Losing my Dad

 

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There is something that I’ve been trying to hide that I don’t want to hide anymore. I’ve been sad. I’ve been so unbelievably sad. There’s been a gnawing hole in me every day. Losing my dad is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through since I was in my early twenties and a different kind of tragedy occurred. The difference is, I can’t disappear from the world, or drink it away, or hook up with randoms to numb the pain. I’m an adult now. I have to pay bills. I run a theatre company. People are depending on me.

While I received so much support after losing my father, grief doesn’t go away in six months. It doesn’t feel as vast now. It’s pointed. It’s honed. It attacks me with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel when it hits. The last six months are a a blur. I don’t like rain as much anymore. I don’t enjoy singing like I used to. I stopped wearing makeup. I don’t cry at sad movies. I haven’t listened to Hamilton since he died.

I was frozen to whatever spot I was in, sometimes for hours. It was hard to get out of bed…out of my house…out of my car. I spent a lot of time sitting; paralyzed, willing myself to move, knowing that I had responsibilities. Sometimes it was a triumph that I checked the mail or washed my hair or did the dishes. I was barely holding down a job. You can’t call in “sad” so you go to work and you try not to fall apart.

You try not to let on to others that you are not well, but they can tell. You break down in a client’s closet because it’s filled with men’s dress shirts. You go into a grocery store to pick up a couple things and leave 45 minutes later in tears because you couldn’t decide what you wanted…because you want nothing.

On the good days you forget to cry. You forget you ever had a father and laugh and sometimes you even feel good. And then you feel guilty. You feel so guilty. If you don’t cry for a few days you feel so guilty.

My father and I didn’t have the best relationship at the end. He was a very difficult man and he put me through a lot and towards the end I was keeping him at an arm’s length. I was worried that if I let him in, he would see how angry I was with him and I didn’t want to hurt him. And by “not hurting him” I hurt him so much more.

When I started blogging about body shaming and misogyny and lack of diversity in the theatre world my dad reached out to me with this.

Getting combative and going rouge is going to put somewhat of an ending to your efforts to make it big in the theatre. You are going to be viewed as a rabble rouser by many. I am not worried about you. You have to live your life as you see fit. But you aren’t going to change a thing. The theatre business is what it is. The people that you really want to listen to you won’t. And it’s a shame. But go ahead and try if you are feeling it this strong. We have your back and always will.

It hurt me so much. I never responded. I was furious. Now that I re-read it, I see the part that I missed. “We have your back and always will.” I wish that I had HEARD that. Because of this email, I didn’t want to share my new theatre company that I was launching with him. He’d ask me how it was going and I’d just say, “fine,” not wanting to share that part of my life.

He knew I was depressed after getting off the national tour of Sister Act. He knew I felt like my theatre community had forgotten me. I couldn’t even get a callback at The Marriott for Sister Act, the very same show I had just done for a year. The same doors that had always been closed to me hadn’t budged an inch. I was bitter and sad and angry.

I could never hide what I was feeling from my father so I would avoid him. I didn’t want him to know. I shut him out. I turned off all emotion when he would try to talk to me. I turned cold. He was trying to connect with me. He knew he was nearing the end, even if I didn’t.  I was so pissed at everything he’d put me through in the last 5 years that I refused. I have to live with that. I have to live with the fact that he died suddenly and  alone. I have to live with the fear that he died feeling unloved. Our last conversation was a battle over Trump and Hillary. We raged at each other, but calmed down at the end. The one thing I hold onto for dear life is that my last words to him were “I love you daddy.”

I was in rehearsal when I found out. I looked down at my phone. My mother and brothers were trying to get ahold of me. I saw the words “he couldn’t keep anything down…he died…” I threw the phone on the floor. I knew it was my dad even though my grandpa is ninety-six. I remember someone asked me what was wrong. I remember them hugging me. I think I cried? I remember going to the bathroom and sitting on the floor. I talked to my mom. I called Eric. He told me to come home. I tried to return to rehearsal but they had me go home after giving me a hug parade. I called Danni on the drive home. I called Kate to tell her I didn’t think I could work the next day.

I went to Virginia. I dealt with my one brother raging, my mother deflecting, my other brother trying to have a stiff upper lip. I watched my tough brothers sob while they gave their eulogies for my father and I sang for him without a tear or a catch in my throat. I saw my brother eye me suspiciously, like I wasn’t having a strong enough reaction. I held my other brother’s hand like it was a lifeline, turning purple from the tension, while he sobbed next to me as I sat there blank and numb.

At my mom’s house, we laughed, we reminisced, my brothers picked me up and tossed me back and forth like I was a rag doll. We cooked and did jigsaw puzzles. There was life in that house for the first time in a long time. But when I was alone I broke down. I chewed xanax like candy.

