Sunday, July 23, 2006

For "This I Believe" . . .

As many of you know, NPR has been running a series of personal essays/statements every Monday for the past while on "Morning Edition" called "This I Believe." It's based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, which was hosted by Edward R. Murrow (see

As I've listened to the stirring, often inspiring essays each week, I've been inspired. I love the historical connection between the series’ first incarnation and the present, and I admire the opportunity it provides to speak publicly about faith and belief in a secular forum.

My latest book is an extended argument about my own faith in the power of theatre to change people’s lives by letting us feel, together, what a better world might be like if we could share the moments of wonder and even love that often temporarily bind us together at the theatre.

So I decided I’d like to share my thoughts in the “This I Believe” forum.

The hardest thing about writing the essay was trying to capture in a few words how much performance means to me and the belief I hold in its power for all of us. But crystallizing your thoughts, though difficult, is always gratifying. And the possibility that your ideas might be shared with others makes it all worthwhile. (I've felt this keenly for this last year, writing this blog.)

Since I don't know if my essay will be selected for broadcast, I'm sharing it here. I encourage you to comment and to share your own beliefs if you'd like (I've reenabled the "comments" function on the blog, which was mysteriously turned off for the last month).

Thanks, as usual, for reading.

I Believe . . .

in the transformative power of performance. As a teenager in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I took acting classes that allowed me to transcend the constraints of my daily life at school and at home. By trying on various characters, I experimented with who I might become.

At fourteen, I played the dowager Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Restoration comedy The Rivals, costumed in a heavily draped dress with an excessively long train, wearing a stuffed bluebird as decoration in my wig. I loved the fun of pronouncing her ill-chosen words and the laughs I got kicking that train around the stage.

At the theatre, my life as a solitary, introspective teenager was brightened by the stage lights and became, most importantly, communal.

Although I’ve long since stopped performing, I remain a committed spectator. I know of no other secular gatherings at which I’m regularly inspired to laugh and cry with strangers. In those moments of breathing together, the people we watch on stage reach the audience with little bits of their souls through the transmogrifications of character or the illumination of language.

I feel this heightened community, this warm if temporary belonging, watching high school students perform diverting musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as seeing serious Broadway performances like Fiona Shaw in Medea. Professional or amateur, performance captivates me with its enactments of the possibilities of our lives.

A friend and I, both of us white, middle-aged, Jewish theatre professors, went to see ten young people of color reading their slam verses in Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, an exuberant evening of stories not regularly heard in that forum. We smiled even when we didn’t understand a reference, moved by the obvious delight of the younger people surrounding us.

Walking up the aisle after particularly affecting performances like Def Poetry Jam, I rub shoulders with fellow audience members embraced by the warmth of communal pleasure. These moments elevate us to a plane far above everyday life, and surprise us with a depth of present experience that brings us closer together, if only for a moment.

I prize these opportunities to experience public life in tandem with others, despite whatever differences of upbringing and identity might in other social circumstances keep us apart. I’m filled with hope knowing that strangers keep gathering to see people transform themselves into others or to tell us stories about their lives and our own.

I believe in the power of the collective creating and viewing performance inspires, when we confront each other in all our tender mortality and yearn together toward a common future. That bluebird in my hair as Mrs. Malaprop was a harbinger of belief in the possibility of theatre’s magical potential to let us laugh, feel, think, and dream together.

Yours, believing,
The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, July 22, 2006

"Mrs. Harris" and "Huff": Good Summer Television

I just got a chance to watch Phyllis Nagy's film Mrs. Harris, which I'd taped from HBO some weeks or months ago (see The film stars Ben Kingsley as the Scarsdale Diet doctor Herman Tarnower, who was murdered in the early 1980s by his long-time lover/companion, Jean Harris (played by Annette Bening), the headmistress of a girl's prep school in Washington, DC. Written and directed by playwright Phyllis Nagy, the film is a smart, compelling combination of narrative fiction and mock-documentary, investigating the sometimes murky, sometimes clear reasons that drove Harris to commit the crime and, most importantly, telling her story against a cultural backdrop that explains more about her motivation than any of her actual actions.

Nagy tells the story in a non-linear way, beginning with the literally stormy night of the murder and jumping back and forth in time to relate how Tarnower and Harris met and how their complicated affair proceeded over the years. Interspersed are "interviews" with friends and other people who knew Jean and Hy, including Hy's mother and sister (played satirically as a Jewish suburban matron by a nearly unrecognizable Cloris Leachman). The story is distanced in a Brechtian way, while at the same time, the narrative pulls us into complicated identifications with Harris, from whose perspective the emotional details unravel.

