Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Unhappy Thespians: A Manifesto on Training Theatre Students

I delivered this position paper/manifesto on a plenary panel at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Denver on August 1st. The session was called "The Elephant in the Room"; speakers were encouraged to discuss issues we feel the field ignores at its collective peril.

The other manifestos can be found at http://www.athe.org/conference/ (look under the 2008 conference, manifestos for the plenary session--eventually, an audio link will also be available). My presenting colleagues included Jorge Huerta (UC-San Diego), Mark Heckler (Valparaiso), Susanne Bourgoyne (Missouri), Sandra Shannon (Howard), and Doug Paterson (Nevada-Omaha). The session was chaired by ATHE president Steve Peters.

In his wonderful, uncharacteristically generous report on the Educational Theatre Association’s International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska, in July, Charles Isherwood describes how 2,000 self-described “theatre geeks” eagerly rehearse and perform and gossip, preparing themselves not only for their roles in the festival, but for lives in the theatre. Isherwood notes the T-shirts for sale in the auditorium lobby “with the words ‘Theatre Geek’ emblazoned upon them above masks of tragedy and comedy; these young drama enthusiasts,” he says, “are clearly happy and proud to declare themselves thespians” (7/13/08, NYT, Arts and Leisure sec., 1).

While an article about such a festival could be snarky and sarcastic, Isherwood instead records how impressed he was by performances of classics and contemporary plays and musicals, at which he consistently found tears in his eyes, and chronicles the long-standing quality reputation of the festival’s productions. The students learn, but also teach one another, trying out songs from less acclaimed musicals and mounting interpretations of a fairly standard range of classic and contemporary plays. The general impression Isherwood imparts is of a group of students and teachers happy to be involved in the festival, doing high-standard work for appreciative audiences. His article concludes, “Theatre geeks rock!”

My concern—which I currently see as the proverbial “elephant in the room” for our field—rests on what happens to these happy thespians after they graduate, when they apply to our college and university theatre programs eager to continue the fun they experienced as theatre geeks in high school. How is it that our programs tend to dissipate all that commitment and energy and pride, instead of stoking it and refining it and channeling it into new and different ways of continuing a life as a theatre geek? Why is it that so many of our undergraduate majors become disillusioned so quickly, dropping our programs for communications degrees because they decide that media might offer them more lucre, even if it’s not as much fun? Why do we impede their fun in ways that makes changing their majors likely?

What kinds of pressure do we impose by assuming that we’re grooming them for acting careers in professional theatre, instead of encouraging them to refashion their theatre geek-dom into careers as dramaturgs, arts administrators, critics, grant administrators, philanthropists, or maybe most importantly, theatre aficionados who will attend performances regularly and support theatre financially? And most importantly, what structural, cultural, and ideological influences pressure our departments to create this situation?

I just finished a nine-year tenure in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the largest departments in the country. During my stint there, the undergraduate major was reduced from a high of around 450 students to approximately 300, by various assessments meant to admit a stronger, leaner class. I also saw the growth of the MFA program in acting. Moribund when I arrived, thanks to the leadership of nationally acclaimed actor Fran Dorn, the three-year program soon gained a competitive reputation.

But despite what might seem these successes, the students in our undergrad and graduate acting programs never seemed very happy. Many undergrads left, and many grad students complained about the narrowness of what they learned. The grad students suffered a schedule that prevented them from taking advantage of the department’s other curricula, including our flourishing graduate program in Performance as Public Practice, which aimed to expand applications for theatre and performance studies outside professional, mainstream theatre into community-based and socially active settings. With pre-professional programs intent on feeding the US regional theatres, if not Broadway, the majority of our students weren’t encouraged to imagine other ways of plying their trades, or of using their studies creatively and with more agency than mainstream theatre employment practices for actors often allow.

Most discouraging to me was watching graduate students who’d been through three years of rigorous training in acting, voice, and movement arrive at the showcase moment of their MFA program tenure. Thanks to Fran Dorn’s professional connections, the students traveled to New York and Los Angeles to present work for casting agents, directors, and other people in the business. But when they returned, many of the students reported that the feedback they received concerned their looks more than their talent. More than one went on a crash diet; the first three-year class started nearly in unison a version of The Zone diet that reduced all of them to wan and wasted stick figures in a few weeks’ time. Men and women alike were told by showcase spectators that they needed to lose weight, fix their noses, their teeth, their skin, their facial bone structures, all in the service of hewing closely to the “type” in which they’d inevitably be cast.

For this a student needs three years of expensive MFA training?

Thanks again to Fran Dorn’s powers of persuasion, the MFA acting class boasted great racial and ethnic diversity (much more so than our woefully, predominantly white undergraduate program and even, to my chagrin, our Performance as Public Practice program). But I was regularly surprised by the casting choices made for our university theatre productions, which required students of color to perform in subsidiary roles (sometimes, frankly, in servant roles) while their white colleagues, although the minority students in their classes, received the leads. Apparently, not-conventionally-slender women of color and lesbians posed a particularly thorny problem in this context.

