January 31, 2010

diversity and theatre: I'M RIGHT HERE!!!

In response to a post on Tony's blog that asks about what counts as Black theatre, I wrote:

Who is the "we" you're talking about? Certainly not my Black self.

From how I look at it, you're approaching it from the wrong angle. Like a lot of White people, you seem to think diversity is something White people do for people of color rather than simply the reality we live in. This article gives additional reasons why that perspective is problematic.

It's easy to shift the blame to audiences - "those uptight old White folks" - instead of looking at what you (as in your group or organization and your network) have to offer us that we can't get on our own (I touched on this over on my blog). If your website talks about encouraging diversity, producing innovative new works and supporting emerging artists but only show White faces, are you really surprised that Black theatre artists aren't banging on your door? If you talk about how much wanting more Black plays, and you're not looking for us, are you really surprised that you don't find us? When the only time you're interested in who we are and what we say is when you feel bad about being so White, are you surprised when we take a pass?

Really, do y'all think Black people are stupid?

Seriously, none of this is new. Know how I can tell? Because the same fucking questions crop up in every other industry experiencing Caucasian overload, every other lily-white neighborhood, every other White-dominated area that struggles with diversity. The White people involved in the discussion are bringing the same assumptions and making the same mistakes. Here are some right off the top of my head:

  1. Treating diversity as a service White people do for people of color
  2. Focusing more on changing programming than distributing resources
  3. Working from the assumption that White people should lead the process
  4. Keeping real power concentrated in the hands of White people
  5. Trying to create new strategies (generally devised by White people) and methods whole-cloth instead of looking at methods and strategies already in place by people of color
To put it succinctly, I can feel this conversation soon becoming an attempt by White theatre artists and administrators to seem more inclusive instead of changing the way things are done so that they are more inclusive. Said bluntly, it's more about not looking racist than not being racist. Frankly, I have better things to do with my time and brain cells than think of up ways to coddle that nonsense.

You want to change things? It's pretty simple. Put up or shut up. Seek us out. Figure out what we're doing. Help us do it. It's not like we're not out here. I've lived in Brooklyn for a year and a half. You tired of monochromatic theatre? You looking for new voices from people of color? I'M RIGHT HERE! Where the fuck you at?

Helene Cixous, where have you been all my life?

Somebody just turned me on to Helene Cixous, and from there I "discovered" écriture féminine. All this time I've been searching for a way to describe what and how I write, and all I had to do all along was learn French.

Anyway, I'm working my way through the Laugh of the Medusa resource page and a couple of essays.

Something that I'm wondering, before delving into it, is how we can expand our aesthetic discourse to include  écriture féminine. Clearly the Aristotelian approach (aka Dead White Guy method) doesn't work for the very reasons Cixous says: it's made by and for [White] men, [non-White] women's ways of experiencing and perceiving the world are by definition excluded. Liz Lerman's method opens up a new way of approaching and understanding theatre. Are there other methods out there? Can we create a method? Is attempting to explain or understand theatre from the perspective of écriture féminine doomed to failure by irony?

Another one of us down in the trenches

Kent is self-producing too. Poor schmuck.

Anne&Me - consolidating sources

One of the hardest things for me to do is talk about my work. Sure, I can write about it. I can think about it. But once I have to verbalize things on the fly, it gets hard for me. So I'm putting together what I've written about Anne & Me to make it a bit easier on myself.

Anne & Me
Text of the play. You can also e-mail me if you want a digital copy.

The conversations I want to have about Anne & Me
Self-explanatory, really.

Why I'm doing this
The motivation to keep at Anne & Me despite how hard it is for me. Notwithstanding the personal and painful experiences that compelled me to tackle this as a full-length piece, it's so hard to make this woman do some of the things she does in the play.

Personal demons - literally
Something to understand about Anne in Anne & Me.

Something I've been wondering about
Thinking about the "artistic" personality and how race, gender, and class play into it.

And more Japanese theatre!
Originally written for my currently abandoned play, but applicable to Anne & Me as well. Explains why Japanese theatre appeals to me so much, as well as what I try to include in my plays.

You can also find more by reading the stuff under the theater and writing tags.

January 30, 2010

Japanese aesthetics and Black American theatre

Something I want to talk about: applying Japanese aesthetics to Black American theatre.

I'm intrigued by the possibilities of making theatre from a non-Western (or, to be more precise, non-Aristotelian) aesthetic. Of course, contemporary American theatre diverges from Aristotle's Poetics to the point that non-Aristotelian drama could be considered mainstream. Yet there is still something unmistakably Western about it, especially compared to the Japanese theatre I've seen - and I don't mean just the spoken words.