Harris is a straitlaced middle-aged white woman in the 1980s, and her relationship with the Brooklyn-born Jewish doctor lifts her into a more reckless, carefree style of living. Tarnower seems a cad from the outset, although Kingsley plays his charisma as infectious, if offbeat. These two wonderful actors make it plausible that such an unlikely couple would be attracted to each other. Tarnower seems uncouth within the ostentatious displays of his wealth, which ground the film's production design--he boasts of his money, of his less than privileged background, and of his sexual prowess (in an amusing, highly theatrical scene in which Kingsley appears to strut naked through a locker room, literally turning the heads of the men he passes). His laugh is a caustic bark and his sexuality is narcissistic and infantile.

While Nagy's screenplay doesn't quite explain what draws Harris to him, Bening's performance demonstrates how she comes alive in his presence. His disregard for convention appeals to some hidden anarchistic streak in an otherwise proper life. Her own more radical subconscious is hinted at when she uses the precisions of language to dessicate the egos of people she disdains, typically men with power over her, or Hy's family, who disapproves of his relationship with Jean. She's clearly a powerful woman, constrained by a traditional role and traditional expectations, who's straining against everything she's been brought up to be. Bening's performance is wry, mordant, and deeply respectful of Harris's intellect, even when the choices she makes seem incoherent or insane.

When Tarnower brutally rescinds the marriage proposal he offered, for instance, Harris nonetheless stays with him, accommodating his need for other women until his relationship with a nurse in his office (played by Chloe Sevigny) seems to drive her over the edge of jealousy. The murder is staged as accidental; the fatally depressed Harris apparently means to kill herself, but the gun goes off when she visits Tarnower late on that fateful rainy night, and he dies from the gunshot wound because the storm has knocked out the phone lines and they can't call for help. By then, Harris is nearly catatonic with grief, jealousy, and rage.

Bening's ability to capture the far edges of the character's sanity--from her sometimes priggish, impeccably bred bearing and her sharp retorts to lawyers and police officers she clearly finds beneath her, to the disheveled, exhausted, vulnerable woman taken into custody the night of the murder--makes her sympathetic and captivating, a real study in feminist dignity from a woman who at the same time seems to have debased herself in this relationship.

Mrs. Harris is a smart, thoughtful, funny, feminist film, capturing the irony of Harris's position and the absurdity of Tarnower's posturing while at the same time narrating the complicated set of emotions and attractions, needs and desires that made them an explosive, doomed couple. In the process, Nagy recalls something of the early 80s zeitgeist, that moment when the first rush of second-wave feminism was receding, beat back by the avaricious, masculinist capitalism of the coming decade. As Harris tries to maintain her self-respect and her position, she finds herself battered by the very anti-feminist forces that Tarnower in some real way represents. The diet he popularized, for instance, controlled women just as he controlled his lovers. The audience can't help applauding just a little when Harris inadvertently kills him (although the film also suggests that the murder might have been premeditated--rumination on the possibility isn't the most interesting aspect of the narrative).

Phyllis Nagy is a playwright I've long admired. Her plays include the surrealistic time-traveling romp, The Strip, as well as the chaotic, compelling Weldon Rising (see It's heartening to see someone with an original voice and an insightful feminist perspective working in cable television. Rent it.

Huff is another cable network presentation, this time Showtime, that was recently cancelled (according to People Magazine) after a two-season run (the season one DVD is now available). Hank Azaria produced the series, and stars as a pychiatrist whose home life is more neurotic than any of his patients' (see Although he's presented as a successful professional, married, with one teenage son, an alcoholic mother (played by the masterful Blythe Danner, who was nominated for a 2005 Emmy Award for her work here), a schizophrenic brother, and a father emotionally missing in action, Huff is one of the more long-suffering, introspective white male characters I've ever seen written for television.

The show is ostensibly about this man, yet it's the women who carry it, from his wife, Beth, who begins the series with a career as a caterer and ends it with profound doubts about every choice she's made in her life; to his mother, Izzy, who was traumatized when her now hospitalized younger son tried to kill her; to his secretary, Paula, an African American woman of great faith who brings a kind of certainty into a household of doubting skeptics, to Maggie, the secretary who cleans up emotional and physical messes for the lawyer Russell, Huff's self-destructing best friend.

In addition to the surrounding cast of layered, interesting female characters, Huff himself is femininized, his position as family caretaker and certainly as patriarch always challenged and placed in doubt. His own shrink (played with an ironic twinkle by Angelica Huston) calls attention to Huff's own propensity to try to save everyone but himself, guiding him through an acid trip meant to loosen his somewhat constipated relation to his own emotions. His actions always seem wrong, his anger and his concern ill-timed and misguided. While he's also written as a sympathetic character, the narrative disavows any need to protect him as its protagonist or to make him an unambivalent hero.

