I am obsessed with Frankenstein. This is not new. I first read the book in middle school and, though I didn’t understand a lot of it, I fell deep into the rabbit hole of loving Victor Frankenstein’s tragic story and the Creature’s isolation and outsider view. I watched the Universal film from 1931 and its sequel (though both films are nothing like the book). I read a series of books for teens based off the Universal films. I watched Young Frankenstein most Halloweens (and saw the musical adaptation when it toured here). I kept rereading the book. I wrote my own modern adaptation that I self-published as an e-book (please don’t find it; it’s terrible). I grew jealous of everyone who was able to see the Benedict Cumberbatch/ Johnny Lee Miller adaption in the UK (directed by Danny Boyle – I’m finally seeing this November when a live taping is encored by the MSP Film Society at St Anthony Main theater). I’ve read about Mary Shelley and her famous mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the book Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. Some of my favorite creative types also love Frankenstein (notably, Guillermo Del Toro, who I am likewise obsessed with).
In short, I am a huge Frankenstein nerd and I am very vocal about this. So when the Guthrie announced that they would be doing a production of Frankenstein: Playing with Fire in their 2018-2019 season, I was intrigued and a little worried. I love the story but I’ve seen bad adaptations that haunt me (looking at you, Fringe). But I love the production at the Guthrie, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the play being written and the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication itself. In fact, it’s probably my favorite show that I’ve seen at the G (and by this weekend, will hold the record of the most times I’ve seen the same production of a show). Because (for all transparent reasons) I work in the Guthrie box office, I won’t review the show. But I have been thinking about the story a great deal and, after rereading the book and spending some time with Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the importance of Shelley’s writing that I wanted to share. Without further ado:
An (Incomplete) List of Themes and Issues in “Frankenstein”
playing with fire/ myth of Prometheus/ playing God
pseudoscience versus real science
environmentalism/ respect for the forces of nature and scientific laws
nature versus nurture in the raising of children
healthcare (why does Victor leap to the conclusion that the answer to avoiding death is to avoid birthing humans and create life from the dead rather than working to better healthcare? Especially central to the way the play adapts the book where Victor’s mother dies in childbirth)
ways in which the Creature reflects what living with mental illness is like (anxiety and depression makes those who live with it feel monstrous, like outsiders, etc.)
who really is a monster – what is actually horrific in this story
skepticism versus wonder and how they get convoluted
overlooking objective truth in order something you want to be true possible
having more questions than answers in life
education and how we learn/who we teach
our lack of understanding around what makes us human/sentient/ personality/ the belief in a soul
desire/hunger for knowledge
technology and how its advancement is outpacing in our ability to deal with and grapple with it
consequences of actions/shame/guilt
questions around morality and what is moral
All in all, I really love this story. If you get the chance to see the Guthrie production or the Danny Boyle screening at St Anthony Main, due. And why not pick up the book over Halloween? (I want to get my hands on the 1818 edition myself – I hear it’s better than the more populous 1833 edition.)
Thank you for entertaining my passion surrounding Frankenstein. I’ll be here all October with all of your gothic horror story needs.
I know this is not your real name, but hello. I read the article that was posted about you on Babe.net in which you discuss a situation that happened with Aziz Ansari. I would like to first say I believe you. There are plenty of reporters right now from CNN, the New York Times, and especially the Atlantic* who would rather complain about how you are making mountains out of molehills or accusing Ansari of not being able to read minds or any possible rhetorical strategy they can find to belittle your story. Do not let them belittle you. Your struggle is real. I understand it well. Because #metoo.
I admit that I was shocked when I initially heard about the allegations against Ansari. I enjoyed his book Modern Love and like his work. However, at this point, I’m finding that a lot of people I admire have done less than admirable things and, while no one is perfect, there is a difference between making mistakes and owning up to them, and hiding them and pretending to be a perfect of example and using your power to do so. I work in theater and I hear about how all too often someone’s success is used to protect them. It is part of the reason I am so afraid to discuss incidents that have happened to me. I am also afraid because of the responses to your stories, in which people blame you for being too ignorant, of not saying “no” clearly enough, of not facing the issue head on and feeling upset about it later and using it as “revenge porn” (clearly the reporter from the Atlantic who uses this phrase has absolutely no idea what revenge porn actually is). As a person who has felt upset about an incident and later was unsure how to handle it, I feel these are unfair attacks. I have been in situations where I could have more clearly communicated how I felt but I was so surprised that I was never asked or it was assumed that I wanted something a certain way that I wasn’t sure how to proceed from there. The point of your story is that men do not ask – they take – and that we live in a culture that socializes them to be this way. They assume if we are sexually active that, even if we are drunk, our mumbled yes is consent. They assume that if we say yes to one thing, we are okay with anything they do. They think that the moment they are done with us, we should be done with them and they do not care about our emotional well-being afterwards. They think that we can read their minds and we can completely understand what they want and that their needs come first. They think because they talk about feminism and post about feminism, it makes them a feminist and it some how absolves them of the sexist things they do in their personal lives because they present themselves as a feminist generally but fail to practice those things in their personal life. I of course am using “they” broadly here to talk about issues I have seen in my experiences. For those who would call me out, I don’t mean “all men” but several I have had encounters with. The fact that I still have to say “not all men” is an issue of how I’ve been socialized to excuse and avoid and pardon the flaws of men while women are constantly being reprimanded and people of other genders are kept invisible in most of these discussions. People of other genders are affected too. The patriarchy is not good for anyone. Why we perpetuate it and continue to give it power is beyond me.
