Is it worth selling tickets if it’s hurting people?
This question initially popped up due to the current prevalence of redface on the American stage instead of authentic indigenous representations. But, that is not where the question ends. Bullying is prevalent in theatre; it inflicts mental and emotional harm as it moves within and amongst our circles. Spaces that we imagine as spaces of light and healing thus become incredibly destructive.
The word bully, originally meant lover, how did it devolve? How did we? We came into this business to inspire. But, with the power to create, comes the greatest power to destroy.
We create dreams. We place people in a dream state while wide-awake. But, with the power to create dreams, comes the power to evoke hatred and destruction and nightmares. Carelessness is not affordable. Those dreams become nightmares when we forget to operate with respect.
Art and politics are entwined. We must be ever listening to our environment. Diversity and inclusion ensures balance. Acceptance for everyone in the sacred hoop, in the circle, in the world. The world’s greatest plays are those that incorporate the whole world around the storyteller. The good and the bad in a way that creates new ways of listening to the world around us. Listening with respect. In a business where we construct universes, moving people around like pawns, it is very easy to let objectification dominate the narrative.
Especially, when we have fewer and fewer players to work with. We all know it’s cheaper to produce a play with a five-person cast than a fifteen-person one. When Ethan Zuckerman spoke at the TCG Audience Revolutions conference, he cited a steady decline in trust in the government that has been escalating ever since the decision was made that instead of one government representative for every 30,000 people, it would be one for every 700,000. People want to be heard. Could limits in cast size have created similar effects? Or is it reshaping theatre for niche audiences, the way that tv has redirected?
The personal relationship in theatre is not only communion with the actors, but with the rest of the audience. The potential audience is the entire community. We go to the theatre for a shared experience. Every breath we take, every chuckle we utter shifts that ever-changing artistic landscape. It is a space of heightened listening. One of few in which we still turn off our cell phones. How do we listen back?
When I speak at a conference, people frequently approach me afterward with the complement of how “articulate” I am. I am a director, who frequently lectures at universities. It is my job to be articulate. But, in the context of diversity and inclusion this particular complement stuck in my mind funny. No one says that to male artistic leaders.
The complement is inextricably linked to the societal assumption that young women are predominantly inarticulate. It brings a particular image into focus for young women: one of weak-mindedness, wan-ness–inarticulate. An ingenue.
When I was sixteen, I was cast as Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet. Thrilled, I immediately began work to lose 50 pounds for the role.
No one told me to do it. But, the image of Juliet seared into my imagination was a girl who looked nothing like me. No amount of talent would make me her. It was an external concept.
As bit by bit I vanished, some people were concerned, but most complemented me for how good I looked and wanted to know my secret.
My secret was how often I was fainting. Because my life didn’t mean as much to me as looking like her.
I would never look like her. An imaginary that had been constructed as the ideal that I wanted to embody and to inspire other girls to be like.
I wanted to be beautiful, so I could die for a man.
That ideal makes us inarticulate. Our brains malnourished on the dream of being someone who can only be fulfilled by others. Many of my friends have serious health problems now because of time spent fasting in the hopes of looking correct onstage. Because of the time we spent on self-loathing instead of self-care.
How many girls dream of being onstage? How many girls follow these same patterns? How many of them are brilliantly articulate, but not valued for it? This is a story many of us share.
Juliet was originally played by a BOY. There is no reason that that image should have waif-like female forms attached to it.
A close friend of mine who is in her early twenties was recently cast as the mother of a teenager on a television series.
Unrealistic ideals much?
It took me a long time to realize that I could effect more positive change in the world, by doing than by looking right. If all of the commitment and precision of not taking another bite was put into my work instead. Agency. How do we de-objectify ourselves and others? It is necessary to create with respect.
The majority of young women in theatre are starving themselves. I grew out of it, because of the strong women I saw around me in the world. Many don’t. Is it not our duty to provide examples of those women on the stage?
Have you ever seen a character casting description that does not reference looks, weight, race, gender, disability, age, etc. But simply says – “powerful,” “confident,” or “brilliant.” Think of what amazing creative choices would open up if we were able to cast the human being not the outward appearance.
