An anecdote.

Straight out of college I got cast in an indie film. By today's standards it wouldn't be a script that changed the world, but in the late 90s any film script featuring Asian American leads was precious. It didn't matter that they had no money. It didn't matter that half the day players weren't actors. It didn't matter that the interior scenes were all shot in the film maker's apartment. It didn't matter it was a basement apartment. It wouldn't matter, years later, when some anonymous troll said on the IMDB message board that the lead, played by Timothy Huang, had all the charisma of a schoolyard pedophile. You know what did matter? What did matter was when the lead actress looked our director square in the face and said she had dance training, and the day we shot the scene in the studio I said "why don't we start with something simple: tombe pas de bourree, glissade, jatte" and all she did was spin around in a circle, [without even spotting] and do crazy shit with her arms.

Never lie on your resume kids. Because the schoolyard pedophile might know more about dance than you, and how bad does that look?


It’s Not About a Latte

It’s getting on midnight on a cold November Wednesday and I’m sitting at the Brooklyn Diner in midtown with my good friend Em.  We’ve just come from an original new musical that might not have been for us.  We’re both okay with it, except I am totally not okay with it.  I’m actually kind of infuriated.  She’s confused as to why.  I start in.

“If this playwright wanted me to sympathize or identify with his protagonist, as all playwrights do, I think all he needed to do was acknowledge that his character was inherently privileged.  That the very belief they can leave their latte on a counter and walk away is an act of privilege.  Because where I come from, leaving a latte on a counter isn’t something people take lightly.  And acknowledging that there are places in this world, no- this country where leaving a latte on a counter is unheard of, would have made me feel a little more included.” 

Obviously, I’m not talking about an actual latte.  I am talking about a much larger, much deeper action around which someone could, and effectually has, structured an entire theatrical narrative.  But this is a real show, with a real writer, so for anonymity’s sake let’s just pretend I am talking about a latte.  (It’s still not about the latte.)  Em fires back.

“Okay first of all, this isn’t Broadway.  This is a forty show run and a fifty seat house, and the contracts are different.  Slow your roll.  There are no names above the title here, no swings, no understudies, and I don’t get to ask for my money back if someone calls out.” 

“Just because it’s Off-Broadway doesn’t give it license to be ill-considered.  In fact some might argue it has to be even better considered if it’s going to be Off-Broadway.”  I reply.  She ignores me, continues.

“Second of all, are you saying it’s unrealistic that a college aged character would be insensitive to the magnitude of sacrifice involved in leaving a latte on a counter?  You’re surprised by this?”

“No,” I say, “I’m saying that addressing that privilege, in some way, in ANY way does not compromise the narrative or the character.  Why leave it out?  It only adds to the inclusivity of the piece as a whole.  And conversely, not addressing it at all, suggests that either the writer was blind to it or only wrote for people to whom leaving a latte on a counter is commonplace.”

Em stirs her black and white milkshake with the straw that very well may be her last.  We’ve been friends since college but she’s heard this speech about twenty five times.  In her defense, she doesn’t disagree- she just doesn’t see how my problems are her responsibility.  This would probably be fair, except they aren’t just my problems, and that’s exactly why I think they’re her responsibility: Are you living in America in 2018?  Do you have a social media account?  Know anyone who is gay, Black, Trans, Asian, Latinx or CIS female?  (That last part is particularly apropos.)

“In my world, you simply couldn’t walk away from a latte.  Your parents worked too hard for you to leave that latte for someone else.  And you certainly couldn’t make that sacrifice as if the only thing at stake was your own time, money and future.  For many people, this is a reality.  Our lives are not wholly our own.  And to not have that acknowledged is the same as having invalidated it.”  We’re worlds apart now.  Em knows it too, and I see what’s coming next.

“Yeah,” says she.  “But that was your world.  This writer doesn’t come from your world.  This writer doesn’t even claim to be from your world.  It’s unfair you should expect them to include you.  Isn’t it?  Like, why can’t they write their show, you write your show?”

Em poses an interesting question, and one worth addressing, but first it needs a little unpacking.  For starters, she is conflating inclusion with representation, but more on that in a minute.  I reply in the only way I know how.

