Thursday, April 26, 2012

See, this is exactly why I stopped political blogging.

“All art is quite useless.”
-Oscar Wilde

So there’s been another kerfuffle in the arts scene of late, this time surrounding the fact that the Guthrie’s upcoming season is almost entirely written/directed by white males. There’s been a lot of opinions being aggressively bandied back and forth, but it did light up the idle thought for me: how diverse has my own casting been? And, hey, I generally prefer numbers to emotions in these kinds of discussions, so I thought I’d sit down and, y’know, generate some.

These numbers are drawn by tallying up all of the performers in the ensemble shows I produced from 2003-2011. I have *not* included any of my one-man shows, as they would pretty dramatically skew the results. While I would frequently consult with other members of my creative team, all final casting decisions were mine and mine alone. So here’s the big number:

22% white male
78% minority

…which looks pretty freakin’ diverse, but as is the case with many statistics, is also profoundly misleading. Let’s break that down a bit. First, by gender:

56% female
44% male

…and I’ll append a few quick thoughts here:

-          My plays generally feature more female characters than male characters. However, while I’ve written many short stories with female protagonists, every single play I’ve produced features a male lead. I have a preoccupation with masculine perspective and identity.
-          My intention and my hope is that the female roles I’ve written have been complex, thoughtful, and/or fun for women to play, although that question would, perhaps, be better put to the actresses that have played them. I hope this not because of a special desire to write women a certain way, but because I have this hope about all of my characters, regardless of gender.
-          My plays also tend to feature women in positions of power and authority. I have heard this described as being empowerment by some, exploitation by others. I don’t pretend to know which, and I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
-          I have the sense that there are a limited number of female “types” that are socially acceptable for men to write, generally variations on either helpless victims or invincible badasses, and wandering outside those norms can lead to criticism.
-          I find the notion that men are either genetically or socially incapable of writing interesting female characters to be both dubious and offensive.
-          I have written many gags around both hypersexualized women and hypersexualized men, because I (and audiences) seem to find them funny.
-          I identify as a feminist: I believe in the social, legal, and economic equality of women. However, the self-aggrandizing language used by many modern feminists often causes me to cringe in embarrassment.
-          I absolutely believe that the steps made towards equality by women in the last century have been a majorly positive thing, both for us as individuals and us as a culture, nor do I believe that that work is complete. I also think that the redefinition of gender roles has thrown masculine identity into a legitimate crisis that has been both ill-examined and treated unfairly dismissively by many within the feminist movement.
-          I have led a life dominated by powerful and intelligent women: I had a father who traveled frequently, a mother, and three older sisters. I am currently in a serious long-term relationship with a career woman whose intelligence and earning power both exceed mine by an order of magnitude. I find that to this day I still communicate better with women than I do with men, though my closest friendships have generally been male.
-          I identify as heterosexual; I’m a believer in the Kinsey scale, but I seem to be pretty firmly at one end. I fantasize about women in many different contexts, and I don’t feel a great deal of guilt about this.
-          I’m not convinced that this is particularly relevant, but as it seems to inevitably be brought up in these conversations, I’ve been both sexually dominant and sexually submissive, and derived pleasure from both roles.

Onto ethnicity:

63% white
37% minority

…with more thoughts:

-          I don’t believe in “colorblind” casting: ethnicity is an aspect of identity, and identity is an aspect of character, and race, in my opinion, should absolutely be a consideration in the faces chosen to put to words.
-          Along these lines, I think that the white power groups who complained about casting “The fairest of gods” as a black man in the Thor movie were justified. That said, I’m also the dude who cast a black female as the Norse god of thunder.
-          On those occasions when I put out an open call for auditions, the actors who turned up were overwhelmingly white, despite requests for diversity in the call.
-          I have on multiple occasions cast black actors, only to have them drop when they discovered that the pay would be less than their expectations.
-          The above two facts lead me to the suspicion that the smaller proportion of black actors gives them greater opportunity, but my sample size is much, much too small for that to be anything more than anecdotal. I would be genuinely interested in any numbers out there along these lines; nearly all statistics I’ve seen relate to the raw number of actors by ethnicity, rather than to the work/pay that they’re receiving. One data set in particular I’d like to see: what percentage of working black actors locally belong to Equity, as opposed to working white actors?
-          It’s been some years since I was aggressively auditioning, but I have never had the sense that I was either given or turned down a role because of my race.
-          I am biracial, and have written extensively on the subject of race. My shows on this subject have consistently been among my bestselling work, and my audiences have been almost entirely white.
-          I am the only member of my immediate family to be born in this country: my parents and all three of my sisters are immigrants.
-          Being biracial, the ethnicity of my appearance has oscillated wildly over the course of my life. For the bulk of my childhood, I appeared very Asian; after puberty, my features changed enough to make my ethnicity difficult to identify.
-          I attended a number of different schools due to my anger issues, but the bulk of my time was spent in private Catholic schools, where the student body tended to be white.
-          I suspect that the above two facts are why I generally identify myself as Asian-American, as opposed to Caucasian.
-          I resent being told how I, as an Asian-American male, am supposed to feel about my ethnicity. Additionally, I find it rather absurd to be given this lecture by white people.
-          I also find absurdity in a culture that tells me I’m supposed to find pride in my Asian roots, but shame in my white ones. If “yellow pride” is acceptable, then “white pride” must be as well.
-          The politics of most Asian-American groups make me cringe.
-          I also cringe when white people ask me for my opinion “as an Asian-American”, as though I were some sort of spokesperson for everyone sharing my genetic markers.
-          I also cringe when those opinions are dismissed because I’m “not Asian enough.”
-          I appreciate the intention behind politically correct speech, but I also can’t ignore the fact that I usually see it used as a tool to shut down discussion, rather than to open it.

