Kevin’s Culture Picks: What did our expert watch in April?
Every week, I’ve been doing a deep dive into cultural issues, usually theater-related, that are bothering me or that deserve a second look. But who needs another thinkpiece, right?
I host two weekly programs on my theater company’s Faceboook page (Facebook.com/EpicTheatreCo) where I ask guests what has been keeping them creatively engaged or excited, and I thought I could put together some of the movies, television shows, books and music we discuss.
I’ll do this at the beginning of every month (until we’re out of … this), and hopefully it’ll keep you busy as we start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
So, here’s what I enjoyed in the month of April:
The Last Blockbuster (Streaming on Netflix)
Bad Trip (Streaming on Netflix)
Tina (Streaming on HBO Max)
All Creatures Great and Small
Sasquatch (Streaming on Hulu)
Crying in H Mart, by Michelle Zauner
Peaces, by Helen Oyeyemi
100 Boyfriends, by Brontez Purnell
Today We’re the Greatest, Middle Kids
OK, Orchestra, AJR
Our Country, Miko Marks & The ResurrectorsMusic, Benny Sings
Six Cover Songs, Wild Pink
Californian Soil, London Grammar
Flu Game, AJ Tracy
Best Streaming Theater of the Month
The Belle of Amherst — Granite Theatre in Westerly chose a perfect show for the digital form in William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst. The one-woman show all about the enigmatic Emily Dickinson was smartly directed by Paula Glen and featured a must-see performance from Steph Rodger. I didn’t review it for this magazine because I’m friendly with all involved, but since this is a space where I can laud my favorites unapologetically, I’ll take this opportunity to say that my very talented friends knocked it out of the park.
In Providence: Creative Writing: Taking on the burden of the truth
If you read this column every week, you might have the same question they had for me: “So how much of it is real?”
My first in-person interview in a while was taking place outdoors during one of the warmer nights of the month with a fellow creative writer. The bar was busy. The rapid rate of vaccination seemed to be driving people out in full force. They contacted me because they like the “In Providence” column and they want to write something similar, but they’d always wondered how much of it was fact and how much was made up.
When I was in college, I took a course in non-fiction creative writing. Upon signing up for the class, I began to wonder how you could creatively write about non-fiction. I thought I was going to learn how to describe real life events with as much detail as possible. How to take the mundanity of everyday living and make it interesting. Back then, I was a stickler for objectivity. In my religious high school, I spent a significant amount of time being taught the difference between fact and opinion, and I was confident that the rest of my life would be dedicated to writing about the imaginary. After all, who would want to take on the burden of the truth?
Nevertheless, if someone could teach me how to make writing about the truth not seem so arduous, I was game. Within the first few minutes of the class, I was already the pariah. Any suggestion of altering events or people was met with a hearty objection from me. I felt that everything needed to be on the same level as journalism. Straightforward, no slanting, and no shaping a story to make it look the way you want it to. That was when my professor pointed me toward Truman Capote and In Cold Blood.
Much has been written about the process one of America’s most famous authors used when putting down on paper the story of a murder in Kansas and its aftermath, but I was taken aback as soon as I read about the genesis of the book.
Capote wanted to write about a murder in a small town. He knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. He even had ideas about what kind of murder it should be and what kind of murderers the culprits should be. Then he went looking for the crime.
I found this to be both distasteful and dishonest. A writer shouldn’t go looking for material with an eye on the final product, should they? How could Capote possibly maintain any integrity if he knew where he was going before he even got there?
When I reported back on the book to my professor, they asked me to consider that, yes, Capote probably made things up (he was famous for not taking notes), but that sometimes writing creatively isn’t about adding what’s not there, but dismissing what is that doesn’t serve the story you’d like to tell.
I continued to push back. You shouldn’t want to tell a story. You should just tell the story that’s right in front of you.
My professor was very kind. They pointed out that believing there’s only ever one story in front of you is simplifying life down in the most transgressive of ways. Even the most respected of journalists have to have an angle, and artists, which is how I thought of myself, need to have a way in if they’re going to do justice to a subject.
I’m sitting at a bar with another writer. What kind of story do I want to tell about her? What if it would help me to make her a man? Well, I can’t just make her a man, can I? If I did that, you’d say I was making the story up. If I swapped her gender, and had her do all the same things, but as a man, you’d feel it was too big a change for the story to be considered factual. If you’re as stingy as I was as a freshman in college who thought he knew everything about the world and the nature of the truth, you might suggest that any change would render the story fictional.
But if I told the entire story in a way that led you to believe I was having drinks with a man, but never came right out and said it. Are you one of those people who believe omission is a form of lying? Especially when the writer uses omission to lead you in another direction?
Two books jump to mind right away whenever somebody asks me about writing non-fiction. One is a book I’ve written about very recently, To Kill a Mockingbird, which, ironically, has a Capote connection. One of the young children in the book is based on little Truman. In fact, a lot of the book is based in reality, but Harper Lee decided to call it fictional. It’s possible she did not want to bear the burden of truth. Being willing to label something fictional means you can say whatever you want and write however you like … or does it?
Why do we only place responsibility on those claiming to write about what’s true as though fiction can’t do a significant amount of damage on its own?
The other book I think about is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. After being chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, Frey’s “memoir” was revealed to be mostly made up. He then had to go on an apology tour, wherein he was frequently asked why he didn’t just label the book “fiction.”
The answer? Because it’s not a very good book. The standards for writing fiction are way higher than that of non-fiction. While the truth is a burden, fiction still carries its own weight. Frey had no luck selling what he had written as a novel, but when he started telling people it was true, there was an interest.
I remember thinking it was a shame that we didn’t use that crisis in the literary world to have a bigger conversation about why a poorly written book somehow becomes lauded text as soon as it’s presented as something that’s “true.”
Recently when discussing Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit with a friend, she remarked that while she loved the series, “I really wish it was a true story.”
When pressed, she couldn’t quite articulate why it being fictional bothered her. To her, the show had strived for such heightened naturalism, and succeeded in it, all the while dabbling in history and historical context, that it felt like it should be attached to reality in some way.
“I just think I would have enjoyed it more.”
In the late ’90s and early aughts, reality television became so popular that people started to wonder if fiction was on the way out. People seemed to feel as though anything created was lacking in some way, and the overused chant of “Truth is stranger than fiction” was used as a battering ram against every article of culture that wasn’t a documentary or an episode of Survivor. Lately, that thirst for the real has died down a bit, even as it’s becoming clearer and clearer that in some ways, yes, creativity often has a hard time keeping up with what we see and hear in our daily lives.
But this isn’t meant to be an essay. The “In Providence” column is supposed to be something else. It’s a place to tell stories. Like the story of me getting a drink with another writer who wants to know if I just make up what I write every week out of what would have to be the endless depths of my ingenuity.
And, you know, in some ways, I wish I could tell you I did. Being able to think up nearly 90 stories of love, heartache, loneliness, friendship, sex, and feuding Christmas decorations would be a pretty impressive feat, but…
Even the best writers would have trouble keeping up with the demand.
Instead, I’ve taken the Capote route. The author I once lambasted has become something of an inspiration. I explain to the writer I’m having drinks with, a very handsome writer–
(You see how I can lead you into thinking it’s a man by using “handsome” while not lying? Women can be called “handsome,” but it’s a word we often associate with a man. If I keep using the “they” pronoun, then you could just fill in the rest for me, couldn’t you?)
–I explain that I typically come up with ideas for the column about two months ahead of time.
This week I want to write about someone moving back to Providence after a long time away. This week I want to write about a pizza delivery boy and religion. This week I want to write about a marriage proposal and the southern part of the city. Then I go looking. Oftentimes, it’s not hard to find what you need, provided you’re willing to trim away everything you don’t need.
People come to you with all the complexities necessary to make them look however you want, and it’s your job (or, I suppose, my job) to decide who it is they’re going to be.
In the very first profile I wrote about a woman I labeled “The Queen of Providence,” I heard a lot of admirable things about my subject, but I’m sure, if I wanted to, I could have asked around and found at least a few people she had wronged. If I then took those accounts and centered the story around them, or even peppered them in here and there, you might have had a very different reaction to reading about that woman. What I wanted was a feel-good, uplifting piece about somebody trying to make a difference without asking for any fanfare. That did exist in the person I found, but that’s not all that was there.
Anonymity makes all this a lot easier, because there does seem to be a responsibility that arises when you use someone’s name. The absence of identity became the sugar I take with my medicine, because there is still that small voice in the back of my head saying “Something about this isn’t right. You’re not mentioning that the couple who met and fell in love recently separated. You didn’t talk about how that charming man you met was unkind to the waiter. Wait, if you don’t talk about how they only went inside the house because it was raining, you’re not being totally truthful.”)
