Category Archives: playwriting

Dying Continents…

by Robin Byrd

Yesterday, I attended a wonderful webinar hosted by Hedgebrook, “Exit Strategies: How to End a Poem” with Chet’la Sebree, author of Mistress, Field Study. Ms. Sebree generously shared her jewels and knowledge with us. The atmosphere was inviting. Community in Hedgebrook webinars is really comforting and uplifting. To write together is nice once in a while. We learned more than “endings”. The webinars are recorded and there is always a “holding space” segment after the webinar where the participants who can stay have more time to discuss the art or any other things with the instructors. This is the part that makes the community so comforting and inspiring.

We worked on exercises using poetry that we had already written or new pieces. Below is a new piece that I started in the webinar but seems to be evolving. Poetry has been something that I have written and read all my life; something I make a point to continue to study – it never hurts to work on craft.

Dying Continents

The earth shook ferociously
Tsunamis terrorized the coastlines
Whole towns destroyed
Whole futures washed away in an instant

When things shift
There is no time to steady yourself
against the moving tectonic plates forcing new terrain
Or time to gather the energy to do more than stand

I am bound to the memory
Of the theft
Of things that cannot be restored
Or salvaged
Of organs failing
Of bleeding out damned spot

We wait for endings,
songs and measured grace
Grace to cover
Grace to continue
Did we forget
Or simply let it go

They say there is a new continent
Built on the scars
They say there is new contentment
In unchartered lands
New content
In place of what had been

by Robin Byrd 2-27-2021

Thoughts on Black Stories…

There is always discussion on the right or wrong/ness of other ethnicities writing stories outside of their ethnicity.  As writers, we all know that you have to write the stories that want to be told through you.  Not long ago, black stories were only allowed to be told through white writers as black writers were considered “less than able” to tell our own stories. A classic black story is Sounder which garnered both Golden Globe and Academy Award Nominations for the late Cicely Tyson, an extraordinary actress who lived with purpose.  Had the story not been written, she would have never had the opportunity.  The white author of Sounder admits the story came from his black school teacher.

“But one night at the great center table after he had told the story of Argus, the faithful dog of Odysseus, he told the story of Sounder, a coon dog.  It is a black man’s story, not mine.  It was not from Aesop, the Old Testament, or Homer.  It was history – his history.” – Sounder by William H. Armstrong 

The unfortunate thing was that author couldn’t seem to remember his teacher’s name to give him actual “story by” credit.  Undoubtedly, the story of Sounder was to be shared, had to be shared… And, we are grateful for this sharing. 

Serendipitously, I caught a Close/Up with the Hollywood Reporter Writers Roundtable  on YouTube hosted by Scott Feinberg with: Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), Radha Blank (The Forty-Year-Old Version), Sam Levinson (Malcolm & Marie), and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami*, Soul), the segment discussed some interesting insights on working through the Pandemic safely, directing their own screenplays (*One Night in Miami is directed by Regina King), the change in how the work is seen by the audience and the question of who should write what.  The writers are very candid. 

The challenges will not go away over night or over decades- it has seemed -but we must try to do our best in telling our stories and pushing to not limit ourselves or the work.  Being Black can mean, in a lot of cases, that we are mixed with other things; we have the right to write those stories too. 

As a people, we are affected by the mutation of Eugenics and how that has wounded us – from our ancestors to ourselves and to our sons and daughters. Sterilization / castration without consent is something that still happens.

“Then he grabbed stuff, this and that and that and this and this and that and that and those – Scissors.  He inserted them and CLIPPED!! Babies, I thought of babies.  I looked him in the eye, this white man who was raping me with stuff made of steal.  He looked at me.    An expression.    A small detectable grin. ‘Oops!’ he said.” – Oops! by Robin Byrd

Some of these stories are hard to tell; we wonder why it’s still happening. Fighting for equality promised to us by law is exhausting…

“but bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet/ do you see the point my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender/” – For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange

We have the right to tell the truths of our people and to write about how we are surviving more things than being shot in the streets, in our homes… We have the right to be awake without apology…

We also have the right to walk in love without that being mistaken as a pass for more abuse…

More books to read:

Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts.

Rip Away This Mask

By Cynthia Wands

ANTIGONE

I wonder how the pandemic is going to affect how we experience being an audience again?

Even with the vaccines in place, and appropriate social distancing, what will the sound of someone coughing – long, difficult, raspy coughing – how will that sound effect an audience, a performance, a performer? What if some of the audience members continue to wear masks, and some don’t? What if we’re actually sitting right next to someone, in front of someone, in back of someone?

How will we see one another when we no longer wear masks in public? I know right now I’m resigned to this weird world of not seeing anyone’s nose or mouth or chin when we meet in public. It’s all eyes and eyebrows. Are they smiling? Am I smiling? Do I look like a worried hamster? I try to articulate, and choose words with a lot of force, but it’s seems like an underwater world of muffled talk.

