So as we enter our final few days of rehearsal, I find myself really grateful to be in this production and really excited to welcome audiences to share in the story of A Walk in the Woods. Our show is about friendship, about efforts to communicate with and find common ground with someone who does not share your political and cultural assumptions. As such, it’s a particularly thought-provoking piece for the current election season. I hope our audiences will enjoy the show in the moment and also that they will go home with lots of ideas to discuss with their friends.
Doing something that feels foreign to you can be an incredibly scary notion. It is so easy to live in the comfortable stasis of day-to-day life. What a safe choice! What stability! But what if complacency creeps in, building to boredom or discontent? A person in that position has two options: live in denial, coping with the mediocre, and trudging forward with blind hope for something better to fall in your lap. Or, do something about it! Take a risk. Try something new. Push yourself outside of the limits as you know them.
I have been thinking a lot recently about proactivity and the benefits that come from that kind of behavior. As described before, proactive behavior involves acting in advance of a future situation, rather than just reacting. It means taking control and making things happen rather than just adjusting to a situation or waiting for something to happen.
In acting training my classmates and I spent plenty of time focusing on listening and reacting in scene work. But characters in plays are also incredibly proactive - their circumstances force them into the mindset of Now or Never. As Emily likes to say in improv, Today is the Day. Today is the day I quit my job, Today is the day I tell my mom I'm dropping out of college, Today is the day I sell all of my belongings and tour the world with just a knapsack on my back, Today is the Day. This proactivity is what pushes the lives of the characters forward. It opens the door for new discoveries. It sets the stage for a new improvements and enlightenment.
I now teach this concept to students in acting classes and have made an effort to integrate proactivity into my own lifestyle as a result. I would feel rather hypocritical if I encouraged everyone else to try an acting or improv class or writing a play if I refused to try that as well. So this has been the year of doing theatrical things where I lack confidence. I jumped into improv, a skill that always terrified me. I wrote a play during a very beneficial workshop at ACTF. The workshop also gave me plenty of tools to drop the mental blocks and get writing on a regular basis. I have made it a goal of the summer to write a little something every day - and then to get up the courage to share that work.
That day came on the summer solstice of this year. The arts community of Laramie got together to create work of all styles and genres inspired by the Major and Minor Arcana of Tarot. Relative Theatrics' Playwrights Inc. group became involved with the help our tarot expert, Richard Morell. Each playwright was paired with an artist and/or card with the goal of writing monologues and scenes inspired by the artwork. I was paired with Ariana Kimble, a wildly talented artist who brings nature, power, and femininity into everything she touches. Two cards were assigned, the 10 of Swords and the Moon. I should preface, I know very little about tarot. I asked my tarot knowledgable friends endless questions, listened to podcasts (I highly recommend The Archetypal Tarot Podcast if you're in the market for listening material), read books, surfed the web, basically researched Tarot and these two specific cards without end. The newfound tarot knowledge, combined with the inspiration from Ariana's artwork, set a clear path into the tarot monologues. Did I have periods of writers block? Yes. Did I have moments of self-doubt? Absolutely. Did I ever give up? NO. I made a pact with myself to write something every day, whether I had the inspiration or not. The end result was pages of mediocre writing, and just enough nuggets of gold to assemble two strong, but very different monologues which were then performed by local actors at the Major Arcana Tarot Project Art Showing.
This is the second time I have ever shared my writing with the public. My heart was thumping. But the actors brought such life to the pieces and the work was so well received. And best of all, I left the evening with a newfound feeling of accomplishment and self-pride. I did it! I took the risk. I reaped the benefits. I may not be at a place where I will call myself a playwright, but I can say that I have had my own work produced. That is a pretty neat feeling.
Do you have something you have been wanting to do but are too scared/nervous/comfortable? What about a moment when you stepped out of your comfort zone to try something new? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!
And because I shared the story of my monologues, I suppose I will share the monologues as well:
Last month I was fortunate to fill a week entirely with forward-moving theatre performances, workshops, and conversations. Between the New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the Region VII American College Theatre Festival, my mind was stretched and my craft developed. A major theme coursing through my notes from the week centers around casting consciousness, particularly when it comes to roles of diversity.