Here is one of the many reasons why this matters: of the partners I have had (a statistic I will not disclose because that’s no one’s business), I have had exactly one who has asked me what I wanted, who has checked in with me, who has made sure that I am comfortable. He has taught himself to do this – I have not had to ask him to listen. We are working to listen more to each other but the fact that he started by asking, that he started by listening is something I have never experienced before. He is my current partner and we’ve been together for many months and still I am surprised when he checks in with me, when he wants to know what I want, when he asks questions. This should not surprise me. Having a male partner like this who is like some rare unicorn in the midst of everyone else is not the way things should be. But I’m afraid that the desires of women are terribly misunderstood and misrepresented. These reporters are not helping but reinforcing what has already been built against us. We are like birds, throwing ourselves against the bars of a cage and hoping the bars will break. I believe that one day the bars will break, or that someone will open up the cage. But it is going to take time. Until, stay strong, and I will keep fighting for women like you, like me, for all women. I hear you. I believe you. And #metoo.
*I am not linking to these articles because I do not want to be sending readers directly to them. They are poor excuses for reporting and opinion and the Atlantic piece is especially badly written.
Before I begin this post, I’d like to provide a frame of reference for where I was mentally when I saw this show (I think it’s important, as a reviewer, to be honest about what you’re entering the theater with, as it’s different for everyone). I’d had a long day, starting with helping out at a student matinee at the theater I work at, as well as a full hectic day of work, and exhaustion from anxiety struggles earlier in the week. I’m sad to say that I entered this show already feeling fatigued and not very energized. I was hoping the show would lift my spirits. It didn’t.
I have never left at the intermission of a show before, but I did this night. I hesitate to call this an actual review since I didn’t see the whole show but it did provoke me quite a bit and I have thoughts I feel are important to share about the production. My issues are not with the quality of the production, the acting, or the theater itself (all of which are wonderful) but rather the script and the show’s story,
The writing was lacking for me. While I haven’t seen the previous play this one is a sequel to, I didn’t feel that seeing it would have helped me understand the characters or situation better. Henry and Alice are camping to save money instead of staying at an expensive hotel. It was all pretty simple – and that was the beginning of the problem for me. While there was conflict and some sense of urgency, I could find Henry or Alice likable or interesting. Diana I liked and could relate to in some ways, but she was supposed to be an annoying bother, and I couldn’t understand why. Her entrance made me interested, for a while, until she became a stereotypical hippie, “too wild” for Henry and Alice” (if too wild is a “carpe diem” tattoo, I hate to think what my eight tattoos reads as in this world).
I also didn’t appreciate some of the jokes – the swingers misconception had potential, but I felt like it was still dismissive or stigmatizing to actual swingers (as a supporter of polyamory and other nontraditional lifestyles, this could have been an educating or embracing moment and it didn’t read that way). I’m over the “breathing into a paper bag because I’m hysterical” gag. Panic attacks are real. I have them. Please don’t trivialize them (or at least make it a larger part of the character, ala Leo Bloom in The Producers). I’m also pretty sure that g*psy is a slur now, so I don’t know why this was used at all.
I’m just being prescriptive now, which is against everything I’ve been taught in playwriting. But I’m disappointed in this play. Really disappointed. It’s by a female playwright, it’s a new show. It’s everything I want to support in theater. But while sitting and listening to Alice and Henry bicker and not being very interested, I realized a large part of the problem for me. I don’t live in Henry and Alice’s economic world. I don’t live in a place where people retire early or where being laid off means you need to formulate a budget and you can’t shop at Pottery Barn any more. I live in a world where people work until they day they die and a world where, if you’re laid off, your house gets foreclosed. I am not upper middle class. I’m not middle class. I’m lower middle class at best, and most of the time I’m working class. Theater is not a wealthy industry to work in, despite what Broadway might like to depict it as. I make minimum wage, I’ve spent a lot of money for my degrees that has not left me with debt (yet) but has for most of my generation. As a millennial watching this show, I was stunned by the presentation of wealth and money. It made no sense to me that in order to save money, Henry and Alice went camping. If you haven’t been to an REI or a Cabella’s recently, go and check out camping gear – it’s not cheap. At all. Saving money for my family when I was growing up wasn’t changing our vacation – it was not going on vacation at all (it was the same for both of my parents growing up as well). It made no sense that Alice, who clearly worked hard for what she had, wouldn’t understand why her husband was concerned about her spending habits or why her horror story became having to live on a budget instead of, well, maybe being homeless. The fact of the matter is that Alice and I live in completely different worlds. And it’s something I think we need to start talking about.