Years ago, many years ago, I was in a production of ANTIGONE, where we all wore masks that might have looked like a great idea in the design phase of the production. The masks covered everything on our face, except our chin. This was not a great idea.

Here is a picture of me, strangely positioned as I look towards the heavens. I can’t remember how I got up from this posture. I do remember thinking during the run of this production, “At least I’ll never have to wear a mask in public again.”

Masks, not like what we’re wearing today, in ANTIGONE

The masks made you feel like you were a chess piece moved around on an ancient Greek chess board. Wearing the mask, you could only see straight ahead, with no peripheral vision. And the structure of the mask placed a lot of pressure on your nose and cheekbones, so everyone had a distinctly nasal voice. Plus you couldn’t open your mouth very wide.

Even standing right next to another actor, you could have a hard time understanding what they were saying.

“Wolf sinks tweed suffers – something something – pink weave suffered nuff for the cursive edible purse.”

Yes. That is what it sounded like. And the text itself was straight forward:

“You would think that we had already suffered enough for the curse on Oedipus.”

That’s what masks can do to you with Greek tragedy.

So here we are years later, and we are wearing masks in public. They aren’t as bad as the ANTIGONE masks.

Another ANTIGONE

I look forward to the day when we won’t have to wear masks because of this pandemic. I want to be able to appreciate the days when we can laugh, and sing and cry and shout in public because we can.

I wonder how that will inform our writing, how free we’ll be to write characters that have faces that are uncovered and voices unrestrained. I look forward to what other women will write about in the days ahead. I’ll see you in the future.

Writing for Invisible Characters : And I mean women of a certain age

by Cynthia Wands

My scripts includes writing about women of a certain age. And depending on who is looking at these characters, this certain age could be middle aged. (You just need to determine the death date so the character lives exactly in the middle of their life span.) (Okay, I’m kidding.) This certain age could also be post menopausal, so this female character could resemble a screaming banshee, hysterical about night sweats and lost youth. This certain age could also be allocated to a dreaded certain descriptor: a crone.

Yes. Other words to indicate a woman of a certain (older) age might also include: hellcat, trot, witch, shrew, harpy, virago (isn’t that a car?), beldam, biddy and matriarch.

What I see is a real hunger and appreciation for old women. What we call old. And there’s an interesting phenomenon where some older women are seen as valuable and accomplished. And confident and experienced with something to offer.

The fabulous Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey

And a personal favorite:

Judi Dench, not afraid of looking her age

Now, granted, these are deliberate and stunning examples of a celebrity willing to be portrayed as women of a certain age. Mostly these celebrities have been photographed and filmed as ideal versions of their age and station in life.

Judi Dench appearing as the character “M” in a James Bond Film

But to my point, we don’t often get to witness older women in leading roles in our film and stage work, in our arts, and in our leadership. We don’t get to see them because they are seen as being invisible.

Here is a fascinating article by Vanessa Williamson:

by Vanessa Williamson

‘The Dig’ – Hiding Sutton Hoo’s women.

With my archaeologist hat on I review the new film The Dig.

I eagerly awaited the release of the film The Dig, on Netflix, set against the story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation. I watched on the first day it was released. It washed over me with a humble beauty, gentleness, and quiet. A stark contrast to the pace, violence, and noise permeating film & TV. Now several days later I feel compelled as an archaeologist to speak out after reading a piece on FB and Twitter by Paul Blinkhorn. The eminent British Anglo-Saxon archaeologist drew his followers attention to the true story of the Sutton Hoo photographer. The storyline of the photos forms a strong literary theme in the film. What I learnt today is, it is in fact fiction. Blinkhorn reveals the photographer was not a man, but two women, Mercie Lack ARPS and Barbara Wagstaff ARPS. After the war, they both successfully submit for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. From 1948 they provided ongoing contributions to research projects with additional prints of their photographs for publication by the Sutton Hoo research projects. Their photographs now form part of the British Museum Sutton Hoo archive. 

I eagerly awaited the release of the film The Dig, on Netflix, set against the story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation. I watched on the first day it was released. It washed over me with a humble beauty, gentleness, and quiet. A stark contrast to the pace, violence, and noise permeating film & TV. Now several days later I feel compelled as an archaeologist to speak out after reading a piece on FB and Twitter by Paul Blinkhorn. The eminent British Anglo-Saxon archaeologist drew his followers attention to the true story of the Sutton Hoo photographer. The storyline of the photos forms a strong literary theme in the film. What I learnt today is, it is in fact fiction. Blinkhorn reveals the photographer was not a man, but two women, Mercie Lack ARPS and Barbara Wagstaff ARPS. After the war, they both successfully submit for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. From 1948 they provided ongoing contributions to research projects with additional prints of their photographs for publication by the Sutton Hoo research projects. Their photographs now form part of the British Museum Sutton Hoo archive. 