Why should a university acting program conform to the most egregious racial and body-type profiling practices of the mainstream profession? As an African American woman, Dorn herself has played across the canon of American drama. In the last ten years, I’ve admired her performances as Christine in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and as the Gypsy in Camino Real, both at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. I had the great pleasure of seeing her powerhouse run as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Austin’s Zachary Scott Theatre, and watching her in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at Austin’s State Theatre. But I rarely saw graduate students in our program color-blind cast in comparably meaty theatre-historical roles.

The undergrads fared far worse, as the very few students of color routinely turned up as servants or backdrops in productions that conformed to conventional casting and staging practices.

I don’t mean to launch an ad hominem attack on my former department or any of my colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire (and miss). In fact, I’m curious how and if other college and university departments do this differently, or whether we’re all held hostage to trickle-down effects from television and film casting practices that dictate such rigid conformity to type and to such narrow notions of beauty. Perhaps only “character actors” are allowed to think outside the box of their bodies. Perhaps the late Heath Ledger, for instance, gets so much press for his transformative turn as the Joker in the new Batman flick, The Dark Knight, after his Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain, because physically, he could rest on his laurels as a romantic (and heterosexual) lead. Why aren’t all actors considered “character actors”? Isn’t that what all of them play? Characters who aren’t them?

It pains me to think of all those theatre geeks who love the freedom and creativity of performing, the community wrought by long hours of commitment to a common pursuit, the thrill of the audience, the intimacy of the dressing room, the camp-like spirit of can-do-ship seeing their passion squelched by the awful authority of cultural convention. How horrible to think of all those students arriving in our programs only to be told—by implication if not explicitly—that their bodies are wrong, that their color, ethnicity, size, weight, face structure, or sex appeal will consign them to shadowy support roles to those whose genes make them desirable to a very narrowly defined culture of beauty and low expectations of talent.

How nice it would be if instead, we could encourage our students to be healthy, as well as creative and committed. What if we taught them how to create their own theatres, where they can make art outside the dictates of an unimaginative mainstream, as my colleague Paul Bonin-Rodriguez does in his undergraduate senior seminar on the entrepreneurial creative artist? What if we taught them to be critics and dramaturgs who bring to wide attention the violence done to our bodies and souls by physical standards impossible for normal people to fulfill without surgical intervention?

What if we taught them to be smart, activist actors, who tried to change the industry from within, as well as from outside? What if we encouraged them to keep reasonable hours, to eat well, and to give up smoking, instead of tacitly condoning anorexia that helps them look “right”? What if we cultivated performers who don’t fit norms, as my colleague Lisa McNulty at Manhattan Theatre Club is trying to do with the Butch Casting Project (www.butchcastingproject.com), dedicated to “celebrating butches, trannies, and genderqueers in the arts, media, and entertainment”?

Some of our students do find the courage and the imagination to apply their training outside of norms. For instance, Anastasia Coon, a lesbian UT MFA acting student who graduated several years ago, moved to San Francisco where, in addition to plying her own acting talent, is teaching genderqueers how to use their voices to conform to their new, chosen gender interpretations. Flordelino Lagundino, a Filipino MFA acting student who also graduated from the reorganized program, has since worked with Perseverance Theatre in Juno, Alaska, where he’s created community-based theatre projects with the local Inuit population.

I continue to believe that university theatre programs should push at the envelope of cultural expectations about the arts. If we defy conventional beauty and body image standards; if we routinely commit to color-blind or cross-race cast our productions; if we teach students to critique representations of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and other identity markers in our own and mainstream productions, along with their aesthetic and ideological values; and if we teach students to reach outside conventional theatre to form their own companies and to create their own plays and performances, then we’ve truly added something to the national dialogue not just about the arts, but about citizenship and democracy. Supporting the status quo is untenable.

Teaching to transgress and transform (a la bell hooks),
The Feminist Spectator

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Hair in Central Park

So here’s the thing: Given Ben Brantley’s glowing New York Times review, Hair will no doubt move to Broadway. Although it deserves a wider audience and a much longer run (or re-run, given its original Broadway success), part of what makes the Public’s Delacorte Theatre production in Central Park wonderful is that Hair finds its natural setting outdoors. Entering the open-air house feels like stumbling on the young, energetic “Tribe” in their natural habitat.

It’s not that the designers have gone to great lengths to recreate say, Tompkins Square Park, the far East Village Ground Zero for New York’s Aquarius generation in the late 1960s. It’s that all the designers and the terrific director, Diane Paulus (recently appointed the next Artistic Director of ART, in Cambridge), have taken advantage of the freedom and the pleasure and the wonder of being young and alive under the sky, living on the streets as the characters in Hair (at least sometimes) do.