Diversity in theatre has been a hot topic in the theatre community, especially recently. Members of the discussion cite productions that made casting choices without respect to the playwright's intent; a production of Katori Hall's THE MOUNTAINTOP at Kent State in which a white actor portrayed Martin Luther King Jr.; a primarily caucasian cast in "yellow face" for THE MIKADO with the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players; white actors as South Asians in the Clarion University production of Lloyd Suh's JESUS IN INDIA. This fuel, combined with positive responses to Lin Manuel Miranda's HAMILTON, has lit a fire about diversity on stage.
First, let me say, this is a controversy that does not have an easy fix. Seemingly every article I read and everyone I talk to about this quandary has a different opinion and a different solution.
Some point to "colorblind" casting (casting roles with disregard to race). The catch here is when "colorblind casting" is used as a justification for racial or societal implications. A great example of this in conversation is the recent buzz about Joseph Fiennes portraying Michael Jackson. In this case, you are viewing a specific role for a specific race cast by an actor not of that race. Indeed, it is easy to see how that may upset the masses and gives colorblind casting a bad reputation.
Yet I also have always viewed the 1997 version of Roger and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA with Brandy and Whoopi Goldberg as a positive argument for colorblind casting in which the race of the actors is completely irrelevant to the story being told. Unfortunately, society doesn't always let those artistic choices go over so easily. When watching and discussing Shakespeare productions approached with colorblind casting, the conversation still comes back to race. I hear people asking, "now what was the directors intent with that casting choice. What is he saying about the relationship between these races?"
Other points of view (and I should emphasize that I do not agree with this mentality) believe that the right thing to do is nothing. To change nothing. That bringing up these issues only reinforces them and makes them more present. I bring this up because, unfortunately, the thoughts are out there in the world. My response to this approach often highlights the lack of recognition for the hardships that minorities have been faced with. While this conversation is a complex and difficult one, denial is not the answer.
I fear that the conversation of diverse casting may be a vicious cycle with many casualties and hurt feelings on the road toward progress. We all must strive to move forward in acceptance, tolerance, and empathy for other groups in society without forgetting the history of oppression and racism.
But perhaps a hopeful step is a push towards "color conscious casting." Teresa Eyring of Theatre Communications Group defines this as casting that "intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world." This approach acknowledges that as a producer or director, what you put on stage has an impact on an audience. That power needs to be handled with care and with an ethically conscious respect for the playwright's intent. Eyring fears that without this change "we risk perpetuating a system that privileges whiteness with greater access and opportunity, and appropriates the cultures of communities of color."
The next step is making your own theatre community more inclusive. This is an area that I have struggled with for some time. I regret to say that I fell into the thought process that my geographic location makes diverse casting nearly impossible. In light of recent conversations, I have realized how limiting that mentality was. At a Casting Conscious Panel at ACTF I asked playwright Idris Goodwin how to escape the trap of thinking that your community lacks the diversity to tell a wide range of diverse stories. His advice? "Look beyond." While I felt a little silly at the obviousness of the answer that I somehow could not reach on my own, I am so very glad I asked. Goodwin expressed his belief that no community is without diversity, it simply is a matter of getting out of your tribe, "out of your nucleus," in order to develop an inclusive theatre community. That being said, if you are reading this and are inspired to do theatre but afraid of taking the risk, please contact me! Relative Theatrics welcomes everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, ability, or background.
Finally, it should be said that different playwrights have differing thoughts on how to approach this challenge with their work. In that case, it is crucial for the director/producer to develop a relationship with the playwright. Allow the correspondence to be a conversation where problem areas can be worked out. Perhaps casting a specific role is proving to be a major challenge. The solution may be to increase your outreach efforts and make sure you have the right people in the room to tell the story truthfully. Have an understanding the culture of your theatre and audience and give them an opportunity for discussion and expansion. As I'm planning the next season for Relative Theatrics, I came up against this question. While I cannot disclose the details at this point in time, I will say that I knew before proceeding I needed to have this conversation with playwright Larissa Fasthorse about Native American roles/actors. Her response: "Personally, I ask theaters to put a little effort into outreach to find Native actors. Many are surprised to find Native actors they were not aware of or discover actors they already know are part Native. That said, I prefer to have the play produced in the strongest way. Sometimes that means using different ethnicities in the roles. I understand that." This standpoint assuaged my worries in producing her work and encouraged me to up my outreach game, but I cannot forget that this is the opinion of one individual playwright and not a generalization about diverse casting. Asking the questions and having the conversation is crucial.