I understand why we’re all so fixated on truth. We live in a society where millions of people believe climate change isn’t real and there’s a sex trafficking ring being run out of the basement of a pizza parlor. Truth is under attack, you won’t get any argument from me on that. But what of the hall pass we give to fiction?
And what do we do about the fact that while labeling something fiction gives the author lenience, it also guarantees that you are far less likely to engage with whatever it is they come up with? You can feel the temptation there, can’t you? It’s like something out of Faust.
Say you’re lying, and you can lie as much as you want, but nobody will listen to you, because what you’re saying is a lie. Tell the truth and it needs to be the purest of truths, which people will then listen to, only because many of them want to find out if you’re lying, and if they catch you, you have to beg for Oprah’s forgiveness.
I’m getting drinks with another writer. The author in me kicks in–Who, What, Where, When, Why. Each of those things has multiple answers. This person is a writer. She’s a woman. She’s single. She’s pretty. She’s single and pretty. Why is she single if she’s pretty? Well, there are lots of single people who are also pretty. I should ask her about that though. I should ask her if she enjoys being single. Maybe I don’t need to mention that she’s a writer at all. Maybe it’s not important. Maybe this column is about a woman having a drink downtown and she suddenly talks about a man she met who broke her heart.
We did talk about a man who broke her heart. That part is true. And the part about her being single, and a woman. But that wasn’t why we were there. And we only talked about the man and the broken heart for 20 minutes. But 20 minutes is enough for 1,000 words, and that’s enough for one of these weekly columns.
This woman is fascinating. That’s true. I could write seven columns about her. She’s made up of many, many stories. The question is:
Which one of them would I want to tell?
Retiring the Mockingbird: On cash grabs, Scott Rudin, and the search for better theatrical programming
I used to have a joke I’d make whenever somebody would tell me their theater needed to raise money fast.
“Well,” I’d say, “you could always do To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Sometimes when you deal in the commodities of art, things can be both profound and profitable, and you grapple with whether the profitability somehow taints the profundity.
When it comes to To Kill a Mockingbird, there seems to be an immunity in place that protects the source material from the fact that, while many people who produce it do love it or the book it’s based on, there is no denying that it might be the most sellable play on Earth. It’s probably more sellable than most musicals. It often sells out runs as soon as its announced and gives subscription numbers a bounce, and every time that happens, the theaters producing it like to pretend that it’s not the Mockingbird factor, but something having to do with them specifically and how good their production of the show is going to be.
If you haven’t already, now might be when you begin to wonder why I’m talking about To Kill a Mockingbird at this particular point in time.
There are a few reasons.
One of which is the ongoing nightmare of disentangling the theater industry from Scott Rudin.
Rudin’s relationship with Mockingbird is fraught to say the least. I have a version of how this all went down that is mostly speculative, so if you read on, please be advised that this is all opinion, and not actual journalism. It’s barely an OpEd.
But here it goes–
For years, there was a licensed version of To Kill a Mockingbird that was done all over the country and probably made the playwright and the licensing company an ungodly fortune. Was it a great adaptation? Eh. It’s fine. Literary adaptations rarely rise to the level of “passable,” and it was certainly passable. It got the job done. And it must have banked more money than I will ever see in my life. The adaptor is Christopher Sergel, and with all due respect to him, he’s not exactly a theatrical titan.
All this is to say, it’s pretty easy to see an opportunity there to make even more money than was previously made with this halfway-decent adaptation written by a little-known playwright.
In walks Rudin.
He essentially commissions a new adaptation from Aaron Sorkin. (You know what might have been cool? An adaptation from a Black playwright, but hey, asking too much I guess.) He then gets into a lengthy legal battle with the Harper Lee estate regarding the adaptation, and he prevails, I’m assuming, because he has more resources at his disposal than the average country.
This is when I stress to you that we did not need another adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and we certainly didn’t need one from Aaron @$#%-ing Sorkin. The one that existed was not great, but fine, considering which audience it’s targeting. This was a money grab using a title that has already evolved into a money grab for the theater industry.
But the fun doesn’t stop there.
Rudin then proceeded to go on a kind of mafioso litigation tour across the country, shutting down the pre-existing, pre-licensed productions of Sergel’s version. It was like organized crime if it were being organized by Moss Hart. I couldn’t believe it. How could Rudin survive this, I thought. He’s bullying small theaters. The logic was that he wanted the version on Broadway to be the only version. I can only imagine how Sergel felt about this. After all, he had gotten permission without any bullying tactics, and Rudin had to take the estate to court and now wanted no other version to exist.
Then, as a sort of … concession (?), Rudin offers to let the theaters whose productions he had just shut down do the new version of the show. You know, the one that puts money in his pocket. The press release announcing this was one of the most audacious things I have ever read. It’s like robbing someone of their hundred dollars, then giving them euros back, and telling them they should be grateful, because euros are kind of cool, right? I mean, sure, you have to go re-rehearse your show, scrap all the previous advertising, and produce a version you probably haven’t even read yet, but aren’t you lucky, because this is the Sorkin version. Now, say, “Thank you,” to Mr. Rudin, and back away slowly. He doesn’t like any sudden movement.
How Rudin was allowed to get away with this is beyond me. Of course, now we know he’s gotten away with a lot worse, but most of that was at least partly done in the dark. This was all in full public view. And while people were angry, more than a few of them kowtowed and produced the new version. I don’t blame them. It was the easiest course to take.
What really boiled me up was seeing the main production open on Broadway, and not only become a major hit, but receive critical acclaim. I remember telling a friend that I thought it was shameful that Rudin was able to weather all that bad behavior, and they countered that the people in Mockingbird shouldn’t be held accountable for what he’d done. I agree with that, but the reality is that the show’s success was not only Rudin’s success, but a sent message to everyone who had witnessed what he’d done, and the message was–
Rudin can do whatever he wants.
And it speaks to a disconnect that exists between audience and artist that we are going to have to deal with sooner rather than later as we move toward reopening and try to deal with problems within our field.
Mainly, that audiences don’t seem to care how the food gets made as long as it’s tasty.
Remember years ago, when Actors’ Equity tried to get audiences to care about how many tours were pivoting to non-equity by kicking off the “Ask If It’s Equity” campaign? The premise was that if audiences understood the difference between the two, they’d advocate to see more equity tours in their hometowns and cities.
Turns out, audiences, for the most part, cannot tell the difference between equity and non-equity. It becomes like inside baseball to them. An issue that exists in the weeds, when all they want to know is how much the ticket costs and can they take their little nephew to the show and how long is it, because they don’t like to drive at night.
They want to see To Kill a Mockingbird, and you are not going to make them feel bad about it.
That’s not an argument to just produce what audiences are going to be comfortable seeing. I’m always a champion for cultivating an audience and moving them in more interesting directions. I’m just not sure it’s possible to do that by explaining to them what was going on behind-the-scenes, because ultimately, that doesn’t affect them, does it?
Oh sure, there are wonderful, empathetic audience members who want to know that actors are being treated right and nobody was picked on and everybody is having a great time, but I’m not sure there are enough of those people to fill a blackbox, let alone a Broadway house.
Audiences in New York have known who Rudin is for years the same way the industry has, and they still went to see productions where his name was above the title. The only reason we aren’t holding them accountable is because an “audience” is as spiritual a thing as a poltergeist. It would be like holding air pollution accountable. It just doesn’t work.
That disconnect is also why it’s going to be hard to reopen with an eye on audience comfort in regard to safety, because we haven’t figured out how to create a channel of communication with them, but that’s an essay for another day.
Today, I’m thinking back on what I’ve written about what “better” looks like when we come back, and it has me thinking about cash grabs like Mockingbird. There’s nothing wrong with doing shows you know audiences are going to like, and depending on your financial situation, it might just be necessary, but here’s my question–
If students have been reading Mockingbird in school for years as I did, and theaters have been producing Mockingbird all over the country, as my college did and two theaters I’ve worked with, then when do we start to wonder if the message of Mockingbird is actually getting through to people?
What is it that people are reading and watching, because when a pivotal moment in the book and the play feature the line, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand,” and yet we’re still living in the world we’re in, you have to wonder if maybe we need to start getting our point across using somebody other than Atticus and Gem.
Every time a theater produces Mockingbird, somewhere in the ad copy the phrase “The story we need now more than ever” appears in some form, and while it may be true that we need the story, I’m wondering if, due to no fault of Lee’s work, it’s not making the kind of impact we’re telling people it is.
Instead, I think it’s become this inoculated story that presents a white savior and a story about fear and racism that is very easily digestible, to the point where bigots can sit quite comfortably in a cushy seat in an audience and try to remember their reservation time at the fancy restaurant across the street.