I eagerly awaited the release of the film The Dig, on Netflix, set against the story of the Sutton Hoo Excavation. I watched on the first day it was released. It washed over me with a humble beauty, gentleness, and quiet. A stark contrast to the pace, violence, and noise permeating film & TV. Now several days later I feel compelled as an archaeologist to speak out after reading a piece on FB and Twitter by Paul Blinkhorn. The eminent British Anglo-Saxon archaeologist drew his followers attention to the true story of the Sutton Hoo photographer. The storyline of the photos forms a strong literary theme in the film. What I learnt today is, it is in fact fiction. Blinkhorn reveals the photographer was not a man, but two women, Mercie Lack ARPS and Barbara Wagstaff ARPS. After the war, they both successfully submit for membership to the Royal Photographers Society as Associate Members, using their photo essays of the excavation at Sutton Hoo. From 1948 they provided ongoing contributions to research projects with additional prints of their photographs for publication by the Sutton Hoo research projects. Their photographs now form part of the British Museum Sutton Hoo archive. 

Miss Lack and Wagstaff photographed in 1938 as they recorded the Sutton Hoo ship excavation. 

Mercie Lack & BarbaraWagstaff’s work in documenting the excavation was vitally important. The archive of 447 photographs taken on Leica cameras, 72 Agfa 35mm colour slides and film of Basil Brown excavating captured on a 16mm cine-camera, today forms a critical component of the excavation record. Their work at Sutton Hoo included some of the first colour images in British archaeology. What happened to their story in the film? An important part of my enjoyment of British TV and films has been the balance of gender and diverse inclusive ensemble casts. This film is a standout for stripping the female and some male characters of their character & achievements.

The films fictional account is based on the novel ‘The Dig’ by John Preston, yet I argue the filmmaker’s decision to follow a storyline to re gender two women to a male is problematic and flawed. It throws a troubling light in 2021 on the overt sexism that I see permeating the female roles in the film. Lack and Wagstaff were important members of the archaeological ensemble closely associated with the excavation. I can’t imagine what could possibly motivate a screenwriter or author to turn two women into a male character. My immediate conclusion was middle-aged ordinary women with cameras are not good enough for a feature film in 2021. Age, gender, and sex appeal of a romance are more important to this film’s maker. What the hell is wrong with middle-aged women I protest out loud, as I now surprisingly find myself in that category. Or god forbid there would be too many women in the film! The argument the plotline of the photographer is true to the novel is a valid, adaption of novels to film is just about always made by filmmakers and in this instance, the failure to swap empty fiction for the real story has undermined the integrity of the film. 

My immediate impression after watching the film was to question why the three female leads were presented as a vulnerable, passive, with a dull ongoing focus on their fictional problems, not their achievements. I had a bad taste of the filmmaker misogyny, outdated even in 1938. The women as we met them in the film are Dorothy May Brown (Centre) presented as neglected lonely wife; this was not so, Mrs Edith Pretty (right) spends the film fighting Illness. She was a fascinating well-educated woman, who travelled the world and visited her own fathers Abbey archaeological excavations. The Peggie Piggott, (left) we meet is naive, inexperienced, and in every way a slip of a girl. In fact, she was a highly qualified and experienced field Archaeologist. The absence of character development of the women sent me straight to the internet to learn more about them

What I discovered shocked me. The women’s true drive, skills, and successes were not only ignored but deliberately covered up. Wasted opportunities in scene after scene focused on vulnerability, weakness, in empty scenes, where were their triumphs? After all the triumph for all concerned is the central theme of this story. Peggie Piggott when she arrived on site had a 1934 diploma (equivalent to a degree, which women were excluded from at the time) from the University of Cambridge and a 1936 Institute of Archaeology postgraduate diploma. She had been Archaeology project leader and lead archaeologist on an excavation of an Iron Age barrow. The real fantastic lives of the women are revealed in an expose article by the National Trust on the Sutton Hoo web site- ‘The True Story’ behind the ‘The Dig’. The National Trust I see were highly motivated to have ready, by the day the film was released, corrections with a suite of bios for the people misrepresented in the film. 

