June 11, 2014

My artistic values (part 1 of however many it takes)

I'm participating in Adam Thurman's online e-mail marketing course, and it's been a real treat. One of the things that I am being asked to do is to think about the values I bring to my art.

Now, Busy Adult Me just wants to get this over with, wants to look smart and capable in front of all the other Busy Adults who also just wants to get this over with and look good in front of all the other Busy Adults. Busy Adult Me wants to use words like "excellence," and "quality." Busy Adult Me wants to say things like, "creativity" and "diversity." Busy Adult Me might want to get really sophisticated and come up with, "authenticity" and other big words for simple things that makes me look educated and feel like I belong with the big kids on the playground sipping expensive-sounding wine and nibbling gourmet cheese.

But Real Me won't let that stand. Real Me tells me that I need to stop pretending and start looking at why I need to be an artist, why I'm completely and utterly useless for anything else. Real Me says that I need to talk about the things I really care about and quit acting like I'm ashamed of being passionate.

Real Me asks, "What matters most in your art?"

So I sat down and thought about it and realized that there are 4 things that always stand out.

What's the difference between art and marketing, or art and advertising? They use words; I use words. I'm creative; they're creative. But what's the difference between a one-minute play and a one-minute commercial ad? What's the difference between a short story and a case study used for direct mail?

In a word: truth.

Art tells the truth about life. Marketing and advertising, by and large, don't. That's not to say that marketing and advertising is an industry of bullshit. I know too many honest, ethical people in marketing and advertising to make that claim with a straight face. But when I look at the dividing line between them, for art, truth is a requirement; for marketing and advertising, it's optional.

That truth-telling starts with telling the truth about myself. If I can't be honest about what I think and feel, about how I experience the world, about what matters most to me, how can I begin to tell any kind of truth about life and humanity? Even when I wrap it in fantasy or farce, there must be a core of truth in there, some thing that someone looks at and says, "Yep, I've been there," or "Yeah, I've done that."

But my ability to speak my truth depends upon the freedom I have to pursue it.

As long as I am beholden to the demands of commerce, of politics, of convention, or the status quo, my ability to tell the truth will always be limited. So I must have absolute artistic freedom. Whatever form and content I need to tell my truth are the ones I should be able to use, within the bounds of what is safe, consensual, and ethical.

This doesn't just mean the freedom to say what I want to say or do what I want to do, but also the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to fail, the freedom to change my mind, the freedom to not be the same person today that I was five, ten, fifteen years ago.

Truth and freedom are requirements for the work I do, but there is more to my work than this. Yes, my work features many women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as protagonists and major characters. The temptation is to say that this is because I value diversity, but I find that term too lukewarm. It sounds too much like having more choices on a menu.

The fact that I write about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people (and often people who are all three) is not about diversity. It's about justice. It's about who gets to define and represent truth, goodness, beauty, and humanity. For too long and in too many places, that person has been white, male, straight, cisgender, affluent, able-bodied, and/or neurotypical. For too long and in too many places, those of us who are women, people of color, LGBTQ, disabled, and/or poor or working class have been actively and passively excluded from that, so much so that our simple presence as full human beings is often seen as outrageous.

I don't write about women, people of color, and LGBTQ people because our lives add flavor or spice to men, white people, and cishet people. I don't do it because their lives are more interesting or entertaining with people like me are in it. I do it because we deserve to see ourselves as fully human.

Which brings me to the fourth value: passion.

If it hasn't been made clear by now, I don't do what I do merely because it's interesting or thought-provoking or fun to talk about. Yes, it can be those things, but at the same time, that's not all it is. It's not just something I do because I have nothing better to spend my time on, or because it scratches an itch. Even at my most whimsical and escapist, I care about what it means to put my work out into the world. It all matters very much to me, even if I can't always say why.

And when I think about who I want to work with and who I want in my audience, passion is where it's at for me. I want to work with skillful people, and I like smart people in the audience, but without passion, I may as well replace them with dry white toast.

Truth. Freedom. Justice. Passion.

It's not sophisticated. It's not sexy. It doesn't sound like "innovation" or "collaborative creation" or "community engagement." But in everything I do, those things are there.

May 5, 2014

What's in my Scarcity Matrix?

I keep coming back to this HowlRound piece about the Scarcity Matrix, and it's got me in an introspective mood. I'm thinking a lot about the things that I can offer that are not money which may not only be of value but of meaning and significance.

And, in so many ways, the Scarcity Matrix I inhabit is not really about material resources. Those are simply a symptom. The deeper message, the one that I don't want to face, is simply that nobody cares about what I have to offer.

I used to talk about community organizing and power analysis a great deal on this blog. I don't do it so much anymore. Not because I no longer think it's needed, but because I just got tired of talking to myself. Why bother? Why bash my brains against a brick wall? Why throw my diamonds in the mud?

Sure, there are people who agree with me or at least kinda see where I'm coming from, and that's nicer than people who just want to debate or pick things apart because it's intellectually stimulating. Yet despite this, something feels missing. It's not caring or concern. It's not awareness. I'm not in touch with anyone who is apathetic about gender parity, racial parity, and accessibility in theatre.

However, when I talk about a need for a power analysis, when I talk about the need to examine the deeper levels of an institution, no one wants to do that. It's not as exciting as creating programs and initiatives that show off how aware and innovative we are, but it's work that needs to be done for any true progress to happen. The things I'm talking about are not just moving the numbers a little bit. It's a tectonic shift in the culture that dominates the theatrical landscape. That kind of thing doesn't happen by accident. It doesn't happen by just throwing more Brown and Black people, more women, more LGBTQ people, more accessibility technology at it.