I came home and opened a show a day later, and launched a theatre company, and produced a benefit, and opened another show, and produced another benefit, and opened another show, and produced another benefit…and now I’m getting ready to open another show. I’m in pre-production for two more benefits. I’m in pre-production for my theatre company’s first season. It’s only been six months. And I’m trying to hold it all together. And I am succeeding, but I haven’t taken care of myself in a long time.

I have to start forgiving myself. I have to forgive myself for not forgiving my dad before he died. Sigh. It’s complicated. I forgive him now. And I know he would forgive me. He always did.

I also have to forgive myself for not having it together this past 6 months. I know I’ve let some of you down. I know I’ve said I would do some things and then didn’t do them. I’ve quit jobs, missed callbacks, skipped appointments, not got back to people. And I am sorry, but I also forgive myself. I’ve been barely functioning living a high-functioning life. And it’s been hard. And I have to give myself a break.

I don’t regret having an imperfect relationship with my father. What makes me sad is that I didn’t have more time to be imperfect. More cold stares, and rash outbreaks, and difficult talks, and messy holidays, and hugs, and long talks, and movies with him, and exploring the world. More of all of it. I don’t wish it hadn’t been messy. We fought and struggled so much because we loved each other. Because we wanted to get through to each other. We wanted to understand each other. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I treasure every complicated and unpleasant moment with him because I still spent it with HIM. I would love to have a fight with him right now. Or a hug. Or both.

The main thing you realize when you are going through deep grief is that you are not the first person to feel this way. Almost everyone you know has lost someone. We are all suffering, sometimes silently sometimes not. It’s a shocking revelation. It doesn’t make sense. It feels so insurmountable that surely no one else is feeling this too. But they are. And everyone grieves differently. There is no rulebook. The 12 steps of grief is bullshit. There are no steps. There is no method. You just get through it as best you can and put one foot in front of the other. And love the life you’re given for as long as you’re given it. And that’s all.

I will love and miss my dad forever. And it’s heartbreaking, but oddly comforting that this feeling will never go away. I wouldn’t want it to. I want it to still hurt when I’m 80. The pain feels good because it means there was love. And no one can take that away from me.

 

Wake Up Calls

Do-the-best-you-can-until-you-know-better.-Then-when-you-know-better-do-better.

“Stop making your POC friends be your 101 class because we are getting exhausted.”

-Deanna Myers

This was a plea from an artist of color at a recent town hall held to discuss the casting crisis we find ourselves in in Chicago theatre. Recently there have been a number of scandals in the Chicagoland area about white actors being cast in latinx roles. The most recent one being the casting of a white Usnavi in Porchlight Music Theatre company’s production of In the Heights. Many of my brilliant, hardworking, empathetic friends who are artists of color are getting bombarded with requests and demands for clarity on the issues of inclusivity, diversity, erasure, and authentic casting. They are completely worn out and understandably frustrated.

Well, I am of the belief that it isn’t their job to educate us white folk on how all this works. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reach out and learn from and more importantly COLLABORATE with artists of color to gain better understanding. What I’m saying is…do as much research and learn as much on your own before you do so. You wouldn’t jump straight to an advanced class on a topic you know nothing about, right?

Before I get into it, I have to apologize. I am one of the ones who has stayed quiet about the Porchlight controversy. This one hit close to home. Some very close friends and collaborators are involved. I truly thought they had made an unfortunate, unintentional mistake that they couldn’t walk back from by casting a white Usnavi that they thought was Latino. I assumed that everyone had learned their lesson, that this was a wake-up call for the actor, and that it would NEVER happen again with those on the artistic team.

And more than that, POC members of the cast had reached out to me telling me that they were having an authentic experience. Who was I, as a white woman, to tell them that they weren’t? To take that experience that they were excited about away from them? So I stayed quiet watching it escalate and escalate. Every time I thought that it had passed, it reached a boiling point again. It is my privilege that allowed me to sit back and “wait for the storm to pass,” justifying to myself that I had spoken out on many other scandals and many other issues and that I’d just sit this one out. I was silent because I felt like to speak up would betray my friends. But what I’ve realized is, to not speak up is to betray my community. Being woke is a constant job and we can’t be lazy or we’ll fall back asleep. Also, I think I can help. I have a somewhat unique perspective. I’m a white woman who has more experience with authentic and inclusive casting than most.

The first thing I’d like to talk about are the various wake-up calls that I’ve had while casting. The first one happened on my very first casting gig. Bailiwick Chicago was casting Aida and I had my eyes set on the role of Amneris. I emailed the director and the casting director telling them that I would love to audition for Amneris, but that if they didn’t see me in the role I would love to help with casting. Casting had always been a bit of a fascination with me and I cast things in my head all the time.

They told me that they were going in a different direction with the show but that I could help with casting admin. under the tutelage of Lili-Anne Brown. I heard through the grapevine that the “different direction” was that they were going to try to employ a full POC cast. I felt a tiny bitterness raise up, they wouldn’t even let me try for the role because I was white? Wasn’t that taking things a little too literally? We started casting and that sentiment felt foolish. I was dead wrong.

