5 Reasons You Should Maybe Re-Evaluate Your Position on the Renaming of the Gypsy Robe

Recently an article in Playbill announced that Actors' Equity Association would be renaming the Gypsy Robe ceremony,  "which celebrates ensemble members of Broadway shows, after the current season. The decision—a response to the cultural implications of the term—follows a vote by AEA’s National Council."  Following this, and an e-blast from AEA to its members asking for name suggestions was a hailstorm of snarky comments from friends and enemies alike on my social media feed.  

I've spent the better part of the morning thinking about this.  Asking myself what traditions do I hold that are SO important to me that renaming them would fundamentally change what they were.  I confess, I don't have that many traditions.  Or, at least, my traditions are pretty malleable.  I'm okay with getting a Christmas present on December 26th.  Frankly, I'm happy to have a present at all.  (I'm notoriously hard to shop for.)  But I get off topic.  This thought exercise led me to the below.  I know this will probably irritate some of you.  I really... wish that mattered.  You're on the wrong side of this if you think it shouldn't change.  And people are going to remember it.  So maybe re-evaluate?  Here's why:

1. Nomenclature matters

Anyone who has gotten an email from me in the last two weeks may have noticed I changed my signature from a quote by Maxine Hong Kingston (“Breathe. Pay attention. Tell the truth.”) to something a little bit simpler: he/him/his.  I admit, I should have made this change the moment I made my first trans friend.  The moment that struggle ceased to be an idea and started to be a person.  But I am a stubborn mother-fucker and generally slow on the uptake.  But if the price I pay for learning empathy late is that I actually learn it and hold it, then sign me up.  Nomenclature matters.  It matters not just to the people who are asking for clarity and respect, but to people who do not know that their bias harmfully affects someone else.  Not a single person I know would ever question that my gender identity and gender representation is male.  That’s never been my struggle.  But I include those pronouns now because I allow for the possibility that it is someone else’s.  And personally, I’d prefer my privilege to betray me in the way I complain about Moviepass on Facebook then something that actually matters.  Nomenclature matters.

2. We can actually care about more than one cause at one time.

I am a feminist.  I am a queer ally.  I believe Black Lives Matter.  And I have spent the better part of sixteen years representing Asian men and women on stage by writing almost exclusively for them.  F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in a 1936 issue of Esquire “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not calling myself a first-rate intelligence.  I’m actually calling YOU a first-rate intelligence.  Because you are.  And you can do this.  Just because a little bit of time is being spent considering the consequence of re-appropriating a culture doesn’t mean less time is being spent discussing fair wage on stage.  One might even argue that these conversations are all tributaries to a greater river of equality.  Don’t bite off your nose to spite your face. 

Which brings us to:

3. Just because it doesn’t benefit you doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit you because it actually does.

But Tim, you ask, we don’t even know any Gypsies.  Who even is this affecting?  The answer is, whoever proposed the name be changed to begin with.  The conversations happen when the conversations happen.  When someone is finally ready to be a squeaky wheel about them.  We don't get to decide if they are trivial, for every time someone has, it has only resulted in their downfall.  As recently as fifty years ago our LGBTQ forefathers started a riot because they knew that the systems of power in place at the time would never elect to consider their humanity.  They rioted because literally everyone else on the planet was saying “why do I have to respect someone else’s perversion? Who even is this affecting?”  Without Stonewall, there is no SCOTUS decision.  Who is this affecting?  History would answer “literally everyone.”  

4. Old comics are lazy.  And you are not an old comic.

This has been going around a lot.  Where middle-career comedians are saying they can't go to universities anymore to do their stuff because university students are snowflakes and take everything too seriously.  The students themselves would counter that their awareness is impossibly high, and jokes about rape aren't funny anymore.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  (Not that bit about rape jokes, which are not my kind of funny.) You can extrapolate this to, let's say, white male playwrights lamenting that they lose out on opportunities because of the inclusion of women and writers of color.  That's one that's in my orbit right now.  I'm going to stick with comedy though because it's something I like, and something I am wholly outside of. 

What the comics seem to mean when they say this though is when they started out, people were allowed to be misogynistic and racist, and now they aren't, and they don't have the skill set to find humor where none existed before.  They can only re-iterate, not innovate.  For better or worse, this is the path of progress.  It starts with a resentful conversation about something no one has ever considered before, and in the face of that tension and adversity, results in some of us becoming irrelevant before our time and others of us realizing that someone we didn't know was there, has been there all along.  The thing these old comics don't know?  They can choose either.