My other frustration was wasted screen time on the novel’s subplot of archaeologists Stuart Piggott’sfictional preference for a fellow male chum over his new wife! A back story, echoing the film the Imitation Game in which the plotline was a fact. The dominance of screen time allocated to this relationship and Edith Pretty’s illness resulted in dull screen time, and neglect of ‘The Dig’s- archaeology, the finds, excavation, British archaeology politics. The film was called The Dig! The film marketing established an expectation as a story of the greatest archaeological find in Britain in 20thc. The expectation is everything in marketing and hitting the right note is important to audience satisfaction. Audiences have been naturally confused in thinking the film followed history and the true-life experiences of the individuals portrayed. Yet the novel was followed create a romantic storyline. So unlike film the ‘The Imitation Game’ which tells a true story of its characters in the film. The Dig replaced fact with fiction and has done a great disservice to the individuals portrayed. The true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation and its team is fantastic, the vision and drive of Edith Pretty, and Basil Brown a wonderful inspiration achieved in spite of the 1930s British academic establishment. 

The film The Dig has many merits; beautiful cinematography, great sets and locations, talented cast. Where it disappoints is the poor choices of plot resulting in the weak screenplay, standout misogynist treatment of all female characters, and poor storyline editing. It was the story of the ‘The Dig’ that suffered, a missed opportunity by the producers who failed to understand the significance of women’s stories, the recent history, and the importance of the Sutton Hoo archaeology. Audiences have a nice film, rather than a film classic of the future. 

https://www.lhoteldeherce.fr/post/the-dig-hiding-sutton-hoo-s-women?fbclid=IwAR1IBpDsM5Jt_A4Ah_UBCLaPR6R6nlIwP69JxbKQ1kO6PLL9Cy5W1ZCogT8

An interesting article about missed opportunities for seeing our accomplished, older, fascinating female characters on film. We don’t see enough of older women in our stories.

I’m looking to write and to read and to witness the stories that include and focus on older women. Along with those other members of society as well.

I also want to see their faces.

Becoming Multilingual

By Rasika Mathur

I hear loud screaming and banging. It’s 3:30am.

All my life, for as long as I can remember, my mother has been a yeller. She would yell to discipline me. She would yell to remind me, like, “Turn on the Puja light!” Or “Flush the toilet once for poop, and a second time for the toilet paper!” She would yell when she didn’t understand. “I tried Face ID but it won’t recognize my CHIN! Stupid phone!” And she would yell when I needed tenderness.

“Mummy, are you mad that I’m not married yet?”

“No…but is there something WRONG??!”

This yelling has gotten worse over time. As her spine changes. As her dependence grows. As she loses her once youthful looks lasting up through age 73 (!) to the stress of taking care of my dad, who has rapidly, during the time of quarantine, entered Stage 4 Parkinson’s.

So at these wee hours, she is probably yelling because she’s in a panic about any of the several ghosts in her mind, and doubly upset that my dad cannot console her the way he likely tried to in the past, and probably failed.

Acceptance. I have to accept people for who they are. Ok, fine. I accept.

But, see, for me, there’s always a glimmer of hope that people can change, that they can come around. That’s probably my downfall.

And that’s probably the reason I kept up the good fight for 2 months as I spent the winter with them, while they downsized their lives. I would lecture, give good sermon, educate, and model proper communication techniques. I would diagnose her with one of several rigid mental disorders, not allowing her to break out of her patterns of self-loathing and criticism. I would ignore, and work to increase my own power to withstand her rage attacks. I even tried matching….and that only left me completely depleted, with a throbbing eye headache (is that a thing?), pounding heart, boiling blood and an extremely short fuse, and how many of us can scratch the creative itch from that place? In an effort to be the good daughter, I went to places I never thought I would have to be called on to go when a parent is elderly and unable to control their temper. One of those places was to a Residence Inn, so I could protect both of us from each other!

But needless to say, it has been an extremely challenging time, as I come to acceptance, not just of them, but of myself, and just how different we are.

My parents would be leaving for my sister’s house once again in just a few days and I was aware of that. Before, it was like a countdown that would bring me relief. “11 more days, Rasika. And you can feel like yourself again.” “8 days, just 8 more days of this, let’s crank up the Pet Shop Boys to drown out the noise, maybe even remind everyone of the good ol’ days.” (What have I done to deserve this?) And with 5 days to go, I suddenly found myself thinking , “Oh. I don’t know if this is the last time I’ll EVER see them.”

So I became smarter about picking my battles. I would pick and choose when were worthy times to sit with them so they could feel me nearby, and when my mere presence would trigger another yelling episode. (I really also wanted my dad to have some peace and quiet. Of course, he’s so used to the yelling, he would muster his own yelling tirade to tell me to shut up! I get it, they have to be a United Front. Big eye roll, there.) I was getting adept at holding boundaries to protect myself. Not being naive enough to walk into a fight and asking my mom to simply text me her requests. Learning when it was better to just drop any resentment built up from the day and start a whole new loving interaction from scratch. And finding that I loved watching them when they would putter around doing things quietly, like my mom with her nightly dishwashing ritual around midnight. My dad staring at the TV, doing his exercises.

Still got it! My Pops and my Mummy.