We are living in the most economically disparate time since the 1920s (or so I learned my first year in my MFA program). Never before has there been such a large difference between the wealthiest of people and the poorest in our country. In the world of theater, we of course need money (especially donors) to fund our work and make things happen (there are of course arguments agains that, but I won’t tackle those here). But we also want to open our doors to most diverse audience, especially those who can’t often afford to attend theaters. I couldn’t help but think about the students I saw at the student matinee I helped at, who were awed at the expensive look of the building they were entering, and started thinking about how they might feel about Alice complaining about not being able to buy stuff. Perhaps how it was how I was raised, perhaps it was my college education, hell, maybe it’s my fondness for Brecht – regardless, classism is never far from my mind. It’s not that I don’t think shows can’t just be entertaining or have wealthy characters – they certainly can, but it’s important in how you talk about it and discuss it in the show. It’s also about creating more diverse work about diverse people. But in this case, it was how money was discussed. I didn’t stay around for the second act and maybe it’s resolved and Alice learns materialism isn’t so important and Henry learns not to be so uptight. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that I don’t ever believe there’s that much to lose. It all felt hollow to me because in the world around me, the stakes are much different. If all Alice is going to do is not get her trip to Europe, I don’t feel a connection with that. I would love to go to Europe – but right now I’m worried about paying my rent that’s going up in December because Minneapolis is being filled with expensive luxury apartments that cost as much as half a semester of my grad school tuition per month and everything is getting more expensive. Alice can’t buy her Pottery Barn furniture? I know people who can’t afford medication they need, who don’t have health insurance, and if they do have insurance, they are or are afraid they will lose coverage.
Theater doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. And for me it’s impossible not to see what’s happening in the world around me when I attend a show. I can’t just sit back and relax and shut off everything else – I wish I could, But the play I’m attending is always in dialogue with the world around me. And I think that’s a really important function of theater. A show can be really entertaining and make you forget your troubles but also teach you something really important or make you realize something. And what bothers me is that this play does touch on some really wonderful stuff – Alice’s hard unappreciated work as a stay at home mother, trying to care for an aging parent, and the affect the economy and lay offs have on personal relationships. But I just don’t understand why it used story to work with those issues.
I also have to ask what kind of audience was this for. I was one of the youngest members of the audience on a relatively full weeknight and, yes, it was a mostly older, white, seemingly middle class audience. This is not a critique of Park Square alone but a theater-wide issue. There’s a contention between the subscriber base and the urging to bring in younger and more diverse audiences. I feel bad criticizing this show because I really love the cast – John Middleton, Carolyn Pool, and Melanie Wehrmacher are absolutely wonderful. Mary M. Finnerty is a fine director. And I’m looking very forward to the season ahead, especially to Hamlet. I could simply admit I’m not the intended audience for this show. It’s not about my world. But I also want to know what happens when not the intended audience enters the room and what happens then. How do we deal with that? How do we recognize their feelings without brushing it off as a overreaction? I admit that I’m emotional about this, but I hope it shows it’s because I care. I love theater too much to let it continue to be overwhelmed by classism, I’m tired, so tired of this fight on many levels – there’s a great intersectionality with economic status that affects age, gender, race, sexuality, etc and it too often gets overlooked. I want to challenge theaters to consider classism more when discussing seasons, marketing, access to patrons, etc. We need our wealthy patrons who are willing and able to support our shows, but we also need patrons of different economic levels to enjoy what is produced, to feel inspired, and see their stories shared onstage.
I want to end this (very) long post with a final thought on why I am so passionate about this. The first theater show I ever attended was “The Wizard of Oz” at Wagon Wheel Theater in Warsaw, Indiana. I never in a hundred years thought that one day, after seeing that show with my grandmother, I might one day write a play myself. While they were community theater actors, I saw them in a professional light – partly because I was six and anyone who was an adult was cool and partly because theater lighting has the power to make anyone look incredible and magical. Seeing someone onstage puts them in a privileged position – in Western theater, we’re sitting the dark focused on them, while they have the floor to speak and we’re quiet (well, different levels of quiet depending where you’re attending theater). Regardless, they literally have the mic – and what they say matters and resonates. I think it’s too easy to think theater is just another art form that people consume and shrug off. It’s like any other – some of it we always we remember, others not so much. But unlike other art forms, it’s happening in real time. And it has the capability to speak to us immediately, presently, as a collective of different people with different experiences. It is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever been privy to. I’ll always remember seeing “The Wizard of Oz” in the theater and not the first time I saw the film, because seeing it with a group of people who also were afraid of the flying monkeys and were mesmerized by Glinda and gasped at the Wicked Witch’s wickedness is downright incredible. What we make matters. We know that. I just hope that we continue to broaden our idea of who it matters to.
It might be the middle of the Minnesota Fringe Festival here in the Twin Cities but I want – no, need – to take a moment to talk about Sam Shepard. I’m still reeling from his death and feeling all the levels of loss at once. Out of the playwrights we’ve lost since I’ve been working in theater, his death has hit me the hardest because he is one of the writers I consider a fundamental influence, both in my repertoire and in my own writing.
I found uncanny solace in his plays and they taught me about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional relationships, anger, fear, love, hope, hopelessness, and how to make an audience/reader feel uncomfortable and disturbed. Navigating struggles between community and feeling alone, Shepard has a style and perspective on the world that’s all his own. His dialogue is fast, sharp, harsh, painfully emotional, and, at times, detached and confused. Characters speak across each other and ignore what the other says. Communication falls apart even while lines are still being uttered. When I first discovered his plays, it was like hearing punk music after hearing soft rock and pop all your life.