The most fascinating male deconstruction on the show is Huff's friend Russell, played with astonishing virtuosity by Oliver Platt (also Emmy-nominated this year). Although Russell is the epitome of a self-involved, fast-traveling LA corporate lawyer, the character is written as entirely flawed, flailing about carelessly in the crumbling protection afforded by his privilege. He excuses his behavior as taste, insisting he's a guy who likes to "party hard." But his actions become more and more irresponsible as the series progresses, his drug and alcohol abuse and sexual proclivities more alarming, and even his inexplicably loyal secretary finally can't clean up his messes. Meanwhile, he's also written as very smart, a wily lawyer who despite his cutthroat power, seems to side with the good guy.

In a drunken bacchanalia, he impregnates a rather ordinary woman (played with deep respect, in a role that could have devolved into cruel parody, by Broadway performer Faith Prince) who decides to keep the baby. The second season narrates Russell's lightning fast flips between the seductions of a faithful fatherhood and the enticements of his prostitutes and drugs. Kelly, the mother of his child, recognizing that Russell might not be trustworthy, empowers herself as an erstwhile single mother, working with a doula (who ironically turns out to be less dependable than Russell) who insists on assisting her baby's arrival into a birthing pool set up in Kelly's small apartment. The season two finale ends with the inadvertent overdose of Russell's prostitute friend and the birth of his son, who he delivers himself when the errant doula fails to show.

Although there's something a bit smarmy about recuperating a character who's most interesting for his flaws by the marvel of childbirth, if the series had continued it would have been interesting to see how the writers addressed Russell's refusal to bow to convention, despite the birth of his son. And Kelly was never written as someone who wanted Russell fulltime in her life; she's more concerned with his character because of what he might genetically pass on to her child.

Likewise, although Huff's mother, Izzy, seems to pull herself out of her alcoholic haze (which allows Danner to deliver some of the best lines I've ever heard on television), and although the last episode shows her coming to the rescue of her schizophrenic son when he suffers a very dangerous psychotic break, Izzy has been established as too richly contradictory to be pulled into a conventional narrative of motherhood. Huff, suffering a midlife crisis when his marriage with Beth falters, takes some time away from the family, and is shocked when Beth doesn't automatically welcome him back when his self-imposed separation comes to what he thinks is an appropriate end.

The series is full of surprises, and holds interest with the sometimes curious, always imaginative and compelling quirks of character that comprise its texture. After the very dramatic cliff-hanger of a season finale, I was dismayed and disappointed to hear that Huff might not be back (I'm determined to believe that People didn't check its facts). We need all the smart, feminist-inclined television we can get. Rent season one and look out for season two on Netflicks.

Yours, with TIVO,
The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Anna Deavere Smith: "Untitled" in Austin

I’ve been following Anna Deavere Smith’s career since the 1980s, when she participated in the Women and Theatre Program (WTP) ( annual meetings that took place before the professional conference of theatre educators every year. Anna was then a freelance actor and teacher based at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Like so many other women performers of color, she was scratching out a living, finding work in regional theatres around the country, picking up teaching gigs here and there, going to conferences, making connections. She was also just starting work on her “On the Road” series, through which she uses interviews to create stories of communities she visits to perform back to them. Her work with "On the Road" investigated American character, and often focused on communities in conflict.

In 1988, in fact, she performed a piece for and about the WTP at the meetings in San Diego. She’d interviewed many of us, in person or by phone, and knit our opinions and stories together in a rather controversial tapestry of images and representations that actually incited a fractious public argument about the Program and its work. Her shamanic skills helped us channel our own issues from the private to the public, to put them onstage for examination and dispute. However upset some participants felt, the moment became historic for the organization. (See my book, Presence and Desire for an accounting of this event,

In 1993, Anna saw her first national success with Fires in the Mirror, her one-woman show about the conflict in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, between the Lubavitcher Hasidim and the African American residents of the small neighborhood. The chief rebbe’s motorcade had run a red light and struck and killed Gavin Cato, an African American boy from the neighborhood. In apparent retribution, a group of African Americans killed Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jew studying with his family in the area. The two events set the community against itself, and prompted physically and verbally violent exchanges that required political and legal city intervention.