***

I know my Love Language is Words of Affirmation and Quality Time and Touch. And I know now that theirs is Acts of Service and Gifts. TOTAL OPPOSITES. So only in that last week, did I start to make their breakfasts as Service and stop expecting compliments or thanks afterwards. It should make me feel good to do, for myself. Period. And it was hard at first, because whenever they would make my favorite dishes growing up, I would let them know it. Ok, I’m sure there were days I didn’t but, it’s how we can even the score of love, allow the other to feel it, too. It’s weird when you’re facing the same emotional immaturity or limitation from a parent. Maybe it’s Karma.

One of the last tasks my Mom and I got to do together on this trip was figure out which heirlooms from her “KEEP” pile she wanted to leave me. Like, ok, we’re doing this now. Stepping into the big girl bloomers here. She was looking through these boxes that have been long set aside and they were labeled with yellowed stickie notes, “For (Insert Family Member here).” Like for my nephew’s wife, when he gets married! I mean, they would think ahead like that, for something still a decade and a half from now! And I counted that there were 5 things for me, 5 little stickie notes that said my name, along with little drawings of hearts like on my birthday cards growing up. And the items that she showed me, have a lot of value. But, I, being SO different, actually didn’t see value in those things. I placed value…on the stickie notes! That’s how much words mean to me! Isn’t that sick? And adorable, but seriously, no wonder my relationship to money is so … complicated. 

What they wanted to give, in lieu of emotional support and encouragement – which I had been craving – is probably stuff I’ll end up pawning off. But I would frame the stickie notes! Because they contain the THOUGHT energy. The Thought of Me. I was THOUGHT of by them. They thought of me. Her sweet handwriting.

During this time, my mom said, “I used to go with your grandmother to the storehouse, and I used to love going with her to look through all boxes, and this set used to belong to her. It’s passed down from her to me to you.” Ok, so that one meant a lot to me. Because my grandmother’s ENERGY and my mother’s little girl HAPPINESS was in it. From THAT ONE interaction, I GOT it. I exploded open and actually got their Love Language. I get it. They always loved me. It was through the form of beautiful roofs over my head, consistent education, great dental care, elegant clothing, and the delicious favorite foods made — all the things I’d scoff at in my early therapy sessions, “Well sure, they provided for me, snark snark snark.”

I started to tear up. And that moment of vulnerability, I realized, is where I always turned away from my mom. I didn’t want her to see what made me weak, because it left me open to the harshness. But while my Inner Child wanted to protect myself, adult Rasika had long been starving to be known by her. 

So I seized the opportunity. Since she was more hunched over now, I put my face lower than hers and looked up and said, “Look, I’m crying. I’m very moved by how you love me through these gifts.” And our eyes connected, mine glistening. And she scolded in that voice of hers, “HANH! Mummy has always loved you and this is how you’ll be loved!” Very strict! That ol’ Military love! And then it was quiet. And then, I seized the next opportunity. Gently, I responded, “Yes, and my love language is words. The right words make me feel loved. The wrong words make me feel unloved.” And then I left it at that, I didn’t want to lecture her in a small room with little ventilation. So, what I said got to land on her, and I let the rest be.

***

A few days later, I made a really great breakfast using some leftover food we had from her birthday feast. I’d perfected my omelette to resembling actual circles, fortified them with some tasty Tex-Mex meats and sprinkled some fallen petals from the flowers across the plate for decor… I made myself proud! As per usual, I made the food, cleaned up and made myself scarce, going upstairs to begin my own daily routines. I heard my mother calling my name. I had on my headphones. Totally ignoring. Don’t wanna hear any criticism. Then my mom yelled louder, “Rasu! Rasu! I just want to thank you for the beautiful breakfast. The presentation was just lovely.” 

SHE COMPLIMENTED ME! SHE MADE AN EFFORT TO SAY LOVING WORDS! SHE SAID THEM! SHE DIDN’T YELL THEM, SHE JUST SAID THEM IN A LOUD VOICE SO SHE COULD BE HEARD. And I could have been bitter now that I’d gotten what I’d wanted but I was open! And I said, “Really?! You liked it?” And this amazing back and forth ensued. And she didn’t compliment it once, she didn’t compliment it twice, she complimented it three times over the course of the day!

The last few days became precious to me. But it’s the days after they’ve left that have really opened my eyes. As I shred the years of bills paid, mortgages dedicatedly covered, medical bills and routines carefully adhered to, notes upon notes of their blood pressure readings and lists of their guests and food menus for parties, addresses where my sister and I lived throughout the years, so much of their life and what was important to them is being SHOWN to me, and I am so so privileged to witness it. I GET it and I am FED by it. I’m NOURISHED by understanding how considered I was by both of them all of these years in their way. 

So yeah, there is still hope for them. And I’m glad there’s hope for me, too.