It’s hard to put into words what it means to lose someone so important to you that you’ve never met, which I why I’m so grateful for the outpouring of articles out there. There’s of course the gorgeous, heartbreaking piece by Patti Smith and this article by John Leland (which has some great highlights like Shepard worked with Charles Mingus Jr and brought Nina Simone ice). These illuminate Shepard as a complex, brilliant guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time and wasn’t afraid to try something different. This New Yorker piece describes his work and presence wonderfully:
To the downtown New York theatre scene, he brought news of the West, of myth and music. He didn’t conform to the manners of the day; he’d lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens. He also had the pulse of youth culture. He understood the despair behind the protean transformations that the culture was undergoing—the mutations of psychic and physical shape that were necessary for Americans to survive the oppression of a nation at war, both at home and abroad. Martians, cowboys and Indians, and rock legends peopled Shepard’s fantasies. He put that rage and rebellion onstage.
And then there’s this video with Shepard himself talking about his work, not wanting to deal family and how he noticed he was avoiding it in his work – thus making himself focus on it. Some people dislike Shepard for his “testosterone mania” (which I’ve always taken as a critique of hypermasculinity in society, or at least an examination of the dangers of it) and the way he writes women. One person in the video comments that Shepard may not understand women. And in the Leland piece, Mingus says “Some people are one-woman men. And some people never figure out which one woman to be with.” Shepard’s personal life colors his plays. He’s human, trying to figure out this weird world like the rest of us, examining the misunderstandings he holds and the different ways of being that exist for him and others. The bold colors that characterized his life find their way onto the page and shine in vivid hues, some beautiful, some frightening. Shepard is complicated, and messy, and visceral, and so, so wonderfully flaw-fully human. I’m grateful that I got to be in this world the same time as this great writer and that his plays will live on well after he’s gone. And that somewhere, he’s probably super pissed off that I’m rhapsodizing about it. But I wouldn’t be the playwright, the theater advocate, the person I am without knowing his plays. His work means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken in a way I haven’t been since Prince’s death. When you grow up, only knowing playwrights such as Shakespeare or maybe Arthur Miller, it rocks your world when you discover writers like Shepard. And I hope that we keep on rocking it and keep making plays that shake up the world and keep this “rogue energy” alive.
I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it.
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways
Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages
Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told
She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice
Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on
Prime Production is one of the newest theater companies in town, seeking, as their website states, to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.” Looking for more diversity of storytelling work that create more outlets for all women to share their stories (especially in theater, where women over fifty can find it difficult to find a role) I eagerly awaited their first full production, Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars.
Set in Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s Parisian salon in the beginning of WWII, the play introduces us to a group of writers (Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie) visiting the book-cluttered and art-filled home to discuss writing. Among them is Bernadette, a German Jew in hiding and Muriel Gardiner, a political activist who has come in search of funds in order to help Jews escape from Germany. Full of strong characters and stronger opinions, I was swept away by the whiskey-drinking, swearing women who strode through sexual norms, issues of relationships and divorce, and politics with broad strides and strong words.
Seeing a space that reminded me of my own with books piled precariously, walls filled with bright images and literature references while the women my friends and I might hope to be in thirty years discussed intellectual and personal topics struck me as something a bit different. I don’t recall seeing an entire cast of women, a majority of them over the age of forty, onstage before, let alone a show that featured them and gave them more to talk about than just love and growing old. This play celebrates women in all of their complexities and allows them to argue and drink in ways that is too often only written for men. As a whiskey-drinking, swearing LGBT writer who spends a great deal of her time discussing politics, the characters and issues at stake hit a personal tone for me.
The politics of the piece also feel timely (unfortunately) as discussions of fascism are only on the rise. “I won’t let it happen again, Bernadette,” Gertrude promises her maid, echoing a promise I hear uttered again and again. In the play, this involves not just the rise of Nazis but also sexual violence. “We waste so much time with silence,” Muriel tells us towards end of the show. What is perhaps most compelling is the need and desire thes women find to do something, to have their own resistance to the world around them that reaches beyond their salon, where they can discuss things in safety and privacy. For Lillian Hellman, it becomes more than just donating but actually getting involved in acts of resistance. Given our time and place, it’s an important message we all need to hear.
There is a caveat to this. As Kit Bix discusses on Talking Broadway and Matthew Everett alludes in his review, the historical accuracy of this play is highly questionable. Unfortunately, it seems that Gertrude Stein most likely did not support the resistance of Nazis – in fact, is seems she supported the Vichy government (as discussed in this New Yorker article). Though I certainly don’t expect plays to be entirely accurate in terms of history, I do like to know when things stray from the truth or when liberties have been taken. Since the play focuses so much on who will tell their stories, especially Bernadette’s speech at the beginning and at the end, it comes as a bit of a shock to know that play is far more fictitious than it seems.
As a dramaturg, I find these historical perspectives important and wish they had been dealt with in some way – a statement in the program, a resource guide, etc. As Prime is a new company, I hope that future productions will work to include this research when it is necessary. While these uneasy historical lessons do change how I relate to the show, I still find myself blown away by the representation of women in this piece. The moments of intersectionality – between gender and sexuality, age and gender, and politics and gender – are moments of vital connection to me.