Before you hop in the comments and suggest that I’m talking about canceling To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m not. It’s still one of my favorite novels, but I think it’s always been asked to do too much, and it’s certainly a product of its time. I’d never suggest not reading it, but I’m not sure it should be the only thing you read that addresses the themes found in the book. More often than not, when it’s produced in a theater, it’s as political as that theater is willing to go, namely — not far enough.
And time after time, they get a pat on the back for producing something so brave and important. The liberals cry and the conservatives yawn, and the details of the production tend to be forgotten shortly thereafter by everybody except the people who worked on them, who conflate that warm, fuzzy feeling of being in a hit show with having been a part of something special.
I once produced a version of Tartuffe that was so offensive three people got up and walked out.
Do you know how hard it is to offend an audience with Tartuffe?
That, to me, was special.
I feel bad about the snark in that last part, but I’m not editing it out, and I’m not making room for exceptions where, yes, I’m sure some people have worked on Mockingbird and had their lives changed the same way some people can work on Starlight Express and achieve Nirvana. Anything is possible, but we’re not here to talk about exceptions.
The monetization of stories like Harper Lee’s masterpiece should be most offensive to those who claim to care about the work. The way artistic directors will rattle off a list of plays that cost next-to-nothing to produce with guaranteed profit and then give interviews about how much those same stories mean to them has moved beyond distasteful. It’s become boring and the boredom shows up first in the work.
The expectation pre-pandemic between large-sized theaters and their audiences had devolved into, “You produce something I’ve heard of, read, and seen at the movie theater, or I’ll cancel my subscription. Oh, and make sure the lead guy looks like Gregory Peck or I’ll express my dismay at the talkback after telling you all about how the actors weren’t loud enough.”
There is no coming back to that if what we’re striving for is “better.”
What we do when we’re in a good place as theater organizations and institutions is not a reflection of who we are. That reflection appears when we need money, when we’re trying to sell tickets, when we need good reviews, or when we want our audiences to clap politely and not complain that we’ve become too woke.
The best of who we are exists in what we’re willing to leave on the table in search of better titles, better stories and better people to tell them.
Barely any of them will sell as well as To Kill a Mockingbird will, or The Glass Menagerie, or The Tempest, or Steel Magnolias, or dozens of other plays that we keep behind a glass and break in case the last show moved fewer tickets than we thought it would.
People like Rudin know where we keep our emergency stash, and they know how to use the popularity of those titles to advance themselves and their reputation. They know that even when we think we’re getting a lesser version of a story, we’ll still go if it’s a story we have some sort of emotional or sentimental attachment to, and we’ll complain about it later if we have to.
The solution is to come up with better solutions.
It’s about doing the hard thing even if it means accepting that a loss might be inevitable.
That’s something I learned from a book about a lawyer, his daughter and bravery.
You should read it sometime.
In Providence: Kow Kow
If you’ve looked at my social media recently, then I should probably apologize to you.
Just, you know, in general.
But if you went looking for photos of ice cream and bubble waffles, then I probably didn’t let you down.
Like just about everybody else in the state, I have found myself addicted to Kow Kow.
The food truck has grown into a shop on Ives Street that’s so popular, I was turned away the first two times I got there because it was after 8pm and the line was so long, there was no way I was going to make it to the front before closing time.
Another day I brought a friend with me, and we waited halfway up a side street while others peeled off, most likely assuming that nothing could be worth investing that kind of time.
Poor fools, I thought, as I inched closer to getting a Graham Canyon.
You have to know something about me before I continue.
I refuse — absolutely refuse — to wait in line for just about anything.
This is not my worst trait, but it’s at least Top Five.
(The other four involve swing sets, elevators and my undying devotion to Love, Actually.)
Many times over the course of my life, I’ve been told that a wait at a restaurant is 10 to 15 minutes and walked right out the door. I don’t cause a fuss or make a scene, but in my mind, there are so many places to eat, why would you ever wait for a table that wasn’t immediately available?
But Kevin, you might be saying, why don’t you just make a reservation?
Because Reader, like all true nightmares, I both want to decide what I want five minutes before I want it and I want it given to me the second I do.
(I fully expect to be driven out of town by torch-bearing villagers any day now.)
And yet, even the Man Who Would Not Wait for Anything happily waits for Kow Kow.
My first time there was in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. I had the advantage of a day off during the week, and found that there was no line. I immediately considered ordering everything on the menu while I had the chance, but I talked myself down and just went with a Berry Nutty.
The staff at Kow Kow are so friendly and calm for people who are essentially running the waffle equivalent of Studio 54. Any expansion is bound to be tricky, and a big part of my newest addiction is following them online as they document some of the growing pains they’ve experienced. I have to refrain from posting a “You’re doing amazing, sweetie!” meme every time they post an apology.
Upon an evening visit a few days ago, I found myself in line behind two other gays comparing what we’d had so far.
“He always gets the Oreo Factory,” one of them told me, rolling their eyes at the short blonde he was there with. “But I like to try a different one each time.”
We immediately bonded over our desire to check off the entire menu. We compared notes, and I wondered if this is the kind of excitement I missed out on as a young child when all the straight boys were trading baseball cards.
One friend told me that she stopped by Kow Kow on the way home from work and ate the entire dessert in her driveway so her kids wouldn’t be mad that she went without them. Upon going inside, her two sons did start badgering her to take them.
“I ended up driving all the way back there,” she said. “It was partly out of guilt, but it’s also my cheat day, so I figured why not? I was praying the girl behind the counter wouldn’t recognize me and rat me out to my kids.”
Now, if you think all of this sounds a little extreme, I won’t argue with you, mainly because I don’t argue with idiots, but aside from that, I think the best experiences aren’t only about the main event, but about so much more.
After a year inside, visiting a little shop run by lovely people on the Wickenden side of Providence for something as simple as a cone full of sweets seems like the kind of simple, warm weather behavior we’ve all been missing, but that alone wouldn’t be enough to satisfy someone like me. I think there’s a lot more that encompasses why I enjoy it so much. It’s the high demand for the product, so that you feel like you’re really getting something special. You’re in line with other people (still wearing masks) but socializing again. The day I took my friend along with me, I met two adorable dogs and a baby. It’s a new experience with a comforting sense of familiarity. It reminded me of when I was a kid and my parents would take us all over the state just to get the best this or that according to their own personal tastes. The point wasn’t to drive 45 minutes for a cup of chowder. It was that we were going to hop in the car as a family, roll down the windows, put on music and enjoy the ride.
The chowder was just a bonus.
Last year, I wrote about how when I started this column, my plan had always been to take a break during the summer, because, like most cities, Providence sort of empties out after Memorial Day. It feels like other than a few big events, there really isn’t that much to write about, and while that might be changing as more and more people are moving into the city from bigger places like New York and Boston, I still wondered whether there were going to be enough reasons to stick around.
But that’s the thing about Providence. While we like to overcompensate for our size by labeling much of what we offer as “the best” (Please, DC, I want you to be a state, but don’t take “Smallest” away from us, I beg of you), the truth is the best thing we have to offer is the understanding that it’s not about what you’re getting, it’s about who you’re getting it with — whether it be a friend, a first date, your two kids, your new puppy or some strangers you befriended while you waited to get to the front of the line.
It’s about living somewhere your entire life only to say, “Wow, I haven’t really explored this part of the city yet,” and then exploring it. It’s about spending a little less time online.
And learning to enjoy your time in line.
The Ordinary Instant: “The Year of Magical Thinking” from The Players
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
Through April 11, The Players at Barker Playhouse treated audiences to an emotionally intense and creatively directed streaming version of The Year of Magical Thinking, and the result was breathtaking.
In 2005, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was published to near universal acclaim. The book recounted the fairly recent tragedies of Didion losing her husband, fellow author John Gregory Dunne, and the subsequent illness of her daughter Quintana, who passed away shortly before the release of her mother’s masterful meditation on grieving and mortality. It almost immediately became a must-read and went on to win the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Two years later, Didion adapted the book for the stage, where it played on Broadway and in London. The play was directed by David Hare, and starred Vanessa Redgrave, before she herself experienced the loss of her daughter several years later. Didion included Quintana’s death in the play, which makes it even more heartbreaking than the book. Reading it, it was always clear that, when adapted, it would be done as a solo performance.
The question was: Who would see it?
One-person shows always bring an air of intensity to them, but when the subject matter is this gripping, it seems natural to wonder who would want to sit with these themes while taking in an evening at the theater.
That might be why the switch to digital is a blessing in disguise for titles like this one, that seem to be somewhat more absorbable when you’re able to view them from the security of your home. Seeing the show in New York, I felt immensely exposed being asked to consider such profundity while surrounded by strangers. Though that’s part of the power of theater, it’s interesting how I was able to process the play this time around, and how open I was to its examinations.
