yet-announced) artistic director on the Shakespeare’s Globe tumblr. While I am not immersed enough in the issue to form an educated opinion either way and I have read convincing arguments for both sides, I think the letter Emma Rice published on the blog is worth discussing.

I was initially struck by the honesty and earnestness of the letter, which I was somewhat surprised to find considering it was published by the theatre that effectively asked her to step down. The letter begins on a positive note, praising the Globe’s audiences and then moving into Rice detailing many things she’s learned in her time at the Globe. But once she’s recounted the joys and the lessons, she moves into the more difficult topic of the challenges she’s faced as artistic director and why she’s leaving. She writes of personal artistic freedom and the Globe’s need to sort out its own artistic vision. Rice values what the Globe has done for her, but she also implores the next artistic director to stay true to their own personal artistic vision as she has done. She writes:

The Globe has been the making of me. Here, I have found my fight and my ‘right’, I have stood up for what I believe in and tried to do it with kindness, care and seriousness. However, in the wake of recent events, the Globe is wrestling with what, at its core, it now stands for. It is still in the process of deciding and clarifying what its fight and its ‘right’ are. I had to choose to leave because I choose myself and my work.

I admire Rice’s ability to simultaneously address and transcend the politics of the situation, and I respect Shakespeare’s Globe for publishing her words, even when they are critical of the institution and its board. In Rice’s description of events, the split was not simply about lights and sound, as much of the press surrounding it described, but was rather a fundamental disagreement about the role of an artistic director’s singular vision within a theatre that has its own singular vision. In an open letter published along with Emma Rice’s letter, former artistic director Dominic Dromgoole writes that “the spirit of a theatre is that it should follow the lead of its artistic director” — which is not what the Globe has done. In contrast, Richard Wilson, a Shakespeare scholar, defends Rice’s removal by saying that “The Globe has a responsibility to the worldwide scholarly community, as well as to its audiences, which makes it unlike other UK theatres. This means it has to function as a laboratory for staging Shakespeare in what evolving research suggests are authentic conditions.” Wilson believes that the Globe must stick to this specific mission, which he suggests was impeded by Rice’s work.

Inherent in this discussion is the question of which should come first — the artistic director or the theatre’s vision. Of course ideally the two should be in tandem, or that the visionary nature of one might encourage a stronger vision in the other. But what happens when the visions are in conflict? Or, in this case, when the artistic director’s means of enacting a vision are in conflict with how the board deems a vision should come to fruition? While in some cases a split may be necessary, and I’m not knowledgeable enough about the subject to know if that is true of this case or not, I wonder how it would have shook out of the Globe stuck with Rice and worked to iron out artistic differences over time. We’ll never know, but I do hope this particular case opens up a greater discussion about some of these artistic challenges.

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Violence in Theatre

Call me old-fashioned, call me small-minded and prudish, but I absolutely cannot tolerate violence in the theatre.

Real violence, not stage combat.
The kind of violence that makes you fear for the safety of the actors and sometimes yourself.
The kind of violence that is so far from staged or choreographed it looks as if the actors don’t even know what will happen next.

I can’t stand it. There is nothing that makes me tune out as fast as an actor putting themselves or their scene partner in danger.

I just don’t understand the impulse. Why on earth do you feel the need for it? What is it you can get through putting real people in real danger that you can’t get through choreographed violence? And don’t give me this “it’s real!!” crap because I’m not buying it. You got into the theatre, not mixed martial arts. This whole thing is about the artifice. If that isn’t cutting it for you, find yourself a different medium. I’m tired of the “I need it to be real!” argument. It’s selfish and frankly I don’t think it’s acting, it’s just living. That’s not what we signed up to do.

When we read or see Family Stories: Belgrade by Biljana Srbljanovic, it is important that the actors are adults because the audience needs to be able to trust that the actors aren’t harming themselves, the other actors, or the audience. It is imperative that we don’t give brain space away to worrying about the bodies on stage, and instead we can focus on the story. Now, you probably can’t always trust adult actors either but the point remains- the people who are playing these roles need to be trusted.

Every time we enter a theatre, we enter into an unspoken contract with the cast and crew that says that we trust them. Realistically, we are putting our lives in their hands for a few minutes at a time. Anything is possible in the theatre, and that’s why we keep coming back. But to abuse that promise, to break that contract without warning, to me is the ultimate betrayal of an audience. And the moment you cross that first line, you’ve lost me for good.

How can you expect me to trust you and your cast when one of your actors is slipping all over the floor because the liquid you spilled isn’t controlled and neither is your actor? How can you expect me to trust you when object come hurtling at the audience without any kind of heads up? How can you expect me to trust you when your actors are hurting themselves left and right because of what seems to be an apparent lack of planning on the part of the creative team? I don’t buy the whole “living in the moment” thing when it comes to people getting hurt. Real lives are at stake here, and I tend to value those more than any kind of “real” acting you might be getting at. If you need to be held at knifepoint to produce something that looks like fear, frankly I’m not interested.

