On May 6, 7 and 8, Island Moving Company (IMC) will hold a hybrid in-person and livestreamed performance called Return to Live at the WaterFire Arts Center.
The performance will feature world premieres from guest choreographer Colin Connor, former artistic director of the José Limón Dance Company, and Danielle Genest, IMC’s associate artistic director. The performance will also include Mark Harootian’s recent work, Steady Grip, plus Ruth…Less, and A Life Well Lived by Miki Ohlsen, IMC’s artistic director. All performances will be accompanied by live music arranged by music director and cellist Adrienne Taylor, with pianist Andrei Bauman and violinist Emma Lee Holmes-Hicks.
Ohlsen, who curated the performance with Genest, said of the upcoming collection of pieces, “It furthers IMC’s commitment to artistic collaboration and providing audiences with the rare opportunity to engage with two live art forms in a singular production.”
Return to Live takes place May 6 – 8 at the WaterFire Arts Center. 475 Valley St, PVD. For more information, go to islandmovingco.org
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Invoice for Emotional Labor: Christopher Johnson’s latest performance explores questions about race and racism
This past weekend, April 8 – 10, Christopher Johnson debuted his workshop performance of Invoice For Emotional Labor. The streamed, recorded performance was presented by the Wilbury Theatre Group, in collaboration with the CCRI Players and Community College of Rhode Island.
Having witnessed readings of pieces of this work-in-progress over the past two years in venues like the Brooklyn Tea House, and at Wilbury Theatre’s DeCameron, I was eager to witness all of the pieces of Christopher’s full-length work come together as a whole.
Invoice For Emotional Labor is billed in its promotion as “a multi-discipline performance answering the asked and not so obvious unasked questions about race and racism…” from the perspective of Christopher, a poet, artist educator, and 2018 McColl Johnson Fellow finalist and RISCA Playwright fellow.
As in Christopher’s 2017 play, New and Dangerous Ideas, which centered itself on themes of the criminalization of Black people and the expatriation of police, Invoice For Emotional Labor also utilized the technique of weaving together film, poetry, narrative and scene, not only to share Christopher’s lived experience, but to teach white people about racism. Unlike the former play, which featured other actors, Invoice For Emotional Labor is a one man show, and its scope and aim is to not focus on one issue, but to encompass, and literally embody, the full experience of living as a Black man in America.
The performance was filmed over the course of just two days in CCRI’s Bobby Hackett Theatre by Oliver Arrias and staff from the Wilbury Theatre Group, and at varying turns was a space that felt both intimate and lonely.
From the first moment the performance begins, we are indeed front and center within Christopher’s experience. On a movie screen, a shirtless Christopher appears, his long, twisted dreadlocks loosely falling over his shoulders. He shares how the journey of this work began, with being asked countless questions about race and racism by white friends and at student talks, on top of having to live the experience of being Black.
It is here where we learn what Christopher means by the term emotional labor, defined as the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job, where workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. Christopher translates that to the emotional labor of having to, as a Black person, manage his emotions dealing with all the questions, while also bearing witness to trauma committed against other Black people, as well as the endless encounters with racism, both personal and structural, he experiences.
It is also here where Christopher shares how exhausting this is and how it is not his job to teach white people about racism — that this work he creates, is first and foremost, for him. It is his therapy. He tells us, the audience — and it is clear to me anyway, as a white woman, that Invoice For Emotional Labor is speaking to us, white people — that if we get anything out of his work, we should pay him for his emotional labor. And, in case you’re not quite sure you heard correctly, the screen flashes Christopher’s CashApp, Paypal and Venmo handles for the audience to pay him.
From there, we encounter Christopher, wearing a Dashiki top, standing before the same screen, now bearing a waving American flag. He sings snippets of Star Spangled Banner, pausing at various points throughout the song to ask us to imagine the story of African people in the early 1500s leading a “normal” life, holding a naming ceremony for a baby, celebrating with rituals of their own, a new life, only to be captured and crammed together, shackled horizontally, inside the bottom of the first slave ship voyage, supposedly to Santa Domingo. As a figure in African diasporic storytelling, Ananzi, the trickster wise spider, appears to guide the African men and women, who then free themselves from their shackles and overtake the white men leading them into what would become the inhumanity and horrors of enslavement. Hoping to be guided by the stars to journey back to Africa, they instead, as Christopher tells us, are brought to Virginia, by the three white men remaining, one of them being Rhode Island naval officer and slave trader Esek Hopkins.