“Because when I write my show, people call it ‘an Asian show.’  When they write their show, people just call it ‘a show.’”  What I’m getting at, and she knows this, is that in every case where an under-represented artist seeks to represent a marginalized people or experience, the mainstream marginalizes it further by giving it a qualifying descriptor.  It is defined by its relation to what is assumed is the norm.  Therefore it only ceases to become “other” when someone within the mainstream takes it upon themselves to integrate it into their own work.   

“The question we should be asking,” I continue, “is ‘who within the mainstream will identify it as their problem if every time they stare it dead in the face, they refuse ownership over it?”

“So… what?”  Asks Em.  “Make the character walking away from the Latte an Asian person?  You’d just say that’s unbelievable and a misrepresentation.”  She’s not wrong there…

“Okay.  Let’s go back to definitions.  This conversation isn’t about representation so much as inclusion.  The former is the act of putting someone ‘other’ in a show or film because that other exists in the real world and as such, should be seen.  Should be represented.  This is a personal choice for any writer and one I can do for myself.  The latter is far simpler, less costly, and should be on everyone’s to-do list:  making sure no one in your audience has to work any harder than anyone else to experience your show.  Because right now friend, the contracts are different, and they shouldn’t be.”  I’m on a roll.

“You posit that this writer should be free to write this show and this show should be free to be what it wants without the responsibility of including me, the guy who’s never left a latte on a counter.  Let’s look at that model for a moment. The thing that happens when writers, producers and artistic directors in the main stream take a pass on being responsible for inclusion is a thing that has actually happened.  Slowly and surely no one else gets represented.  Or, as you hypothesize, people like me get represented poorly. You with me so far?”

Em slurps her black and white, the irony lost to her.

“But then when someone like me writes for faces like mine, as I have perpetually and without apology for the past fifteen years, if I’m not writing with an eye towards including you, I’m simply writing an unworthy script that no one ever sees.  That seem right to you?  We finally put a name to this phenomenon.  It’s called institutionalized racism.  Perpetuated by something else we didn’t know had a name until recently: unconscious bias.”

“That is pure conjecture.” Says Em.  “No offense Tim, I think you’re really talented, but what if your earlier work in those days just wasn’t good enough?”

“Em, my work from yesterday wasn’t good enough.  It can always be better.  But the numbers are documented, and historically, the ratio of produced work is hugely disproportional in favor of white men.  Do you really believe that whenever ‘those days’ was, that the work of every single person of color, every single female, every single intersection was simply not good enough? Is it that hard to believe they were systemically overlooked?”

This hits a little close to home.  Of course she knows what it is to be systematically overlooked.  She might not ever wonder why in a five show season at a regional theater company two shows about Chinese people can’t co-exist.  Or two shows about Gay people.  Or two shows about Trans or Gay or Black or Latinx people… but she does know what it feels like to have her own experience invalidated.  And if I were inside her head (which I am) I would tell you what pisses her off more than anything, is the knowing that she has no control over it.  Except she does.  Her half empty milkshake, now a murky gray, is actually half full.

“Yes, the contracts are different.  Some people get to walk in, and take ‘leaving a latte’ on its own terms while others have to adapt.  The great news is you don’t have to put up with it.  You can choose to see exclusivity for what it is, and not endorse it.  You can be openly critical about any show that runs counter to the ideology of a living and inclusive theater!  You can also share that Youtube of Neil Patrick Harris opening the 2013 Tonys where he basically says it in a rap penned by Lin Manuel Miranda, because it really holds up.”

“It was actually James Corden in 2016.”  She fires back.  And just like that, we’re back into it.

“Nuh-uh, sorry, NPH did it first, and did it better.”

“Are you kidding me?”  Says Em, flicking her straw wrapper my way.  “That part when the rainbow kids become that year’s nominees is magic.” 

“Fine, share them both.  They’re both great.”  I say, just as our waitress comes by, checking in.

“Do you want anything else?”  I ask, “It’s on me.”

“No,” says my good friend.  “It’s on me.”

5 Things That Don't Mean What You Think They Mean If You Are a Lame Inconsiderate Unprofessional Musical Theater Writer

1. Rehearsal Starts Monday Morning

What you think it means: My writing deadline is Monday morning.
What it actually means: Rehearsal starts Monday morning.

You'd think this was a no-brainer, but actually it kind of needs to be said.  Your writing deadline does not end the day rehearsals begin.  You have a director.  They need to look at your text so they can have any idea what to do in the room.  Because 29 hours is not a lot of time.  When is this director going to do this?  It really depends on how busy your director is.  Probably the Thursday before.  But if they have other projects, maybe two Mondays before. Your actual deadline is when they need your text.  Always ask.  Same for your Music Director too.