Aida is set in AFRICA. Which I knew of course, but up to that point the show had been traditionally cast with the Nubians played by black actors and the Egyptians cast as white. I never questioned it. It had never dawned on me that it wasn’t appropriate to cast white people as the Egyptians. It slowly became OBVIOUS that this was the way to go. Watching Lil cast the show and watching how the actors fulfilled these lead roles better than any white actors ever could was eye-opening. The story was so much more powerful cast in an authentic way. Bailiwick Chicago also hired Deeply Rooted Dance Theater to choreograph the show. It was beautiful and was a huge success, selling out and extending. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and I learned that there are some stories that aren’t yours to tell.

My love affair/obsession with authentic, inclusive casting was born. Lil and I worked together casting many shows after that and when she became artistic director of Bailiwick Chicago, I took over casting. My first job was casting Mahal, a play by Danny Bernardo. This was my second wake-up call.

Mahal is about a Filipino family. I had seen the reading of it and I loved it so much. I was honored to cast it and determined to get it right. I called in everyone I could think of that might be of Asian decent. Thank goodness I had Danny on call helping me along the way. There were a couple of close calls where I almost called in someone completely inappropriate. There was a WHITE GIRL that almost fooled me. To be fair she almost fooled Danny too. That headshot was crazy. Anyway, I realized that I was completely uneducated, not only in what our Asian-American Chicago theatre talent and resources were, but in (I’m ashamed to say) being able to differentiate between different types of Asian actors.

I could have hidden behind my ignorance and been afraid to ask questions. But I didn’t do that. I had two Filipinos in the casting room and I leaned on them heavily and they had the patience of saints while I negotiated my way through the casting process. And we put together a beautiful cast, where the entire Filipino family was played by Filipinos. This would not have happened without having Filipino artists in the room.

One thing about me. Trade secrets! When I’m casting, I choose my battles. There’s usually one casting choice that I feel passionately about where I will devote all my energy and advocate strongly for that actor. I was leaning toward a non-Filipino actor that I loved for one of the roles and it was the role I had decided to fight for. So I dug my heels in a bit, trying to make headway in the discussion. Danny turned to me and the director and told us in the nicest way possible that it wouldn’t be authentic and might be borderline offensive to a Filipino audience. And it dawned on me. I hadn’t thought about them. Not once. Not for a second. I hadn’t considered the audience. And the actor we cast instead of my pick was absolutely brilliant AND authentic. I was dead wrong.

After Mahal, Lil and I got into a rhythm. When the show called for authentic casting, we made sure to cast appropriately, even if it took extra effort. When race wasn’t a major part of the plot, we would strive for as inclusive a cast as possible, re-purposing roles that were traditionally cast as white for actors of color. These two practices I have carried with me into every project I work on.

I’ve had many more discoveries and wake-up calls along the way. I am constantly learning and constantly trying to do better the next time. In the end, I am still a white woman advocating for actors of color in the casting room. I try to be a good ally. And I am a big ole fan of our rich embarrassment of riches when it comes to actors of color in Chicago and I try to spread my enthusiasm to those around me in positions of authority. But hear me. I am a great part of the team but… HAVING ME IN THE ROOM IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR HAVING AN ARTIST OF COLOR IN THE PROCESS.

I know this is all really confusing. I know that things are changing really quickly and it’s hard to keep up. I know that you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Hell. I’M afraid of saying the wrong thing most of the time. I know that people are having strong reactions to casting situations that didn’t seem to be a problem a couple years ago. The goal post is moving farther and farther away and getting more and more specific with what is acceptable and what isn’t and you might feel lost.

Start with those two practices. Go back to the text every single time. Pour over the script. Does it call for a certain non-white race in the script? Is that integral to the plot? Cast it that way. It is no longer acceptable not to. Is race ambiguous or not integral to the plot? Find opportunities for inclusivity. Every project is an opportunity to cast in a way that looks like the world around us. Broaden your mind past our preconceived notions to include actors of color, more women, different body types, trans actors, disabled actors, etc. It will enrich your shows. It will enrich the experience. More of the audience will see themselves on stage. It can change the world. We literally have the power to change the world if we just move past the discomfort of having to admit we’re wrong.

That’s what we need to do. I confess, I think I’m right most of the time. But when I’m proven wrong, I will admit it. For the white actor playing Usnavi to respond to the question of whether he’d do this all again with, “one hundred percent. I now stand more firmly in my own beliefs than I did before all this,” is insanely disheartening. Up until that point I thought as a community we were making progress; that we were getting through to people. How this young man could watch the same town hall that I watched and not want to do better next time is beyond frustrating. I REALLY hope that that quote was taken out of context. I’d like to see the paragraph it belongs in. Because if that’s IT, then this experience which could be a serious wake-up moment for this actor has gone to waste.

