To read our posts, click here.
After listening to a segment of This American Life about a woman who keeps a list "of things she means to know," my wife and I decided to try something similar. Our monthly plan is to research and answer one topic each, with the broader goal of answering this question: What about our world should we know but don't?
To read our posts, click here.
I wish that Bernie Sanders supporters who are outraged and embittered by the impending nomination of Hillary Clinton would take a moment (or longer) to appreciate what they have achieved over the past year. The Democratic party has put forward the most progressive platform in its history, including planks to:
That's just a sampling of the list (which I got from Bernie Sanders's website). This is a huge achievement, not because everything (or even most things) in a party platform becomes law but because the party platform becomes the benchmark. You change a country like the United States one platform, one election at a time, and Bernie Sanders and his supporters have done more to demand and effect that change than anyone else in this election cycle.
No, Bernie Sanders will not be President. But the fact that Hillary Clinton has always been the favorite of the DNC, and will be the party's nominee, is not evidence that the system is corrupt. She has been a loyal, successful Democrat her entire professional career. No one should be surprised that the DNC, or the millions of registered Democrats who voted for her, prefer her to a man who didn't officially join the party until 2015.
The point is not that who leads the party is irrelevant. It's that on Thursday the leader will pledge to fight for the most progressive platform in her party's history. It's that progressive positions have become more normalized, shifting the center leftward. It's that Democrats have a new baseline against which to measure progress. And that's because of Bernie Sanders and the millions of people who voted for him.
Friday night I saw V for Vendetta. I thought it was stupid and shallow, as I think most comic-book movies are stupid and shallow, despite their pretensions to Deep Thoughtfulness. Because this is not really a post about V for Vendetta, I shall say only that it is a 2005 film, based on a 1980s graphic novel, that stars Hugo Weaving as a masked, one-man wrecker of fascist dystopias (a cross between Guy Fawkes, Edmond Dantès, and Britain's most boring Shakespearean actor), and refer those who wish to know more to its Wikipedia page.
Why do comic-book movies so outrage my inner Grinch? I could tick off a bunch of reasons, beginning with filmmakers who take their themes far more seriously than their incoherent screenplays deserve. (To pick once more on V for Vendetta, someone please explain how our hero, despite wearing body armor thick enough to stop hundreds of bullets, can spin and flip and slice and dice through an army of frantically reloading fascists, like some wet dream from The Matrix.) Of course, writers have been imagining impossible heroes at least as far back as Gilgamesh; I have no illusions that contemporary blockbusters are special cases, beyond what the CGI can supply. And frankly, if my only objections were aesthetic ... well, who cares about my snobby tastes?
But Friday another more troubling objection occurred to me. V for Vendetta is typical of its genre in the lip service it pays to Über-Values such as freedom, justice, and popular sovereignty—the good guys aren't just exacting brutal vengeance on the bad guys, they're empowering the masses! Yet which of these movies has any real faith in the abilities of human beings—not superheroes but ordinary people and the institutions they create—to solve human problems? Governments, businesses, religions, the media—in plot after plot they are the root of the world's evil, or at least corrupted enablers, and humanity must wait for a savior from elsewhere. Born of despair, not hope.
Why is any of this relevant outside popular culture? Just listen to the rhetoric of our current political saviors, certainly on the right and, I fear, increasingly on the left. Is not the appeal of Donald Trump and—at least to hear his most fervent supporters—Bernie Sanders that of the superhero? The incorruptible ideal. The mighty man who will revitalize our institutions not by working within their structures but by blowing them up.
From this perspective, Hillary Clinton's greatest challenge this election season has nothing to do with email servers or philandering husbands. It is convincing voters that the institutions we have built—and especially our government—hold solutions to our problems. She needs to make the case passionately and proudly. And if elected, she—and her colleagues in office—need to solve problems. There are no superheroes to take the lead.
A major reason I haven't blogged since November is I'd been directing a play: Life Support, by Madeline Leong. Life Support is the second production I've directed of a new play written by someone else—the first being Erica Smith's Come Out and Say It—and both experiences left me contemplating the role of feedback, and the need for humility, in the development of a new play.
Since 2010 I have led workshops and talkbacks involving dozens of playwrights—some through the Mobtown Playwrights Group, others through the Dramatists Guild. If I may briefly set aside humility, I consider myself pretty insightful when it comes to feedback, and I am proud of my contributions, as director and dramaturg, to Come Out and Say It and Life Support. Yet I also believe that had Erica or Madeline followed my instincts on several crucial points, their respective plays would have been worse for it.
Life Support concerns a man's struggles to accept his impending death from cancer. Two members of the man's family appear onstage: his estranged son and his fifth wife. Nearly as important, however, is a character we never meet: the man's daughter, Melody, who "disappeared" long ago. "She wasn't kidnapped," the estranged son clarifies. "She ran away—her mom ran away with her. Because of my father." When I first read this, my instinct was that Melody is unnecessary—a distraction from the play's flesh and blood. If Madeline had asked me to rewrite Life Support, Melody would have been my first cut.
That "if" is the point, of course. Instead Madeline held firm, and Melody remained. Over the next few months, as I lived with the script, my attitude gradually changed—almost without my realizing it. Only as I watched the performances did I fully appreciate the role played by this absent daughter. Far from distracting, she pulls me in deeper ... and then she's gone. The plot doesn't hinge on Melody—structurally, she is still cuttable—yet she belongs in the play's world as surely as life and death, hope and regret. Madeline knows this because she created that world. For me to think I know better requires much presumption.