Don’t hurt your actors for the sake of achieving true-to-life acting. Don’t hurt your audience because…. who cares why just don’t hurt your audience! And making us feel like we’re under threat of being hurt is the same as hurting us. Don’t drop objects from a height when your audience isn’t a safe distance away from the falling (and uncontrollable) object. Don’t make us feel unsafe, because that is not the contract we entered into when we arrived here. If there are going to be potential dangers, there has to be some sort of prior understanding reached. Even roads have signs that warn of the danger of falling rocks and that’s nature, which doesn’t have the luxury of weeks of rehearsal time and prior decision making.

If your actors or your audience is put in the position of potential real danger in the midst of your production, I don’t trust you. Actors are trained to make the unreal look real. I have never understood why some people don’t think this applies to violence too. Step up, people. If your audience is afraid of you, soon you won’t have any audience.

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A Response to the Huntington’s THE WHO AND THE WHAT

Walking into the Calderwood Pavilion for a Sunday matinee I was unsurprised by the audience make-up, mostly older and white, with about six to seven people my age and about twenty people of color, including a Muslim Sudanese couple, and two parties of Muslim Pakistanis, who introduced themselves as such when they spoke during the post-show conversation.

As I walked into the space I was struck by the set: three “golden” (stage gold), formidable walls encompassing the stage, decorated with simple geometric shapes, such as squares and diamonds. It invoked the presence of a nondescript mosque, introducing the presence of Islam and maybe even an image one would find in Pakistan, the country from which the patriarch and matriarch of the play’s family emigrated. I am not a fan of the gold whatsoever because, as mosques go, it’s pretty rare to find one bathed in gold; the use of intricate geometric designs and colors such as blues, cerulean, orange, green, and maroon is more widely seen. To me, the gold recalls an archaic and orientalist perspective of the Islamic tradition – an essentialization that makes me deeply uncomfortable. With this said, however, I know that design choices are made with technical elements in mind, especially lighting, so I’d be curious to learn about the creative team’s conversations that lead to this choice. One aspect to the walls I found intriguing was a pink hue (or red, depending on the lighting) that seemed to emerge from under the gold, creating a kind of palimpsest. The pink could mean many things, but one interpretation is that it is a symbol for Zarina, as a woman (hence the pink perhaps?), challenging the faith in her quest to understanding the Prophet; or perhaps the pink symbolizes the truths, tensions, and/or ambiguities that lie under the “golden” simple narrative that religious traditions paint over their complexities.

Another technical element that intrigued me was Saraswathi Jones’s original music. The show started with a South Asian sound then, suddenly, when the back golden wall sprung upward and broke open the space, there was rock n’ roll as the family’s kitchen rolled downstage. The world of the play sounded like a hybrid of South Asian instruments and American rock n’ roll, a perfect aural manifestation of the family’s Pakistani-American experience.

A struggle I clocked within myself as I watched The Who and the What was Zarina’s discussion of the origin of the veil in Islam. She described its origin as the sura (chapter) in the Qur’an that refers to the “screen.” I am in NO WAY an expert on this subject, and I am an outsider to the Islamic tradition, however, as I watched I thought of a class I was lucky enough to take at BU called “Qur’an.” In the class, we read the Qur’an and became acquainted with many ijtihad (interpretations by Islamic scholars) in conversation with surat (chapters) in the Qur’an. In this class, I was exposed to multiple understandings of the origin of the veil within the vast and diverse Islamic community, the “screen” sura being but one. During the post-show conversation, a Muslim audience member talked about her frustration with the singular interpretation and offered another understanding of the origin of the veil.

This opens A WHOLE OTHER conversation, based on the danger of a single story. I got caught in the idea that a story is responsible for exhibiting the multiple understandings of the community it is representing. BUT THIS IS NOT STORYTELLING; it’s a list of bullet points. I got caught in the embarrassingly reductive understanding of Akhtar’s play as an introduction to Muslim-American family life, or even an introduction to Islam, when it is actually a universal story about family love and love for a faith, as well as the tensions that arise from challenging a faith. (A version of) Islam is the backdrop, but THE FAMILY is its center, which is exactly what makes the story accessible to anyone.