First off, there is a story. Didion doesn’t rely merely on reflection to drive the piece. She lays out the events of her husband’s passing and the cruel brevity with which she had to pivot from widow in mourning to mother in action. Redgrave weaved in and out of the play’s two worlds — the contemplative and the narrative — effortlessly, but I remember being concerned that future productions would have a hard time finding an actress who could carry the weight of all that agony.
In Patricia Hawkridge’s digital production for The Players, the evening is not presented as a one-woman show, nor is Didion’s portrayed by multiple women, but rather, we’re given a woman and a chorus, which I think is a very intelligent way to handle the allocation of such heady material, especially if you have such a talented group of women to shoulder the play’s remorse.
As The Woman, I found Carol Schlink to be powerfully understated. The worst thing you can do in a play that could be labeled “sad” is double down on the sadness. Schlink, under Hawkridge’s direction, holds back where she could go over the top and lets out her frustration and denial in bursts that create a portrayal of someone barely held together, but fighting to stay active. It’s that same fight that great actors know how to wage. Play the action, not the feeling — and Schink buoys the part so that her performance comes across as something of a video diary. A confessional. Not something filmed that’s trying to replicate what you’d see onstage, but something more immediate.
The filming component of the piece is excellent — a trait we’re now expecting every time we see a production from the Players. I commend them for continuing to invest in the more cinematic opportunities of their shows. Katherine Reaves is cognizant of the soft touch the story calls for, and her work is exceptional. The original music by Chris Korangy was equally lovely. Praise should also be given to Hawkridge’s assistant director Morgan Salpietro and her production manager Rachel Nadeau. Theater is always communal, but these virtual undertakings call for even more of that company spirit.
In that spirit, the women who make up The Chorus are each outstanding and pull off just the right mix of delicacy and gravitas. I was really struck by the performances of both Paula Faber and Marcia A. Layden, but each of the women did impressive work. Hats off to Kathleen Moore Ambrosini, Eva-Maria Coffey, Kristen Ann Gunning, Michelle Savoie and Janette Talento-Ley.
While I’m sure nobody is eager to produce anything digitally once we’re back to in-person theater, I hope we explore why we typically fear bringing plays like The Year of Magical Thinking to life. If it’s because of how difficult it is to sell it or to make it work onstage, perhaps it’s worth hanging onto those Zoom subscriptions a little longer. The questions Didion poses are essential to the current moment, as so many of us are in the throes of our own experiences with loss and suffering. While that might not make for a fanciful night on the town, it doesn’t make the work any less urgent. Not every story works every time on every stage, but every story deserves a chance to be told. Bravo to the Players for being brave enough to tell this one.
In Providence: A little off the top
If you had asked me when I was younger what my least favorite thing to do on a Saturday was, it would be the day, every other month, when my mother would force my stepfather to take me to get a haircut.
We would go to a place in Providence that was something like Purgatory, if Purgatory had old magazines and everybody seemed way too happy to be there.
The barbershop we went to was small — probably the size of a walk-in closet. You’d sit on uncomfortable chairs and wait for two hours so that a man in his 60s could take clippers and buzz off all your hair. That seemed to be the only haircut anybody who went there would request.
“But Kevin,” you might be saying, “you can do that at home. Clippers aren’t that expensive, and if all he did was buzz your hair down to the scalp, then why waste a Saturday afternoon on such a thing?”
Allow me to give you my mother’s phone number so you can argue this point with her. God knows, I did — never to any avail.
Nothing about this made any sense, including the fact that when you went to this barbershop, there was another barber there with a perfectly fine set of clippers, who never had anyone in his chair. Nobody wanted a haircut from him, even though one would have a hard time imagining how you could go about messing up such a task. I make it sound as though there was only one lonely supplemental barber, but there were a series of them. I suppose once one of them figured out there was no money to be made at this shop, they’d go somewhere else, and a new young man would emerge to sit and swivel in a chair that never saw a customer.
One time, in the interest of expediency, I did talk my stepfather into letting me get a haircut from the second barber to save time. I was perfectly fine with the job he did. He left a little more than skin on my scalp, and that was okay with me, but my mother was incensed. It’s true that my hair did (and still does) grow very fast, which meant anything other than total annihilation and I’d look like a shag carpet in two weeks or less.
“Next time don’t go to the other guy,” my mother said, making “the other guy” sound like I had been given over to John McVie for music lessons instead of Lindsey Buckingham.
Not going to “the other guy” meant hours of me staring at the rotten linoleum floor, attempting to watch as static enveloped the miniature television in the corner of the waiting room. Even if you could decipher what was on, it was usually only golf. Meanwhile, all around you, grown men in unlaundered Boston Red Sox t-shirts and cargo shorts were reading copies of Sports Illustrated from 1981.
The place smelled like it was scrubbed down with cheap hair gel and the kind of cologne you’d find on the sales rack at Kohl’s. Every so often another kid my age would be waiting there as well, and we’d look at each other like two prisoners on our way to get fingerprinted.
Reservations were not an option. It was first come, first served. And if that sounds lovely and democratic to you, I encourage you to douse yourself in Drakkar Noir cologne right before voluntarily spending four hours at the DMV, and then tell me how democracy looks to you.
Trying to catch the place on a slow day was equally pointless. The place was always busy, because when every straight man in Providence decides they have to get their haircut from the same guy, a hole in the wall men’s salon becomes as hard to get into as La Boucherie on a Friday night.
If you called ahead to see how busy it was (because hope springs, I guess), the barber would answer the phone and say, “Twenty minutes.” Never has a bigger lie been perpetrated on the American public. Twenty minutes was how long the haircut took. The wait to get to the haircut was the length of Little Dorrit. Every time the phone rang while I was in the shop, and the barber gave his standard “Twenty minutes” answer, I’d want to scream–
“It’s a trap! Once they get you here, you won’t see daylight for years! Just go to Supercuts! Yes, it’s a chain, but the prices are reasonable and all you want is a buzzcut anyway! It’s too late for me, but save yourself!”
The barber made conversation with anyone over the age of 12 by asking about girls and whether they had a girlfriend and, “What’s a handsome guy like you doing without a girlfriend?” and if they did have a girlfriend (or a wife) he’d ask about the girlfriend or wife, and no matter what the response was, he’d say–
And you know what?
It always sounded like the right thing to say.
Reader, I have been an actor since I was 8 years old, and I have never managed to put as much meaning with as far a scope into anything as that barber put into the word “Women.”
If you were under 12, he’d ask you about school.
The middle of that exchange might vary, but his part of it never did.
“They lock me in a closet the second I get there and I spend all day learning Russian from parrots.”
After my first few visits, I would just sit there stoically, hoping he would get me in and out of the chair as fast as possible since I’d already wasted valuable time in a dingy holding cell when I could have been home doing important things like practicing holding the end note in “We Both Reached for the Gun” like Tony Award winner James Naughton did in the revival of Chicago.
I began to wonder if complaining about any of the disorganization would somehow be considered a breach of straight male protocol. No woman or respectable queer would ever put up with such disarray. Even though my mother insisted on sending me there, she never brought me herself. In fact, I began to suspect that my stepdad and me being out of the house for hours at a time every few weeks was sort of the point. The only time we ever did manage to catch the place empty on a Saturday morning (there must have been a gas leak, but if it meant less time listening to whatever the hell goes on at the PGA, I was willing to take that risk), we were home again in under an hour and I could just sense my mother’s disappointment as we had probably interrupted her seven-hour Lifetime movie marathon.
The minute I was old enough to drive myself to a haircut, my mother knew immediately there was no chance I was going back to that place. I still got buzzed all the way down to appease her, but she swore it wasn’t as short as the barber could go. I suppose she thought he took a pair of tweezers and plucked each strand out by the root, and considering how long I was away, that wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption.
If you need something to do on a Saturday afternoon in Providence, you have plenty of options. On a nice day, you can take a stroll around the East Side, grab something to eat on Federal Hill, or sit outside downtown with a drink and enjoy the limited amount of free time we all get in this life.
But if none of that sounds appealing to you, may I suggest a trip to a barbershop on the outskirts of the city? The last time I was there, the parking was bad, the ceiling was caving in and every other customer looked like an extra from a Florida Georgia Line music video, but I’m sure some of them were happy to be there, so why not give it a try?
After all, you’ll only be there for 20 minutes.
A Return to PPAC: The comeback tour
The last time I stepped foot in the Providence Performing Arts Center, it was to see the splendid tour of Hello Dolly! that played to less than full houses because of concerns rippling through the news that there was a strange new virus making people sick. I remember dismissing that in my review of the show, and chastising audiences for letting a little fear keep them away.
As they say on Twitter, that part of the review has probably not aged well.
On Tuesday morning, I was back at PPAC for the first local season announcement that might bring about an actual season. That bit of cleverness is how I’m going to balance out the sentimental feeling that swept over me when I walked through the double doors and into the lobby where chairs were set up — but spaced apart — and posters for the upcoming shows lined the staircase leading up to the second level.