Up until this point I had chalked it up to youth on his part. I mean… I thought it was appropriate to do a monologue from MEDEA when I was 15. I was always a little dark, kids. Anyway, my point is…we do dumb shit when we’re young before we know any better. I really wanted to give him a pass. How would he know this is inappropriate? In college we are taught to audition for anything and everything and not take no for an answer. He’s straight out of school. This was his mess up. We all get one, right? But you have to LEARN from it. You have to grow. That’s the whole point of making mistakes is that the next time we don’t make the same mistakes. And what is becoming glaringly obvious is there are many that don’t think anything is wrong.

So how do we move forward? As artists? As a community? When so many have put so much work in and still can’t reach someone? We keep trying to change hearts and minds and stay available for those that want to learn and change.

But if that doesn’t work? I have faith in what’s new. I have faith in the changing of the guard. I do hope that the established theaters in town come along for the ride, but in the meantime those of us that can’t let the status quo continue will be making our own art. We are going to be casting in rooms with people who are just as excited about inclusion and authenticity as we are. We won’t have to convince people through shame and threats of poor optics to be on the right side of history. Because there is an army of like-minded people who are coming up right now. Literally none of us are doing this for the money. None of us. But we are passionate and we are loud and we will not be denied. If we can’t change the old guard we’ll create a new one.

My time at Profiles

I worked at Profiles for two years. While there I was an actor, assisted with casting, and assistant directed three productions. I had heard the same rumors everyone else heard before I got cast in Sweet and Sad. I decided to make up my own mind, knowing that if something inappropriate began to occur I would be out of there right away. “I’m tough,” I thought. “I’m a Navy girl. I know how to handle myself. I’ll be fine.” My friends warned me to watch out for Darrell. Some even said things like, “don’t sleep with him even though you’ll want to.” I laughed all of this off. That’s a normal warning that girls give other girls that are starting a show with a womanizer. “Don’t sleep with (fill in the blank).” It’s such a common thing to hear.

My first day of rehearsal I met this infamous ladies man.  We got along great. I was never attracted to him, but I loved acting with him. He would look at you with this crazy passion in his eyes and send all this energy your way. He gave you so much on stage. I lapped it up and gave it right back. It was intoxicating.

My time at Profiles was a happy one filled with what seemed to be mutual respect and understanding. The company members were my friends, confidants, and artistic collaborators. It was my artistic home. I loved the realistic style of acting. I loved staying after the show in the dressing room and talking til the wee hours of the night about how we can make a certain moment better. There were notes after every show and I LOVED it. Nothing was ever good enough for us. It could always be better. I strove for that perfection.

It was a boys club, sure. I had to dance around some egos, sure. But what woman in the theatre…in LIFE…doesn’t have to figure out how to dance around some male egos? Or so I thought at the time. I began to pride myself in how I could trick them into thinking something was their idea, when it was really mine. And even if I didn’t always get the credit, the show was better for it. I felt important and needed and like a true collaborator. Other members of the ensemble would say that Darrell and Joe treated me differently than other women, that they actually treated me like an equal. I wore that like a badge of honor. I felt so inspired and included that I knew I had to find a way to stay. So I assistant directed the next show, and the show after that.

I reached a point where I simply didn’t believe the rumors. My experience was a better test of the truth than some rumors that I had never heard substantiated, right? Any time I had heard any allegations it always happened to “a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.” It didn’t seem credible. They laughed off the rumors at Profiles too. I heard stories about crazy ex-girlfriends and ex-wives.

I moved on from Profiles because after spending almost a year assistant directing their shows, I wanted to act again. I went back to doing musicals. I did a national tour. I wouldn’t say we lost touch, but we didn’t keep in touch either.

Last year while I was still on tour, I saw the original post on Facebook where “not in our house” was coined. I knew from the comments that they were talking about Profiles and WHO they were talking about at Profiles. I was disturbed, but I brushed it off. Surely those men who were all in steady relationships, never partied, barely drank, that I constantly teased that they were “SO boring”…surely they couldn’t be the same men in these salacious stories, could they?

I pulled my car over to the side of the road last night and read the article in The Reader about the pattern of abuse at Profiles. I read all 12,000+ words. After I read it, I sat in my car for an hour before going home. I felt numb. I started shaking. The thought that there were women who had nightmares about a place that used to feel like home to me was a hard thing for me to accept.  When I got home my brain was still desparately grasping for ways to defend my old colleagues. My roommate stopped me and said, “I don’t understand why you’re being devil’s advocate about this. It really surprises me.” I stopped. It surprised me too. I’m an activist for women’s rights. I run a theatre company celebrating women. Why was I clinging to the last bit of hope that these stories weren’t true?