Not long after the turbulent events, Anna visited Crown Heights to speak with people from the community, Hasidim and African Americans alike. She also interviewed other New York luminaries and a series of scholars and politicians whose views on the events lent insight or controversy. In her inimitable style, Anna tapes her informants and then learns their words verbatim, performing their vocal inflections and their gestures, assisted only by simple costume pieces and a few props. In Fires in the Mirror, for example, Orthodox Jewish women’s remarks and stories bump up against African American activist Rev. Al Sharpton and others, all played through Anna’s commanding, singular presence. (See

With Fires’ success, Anna went on to collect stories of the revolt staged in Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating trial verdict was handed down. In Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 (2000), she performed an even wider range of ethnicities and across genders, as she interviewed and shared the words of Korean grocers, white police officers, African American activists, and many other LA citizens involved in or touched by the events. (See

House Arrest, Anna's next piece, was less successful as a solo performance, perhaps because of its more diffuse focus. The piece looked at the American presidency, taking on both historical and contemporary events and characters to weave a tapestry of the office and those who’ve served in it. The piece’s politics are more overt, and yet at the same time, its perspective gets a bit blurry, given Anna’s desire to represent such a range of affiliations, commitments, and controversies. This piece, unlike her earlier two, has developed a production life as more than a solo show; regional theatres around the country have produced it with casts of various sizes, races, genders, and ethnicities. I saw an early workshop production of the play with students at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where it seemed to suffer from the absence of Anna’s magnetism at its center. The script meandered without a central point, and the young performers seemed much less virtuosic at taking on Anna’s impersonation skills.

In a later incarnation of the piece, I saw Anna perform House Arrest solo at the Public Theatre in New York. Here, her canny ability to capture the essence of those whose words she shares, and her facility with creating a kind of social gestus for each of her informants, helped the piece cohere. But still, the more powerful, singular thematics of the earlier two pieces were missing from a story about a more scattered sense of power and social structure. Ironically, the piece performed most palpably Anna’s relationship to power; each interviewee seemed evidence of her own access, rather than a key piece of insight or information into the workings of the presidency. (See for John Simon's rather uncharitable review of the production, and for the published text of the play.)

The Zachary Scott Theatre in Austin ( produced House Arrest as a multi-performer ensemble play a year or two ago, and began a relationship with Anna that’s brought her to town several times to workshop new material. This last May 18 – 21, for example, she performed an untitled work-in-progress about the medical establishment, public health, and, as she remarked in a talk-back after the performance I saw on May 20, the “resilience and vulnerability of the human body.” The piece-in-progress is ambitious and a bit unwieldy, but displays Anna’s remarkable curiosity about people all over the globe and her interest in knitting disparate experiences together to juxtapose their similarities and their differences. In this piece, for example, she offers the words and gestures of African healers and orphanage directors, and American athletic coaches, dancers, bull-riders, oncologists, physicists, politicians, physicians, patients, runners, movie critics, and male escorts, as well as more ordinary people caught up in the complexities of health and disease in some of its local and global manifestations.

Anna selects stories for their metaphorical, as well as their theatrical potential, sharing paragraphs or a few lines from each informant she impersonates. Her intimacy with her subjects means that we hear the voices of people who rarely speak in public forums, from the parents of cancer patients to their doctors, who talk in reflexive modes atypical for their public selves. Anna moves from the famous—former Texas governor Ann Richards, for example—to the more ordinary person and manages to imbue all of their words and stories with truth and dignity. Commanding the three-quarter stage in a white shirt and black pants, over which she layered minimal costume pieces to signal character shifts, Anna held her script in hand. The text, in fact, was continually being written and edited during her visit, transforming daily based on interviews she continued to conduct through the last Austin performance.

Some of her informants were local, based on interviews she conducted at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston or with Austinites; others were with people like dancer/choreographer Elizabeth Streb, whose company is based in New York, or with Zackie Achmat, who runs the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa. The rhythms of their speech, through which Anna builds her intimate characterizations, changed rapidly from South and Central African to New York to Central and West Texas and back again. Anna’s facility to get to the root (and the truth) of a voice was perhaps most apparent in the familiar characters: Ann Richards, whose story about protecting her “chi” as she undergoes radiation therapy for esophageal cancer was hilarious and identifiable; Mack Brown, head football coach at UT, who’s something of a local hero; and Joel Siegel, the ABC News movie critic, all prompted laughs of recognition and delight as they seemed to appear in the room with Anna as their host.

Hearing those moments click made me think about how recognition works in performance. That is, watching Anna perform known people, and hearing spectators connect with their voices and their gestures, seems to give people quite a lot of pleasure. Her impersonations of the less well known put her performance more firmly in the realm of conventional theatre, creating as she did characters whose inaccessibility to our knowledge made them fictions of her making for us in this present moment. Their unfamiliarity, however, made them no less beguiling--they simply compelled our attention differently. One of the sweetest parts of the evening was knowing that one of Anna’s Texas informants was in the audience—Dr. Kazumichi Suzuki, a physicist at MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center, actually sat behind me, and blushed with pleasure when Anna came into the audience after the performance to shake his hand. That mix of the present and the absent, the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown, creates the excitement and frisson of Anna’s performances.