The outside of the building is looking as good as ever with a brand new facade, a restoration project that was completed while the stage lay dormant. The press in attendance included the great Don Fowler, who I greeted the way you’d greet a relative you only get to see at Christmas. It has been a year, after all, and it turns out, I’d even grown to miss the critics.
The announcement was being livestreamed by the social media sponsor WPRI 12, and it opened with PPAC’s board chairman, Joseph W. Walsh, Esq., who made brief remarks before introducing the president of the Performing Arts Center, J.L. “Lynn” Singleton, who unveiled the roster of upcoming tours that will be visiting Providence, including the return of Hamilton (November 30 – December 12, 2021) and the acclaimed production of Oklahoma! (March 22 – 27, 2022) that recently played Broadway’s Circle in the Square.
I was also excited to hear that Lincoln Center’s revival of My Fair Lady would be coming to town in May 2022, following the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,which will play the venue in April 2022. Other productions in the Taco/White Family Foundation Broadway Series include The Prom (March 8 – 13, 2022) and Pretty Woman, which will be kicking off the season October 9 – 16 of this year.
The Encore Series includes the 25th Anniversary Farewell Tour of Rent (January 14- 16, 2022), the musical version of An Officer and a Gentleman (February 18 – 20, 2022), and Blue Man Group (May 20 – 22, 2022).
Completing the season will be three “Broadway Specials,” including the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen (April 5 – 10, 2022), Jesus Christ Superstar (January 25 – 30, 2022), and Cirque Dreams Holidaze (December 17 – 18, 2021), which means there’s a full calendar starting in just six months ready to go.
While there are many things about theater I’ve grown to miss over the past year, there were also things I’d forgotten until the promise of a return began to present itself. It’s easy to take institutions like the Performing Arts Center for granted, but until I was sitting in the grand lobby, I had forgotten that PPAC was where I saw my first major musical on a field trip with my school. It’s where I had my first exposure to musical canon warhorses like Rent and Fiddler on the Roof. Once I started seeing shows as they premiered in New York, I began skipping the tours that would come through, sure that they wouldn’t measure up to their Broadway counterparts, but over the past few years, I’ve seen more and more productions there, and I’ve been reminded that a place like PPAC is an asset for people who don’t have the opportunity to see theater outside the state, and that much of what comes through features talent as remarkable as any you’d find in New York, and occasionally surpasses it.
On the way out of the theater, I ran into another friend who writes for a different publication, and I remarked that this was my first time covering the season announcement. That’s probably why you’re reading something a little more personal than a list of shows and dates, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from me by now, right?
As I was driving away, I took in the sign and felt a wave of gratitude that soon it’s going to be all lit up again, with crowds underneath it, hurrying inside before the overture begins.
Not wanting to miss a note.
For more information on PPAC’s upcoming season, go to PPACRI.org
In Providence: Don’t Speak
If you get invited to one of their get-togethers, it’s a good idea to bring something that’ll keep you occupied.
“It’s not that you’re not allowed to talk, we just don’t require it.”
The idea came to them in a group text. A joke about what it’s like being introverts who still crave socialization and wondering out loud how to have it both ways.
“I forget who it was, but somebody suggested parties where you could go and just sit around quietly without feeling like you had to talk to anybody.”
With vaccinations on the rise and the promise of being in small spaces together again, it’s understandable that people who never really felt comfortable in social situations might feel a bit apprehensive at the notion of having to gather themselves up and get to networking again.
“We’re all happy that this is going to be over, but I know, for me, I really liked knowing that it was cool that I could just stay home and feel like I wasn’t missing out on anything. It’s this weird thing where I don’t want to miss out, but once I go somewhere, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. Do I have to be funny? Do I have to tell a story? I’m lost as soon as I get there, and I want to turn around and go home.”
All of this made perfect sense to me. I was just telling a friend that when you’re a homebody who also has a bad case of FOMO, you crave the winter days of blizzards and cold weather that keep people inside. When summer hits, you feel like you’re wasting your life doing what you want to do and that which makes you happy, namely binge-watching murder documentaries and texting your friends about them.
People say things to you like, “Hey, what did you do last night? Did you go out?” and you feel like saying, “It was a Tuesday, Claire. I know it was 80 degrees, but come on, can’t I just stay home? Please? Netflix just released a five-part series on a guy who conned 17 women into thinking he was Tony Shalhoub.”
She understood where I was coming from, because we both suffer from that strange, socially misunderstood phenomenon–
“This time of year is so bad for me. It’s hot. I don’t want to go anywhere, because it’s so hot. I have constant boob sweat. It smells like meat everywhere, because everybody is barbecuing. I hate the mosquitos. I hate having to wear sunscreen all the time, because I sunburn as soon as I step outside. It just sucks.”
I’d found my new best friend.
“You should come to one of the parties after you’re vaccinated.”
Most of them work in the medical field, so they’d gotten their shots a while ago. That’s when they had their first get-together, and it was a big success.
“I brought my needlepoint. A few people brought books. One of the guys I work with came, and he brought this big puzzle with him, like 1,000 pieces, and we all did that for a while. That was really popular. Yeah, people really liked that.”
The party only had one rule–
No Forced Social Interaction
“If you want to say something, you can say it. It’s not like ‘No Talking At All,’ but it’s like, ‘You can put something out there, but nobody has to respond to you if you do’ and there is this feeling that, like, you should try to limit how much you’re talking with people, unless you really have something to say. That was the easiest way I think we all described it: Only say something if you need to say it, but don’t feel like you need to fill in the silence.”
Honestly, it sounded like heaven.
“We all hang out a few times a week now. It’s become this– Like, I never got into hobbies or clubs or anything, because when you get nervous being around people, it’s hard to make friends or go out a lot, but now, I get so excited to go to the organizer’s house or, like, I’m hosting this week, and I can’t wait. To have my place with all these people in it? I mean, you do get lonely. Even if you’re not good at socializing, you get lonely. That’s the hard part. Now that you can ask people if they’re vaccinated and start making plans, it’s just nice to be around people, and I feel good that we came up with this solution to be around people we like without it being this high pressure thing of having to, like, entertain each other. That’s the part I was dreading, because I haven’t done it in so long. I was never good at it in the first place, but after a year of not going to parties or bars, I was so scared to get back into that. This is a way to, like, get us all back into it without getting all worked up about it.”
Ironically, by removing that pressure, some of the members of the No Talking Necessary Club (I named them, all royalties are mine) have made plans to do things that will, in fact, necessitate conversation.
“Tomorrow I’m going to have dinner outdoors with somebody I met at one of the get-togethers, yeah. I’m looking forward to it. We were both doing needlepoint, and she came up to me as we were walking to our cars, and we started talking, yeah. I don’t know. I like her. She seems cool. We’ve already hung out for hours, but we’ve only ever said three words to each other until she asked for my number so we could make plans.”
I asked her if she was worried about finding things to talk about on the date.
“But that’s the best part, we both know we’re cool with not doing that, so yeah, we might talk or we might not. I’m happy to just sit there and eat with her. I know we should get to know each other, but you can still learn a lot about a person just by being with them and enjoying the energy they give off. That’s what I’ve learned from spending time with these people. I’m not just happy because we’re not talking. I’m happy because they’re all nice people who aren’t asking me to do anything I’m not comfortable with, and that means a lot, because I would be scared to ask for that. If it hadn’t been for somebody suggesting this, I would have just kept making myself be this person I wasn’t comfortable being, and so, yeah, like, I’m just glad I don’t have to do that anymore, and now I feel like the person I am when we all hang out is someone I can be all the time if I want to be.”
If you’ve been feeling this strange sensation of wanting the pandemic to end while still not wanting everything to go back to the way it was, that’s not unusual.
“You know, I’m really good at puzzles. I never knew that before, but I think it’s because I don’t want to do them on my own? It’s fun when you have, like, six people working on a puzzle all at once.”
While many of us agreed that change was needed from a societal level all the way down to how we interact with each other, it’s easy to forget about those declarations when the weather warms up and the world reminds us that while the before times weren’t perfect, we at least knew how they worked.
“This week, we’re all going to watch a movie. No phones. No checking email. We just have to sit and watch the movie. It might become a regular thing.”
But they didn’t work for everybody.
“We might have to start organizing this though, because word is getting out, and more people want to join, and like, pretty soon we won’t be able to fit everyone in the same place, so we might break it up a little bit more.”
In fact, it’s probably safe to say they didn’t work for most people, and the people who struggled the most are often the ones who stayed quiet.
“You should see all the messages I get about it. I can’t believe how many people just want to sit around with us. It’s great.”
So maybe another look at the expectations we put on ourselves and each other is necessary.
“It makes you feel like you’re not so alone, you know?”
