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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Catching up

I’ve been trying to figure out how to catch up with my blog succinctly, without leaving anything out. And the fact of the matter is, I can’t. The nature of this tour is that it has A LOT of one-nighters. It happens too quick to keep up with it. Some of my castmates have been excellent about taking pictures at every venue and logging every restaurant we eat at for future reference. I have not.

It gets overwhelming trying to keep up with it all. Also, with all of the injustices happening in the world in the last couple of months, it’s hard to want to talk about things that seem frivolous, like theater or that I had honey butter on my corn muffin in Knoxville. Especially when in the very same town square that I enjoyed that corn muffin, and did my joy-filled show, during the Christmas Parade there was a civil rights protest.

I’ve been shocked and a little paralyzed by all of the atrocities that have occurred in the last couple of months. The positive take-away that I see is that a generation that has been blasted as being apathetic, lazy, and ineffective has taken to the streets to lie down with their fellow man in die-ins, to shout, to debate, to educate, to blog, and yes to fight for justice.

This is the digital age and you can’t hide anymore. You can’t sweep an awful crime under the rug. It will be exposed, and we are watching. This brilliant, passionate, and EFFECTIVE generation is watching and we won’t stand for it.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a musical about singing nuns. I sometimes feel like what I’m doing doesn’t matter. I have to remind myself, that anything that brings as much joy as our show brings is a good thing. We do provide a service that is grossly needed. We are joy makers.

So, I’m sitting here at a cafe in Wausau, WI watching it snow outside the window, listening to Christmas music, and writing to you. This is what I can tell you. Things are easier for me this leg of the tour. Our schedule is a LITTLE nicer, but mostly it’s that I know what this is now. I know its blessings and its trappings. I know how to pack, what to eat, how much things cost, and my body is finally conditioned enough to do this show without falling over.

I’m looking forward to my Christmas break next week. It’s no secret that Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday, but that may be turning around a bit. I can’t wait to see my family and I feel so much more thankful than normal this year. To have this job…yes, but mostly I’m thankful to have my health, to have my family and friends, and to be alive. None of this is guaranteed. As a close friend of mine quoted a friend of ours who lost his life recently in a battle with cancer, there is “no time for fear.”

I love you friends. Have a beautiful holiday. I will be back after the New Year. A LOT of Florida in the next leg of the tour, so hopefully there will be a lot of pictures of fun in the sun!

Painted-heartHarmony

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I’m a Racist

I used to shoplift. For fun. And to get a thrill and pretend I was a bad girl. I stole A LOT. I grew out of it. I never would have had the chance to grow out of it if I’d been shot 12 times. But that wasn’t my experience. I was a young, pretty white girl. My experience is that after I was arrested, they called my dad and inappropriately flirted with me for 3 hours (I was 14) until he got there. I was released without so much as a slap on the wrist. And I think I was grounded for two weeks. There is no record of it, except for this testimony, which I wouldn’t be able to give you if I’d been shot 12 times.

I have 5 black nephews growing up in Alabama. Would they get the same treatment as I for a similar crime? No. They wouldn’t. I’m scared for them. I’m scared for my beautiful friends who have and will again be racially profiled. I pray that when they do, because it is inevitable in this society that it will occur again, that everyone has cool heads and no one is hurt.

A young black man followed me home tonight, asked to be let into my gate, and when I refused, he stayed out there for 20 more minutes before he left. I was afraid. He has been there before. And of course I would’ve been afraid if a white man had done this too. But, I saw a black man walking towards me at 1:30am and I was afraid of that black man. Part of it was his color. A big part. I thought about the Ferguson outcome, and that maybe it wasn’t safe for me to be outside right now.

This is coming from a girl who was Vice President of her Minority Club in college, the Silhouettes. This is coming from a girl who sang in a black gospel choir, who wanted to join AKA, who has black relatives, who has just as many black friends as white. Some of them best friends. This came from a girl who sobbed when President Obama became President because of what that meant for equality. This came from a girl who believes and champions art that celebrates minorities and prefers it.

I am a racist. I don’t want to be, but I am. I fight it viciously every day, but I still am. I have been raised by America to fear black men. And I do. And if I’m a racist, just think about all the people that aren’t fighting it. Think of all the people that are embracing it.

I often stay silent about racial issues and just give my love and support because I don’t know what to do to make it better. I don’t want to ruffle feathers or see anyone’s true ugliness come out. I want to send money. I want something tangible that I can do to help. The problem is that there is no charity that is going to fix racism. WE have to do that within ourselves and I don’t know how to do it in others.

I am saddened beyond belief at the outcome of Ferguson. I wasn’t there, I don’t know what really happened and never will. I don’t think police are evil. I do believe that the majority of them are good. I believe in them. I do know this though, it does not take 12 bullets to take somebody down. It does not. Especially, with a trained shooter. That shows aggressiveness, fear, and possibly psychosis. This is a travesty.

My friends, I don’t know what to do. I am saddened beyond belief. I am sad for Ferguson and I am sad for our country. She’s better than this.

Sorry for the break from theater and adventures on the road, but I needed to say this.

Painted-heartHarmony

Alone Vs. Lonely

On a tour like this, you get very little alone time, if any. You are always surrounded by people. The same 40 people. Sometimes it’s really great and sometimes it’s not. Add to that the fact that there is a large range of ages. I am 15 years older than some of the cast/crew and 15 years younger than some of the other cast/crew. We’re all from completely different backgrounds. Some of us have a lot in common and some of us don’t. Our personalities range from lone wolf to social butterfly. So how do we stay sane?

I can’t speak for others, but what I’m learning is that I need to get as much alone time as possible. I still socialize, but I need both. About half the time, when people are going out, I decide to stay in because I know I’ll have the hotel room to myself and I know I need to recharge. When I was younger I wanted to be around people constantly, but as I get older, and dare I say get more comfortable in my own skin, I treasure time where I am alone with my thoughts.

You can have too much of any good thing though and I certainly don’t want to isolate myself from the group. Alone can quickly turn into lonely. It’s a careful balance. I choose my social outings wisely, just like my food or shopping splurges (another post coming soon). I plan them and look forward to them. They become special. One of the most special outings we have had yet, and I have a feeling it will stick out as a highlight for the rest of the tour, was dinner and drinks with the Talbots in Baton Rouge.

Mr. and Mrs. Talbot are one of our cast member’s friend’s parents. They opened their home to our entire cast/crew and fed us a delicious and much needed home-cooked meal comprised of gumbo and quinoa and salad and fresh fruit and vegetables and liquored us up a bit. Some of us more than a bit. 😉 And to top it off, they had beignets for desert which just so happens to be my favorite desert in the world.

We sat outside by their beautiful pool, in candlelight, and listened to jazz standards float through the air. You could smell in the air the flora combination that only exists in Louisiana. It’s sweet and musky, with a bit of spice. When my castmates started talking about work, I just drifted away and sat down by the outdoor fireplace and looked at the pool. I let my body and mind relax and recoup. I could feel the energy and light and life of my friends just a few steps away, but also had a kind of perfect solitude. It was the perfect night and the perfect balance of being social and alone.

On this tour I have been overwhelmingly happy, overwhelmingly sad, and everything in-between. That night, I was simply and calmly content and it was glorious. So much thanks to Nicole and to the wonderful Talbot family for taking care of us and giving us all a moment of peace.

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I wish I had taken more pictures, but I was busy enjoying myself! Next up: Georgia and Back to NY!

Painted-heartHarmony

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