Her presence in this workshop production was also explicitly marked, in a rather Brechtian fashion, by her announcement of each person before she assumed their character. These simple identifiers worked almost as placards, allowing us to look in a more historicized way at the people she performed. At the same time, we could mark the moment when Anna announced them as herself and trace it to the moment she began speaking in character, and feel privileged to watch this performer at work. In those brief transitional moments, Anna demonstrated that an external (or outside in) approach to character can be as effective as the psychological (or inside out) method still touted by too many actor training programs.

Anna's impersonations were layered, specific, revelatory, not only in how they captured something of the person speaking, but in how they accumulated into the story she wanted to tell, shaped and sharpened by her own keen intelligence and commitment to the issues. The stagehands moved around her, rearranging chairs and hand props like Bunraku attendants. Her method allowed us to note her own charisma, her own presence, and the transmutability of her own rubber face and flexible body to stand in the shoes of another with respect and humility. (See Chapter Three of my book, Utopia in Performance, for further discussion of Anna's ability to stand in another's experience,

What was more evident in this workshop production than in any other piece of Anna’s work I’ve seen her perform was her overriding humanism, her willingness to touch another’s soul with her own to re-enliven them onstage. Not one of her informants was belittled in this piece. While some were played for the inherent comedy of their words (like Richards, who can’t miss being funny, and Brent Williams, a bull-rider who spoke with Anna about toughness of body and mind), each was played with deep respect for who they are, what they do, and how they think, speak, and feel.

The production also proceeded without setting up a binary of good and evil on which too much performance remains based. The medical establishment here was not the enemy, but a conglomeration of individuals working for the common good through various means. Anna establishes a commonality among her subjects that preserves, rather than levels, their differences, and lets us appreciate each of them for their work and their indefatigable commitment.

While I applaud Anna’s refusal to reduce her subjects to simplistic binaries, this work-in-progress has some of the diffuseness of House Arrest as a result. The play has no central conflict, no explicit sides to rehearse, the way that Fires in the Mirror debates the literally black-and-white perspectives of Crown Heights, or Twilight LA’s agon ranges from the police and those victimized by looting to the people of color appalled at their continuing victimization by a race-biased legal system. In the current work, conflict is staged between bodies and disease, or bodies and their own mechanical and spiritual limits, rather than between people.

But her refusal to instantiate a binary allowed Anna to stage the audience talkback as a public forum on ethics—the ethics of death and dying, of medical intervention into life and death, of the government’s role in safeguarding people’s right to control their own bodies and their destinies. In the discussion the night I saw the performance, Anna addressed the embodiedness of grief, and asked how we might persuade governments themselves to grieve. Sympathetic feeling, she suggested, might inspire humane and empathetic action. Although some spectators disagreed, the invitation to discuss such issues in a public forum—talking about public feelings as well as public health policies—offered a refreshing slant on issues of medical, personal, and political ethics.

The Zach Scott Theatre Center is hoping to bring Anna back in the 2006-2007 season to continue her work, which will no doubt eventually find its way into production at the Public Theatre or somewhere else in New York. Zach Scott’s willingness to engage their audiences with the issues of the day is commendable—since I’ve lived in Austin these last six years, my theatre-going has been graced by occasions for reflection with other spectators, as well as the actors and artists who participate in each production. Extending the moment of performance into a communal “cool down,” in which the audience resettles itself around a tacticle embrace of the evening’s tired but energized performers, allows us to publicly honor the evening’s work—the work to create and to make meaning of the performance. These moments—like Anna Deavere Smith’s work—encourage us to confront and respect each other’s humanity. I’m always grateful for the opportunity.

With thanks,
The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Actor Training, Gender, and Advertising: An Irritated Reader

Reading a New York Times Sunday Magazine story recently about the “Child Actor Program” at Oakwood Hills in Los Angeles (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, “Hollywood Elementary,” 4 June 2006, I was struck by how much actor training for young people has changed since I took my first classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in the early 70s. These kids, of course, train to be film and television stars, while my friends and I thought we were learning an art form. I could be romanticizing my experience, but it seems to me that the scenes we did from Shakespeare (which I taught to even younger children when I hit my teens) and from Chekhov (I distinctly remember doing a scene from his comedy A Marriage Proposal with a would-be boyfriend) were as much about appreciating a canon of dramatic literature as they were about learning the beats and objectives of the Stanislavski method, whose lessons we applied slavishly.

I find it dispiriting, then, to read of pre-teen kids today who are taught that acting means learning to cry on cue, to do cold readings for casting directors stocking commercials with nubile young things, and who already know that they’ll be cast on the basis of their “type.” Is this the world for which those of us who teach theatre in universities and colleges are training our students? One without a literature, without a history, with only an ever more crassly capitalist future in which celebrity, rather than acting, is really what’s being taught?