I guess that’s something we do need to talk about.
The Ticket Cost: On theater and elitism
Soon after graduating from college with a degree in theater and a lot of uncertainty as to what my next steps should be, I decided that networking might be the way to go. That led to me buying a ticket to a fundraiser at a theater where I had seen several productions while in school. It was a place I hoped to work at one day, but the goal was to meet as many people as possible at the event. I wanted to make local connections as I always planned on staying in Rhode Island, and this was going to be my first attempt at introducing myself to the community.
Admission was not cheap, and I didn’t have a lot of expendable income. I dug a suit out of my closet that I had worn to a wedding, and I drove my beat-up car to the gorgeous venue where the event was being held. I remember sitting in the front seat, engine overheating, music on, talking down my anxiety. I finally managed to push myself out of the car and into a situation I was sure wouldn’t be as bad as I imagined.
In fact, in some ways, it was worse.
Because while your worst nightmare regarding a social engagement might involve tripping on your way in or spilling red wine all over a VIP guest, there was another scenario I had never managed to envision.
Everyone ignored me.
It’s not that I failed to meet anyone. I did have a friend or two at there, and those friends did their best to bring me around and have me say hello to anybody they thought I should get to know, but when those people learned I was just a local grad looking to kick off a career in my field, they showed no exuberance, and most quickly excused themselves so they could move a few feet away and talk to someone more established.
This went on for the entire evening, and when it was all over, I recall questioning whether staying in Rhode Island was such a good idea after all, or if theater, in general, was a good move for me. It was only my conviction that it probably wouldn’t be any easier anywhere else that had me feeling as though I should just press on.
(I’m also Irish, and we live for vengeance, so there’s that.)
Telling that story was always impossible, because of how ashamed I felt. The arts is a fertile breeding ground for imposter syndrome, and that means the slightest suggestion that you actually are an imposter, that you really don’t belong, that you have nothing to offer leads to you beating yourself up for even having the audacity to try. You feel caught. Like a con artist. Like you were trying to get away with convincing people of your own worth.
When I finally did tell the story of that night years later, I received a lot of support from people who had experienced something similar. I was also contacted by people who were there that night and swore that I couldn’t have been, because they don’t remember me being there, and Oh, if I had been, they would have taken me under their wing and showed me so much compassion. What a crime that we didn’t bump into each other, because they definitely would not have behaved in the self-serving way the other people there did.
The truth is I remember every person in attendance that night, and every person who swore they didn’t recall me being there had, in fact, snubbed me.
If anything, coming back to me years later only to let me know that they doubted my presence simply because they didn’t want to believe they could act that way felt like adding insult to injury. Ultimately, I don’t really harbor that much ill will toward them, because this is how we’re taught to behave as artists who look at our work as a career rather than a passion.
Once you start behaving like someone who moves through the world with strict eye for professional advancement, you quickly find yourself transforming from a creator into a networker, and from there, it’s only a hop, skip and a crudite plate away from being–
Last week, I wrote about my concerns for theater as we move toward reopening, with a focus on keeping promises made in statements and revised guidelines regarding diversity and equity in staffing and storytelling. One of the threads I was too worried to pull at in that article for fear of going off on too large of a tangent was the way in which racial inequity rides alongside classicism in many of the organizations and atmospheres we, as artists, find ourselves in.
In her masterpiece Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson presents an irrefutable case for how the invisible class systems in our lives and histories dictate behavior and prejudice we are subject to and that we subject others to. I could never do that book justice by trying to explain it further, but I highly recommend grabbing a copy. While I was reading it, I saw theater after theater coming out to pledge that they would seek to address their inequities, but I found that I wasn’t hearing anyone talk about class.
In fact, there was a subsequent conversation happening at the time, all about the economics of reopening, and how the industry might need to become even more financially oriented in terms of how it operates. When it comes to business models, that’s understandable, but one would hope that idea would be to create new models that expand accessibility to the arts and lessen the impact of rich donors and people who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars every year on season subscriptions.
Instead, it was the exact opposite. However many eggs theater leaders were putting in their rich white baskets, they now seemed to be prepared to toss them all in. As to how that would impact their declarations of change from last summer, the idea seemed to be that they would ask Black artists to sit next to the influential wealth mongers at board meetings and brainstorming sessions, thereby giving them a front row seat to how the old order was put together and maintained, with the expectation that the bigwigs from the before times would now willingly sacrifice their input and sway and give someone else a chance to speak.
Needless to say, I find that suggestion to be somewhere between wishful thinking and outright insanity.
For years, I conducted anonymous interviews with theater artists about their frustrations in the field. In each of those interviews, I found elitism coming up time and again, although it was given a different name each time. There seems to be something innate in us, either as artists or humans, that wants to stay away from the topic of class. Perhaps it’s that shame I felt the night I thought I looked too shoddy in my off-beige suit to be worth talking to. We know that even the poorest members of our society will sometimes pair themselves up ideologically with the wealthy, because they believe it to be an aspirational alliance. Maybe if they believe the things rich people believe, they’ll find a billion dollars buried in their backyard.
Theater people seem to have the same misconception, except that there are a great deal of them who are sure that money is not a driving factor in their work or their artistic journey. The trouble is, even when money isn’t the motivation behind their behavior, success almost always is, and when success is predicated on money and resources, you’re chasing currency whether you know it or not.
Nearly every facet of how theater operates tangles up success and exposure using the same rules that all capitalist structures do, which is ironic, considering how often theater tries to set itself apart from those structures so as to criticize and abhor them. In some cases, that faux revolutionary spirit only serves as a facade for what is actually a wild hunt for cash. A Latinx playwright I spoke with recently for a future article was commissioned by a theater to write a new play to be produced post-COVID, but when they submitted their first pass, they found that the artistic staff was put off by the fact that the play didn’t do enough to “properly express a Latinx point of view.” You can imagine this playwright’s surprise at hearing that their point of view, in and of itself, was not sufficiently Latinx. They were told that the commission was the result of a grant the theater had received to produce more work by Latinx artists, and they wanted to make sure whatever wound up onstage was fulfilling what the grant intended. Somewhere in all that wokeness, the theater revealed itself to be more concerned with perception than with the playwright’s experience. The entire situation was brought about by how an arts funding agency and a theater wanted to appear to its neoliberal audience base, and not by any real interest in putting an authentic perspective in front of an audience.
Four months ago, I was asked to be on a hiring committee at a school where I’d been teaching remotely. Unfamiliar with the area, the department felt I’d have an unbiased outlook when it came to selecting someone. While the intention was good, when the time came to discuss our choice for the position, I found I was the only one voting for the person who I felt had the most impressive background. The other members of the committee wanted a local actor who was, according to them, “universally beloved,” and who had worked at a lot of other theaters in the area. In other words, the reason I was brought on also made me the sole outlier in the group.
“He could set these students up with acting jobs, directing jobs, you name it,” crooned one member of the committee. “He has connections everywhere around here.”
I was confused. It seemed to me that while the point of any college program was to prepare you for a profession in the outside world, the education you were meant to receive was what would facilitate that preparation. It shouldn’t be as simple as lessening the distance between a student and the person who signs the contracts, should it? The person the committee wanted to hire did seem very nice, but his resume just wasn’t on par with all the others we received, including one from an actor whose work I was familiar with and who I thought would be an asset to the program.
“I’ve never heard of her,” said that same committee member, as though that automatically disqualified her.
In that way, a sort of reverse snobbery took over. I see it often in New England. Maybe it has something to do with never evolving far beyond a village mentality. The idea that someone can only be deemed impressive by the place where they come from — and nowhere else. Despite the fact that the applicant I voted for should have appealed to anyone looking to turn some heads (she’s the protege of an Academy-Award winning writer) she could not measure up to an actor they could bring their friends and spouses to see at their nearby theater.
While I’ve always scoffed at the term “local celebrity,” as I grow older, I find that some people take a great deal of pride in only being interested in those who they feel they’ve helped create. The flip side of that is a dismissal of anyone’s success they haven’t had a hand in. Often when raving about a local performance I’ve loved, someone will say to me “I saw them in a play 10 years ago, and I didn’t think they were that good.” The implication being that someone has one chance to make an impact, and if they fail, they’ve failed forever.
The frustrating thing about trying to win the battle over elitism is that, at times, it doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult. It does, however, always seem to be expensive. I’ve listened to audience members tell me all about how much they value great acting and writing, but then see their eyes widen when a theater constructs a notably decadent set or puts its actors in especially stunning costumes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when I think of some of my students, and how much I encourage them to produce theater in rec rooms and church basements, assuring them that nothing matters but the quality of their work, I wonder just how much of what I’m saying is true.
Years ago, a friend told me his parents were cancelling all their local subscriptions save for the one at the area’s biggest theater, because “they really want to feel like they’re going to the theater when they go to the theater.”