The scene wraps with a crash course on the pull and harshest of pushbacks between the vast contributions Black people made to this country in building America’s infrastructure through forced, enslaved labor, to fighting for this country, to contributions to culture and the creation of every genre of “American” music, to the caretaking of white children and families — and how at every turn this country created laws and policies that told Black people they were not fully human and did not deserve the same treatment or opportunities that white people in this country were afforded, all because of the color of their skin. Christopher names redlining, the GI bill, segregation and voting rights as some of the many ways Black people were kept from being seen as fully human, to live freely, and be able to attain and build generational wealth.
While Christopher tells us that it is not his job to teach us about racism, he spends the hour-and-a-half performance pouring his body, mind, heart and soul, with intimacy, urgency, vulnerability, playfulness and anguish, to, ironically, teach us about racism. Therefore, we should consider this teaching a great gift, the reception of which, we will learn at the performance’s conclusion, comes with a responsibility.
The lessons come to us through each vignette, often preceded by another mechanism that weaves each piece together — the use of language used to talk about and understand race and racism. Terms such as Implicit Bias, White Fragility, and Microaggression appear in white print splashed across a black screen, each term’s definition underneath. The use of this suggests if we have the language and understanding of these terms, along with Christopher’s lived experience and historical teachings, hopefully, we can do something to change matters of both personal and structural racism. And change is what Christopher is asking us for.
Implicit Bias was the term used as the jumping off point for the intimate, anecdotal monologue where Christopher, sitting atop a concrete block on stage, shares how he had eyes kept on him by a white male staff member when shopping in a CVS, while white customers came and went without a glance. A film clip inserted here, the Proctor and Gamble “The Talk,” illustrates further examples of implicit bias, and how Black children are raised to stay safe, and be seen for who they are instead of what they’re believed to be by white people.
Poems like Summer Rain, and stories shared about Christopher’s family’s Southern roots and his mother’s intentional move to Newark, New Jersey, to not have to raise her children in the Jim Crow South, give the audience a window into the world of aunts, grandmothers, and neighborhood “OGs” who try to impart the life lessons he will need as a Black man in this country. Especially in Summer Rain, we feel the joy of childhood play in red clay and puddles, and we feel a sense of hope in Christopher’s grandmother’s refrain of “just got to believe everything’s gonna be all right.”
Along with the racism terminology shared, we are privy to a few screens that share translations of Black lexicon, and the difference between what is said and what is meant, like if a Black parent tells you to wash the dishes, it really means you clean all the counters, wipe the cabinets, mop the floor, and wash and dry and put away the dishes.
Christopher’s poems are breaths in between each lesson and tale, and it is amazing to consider how Christopher, with great agility in both emotion and craft, pivots from each mode of delivery and each deep piece of content shared.
In an African print suit jacket, black turtleneck and slacks, Christopher greets us from the stage’s empty audience seats with comfort and sardonic wit, as the game show host in I4EL, “the show where you white people get to ask a Black person anything you want to know about race or racism, but were afraid to ask, because to be honest, you f’n knew better.” In I4EL, Christopher fields questions — the voiceovers of real questions and statements he has been on the receiving end of — like, “How many times a day do you feel discriminated against…and how often does this happen in our area?” Christopher, as game show host, answers the questioner by sharing about the time he walked with a white woman friend on Blackstone Boulevard and was met with the comment from a white man about Christopher probably wishing he was wearing the watermelon printed shorts, a nearby toddler was sporting. He finishes his answer with, “Well, let me tell you, Bertha, I deal with racism every day I leave my house.”
If it is dizzying and overwhelming for the audience to take in all of the experiences Christopher shares scene after scene, one has to imagine the toll choosing which stories to tell, creating each narrative, and performing them must take on the creator. We move through Invoice For Emotional Labor and approach its ending, a piece in which Christopher tells about a day in his life where a detour, before a planned talk with Black youth at the Chad Brown Housing complex, leaves him feeling traumatized, erased and othered. As he stands on stage reading his story, the Christopher who appeared in the beginning of the play, is onscreen behind him, this time silent.
