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. 

Drinks with Jen: My Conversation with Jennifer Ashley Tepper.

Below is an article I wrote in January of 2016 for the now defunct NewMusicalTheatre.com blog.  A recent server migration made it go away, so here it is again, in all its original goodness.

*****

It’s 6pm on January 1st, 2016, and I’m sitting in an empty lounge at the Citizen M Hotel in Manhattan, and it’s kind of a ghost town.  Excluding myself and Jen Tepper, there’s maybe three folks looking for hairs of the dogs that bit them from the night before.  This is a good thing when you consider the adage “spend New Year’s Day doing the thing you want to be doing the rest of the year through.”  Me?  My morning was spent rewriting the three part rant from The View From Here for the Umbrella Group Theatre’s premiere next month in Milwaukee, followed by social time with one of the New York Theater scene’s favorite taste makers.  I think I’m doing okay.

Though I’d like to believe Jen and I have been sailing through the Broadway continuum side by side since forever, the truth is we’ve only worked together on two things: I transcribed some sheet music for her ‘Runs A Minute series, and she helped me get the ten year anniversary concert of The View From Here off the ground at Feinstein’s/54 Below last summer.  If you aren’t familiar, Jennifer Ashley Tepper is a Musical Theatre Historian and curator/author of the books The Untold Stories of Broadway Volumes 1 and 2.  She’s also the co-creator and writer of the Bistro Award- winning concert series, If It Only Even Runs A Minute which celebrates underappreciated musicals, and the Director of Programming at Feinstein’s/54 Below where she co-produced Hit List, the live concert version of the fictional musical from NBC’s Smash.  

Or at least that’s what her Amazon.com bio says.  But who even is that?  It strikes me that we know so much about the people Jen interviews, but what do we know about Jen?  I take a sip of my vodka soda, hit record on the iPhone and get down to it. 

Huang:            So you’re from Florida?

Tepper:           I’m from Florida.

Huang:            Let’s start there.

Tepper:           Awesome.  I’m from Boca, where the average age is like 80.

Huang:            OMG.  And where did you go to college?

Tepper:           I went to school at NYU. I went to Tisch for Dramatic writing.

Huang:            Oh, I forgot that!

Tepper:           A lot of people forget it because it’s a very weird path.  It wasn’t a conventional way to go about things.  I loved theater and I loved writing, but everyone in my department wanted to be a playwright or a screenwriter and I wanted to be a theater historian and work in theater so…

Huang:            So that was always part of the plan. 

Tepper:           Definitely.  I try to remind people who I mentor now, who are my assistants and such,  that there were two years after college where I couldn’t get a job doing what I wanted and I had a million jobs- I said yes to everything I could say yes to.

Huang:            What did you do?

Tepper:           So many things.  I was balancing SAT tutoring and babysitting with PA-ing a workshop for a week and assisting a producer for a week or getting a gig on a documentary for two weeks...  It was also when I started producing my own concerts and collaborating with Joe Iconis.  And it was great!  But it was also crazy… 

Huang:            No doubt.

Tepper:           I think you say yes to as much stuff as you can say yes to, early on.  I’ve heard a lot of smart people who I respect say that. 

Huang:            So if the Jen from twenty years ago met the Jen from today would they be surprised at where you are?

Tepper:           Such a good question and I don’t think I’ve ever been asked exactly that. 

Huang:            That’s my way of asking without asking your age. 

Tepper:           Oh, you can.  I’m twenty nine.  

Huang:            Oh okay so then like let’s say ten years ago.  If nineteen year old you met twenty nine year old you.

Tepper:           I think 19 year old me would say “You’re so lucky!  I’m so glad you’re where you are” and not be shocked. But a little-farther-back-me might be surprised because I did do so much creative writing and I could have gone into something like creative writing or journalism. 

Huang:            What happened there?

Tepper:           I started really studying theater and cast recordings and realized that there were a lot of people out there who were not performers, directors, or producers who occupied these weird places in the theater world.  Like Ted Chapin, (who’s my hero) and Ira Weitzman.   

Huang:            So how did you get from realizing that to realizing that?