If you’re wondering what the hell that means, don’t worry, I was just as confused.
Upon further pressing, it seems what they meant was that they look at going to the theater the same way most people look at seeing a show in Las Vegas. It might be a great show, and if it is, swell, but the show isn’t really why they’re there. It’s just one part of a bigger evening out. That means they care just as much about the kind of cocktails they can get at the bar in the lobby, how close the nearest upscale restaurant is, and whether they’re going to run into any other East Side socialites at intermission. The play is almost beside the point, and that’s troubling, because while you really can create great theater just about anywhere, you have no control over there being a five-star bistro across the street from you. My friend’s parents cutting off support to theaters that don’t help elevate their own skewed perceptions of themselves are sending a clear message to those theaters that they need to invest in amenities and not in the work they do. It’s similar to how colleges are now building Olympic-sized swimming pools to try and attract students instead of investing in the kind of education they can give them.
It’s under these circumstances that we’re meant to believe change will be forthcoming. While I have seen great strides at theaters in terms of hiring and commitment to progressive growth, talking about reshaping how they approach thinking about their work in economic terms continually seems to shut down the conversation. When asked about how their work would address the middle class experience, one artistic director laughed and said-
“The middle class? What are we — running for president?”
While activists made a compelling case last year that racial injustice is present in all issues, ranging from student loan debt to climate change, artistic leaders have begun to cherry pick which problems they’d like to deal with, and — no surprise here — they’ve decided only problems that can be repaired with optics and no threat to the way they do business are the ones on their list. Anything that requires them to look at the way they’ve failed people who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars taking classes at their institutions in the hopes of being cast there one day or only producing plays by writers that have been formally trained and produced on Broadway is simply not on the agenda.
We could also dive into the nepotism aspect of all this, but I almost fear where that would take us. Suffice it to say, this all boils down to access, and if you’re a top donor’s niece, access is rarely going to be a problem for you.
After telling a brilliant friend and colleague I was writing this, they told me about an experience they had at a local theater where they worked in the box office for a short time. Upon being hired, they were given a stern warning that in no way should they expect their presence in the building to mean that one day they could grace the sacred stage that was a mere 300 feet from them.
My friend told me they balked at the presumptive notion that somehow their applying for a job at a theater was some sneak attack on trying to get cast there. They’d be working regularly at a theater in Boston, and this job was just a way to make ends meet. They weren’t even all that impressed with the work being done there, but that aside, they hadn’t auditioned — ever. So why would they need to be lectured about advancement boundaries? I laughed, but then confessed to them that I’ve known people who would do something like that, if only because there seem to be so few ways to break in anywhere these days. That only made my friend angrier.
“In that case,” she said, “why go out of your way to tell someone that they could never hope to act or work there just because they’re working somewhere else at the same theater? What are they trying to say? That if you wind up in the box office or the marketing department that you lost some kind of contest and now you have to stay there forever? Geniuses are discovered in strange places all the time. What kind of person working for a theater doesn’t know that?”
They were right. In fact, theaters and colleges often love promoting that some Famous Person Who Struggled passed by them in the night, but the amount of time they spend trying to amplify and elevate the careers of those who might need a hand is frequently minimal at best. It makes you question why we spend so much time in Rhode Island puffing up our chests about how Viola Davis grew up here instead of trying to find the next Viola Davis. It’s wonderful to take pride in your success stories, but what are you doing in the spirit of that person’s success?
Usually when I ask this question, I’m told about scholarships. I’m told about grants. I’m told about people I can meet with and places holding seminars and workshops, and I think to myself–
Don’t you people know that most artists are not artists for a living?
In terms of scholarships, I wonder–
How do you expect a young person who doesn’t come from a family that’s aware of their artistic talent to know how to find a scholarship, let alone apply for one?
The barriers to entry that we have created, even on a local level, have become unconscionable. The number of times I’ve seen people placed in arts community leadership positions who then disappear years later never having stepped foot in most of the theaters I work with is astounding. And when you push back on it, the blame is often put back on you. That you didn’t extend a formal invitation. That they’re so busy. That they wish they could do better and offer more help, but there are only so many hours in the day.
And yet they never seem to miss an opening night at the places that can provide an open bar. They always seem to have time to talk with the movers and the shakers, and every so often, they grab a photo of themselves in an inner city classroom to demonstrate how much they care. And while they profess that their schedules are full and they’re overworked, there never sees to be an acknowledgement that they are able to make time for people who make six figures and not for the painters and poets and dancers and musicians and artists who are not yet established, but trying to be. The people who are so busy making art while paying their bills that they unfortunately run out of energy before they can figure out how to hire a caterer for their next event, even while knowing that might make a difference in getting them more help.
A relatively new artistic director of a small theater in a state down south complained to me on the phone yesterday that when he started his theater, he knew the only way he’d get coverage or respect from his community would be to max out his credit card so he could throw a big opening night party. He knew that he could also borrow money from his production budget to really wow them, and while it might hurt the show, the “influencers” in his area just wanted to be able to tag themselves in front of a backdrop with the theater’s name on it so they could put up the caption “#SupportLocalTheater.”
And he did it.
And it worked.
He started receiving immediate attention from the local paper, even though theaters that had been around far longer than his were having a hard time getting noticed. Before we hung up, he even told me that a renowned local critic had praised him for “being smart enough to throw a good party.”
Apparently the party was the thing, not the play.
Not to mention the full page ad he took out in that paper.
That didn’t hurt either.
When I got back to my car the night of that fundraiser years ago, I was more dejected than I’d ever been in my life. Of all the heartache and disappointment I’ve faced since then, that was still the one that felt the most crushing. It was partially because I felt like I was up against something that was far more insidious than just a “theater problem.” It was a societal problem that was not only present in an industry meant for welcoming outcasts and original thinking, but widely embraced as the right thing to do if you care about getting anywhere in that very same industry.
I’m glad I had the wherewithal to not let it deter me for very long, but I think of all the people who have been in similar rooms and at similar parties being similarly ignored. Truthfully, I’m sure I’ve done the ignoring on many occasions. It’s difficult to learn the rules of the game and then decide not to play it. That isn’t an excuse, but an admission. I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to thinking of theater as a race to win instead of an outlet for expression and collaboration. That’s why I eventually found myself thinking I should step back from it. Not because I wasn’t winning the race, but because it didn’t seem like anyone was, and I was watching so many people, especially those who, like me, did not come from wealth, decide that the deck was stacked against them. Though I didn’t grow up rich, I do recognize my innate privilege, and if I felt unwelcome at that party, I can’t imagine what somebody who wasn’t born with that same privilege would have felt.
As we continue to talk about what we want theater to look like on the other side of this historic moment, we need to shine a light on all the ways in which we might come across as inaccessible. How easy is it for someone we don’t know — a new designer arriving in town or a person switching careers late in life or a kid just out of college who is terrified and needs guidance — to receive access to us? How far is the bridge from the top of the chain to the bottom? Should we be radically reconceiving the function and purpose of administrative elements like boards and development?
Who are we to people who can do nothing for us?
Even if we’re kind to someone who doesn’t turn out to be the next Shakespeare or Michelangelo, you have to ask–
What did that kindness actually cost us?
So much of what theater does best is built on the back of generosity. The willingness to let a scene partner have their moment in front of an audience. A chance taken on a new script or an up-and-coming actor. An anonymous donation just because you like the work you’re seeing or you believe in the mission.
If there’s a way forward, a lot of progress will need to be made in the light. There will have to be public follow-through on public promises, and accountability and transparency will be of the utmost importance. In that front-facing way, much of the change we’ve been asked to create lives in the optics, but generosity does not. It rarely ever does. We could probably come back with just what we’re willing to do publicly, but to come back better, we need a radical commitment to generosity.
It’ll require a seismic shift in our own individual values. It’ll live in small interactions and in the conversations we have that nobody else can hear. We’ll need to reconfigure our taste so that what’s shiny isn’t praised above what’s substantial. We’ll have to learn to be the one who looks around a room full of people talking and laughing and make our way to the one person who seems like they don’t know anyone, introduce ourselves, compliment them on a suit that doesn’t quite fit, and try to make them feel welcome.
That Doesn’t Look Like Change to Me: On how “coming back better” has become “come back soon”
“I think we just need to focus on getting the message out that we’re back. We’re back and it’s safe. I think that’s a big enough task in and of itself.”
This was a statement made toward the end of what truly felt like an endless Zoom meeting at the end of a very long week. I had probably spent five to six hours in meetings just like this one with artists and theater-makers from all over the country. The goal was to talk about reopening theaters now that vaccinations are proceeding at a rapid clip and a fall 2021 return to theater-going seems probable.