Christopher literally walks us through how his depression and anxiety and daily racism impacts his soul. We find Christopher walking downtown Westminster Street in Providence after watching the film The Green Book, which tells the story of the book Black travelers used from the 1930s through the early 1960s to find safe spaces to visit, stay and eat, as Christopher relates, “to avoid getting lynched.” As Christopher continues his walk this day, he is met over and over again through restaurant windows with “white faces, only white faces…white, smiling, white, oblivious, happy white people…” and remembrances of encounters with “white presenting” restaurant owners, and with memories of a white restaurant owner, a friend, who ignores Christopher’s employment inquiry the owner put out. He repeats his feeling of being othered, as the definition flashes across the screen: different, alien, not belonging. All the while, the onscreen Christopher shakes his head, bows his head in despair, pounds his chest with anger, tears at his hair, with tears seeming to well in his eyes, as onstage Christopher shares about the danger of living in a Black body and not being seen for who you are, like the young Tamir Rice, who at age 10 was shot and killed by a police officer within seconds of approach — all for playing with a toy gun on a playground.
Christopher feels like he doesn’t exist, and seeks to find a safe space in Providence, a diverse city, yet with only two monuments honoring Black people. The only place he can think of is the Michael Van Leesten walking bridge. There, he finds a moment of peace with the sign of redtail hawks flying above him, which reminds him of the Tuskegee Airmen who were preferred over white fighter pilots during the war because they were superior, and he feels protected. With a great amount of energy to get to this momentarily “safe space,” Christopher tells us it is time for him to “drop bombs” with his talk with the youth at Chad Brown, so they will not be erased or othered.
Yet, there are more stories and poems and game show questions to answer as the show builds toward its conclusion. In one harrowing scene, I am reminded of hearing from Black people how traumatizing it is to witness photos and videos of Black people being lynched throughout the Jim Crow era, to what’s called modern day lynchings of innocent Black people being beaten and killed, mostly at the hands of police officers. Yet, as white people, perhaps Christopher is asking us to watch. To witness these acts as another way to believe that this is happening, and that we cannot turn away from its existence.
In one scene, Christopher shares his sense that his white friends on social media are apathetic and care more about an impending snow storm than the first not guilty verdict in the Jordan Davis killing. Davis, a Black teenager, was killed by Michael Dunn, a white man, who shoots into the car Davis is in at a gas station, simply because Jordan refuses to turn down the music on the car radio.
As he recounts the story on stage in close-up view, behind him, on the screen, we see Christopher with his wrists bound with the American flag. The image changes to him being gagged, the flag now tightly bound around his mouth, then, to him with hands behind his neck, again bound with the flag. In one image, he wears a hooded sweatshirt with the words emblazoned across the front: You can pick my brain once that invoice is paid. Next we witness Christopher, grimacing in pain, grasping onto the flag, wrapped tightly around his neck, the trail of it upward, as if he is being lynched. The images continue to change as Christopher continues to share about white apathy.
Christopher’s poem, Black Body Positive, follows another I4EL show segment where Christopher is faced with questioner Alison’s countless, age-old stereotypes criminalizing and deeming Black people morally inferior. It had me wishing for the same hope Christopher, the poet, wishes for, when it is hard to imagine. The smartly placed film clip here of author James Baldwin on “The Dick Cavett Show,” sharing his truth about the reality of the Black man’s experience in America, over the white guest’s idealized, “Why can’t we all get along instead of dividing, and making everything about race?” enforces our need to face this reality.
A brilliant closing scene has Christopher on stage in a madras suit jacket and fedora with a small folding table in front of him, playing Three Card Monty. This time, stage Christopher is silent, while the Christopher on screen wraps up his teachings. He challenges us by asking, “Now that you know who we are as Black people, you might ask yourself, who are you as white people?” He tells us that America has been playing Three Card Monty with Black people since the founding of this country, saying no matter what card Black people choose, they lose.
He rapid-fires each line:
“Separate but equal?” “F’ you, you lose!”
“Civil rights?” “F’ you, you lose!”