There seems to be no . . . space in Western theatre. And I mean this as an observation, not a criticism. Every moment has to be filled with sound or activity - always something to look at or listen to. Don't get me wrong, it can make for some exciting theatre. But for me, it can also make for exhausting theatre. Sometimes I want something more like what I talked about in my "Bonsai theater" post.

And yet . . . I'm also creating Black theatre - to be specific, Black American theatre. It's not just because I talk about race or include Black characters or endorse non-traditional casting. Without going so far as to endorse racial essentialism, Black people I've come across have a distinct way of relating to the world that's very different from what I've encountered in White people. I've talked about it before, but I can't put my finger on exactly what that is. However, it is something that makes understanding and applying Japanese aesthetic concepts instinctive for me, something that has a tremendous reflection in my style.

Like I mentioned way back when, my style is layered and subtle - there are powerful undercurrents to everything I write. At this point in time, it's likely that I have neither the skill nor the tools to adequately bring them to the surface without ruining the effect. Unfortunately, I'm not blessed with a great deal of cleverness. I'm more of a term paper than pop quiz sort of person. In all likelihood, I'm one of those writers who has to be closely involved with the actors and directors to make my pieces work, at least for the time being. Ironically, this seems to be the sort of thing the Homing Project is about.

January 28, 2010

Name our group

Remember when I told you about that playwrights' group I'm forming? It's gaining momentum now. We even got mentioned on a couple of blogs (like InfiniteBody and Emerging Playwrights).

And by the way - you can now follow me on Twitter.

January 26, 2010

What I'm doing now: forming playwrights of color group

Via our Craigslist ad (h/t LaSmartOne):

Are you a playwright of color with little or no production experience?

A new weekly or bimonthly playwriting unit of 4-6 writers is forming with the objective of assisting in the development and critique of new work and to collectively explore avenues of production.

Once or twice a month, we will have an in-depth discussion of your script. This group will not only provide the accountability you need to get your first script on paper, but also feedback from other writers on perceived strengths and weaknesses, applications of drama theory, writing ideas and more. Occasionally, we may network with established writers and theater professionals. After a few months, we would like to self-produce a night of readings or a series of small-scale staged productions. We have full-time access to rehearsal loft space in Brooklyn.

We would prefer to work with writers on the more experimental/avant-garde scale. As of now, the group's plays deal heavily on the social and historical dynamics of race and racism but this isn't the only topic that interests us. Please, no Tyler Perry/urban drama/gospel plays. We welcome writers who take inspiration from the likes of Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan Lori-Parks, George C. Wolfe. We also welcome beginning and established playwrights writing traditionally structured plays like those of August Wilson, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. You should be queer-friendly but all sexual orientations are welcome and sexuality does not have to be a focus of your writing.

We hope you will join us in helping to build this collective. With dedication and directed energy to each other and to our craft, we can broadcast our voices and ensure each other's success.

 And wouldn't you know? We had a few people contact us, and we got our ad posted on InfiniteBody too!

January 22, 2010

Black writers, White theatre

See, this is what happens when you check out of the theatre blogosphere for a while: You miss going to stuff like the Black Playwrights Convening. I'll have to make do with what's been posted at the New Play Blog and Twitter. In other words, I'm officially pissed that I didn't get a chance to go.

In any case, the fact that I wasn't physically present doesn't mean I don't have to reflect on and respond to some of what did come out of it, particularly from Isaac and Adam, but I'm still looking for other blog posts about it (for obvious reasons).

Amongst some other really interesting things, there are a couple of things that really stood out to me about what came out of the Black Playwrights Convening. But in particular, Adam Thurman (The Mission Paradox Blog) said:

It became clear to me that there are a thousand different paths to "success" that these playwrights could take and that it would be important from them to not only pursue their path but to help others with their own journey. "My father always used to say to me 'Don't sleep on your brother's dream'", said one writer. "As long as we share vision, we can support each other's dreams."
It's really interesting to come across this right now. It's somewhat reassuring to have some of the things I've intuited and experienced validated, if only obliquely. I especially want to address what Adam's talking about here because it deals with one of my main frustrations with trying to get anything started in theatre and how that relates to Blackness and femininity.

Let me start with something you ought to know about me.

Despite the overall shittiness of my previous living arrangement, I learned something very important about myself: I'm an extraordinarily generous person. I freely give time, energy, and even money to people without thinking twice about it and sometimes against my better judgment. I've taken huge risks for acquaintances that would give close family members pause, and I've done it at the drop of a hat -- despite intense misgivings. I've learned to be more discriminate and judicious with my generosity to prevent being taken for granted or taken advantage of. Nevertheless, when someone I know needs something, my first instinct - even if never expressed - is to give whatever I can of myself.