I used to talk a great deal more about this, and I've always expressed a willingness to really do this, but I notice that I just stopped trying. It has nothing to do with me caring about this stuff any less.

But the Scarcity Matrix says, "Nobody wants this. Nobody needs this. Nobody cares. So just go away and let the people who are smarter and more marketable do the real work."

March 15, 2014

Trans people and discourse around gender parity

There's a pattern I've noticed whenever trans people are brought up in a discussion about gender parity in theatre. It can be summed up as follows: "men, women, and trans people."

From what the trans people I'm in contact with (most of whom are trans women) have been saying, automatically placing trans people into a third category separate from men and women perpetuates the notion that trans men and women are not "real" men and women. Trans women and trans men have spoken a great deal about the harm that this does. 

Of course, people who don't fit neatly into the categories of "man" and "woman" do exist: intersex people, third gender people, genderqueer people, non-gendered people, and so on. Even so, trans men and trans women have been very clear about the fact that trans women are women and trans men are men. See the links at the end of this post for more resources.

All that said, the "men, women, and trans people" phrasing raises important questions about how we discuss gender in theatre and what it is we're working for when we say we're working for gender parity.

Questions like: How do we make it clear that, when we speak about gender parity in theatre, we are including trans women when we talk about women? How do we include other gender minorities when talking about gender parity in theatre? Is the gender problem in theatre about the dominance of men in general or the dominance of cisgender men in particular?

As with any questions addressing the systemic and structural elements of marginalization, I don't believe there are simple answers to these questions. But I'd love to hear from trans people about needs to happen in discussions about gender parity in theatre.

And now, some resources about gender identity and transgender people.

I have no time to rehash information that's readily available via a Google search for "trans 101." Here are a few links to get you started. Any further investigation, which I hope you are doing, is on you.

March 7, 2014

We've got it all wrong

I'm sorry, theatre.

I've been pretty strident about the need for a more radical approach to addressing racial disparity in American theatre, and I have pointed out a lot of what you were doing wrong.

I take it all back.

What I should have been saying is, "Just add rap music."

Apparently, we've been missing out. Maybe if we simply play rap music, Black people will spring up at the box office like cabbages.

Why haven't we thought of this?

See, that's the real problem. The problem isn't the racism embedded in the institutional structures we participate in. It's not playing enough rap music.

So all this transforming systems of power thing? Forget all of it.

Just blast some rap music.

March 3, 2014

The need for a radical spirit in achieving parity

As we continue talking about diversity and parity in theatre, the running theme seems to be: What are we striving towards? What does it look like?

The need to articulate a vision and define goals has been a kind of zeitgeist for weeks now, and I'm of two minds about it.

The pragmatist in me says, "Yes, we need to define goals and create strategies to achieve them."

But the radical in me says, "We need to focus on the root of the problem."

It goes without saying that I think we need both, but outside of activist circles, calling someone radical is another way of calling them insane. This is unfortunate because a radical perspective gives us a way to analyze and transform power structures, which is where I believe the real work has to be done.

Let's be real. Racial and gender disparity in American theatre didn't "just happen." They have always been part of the history of American theatre. That history has been one that has upheld the structures of patriarchy and white supremacy. Thus, the vast majority of American institutions are built on racism and sexism. I don't mean this in the sense of the personal convictions of individuals, but in the sense of how organizations and institutions plug into legal, financial, social, educational, geographical, and cultural structures that allow them to exist. To put it simply, the vast majority of organizations--all organizations, not just theatrical ones--benefit on some level from the exclusion and disenfranchisement of women and/or people of color. In theatre, this impacts every aspect of what we do, especially when it comes to access to resources like money and space.

Without a radical perspective, there is no way we can fully understand, let alone change, that given circumstance. I will not pretend for one second that this is easy. Power structures are deeply embedded within how society functions, which also means that they find themselves embedded within organizational cultures. However, until we get a handle on how power works within an organization and/or an industry, I don't anticipate any deep or lasting change happening. I can see it happening like those corporations that realize they have a racial diversity problem, but simply hire a few people of color instead of looking at ways they can change their organizational culture so that more people of color would want to work there.

It's not that I don't believe we should figure out precisely what the fuck all of this is supposed to look like in the end. I do believe that's crucial. But unless we place that within a context of understanding and changing power structures, I can't say that we'd actually accomplish those goals we set for ourselves.

February 28, 2014

Thinking about space and "Encanta"

I've been giving a lot of thought to space recently.

Aside from the cost of getting rehearsal and performance space for Encanta, I've also been thinking about what kind of vibe I want the space to have, the kind of atmosphere I'd like to evoke.

The closest parallel I can think of is Congo Square, a place I only know about through via description and some photographs. This New Orleans website describes it this way:
Within the park confines is historic Congo Square. Formerly known as Place de Negres, it took its name from the tradition of slaves who gathered there on Sundays, their day off, to sing, beat drums, sell home-made goods, and celebrate.
This is exactly the kind of atmosphere I'm going for. It's crowded and noisy and colorful and the smells of all these different types of food. It's a complete sensory overload with music, food, dancing, conversation, and beautiful Black and Brown people everywhere.

When I think about the kind of space Encanta should occupy, I don't see it in a proper black box theater. I don't even see it indoors. I see it smack dab in the middle of where everything happens.

I don't see the audience sitting still and being quiet in perfectly aligned seats. I see them eating. I see them getting up and moving around, browsing the wares, tasting the food, listening to the music, talking to each other.

And here's the weird part: I don't even necessarily see Encanta happening in one sitting. I can easily split the play up across a three-day event: Act One taking place during the day, Act Two taking place at dusk and/or night, and Act Three happening once again during the day.

The question, of course, is how to make this happen without breaking the bank.