Tepper:           I interned at the Rogers and Hammerstein organization for a summer in college because I wrote Ted a letter just saying “Please, please let me work for you, let me do anything!” 

Huang:            Wow!

Tepper:           So I started learning like that.  It wasn’t premeditated but I did have the idea that there were things I could do.  And there were also a lot of books about theater I started reading I was obsessed with… do you know the book ‘Not Since Carrie?’  It was one of my favorite books also and I was like “I wanna be Ken Mandelbaum!” 

Huang:            I really appreciate people who know when they’re young, that there are other ways to be in theater other than on stage.  I certainly didn’t know.

Tepper:           I think going through schooling that’s very expensive- I made my college experience what I wanted it to be.  I made sure I could take a lot of diverse theater classes and take theater journalism, and take theater directing, producing, and all of that.   But it was hard to be in a department where I didn’t technically want to do the thing that my major was… 

Huang:            That’s interesting, because I went to NYU undergrad as well and I used to tell people when they would ask me how the drama department is, I would always say that NYU’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness in that it never gives you anything. 

Tepper:           Right?

Huang:            You have to fight for it tooth and nail, and then four years later you either know how to survive or you don’t.

Tepper:           When did you pivot?

Huang:            I pivoted… so I graduated college and I acted professionally for about three years.  And every subsequent year the stack of Backstages that I collected would get smaller and smaller, because I just wasn’t going out.  Then my dad was like “I’ll send you to grad school.”  Which is... we’ll get back to this in a second, but I was very fortunate in that my family was able-

Tepper:           …to do that.

Huang:            Yes.  Which is what I want to circle back to later.  I feel like obscure musicals and new musicals go hand-in-hand because audience expectations are similar for both and you kinda have to sift through a lot of okay ones to find the great ones.  Being part of both musical theater history and future, I’m wondering… what’s the view like from where you are? 

Tepper:           Two things: so, the Runs a Minute series that I have been doing with Kevin Michael Murphy for awhile where we celebrate underappreciated musicals-

Huang:            This is the project that I transcribed music for that only existed in rehearsal demo form.

Tepper:           We tell stories about them, as well as have performers sing from them, and invite people that originated the roles to tell stories, stuff like that.  After a while I started realizing that studying these obscure musicals and forming them into an evening made me understand the writing process in a way that helped when I was dealing with new musicals.   I would be reading about an out of town try-out and then looking at the result of that edit in the musical, then all of those things would come back when I was seeing a friend’s reading. 

Huang:            Interesting!

Tepper:           The more I’ve studied history at the same time as I’ve worked on new stuff, the more I realize that they have more in common than they have different. 

Huang:            Totally.

Tepper:           And also interviewing professionals for my book(s), who were working in the sixties and hearing a story that makes me think “That’s just like something that happened this season!” There’s a lot of consistency in people’s experiences.  The technology has changed, but theater is still people telling stories in a room and there’s a lot that you can learn if you study the history of it. 

Huang:            I want to ask a leading, possibly unfair question. 

Tepper:           Sure

Huang:            Given the last statement you just made, the history versus now- my experience has been that young writers are often reinventing the wheel when they don’t necessarily have to.  This elicits so many different responses.  What is the value of re-inventing the wheel to you?  Does that make sense?

Tepper:           I know exactly what you’re saying.  I feel like in order to create something that does push the art form forward, or even just to create something that’s new, you have to sometimes fail.   I don’t like that word exactly, but I think to write the first Concept Musical, a lot of “first concept musicals” that didn’t quite work had to be written before that.  So in that same way when I see musical theater writers working on a piece that doesn’t quite work, who knows?  It might work three years from now.  Or it might not work at all but the next show you do you might be better equipped to write.

Huang:            So here’s a question that I just thought of:  we are in an industry and environment where the freedom to fail, at least commercially, gets narrower and narrower.  So if it’s a given that a noob can’t change the system but still wants to participate within it, doesn’t it behoove them to not make as many mistakes the first time around?

Tepper:           Kind of, but “mistakes” is also tricky because we all know that there are musicals that aren’t technically very good but that run for a very long time and musicals that are really good that don’t.