Finally, some thoughts on the Guthrie situation:

-          I don’t fully understand what people mean when they call the Guthrie “a leader in the community.” They deal with larger sums of money, yes, and they give some nice fat paychecks to some excellent local artists, but I don’t know that either of those has a real impact on the decisions that smaller companies make. They also have a larger attendance and are more visible to the non-theatregoing public, but in my experience that audience was not attending my shows anyway.
-          The Guthrie’s focus has historically been on productions of classic European and American theatre, which is dominated by white dudes.
-          Not that this has anything to do with the Guthrie’s intention, but if a white power group were to open a theatre company locally, I’d eagerly see one of their shows. DW Griffith was an asshole, but Birth of a Nation was a way better movie than Intolerance.
-          Many expressed indignation at Joe Dowling’s desire to avoid “tokenism.” This seems to suggest that their worldview doesn’t allow for the possibility that his best applicants were white. I have little difficulty believing this, as I have sat in the director’s chair and cast all-white shows, because my best auditionees were white. This may point to a larger systemic problem, but my first priority is the artistic integrity of my show, not to society as a whole.
-          I am very resistant to the notion of art having any kind of social obligation. My motivations for creating art are almost entirely selfish.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Context, New Text, Black Text, Blue Text

So there's an argument that Ben and I have had once or twice (as opposed to the regular arguments that we have ad nauseam) in which he casually observed that he thought that writing a novel must be the most challenging creative endeavor -- because, as he put it, he'd want to audience-test it in minute chunks. I was immediately resistant to this argument, though it's taken me a while to put my finger on why.

It's a stand-up comic's argument, and I want to qualify that it's one I have a lot of respect for. I'm a huge believer in the necessity of workshopping material in front of an audience. In fact, that was the explicit function of the first Fringe show I ever produced -- Lokasenna was a collection of songs and comedy routines excerpted from a longer script, for the purpose of writing, rewriting, and finding the comic rhythms of the various jokes.

Not that the Fringe was the only place that those scenes ever saw the light of day -- we spent the year leading up to the production working those gags on every stage we could find. In the years that followed, we'd frequently revive them for gig after gig -- in time, man, our shit got *polished*.

I don't regret the time that we spent developing our material -- it produced some lovely bits of writing that I cheerfully stand behind to this day -- but -- well, I'd say it's the benefit of hindsight, but the truth is that any fairly practiced writer could probably have told me what the end result would be: some very funny dialogue embedded in a lumbering, awkwardly paced chimera of a script.

This is why I think the comedian's methods are often ill-applied to long-form work (although the caveat must immediately be made that there are skilled comics, and I'm including Ben on this list, who are proficient at both, putting together long shows by building elaborate structures around their one-liners) -- there's different tools for different goals, and while building a play or a novel may rely on *many* of the same tools, their goals are fundamentally different. Most of my favorite novels would be tedious or incoherent if read in five-minute chunks, while there are plenty of books with clever prose on every page that fall apart as narrative.

(I'd put some of Terry Pratchett's earliest novels in the latter category, though that may put the lie to my argument, as they're very popular. Feh, I say. Give me his later stuff, where the action and characters actually hang together *and make the jokes much funnier*.)

(I sheepishly might also consider placing Penner vs. the Hydra in a similar category, as well, as it seemed to function effectively as a joke machine -- audiences were laughing consistently throughout -- but, I suspect, left them somewhat cold after the fact, possibly symptomatic of placing such a morally troubling character at the play's center.)

This has been, I think, one of the central struggles of my career, learning to write for the short attention span of Festival crowds while maintaining my deeper love for long-form narrative. Tennyson is my favorite poet, not only because of his dazzling versatility, but because of how incredibly *deep* his use of recurring words and phrases and ideas is in his epics. That simply can't be expressed in short bursts. Wagner's genius lies not in his ability to compose themes but in his ability to *layer* them in increasing levels of complexity. That's totally lost when we sample his music like pop songs off a concept album. The Ride of the Valkyries may be loud and exciting, but that's not the point.