I wanted to write about how theaters are planning to not just come back, but to come back having honored the promises they made less than a year ago in the wake of George Floyd’s killing regarding race in theater. As the country watches the trial of the man who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, we’re also watching a country eager to move on from anything pandemic-related. I am one of the people who has echoed the sentiment that I never want to read a book, see a film or engage in any culture that tackles the COVID-era for at least the next 20 years of my life, but there seems to be a feeling that the moment of reckoning we experienced as a nation last June was not something separate and apart from the pandemic, but another event that took place during it, and the distinction between those two things could lead institutions and organizations toward believing that maybe change doesn’t need to come as swiftly as they promised it would.
The reopening of theater was always bound to be a complicated inflection point for an industry that desperately needed a radical reimagining in almost every sense, but especially when it came to equitable representation. While theaters were dark, many tried to use the excuse that the pandemic was giving them so much to worry about, they simply couldn’t work on anything else. Anybody with common sense could see that this was a tactic (and a gross one) to forestall real change. After all, if you’re a theater at a time when you’re not allowed to produce theater, shouldn’t you theoretically have plenty of time on your hands to work on creating better theater when the time comes to do so?
Eventually, even the groups that lagged the longest put out plans and oaths to do better, but to those of us on the administrative side of theater, it was possible to recognize the tried-and-true strategies for fending off criticism with assurances that change will happen behind-the-scenes, that it might not come right away but soon, and by using buzzwords and academic language leaving anyone listening to perhaps feel better, but walk away with any tangible outcome.
This brings us to the current moment, when even the theaters that seemed to be passionately inspired to do things differently are now seeing that passion fracture and split with the reality that reopening is not going to be as simple as throwing the doors open and welcoming audiences back inside their spaces.
In other words, they knew change was going to have a cost, but now they’re wondering if it’s too high.
That doubt is made manifest in some of the same go-to excuses we used to hear before the pandemic about why we were seeing the same lackluster titles produced over and over again or why the same actors are cast or the same stories are told in the same ways.
Standard, fear-driven fare like “I don’t think our audiences will respond to that” or “I’m worried because it’s not a well-known title.”
Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone that while the theater industry can make all the promises it wants, there are theater-adjacent bodies that never agreed to a change. I learned that recently while futilely attempting to apply for rights to a play and getting the same run-around from licensing companies that I experienced for years before COVID struck. While that may not seem like something that would affect honoring new guidelines about equity and diversity, better access to titles from all playwrights would increase the number of plays done by people who aren’t white. The old licensing model was also one built on elitism and favored companies with more resources, which is exactly the kind of model we wanted to see retired in theater. But how can we change if the people working with us don’t agree to change as well? The answer is: We need to insist on that change from people who depend on our business. The same goes for the media that covers our work, and yes, the audiences who see our shows.
Hearing that will most likely inspire criticism from theater-makers that they have no control over audiences even in the best of times, that we’re entering a precarious phase upon reopening where we need to remove every barrier in place that might prevent people from coming to our shows, and that we should just be grateful to everyone and anyone who buys a ticket.
Again, how do we expect to change if we’re not standing firm when it comes to our outside collaborators changing alongside us? That includes where we get our rights, who writes stories about us, and the people who come see what it is we do. We simply cannot allow the tail to keep wagging the dog in all these relationships. It’s understandable to think that internal changes were going to be difficult enough without now needing to create change in some of the industries around us, but what is the alternative?
Even as I pose that question, the voice in the back of my head says–
We could just do our best for now and hope for change in the future.
And everyone, that’s not good enough.
“Hoping for Change for Settling for Another Unnecessary Production of The Taming of the Shrew” might as well be the title of some of the seasons I’m seeing in the planning stages.
Broadway is currently a cultural whiplash pool of some exciting productions like Thoughts of a Colored Man to reflect the demand for better narratives on America’s biggest stage while the all-white Music Man is still going to play one of its most prominent venues.
Like it or not, theater will be coming back at rock bottom, and as bad as rock bottom is, it is also a perfect place upon which to build a new foundation.
Let’s start with the audience–
An audience can absolutely be cultivated and taught to appreciate seeing different kinds of work onstage, but that is where you remind yourself that you are a theater and not a restaurant. You are not there to apologize endlessly to rich racists from the suburbs because they don’t like that you’re not doing 42nd Street for the fifth time in seven years. If they’re a donor or a board member, ask yourself if you want your organization to exist on the support of people like that. Remind yourself that conditional support is not actually support. Producing something that goes against your new EDI guidelines because some acting hobbyist cut you a $10,000 check so that they could check playing Willy Loman off their bucket list is not change.
If you find that your audience refuses to see anything that isn’t a musical based on a movie based on a bad television show, then you need to embrace the idea of a transition in which you will undoubtedly lose audience members and lose money at the worst possible time to lose money and you really have no choice in the matter, because the — what’s that word again — the alternative is to keep making overwrought garbage for the lowest common denominator.
As my friend Aaron often says, you do not get to come back just because you existed in the before times. You have to justify your return.
You may feel as though I’m kicking an entire field when it’s down, but let’s face it, theater is perpetually down. The numbers barely ever add up. The ticket prices are too high. We’ve created an entire profession that borrows the worst elements of film, fashion and social media, and combines them into an anxiety-inducing, vanity-driven nightmare that thrives on a lack of imagination and crippling personal insecurity.
But when it is good, it is the best thing in the world, and that’s why we all miss it so much.
Some of us miss it so much that we’re contemplating compromising on our values in the hopes that we can just have it back as soon as possible.
The problem is, those of us who do theater know that we are the ultimate procrastinators when it comes to big, systemic change. It’s easy to put it off, because change does take money and money is never there. It does take a long-standing commitment to places like regional theater where people are always coming and going, making it harder to see any kind of plan through to the end. It does get easier and easier to tell yourself that it’s enough to really want to do better and that wanting to is enough.
It’s nowhere near enough.
While the cries a year ago were for theater that better represents, supports and celebrates Black lives and voices, one would hope that time would have been spent since then building more expanded plans that include addressing sexism, classism, ableism and transphobia. I recently wrote a statement for my theater in the wake of attacks against the AAPI community, and it was another reminder that all our tables need to be bigger. Subsequently, the movie industry has already shown that widening the kinds of stories you tell and the hiring pool you employ to tell them is not only morally just, but actually makes you more money. So if you’re not a particularly conscious individual, but you have any kind of business sense, you still have every reason to never want to go back to the way things were.
If you are one of those people who supports theater in your area and wants to know how you can hold them accountable by reminding them that while last year may feel like a century ago, you still remember the goals they set for themselves and you expect them to follow through on it as they begin to announce reopening plans, be aware of having those ten-dollar words thrown at you. Be advised that many theaters are not returning to their regular subscription model, which is great, but that means it’s going to get easier for them to tell you that the next show will be the one that doesn’t have an all-white cast. That the next one will be new work amplifying their new core values. That they just have to make a little money first, because pandemic pandemic pandemic and then you’ll see them do a big pivot, and Oh, you better prepare yourself, because change is just going to come pouring out of every door.
I mentioned administrative change earlier, and that’s the well-known loophole to getting a pat on the back for looking progressive while still catering to people who might balk at having to watch two guys kiss onstage or a play that addresses things like climate change or white supremacism. Diversify your education and development and marketing departments and then claim that all is well.
All that is great, but it’s not enough.
That’s why it’s important, as people who watch and enjoy theater, to say that you want to see diversity happening in production. That means directors, actors, designers, playwrights and crew. If a theater is committed to change, that’s where you should be seeing the change happen. It should affect how their staffing looks as well, but staffing alone is not going to cut it.
Nearly a year ago, theater promised to come back better.
There has been ample time for reflection, for organizing, for planning and for building a better infrastructure in which change can not only exist, but thrive.
If organizations did not use that time wisely, that speaks volumes not only about what they can do, but what they’re willing to do.
In other words, if you’re going to insist that you have to do things the way you did them before even as the rest of the world has experienced a collective reset, then you are labeling yourself a dinosaur and you will go extinct.
Any business that asserts it can only operate one way with zero flexibility or room for growth is often put out to pasture before very long. It would be shameful if the most creative and adaptable people given the most resources of anybody in history threw up their hands and said, “Sorry, but we only know how to do it the way we’ve always done it.”
After any mass shooting, the Conservatives among us like to tamp down calls for gun reform by saying, “Now is not the time.” I’m reminded of that as I write this, because every so often, on one of the endless Zoom meetings, I voice my frustration at some of the passivity I’m seeing, and I’m quickly called to task for being so negative when people are just doing their best.
These are the same people who would call themselves artists — a profession that, from the dawn of time, has spoken out at every inconvenient opportunity to demand change when nobody wants it with the insight that change never happens when people want it, only when they have no other choice but to create it.
Now is not only the time, there will be no other time.