Huang:            Totally.

Tepper:           So I think that there’s quite a few cases where something doesn’t run for very long but the show makes money in licensing and people consider it a worthy work and those writers aren’t shunned.  I think that if you stick to what you think is quality work that’s right for the piece- even if it doesn’t make its money back I don’t think that bans you, thankfully. 

Huang:            Fair.

Tepper:           I do think there’s a horrifying thing of- it’s really, hard for writers who spend years getting their musical on and then all it takes to kill it for a couple years is a review.  That is absolutely abysmal, but I don’t think it kills your next project, is what I’m saying.  

Huang:            Back in the day, collaborative teams could write together for ten years and have an entire library of work and now it’s not uncommon for one person to spend ten years on a single piece. 

Tepper:           I’ve been reading a lot about the Colonial Theater in Boston lately.   You used to take a musical to Boston, and get ten reviews; some might be good and some might be bad but they would all be really constructive.  The major newspapers would give constructive criticism and by the time the run was over the show changed, and none of those reviews ever killed those shows. 

                        And Boston audiences felt like they knew they weren’t getting a finished product and they were excited about it!  People would go to see a show evolve.  There were so many- Neil Simon… and Rogers and Hammerstein and Sondheim and Prince and all those people.

Huang:            So what do you think changed, and (another leading question) how do you think we can change it to what it is to wherever it’s going?

Tepper:           As much as it pains me to say it, I think it’s a good thing about the internet democratizing “reviews” a bit.  “Word of mouth” is people.  That used to mean you read 10 newspaper critics, and then made a decision about seeing a show or not. Now only the New York Times holds the power those 10 papers used to have collectively, so now people also hear from 100 friends and strangers on the internet, and there are pros and cons to the way that has democratized "reviews" somewhat.

                        Theatre criticism is a valuable profession, and there are critics who I respect very much, but in the world we live in where there just aren't as many reviews considered by as many potential audience members, I'm somewhat glad the internet has been able to magnify the average person's opinion. It has changed things.

Huang:            You said just now “as much as it pains me to say it.”  Why does it pain you to say that?

Tepper:           The internet has also been a disservice to shows in a lot of ways, because there's now no place out of town where you can get away from New York. That died and that changed, and there will never be a way to change it back. The second the curtain goes up in Washington D.C., there's a bootleg on tumblr, there are tweets about the show.

Huang:            Let’s talk about that for a second. Ken Davenport is kind of getting ahead of the curve by live streaming Daddy Longlegs for free… what do you think about that?

Tepper:           I think it’s a good thing for us to be trying.  And there are shows like Legally Blonde that were so much helped by that happening.  I think it’s really cool that if I was in high school in Florida and couldn’t see Broadway shows and could see that, I would be so happy about it. 

Huang:            When I was a kid, the only conduit we had was watching the Tony’s.

Tepper:           And I also think that what’s really smart, which he knows, is that it’s not stopping people from going to the theater.  But I also don’t know how much it’s helping Broadway shows. Yet.  I think we just have more to learn about it. 

Huang:            I saw the National Theater of London’s broadcast of Curious Incident at Skirball a year before it came to New York and loved it. But as a result I waited about two years before I saw it on Broadway.  On the one hand, hey I still went to see it… but on the other, it took two years.  What if it had closed early?  So I’m not sure about it either but I agree that it’s a question of “what do we have to lose at this point?”

Tepper:           This is a thing with society:  I think about this a lot and it makes me sad-.  When Richard Rogers was writing everyone was like “the theater’s dead”   And then when Sondheim’s writing everyone’s like “the theater’s dead.”  Everyone’s always like “It was better yesterday.  It was better in yesteryear.  Things are dead.”  And I don’t want to be that person.  I think certain things are better now, certain things are better then. 

Huang:            Here’s an idea that I want to bounce off you.  Tangential.  My personal philosophy, my feeling is that the reason theater is always perpetually dying but never dead is because human beings recognize that there’s a fundamental innate need to share stories live, together. 

Tepper:           Totally.