Then I look in Theatre Communications Group’s trade magazine American Theatre at all the advertisements for university and college training programs, and I get even more disheartened. Although it’s difficult for an ad to represent the full range of what and how we teach in our very diverse departments, the social images that inform these ads appear to me politically retrograde, and send a message to aspiring actors about their future positions in the field. The photographs that provide the cornerstone of these ads overwhelmingly feature young women upstaged by young men. Regardless of the form or genre implied, whether the classical repertoire or contemporary realism, the gender dynamic is disturbingly the same. While the men are visibly active in the foreground of these ads, the young women stand behind or beside them. The young men look straight out at the audience/reader; the women look at the men, so that they’re invariably represented in profiles that send the ads’ center of gravity elsewhere.

These ads delimit a very small range of theatrical moments. Where is the evidence of formal and social experimentation that surely some of our programs offer? Where is gender and racial and ethnic diversity, and how might we represent it as more central to our educational missions? I’m afraid these ads tell an unfortunate truth in how they attempt to lure prospective students; that is, the power relations they depict faithfully hew to the gender dynamic performed in conventional American theatre and too often unquestioningly replicated in our programs.

How can theatre educators and artists and critics acquiesce to this state of affairs? As citizens of the 21st century, shouldn’t we be inspiring our students to think beyond old-fashioned gender and race and ethnic relations that were shopworn, if not already patently offensive, by the final decades of the 20th century? Shouldn’t the graphic art with which we represent our programs, and the productions we select for our seasons, reflect a world where women and people of color finally take center stage, speak for themselves, and look out to address the audience as citizens of the world of the play in their own right, instead of pitching their focus to the too often still centered white male?

Although the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin isn’t consulted about how our programs are advertised (and would probably never come to a consensus should such an invitation be extended), as a teacher here, in one of the largest undergraduate theatre departments in the country, I, too, am complicit. Our department’s ads focus on the success of our graduates and the proximity we offer to professionals. Each ad typically includes a small photo of a celebrity, surrounded by a running list naming visiting artists and lecturers. In the October 2005 American Theatre, for example, alum John Rando was featured and congratulated on his success with the musical Urinetown (one of the most produced plays in the 2005-2006 season, according to TCG). Rando did visit the department and spend time in classes and at brown bag lunches talking with students. He even expressed a willingness to maintain an on-going relationship with the idea of a musical theatre concentration in the department. Other visitors named in our ad have given workshops or lectures and have also made themselves available to students. Jonathan Miller, for example, took on one of our recent MFA students as an apprentice director, and paved her professional path.

At the same time, what we’re selling, at least without the explicit gender arrangements of the more visually “staged” ads, is proximity to past success and the carrot of reiteration. If Rando and celebrity alum Marcia Gay Harden can be successful, so can the new student, our ad’s reasoning goes, despite the fact that the faculty might have changed or that the department itself has morphed in completely different directions than it took in the 70s or 80s. We’re selling a simulacrum, a mirror, a second- or third-order pretense of reality, based on the illusion that a path carved by someone who began in the same place will end in the same place for someone else. This faith in such repeatability founds the success of residential communities for would-be child actors like the Oakwood: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Frankie Muniz, and Hilary Duff lived there, the article reports, and look what they’ve accomplished.

What we don’t articulate in our advertisements are the values we teach or the methods through which they’re imbued. Even the names of degrees we offer have become opaque, empty placeholders; after all, what is a BA in Acting really about? What do students learn who embark on such programs of study? Will a BA from UT know the same things as a BFA from, say NYU? What’s the difference and how is it expressed in the training and in the work? What do students think they’re getting from these degrees? What does the faculty think they’re teaching?

Shouldn’t students expect, regardless of their formal degree program, to learn the history of the traditions into whose stream they’re about to step? Shouldn’t they engage the ethical questions of what it means to embody someone else’s experience? John Istel wrote in his recent American Theatre essay ( of the prevalence of current plays with children in compromising situations, and the complications of young people performing (or watching) these roles. Shouldn’t we engage our students in these debates?

Shouldn’t we sell prospective students on the value of our programs by touting how we’ll make them better people, sharper thinking artists, and imaginative and creative and engaged citizens, who might go on to reshape the gender and racial dynamics in those advertisements and use theatre to help us all experience something new about our world?

When the girls (interesting, too, that most of those interviewed were girls) in the Times article described what they called their “passion” for acting, I had no idea what they meant by passion or what they meant by acting, and neither, it seemed, did they. Those of us teaching in universities and colleges might start exactly there, to tease out the nature of that passion and how it might morph, and the varied, productive ways of defining that craft. I’m not sure how we can represent passion in an advertisement, but there are certainly more creative, progressive, hopeful, inspirational ways both to market and to ply our craft.