5. How we choose to respond to discussions like these is the benchmark of our civilization

Dostoevsky says “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  But prisons are more than just cells and yards.  And he didn’t mean it literally anyway.  We allow ourselves to be trapped within social confines on a daily basis.  And within those confines, we allow ourselves to value people differently.  There are websites alive today that still maintain that the Three Fifths Compromise in the Constitution of 1787 does not inherently devalue a human being.  Many things we think are givens are actually not, and rolling our eyes at something we deem unimportant only demonstrates our own privilege.  What is the actual harm in having the conversation?  What about this name change threatens the actual tradition it represents?  For a community whose benchmark is inclusion, whose union name boasts the word EQUITY itself, being resistant to a discussion about a name change essentially says: This tradition is for us.  Not for you..

Everyday Aggressions or, Why I Won't Be Writing Your Great American Musical

“Pretty much everything you’ve said to me today has been positively aggravating, if I’m being honest.”  I say to him, as I play with my Diet Coke straw.  But this director who I’ve only just met knows I’m not being honest.  He can tell by the way my hand is twitching, trying its best not to reach for the knife at our table.  If I was being honest I’d be holding it, a thread of profanities unspooling from my mouth like so much Christmastime popcorn.

It’s a little after 4:45 pm on a Monday afternoon and the steam coming from Westway Diner is absolutely originating from my ears.  I’ve been seething in this booth for the better part of an hour hoping for someone to start a fire or rob the place Pulp Fiction style, so I can get out of this meeting but no such luck.  The very best I can hope for now is to sink into the floor, through the cushions into the sunken place a la Get Out.  But I’m not holding my breath.  It would appear that having my mind lobotomized and my body re-purposed is more pleasurable to me than enduring this casually racist, dangerously ignorant, hyper privileged, dim-wittery.  But I get ahead of myself.  Let me catch you up.

Couple weeks ago I get an email through my website from someone I’ve neither met nor heard of before.  He says he is a director, looking for a composer-lyricist to collaborate with on an idea for a musical.  This happens fairly often, and I’ve written about it at length, so you can probably guess that he is a white man, and the subject matter of his chosen project involves… Asia.  That’s only half true.  It’s actually about a still-living, female Olympic figure skater who is Asian-American.  Already, this is a good sign.  Not only because as a lyricist I’d have more agency in the storytelling, but  as a composer, I know this show won’t be set in Feudal China and doesn’t “need that special flare that my music would be perfect for.”  (For the uninitiated, this is code for “I want political cover because I’m writing about Asia and no one will let me do that by myself anymore."  But more on this later.)

“Great!” I think to myself.  “I may not be a woman, but I am legitimately Asian American.”  This is something about which I feel confident I can write with some kind of credibility.  Also, I rarely write about Asian Americans, so that’s cool too.  This guy sends me the first act of his script, with his lyrics already set and I pause.  He said he was looking for a composer-lyricist, but sends over a script with lyrics.  Not “here’s what I think the song moment is” poetry, but real lyrics.  They scan.  They have a rhyme scheme.  They have hooks.  So… what is he really looking for and why is it incongruous with what he says he’s looking for?  And why is he positioning himself as a director, when he obviously thinks of himself as a writer?  Red flag number one.

So I read about half the script, and think about it for a day before responding.  I keep coming back to two moments in it that interest me: the first is a comparison of lacing up skates to foot-binding, a practice that was outlawed in China one hundred years ago, and the second involves a scene where the then-fourteen-year-old protagonist is encouraged to costume herself sexually in order to be taken seriously by the judges.  Depending upon where you fall on the Feminism spectrum I’m either a feminist or an ally, (I’m comfortable with either) and this piece seems like something I could really get into.  I agree to a meeting. 

Maybe it shouldn’t be red flag number two, but the fact that he doesn’t know where New Dramatists is also gives me pause.  So we agree to meet at Westway instead.  Here’s where things go decidedly south.  I sit down, we play the name game, we discover we have a few mutual friends.  I ask him one question.  “So what drew you to this person and their story?” 

“After she took silver at the Olympics, someone asked her on TV how it felt losing the gold.  She said ‘I don’t see it as losing the gold, I see it as winning the silver.’ And I thought ‘wow, that answer is totally full of shit.’ So I started thinking about the secret conversations we never got to see on TV or in the media.  What does she say when Connie Chung turns off the cameras?” is his response. 

Red flags everywhere.  For one, that this guy would presume something a real person said about her own outlook as a willful misrepresentation takes the narrative in a direction I’m not sure I want to go in.  Especially when the other direction seems so promising.  For another, where is he getting his research for those off-the-record moments, I wonder?  I ask him.  “Making it up.”  He says.

This isn’t an uncommon practice among writers.  Historical figures are frequently adapted to the stage.  And we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought every word uttered in their names was verified true.  But there is a thing called life rights, and there is also a thing called historical-domain, and since he hasn’t said “I have optioned her life story” and since she is still very much alive, I think it’s fair to say that at best, this work falls into a highly questionable gray area.  But I slow my roll.   Sure, he’s been talking at me for fifteen minutes, recapping the script he emailed me.  Surely at some point he’ll stop and… ask me something.  Anything.  He continues. 