Huang:            And whether or not we know that, I think that’s the reason why theater still exists.  My feeling is that if we could somehow advertise- instead of saying so and so from this TV show that you know or whatever, if we just spoke truth.  And said “you need to come because you need to be in this room.”  I mean, that would never ever work but like, I fancy what that world would be if we could.

Tepper:           It would be different- I mean that’s kind of why the not for profits exist although it doesn’t always work that way.  If you stand at the TKTS booth and you listen to people, they’re all like “Oh! George Takei from the internet!”  or “Is anyone from American Idol in this?” Because they do want that.  

Huang:            True.

Tepper:           And sometimes you can do what you’re suggesting.  School of Rock doesn’t have a star, and that’s smart.  School of Rock is the star.

Huang:            He’s gonna be…[1]

Tepper:           He’s totally. But sometimes you try to sell it on the title of the show, and sometimes there’s the musical that doesn’t have to have any of it.  It doesn’t have anyone famous in it.  It isn’t based on a brand.  There’s one show like this every year.  It’s Fun HomeSpring AwakeningNext to Normal.  All of those?  That’s what that is.  And we get to have one.  Which is more than we got for a lot of years.  It’s an unbelievable time for theater these past three years, and what it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.  It’s an incredibly healthy time for new musicals.  

Huang:            I loved all those shows you just listed.  For the last decade I’ve always been arguing that just the economics of commercial theater is super real and as a result, the ratio between commercial and art is like, 90/10 and my argument has always been “can’t it be 80/20?  Can’t it be 70/30?”

Tepper:           I feel like interviewing people has helped me a lot with this.  You might think that something is the most commercial property ever, but the people who are writing it just grew up obsessed with that [genre] of music, or grew up obsessed with that book and care so deeply about it.  Like On Your Feet- the bookwriter of that wrote Birdman and he just LOVES Gloria Estefan and believes in her story.  And it’s not cynical.  Once you talk to a couple people about it like that you just go “Oh!” 

                        And when I talk to my friends who are trying to get jobs writing these movies and some of them they say “Yeah, I could write that” but then some of them they say “I would die to write that!” Just because it’s a movie that’s Universal or Fox or Warner Bros., it doesn’t mean you can’t really want to write it.  And I think that dismissing something because it feels commercial- it’s just not what my experience has been after talking to people. 

Huang:            Whenever I get to sit behind the table and watch people audition for me, I always have a million things I want to tell them but it’s not my place.  Do you have anything to impart on the next generation of musical theater performers?

Tepper:           I think there’s three things.  Well, four: Christian Borle said, “Be the most prepared person in the room.”   And I think that applies to everyone. Even if you’re doing a 29 hour reading and it’s not a lot of money.  If you’re the most prepared person, you’re going to get a job with that writer or that director again.  I’m gonna get it on a notepad and hang it on my wall. 

Huang:            That’s one.  What’s two?

Tepper:           I think we all know how important Youtube is for writers, but it’s amazing to me how many performers that are starting out say “I don’ t have videos yet.  I haven’t really done anything.”   Listen.  I’ve been in an office where casting is going on for a Broadway show and everyone says “We love this person’s audition, let’s see what they have on Youtube.”  I have also been in situations where someone has said “I need a singer to sing a couple lines in a song.  Who would you recommend?”  And I think “who could really benefit from that opportunity that is talented but just starting out?  Let me send you some clips of- oh, they don’t have anything on Youtube.” 

Huang:            That is inconceivable to me.

Tepper:           Even if your first Youtube video is you doing something you’re proud of but at an open mic or going to a random concert or something, you have to be aware of your internet presence.  

Huang:            You best come up when I Google your name.

Tepper:           Yeah.  I think that’s super important actor advice.

Huang:            How important is it to have an audience response on video do you think?

Tepper:           I think ideally… you know there’s so many things in the city… sign up to do something just so you can… it can be something like performing for five people at a late night thing… it doesn’t have to be that serious.  

Huang:            Okay that’s two, what’s three?

Tepper:           You don’t just have to know about acting you also have to know what’s going on in the business.   When I meet young actors who I think are talented, but have no idea who anyone is who’s making theater, or they don’t know anything about theater history, I just think… “that’s also a big part of it.”  So you have to do that. And then I had a fourth thing and I’ve forgotten it. 