Because they were my friends. Because they were my heroes. Because they inspired me. They made me feel like a true artist. Because I learned more about acting and directing there than anywhere. Because I’m PROUD of the work we did there. Because it is literally breaking my heart to say #notinourhouse about Profiles because I know it means accepting the truth. But I must say it. Because it’s inexcusable. It’s intollerable. NOT IN OUR FUCKING HOUSE. Just because it didn’t happen to me doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

And you know what? It DID happen to me. Not at Profiles. But it DID happen to me. It happened when a director tried to sleep with me after the very first rehearsal. It happened when a celebrated older actor showed up to a show, took one look at me, and said “mine” and then him and his friend tried to get me drunk at a cast party and take advantage of me that night. It happened when a director cast himself in the show so he could “make out with me.” Talk to a woman who was young in the theatre. Just pick one at random. Chances are it’s happened or is HAPPENING to her. And don’t exclude young gay males being targeted by older male directors! They are just as vulnerable.

It’s happened to most of us. This is not a union thing. It’s happening in non-equity theatres and in equity theatres alike. It’s happening with some of the most respected names in the community. This is not even a Chicago thing. Or a Theatre thing. This is the culture of our society. This is the mess we have to dismantle. This does not begin or end with Profiles.

But Profiles is definitely culpable. I know that now. I think what hurts me the most is that I wasn’t just an actor at Profiles, I was in a position of some authority. I was supposed to protect those actors. I thought I was. I thought I had their backs. I was so proud of them. Some of them affectionately called me “mama.” It makes me sick to my stomach. When I look back now I can see possible little warning signs that I brushed aside at the time. And things are starting to come to the surface. Things I didn’t know. I was too wrapped up in my own artistic experience to pay attention.

To the casts of Hellcab 2012, Dream of the Burning Boy, and Hellcab 2013: I’m so sorry. I’m sorry if you needed protecting and I didn’t protect you. Anything you need, I am here for you now. I vow to spend the rest of my career making sure actors who work for me feel safe. Thank you for listening.

Harmony

 

If you are experiencing inappropriate behavior in your show, with a colleague, or at a a theatre please reach out to NotInOurHouse.

What if Musical Theatre was Made for Women?

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Photo by: Heather Stumpf

It’s time for Feminism and Musical Theatre to get in bed together.

A while ago I read Michael Riedel’s New York Post article, “A feminist war is being waged at Broadway’s Waitress,” about how the creative team behind Broadway’s Waitress is letting their feminism cloud their judgment regarding the production. Waitress has Broadway’s first all-female creative team. It’s the story of a woman from a small town who is stuck in an abusive marriage, who expresses herself by baking creative pies. I was lucky enough to see the pre-Broadway production, starring Tony Award-winner Jessie Mueller, at the American Repertory Theater this past Fall. Full disclosure: I loved the show and Jessie is a friend. So, I’m biased.

I hated Riedel’s article. Besides the obvious snark and condescension that the article was dripping with, the thing that disturbed me most was Riedel’s last statement: “Let’s leave domestic violence to Tennessee Williams and David Mamet.” This got my blood boiling. Are women not allowed to tell difficult stories from a woman’s point of view? Is musical theatre not allowed to cover real-life topics? Do we have to leave that to the “serious” male playwrights? Can musical theatre not have a message–and may women not be the purveyors of that message? This article helped illuminate the inequity and, frankly, the intolerance of women in musical theatre.

There are more female actors than there are male in musical theatre and fewer roles, and not by a little. The ratio of male to female roles in musical theatre is shockingly unbalanced. Even some of the great iconic roles in the musical theatre cannon: Evita, Aldonza, and Mary Magdalene (in Evita, Man of La Mancha, and Jesus Christ Superstar respectively), are in shows where almost every other role is played by a man. Musicals that are heavily cast with women, like Nine or Company, may give a lot of female actors work, but the show is still all about the man.

Women are also grossly underrepresented behind the scenes. In my hometown of Chicago there are only a handful of female directors, music directors, technicians, and musicians who are regularly employed by our hundreds of theaters.

What is even more scarce than behind-the-scenes representation is the amount of musicals written by women being produced in theaters across the country. According to the latest findings by The Kilroys’ List, 22% of the plays produced in America are written by women. How many musicals produced in America are written by women? I don’t know. There is no data collected, but I do know it’s less…much less. Can you name even ten female composers or librettists? How about five?

And it doesn’t end there. Logically, it would make sense that if we are putting up shows that are tailored to men, written by men, about men, directed by men, and cast with mostly men, then men must be our largest audience demographic, right? NOPE. Not even close. 68% of the Broadway audiences were women in 2014-2015. Sixty-eight percent. It doesn’t even make good business sense to tailor specifically to men.