I look forward to seeing more of these intersections (with race, class, etc) in the future work that Prime has planned. I hope I continue to see more and more diverse representation of women, not just in this theater company, but in all companies.
Note: It was pointed out to me by a Minnesota Playlist reader in the comments that there is a director’s note in the program that the situation of the play is purely fiction. Perhaps it’s telling that I overlooked this or perhaps it’s merely my not paying enough heed to the program. Nevertheless, it is noted.
As I sat at my computer, doing anything but write up my review of Ordway’s production of West Side Story, I realized that I simply couldn’t write the review. I opted to focus on choreography as a way to discuss the layers of feelings I had about the production. But I couldn’t write. I had local actor Ricardo Vazquez’s words, who spoke about the show at a birthday part I attended last fall, of “This is not a show about Latinos that needs to be done anymore” ringing in my head.
This morning I came across a post from ALMA, the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists, on Facebook in response to this article from the Star Tribune. Instead of writing my own post, I am instead sharing their words from their original post which can be found on their Facebook page. I hope that by sharing their post and their words that more people will be aware of the issues in place of this production and wider problems in our theater community.
‘We are the Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA). Below is our statement in response to the unfortunate words printed in the Star Tribune on April 6th, 2017 in regards to our local Latinx community of artists.
This letter is in response to the article To stage ‘West Side Story,’ Ordway Center decided to grow Latino talents by Rohan Preston published in the Star Tribune on Thursday, April 6, 2017. The article implies our local Latinx artist community is lacking the necessary ability to appear on the Ordway stage in a musical. Ordway Artistic Director James Rocco states, “There are not a whole lot of Latino musical theater artists in town…” More than one year ago our local Latinx community was promised a strong commitment by James Rocco and the Ordway to partner with Teatro del Pueblo to ensure our representation on stage. The only catch was we would need to be trained through weeks of workshops, classes, and seminars in order to be ready for the first round of standard auditions.
Suddenly, Latinx artists ranging in experience from professional union actors with over 30 years of credits to recent BFA graduates were asked to attend the workshops, but told by Teatro del Pueblo that the Ordway was accustomed to a certain standard of excellence. We were told our local Latinx community needed to prove its own value for the wonderful opportunity to play gang members in a 60-year-old musical written by two white men that ends with one of our people shooting the romantic lead and being placed in handcuffs.
In the end, this “commitment to growth” by the Ordway yielded only two local Latinx artists cast, while more than 10 additional roles were filled with out of town actors, clearly stating through action that the Ordway was embarrassed of our local Latinx talent. This was supported by Rohan Preston’s unverified assertion, “There’s a wealth of musical theater artists among African-Americans in the Twin Cities, and to a lesser degree, Asian-Americans. But Latinos? Not so much.”
We are the Latinx actors, directors, producers, dancers, singers, playwrights, educators, and theater artists that seem to be non-existent in the eyes of Mr. Preston, The Ordway Center and, unfortunately, even Teatro del Pueblo.
We are professional artists. We are not in need of charity, workshops or instructions on the fundamentals, but rather regular and consistent opportunities. It is a fact that our presence on stage is not as visible as in other major theater towns, though not due to the lack of talent or unwillingness, but because opportunities to play roles are infrequent and inconsistent. We will not tolerate organizations who feel they have the right to label an entire community as unworthy to be represented on stage.
While we are pleased that the Ordway is helping new actors learn how to become professionals, we are not all new at this. Just because the Ordway and Teatro del Pueblo, for very different reasons, do not see us work, it does not mean that we are all amateurs in need of fundamental skill development. This community of Latinx theater artists ranges from members of Actors Equity to more recent graduates of excellent conservatories and training programs including our own University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA.
We would also like to speak about the Ordway’s partnership with Teatro del Pueblo. The onus of finding local talent was solely placed on Teatro-a smaller less-resourced organization. This assumes that only Latinx organizations can know Latinx talent and if they are unable to provide a roster, then it is Teatro’s fault and not the Ordway’s. In addition, no one organization such as Teatro del Pueblo represents the Latinx community nor should any individual such as Al Justiniano ever feel the right to speak for an entire community of people.
The Ordway has a track record of contentious relationships with local communities of color. The 2013 production of Miss Saigon drew widespread condemnation from members of the Asian American community and eventually elicited an apology from then President and CEO Patricia Mitchell: “I want to acknowledge and apologize for the hurt that presenting this work has caused.” The Ordway’s ethics have been called into question more recently by organizations such as Mu Performing Arts (this was covered by Marianne Combs in her article Smaller, diverse groups swim against arts-funding tide.) If the Ordway is truly trying to reach our communities, it is time to listen to us about how these issues can be addressed and eliminated.
We wish the cast of West Side Story a successful run. Moving forward, we hope the Ordway, Teatro del Pueblo, and Star Tribune recognize and embrace the incredible wealth of talent of our Twin Cities Latinx community. We also hope James Rocco, Al Justiniano, and Rohan Preston continue to discuss this article with us because the only way to true community empowerment is by working together through conflict and disagreement. We invite all of you to join us in a panel discussion on Monday June 5th to expand on this letter (more details to follow). We look forward to the opportunity to develop real partnerships, exhibit our talents, bring authenticity to the stage, and help institutions like the Ordway be proud to showcase local talent in order to combat the larger issue of systematic exclusion.