Ranting and wondering,
The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"United 93" and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"

I had a feeling I didn’t want to see United 93. Seeing Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 a couple summers ago threw me into a profound depression that required chemical intervention to resolve. I worried that watching this latest take on the reality of the terrorist hijackings would again unsettle my psyche but, curious about the film and the number of conflicting responses it’d already received, I was persuaded to go along.

The film was indeed horrific, reliving September 11th from the perspective of the people on the doomed plane eventually forced down by its passengers into a Pennsylvania field. But as directed by Paul Greengrass, the movie showed more restraint and a remarkable kind of respect for history and experience, something I wasn’t expecting from a mainstream release.

One of the most salient aspects of the film is how it captured what ordinary life was like before that day, before something so unimaginable happened and proceeded to change us. Watching the dawning realization on the faces of the air traffic controllers and the passengers alike about what was happening along the east coast that day, I was struck by how historical, already, seems that sense of surprise. Although the United States might once again be caught off guard and although we no doubt remain vulnerable, we’re now psychically and emotionally prepared for what on September 10th, 2001, was literally unthinkable.

Perhaps the most notable achievement of the film is its refusal to participate in a knee-jerk discourse of patriotism and individualistic heroism that could have been fabricated for the narrative. None of the men (and of course they were men, although the female flight attendant proves fairly brave throughout) who stormed the terrorists were turned into individual heroes. The film represented them as a group of ordinary people who made the necessary decisions and took the necessary action. United 93 seems almost un-American in its willingness to distribute collective agency for action, and also surprised me with how little it invited the audience to admire the group acting to bring down the plane. In its laudable restraint, the narrative observes, conjectures, and speculates, but never invites us to single out one of the people on the plane for undue hero worship or, for that matter, demonization.

Although the film manages not to completely demonize the hijackers, it can’t resist making them seem alien. The film opens with a fairly long establishing scene that puts the hijackers in their hotel room, preparing themselves for martyrdom. Rather than representing them as full of righteous bloodlust, however, the film, without really personalizing them at all, since both the hijackers and the passengers remain nameless ciphers throughout, manages to express the hijackers’ own terror at their pending acts, and the dizzying fear that grips them even as they go about their unalterable plan. The film watches them praying in dim light; watches them pull their packs together and get ready to leave. Offering just that much of the terrorists’ experience meant that the film shared more of their back-stories than any of the other passengers.

The film could have pandered to sentimentality, using a Flight Plan-style of airplane drama in which each character is carefully established, mostly for his/her good/bad role in the eventual drama, and then plugged into a predictable plot line whose ending is clear from the opening frame. But although we all know what happens at the end of United 93, the film steers away from predictability in the more distanced, external way in which it handles the characters.
The film goes out of its way to represent commonalities between the passengers and the hijackers, especially in scenes toward the end when both groups are seen praying, even if to different gods. The hijacker flying the plane, who’s represented as barely knowing what he’s doing, radiates remorse and ambivalence, along with palpable personal fear. For better or worse, all of these people seemed caught up in something larger than themselves, in a current of history that pulls them inexorably toward a finale in which they’re ultimately only bit players.

The scenes of passengers calling their loved ones to say goodbye, once they understand that they’ll never return to the ground alive, are wrenching, but in a more global or even universal way, since the audience really doesn’t have the time or the information to fashion identifications with any of them individually. The sorrow we feel as several of them make their last cell phone calls is akin to mourning for a horrible, tragic situation that embraces them and us, the hijackers and the passengers, rather than singling out anyone for more specific, particularizing grieving. This choice made my reaction to the film that much more poignant; it asked me to mourn for us all, for everyone in the world touched by these events.

The film escalates in pace and tone until it achieves a kind of hysteria that proceeds to the final bloody encounter between passengers and hijackers, but the emotion is a shared, rather than an individual (and what would be a typically gendered) one. Even the air traffic controllers and the Air Force people on the ground trying to piece together what’s happening to the plane aren’t singled out by their heroism (even though many of those in the film are real people, replaying the events of the day, rather than actors reimagining them). Perhaps the film’s most political gesture is to underline how flummoxed all the officials were and how little protocol they could rely on in this particular situation.

To hear the Air Force personnel begging for rules of engagement, and to see an FAA administrator trying to making decisions on his own, on the spot, without any guidance from the government, is the most chilling and in a way humanizing part of the film. Here, United 93 picks up where Fahrenheit 9/11 left off, underscoring how Bush and his administration were nowhere in evidence at the most devastating moment of recent American history. Watching the air traffic control staff and the Air Force personnel frantically trying to connect with higher government powers, I could only picture Bush in Moore’s film, frozen in that kindergarten classroom listening to a story with his lips pursed and blank fear in his eyes after he’s been told that planes have flown into the World Trade Center.