With all of this in mind and with my recent statements about my dissatisfaction with non-inclusive casting, I started Firebrand Theatre with my most trusted colleague, Danni Smith. Firebrand is a musical theatre company committed to employing and empowering women by expanding their opportunities on and off the stage. That’s our mission statement. We are the first feminist musical theatre company in the world, and that gross article by Mr. Riedel reinforced the importance of a company like Firebrand and how far we still have to go for equality in our chosen art form.

When Danni and I decided to embark on this journey together, I did some research: I did an online search of “feminist musical theatre.” Do you know what showed up? Nothing. Nada. Naught. Zilch. Zero. Zip. There are a few articles, and there is a book you can buy on Amazon. But, actual theatre companies that only do musicals with a feminist or women-centric mission? None. I began to get really angry. Why wasn’t this a thing? Why is there this huge void? And more importantly, why had I just accepted that this was the way things are for the last 15 years of my career?

So how do Danni and I plan to fix this? The first thing is very simple: We hire more women. We just hire them for pete’s sake. We hire female directors, music directors, casting directors, choreographers, musicians, lighting designers, sound designers, costume designers, and so on. How do we expect a woman’s point of view to be celebrated when everyone crafting that point of view is a man?

Firebrand will pick shows that showcase women rather than marginalize them. Will this be easy? No. I applied the Bechdel test to every musical I could think of and the results are depressing at best. And in my opinion, passing the Bechdel test should be the bare minimum. There is some really good material out there: Anything by Michael John LaChiusa or Jeanine Tesori passes every feminist test I throw at it with flying colors. Traditional material can also be re-imagined to fit our criteria. We are going to go back to the text every single time to see what it requires; We will not just do what has always been done.

Even with existing material that features women prominently, and even with creative re-imagining of shows that could be made to do so, the options will run out because, sadly, musical theatre is even more behind the times than non-musical theatre. The barrier breaking shows on Broadway right now–Hamilton, Fun Home, Waitress, etc.–will not trickle down to the regional market for many years to come. So we remain behind the times, and we don’t want to wait for these titles to be available; We want change now.

So, the biggest thing we are going to do to combat this problem is to add to the canon. At Firebrand we will be commissioning new musicals that fit our criteria of both employing and empowering women–New works will have to pass the Bechdel test and the Firebrand Test.

The Firebrand Test:
In this work, there are at least as many women as men in the cast, it lends itself to inclusive, diverse casting, and it empowers women.

And just so we’re clear, we love men and we want to employ them too. We just want to tell stories that celebrate men and women in service of evening the field. Our ideal scenario is that one day we won’t have to use the term “feminist musical theatre.” One day it will just be “musical theatre.” That day is not today.

So I would like to invite Mr. Riedel and others who share his views to embrace feminist musical theatre; It will make for more interesting storytelling when women in musicals play something other than “the virgin,” “the whore,” “the mother,” or “the hag.” It will make our art form all the richer when we are representing everyone’s point of view.

Is this something you can get behind? Do you think musical theatre could use a makeover? If so, I invite you to donate to Firebrand Theatre below. We want to change the face of musical theatre and we want you to be part of that movement.

DONATE HERE

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I went viral, and this is what happened.

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(Photo by Heather Stumpf Popio)

It started as a facebook status and it ended up in Huffington Post, the New York Times, and the London Mirror. This is what I learned from going viral.

A couple weeks ago I wrote a Facebook status that I also shared on my BLOG. In a nutshell, my blog was about all the nasty feedback I’ve received being a normal-sized woman who is an actress in the theatre world. I went on to to demand a call to action for diversifying casting in theatre for different races, body types, genders, etc. Finally, I proclaimed that I will no longer change myself to conform to an industry ideal, because I’m happy with myself just the way I am. You can read the original blog HERE.

1) DON’T PUT ANYTHING ON FACEBOOK THAT YOU DON’T WANT THE ENTIRE WORLD TO SEE.

Everyone has always said this, and I never paid much attention. But I now know that this is very very true. PLEASE HEED MY WARNING! Is your post something you don’t want your family to see? Your spouse? Your boss? Don’t. Post. It. It doesn’t matter how many privacy controls you have on it. I had my post extremely protected and it still went viral so quickly that I couldn’t control it. My friends encouraged me to make it public because the topic was striking a chord with so many. So, I made it PUBLIC. After that, it spread like wildfire. My blog was getting hundreds of views per minute, thousands of views per hour. Everyone I’ve ever met started messaging me, texting me, emailing me, calling me, tagging me, sharing my post. I had to turn off my notifications to everything on my phone because it was BLOWING UP and I was getting really overwhelmed. Which leads me to…

2) GOING VIRAL IS LIKE BEING ON DRUGS.