2.  The Director is Your Friend

What you think it means: My director of my reading is literally a friend of mine.  They won't care who I cast.
What it actually means: I should probably check in with my director and music director about who they like.  And I should probably not have cast it before hiring them.

Theater is not made by two people.  Even if your graduate program tells you that musicals are a product of the collaboration between a "words person" and a "music person."  Musical Theater is made by a hundred and fifty people.  Your writers, your directors, your choreographers, your designers, your cast, your crew, your musicians, and yeah, your producers (sometimes that's you.)  You get the idea.  They're all real people with real expertise and real opinions that are worthy of your consideration. 

Look.  You'll probably end up getting your way.  But do you want to have your way at the cost of alienating your team?  Or would you rather have it after you have asked everyone else what they think and either learned something new or gained their respect?  The director is your friend.

3.  Your Cast of Characters are Ethnically Non-specific

What you think it means: My cast can be any color, creed, or orientation.
What it actually means: Your cast will wind up being white because you did not specify.

Okay.  I'm not going to dwell on this.  You've probably read any number of diatribes I have written on this subject.  And if you have not, certainly check out this interview with Bernie Telsey where he says casting directors "don't get credit" for diversity.  THIS type of thinking is your enemy.  And certainly more likely when you're an aged dinosaur who willfully turns a blind eye to sexual harassment and misogyny.  But that is a different article for a different time.  Meanwhile, how do you solve this problematic Maria: make specific choices.  "But wah wah," you cry, "that means I have to potentially be responsible for representing someone other than me or mine!" 

Yes. Now go do it, and do it responsibly.

4.  Your Mentor Got a Prize

What you think it means: I can ask them for a recommendation to the same prize because they are invested in me artistically.
What it actually means: Your mentor got a prize.

Okay, let's start here: if you don't have a mentor, you can ask for one.  Go find someone you like, and say the words out loud: Will you mentor me?  And see what it gets you. 

Moving on, it actually does mean what you think it means.  Too.  (Inconceivable!) But it doesn't always have to.  Your mentor is an artist.  They are trying their best to use their powers for good by making themselves available to you, and opening doors for you that you might not be able to open for yourself via a benefit-of-the-doubt that they have earned for themselves.  But it has to work in both directions.  I'll say it again.  Your mentor is an artist.  They need support just like you need support.  Even if they are opening their fifth Broadway show.  They still need support. 

So maybe before you ask them to vouch for you again, make sure
a) they aren't in the middle of something and could use a cookie and a hug, and
b) your own personal conduct as of late has not been embarrassing

I once got an email on a Saturday from a mentee who was in the middle of writing a new draft for their workshop (that started the next Monday- see 1.) asking about a recommendation for a fellowship I had just completed for myself

Being unprofessional not only reflects poorly on you, it reflects poorly on anyone who has ever vouched for you.   Which brings us to:

5. You Know People Who Know People

What you think it means: You know people too.
What it actually means: You know people who know people.

Access is a funny thing.  It isn't like power, which only multiplies when you share it.  It's a delicate balance of favor-asking and privacy-respecting.  If you're in your twenties it's a little less likely that you know influential people than if you're older.  Attrition hasn't happened yet, and your peer group hasn't decided to specialize, but take note.  It will happen.  Especially if you're writing musical theater.  Because let's face it, those actors you're using for your cabarets will get to Broadway before you will.  Those dramaturges and producers and directors you worked with at NYMF or The Fringe?  They are the next literary person at The Public, Development Coordinator at The Lark, Talent representative at Gersh.  What does this mean for you?

Probably nothing if you've done any of the above things I'm trying to save you from.  But even if you haven't, probably nothing.  Remember this, so when that probably nothing manifests as something, you're grateful and not a dick.  Send hand written thank you cards.  Respect their time.  Know in advance what your asks are. 

This Blog Does Not Exist

That's not entirely true, I've already used it once to properly format an old article that existed elsewhere that was proofed by a Star-Nosed Mole.  At least in my mind's eye it was proofed by a star-nosed mole.  (with a pierrot hat on.) 

I think if the internet stops wanting to host things I've written, then maybe I will start writing things here.  But I can't make any promises.  I really enjoy writing for other sites. 

That is all for now.  Hope you are having a great day.