In Come Out and Say It, I had somewhat of the opposite experience: The draft Erica submitted to be workshopped seemed perfect already. Come Out and Say It has five characters—a mix of longtime and first-time crooks—dodging the fallout of a failed heist. Erica used the workshop as an opportunity to further explore the play's many relationships—every rehearsal, it seemed, she arrived with a new scene to stage. As she distributed the pages, my (private) response was the same: We learn just enough already; why dilute our experience of this world? And every time, as I heard the new material, the ground shifted and I fell harder for the characters. Erica knows this because she created those characters. For me to think I know enough requires much presumption.
A theme, a theme! I am not dismissing the value of feedback or a fresh perspective. But so much of new play development involves soliciting—and seriously considering—gut reactions. Never mind whether readers and audience members are trained dramaturgs or even artists—can anyone really trust their first impressions of a piece of theatre? Of course, here is where idealism smacks into reality. A play must communicate quickly and directly because, for most people, first impressions are the only ones; even among dedicated theatergoers, who has the time and money to see multiple performances? All of which incentivizes theaters to produce and writers to write cleaner, tidier shows. And, when a moment isn't immediately clear, to "fix" it rather than simply live with it. Or, when a moment seems good enough, to resist seeking better.
Last week brought news of two more controversies involving what its defenders sometimes term "color-blind casting," and what detractors might call color blindness: Katori Hall described her outrage to learn that a white actor had played Martin Luther King, Jr., in a recent production of her play The Mountaintop; and Lloyd Suh forced the cancellation of a production of his play Jesus in India, for which the director had cast, without Suh's knowledge, two white actors as South Asian characters. (Suh explains his position here.)
Predictably, these events produced epic threads across the tapestry of social media. At least in those I followed, the conversation inevitably turned when one or more posters (if not always, than nearly always, white men) suggested that Hall and Suh were themselves guilty of discrimination by refusing to consider certain actors for certain roles, positions the posters supported by praising "color-blind" productions they have authorized of their own plays. (Here it must be emphasized that neither director asked for Hall's or Suh's permission before casting white actors.) These posters were then told that their opinions do not matter—that they "do not get" to have these opinions—and the arguments quickly degenerated.
Rather than step further into these particular outrages, I would like instead to explore a more general question: As a white playwright, do I have the right to form and express an opinion about "color-blind casting" in plays by writers of color? To begin, I hate this language of "rights," which I think distracts more than illuminates, but it's the default stance for contrarian posters: "I won't let anyone take away my right to my opinion!" begins oh-so-many replies. It would be just as meaningless to proclaim one's right to have ideas. We have opinions because we're human—as long as we're thinking and experiencing, we cannot not have opinions. About everything.
But there's a flip side to opinions, if everyone is having them at every moment: The vast, vast majority are disposable. And so the more interesting—and relevant—question is whether a particular opinion is worth sharing. And if so, to whom? As a white playwright, my opinion is that it's great I don't have to worry much about proponents of "color-blind casting" ignoring—or thwarting—my intentions; on the contrary, it might be thrilling to discover what black or South Asian actors bring to characters I have always imagined as white. As a male playwright, I have the same opinion about "gender-neutral casting." As a straight playwright, I'm open to rethinking heterosexual relationships in my plays as homosexual. It's great to have that privilege!
All these opinions would be relevant—I hope—to a director of my work, and in that context I will eagerly share them and, when necessary, insist they be respected. All these opinions are irrelevant—I believe—to writers of color, to writers who are women or who are gay or who belong to any other group that cannot take my privileges for granted. Of course I "get" to have them. The question I should ask, whether in person or with fingers poised above keyboard, is why anyone else should listen. If my only answer is Because I'm Brent Englar, I should probably do most of the listening. And afterward, I can call up my mom and tell her.
I'm concerned that the latest trend in Baltimore theater is passing the hat. Since June I've seen at least three shows that ended not with curtain calls but with sales pitches. (I won't name names—I probably missed just as many that ended this way.) The motions are the same, whether the tone is brisk or apologetic, and whether the organization is long established or relatively new: With the audience still applauding, an actor or administrator—sometimes the artistic director—steps forward, thanks everyone for coming, and kindly asks for donations.
I understand that keeping a theater open is an unending struggle for absurdly scarce resources. (I was on the Mobtown Players' board for four years, before rising rent and floodwaters combined to put us out of business.) I understand, I sympathize . . . yet is this really the best fundraising idea our community has had? If we can't even give audiences time and space to digest a show before we beg for money, are we not implicitly reducing the show to crowd-bait? Are we not explicitly communicating that buying a ticket is not good enough—that if people really want to support a theater, they should buy a spot on the donor's list.
Well, maybe they should. But making that pitch from a stage still flecked with sweat, to an audience that is practically captive, seems more than tacky. It seems like preying on goodwill and guilt: We gave you culture. The least you can give us is five more bucks.
Let me step back from hyperbole. I'm sure much of my annoyance is that two of the three shows I saw were new plays. What a disservice to a writer, to interrupt audience members as their responses are still forming, because of course the more vital response is capital flowing to the producer!
Let me step back from crankiness. I recognize every theater's need to fundraise; I can even follow the logic that might lead theater-makers to decide the best time to fundraise is immediately after a performance. I think this is shortsighted and uncreative. It ends in a vision of theater as an obligation rather than a joy. We can do better. We must. Or the only people paying to support our work will be ourselves.