For a couple days I tried to respond to everyone that was contacting me. I watched my website stats exploding. I would hit refresh every couple minutes and the amount of views kept spiking. It was unbelievable and so thrilling. In my personal life however, I could barely string two sentences together. I was so overstimulated. I got distracted by everything. I retreated from being social. I felt like I was in a hyperactive daze. Scientists have said that a “like” on facebook releases dopamine into our brains. It’s that little rush of pleasure when someone “likes” your post. Imagine what thousands of “likes” an hour feels like. I’ve never done it, but I’m guessing it’s what being on cocaine feels like. I had to retreat into my bedroom and hide under the covers for a few days until my heart stopped racing.

3) SUDDEN ATTENTION BRINGS OUT THE GOOD…

In the midst of all of these stressors, I received the greatest show of support I’ve ever received in my life. Friends from all walks of life reconneced with me and said they were proud of me. Colleagues, mentors, family members, fellow actors, directors, casting directors, artistic directors, my fellow Navy veterans, and people I went to highschool with, all reached out to me and were so unbelievably supportive. The kindness of friends and strangers took my breath away. I was brought to tears by their own testimonies and their own experiences. I actually felt that for a moment, I was helping people and making the world the tiniest bit better.

4) THE BAD…

While the response was mostly positive, this kind of sudden attention also brings out the nasty side of people, even in friends. When I mentioned on Facebook that the attention I was getting was overwhelming, I was ridiculed by some. I heard I was “milking it for all it’s worth.” One of my friends made a good-natured Facebook status making fun of me, and a hundred people liked it. Many of those people are my friends. Some were there to laugh with me, but many were there to laugh AT me. I tried to take it all in stride.

5) …AND THE UGLY.

When a woman posts strong opinions online, the internet thinks she is fair game for abuse. It was so strange seeing pure strangers saying awful things about my intelligence, my talent, my body, and my agenda. Men were messaging me disgusting, derogatory, and explicitly sexual things and posting threatening messages on Facebook.

6)  IT DOESN’T LAST.

In this instant gratification society that we are living in, our attention span is very short. People will move on to the next viral sensation in a few days, if not a few hours. Make sure you’re checking your filtered messages on Facebook. That’s where I received messages about being interviewed, being on the radio, and participating in some podcasts. And this is my advice if your blog suddenly goes viral. PUT ADS ON YOUR SITE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  I didn’t do this right away, because it didn’t cross my mind until a couple of days after my blog had already reached its peak of views, but if I had I could’ve made a little bit of money. And hey, I’m a starving artist. Every little bit helps A LOT.

 

Overall, despite some nasty side effects, it really was a very positive and cool experience. If I had it to do again, I would stress about it a little less, I would not sit like a crazy person and hit refresh for a day watching blog stats spike. I would accept the positive feedback without second guessing it. Of course hindsight is 20/20. Going viral was never on my bucket list. It wasn’t something I was striving for. It just happened. Anyway, I know how to deal with it all now. And if something like this ever happens again, I’ll be ready.🙂

Do Better

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(Photo by Joe Mazza at Brave Lux)
I’m a stage actor based in Chicago. I’ve been a working actor for ten years. I have been very lucky in my career in many ways. I have worked with and for incredible people. I have also heard this:
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-“You really need to lose some weight if you want a career.”
-“You won’t work until you’re forty, because you’re never going to play the love interest, but after that you’ll work a lot.”
-“You would need to lose twenty pounds for the role.”
-“You’re not believable as a love interest.”
-“You should really wear more makeup, and show your cleavage more.”
-“We can work with your body type, but if you are serious about this career you need to have your nose and teeth fixed.”
-“You don’t have a commercial body type.”
-“They told us you were smaller.”
-“I mean, you’re good-looking, but you’re not beautiful.
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There is more. There is so much more. This is just a sample. For the last ten years I have been conditioned by my industry to hate my body.
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Not all of the above things were said with malice. Most of those individuals thought they were helping or didn’t even realize they had said something inappropriate. Some of them WERE helping, and did help me land a role I wanted. It doesn’t change the fact that I, an average-sized woman have dealt with so much sizeism and sexism in one of the last industries where you can discriminate against someone because of how they look. And if I’ve dealt with it, I know others have and that some have it worse, way worse.
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The statement that bothers me the most is “you’re not believable as a love interest,” because it’s a damn shame. I have played the love interest before. Being believably in love with another human on stage just happens to be my specialty. (Also, I take issue with the term “love interest.” Men are never referred to in that way, even if the woman is the lead. But that’s a different fight for a different day.) Am I not right for the particular love story you’re telling? Great. But to say that I am not right to ever love on stage EVER? Horseshit.
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I just did the casting for a local Equity musical and we saw all types of women for the female lead. Three of the women called back for the role  that weren’t the typical “love-interest type” actually thanked us for seeing them for a role they would never normally be seen for. I’m so glad that it made them happy, but I’m so upset that this is an anomaly. We need to do better by them. We need to be braver. Those of us who affect casting decisions need to be as brave as the actors bearing their souls in front of us.
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So how do we change the game? Artistic directors, casting directors, directors, anyone involved with casting…we have to do better. Not for me; I’m fine. I have become less interested in being a “cog in the machine” and more interested in becoming a part of the solution. But we need to do better for those who come after me.
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We NEED to diversify. If you are involved in the producing process, ask yourself, “Does my show have specific plot points related to race?” No? Then you should think about looking outside the caucasian race. “Does my show have specific references to body type?” No? Then you should be open to other body types. “Are there some roles in my show that could possibly be re-allocated for women to play?” Yes? Then think about switching the genders of those roles. And don’t forget the trans community, the disabled community, the community that brings you into a new perspective.  Be Actively Inclusive.
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And, don’t expect these different groups to just show up, seek them out, invite them, include them. Do your due diligence and make your company one they feel welcomed to be a part of. It’s worth the extra work.
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Theatres wonder how to stay relevant; how not to die off once their main audience literally dies off. This is how. We need to start casting in a way that looks like the world that we live in. Casting predominantly white and male is antiquated. It doesn’t fly anymore. If we don’t change with the times, we will become irrelevant. And worse, it’s UNCREATIVE in a CREATIVE art form. We have so many more types of stories to tell with so many more different types of people. Let’s do better.
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And as for me?  I’m taking my body back from this industry. It hasn’t been mine for 10 years. I will no longer lose weight for you. I will no longer try to mold myself into what I think you want me to look like. I will no longer starve myself for a quick weight loss to please you. I will no longer change myself in any way for YOU. When I take all the pressure to change myself away and I take all the negative feedback away, I realize that I actually like myself. When I stop worrying that if I speak my mind people will not like me or worse…DUN DUN DUN…they won’t CAST ME, I like myself A WHOLE LOT. This is my New Year declaration.
 