Huang:            Okay well we’ll put a pin in the fourth thing and get back.  I’m sure it’ll come to you. [Spoiler alert, it does.] What about advice for writers?  Not withstanding the universality of what you’ve already said.

Tepper:           Just being a musical theater writer is so hard.  Both things.  Doing it, but also being it.  But this is what I can say: from studying history you start to see that everyone had years where they weren’t getting produced and everyone struggled through times when everyone was telling them bad things about their work.

                        Just keep on going.  Be indefatigable and persistent because if you are talented and keep doing it you’re going to get places.  Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman were in their forties when they got to Broadway as writers and Bill Finn was forty when he got to Broadway with his own musical.  It just takes time.  And also know that it’s not about your work, it’s about the coincidences of the system and what’s getting produced where. 

Huang:            Note to self…

Tepper:           As much as I hate to say the word networking, because I don’t even think of it like that but –

Huang:            Community building.  Bridge building. 

Tepper:           Community building!  I’m gonna use that from now on, that’s smart.  You don’t have to think about it as a gross thing, just as getting to know a lot of people.  The ways that musical theater writers get produced is that some director who they’ve admired who they’ve worked with for years gets in a position of power and they say “I wanna work with that guy.”

Huang:            So true.  The key to staying power is… staying power.

Tepper:           When I see the luminaries of right now who are in their 70s and 80s and they (I’m sure) have things that they don’t like about one another, had times that they were competitive, but overall they’re very supportive.  It’s great to be overall supportive and wanting to be part of a community, while at the same time feeling like “I deserved that job and you didn’t.”  Both things are allowed. 

Huang:            Sidebar:  I just found out this year that two Broadway writers who were very supportive of me and my work can’t stand each other and I felt like “oh no, my parents are getting a divorce.” But then I realized that’s everybody.   That’s cool. 

Tepper:           And that’s another thing.  When you used to write spec songs for a project, some producer would say “I got the rights to this property, let’s try to do it together and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”  It wasn’t “hey I got the rights to this property, ten teams please work on it and I’ll pick the one I like the best.”  That creates a different environment.  I would like to study this. I don’t know when it started.  I was thinking about this because Ragtime was one of the first ones I can remember since I was aware of where Jason Robert Brown, and Maltby and Shire, and Ahrens and Flaherty, and Michael John Lachiusa were all writing Ragtime!  It’s like we’re in a color war sometime. 

Huang:            It really is.  Do you know my friend Nadette Stasa?  Are you familiar with the Peace Museum or the Peace Bike?  Well she started all that.  At one point she was a casting director and when I finished grad school I took an on-camera commercial audition class with her because why not and the first thing she said in that room was “in my umpteen years of casting, I’ve realized this one thing: there is something for everyone.” 

Tepper:           I remember my fourth actor thing now.

Huang:            What was your fourth?

Tepper:           It was that in college, somewhat out of necessity, a little bit of the special gets beaten out of you. And I think that the reason why people end up getting hired-  the way to create a distinctive you is to embrace weird things and embrace the weird thing that voice does or that you do as an actor. 

Huang:            Stay weird.

Tepper:           It sometimes takes a lot of years for people that are distinctive and singular to gain success as performers. Sometimes it’s because they have to re-develop the “special.”  And then on the flip side, some of the most talented people I know, the Molly Hagers of the world, never lose that distinctiveness and individuality, but it means that they don't fit a mold and so they don't get to come into their own until later, and they're not booking Broadway at 22.

Huang:            So we’re gonna circle back to my generous family for a minute.  A lot of the advice and experience that you’re sharing sort of hinges upon a person’s ability to maintain while they wait for attrition or timing or whatever.  I’m not sure if this is true, but I have noticed that a pretty large portion of our community, the outlier not withstanding, are really benefitting from the privilege that comes with an upper middle class upbringing.  Which- I have concerns about the state of theater when it is…what’s the word I’m looking for?

Tepper:           Exclusionary? 