“First Black president, post-racial America?” “F’ you, you lose!”
He says that even though it might seem like Black people have a “win” every 30 or 40 years, “We sure do get the short end of the stick.”
Christopher challenges us with an ending that he hopes is not our ending. There is no “soft landing,” he tells us. We, as white people, are now shackled to the knowledge we have, and we are not off the hook for how this country continues to treat Black people. He says we are the only ones who can change it, and gives us ways to do just that, like protecting Black children as if they are our own and voting as if we were Black.
He asks us if we learned something from him, and if so, to pay him. I particularly liked the, “..if you are out at a restaurant and you one-up your friends as the racial justice ally warrior with your tidbit of information you gleaned from this performance, and I don’t care if you credit me or not…I want you to pull out your cell phone, and pay me!”
The cash payment screen flashes again.
Christopher finishes Invoice For Emotional Labor with the punch of a poem about five lines long that puts a stop to the “my immigrant family came here with nothing” and serves as a counter to the myth of individualism, and the “proof” of the perceived Black inferiority created by white people.
If audiences viewing Invoice For Emotional Labor were expecting to feel warm and fuzzy, to feel comfortable learning these lessons, they may have been disappointed. These lessons are a gift, though; one that can help white people to understand and empathize more with the history of race and the lived experience of anti-Black racism.
As a witness to this work, I cannot walk away from Christopher’s lesson without being willed to do something, and I hope that others are also willed. Whether we begin with self-reflection on the privileges we hold as white people, educate ourselves further on matters of race and racism or act in our daily lives to call out personal racist attacks and break down these racist systems, we can and must act. If we don’t, well, we will demonstrate the apathy that Christopher reflects upon in the scene with Jordan Davis. In a country where Christopher tells us even when you win, you lose, let’s heed the call of Invoice of Emotional Labor, and pay it forward.
Invoice For Emotional Labor, written and performed by Christopher Johnson, was a workshop performance presented by The Wilbury Theatre Group in collaboration with CCRI Players and Community College of Rhode Island. The work was filmed and edited by Oliver ‘Syde-Sho’ Arrias. Technical direction was by Max Ponticelli and production management was by Annalee Cavallaro.
A Talk-Back on the performance was held Saturday, April 10, with Ted Clement; Wilbury Theatre Group artistic director, Josh Short; CCRI director of human resources and institutional equity, Sybil Bailey; CCRI dean of students, Michael Cunningham; CCRI professor of English, Eileen James; and CCRI alumnus, guest director, and Achievement First Mayoral Academy instructor Ronald Lewis.
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.
This is it.
Time to show your work.
The Rules Do Not Apply: The Little Theatre of Fall River’s “The Last Five Years”
“If I hadn’t believed in youI wouldn’t have loved you at all”
One of the great ironies that’ll be written about when people start assessing what the performing arts was like during the pandemic is that most of us only started figuring out how to do this whole digital theater thing right as the light was appearing at the end of the tunnel. I remember speaking to someone a year ago about what kind of shows could be produced successfully without an audience and with limited resources, and the answer came back, “Anything but a musical.”
And yet, we’ve seen that proven false with a string of recent productions that have found just the right mixture of intimacy and theatricality to make a digital musical not just work, but, well, sing.
The latest comes from The Little Theatre of Fall River. The company has made a name for itself over the past few years for reaching outside the predictable slew of titles that get mountings on smaller stages, but right in the sweet spot between “cult classic” and “beloved” is Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.
The show is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and wow, does it continue to hold up. After premiering in Chicago in 2001, it played Off-Broadway and quickly became the most talked-about show among musical theater aficionados and the most performed show in musical theater auditions.
It follows Jamie, a writer, and Cathy, an actress, as they navigate the highs and lows of dating and then marriage. The show begins with Cathy having just learned that Jamie has left her only to transition into Jamie’s experience of just having met Cathy. The musical moves forward and backward, only allowing the two characters to meet when they reach the middle of the story.
The Last Five Years has become a go-to for smaller theaters because it’s both a performance powerhouse with two of the best roles in musical theater and requires virtually nothing in the way of spectacle, although I thought Little Theatre did a great job of finding the balance in a design that’s effective while understanding that what might read well in front of an audience needs to be even more detailed if you’re going to put it on film.