 
 
 

New Dreams

I have one more day at home before flying down to Sarasota, FL to continue the Sister Act tour. Today is New Years Day. Today is supposed to be the day that you start anew. You’re supposed to come up with things that you want to change. You choose your resolutions. I’ve been thinking about that for a couple of days now. The thing is, I can’t think of any. Is that weird? Let me explain. No. My life isn’t perfect. Of course I want to be more patient, nicer, thinner, wear makeup, give someone the time of day, save more money, be more active, be able to fly to the moon, travel to Hawaii, etc.

I guess that resolutions are kind of merging in my brain with goals and dreams. It’s all the same thing for me right now. And for the first time in a long time, I have NO IDEA what I want. None. Zilch. Nada. Clueless. This started to become apparent the other day. On Facebook there is a thing going around where you name your top 5 musical theater roles.  I got tagged, and I was so excited. I love talking about my favorite roles! Evita! Fantine! Elphaba! Aldonza! Every fallen woman that’s every been written in the cannon!

For some reason, I had a hard time putting these roles down that I’ve been obsessed with since I was a teenager. I wasn’t excited about it. I thought about my favorite roles that I’ve played…Mother in Ragtime, Emma in Tell me on a Sunday, Lou Ellen in Oh Boy, Violet in Violet, and Ruth in Dessa Rose. What do all those roles have in common? I had no idea they existed. I didn’t grow up dreaming about playing them. They were all a complete surprise and my biggest theatrical blessings. I had no pre-conceived notions of how to play these roles, or expectation of what these roles could be.

I ended up making up my own musicals: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as Clementine, Battlestar Galactica as Starbuck, Hillary Clinton as Hillary, Mists of Avalon as Morgan Le Fay, and Queen Elizabeth as Elizabeth. The thought of playing THESE roles put an unquenchable fire in my heart. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be honored and thrilled to play my girlhood dream roles.  What I’m saying is that I have new dreams. Dreams that I don’t even know what they are yet. Dreams of the  unknown.

I wrote up a 5-year plan a couple of New Years ago. It included theaters I wanted to work at, accolades I wanted to receive, certain agencies I wanted to represent me, etc. Through the years, no matter what things I achieved, part of me has been unhappy because I haven’t been ticking off enough of the goals on that list.

This year I have no list. I have never in my life been more uncertain about what the year ahead holds for me. I don’t know where in the World I will be. So much is up in the air right now. I’m going to let the chips fall where they may. A couple of months ago I was really stressed out about all of the uncertainty that I’m facing this year. And now? I’m not. I don’t know what happened. Part of it was listing my favorite roles. Who knew a Facebook fad could illuminate my life so much for me? Ridiculous.

I don’t know what’s coming and more importantly, for the first time ever, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to plan. I don’t want to make lists. That works for some people. It doesn’t for me. My life has never followed the typical road, so why on earth did I think my career would? I face this year ready. Ready for it all. If you told me this time last year, that I would be on a National Tour DANCING and singing, I would have laughed in your face. I hope that a year from now, I am doing something equally bizarre. But I won’t be laughing at it this time. I welcome it.

Happy New Year my friends!

Painted-heartHarmony

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