In this together,
The Alliance of Latinx MN Artists (ALMA)
Last night I saw the Guthrie’s performance of Sense and Sensibility. Since I’m a staff member at the theater, I can’t review the show. But I am going to share some thoughts with you that the show and program notes provoked as well as some issues I’ve been juggling around in my mind for some time. This may have little to do with the show, but it served as a good jumping off point.
In the program, there’s a piece written by Kate Hamill, discussing what it’s like to be a female playwright, especially a playwright to adapts novels into plays. Hamill gives us statistics from the Dramatist Guild that state in 2015, over three-quarters of all plays produced on American stages were written by men. As a playwright myself, this isn’t new information, but seeing just how large the gap is between male and female writers is shocking. It’s even more disconcerting given the quandary I find myself in at the moment.
I’m worried that I’m having a crisis about feminism. After discussing with friends how much feminism has changed from the 1960s and how millennial feminists are dealing with issues that are different than what second wave feminists dealt with but still feel threatening, I struggle with knowing how I to approach certain issues. The example I’ll be using is male feminists.
Let me break this down for you. I did some research, trying to find a really good article about how it’s hard to talk about feminism with your male friends, even when they consider themselves feminists, because – well, the patriarchy is still alive and well and their views aren’t mine and communication is hard. I mean, it’s hard to talk about feminism with female friends (feminism is downright hard. But more on that in a moment). I was really hoping for some pithy article to actually got the nuances and the difficult emotional issues involved – something with a nice does of both skepticism and empathy. Instead, I found articles like these. In New York Magazine, the writer cuts down male feminists and simply states that men will always be the enemy and that’s that. They can try being feminists, but it’s ingrained in them not to be. This is valid, but a bit harsh. And a bit narrow-minded, I think. But then on the other end there’s this article from the Washington Post that calls feminists out for being misandrists and making mountains out of molehills over issues like mansplaining and friendzoning. So, yes, sometimes feminists get really negative. Sometimes this hurts more than it helps. But our anger is valid. And while clearly mansplaining is not comparable to, you know, getting the right to vote, it’s also not fair to brush it off as a non-issue. Then I hoped for some kind of sense to be found in this post from Medium, which seems more calmly concerned with male feminists rather than hating on them. Except that it seems to assume that men are only feminists because it can benefit them and doesn’t pause to consider things like women also watch porn, women can also be guilty for only caring about issues that relate to themselves, and, good God, why are mainstream articles so petty? There were other posts too, but they gave terribly obvious advice like “Don’t rape.” Really? You have to put that in an article on how to be a feminist?
So after seeing Sense and Sensibility last night and being inspired by seeing women take the stage in a story that (more or less) is about relationships between sisters, being incredibly happy to see a cast that had so many women in the artistic and creative side, and seeing audience members warmly respond to it (despite having heard people complain about it being “too conservative” for the Guthrie’s new season or uninteresting because it’s all about women), I decided to take some advice from Marianne Dashwood to heart. “Leave me, hate me, forget me. But do not ask me not to feel,” she cries. So, I’ve decided to write the article I wish I could have found. And I’m going to unleash a lot of feminist feelings on you.
Remember when I said previously that feminism is hard? Yeah, it’s hard. The basic premise is very simple – people of all genders should be equal. But the practicing of it is much more difficult. Feminism is no longer focused on getting voting rights or fighting for a woman’s right to marry when she chooses or proving that women are the intellectual equals of men (though we still have continue to argue these things from time to time, which is frightening). Feminists want a lot of different things because lots of different terrible things have happened to women and it takes a lot of arguing to point that out. And that’s the tough part – one doesn’t just decide “women are equal” and you’re done. It’s an all-day, every day, 365 days a year argument against cultural norms that have built up social injustices (aka: the patriarchy) and it takes a lot of work. It’s exhausting to resist a culture that is so focused on certain standards of femininity, body image, behavior, sexuality, and so on. Especially that not only are men taught inequality towards women, women are taught it to each other. We’re taught to critique each other’s appearances and bodies and general state of being. And it’s more exhausting when you’re not only arguing with people who aren’t feminists, but people who think they’re feminists but maybe don’t have the whole picture, as well as arguing with yourself.
Here’s my major concern – I’m worried about how the patriarchy works on feminism. I’m beginning to feel like there’s certain ways of being a feminist that more popular than others. After seeing friends mention those friends of theirs that will team up to destroy the patriarchy, I wonder: do I look like the kind of person who would do that? Why look; why do I have to look like that kind of person? And yet I wonder. I think some of my female friends would say yes, but I struggle think whether my male friends would say so. To be honest, I feel like either my friends – and usually this applies to male friends, but perhaps I’m more aware of it with them than I am others – are weary of my perspective or think it’s not edgy enough. Either my complaints are too commonplace or I’m making too much of an issue. I find myself seeing a new double bind, the double bind of a female feminist who has male feminist friends but doesn’t feel like she fits in with the female feminists they know or, at times, with feminism at all.