Seeing Michael Moore’s film sent me into a major tailspin, and I left United 93 feeling similarly, hammered by a tremendous loss of my typical faith in the power we have to change things. I left both films embarrassed at the naiveté with which I write books with “hope” in their subtitles. A sense of utter futility overcame me, thinking about how much is wrong in the world and how incapable any of us are of really effecting meaningful change. These moments of despair make me feel defeated and ineffectual, paralyzed and powerless, and just silly in my life of hope and conviction. And that’s not good. To me, falling off that particular horse means giving in to something evil and oppressive in the world, something that insists on its version of truth at the cost of my own, however fragilely mine is held.

So when I got home from United 93 that night—still wondering why we need to see such films, why they need to be made, even knowing that it’s because history needs them, and so do we, so that we don’t forget so easily what happened and how it made us feel and think—I settled in front of television to allow popular culture to help me escape for a moment instead of reminding me to remember and forcing me to confront my own hope-filled futility.

I surfed channels until I found Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the ‘tween girls’ story based on a young adult novel by Ann Brashares about four friends who find a pair of pants that miraculously fits all of them, which they send back and forth to each other while they’re apart for the summer. The magical pants prompt an epiphany of sorts for each girl, through rather stock plots: One finds love in the Greek isles with her grandparents and a dreamy fisherman. Another goes away to soccer camp where she seduces one of the instructors, looking for the love she lost when her mother committed suicide. Another (America Ferrera) goes to visit her father for the summer, only to find that he’s brutally replaced her and her Puerto Rican mother with the whitest of white families.

The most interesting character is a would-be filmmaker (Amber Tamblyn) with a social conscience who interviews people who work at places like Wal-Mart about their lives, but can’t really see their humanity until she meets a 12-year-old girl who’s dying of leukemia. The kid teaches the older girl to see life ethically and expansively before she (of course) dies, but there’s also something refreshingly queer about their relationship. I appreciated the baby-dyke outlook of Tamblyn’s character, and the insights about racism the film tries to share, even if their resolution is too pat.

Although I knew as I watched that Sisterhood was manipulating my emotions and reassuring me with its conventions, I needed the easy tears the film prompted, and the beautiful settings and the cute kids and the ironic outsider/queer kid and all that predictable plotting to make me feel a bit more even again. Sometimes, narrative is just reassuring, even when we want to change the stories it tells about the women and the girls, even when we see its holes and pettiness, even when we’re profoundly aware of its unreality and the damage it can do when it’s not engaged it critically. The narratives of United 93 and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants serve two wildly different social functions. I think we need them both.

The Long Hiatus . . .

I can only offer an apology for these three months of silence in these cyberpages. Despite my best intentions to write bi-monthly, I’m afraid that life intervened. Although I resent the loss of my writing time, I’m trying to persuade myself that this is a fact of life for a woman whose attention is often split among multiple fronts. My life as a professor/academic (the latter seems a dirtier word than the former, although they no doubt run neck-to-neck in some conservative vocabularies) requires quite a lot of time at the committee meetings that regulate a “faculty-governed” academic’s life. And teaching, too, takes a certain kind of ruminative and organizational energy, although I most often find that my time in the classroom inspires my critical faculties and facilitates my blogging.

Then there’s the ever-thwarted attempt to have a personal life that’s not about criticism or academic politics. The old feminist adage that the personal is political sometimes feels like a prison sentence instead of a wise theory about the imbrications of various aspects of our lives. Sometimes, I want to close a door on my public self. Instead, more often than not, I feel the public seeping into the private and vice versa in increasingly discomfiting ways.

My time in April and May (which required resting all of June) was consumed with a search committee process (for a new dean of the College of Fine Arts) that became personally and professionally bruising, testing my faith in higher education. I always, perhaps naively, assume that people are operating in good faith. In this particular case, I found too much ill-will, cantankerous complaint, rumor-mongering, and back-stabbing, which prevented a clear eye on the purpose of the hire, which was to find the best possible candidate to lead our college.

The irony of academic scuffles like these is that no matter how vociferously debated and no matter the outcome, no one dies; no one is critically injured; and no one loses their job. The stakes are absurdly low for the amount of devious double-dealing conducted in this business, which is partly what makes academics a laughingstock to the rest of the world. That said, I have to keep believing that institutions of higher learning can change, that UT won’t just atrophy under a network of leaders who care more about the status quo than they do about the future of the arts. Without that faith, I couldn’t do my job. And my real job is my teaching and my writing and my engagement with the arts and culture as theory and as practice.

Again, I apologize for my silence. Back to being a spectator.