Empathy, The Core of What We Do

by Melissa Hillman

in National Conference

Post image for Empathy, The Core of What We Do

(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

MELISSA HILLMAN: That’s an interesting question. I think for me, personally, there have been a number of game-changing moments. I remember seeing a modern, actually pretty incoherent, production of The Duchess of Malfi as a student, which blew my mind. It blew open the doors for me about what was possible with classical text, that it was possible to have a dialogue with that text while still remaining true to its storytelling. Not that this Malfi remained true to its storytelling, but I could see the possibilities. I had a game-changing directing teacher as an undergrad, Edgardo de la Cruz, whose experimental approach furthered the idea that anything’s possible in the theatre. We were encouraged to push, even to demolish the boundaries. We created a lot of really terrible art, but there were moments of brilliance. Not from me. Ha. But they were there. And I learned so, so much.

I did my dissertation research in Chicago, and spending time at Annoyance Theatre was a huge game-changer for me. I was already there because of my interest in resisting boundaries, and Annoyance showed me even more possibilities in action. Annoyance Theatre, and its AD, Mick Napier, embodied this ideal of making theatre for an under-40 audience who, despite what everyone says, do exist. It solidified for me the idea that theatre that clung to this stuffy, pretentious, “Capital A” Art idea was just pushing itself further and further into irrelevancy—that you could meet your audience where they were and then take them farther than you ever could by handing Art down from on high.

Another major game changer for me was Merry Wives of Windsor at African American Shakespeare in San Francisco. This was just a few years ago. I had already been writing about race in casting, feminist issues, fatphobia, all of it, but something about sitting in that production brought it all home to me in a very personal way. I’ve seen a lot of theatre, and I’ve worked in Bay Area theatre for 20 years, so there’s always a bit of distance for me in the theatre—I’m scouting an actor, admiring a set designer’s work and comparing it to past work, you know. But something about this show created buy-in for me that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I was really immersed in it, and I noticed that I was immersed in a way that I hadn’t experienced in awhile. I wondered about it until it finally dawned on me that I was watching a show where the female leads were not skinny white women, and I was so, so tired of skinny white women as the sole representation of all women everywhere that part of me had switched off—had dissociated from women on stage as being “not me.” It brought home in a very personal way the fact that when you never see someone like yourself represented onstage, it’s an implied critique of your existence, and an insidious way to reinforce the culturally oppressive opinion that you don’t matter. Even though Black women experience a level of daily bigotry and lack of privilege I can’t even imagine, just putting women who are outside that skinny white privilege onstage felt welcoming to me as someone else who doesn’t fit that “skinny white girl” ideal in multiple ways. Tossing aside that rigid “skinny white woman = all women” modality was freeing for me to watch, and it solidified in a very personal way many things I had already known intellectually for years. Decades, even. I hadn’t even realized how far I had internalized that idea of “skinny white girl” = “neutral” with every other woman onstage defined by her distance from that neutral. I was fighting for greater representation of people of color onstage but always assumed my own lack of representation onstage was logical due to my distance from that “neutral” I had internalized. Seeing that modality just casually dropped as if it never existed, seeing what that felt like, how freeing and empowering that was, even though my own marginalization is nowhere near as culturally potent as a Black woman’s, made me fight even harder for representation in theatre.

Nothing against skinny white women as such—I’m just done with that one, narrow type as the marker for all women everywhere. Let them stand for themselves. They deserve representation. Just not all of it.

Creating theatre is always game changing for me. If you remain open to the process and the people you bring in as collaborators—actors, designers, techs, everyone—you’ll always learn something game-changing, even after your 50th show. That’s part of the joy of collaborative art.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

MH: This is a difficult question, because there have been so many. Edgardo de la Cruz was the first one. I carry so much from him, but one thing stands out, something he said all the time to us: “There’s only one rule in the theatre: Don’t be boring.” Learning as a teenage college student about every traditional theatre, every avant garde theatre movement—he made sure we were all conversant about the symbolists, the expressionists, the surrealists, the absurdists, biomechanics, Brecht’s epic theatre, Noh drama, Sanskrit drama. We staged these works all the time alongside Shakespeare and new plays. We brought Dacia Maraini out from Italy when we staged her Maria Stuarda. All the faculty were on board with this kind of work. They pushed us to experiment, to find our own voices. This was how we were taught at this tiny state university. It’s all gone now. Now the department focuses on musical theatre and budget cuts. They don’t do nearly as many shows. They replaced some of the more stringent major requirements with things like show choir. It’s a shame. I was unbelievably lucky to have that kind of undergrad education. I love people who know how much undergrads are capable of understanding, of accomplishing. I see my friends who are teaching all over the country, posting about the kinds of things they’re teaching, and I think, “Those kids are going to be so grateful for you when they’re my age.”

I deeply admire the playwright Lauren Gunderson. Both her writing and the way she approaches the theatre community are game-changing. The women she writes are complex and flawed, unapologetically. She’s not pushing herself to write lyrical, pretty plays, or to write “nice, likable” women, and I think we too often push women in that direction. We reward men for writing hard-hitting dramas, or boundary-pushing comedies, all with flawed, complex leads, but when women write like that, people balk. Too many people expect women to write about being women, whatever they imagine that means (usually meaning with men at the center of the narrative), in pretty, linear ways with poetic language and “likable” leads. We allow men to write whatever they want, we reward that, but we expect women to stay in their lane. I think it’s changing, but not quickly enough. Lauren writes like she’s never even heard of the concept, and I love that. Her success makes me gleeful.