I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something wrong with my perspective. Not in way that white female feminists are criticized for not branching out into intersectionality; I make that as large of a focus, especially as I’m a bi anxiety-ridden woman in a city with fairly large diversity. What I’m concerned abut in my perspective is that maybe I’m great at discussing and talking about feminism but not so great at practicing it. But how do I practice it when things keep me in check? Little passing comments from people that cut off my arguments, lack acknowledgement of issues I see. Feeling like if I talk about feminism, no one cares, but if someone else says the same things I do, it’s more important. Am I not cool enough to be a feminist? Am I too uptight? Too angry? Too anxious? Too conservative? Too liberal? Too prudish? Too sexual?
And we’re back to the whole issue of being too much of something, an issue that feminism has grappled with forever.
I’m hopeful that most of this anxiety-driven and that I’m grappling with myself, not others. Because I don’t want feminism to become this water-downed fashionable thing that people find cool and hip to be and not really think about what it implies. Don’t get me wrong – I want people to be feminists, even though some find it scary to be part of a label that large and broad and you can’t control. But I don’t want it to become this sort of marketing “I’ve got a t-shirt that says feminist so I’m one but I go home and gaslight my girlfriend” or “I’m a feminist which means I as a woman can pass judgement on the choices of other women because equality means I can criticize them all I want.” The articles above worry me so much because the continue this sort of feminism that doesn’t really seem to understand how it applies to ourselves. It’s all fine and well to point out how other people are bad at feminism, but how about overcoming our own flaws? How about talking about how much work it takes to be a feminist, especially in regards to yourself, or your ex, or your boyfriend’s ex, or someone who’s choices look nothing like your own?
On the other hand, I don’t want feminism to feel like an exclusive club where you have to prove yourself to show you belong, which is where I feel like I am right now. I’m clearly really passionate about this and it largely fuels my writing. I want to keep talking about this because it’s important and it needs to be discussed. I know what it feels like to be ignored or silenced with these issues and I don’t want that feeling of not being taken seriously to perpetuate. But how can I include feminist perspectives in my writing without being called out for being the wrong kind of feminist? How can I write about any of this at all in a way that makes sense? What more can I do to avoid these feelings I have about not being good enough? That I’m too angry or too emotional, too sensitive or too fragile for what feminism wants me to be?
This is a problem, because feminism is not about being one kind of woman, or one kind of person that supports feminism. My views are valid because of my experiences and, while I certainly don’t know everything, I want to listen and learn about the perspectives of others. I used to believe that diverse perspective could bring us together around a common goal – a goal of equality – but I’m beginning to worry that’s not the case any more. I don’t feel a coming together. Especially when I still have to fight to understand where my own friends are coming in their perspectives of feminism, especially my male friends. Especially when I’m still fighting with myself to feel like I belong. There is never going to be one way to be a feminist, but it feels clouded by contradictions, double standards, and a push-pull feeling of trying to move forward towards new goals but still fighting to protect rights we’ve already gained but are still threatened to be taken away.
I know that change can’t happen overnight, that we can’t ask for instant remedies, and can’t look to feminists, especially women, to have all the answers or to fix it. But I’m curious to know if these feelings of not being on the same page as others, as feeling too radical, of being too much, too sensitive, are fears that other feminists have. I’m sure they are, but how do we deal with them? How do we acknowledge that our perspective is valid? How do I understand where my friends’ views are coming from and understand without invalidating them? How can I talk to my male friends about feminism without sounding preachy, how can I avoid giving them feminism 101 when they do understand it, how do I make them realize they don’t get it when they think they do? And before you think this is only about men, it’s not. I’m embarrassed by the number of times I’ve heard women say sexist things and I’m more embarrassed that I didn’t intervene in some way.
I don’t think there’s any easy answers to this. But I do feel that it’d be better if we talked about our flaws as feminists more frequently and acknowledged that it’s really difficult, regardless of gender. Same goes for acknowledging hidden racism, intolerance of the GLBTQA community, ableism, and so on. I’m tired of feeling angry and that I’m doing something wrong. I’m even more tired of getting angry at friends because I don’t know how to express how I feel about this issue or how I respond to certain things they say and post. I want to be a better feminist and I want feminism to do better in general. None of us are perfect, our ideals may never come true, but working towards them and not giving up, but acknowledging how much damn work it is feels like something, at least.
Thursday was a really awful day in the universe, especially for residents of the Twin Cities. If you haven’t heard about the shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights (right on the heels of the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and soon to be followed by a shooting resulting in the death of several police officers at a protest in Dallas), then you have insulated yourself in a much more peaceful world than I currently find myself in. I am very angry and very sad and very scared, and it was not an easy feat for me to leave my apartment and go see a show on Thursday night. But I’m very, very grateful that I did.
I don’t believe it’s possible to see a show in a vacuum. Each one of us brings a certain perspective in with us when we see a performance and I certainly had a very grim and heavy on when I entered the Orpheum to see The Lion King. But if I could have seen any show, I am so happy it was this one. For years, people have been telling me how mesmerizing, how breath-taking, how utterly stunning this production is. And they’re not wrong. I could go on for days about how beautiful the costuming, the lighting, the staging, and the composing is, not to mention the puppetry and performances by the actors themselves. And while these aspects certainly should be given their due, I’d like to focus instead on the wider effects of this musical for me as an audience member on a day like Thursday.