Huang:            Yeah!  Institutionalized exclusion.  Has that been your experience too?

Tepper:           I’ve been thinking about this a lot.  Because I think that it’s that thing- it’s not the same thing but it’s similar to the Women in Theater conversation and it’s similar to the Diversity conversation

Huang:            It’s exactly the same conversation.  It’s thinly veiled.

Tepper:           I can’t speak for the Gay community or the Asian community or a lot of things, but I can speak for women.  I think that people forget that it’s gotten so much better.  The way that, you look at the people that could write musicals in the 1950s: Stephen Sondheim grew up going to fancy Manhattan parties and learning about lyrics in Oscar Hammerstein’s back yard.  And if you look at it, such a huge percentage of musical theater writers then were Manhattan-born white Jews.  Someone said to me the other day, and I hadn’t heard this quote and I don’t know who it’s attributed to but “the history of musical theater for a long time was the history of short Jewish men yelling at each other.”  And a lot of those people are brilliant, obviously, but it’s gotten so much better as far as different kinds of writers on Broadway.

                        The class thing has gotten better.  It still has so far to go, but there are so many grants, there are residencies.  It’s so much better than what it was fifty years ago.  I think it’s the reason that people are asking “why aren’t we getting more musicals about X or Y?”

Huang:            Yes!

Tepper:           And when the intern culture in theater is what it is, and it’s not just theater, it’s a lot of things- you read so many articles about people taking advantage of interns and that whole generation and the like– you can only afford to work in theater a lot of the time if you can afford to do an unpaid internship for a while. 

Huang:            A long time!

Tepper:           I worked in a lot of places where we’ve had interns and whenever I’ve had the ability to make that a worthy educational experience, I have.  But even if they are being paid they’re never being paid as much as they should be.

Huang:            Not a living wage, certainly.

Tepper:           Right and every time I have an intern that’s even slightly worthwhile, I say “If we don’t have a job here let me recommend you.  Let me call people.  Let me get you a job.” But what about those five people who couldn’t do that internship? How do they get behind a desk so that maybe in ten fifteen years you’re working on making those stories happen? I think the intern culture is a huge part of it.

Huang:            So if someone wanted to “solve” this problem, a good place to start is look at the culture of internships?

Tepper:           I think there’s little that can make a dent except the government.   If things were structured differently so that- ‘cause for a musical theater writer to be making their living writing musicals it takes how long on average? I’d like to measure that.

Huang:            I’ll let you know when I get there.

Tepper:           Exactly.  But I feel like it would probably be on average it takes twenty years or something like that and so yeah people can have other jobs but how fast you get there a lot of the times has to do with how much time you have to dedicate to your writing so…

Huang:            It’s interesting that you say twenty years because Malcolm Gladwell says ten years or ten thousand hours or whatever that is right?  For most things? And it is commonly understood that the culture of theater is about ten years behind the mainstream.

Tepper:           Yeah

Huang:            And there’s so many different factors that contribute to why that is, but I see specifically now that those two numbers make for a twenty year-

Tepper:           Gap.  Well… “You can make a killing on Broadway but you can’t make a living.”  The Musical theater writers that are making their living are doing great.  You know, and there are people in every generation doing so well- Stephen Schwartz, Bobby Lopez, Pasek and Paul.  Even people who just start out, all it takes is getting in and then that’s it.  It takes one hit on Broadway to be able to get tons of jobs.

Huang:            And just for the record, everybody that you mentioned is great about sharing the wealth, which we’re all grateful for.

Tepper:           Totally.  Ed Kleban is one of my heroes, and I love him.  And to think that he said “let me establish this foundation that gives a big chunk of money to musical theater writers…” I don’t expect them to but if every theater writer that was a millionaire set up something like that it would make a huge dent. 

Huang:            I’m not allowed to say that but I kind of agree.

Tepper:           But also if the government found some way to subsidize musical theater writers doing work with inner city kids in exchange for like, free tuition- structured so that it gave back…

Huang:            …Works Progress…

Tepper:           There are ways to create programs that would help people to write musicals and to be part of musical theater that aren’t in the upper middle class or higher.  Do I think that’s very likely? No, there’s a lot of problems in the world.  But, I think we’re moving in the right direction which at least is promising

Huang:            And I’m not trying to lead you in any direction, I’m just constantly trying to solve the world’s problems 

Tepper:           Which is a great way to be.