Then my next question is: If one story cannot – and should not — speak for an entire community and/or tradition made up of many differences and complexities (going back to one of this semester’s themes of “diversity within diversity”), how about one single voice? Is this dangerous? While reading about Akhtar and listening to him speak in YouTube videos and more, I learned that his play Disgraced was the most produced play in America for the 2015-16 Season and three of his plays were produced on New York stages in the same year. He has — deservingly so — gained immense recognition in the theatre world, Disgraced winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and being nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Akhtar has become the Muslim-American voice of today’s American theatre, and, yes, it’s a superb voice, but it is only one. It has overwhelmed equally worthy voices, such as Yussef El Guindi’s, Jamil Khoury’s, Nathalie Handal’s, and Layla Dowlatshahi’s, and more. (These playwrights’ works deal with the Muslim and/or Arab experience, terms that are not synonymous, of course, yet take on a similar color within American national discourse.) Why aren’t these playwrights getting equally produced???

Next personal action item: Look for a Kilroy-like collection of Muslim-American and Arab-American plays and/or playwrights. And if it’s not out there yet:

Start my own.

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A brief start to a conversation on sexism in the artistic and technical side of theatre

A few weeks ago on Equal Pay Day the New Jersey Theatre Alliance released a graphic of women in theatre compiled from a Broadway League study published in 2016.


The graphic and study only looked a a few of the many positions on the artistic and technical side of theatre and yet it is still abundantly clear to see that women are under-represented in the industry. If this graphic were to also include props artisans, master electricians, audio supervisors/audio engineers, riggers, etc. the severity of the disparity would be even clearer.

I made the mistake of reading some of the Facebook post comments. Many men were quick to point out that stage management and costume design were overwhelmingly female, and that maybe the reason that more women aren’t in other fields is because it doesn’t appeal to them.

Let’s unpack that last bit. Why do we assume that costume design and stage management, where women are most represented, appeal to women more than sound and lighting design? In an article on HowlRound, costume designer Elsa Hiltner discusses how the disparity in the costuming world it stems, in part, to “our culture’s gendered views on who makes clothing, how much their time is worth, and the often skewed understanding of what skills are required to design and build a costume, let alone an entire show.” Women like clothes, sewing, taking notes and communication so they become costume designers and stage managers.

Similarly, I’d argue that our culture’s gendered associations with physical labor and technology is part of the reason that more women aren’t in sound, lighting, and set design. The same way that women are pushed out of STEM, women are pushed out of other design areas. Its assumed that the fields are “too technical” to interest females. In a spotlight about the all-female production team at the Boston Lyric Opera, Lighitng Director Bailey Costa said “A lot of times we interact with crews who are all men, and a lot of times, just because they haven’t seen it, they don’t trust that we are coming from a place of experience that is equal to theirs.” It’s not that women aren’t interested in pursing careers in production or in traditionally male-dominated fields of design, it’s that people assume we aren’t as interested or capable as our male peers. Working professionally as an electrician, I can’t count the number of times a male peer has offered or rushed to carry equipment assuming that I couldn’t but made no effort to do the so for another male.

Still not convinced? This image came out at the beginning of the national conversation over the proposed budget cuts to the NEA:2017-03-20 07.33.15This image is problematic for multiple reasons, but relevant to this particular discussion is fact that the power of this image relies on the cultural associations between “real work”, physical labor, and male bodies performing said labor. Women and female bodies are just as capable of physical labor as men and male bodies.

So lets stop assuming that women simply aren’t interested in fields where they are underrepresented in theatre and start talking about why people are still saying that and keep talking about the very real sexism in the industry that prevents women from being as successful as they are talented.

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The “Who and the What” Response

This weekend, I went to see The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of The Who and The What written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. As I entered the lobby of the Boston Center for the Arts for the millionth time during my time here at Boston University, I surprised myself by how surprised I was at the overwhelming amount of older, white, heterosexual couples attending a nice night out at the theatre. I too was there for a nice night out at the theater except of course, I got my tickets with my BU comp card, am brown, 25 years old, and my date was my girlfriend.

As we settled into our complimentary second row seat, I eagerly went straight to reading the program note. This play is the story about a conservative Pakistani family dealing with gender politics within their religion and daily life when Afzal, a successful and widowed business man, reads his older daughter Zarina’s novel depicting the life of Muhammad the Prophet as a human being with human tendencies. Afzal views this novel, which Zarina had been intentionally keeping from him for fear of it’s potentially controversial reception, as the utmost act of blasphemy and disowns her only to make up with her two years later. What I found while reading the production note, was the fact that this piece was written with the specific purpose of providing the older white audiences a way into the piece in a very delicate, non-threatening manner. The author, Lisa Timmel, used palatable and tame language when speaking about immigrant stories in the United States, mentioning Irish and Jewish immigrant stories like Mulligan Guard and Abie’s Irish Bernie first, to help put this Pakistani immigrant story into context. While I appreciated Timmel going on to say that immigrant dramas pose the question “What is America?, “ I was disappointed at how delicately written the whole thing was. But then again, I figure this language is a good way to get this older audience to have an open heart and mind to a piece that they may otherwise arrive at with preconceived notions and prejudices.