The actors enter the small, undecorated stage from the roofless house, roaming the aisles to address the audience. They’re not panhandling, but almost; they entreat us not for cash but for our opinions about their hair, their clothes, their beings. Spectators I noticed at the preview performance I saw August 5th happily went along with their interactions with the cast, turning the whole evening into something of a mutual love fest. And rightly so, since the Public’s revival is vivid and fresh, even magical.

The designers might maintain a bare bones aesthetic—perhaps inspired by the concert-style version the Public mounted in the park last summer—but the rest of the production is fully embellished with choreography and music. The energetic, geometric, and precise dance moves were devised by Karole Armitage, and Rob Fisher supervised the musical direction by Nadia Digiallonardo of a small band of horns, percussion, and electric guitars (since Hair was, as Stacy reminds me, the first rock musical) played by musicians decked out in the colorful, eclectic costumes of 1960s’ Hippies. The band congregates under a chuppah-like cloth canopy perched in the back middle of the intimate playing space.

Bare of more elaborate decor, the Delacorte stage is perfectly attuned to the musical’s simplicity. The stage floor sports a threadbare layer of Astroturf to evoke the balding grass of the Tribe’s arena, and the low fences at the back and sides of the stage became part of these Hippies’ hollow, the comfy outdoor encampment in which the characters frolic through a long night or two of the soul.

The night I attended, Hair seemed a wonderful nostalgia trip for the audience. As the band played the opening chords of “Aquarius,” and Dionne (Patina Renea Miller) wandered up to center stage to herald the approach of the new age, people across the packed audience sang along, grooving in their seats to those old lyrics and a tune that seems embedded in the collective memory of a certain generation of Americans. Even younger spectators rose to the occasion, singing along.

Who could fail to be moved by the infectious energy and commitment of the cast; by Paulus’s direction, which paces each number and exchange with fail-proof ease and speed; by uniformly excellent singers, who put their own stamp on these classic melodies without offending the audience’s recollection of their original delivery; or by dances that manage to seem both authentic to the physical and spiritual freedom of the Hippies’ historical moment and sharp and contemporary enough to speak to the movement vocabulary of today’s young folks? As “Aquarius” dawned and the song’s final chords sounded, I’d hazard to say we were all already hooked.

Hair is really a revue, a string of songs linked along the bare bones of a plot. Each number captures a feeling, an attitude that signals the emotions and passions of young people of the anti-Vietnam War, flower power, civil rights, psychedelic, free love, anti-establishment era. The characters, such as they are, depict stock figures of the moment: Berger (Will Swenson), the handsome womanizer who can’t be bothered to appreciate Sheila (Caren Lyn Manuel), his erstwhile main squeeze; Woof (Bryce Ryness), the about-to-be flamboyant on-his-way-to-being “homosexual” who’s in love with Mick Jagger; Hud (Darius Nichols), the Afro-encircled black man bursting with then-new racial pride; and Jeanie (Kacie Sheik), inadvertently pregnant by another man, but thoroughly, unrequitedly in love with Claude (Jonathan Goff, of Spring Awakening fame), the confused boy torn between fidelity to the Tribe and some misplaced sense of obedience to authority, whether incarnated by his parents or “the law” or “the country.”

For reasons that haven’t been clear in any production I’ve ever seen of Hair, Claude decides not to burn his draft card like his mates, but instead follows through with his Army induction. He cuts his down-to-there hair, goes off to war, and is promptly slaughtered, reduced from an idealistic, attractive young man to just another anonymous body sent home in a box wrapped in just another empty, wasted flag.

The draft-card-burning scene that ends Hair’s first act, staged to the reiterative melody of “Hare Krishna,” is particularly affecting in the Public’s Delacorte production, partly because the outdoor setting lets it viscerally evoke the moment. As smoke pours into the night air from a fire lit in a street-size steel garbage can, each of the cast’s men take their turn ritually dancing up to the light. They throw their cards into the flames as drums beat and trumpets blare, and the rest of the cast dances triumphantly, until Claude approaches the can and just . . . can’t . . . do it. As the ritual of refusal comes to an abrupt end, the Tribe backs away from their friend, confused. The spirit of group-think, so pleasurable a force to which to surrender, dissipates, and the group breaks apart, wandering off into the night in pairs or trios.

But as Claude sings the haunting ballad of ambivalence and bewilderment “Where Do I Go?”, the Tribe returns for the fleeting rather sacramental nudity that was part of what made the original Hair so radical for its time. Under cover of night and low stage lights, the Tribe gathers back near Claude, casting off their clothes not under the privacy of a large billowing tarp, as they did in the 1960s, but openly, and with a kind of conviction and vulnerability that both underlines and contrasts with Claude’s hesitancy. Discarding their outfits to stand naked before the audience gestures to a primal necessity underneath the radical posturing, to the possibility of feelings not sexual, but unmediated and, if you will, pure. Although nudity on stage no longer shocks (at least not in Central Park in New York City), in this production the cast’s collective disrobing played as a declaration of authentic presentness more than it did rebellion or desire.