***

Rasika Mathur is a Comedy Writer + Inspiring Storyteller, Chakra Healing Facilitator and Yoga Teacher, and hosts The FunnYoginI Show, an uplifting and irreverent podcast from Rukus Avenue Radio, that you can access from Apple iTunes podcasts or Spotify. She is Dog Mom to Zephyr and needs to go turn on the Puja light now.

Pandemic woes

Ugh. I have started and re-started this first paragraph too many times to mention. And I think that is indicative of my writing in general as of late. When the world shut down, almost a year ago now, I was fine. Working from home, something that I have been doing for 5+ years, was nothing new for me. I was writing up a storm, holding a weekly writing space. I was taking classes from around the country and loving it!

But for some reason when 2021 rolled around, I am now done. I am paralyzed and cannot write. Like this blog post, I have several started plays, a stack of notecards with random sentences, notebooks with bits of ideas, and I can’t move past that.

I want to write plays because I feel you can discuss issues immediately. Write the play, put it up. And yes in our present day world, Zoom theater is the norm and your casts can be global, so what’s stopping you, ok me?

Reaction. I thought I had a grown a thick skin, ready for the criticisms, but now I feel judgment and cancel culture will come for you. Strangers re-tweeting what other people have said about you, never once asking you for the real story, and you’re done.

I really want to say more about this. Figure this out. Move past the moments. But how do you do that?

….so maybe I’ll finish that play?

Jenn

The FPI Files: How to Measure Anti-Racism in Theater

by Carolina Xique

Last summer, the murder of George Floyd shook the world and started a long overdue conversation about the history of white supremacy in institutions, especially in the theater. More and more artists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are sharing their experiences of racism in the arts and calling on theatrical institutions to reform the way we write, direct, cast, work, teach, and perform theater—most notably, the collective “We See You, White American Theater” (weseeyouwat.com).

But what does that reform look like? What can theater institutions do to better represent BIPOC artists? How can theaters measure their level of anti-racism if, historically, theater has never been anti-racist?

One exemplary organization that is doing the work of providing tools for anti-racist self-reflection in theater companies and organizations is based in the LA area: the Joy-Jackson Initiative.

The Joy-Jackson Initiative (JJI) works to build systemic equity in the arts by providing organizations with the guidance necessary to formulate and implement changes to create the safest possible spaces for the BIPOC collaborators who enrich them. JJI is currently creating the Racial Equity Assessment for organizations to take and learn about how they can better represent and care for their BIPOC artists and collaborators. I (digitally) sat with the Initiative’s founder, Gabrielle Jackson, to learn more about what went into creating the Assessment and how the Assessment will be used to introduce a better, more equitable theater culture.

LAFPI: First, can you share briefly how you founded the Joy-Jackson Initiative?

Gabrielle Jackson: The Joy-Jackson Initiative was founded out of a deep sense of disappointment and urgency. Disappointment that, at a time where we were encouraging each other to help flatten the curve and save human life, so many of my friends and colleagues could remain unaware of the violent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality. The urgency that followed was an understanding that immediate action was required to rectify the rampant white supremacy and willful ignorance that allowed for people in my community and in my industry to witness racial violence and do absolutely nothing.

I was going to do something. I was going to show people that this violence was happening in their own communities, in their own organizations. People had to know that it was so much deeper than a protest or a political movement. This was about real people and real life. 

LAFPI: The Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment is a huge undertaking, yet extremely necessary and relevant, especially after last summer’s call for anti-racist practices in the arts. You have said before that the assessment went under a rigorous review process. In a few words, what was the process like from concept to debut? What kind of collaborations were needed to make all of this happen?

Gabrielle: There’s an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. This assessment is the product of so many collaborations and incredible connections. Initially I was using my own personal experience to create the Assessment’s questions. I spoke with some friends after I developed the initial draft and they called in their friends and hooked me up with some really wonderful organizations who were interested in helping me continue to build the work. 

One such org was Black Theatre Girl Magic. With the help of BTGM’s incredible team, we were able to gather a group of incredible Black women from across the professional theater spectrum to review and advise on the initial assessment. We organized a 3-day summit where we story-circled and shared our professional experiences and gathered the information that would help me develop the first Beta Version of JJI’s Assessment.

We beta tested with a small group of theaters from across the country and gathered data and participant feedback.

In a little over two months we had developed and tested a great first draft of the Assessment.  We took this feedback and immediately went back to the drawing board.  I personally read every set of “requemands,” as I like to call them, put out by every collective, organization and student group I could find. These folks were all calling for change and had very incredible plans for progress. I distilled the information from these resources and turned these demands and action steps into questions for the assessment. Then JJI’s Managing Director Julie Oulette, who is one of the most knowledgeable people I know and someone who has really worked in this business from every angle, took the assessment and organized it and edited it so that it was digestible and made sense to people who were leading these orgs that we were addressing.