“And then at first when they try to dress her up like a tart, I had her dad refuse to acquiesce because that’s what a Chinese dad would do.”  I feel a trickle of sweat sliding down my right temple.  This is frustrating to me.  Not only because he thinks he’s paying me and my people a compliment with this statement… Not only because he presumes he knows what a “Chinese dad would do”…  Not only because he is suggesting the character would do anything because he’s Chinese…  But also because he could have just asked me. 

“Does this track, Tim?  Does this moment feel disingenuous?”  Why bother inviting an Asian-American on to your creative team when all you want is their validation?  Unless the whole thing is a pretense to begin with.  You see where this is going. We’re at the twenty five minute mark now and he’s still talking at me, my core temperature slowly rising.

“And then I had to have the sister character in there too because it couldn’t all just be about the dad and the coach.”  Now my head is exploding.  Did he just say his show couldn’t just be about the dad and the coach?  Did he actually suggest that the protagonist of this story was not the Olympic figure skater herself?  Maybe he didn’t mean it that way.  But the ill-considered word choice is enough.  Another red flag.  How many is that now?

"Also, I know a lot of young girls would come, and it's really important to me that they see it."  He continues.  See what, I wonder.  Someone representing them on stage being full of shit? 

“Okay hold up.” I say to him.  “Tell me again, who recommended me to you?”

“Well I was having a conversation with [drop-in name of fancy producer here] and he was saying to me ‘I think you might have to write this with an Asian American writer.’  And I was like ‘Yeah.  I kind of have to.  Because the landscape.’  Right?  Like, in this landscape they’d never let me get away with it.  I can’t write Dream Girls in this landscape.  In. This. Landscape.”  He says, while striking his thick finger down on the Formica on every word. 

So... in case you missed it, what this gentleman suggested to me was that a) “this landscape” is the only reason he shouldn’t be writing stories about women of color and b) he’s working on the same level as Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen.  And maybe to a lesser degree c) that someday within his own lifetime the attitudes on this will change back and favor him writing whatever he wants. 

I'm only going to say this ten million more times: Just because something used to be permissible doesn't mean it was ever okay.

“Wait.  Stop.  Just-  ...so [fancy producer name-drop] recommended me to you?”  I ask.  I can’t do this with him for another thirty five minutes. 

“No,” says he, “I got your name from a Facebook group.  The Asian American Composers and Lyricists Project.”  Which in itself is pretty weird because I'm a moderator of that group and no formal inquiries were ever made.

“Then… no one recommended me to you.  Okay.  Have you asked anyone else?”

“No.  I initially reached out to… what’s his name… he’s Asian American… he’s at Primary Stages?  Do you know who I’m talking about?” 

“Not without a name…”  I'm shaking my head.

“Yeah well anyway, I asked that guy.  And then he recommended me to a lyricist at New Dramatists… she’s… what’s her name?  I can’t remember her name either.  She’s an Asian American and she's a woman lyricist at New Dramatists.   Anyway I emailed her, and I never got an answer back.  So, just you.”

Now I’m completely off the reservation.  This lyricist he speaks of, who (I presume is not a composer) and is from the same New Dramatists whose address he didn’t know and couldn’t Google for himself… this person was going to write... music?...  Whatever. 

“Okay. Let me stop you right there.  I… I’m not going to do this with you.”

“Do what?”

“Write your musical.  I’m not going to do that with you.”

“Wait.  Really?  Why?”  This comes as a legitimate surprise to him. 

“Pretty much everything you’ve said to me today has been positively aggravating, if I’m being honest.”  I reach for my Diet Coke straw, wonder why the waitress never came back to take our order and see his open menu on the table.  Thank God for small favors. 

“Did I say something wrong?”  He stutters.  He looks over the table at my face.  I can’t know for sure, but I think I have on that face you get where someone steps on your foot and is more upset at the bottom of their shoe than your toe and you literally don’t know which indignity to address first.   That’s the face he’s looking at right now.  Meanwhile, the face I’m looking at is the one that only comes from a lifetime of ease and privilege and being told that everything you see is defined in relation to you.   Equally aggravating.

“All I know is I’ve been sitting here for forty five minutes, and you have been talking at me but not to me.  You haven’t asked me a single question about myself, my process, or my principles and shouldn't knowing that be critical in a collaboration?  I’ve asked you two questions and instead of answering you’ve just described your show to me in great detail.  You’ve also presumed to know anything about my Chinese father (and by extension, me) and just now you looked me straight in the eyes and said your show was about the dad and the coach.  As if it could ever not be about her.  Finally, you have said exactly nothing about the two things which I found most compelling about your idea.  So, no.  I’m not going to write this show with you.  And I'm certainly not going to write it for you.  But you should do it, man.  Go for it.”