Let's apply this to theatre, for a minute.

LaSmartOne is someone I know of through the Stuff White People Do blog. Both of us comment there fairly regularly. Very recently, LaSmartOne e-mailed me about joining or starting up a playwrights' group. I didn't know this person. I never met this person. We don't have the same social or professional circles. This person simply liked a few things I said, knew I was a playwright, and chose to e-mail me. What was my first response? Set up a time and place to meet. No expectations. No agenda other than reading a bit of each other's work. No angle. Nothing to prove. Just two people who have something in common trying to figure out where that can take us.

Here's what I think is very interesting. LaSmartOne, like me, is also a Black playwright. We both love theater and hate the mainstream media portrayals of Black stories and Black characters (aka ghetto lit and Tyler Perry - we never talked about the Wayans Brothers). We both grasp the intersections of systems of oppression and want to see this reflected in media. We both want more variety in the presentation of LGBTQ characters and relationships (no more Queer Eye bullshit).

Neither one of us comes from a theatrical background. Yet, in a two-hour meeting in the Starbucks at Union Square, we both decided to establish a writing group geared toward producing works by (presumably new) playwrights of color. I'll post a link to the Craigslist ad once it's up.

I don't think those details are incidental. In my experience, Black people are more willing to help people this way than White people. If I'm very honest with myself, the people who have taken the most interest in my development - whether personal, professional, or creative - have been Black. That's not to say that White people have not done me favors or been kind to me, not at all. But when it comes to mentoring and sharing  resources, the person doing that has almost always been Black.

In contrast, my experiences with White people have been confusing, uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting in this regard. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I always feel a kind of pressure to perform around White people. It's like I have to prove I'm worthy of their presence. It's proven very difficult to get a White person's attention, especially a White man's. It's even harder to maintain it for more than about 15 minutes. And if you're White, and you met me in person, I'm probably talking about you.

This experience points to very different modes of existing in the world. I'm not judging one way or the other. I'm certainly not alluding to racial separatism. But I will say that, as a Black artist and professional, I cannot wait for White people - including my friends and acquaintances - to decide when what I have to offer is worthy of paying attention to. In the time I'd spend trying to impress these people, I could be working on my craft, building relationships with people who are truly interested in me, and consolidating resources with others who share my passions and goals and concerns. I didn't pick up and move from Richmond to New York to do the same shit I can do over there. I wanted a change, and I wanted a chance to make real opportunities.

As the New Play Blog states:

Out of the frustrations, though, one of the major themes of the weekend began to emerge early: self-reliance. We would come back, again and again, to the idea that a black artist needed to find their own audience and bring them into the institutions. At least one person said there was a crisis in marketing to black audiences. So much of that affects the audiences and so much of that falls on our backs. There is work there, and an obligation, but also a lot of control and empowerment. We can and should develop our own audiences, know who they are and how to reach them and bring them along with us.
 That's what I'm talkin' about.

January 17, 2010

Insert thought-provoking reply here

Everyone wants a comfortable job at a comfortable salary at a nurturing artistic home. And a unicorn. Too bad. That aside, the burrowing of our writers from high school to undergrad to grad to laboratory to internship to retreat to incubator is naturally going to lead to disconnected abstract plays. They are disconnected from reality, living inside a bubble of craft, only talking to other theatremakers and primarily only other writers. To be crass? Inbreeding leads to retardation. [ . . .] Live life in this world and you’ll be able to write about it.

Fuckin' A.

ISO: Directors who want to do my stuff

I moved to New York from Boston in the summer of 1999 and wanted to have my plays staged in the city. I had asked a few friends of friends how the hell that would be possible. Most of the options were the same: either form some relationship with a theatre so that they may (may) do a staged reading of my work in a year's time (though most likely longer), or spend a year filling out the paperwork to become a 501c3 (not-for-profit) entity.

My reactions to both options were the same: Fuck that.

The only thing that has to change about that quote is to replace Boston with Richmond and 1999 for 2008. The rest is exactly the same, except it took me longer to believe my "Fuck that."

This is how my scammy-looking Craigslist ad would look:

Unproduced, unpublished playwright seeking director with no real-world experience to put on my stuff for no money and no chance of fame. No credentials? No problem!

Interested? Good! From there it's just a simple matter of planning an entire production from scratch with no money. No biggie. We can just hit up our friends and family for some money. Just reassure them that you're not on drugs, and everything should be fine. I heard panhandlers make more than minimum wage employees. So maybe we could try that. Do you have great ideas for signs that will make people give us their money?