We then organized another peer and professional review of the assessment with industry vets and folks who really knew the business and the people who made it. We also invited students and entry level professionals who were just starting out and had some really excellent ideas and paths forward. We then hand selected our second beta cohort and conducted a second beta test of the assessment. As with the first Beta test period, we culminated in a data share and town hall where the leaders of participating organizations were invited to share their experience with the assessment. Now we are rounding the corner on our publicly accessible version of the assessment and will, again, be hand selecting a small cohort of organizations from across the country to participate in our first full rollout of the assessment and its accompanying facilitation program.  We could not have done any of this work at this pace without the power of collaboration. We’ve turned something that could very easily be a 10 year undertaking into something that has been vetted by industry professionals and is ready and effective in a very short period of time. 

Online Town Hall with Assessment Beta Testers

LAFPI: Companies will be able to take the assessment and, ideally, commit to implementing more anti-racist culture. What are the next steps after that?

Gabrielle: A huge part of all of the work we did in our last round of beta was holding office hours. Initially, Managing Director Julie and I were only there to answer technical questions. And that’s how it was for the first few days. Participants were in and out asking us questions and giving us great feedback. But about a week in, people were starting to be confronted with some pretty unsettling data. And the fact that these were numbers written out in black and white made it inescapable. There was a shift in the way office hours were happening. People were coming to visit, and vent, and seek community and validation and guidance.

This was no longer just a Q&A. We knew 2 things: the Assessment was working and more space needed to be held for these arts leaders to understand their data and create real solutions. So we went right to work on developing a facilitation program. I went to a leader in the field of Equity, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) and intimacy and begged up on her guidance and mentorship, I started taking classes and using the office hours as another study, taking every conversation home with me to decompose and explore. We also started developing practical tools, like glossaries and reflection sheets that would help folks find deeper meaning in the concepts they were encountering in the assessment. Now, I can proudly say that what comes after the work with JJI’s Assessment is a fully personalized period of reflection and facilitation guided by myself and other key members of JJI’s team. The work is so delicate and important and we are ready and eager to help unravel the stories behind the numbers and help organizations find new and bold paths forward.  

LAFPI: A huge issue that was raised this past summer was that there are theater companies that have reputations for disregarding and even allowing racist practices, as well as hiring artists who have historically exhibited severe racist behaviors. Are the results of the Assessment meant to solely inform a company about their culture and create a plan to solve it, or will the results also be used to inform outside artists?

Gabrielle: My ultimate goal with this work, once we have collected enough data, is to partner with data analysts and create a report on the macro data from the Assessment. The great thing about a study like this is that each individual theater remains anonymous. We only view the data in aggregate and are able to analyze the numbers on the whole. I think granting public access to the aggregate data – the way we do in our town halls and other online media – will really help to create transparency in our industry. I think once we have all the information and the numbers are clear, we can start getting honest and calling in organizations to make real change. The numbers of course will also help the individual organizations themselves as they will have exclusive access to their own micro data and will have a view of their personal numbers and information. This will help orgs to assess areas for improvement and create space for real and actionable change in their operations. 

LAFPI: What kind of questions can companies expect in the Assessment?

Gabrielle: We’ve tested the efficacy of this Assessment with almost every type of theater company. So we are asking questions about everything from above title billing for theaters who are Tony eligible to whether touring companies are vetting hotels and accommodations for a history of racist action. We’re asking about what Black and Indigenous texts are being used in curriculum, and whether or not there is specific language in an organization’s bylaws that outlines anti-racist policy.

There’s truly  something to be gained for every organization at every level. 

LAFPI: This Assessment, undoubtedly, is aimed to create lasting impact in theater arts culture. Once the Assessment is released and artists can start creating post-pandemic theater, what do you hope theater will look like for theater companies? For BIPOC artists?

Gabrielle: I hope theater companies will use this time to actually do the work of change in their orgs. In the span of 7 months, we’ve been able to accomplish so much. It’s honestly made me realize that there is nothing a well-teamed organization cannot do if they are truly dedicated to their cause. And that’s the thing, right? An organization has to be dedicated to the cause and not just the lip service around it. So, I hope that theaters will have really backed up all those solidarity statements with action and accountability and that they are safe for us to return to when we can.

For BIPOC artists I wish us all the comfort, peace and stability that makes it easy to be choosy.  More than anything, I’ve learned that wherever one or two are gathered, even if it’s in a Zoom room, art can be created. So, we now have this smorgasbord of opportunity in front of us. One of the questions I’ve been pondering in my own creative work is, “What are we going to do with all this future?” I hope that BIPOC artists have the means and the support to seek healing from all the compound trauma stemming from this time in our history and a lifetime of intentional othering by forces of racism and white supremacy. I hope that BIPOC artists find it within themselves to create work that speaks to their souls and sparks joy for them. I hope that Black artists, Indigenous artists, and other artists of color can finally have the space to be truly, truly free.