Open mouth, vacant stare into the middle distance… he is still very confused. “What two things?”  He asks, grasping.

“Early on in the script you evoke foot-binding, (something the person who talks about it could never have experienced firsthand) and make a direct comparison between it and lacing on ice-skates.  Later on, you talk about how this young girl becomes overtly sexualized by the two older men charged with her well being.  Yet your show isn’t any kind of commentary on the subjugation of women?”

Again with the open mouth and vacant stare.  “I… hadn’t thought of it that way.”  He says to me.  I’m not making this up.  He says this out loud.  To my face.

If he had asked me even one thing, he'd know that I have no interest in telling stories where women or Asian people are props.   If he'd asked me two things, he'd know that I have no interest in telling stories where anyone outside of my experience is a prop.  And if he'd asked me three things, he'd know that the reason he was encouraged to write this show with an Asian-American was because we can't trust ourselves to be our own council when writing outside of our own experience.  Not yet anyway. 

"Yeah."  I say.  "So, I’m going to think about people who I know who might be interested in this, and if I think of someone I’ll make an introduction.”  (I’m not lying.  If you want to meet him, I will introduce you.)  “Meanwhile, I didn’t bring any cash with me and can’t pay for this Diet Coke.  Would you mind?”

He shakes his head no.  I take it as a kindness.

I grab my bag, head out onto 9th Avenue and immediately Google dry cleaners near me.  I got privilege all over my new sweater and someone’s going to help me get it out. 

How I Remember Jadin Wong

March 30th, 2018 marked the eight year anniversary of the passing of Jadin Wong.  If you don't know who she was, you can read the obituary Playbill wrote about her here.

You know... I didn't really like her.  I didn't like how she mentored her assistants.   I didn't like her cynicism.  And I didn't like that she refused to allow my generation of up-and-comers to consider their artistry even a little when booking professional jobs.  If you had grandparents who grew up in the depression, who did not understand why you would ever willingly wear ripped jeans in public, you might have an idea of what talking to Jadin about art was like.  She came up during a time when you took what was given to you.  Because the very notion of having creative autonomy as a person of color in this country- the idea of it- was not even discussed.  It was an abstraction.  21 year old me did not understand this.  So 21 year old me did not like her.  But I will probably still thank her in my Tony speech someday because truly, when no one was looking at anyone with almond eyes and yellow skin, she was looking at everyone with almond eyes and yellow skin.  

Nowadays there are Facebook groups.  Back then you had Jadin Wong's office.  

She once told me the story of a client who auditioned for her just so she would submit him for a role of "thousand year old man" (he went into the other room to prepare and simply never came out- "thousand year old men move very slowly.")  

She would frequently submit me for voice over stuff where I had to use a fake Asian accent (a time honored tradition of multi-layered humiliation on all sides that I assume still goes on today) and told me "Just go in.  Look at what else they are reading for and ask if you can read for that too."  Which is not only how I eventually avoided having to play a minstrel more than twice but also how I learned to write for a white audience who were in perpetual denial of their own privilege: Be a Trojan horse.  (PS, yes the voice of "pupu platter" in that Chiclet clip was mine, but also the voice of "kumquat.")

As far as I know, she never stopped paying dues to AEA, despite having retired from performance years before I met her.  She also never stopped throwing her ankle above her ear to prove that she could.  Which, in retrospect, was way more impressive than it should have been.  

Whenever I had to trek to her office/apartment on west 57th, I could never be sure if she legitimately knew who I was or if she had any genuine idea what I was capable of.  (Another luxury of client-agent relationships that was never afforded to me.)  But about two months or so before she passed, I had a sudden realization that she would probably pass soon (it wasn't a premonition- she was just very, very old) so I called her up.  I had been out of my MFA for eight years by then, and enjoyed a few moments of recognition for my work.  Whatever it was I'd needed to prove in my twenties as an actor, I no longer needed to prove in my thirties as a writer. I just wanted to say thank you.  In person.  Maybe with a box of egg-custard tarts or something.  Her brother Wally answered the phone. He said she didn't really see anyone, but he would tell her I called.  Probably for the best.  I honestly don't know if she'd have remembered me.  This woman who palled around with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who once had to parachute out of a falling plane for the USO ("That was the day my hair turned white.") was probably not going to remember a 21 year old son of privilege from the late 90s.  It mattered less to me that she would know I'd remember her than simply knowing I would remember her.  

So, no.  I can not say with integrity or credibility that I liked her.  But I will always owe her a great deal of thanks.  And if you have ever worked with me on one of my projects, you probably do too.  Rest peacefully, Jadin. You won't be forgotten.

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.