How are we hurting ourselves? Can you see the bullying? The times when self-loathing is instigated? If we cannot, perhaps we need to rediscover how to listen. All the noise in the world right now makes it truly difficult. But, if we do not reflect our audiences with respect, they will leave us.
“Is it worth selling tickets if you’re hurting people?” The stereotypes and caricatures of redface are a barbaric practice left over from a perceived need to dehumanize a race of people for arcane nationalistic propaganda. Those days are gone. People need neither utilize those depictions nor become so afraid they remove all Native representation from the stage. Both are equally nullifying. The latter means ignoring Indians. Those who are ignored lack perceived value. Ignoring people is also bullying.
So is there another path?
Juxtaposed with the idea of bullying in theatre, is that of Story Medicine. I define Story Medicine as an act of healing or deeper understanding ignited by the sharing of a deep personal truth. Human-to-human connection.
An example is Kansas City Rep’s production of Hair: Retrospection.
I never understood Hair. My mother loved it, but I could not see beyond the generational divide. When this performance began, I was shocked that only part of the cast was young. This brilliant production, tracked the narratives of performers who had been in the original production back in the 60s. As they stepped forward and shared their hearts, I developed a love for the story and songs in a way I never could before. Their truths took me on a journey to a time and place, a way of living and understanding the world, I never knew before. Story Medicine. Or as my great-great uncle, Chief Tantaquidgeon, used to say, “It’s hard to hate someone who you know a lot about.”
Let the stage mirror the world. Let it expand our imaginations and ways of knowing. The majority of people are told there is no place for them on stage. These so-called minorities are the majority. Checking boxes is not holistic. Tiny knives are cutting through society, breaking us apart. What we are looking for in the American Theatre is balance.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Expanding our ways of listening, can bring in new audiences who never knew theatre was a place for them. Find the Story Medicine. Put everyone in the circle. If we listen to each other’s stories, with open hearts and respect, we will find stories we could not imagine on our own that increase our oneness as human beings. We will find balance and a safer world for all of us, a world, where we are allowed to exist and dream together.
In Sliver of a Full Moon by Mary Kathryn Nagle, the Native women who testified to get the Violence Against Women Act passed step forward and share their stories of survival with the audience. They are not performers. They are sharing their truth. These stories changed the world and enabled a move toward protection for Native women. Story Medicine.
Shakespeare’s brilliance was in adapting the classics to fit the needs of his moment in time. In nuance. In listening. In catering to all his possible audiences.
Taken out of context the work changed. When America was colonized, indigenous peoples, we had our many vast oral traditions, stories that changed each time we told them to an audience, but the colonists carried two books with them: the bible, and the complete works of William Shakepeare. That bridge began the American Theatre.
Our importance as artists lies in our ability to sculpt the narrative of our times. In our ability to listen deeply to the now. We can make this a time for healing. Stories have always been used as medicine in the world.
Breathe in. I am.
Breathe out. We are.
Is it worth selling tickets if it’s hurting people?
We can’t know who we are hurting, if we do not listen. If everyone is not allowed to speak. Maybe if we listen with an open mind and open heart, we will hear something more clear, concise, and articulate than we could have dreamt up otherwise. But, we must listen with respect.
So drop your expectations. Drop your agenda. Your need to make everything work perfectly, as you move the puzzle pieces around onstage. Just for a moment bring back the respect. Listen. And feel how freeing and expansive it is.
Madeline Sayet is the resident artistic director at Amerinda Inc, artistic director of the Mad & Merry Theatre Company, a Van Lier Directing Fellow at Second Stage Theatre, a National Arts Strategies Creative Community Fellow, and a recipient of the White House Champion of Change Award. Recent directing includes: Powwow Highway (HERE), Sliver of a Full Moon (Joe’s Pub at The Public), Daughters of Leda (IRT), Miss Lead (59e59), Uncommon Women and Others (Connelly Theater), The Tempest (Brooklyn Lyceum). Upcoming: Magic Flute (Glimmerglass), Macbeth (Amerinda). Recent Assisting: Fidelis (Public Theater), Substance of Fire (Second Stage). BFA Theatre, MA Arts Politics NYU.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.