The set design by Nathan Tarantino had all that detailing, as did the lighting from David Faria. The video quality was excellent, and I thought the sound quality was some of the best I’ve seen from a digital production, so Jose Cabral deserves a lot of praise for that, as well as for co-stage managing with Pat Taylor, who also handled props.
Tarantino’s direction and music direction are commendable. It’s really easy to make the mistake of over-directing a show that allows for this much interpretation, but he let his actors shine, while not allowing for self-indulgence, which is another major trap when a show is so heavily focused on performance and emotion. High praise also should be heaped onto the musicians, Michael Coelho (conductor), Eli Bigelow (piano), William Buonocore (guitar), Sam Kurzontkowski (bass), and Sarah Nichols (cello). They sounded absolutely gorgeous.
Adina Lundquist has the unenviable task of taking Cathy from the present to the past, as well as finding a way to make her something outside of the desperate and high-strung actress stereotype. She gets her most dramatic moment two songs into the show, and from there, slides backward from heartbroken and frustrated to lovestruck and hopeful (wonderful if you’re Cathy, tough if you’re whoever is playing her). Lundquist hit all the right notes in the early part of the show, both dramatically and musically. She has a fantastic voice that just got better and better as she reached some of Cathy’s more vocally gymnastic moments. What I loved about her performance was the approach she took in Cathy’s younger scenes, where instead of just being bubbly and cheerful, you see that she’s someone who has to strive to trust. Yes, she’s falling in love, but she’s also steeling herself for every outcome, and so the end result doesn’t seem as jarring as it does inevitable, which is ultimately far more tragic.
While Cathy delivers her narrative from the end to the beginning, Jamie gets to present his version of their relationship in a more linear way. That doesn’t make portraying him any easier. Whereas Cathy can be a rollercoaster of insecurity and passion, Jamie is a series of contradictions. Playing him requires knowing what he’s saying, what he means, and what he feels — and rarely are the three neatly lined up. Jason Cabral is perfectly suited for the part. He manages to make Jamie’s neurosis charming, his ambition relatable, and his path away from Cathy as understandable as one can make it. His vocal choices on “Shiksa Goddess” heighten the song’s comedy, and his “Schmuel Song” performance are both highlights.
A show about love out of time is so apt for the moment, I’m surprised it took us a year to see it produced locally, but I’m glad it’s in such fine form. The nuance of Brown’s music and lyrics, the crisp direction, and the knockout performances all resonate even if you’re watching from a living room television or a laptop. While the show isn’t necessarily one that’ll leave you smiling, it will have you eager to see live theater when it returns and thrilled we have productions like these to keep us enthralled while we wait.
The Ghost Light: A year in the theater
“Do you think theater will survive?”
Believe it or not, I started getting asked this question long before the pandemic struck. I would be asked to come in and do a Q&A at a college or attend a talkback for a play I’d written, and more often than not, somebody would ask some version of this question.
Sometimes it would be phrased as “What’s the biggest challenge theater faces right now?” or “How do you get young people interested in theater?” but if you listened closely, it all boiled down to the idea that theater was in trouble.
How much time do you have?
Suffice to say, by the time theaters were shut down a year ago, I was already starting to wonder, “Could this be it? Are we finally done?”
As much time as we’ve spent over the last year hearing people bemoan the loss of human contact and socialization, the fact is, we had built up an entire (albeit mostly humorous) infrastructure of commentary on how much people did not like going out. Netflix and other streaming services had put a large dent in the entertainment industry and that, combined with a culture obsessed with working people to death, seemed destined to transform us all into those gelatinous cartoon humans from Wall-E glued to a screen and permanently immobile.
When staying home became a public necessity, and when that stay extended far past the two weeks we initially anticipated, I thought the war was lost.
We were now embracing isolationism — not trying to ward it off.
People were more engaged with streaming content than ever. Nobody was leaving their house. And surely we would all get used to this, right? And once we did, there’d be no going back. We would have fully transformed into the at-home society.
Do you know that horrible parenting story about the kid who got caught smoking so his parents made him smoke a whole pack? The idea being that once he was done, he’d never want another cigarette again?