We need more support for women who don’t want to conform to outdated notions of “women’s writing,” especially women of color, who are evidently all supposed to be writing about their difficult journeys as women of color. This is the way we treat all writers of color, as if the only thing they have worth watching is something that makes white people feel good about not being racist. It starts early. I taught at a film school for years, and the head of the school pulled one of my students into his office and lectured him about how he was there on scholarship so he could make “a Black film” the school could put on the website instead of the scifi film he wanted to make. I was furious. I remain furious about the quiet, insidious ways we restrict women and people of color. We work hard at robbing women of their authentic voices in this culture (“too strident,” “not likable”), and we work just as hard at that with people of color, who are policed aggressively in our culture when writing anything that could possibly trigger white fragility (“#notallwhitepeople”).

But I think perhaps even more than her writing, I admire how Lauren Gunderson is very committed to supporting small theatre, which is not always the case with theatremakers at her level of success.

I admire Howard Sherman. His blog is indispensable. There are several theatre writers whose work I admire, but keeping up with Howard’s blog is essential for keeping up with issues in the national theatre community.

I also admire Jacqueline Lawton! Your tireless advocacy have been enormously inspirational to me. You create community, which is something else I admire. People gather around you—you’re like the keeper of the online water cooler for theatre. How you’ve been able to create that in the Wild West of social media is genuinely astonishing.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

MH: The most significant challenge we face is funding. Without question, hands down, by orders of magnitude. It underlies every other problem we have. How can we increase gender parity or diversity if people have to work for free or for nearly nothing for years? How many people of color—people our culture have deliberately economically disadvantaged since the day Europeans set foot on this continent—can afford to live like that? How many women, who are still paid less than men for the same jobs, who are still expected to shoulder the majority of childcare and housekeeping, are able make that work long term? The indie scene is dominated by women, and is much more diverse than the rest of the theatre community, but we refuse to fund it. White men make the jump from the indie scene to LORT much more often than women and people of color, who are more often passed over completely or offered unpaid internships. It’s unconscious bias—we give white men the benefit of the doubt, but we make women and people of color prove themselves over and over. So the demographic groups who can least afford it work in the underfunded indie scene, or in unpaid internships, for much longer than white men.

The amount of available funding for small companies has been dropping for years, with small companies under 100K annual budget now shut out of most grants. The conventional wisdom is that setting the bar high for grants (as well as for AEA wages and professional memberships) “encourages growth.” It’s just nonsense. Growth isn’t a “choice” you can “encourage” in 2015. The funding no longer exists. I’ve also been told multiple times that a theatre that doesn’t sell enough tickets to grow to that level is a failure that doesn’t deserve funding, which is just appalling. Using that model, all theatre is a failure, and Transformers 3 is a shining example of artistic success. Experimental work is vital to the growth of the art, but not always a big seller. Artistic risk is the most important aspect of artistic growth. We need to cherish and preserve places that give birth to the next generation of artists. But we consider them essentially worthless, and pretend that artists get their “start” at the first big theatre to hire them, rather than the indie theatres that actually gave them their first professional experience. This push for continual growth is the basis of the commercial model. The entire point of the 501c3 was to get away from that to encourage experimentation. Yet we privilege money over artistic risk every time. If you have a large budget, you can do as much mediocre, bloodless theatre as you like and still be accorded much, much more respect than the smaller theatres around you.

As a community, there are two crucial things we must do. First, we need to dismantle everything that equates “importance” with budget size. Eliminate financial criteria for org membership. What is the point, honestly, of requiring a minimum budget or a minimum number of full-time employees? What is the benefit of shutting small companies out? The exclusivity is contrary to everything we say we say we stand for.

Secondly, eliminate budget floors for grants. You want to avoid being inundated with an untenable amount of applications? Create criteria that’s actually meaningful to the work, or to the issues we face. Make applicants show the actors, directors, designers, and playwrights of the past three seasons have been at least 33% women. That’s an incredibly modest goal given that we make up 52% of the population. But there’s no question it would limit applications. Ask applicants to show that their hiring over the past three seasons is at least 33% people of color, another reasonable goal considering people of color make up 37% of the nation. Or tie that number to the demographics of the area. But either way, now you’re looking at criteria that’s central to the work—whose stories are we telling, and who is telling them? That’s meaningful to the actual work in a way that dividing theatres by financial class is not.

I get that grantors want to fund theatre that pays people. The way to achieve that isn’t to continue giving 99% of the money to the wealthiest 5%. If you peel off a more meaningful percentage for the companies that are struggling to pay people, you’re enabling them to pay people.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

MH: Empathy. Empathy. Empathy. Lack of empathy underlies literally every social ill: racism and bigotry, misogyny, economic oppression, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, Islamophobia, you name it. War, income disparity, rape—every kind of violence, every kind of injustice. Even stuff like the antivax conspiracy theory, which is essentially the belief that doctors and scientists are trying to harm you for money. It’s a lack of empathy—it’s a lack of understanding who physicians and scientists are, it’s a lack of understanding the suffering people undergo when they (or, God forbid, their children) are maimed or killed by a disease preventable by a single injection. Every horror, every heartache, every ounce of viciousness, is caused by a lack of empathy—a lack of ability to see the person standing next to you as fully, beautifully, valuably human.

WE RUN THIS. Empathy is at the core of what we do as storytellers. You can talk about empathy all day long, but you put someone in the middle of someone else’s story, and you’ve created empathy much, much more effectively. This is also why it’s so crucial to support the work of people who lack privilege—race, gender, class, ability, body size, sexuality, all of it. It’s one of the most important Great Works of our time. I believe that. I know it sounds self-aggrandizing, but I believe it. Our entire culture is created out of stories, and stories create empathy.


conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com