LAFPI: When will the Assessment be available for companies to take?

Gabrielle: The Assessment will be available to a hand selected cohort in 2021 and is preparing for wide release in 2022. JJI is currently looking for its first cohort of Full Program participants. Anyone interested in taking part in JJI’s 2021 Rollout should contact us through our website at www.joyjackson.org/theassessment

Despite the grave uncertainty American Theater is facing amidst the pandemic and the plummeting economy, one great gift theatermakers have been given is the gift of reflecting on our own internalized racism and white supremacy. There’s no doubt that the Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment will be one of many programs paving the road toward true racial equity in American Theater, so that BIPOC artists may not merely survive, but thrive in an industry that so often uses their voices. It’s not about diversity and inclusion of BIPOC people—it’s about telling stories for us, by us, and with us in mind. And that starts today.

Read More About the Release of JJI’s Racial Equity Assessment Here

Non-Resolution Resolutions

by Zury Margarita Ruiz

I stopped making New Year’s Resolutions a long time ago. I like the idea of them—aspirations are important—but they always felt a little too simplistic and therefore faulty and doomed.

But there are two non-resolution resolution-like motivations I’ve taken on, and I like them. They are considered, stable and communal, all of which I’m sure we could all use a little more of during this time.

The first of the two is… intention bracelets.

It was actually late 2019 when they came into my radar. My sister kept asking me to think of a word, an intention I had for the upcoming year, and so I took my time and thought about it. For the majority of 2019 I’d kept my head down—working a lot, volunteering almost every weekend, taking classes… I can sincerely say that I had no downtime and did very little socializing on purpose. And so, going into the next year, I wanted things to change up. I wanted to meet new people, have a social life again, not solely focus on work, go out a little more, and be more accepting of whatever comes my way. I ended up selecting the word OPEN, and my sister—being the sweetheart she is—ended up gifting me my intention bracelet for 2020.

Yes, we all know what went down in 2020, but it was always good to have a physical reminder of the intention I made at the beginning of the year. In a way, it helped ground me whenever I was feeling overwhelmed and pushed me to try to find ways to keep my intention going.

I liked it so much I decided to keep going for 2021. It’ll now be two years in a row, so… I guess it’s a tradition now.

The second non-resolution resolution-like motivation I’m taking part of I was actually invited to participate in by a dear friend I made in 2020 (yes, I met and befriended people last year like I intended to.) This particular project I am very much looking forward to.

Essentially, a friend asked us to submit either a four-step process/breakdown of a goal we’d like to thoughtfully achieve, or just words of encouragement we’d like to receive quarterly.

While this Non-Resolution has the backing that a regular resolution lacks, I still didn’t feel like there was the ONE thing I wanted to focus my energy in getting done.

Instead, I thought about what I’d want to see more of in my life for 2021 and that would be INSPIRATION, because I know that when I’m inspired I want to create. Therefore, what I decided to do was ask to receive poetry by snail mail. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. I really feel that when each of those four poems are delivered, it’s just going to make my day.

Do you have anything like this, Dear Reader—Non-Resolution Resolution-like Motivations? Or if you don’t, is this something you think you’d want to implement in your own life?

I know we’re already 12 days into this year, but I hope it’s a better one for us all and that we each find ways to keep motivated.

Happy 2021!

Wishing you all a VERY Happy New Year, full of femme-tastic creative energy and connections!

Thanks so much to Tamadhur Al-Aqeel, who reached out after she shared her hilarious HOT JOE BIDEN in our Holiday Micro-Read Hook-Up , saying she’d built upon her original 1 page and written the short piece below to say GOODBYE to 2020 and hello to all good things in 2021.

Check it out and thank you to the team of LAFPI Instigators she assembled: Director Kila Kitu and actors Julie Pasco, Nakasha Norwood and Justin Huen (an LAFPI virgin, but he’ll be back…).

Here’s to fantasies in all shapes and sizes, and the women+ artists (and allies) who make them come true!

All I Want for Christmas

If seeing is believing then all I want for Christmas is that we see…

It is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

There’s Christmas music 24 hours of the day (radio, TV, internet, on the streets, in your head, the one that you hum unconsciously).

There are Christmas lights and decorations on lawns and stoops of homes along the quietest streets and the busiest corners.

There’s anticipation in the air for some mystery and wonder.

There is a Santa Claus that lives in everyone’s heart.

Though without the means or the money, and there are miles, rules, illnesses and the pandemic that separate us from our loved ones, there is still the wish, hope and desire in our hearts and imagination to make dreams come true.

Believe.

Peace Y’All.

Painting by Tom Browning. Courtesy of Santa’s Time Off.