By the time, we were a few months into lockdown, I began to suspect that everyone was ready to quit smoking.
People I’d never seen show an interest in theater before were messaging me to ask when I thought we’d be able to open up again, because they wanted to come see a play.
Friends were streaming online theater only to post that while it was a nice substitute, they desperately wanted to be in a room with actors and other audience members again when it was safe.
Speaking from experience, I was in the midst of a theater burnout. I wasn’t sure what my relationship to theater was or if I wanted to continue on with it for much longer. I joked that if I was married to theater, then theater was sleeping in the guest room.
Well, wouldn’t you know, theater moved out on me, and now I call it everyday and beg it to come back, promising that I’ve seen the error of my ways.
I know a lot of people in the same boat.
While nobody would have wished for these circumstances, the fact is, absence is a powerful stimulant for gratitude, and all this time away from making something with someone face-to-face has made me preemptively grateful for when I can have that back.
It’s not just theater either.
I find myself having wonderful dreams about simple activities like eating without a mask in a crowded restaurant or going out dancing.
Truthfully, I am a terrible dancer and avoid it at all costs, but that was back when things like “worrying about how I look dancing” seemed reasonable. Anything self-conscious now seems wildly unreasonable. Life is simply too short.
If my expectation that theater was going to pause entirely and let the void it left do all the work for it, I was mistaken.
After some trial and error, it was inspiring to see actors and directors and playwrights and artists of all kinds making an effort to do something. It was a heartening reminder that we don’t create to win trophies or garner attention or show off.
Okay, I mean, yes, we do it for all those reasons, but–
We also do it, because we come from a long line of revered and respected people known as storytellers, who understood that when things are at their worst, people will look to art.
To comfort them.
To keep them engaged.
To remind them that there’s a bigger world out there even as we were all sheltering in our homes.
Artists were connecting from all over the world for readings and digital productions and discussions about what they do and how they can do it better.
Legendary performers were suddenly available to do things like give free master classes everywhere from Instagram to their living rooms.
Huge leaps were made in discovering how we can make theater more accessible.
Important conversations were started about equity and representation.
We learned that we have so much work to do that might never have been initiated, let alone completed, if we weren’t forced to stop and reflect.
There were so many problems that were getting worse, not better, and while I desperately wish it didn’t take a tragedy of this magnitude to bring about change, change rarely happens any other way.
What I am most struck by is the feeling that I am never going to have to hear the question “Do you think theater will survive?” again.
It had become a frequent echo throughout this year, but I noticed, over the past few weeks, that echo lessening.
Because we are moving away from “Will we?” and toward “We are.”
We are surviving this.
And not because we always have. Not because theater is old. Lots of old institutions crumble. Rome was not a spring chicken when it eroded and eventually collapsed.
We survive because it has suddenly become abundantly clear that we are needed in a way that no other thing can satisfy or fulfill.
And if we can survive this, what can’t we survive?
At a time when every forum and public square is filled with people shouting over each other, theater tells you that you have to sit in a room and listen to somebody else speak.
As I was listening to the ongoing argument all year about what responsibility we have to our communities versus ourselves, I realized that everything I know about existing within a community, I’ve learned from doing and watching theater.
It’s not just the group of artists who gather together to put on a show. Yes, that is its own community. Beyond that, though, it’s the basic assembling of people in a room who have all agreed to spend an hour or two devoted to nothing more than the telling and enjoying of a story for reasons that are specific to them.
It is a tradition in theater to leave a ghost light always on in a space that would otherwise be dark. There’s a history behind it that I won’t bore you with, but the symbol of the ghost light is one that is inextricably linked to the performing arts, and it is one of resiliency.
You leave the light on because you know you won’t have to leave it on forever.
It’s been one year since rehearsals and productions and gallery openings and dance recitals and concerts were all brought to a halt. Many of those projects and experiences will not be returning, but as artists, we know that nothing we do lasts for very long and so much of what we’d like to do or see never comes to fruition.
But we do it anyway.
We spend time and money building sets we’ll one day have to strike. We write novels that will sit somewhere in our computers until we’re brave enough to show them to someone. We teach 30 people a dance, then decide we don’t like it, and teach them a different one.
We make something where there used to be nothing, and when we’re done, we make something else.