What was powerful about seeing The Lion King when I did is that it is simultaneously escapist and making a commentary on the world around us. It is a beautiful, spectacular show that drew me in and made me leave behind the problems of the world around me for a few hours. But it also commented on those issues, showing what happens when a lion pride is torn apart by greed and injustice. Our world is fraught with pain and to see this pain represented in way that is tolerable and can be dealt with, in a story familiar to me from my childhood, was a great comfort.
The Broadway production of The Lion King celebrates Africa, not as a singular entity but as a diverse continent. Throughout the show, different costuming and dance elements weave different traditions from around the globe into a collage that helps the audience traverse Simba’s story across the savannah, to the desert, to the jungle, and back again. Though it isn’t easy to pinpoint exactly which cultures were being represented, the differences were notable, especially the inclusion of six different languages (Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Congolese) in music and dialogue. Most powerful of all were the number of actors of color onstage, creating this story of hope and joy. On a dark, grim day, this alone made things better.
Our world is a troubled place and no amount of hiding from our problems or wishing it away will cure it. Simba’s recognition that living hakuna matata can’t truly exist if he doesn’t help to change his world certainly echoed a deeper meaning in my mind and one that I’m happy to see is still being told to children of a younger generation. This tour could not have come to Minneapolis at a better time, though I can’t help but wonder if it’s difficult for the actors and crew to be here now. Regardless, I’m grateful to have seen this and hope for a successful run for the show.
The Lion King is playing now through August 7th at the Orpheum Theater. A sensory-friendly performance is being performed on July 3oth at 2pm, the first of its kind to come to Minnesota. Read more about it in my post here and buy tickets/find more about the show at Hennepin Theatre Trust’s website.
This isn’t really a review, as I didn’t make it to Coup D’Etat’s wonderful production of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie until closing weekend. But because it was such a splendid production, I wanted to share some thoughts about it, generated greatly by the director’s note left at the door of the theater.
Directed by Lanny Langston, this production starring James Napoleon Stone, Kaylyn Forkey, Cynthia Uhrich, and Kevin Fanshaw highlights the claustrophobic nature of the play and the tense, fragile foundation of the Wingfield’s hopes and expectations. Glass baubles hang from the ceiling, ethereal music weaves in and out of the soundscape, and Savage Umbrella’s SPACE, located in an old warehouse, lends perfectly to this show whose characters struggle with modern ideas of success while harboring romantic notions of a different lifestyle. Amanda dreams of the past when she enjoyed gentlemen callers before she married, Laura is repeatedly called old-fashioned for her shy demeanor and simple outlook on life, and Tom escapes to the movies, to watch stories of adventure so unlike the monotonous life he leads.
Langston’s directorial note asks the audience to consider their own memories and how they remember them. This came easily for me with this show because many of Laura’s experiences resonated with my own (realizing you’ve heard lines of dialogue the echo things people have actually said in your life is a very bizarre feeling) and I was wound up in seeing my personal connection with Laura. The greatest sadness of the show involves Laura and Jim, her gentleman caller. Some might say that the greatest tragedy is that Laura’s love for Jim remains unfulfilled, as he is already engaged to another, despite the interest he seems to show in her. But it isn’t just that Laura doesn’t end up with Jim (especially as that could be interpreted less as the sadness of unrequited love and more of the fear Amanda exhibits that Laura will become an old maid. As a person who has been single most of her life in a society that isn’t very kind to single people, I refuse to submit to that nonsense. Rock on, single ladies). Rather, it’s the false hope that Laura receives and the work that Jim does to ease her out of her shyness, which she immediately recedes back into once she realizes Jim’s interest in her is not what it appears. Finally in her life, someone has seen her as more than shy and embraces her difference, and then in the span of a few minutes, she finds that it’s not enough and it all falls apart.
At the top of the play, Amanda wonders what they are all going to do with the rest of their lives. She is disappointed that her children are not where she expects them to be. Laura is 24, not married and not on a strong career path. Instead of trying to figure out why or what other options might exist for Laura, Amanda berates her (rather harshly in this production) and pushes her into situations that make her shyness (which looks – and feels, as audience member – an awful lot like anxiety) stronger and prevent her from succeeding. As a millennial, the pressure and idea that you should be at a certain point in your life is something I greatly empathize with. As a young person concerned that I’m not where I should be – and realizing that being an adult is not some kind of formulaic success pattern and that worrying about such things is not worth it – the concern about what one is doing with their life and Amanda’s fretting over it is both familiar and frustrating.
This show is described at the beginning as a memory play, and it’s Laura’s brother Tom who narrates this memory for us, describing it as “the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” What truth then is Tom telling us? Is it that events in our life become more powerful when we look back upon them? That it is difficult to tell the importance of time when we are young? That children are fated to be like their fathers, as Tom is, and that happy endings will never exist for people who are different, like Laura? That memories are like glass and, like Laura’s menagerie, must be tended to be recalled and reflected upon their importance? Or how our memories of the past better reflect who we are than what happened? That our memories are as sensitive as glass and can just as easily be broken or distorted? That Laura – like her glass unicorn – must be broken in order to fit in to what society expects of her so that she does not always appear different? All of these? None of these?
This is my first time seeing a performance of The Glass Menagerie and I’m grateful that it was this production that I saw. It’s one of those shows that is often done and, when done well, is striking and thought-provoking. I’ll certainly be mulling over this one in the weeks to come.