So - no budget, no clout, and no connections. But! I may have a place to rehearse for next to nothing, and I know a few people who may be willing to help build and strike a set. Yes, it's in Brooklyn. Remember: rehearsal space for next to nothing.

While we're working together, feel free to exploit the production for your thesis project or applying for a grant or MFA program. Just give me credit as the playwright and lie about me being easy to work with.

Sounds cool, doesn't it?

Shoot me an e-mail and let's get started!

January 10, 2010

New year, new work

During my social hibernation back in Richmond, I've been taking advantage of the time to read, reflect, and work on my most recent piece, Anne and Me. It's still a work in progress, but I hope to have a 2nd draft completed by the time I return to Brooklyn.

I do not know why I decided to post it on my LiveJournal instead of here. Maybe it felt gentler there, and I have more control over who can access and respond to it. Not to mention, I have a larger fan base (if you can call it that).

As for the other piece I was working on, I'm going to consider it deliberately unfinished for now. I really, really, really hate being the kind of writer who has yet another piece that's never going to get done, but I was simply swept up in something that initially began on a lark. I may return to that bit later, when I'm gripped by something as powerful as what gripped me to turn Anne and Me into an actual script.

And here is where I fantasize about being interviewed by James Lipton.

JAMES LIPTON: Where did you get the idea for Anne and Me?

RVCBARD: It started out as frustration. I'm pretty active in the anti-racist blogosphere, especially over at Stuff White People Do and my LiveJournal, Lair of the Dragon Lady. The racial discourse I frequently encountered was often draining, disappointing, and disheartening because the my comments and those of other Black women were generally: 1) taken way out of context - often beyond the point of hyperbole, 2) interpreted in the worst possible light, generally painting us as Angry Black Women, 3) regurgitated many of the same cliche arguments to the point that you could play Bingo with them, and 4) insulted our intelligence, undermined our dignity, and made us question our sanity.

I've written thousands of words about the subject of racism, particularly as experienced by Black women. I've been tactful, caustic, intellectual, emotional, deferential, authoritative, honest, evasive, and just about any other adjective you could use to describe a way to get a message across. Almost inevitably, some White people completely miss my point, don't even realize it, and proceed to display that for all to see with the tacit or vocal approval of others.

For some reason, I was thinking about what it felt like to be a Black woman. At the time, I remember asking myself, "Why not write it as a scene?" Soon after I did that, I wrote another one, and it grew from there. They were not written in any kind of order. I wasn't concerned about plot or anything. I just needed a way to get my thoughts down without being burdened by rhetorical prose. Some of the feedback I'd received revealed that I was touching on something really powerful, so I used that as encouragement to see where the idea would take me.

JAMES LIPTON: Why Anne Hathaway?

RVCBARD: Why not? Simply put, I like her. I've been fascinated with her work for a while. I tend to get pretty intense when someone captures my imagination, which usually means I find out as much as I can about them. I don't mean celebrity gossip; I'm frankly not interested in that kind of thing, but I do try to get a sense of who they are as a person outside the image presented to the public. Not in any kind of invasive way, just very focused and deliberate. So casting her as an "imaginary friend" felt very natural.

JAMES LIPTON: Have you met her?

RVCBARD: No, but a couple of my online friends did. They told me she was very nice. She might not be nice to me if she reads Anne and Me though, but I feel like I'm working on something important enough to disregard my fear of rejection and humiliation.

JAMES LIPTON: How has writing Anne and Me changed your ideas about your writing?

RVCBARD: Before I really started working on Anne and Me, I was one of those artists who believed that theater should never be sullied by something as sordid as politics. I saw political engagement as the enemy of art, but I now realize that what I truly objected to was politics divorced from experience and presented as art. What bothered me was people saying nothing very loudly. In so many words, it's not the idea I objected to so much as the execution. Suffice it to say, I simply never came across many political pieces that appealed to me.

I was practically allergic to "identity theater" - theater that is about being Black, being a woman, being gay, etc. There's this strange paradox always hanging over "identity plays." The people who most needed to see it wouldn't, and the people who saw it already got it. So how do you go about getting the message to the people who need it and avoiding redundancy with the people who do? I don't pretend to have any answers for this, but it's just one of the thoughts that bubbled just beneath my consciousness.

JAMES LIPTON: Do you have any plans for producing Anne and Me?

RVCBARD: Not at the moment. To be honest, I'm scared to. Less than because it's likely to flop and more because of the distant chance it would succeed. It might be better to wait until after I'm dead, but by then I doubt it would be relevant anymore. It's a tough call, and I do not envy the person who would have to run the show. Unless Anne Hathaway produces and performs in it, in which case I'd feel a lot more comfortable.

JAMES LIPTON: Sounds like a dream come true.

RVCBARD: It could be.