In short, this production note served as a kind of foreshadow for the play as a whole: Safe for older white audiences to swallow without getting burned, while also successfully pulling on their heart strings to then facilitate a window into educating them about an experience largely not their own.

Rob Barkholder as Afzal, spear-headed this narrative with fierce comedic timing, moment to moment generosity, and most of all a deep love for his daughters Zarina played by Alia Peck, and Mahwish played by Turna Mete. The familial chemistry took a little bit to warm up but once the energy was flowing, it was beautiful to watch. It was this familial chemistry and deep love that each member of the family had for each other that created an instant emotional empathy. This empathy created a line of openness that I believe facilitated the digestion of Ayad Akhtar’s educational rhetoric within the piece about Muslim religion and gender politics. Another effective tool used for the palatability of this rhetoric was the use of the Zarina’s white liberal Muslim convert husband Eli, played by the charismatic Joseph Marella.  Akhtar paints Eli as the ideal white ally who is committed to serving his community, his faith, and not to mention that  Afzal himself hand picked him for his daughter to date via an online dating site where he impersonated Zarina and took Eli out on a date before Zarina even knew he existed. In this way, Akhtar interlaces the modernities of this world with the Muslim religion and way of life in a comedic yet poignant manner that highlights where these things chafe, but also where they can be similar in a parallel like way. This was also expressed through the scenic and sound design. The set consisted of a three elegant yet aged looking walls, much like the walls of a mosque- one large one upstage running the length of the stage, and then two smaller walls on stage right and left. These walls would rise giving way to the modern day locations of the play. The side walls would lift as platforms rolled on stage for settings like the coffee shop where Azful meets Eli for their date, the Sushi restaurant where Eli and Karina go on their first date, and Karina and Eli’s apartment. The upstage wall gave way to the family’s home kitchen, where all the most important scenes of the play took place. The fact that these modern locations emerge from behind these walls suggest an inherent two-ness in the container of where the family exists. Similarly, the songs played between scenes progressed from modern American punk rock, to contemporary Muslim music, and then into more traditional Muslim melodies. Another notable sound element that contributed to the full atmospheric experience of the different locations of the piece was the ambient noises placed in each location.  For example, the noise of the specific coffee shop chatter, coffee machines, and music was different than the chatter and music from the sushi restaurant. The use of light shining onto the mosque walls and bird sounds for the last scene of the play served as not only as a literal container to denote an outdoor scene but as metaphorical element to display that the story is moving toward a happy ending. Overall, the artistry and aesthetic of the piece was a beautiful blend of the contemporary moment in the United States with the Muslim culture and tradition.

Though it was very clear this piece was blatantly aware of the audience it was aimed at, I would make the argument that this piece does speak to people of color in a different manner. As a Latinx woman who was raised religiously and has gone on to pretty severely stray from the Catholic and conservative ideals in which I was boxed into for most of my life, I was following Zarina’s character the entire time. There is always something extremely powerful about seeing a woman of color taking center stage, speaking passionately about controversial subjects, blatantly educating the white man that would later become her as she sat across the table from him at that sushi restaurant, finally opening up about what her novel was about. There is something inherently powerful to have a brown female defining body with long curly hair fighting for what she believes in, and that the playwright let her educate Eli in a very straight forward manner. For all that the play was generally palatable, Eli and Zarina’s relationship is perhaps the most confrontational part of the narrative. Not only was there friction between Zarina and Eli about the content of her novel after Eli supported her writing it for the past four years, but there was the recognition and reversal on Eli’s part when he witnesses Afzul’s violent fit toward her novel. Eli fiercely defends Zarina when Afzul chastises Zarina for her blasphemy and demands she destroy it. Though this was a very satisfying cathartic release to see Eli finally viscerally understand the fact that gender oppression within the Muslim faith is still very much alive and well in this family unit, and rises up to smash it in defense of his wife, I could not help but desire that Zarina defend herself. But then again, this is when the narrative became safe again, displaying to the older white audiences the act of the white man being an excellent ally.

Akhtar wrote a play about a Paksitani immigrant family living in America dealing with the still existing female oppression and conservatism that exists within the Muslim faith, for a white audience. They had the opportunity to see what being a great ally looks like through the character of Eli, and also had the opportunity to be educated about the Muslim culture and tradition through empathizing with the universal intricacies of the family unit. I would say this play was successful in it’s pursuit and a definite piece that is slowly teaching it’s older audiences where the theater wants to go with the stories it needs to tell in this world.