Most importantly, remember that you are in the right for asking. There is trust that both the playwright and the producer or director want what is best for the play and for the people. Doing so doesn't fully solve the problem, but it does pave the way for a move diverse and accepting future in theatre and society.
Lights up on a downtown Laramie coffee shop. On a table lies a half-consumed muffin, a pot of tea, a laptop, cell phone, and an open copy of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, DISGRACED. The reader is absent. She fled to the bathroom holding back a flood of tears triggered by the play’s content. Even she is confused by what exactly stirred up such a visceral emotional reaction. In a strikingly emotional way, the play forces her to think deeper and ask why.
The reader is me.
I ordered DISGRACED over a year ago, yet it sat on the bookshelf unopened. Why? Because I was scared to read it. I have heard plenty about it - amazing reviews from the New York Times, Theatre Communications Group/American Theatre Magazine, and countless other publications. Friends who had seen productions raved about it’s probing nature and the deep questions it provoked. But I also recognized that content deserving of the Pulitzer Prize wouldn’t be safe. It would be powerful, challenging, bold, and dangerous. These are all the qualities I love in a good play, but they frighten me too. I couldn’t read it. I was comfortable in my complacency. But by not reading this play and venturing into dark waters, I turned myself into a hypocrite. I am the artistic director of a theatre company that loves to push the envelope and make its’ patrons face reality. What kind of a leader am I if I am unwilling to do so myself?
This self acknowledgment led me to question the Why.
Why write plays? Read them? Produce them? Attend them?
My biggest argument steals from a brilliant playwright, Terrence McNally. When addressing the League of American Theatres and Producers he postulated, “I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don’t think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to … Plays don’t do that. People do. [But plays can] provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.”
I believe this full-heartedly. However, this stance took a while to develop. As a younger actor, I was in theatre for myself. I wanted to be recognized and celebrated. I was selfish. What a terrible quality to bring to the theatre community - which is just that, a fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. Theatre does not lie in the individual, it lives in the other. This is not to say that the individual is insignificant, for it can be a single person’s voice or actions that incite a movement, but the individual mentality must think outside of the self. Recognizing this fact was the catalyst in the evolution of my theatrical reasoning. The plays that I produce are not for me, they are for my community. The voices that are projected in a Relative Theatrics production have a goal to make audience members reflect on the world we live in and talk about the thoughts and questions that the material provokes. Don’t get me wrong, it is flattering to hear the positive reactions to a play that I have poured myself into while directing and producing; but I don’t do it solely for me. I do it for you. I do it for us. The community. The world.
This mission resonates in everything I do. It’s why I love the concept of the chat-back after a Relative Theatrics production and why I started a play-reading series where plays are examined by a diverse group of people and backgrounds. Discussing theatre with others fills me with momentum and drive. Dialogue incited by art gives me a sense of purpose. That is why I put my fear to bed and picked up a play that I knew would ask the instinctual, deep-rooted questions of human actions. I could face these issues through a number of other mediums: paintings, novels, essays, etc. But the play contains the magic to emotionally resonate with me in a dramatic way that packs a punch. I relate to the characters more than I do when viewing a portrait or reading a novel. And the events that befall these characters sweep me off my feet and can trigger sobbing in a public bathroom.
We need to support the art that makes us think. We need to ask the hard questions that force us to look at the world with a wider scope. I thank all the community driven artists in the world for giving me avenues to societal rumination. Art cannot change the world, but it can change the way we individually view the world. In an interview that followed the text of DISGRACED, Akhtar proposes that “the only way we can change the world is by recognizing what it is, now.” Let us all take a risk and tackle the hard topics affecting our society. It may be unsettling, but it’s worth it.