Huang:            I have one last question for you.  So you’ve been there, you’re here.  Where you going?

Tepper:           I have to preface it by saying that I love my job at 54 Below, I don’t plan to quit tomorrow, I’m not doing that.

Huang:            Of course you aren’t.  You’re the best thing about that place.

Tepper:           Thank you

Huang:            You’ve made that place which so easily could have been an “Establishment” establishment accessible to the millennial generation and to guys like me, who are sort of in between.

Tepper:           Thank you.  Well, I that’s just it.  I don’t have as much power as I would like to change the world, but I do have a little and to use it at 54 to make new musicals happen in concert and get people to hear writers and actors they haven’t heard yet has been awesome.  In the long term I would really love to work at a not-for-profit to make new and/or under-appreciated musicals happen. 

                        I’m so ready to do that in a way that also has a foot in the “educational” realm.  I appreciate what City Center does and what Encores does is unbelievable.  I’m on their Off-Center Young Artists board so I’ve gotten to be part of that in a little way… But I’m also open to so many things. 

Huang:            Like…?

Tepper:           I always say that if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would buy the Edison, which was a Broadway theater for twenty years.  It’s a ballroom now but when it was a theater it was a 500 seat, “could be immersive” theater. I want to run that theater and do new musicals and older underappreciated musicals in it. And down the line, if there does end up being another TV show that’s about Broadway, maybe even one that doesn't take place in present day, I would want to be part of that..

This last bit, she says with her arms open and her eyes heavenward: Like she’s talking to a Patron Saint of TV shows that Love Broadway.  (Who would that be?  Theresa Rebek, Aaron Sorkin?) And it occurs to me then, if that show even ran a minute, she’d already be at the top of everyone’s list.  I’d tell her that myself but she’s already moved on, gathering her coat and getting ready to make her mark on 2016.

 

[1] Alex Brightman. You heard it here first.

On Kings, Kims, Capulets and Consideration

Below is a repost of an article I wrote for the now defunct NewMusicalTheatre.com blog in April of 2014.  In a recent server migration, all that content got got.  So here it is from me to you.

***

Recently Playbill asked their Twitter followers who they would want most to play the King of Siam in the forthcoming Broadway revival of The King and I, and posted what one presumes were the nine most popular responses on their site. Of those nine, four of the profiled actors were not Asian. Of those four, one was Michael Cerveris. This prompted an actress colleague of mine (herself an Asian) to very respectfully ask @playbill if they would ever suggest that Michael Cerveris would make an excellent Coalhouse Walker in a revival of Ragtime. The implied question, I think, being “why do you feel it appropriate to list non-Asians for a traditionally Asian character if you would not do likewise for a traditionally African one?”

Now, I don’t know anyone over at Playbill personally (though I suspect all they’re guilty of is reporting on how their audience responded to a question), and I’m no casting director either. But for better or worse, if I was compiling a list of possible Coalhouses for my production of Ragtime, I’m fairly certain not a single Caucasian performer would enter my mind without a little help from their agents. Likewise for the King of Siam. (I know about twelve other Asian dudes who didn’t make that list who probably should have.) Now, that might totally confuse you because it hardly seems fair that a person of color can be “non-traditionally cast” in a traditionally white role (Norm Lewis, I’m looking at you), but the reverse is somehow taboo. Because believe me, it is. Totally, totally taboo. But I would wager the reason for your confusion about this is because Non-Traditional casting and the hiring of actors-of-color in shows about raceare actually two separate conversations that often get lumped together and mistaken for the same thing. The resulting conversation only maintains the status quo it seeks to redefine and neither solves the problem nor furthers our understanding of it.