The moment also works effectively here to question the momentum of political feeling in the 60s that sometimes devolved into lifestyle instead of a more considered, analytical program of dissent. In the Public’s production, I was struck for the first time that the Tribe isn’t first and foremost committed to activism, but rather indulges in a way of life that’s pleasurable because it’s free from the “square” expectations of the moment and unfettered by the dogma of its politics. Until it ends with the draft-card burning ritual, the first act establishes the Tribe’s preoccupation with personal relationships over the political, in songs like “Donna,” “Frank Mills,” and “Easy to be Hard.” It both lampoons and celebrates the counter-culture’s social practices in “Hashish,” “Sodomy” and “Hair,” evoking the moment but resolutely embedding it in personal, rather than political, choices.

On the other hand, Act One offers its share of social satire, critiquing the sorry state of our skies in “Air,” the impenetrability and proliferation of acronyms in “Initials,” and the rigidity of the 1950s generation in “My Conviction.” Performers Andrew Kober, who plays the drag role of Margaret Meade as well as the uptight, all-purpose “Dad,” and Megan Lawrence, who’s physically and vocally on target as the stereotypical yet familiar anxious “Mother,” parody the “establishment” with acerbic physical wit.

Although Claude is a cardboard cut-out of a character, his second act drift away from his community into the maw of the war machine is wrenching, not because the audience has necessarily identified with him or any other character, but perhaps because it’s in the last half of the evening when Hair becomes most relevant to the present and when analogies with the war in Iraq feel most palpable. This, too, is handled with a light touch consistent with the rest of the production. In the show's finale, as the Tribe sings the final anthem, they part down the middle to reveal Claude, dressed in full military colors, lying still on the stage floor across a large American flag. Their friend’s empty sacrifice resonates with those of the many soldiers over the last five years who’ve lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, for equally suspect political reasons.

The second act more specifically resonates with the ideological commitments of the moment (then and now). “Let the Sunshine In,” as Public Theatre Artistic Director Oscar Eustis notes in the program, was never “a celebratory anthem; it was always a broken-hearted plea by a tribe that has not only failed to stop the war, but failed to keep one of their own from being consumed by it.” Taken out of context, the song became a commercialized feel-good hit, but Eustis and this production recalls its origins as a cri de coeur, a heartfelt plea for tolerance and peace.

The Public’s production doesn’t suffocate Hair under overworked contemporary references. Paulus lets the cast’s freak flags fly in the exuberance of the lyrics, the costumes, the dancing, and the invigorating night air. Hair is by now a “costume piece”—the long-flowing locks on most of the men are obviously wigs, and the fringed vests worn over their bare chests obviously evoke another era’s sartorial style. In fact, the cast’s bodies give away the persistence of the present most emphatically, in the sculpted six-pack abs of the male actors and the svelte physical lines of the women, perceptible even under their long, fluid skirts. The contrast between Hair's premiere 40 years ago and this revival seems embodied in how much tighter, leaner, and, ironically, rather warrior-like the ideal American body has become.

Still, Hair’s “messages” are all here, along with the pleasure of nostalgia, the poignancy of being reminded how history repeats itself, and the joy of watching young people so physically, musically, and emotionally dedicated to embodying if not fully fleshed out characters, then the simple spirit of a moment now long past, yet close to the present nonetheless.

When the cast invited the audience onto the stage to dance as the band played after the curtain call, people of all ages (and colors, although unlike the Public’s very diverse staff, working at the Delacorte as security and ushers, the audience for Hair was predominantly white the night I attended) bound down to join them. The dancing was a utopic, performative slice of “now” inspired by an evening’s performance that knit audience and cast together in communal fellow-feeling and hope.

I can imagine some readers or spectators disparaging this production as empty nostalgia or easy sentiment, unattached to actions that might actually change or critically note how bereft are the politics of war and imperialism. But I left the theatre buoyed not just by the electricity of memory, or by hearing the enduring if sometimes silly lyrics, but by the production’s full-hearted devotion to the present, to making these songs and the representation of an inclusive, open-handed spirit of belonging and rebellion mean something in a time when we don’t readily value ideas or movements or even just moments that bring us together so unashamedly.

In their program bios, each cast member ends his or her paragraph with “Love.” Just the word, period. Corny, but also sweet, and evidence, perhaps, of how much this cast’s generation came to appreciate and even share the sentiments first embodied in Hair by the last.

Good morning starshine indeed,

The Feminist Spectator