(Hi, I'm phil, the world's youngest cranky old man.)

One of the masters of the balancing act, in my opinion, may be Chaplin. Take Modern Times (my favorite movie) -- any one of the individual scenes could be plucked out as a successful comedy short, but assembled they expand on a central idea.

Anyway, that's all a long windup to saying that's why I feel the necessity to hold a full-script reading for Lokasenna (now more marketably titled Norseplay) -- measuring how well the individual pieces work requires, y'know, context and stuff. (Along those lines, this is well-worth reading as well, methinks.)

Taking place this Saturday, and here's the link, if anyone's interested.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

This Blog Should Be Retitled "phil Likes Boring Things"

ME: Hey, I've enjoyed talking, but I've got to get going.
HIM: Oh -- are you hosting a panel?
ME: No -- just watching one.
HIM (laughing): You should host a panel. You'd be *hilarious*! observation which was both flattering and dismaying, as I *am* planning on hosting panels for the first time CONvergence this year, none of which are particularly *funny*. (I have sat on panels in the past, including, yes, some comedy ones.)

I mean, I'm a comedy writer -- I typically see (or perform in) several comedy shows a week. Many of the shows at these cons are performed by colleagues, who I can (and do) see year-round. I know people who go to cons and see nothing *but* comedy shows, but, truthfully, I'm far more interested in watching a room full of scientists argue about bioethics.

In that respect, Minicon is very much up my alley. CONvergence is (among many other things) a party con, and much of it is defined by an (at times exhausting) need to entertain. And it strikes me that it's defined, in many respects, by its inclusivity ("Come one, come all"), while Minicon seems in equal measure to be defined by its exclusivity (for serious, if not necessarily somber, fans of science and science fiction).

(I'm being, no doubt, unjustly reductive here -- CONvergence has plenty of thoughtful discussion, and Minicon has plenty of celebratory silliness -- but dealing in subtleties would ruin, simply ruin, the unfair generalization I'm trying to make here.)

(It's also worth noting that I'm dealing with some very uneven data samples -- I was ferrying back and forth to rehearsals for my other show, and consequently missed a good chunk of the con.)

My main goal in spreading out to some other cons this year has been to see if there's an audience I can capitalize on. And while Minicon wins the trophy for my personal enjoyment -- I count the "Year in Science" panel as one of the more stimulating hours in recent memory -- I'm at a bit of a loss as to how I can use it. (I can imagine a day in the future when I *could*, so that data is useful (if expensive), but my career simply isn't in that place now.)

When the day comes that I can afford vacations, I'm looking forward to revisiting this place. But for an entertainer? For someone trying to reach a critical mass of audience, and build a niche within that? CONvergence? CONvergence is prime time.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Reflection and Refraction

So a lot of my energy for the past week has been going to Steampunk Delusions, a double-bill produced by Hardcover Theater and English Scrimshaw Theatrical Novelties. Hardcover is one of those theatres that's been on my radar for a while -- its mission seemed uniquely compatible with MV's -- and Steve Schroer (the Artistic Director) and I once briefly discussed the possibility of working together (many years ago, and nothing ever came of it).

In any case, I was recommended for the lead in the Hardcover half: The Diamond Lens, a kind of poetic Victorian mad-science story that explores some of the questions that would ultimately lead to quantum theory. (The story's online for anyone who's interested, and it's well worth reading.) This is rare for me, but when I read the thing I immediately wanted the role, immediately thought I might be well-suited for it -- its dense, overwrought language is exactly the kind of thing I've been doing onstage for years, and as for the content -- I'm pretty sure I've *written* this story before: is has some more than superficial similarities to Quantum Suicide, and its protagonist, one Douglas Linley, has some more than superficial similarities to Richard (though, I would say, much more so in the original than in the adaptation).

This is also the first time in a long time that I've done detailed text work on a show that isn't -- well, that I didn't *write*. Steve, I think, is an excellent director, with that rare combination of clarity and efficiency; so working with him has been interesting for me, in that it's rare for me to be able to watch another writer's process with such intimacy.

See, the story poses some unique problems in adaptation, largely because it's told from the point of view of an emotionally reserved introvert. As the ponderous language is much of initially attracted me to the story, I would probably have made great effort to preserve it; whereas Steve's approach has been to take Linley's internal world and to *externalize* it, to find ways to make it animated and theatrical.

Both are, I think, valid methods. But I'm struck by the fact that he chose the one more immediately accessible to an audience, and the thought occurs to me, ruefully, that decisions like this are among the reasons that he still has a production company, and I don't.