So let’s start here. This is what non-traditional casting isn’t: Non-Traditional casting isn’t the act of making a character’s identity, ethnicity or culture irrelevant by hiring an actor of a different color and it isn’t the act of employing an actor of color because he or she is under-represented. Although to a degree, both things occur when we do it, defining it as either is a little bit of cart-before-the-horse. I like to think of Non-Traditional casting as the act of taking a known “historical” work and allowing it to reflect a more modern sensibility.  Allowing a cast of brown, yellow, white, red, black, orange, purple and blue people to tell us the story of Romeo and Juliet is, in essence, the act of saying their story is our story. It’s saying we don’t have to be from Verona to understand the passion of an illicit love or the folly of a generational feud. A more recent example is casting the outrageous Alice Lee as Heather Duke in Heathers. Sure, everyone knows that Shannon Doherty made that role iconic. But as you can see six nights a week at New World Stages, making her Asian doesn’t make her any less hilarious. Or frightening. (Alice, call me.)

“Great,” you say. “I’m down with that. We’re transcending cultural barriers to examine a fundamentally human experience. But why aren’t I allowed to play Miss Saigon?”

Robert Guillaume as the Phantom in the Los Angeles production.

Robert Guillaume as the Phantom in the Los Angeles production.

Well, that’s a very good question. And one that can’t be addressed until someone (okay, me) first says outright: you absolutely should be allowed to play Miss Saigon. Non-traditional casting, by my definition, should absolutely work both ways. But the public mindshare first needs to undergo and recognize a few paradigm shifts before that can happen, and we’re not quite there yet. Some may disagree, but a non-Asian actor in the title role of Miss Saigon is exactly the kind of world I want to live in so long as that world doesn’t take twenty eight years to put the second of two Black men in the role of the Phantom of the Opera. OH. WAIT. (Shout out to Robert Guillaume, who succeeded Michael Crawford in the L.A. production over two decades ago.) In that context, casting Michael Cerveris as the King in a production of The King and I isn’t any more Non-Traditional than casting Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Google it. You’ll be like “OMG I can’t even.”)

Like it or not, the reality of the situation is your world is enormously, mind-blowingly culturally diverse. Yet Broadway and your TV are a generation behind in accurately representing the cultures and ethnicities of your closest friends, your cable guy, your voice teacher. You might not notice, because you probably watch a lot of stuff on a computer, which has these great equalizers called Youtube, Twitch, and Vine. But trust me – Broadway and your TV are slightly behind the curve when representing to reasonable degrees of accuracy how culturally diverse your world is.

Sure Jenna Ushkowitz and Harry Shum Jr. can stand up on Glee, sing and dance their face off and then drop the mic. And sure, they do it amazingly well. But consider that for most of the first season Mr. Shum’s character was jokingly referred to as “Other Asian” and it’s clear that even Glee recognizes how rare it is to have two Asian-American characters in the same story. The logic for this is funny and sad at the same time: two Asians couldn’t possibly be principles on Glee because then it would be a story about two Asians. Because whenever we see more than one in any story it’s usually a story about race and the culture of being “other.” But those stories are only ever written (in many cases by me) because there aren’t enough shows with two Asians in them being fierce and dropping the mic to begin with. And thus the cycle begins anew.

There are so many great pieces of theater that directly address race, class and culture which presently, still get produced primarily for that reason. (Ragtime, I’m looking right at you.) And though many of us can dream of the world where The King and I is only celebrated for its glorious writing and not its social significance, we still live in a world where it is one of three mainstream jobs an Asian person can act in without prejudice. Which itself makes a strong case for the fact that we still need it for its social significance.

Yes, it is an incredibly slippery slope. And there isn’t an easy answer. Because differences of opinion are what fuel discussion and creation. Because there’s so many great shows about so many great characters so why can’t we sing all the songs? Because the marriage of art and commerce is a thin skinned egg on a bed of nails in an earthquake during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Because no show exists to exclude. Because all of the above. But we bring our best to every audition, every class, every rehearsal. And we do that with preparation and by listening. Why shouldn’t we bring our best to every discussion too?

Here’s the TLDR version:

Alice Lee as Heather Duke is nontraditional. And awesome. Making an Asian girl play every Heather Duke from here on out is boring and uninspired, but shows how far we have to go before another Caucasian can play the King of Siam.

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.