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Children of a Lesser God Review: Deaf Rights and Romance, Four Decades Later

The first Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God,” the award-winning, boundary-breaking 1980 play by Mark Medoff about the romance and eventual marriage between a hearing teacher at a school for the deaf and a deaf graduate, is the only show on Broadway whose creative team includes a “director of artistic sign language.” It is the only show on Broadway to project supertitles of the entire script at EVERY performance, and to schedule sign language interpreters regularly. And, above all, it is of course the only show that marks the stunning Broadway debut of Lauren Ridloff, who portrays Sarah Norman, whose language (like the actress’s) is American Sign Language.
These are reasons enough to welcome this production, and to consider it pioneering, even as the play it’s remounting feels dated.
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Watch #BroadwaySoWhite? People of Color Panels at BroadwayCon 2018

Speakers at three of the panels at BroadwayCon — Beyond the Heights: Latinx Representation in Theatre; Fan Tan Fantastic: Asian American Representation; and Being A Critic of Color — summarize their discussions.

New York Theater and Diversity, Latest AAPAC Report

Thanks to such shows as Hamilton, The Color Purple, and Allegiance, the 2015-2016 New York theater season was the most diverse on record.

That is the conclusion  of the latest annual report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), Ethnic Representation on New York City Stages 2015-2016,  which has been conducting such studies for ten years. AAPAC found that 35 percent of all roles on Broadway and in the 16 largest non-profit theater companies in New York City went to actors of color and disabled actors.

That stands in contrast to the ten year average:

Over those years, the Public Theater and Signature have consistently been the most diverse in their hiring practices, while Roundabout and MCC Theater the least.

Below is a summary of their findings for the 2015-2016 season:

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Bubbly Black Girl, Oak vs. Mandy, and the Continuing Relevance of Race on Broadway (and the World)

 

On the day I saw Nikki James give a star turn in “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” the Off Center Encores two-day revival of the musical by Kirsten Childs that is in part about the challenges facing a black performer, the producers of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet” announced that Mandy Patinkin would take over the role of Pierre for three weeks starting August 14, replacing Okierete “Oak” Onaodowan. Oak Smash, as he’s nicknamed, an actor who was in the original cast of “Hamilton,” had assumed the role just on July 11th (taking over, after an unexpected delay, from Josh Groban) and was scheduled to perform through September 4. But, in an effort to boost ticket sales, which had declined after Josh Groban’s departure, the producers were ending Oak’s already brief run three weeks early.
Most publications hurrahed Patinkin’s return to Broadway after 17 years. But Broadway Black observed: “…the abrupt replacement of [Oak’s} role to boost ticket sales raises questions about how Black actors are valued and supported within Broadway.”
Prominent voices agreed on social media

(Tony nominee for Shuffle Along)

In response to the outcry, Mandy Patinkin announced, in an e-mail to the Times and a series of four Tweets, that he was withdrawing from the role:
“My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor. I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”

But Oak has announced he’s still leaving August 13.

oak1

oak2

The controversy gave added resonance to Kirsten Child’s semi-autobiographical musical, making ‘Bubbly Black Girl’ if anything even more relevant now than it was when it debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2000 starring LaChanze.

Nikki James portrays Viveca Stanton, nicknamed

Bubbly, a sunny middle class black child living in L.A. withdreams of being a dancer – and also of being white, like her favorite doll, blonde, blue-eyed Chitty Chatty. Nearly everything in her world as we see her growing up encourages her in her second dream, if not her first. She learns about the bombing death of four little girls in Birmingham from Gregory (Korey Jackson), the little boy next door, who taunts her that she looks just as ugly as one of the victims. A teacher tells a black classmate, “act your age and not your color.” A police officer accosts her and Gregory for no reason on the street outside her home, singing a chilling refrain:

You have the right to remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Hands up against the wall
You’re about to take a fall

Even her mother, who talks about black pride, insists she straighten her hair.
In dance class, Bubbly gets an early lesson in the racial politics of casting. The teacher, deliciously named Miss Pain, picks the light-skinned Yolanda to dance the princess. Bubbly is cast as the dancing Bramble Bush. Her classmate Emily had warned her in song:

You’re pathetic if you’re figurin’ that darker skin
will ever help you win
Now you can be the court jester,
the scullery maid, or the monster

When she moves to New York to become a dancer – “a place where f—ked-up folks can make their dreams come true” — director Bob (Josh Davis) tells her during an audition “Don’t go white on me, Bubbly.”
Bubbly then shares with us her inner monologue: “Okay – don’t panic – black, black, black, black, black, black…lot’s of black people in the South …okay…Southern accent, but not like a slave…’cause If I do get this job, I don’t want to offend the few black people that are gonna be in the audience any more than I have to…”

Her blackened second try brings down the house.

By the end of “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” Bubbly sheds her ever-smiling persona, and her nickname. After another audition in which she is no longer trying so hard to please other people, Director Bob tells her: “For this show, I need you to give me something a little less…dark.”

She replies: “You know, for the longest time, I’ve been trying to do exactly that— be a little less dark. But I can’t run away from who I am anymore. And I don’t want to.”

Viveca winds up opening her own dance studio. Kirsten Childs, who danced for Bob Fosse on Broadway and on tour (Director Bob is an obvious, satirical stand-in for Fosse), has become a composer and playwright, whose latest musical “Bella An American Tall Tale” was at Playwrights Horizon this season,)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Childs’ debut musical is that the racism that Bubbly witnesses and experiences is woven into a show that is full of satire, given hilarious expression in this production by the director, Robert O’Hara, who knows a thing or two about satire (as a playwright of such edgy comedies about race as Bootycandy and Barbecue.) But the satire is folded into an all-around entertainment. Childs melodic songs range from jazz to funk to gospel to Broadway ballads. And though Off-Center Encores is supposed to be a concert version of old Off-Broadway shows, another highlight of this production was Byron Easley’s choreography.

The show at City Center, in another words, was a triumph and a delight in every way. And, like Oak in The Great Comet, it’s a shame it had such a brief run.

 

2017 Kilroys List of 37 Good But Little Produced Plays by Female and Trans Playwrights of Color

Kilroys 2017
kilroys2016Below is the 2017 Kilroys list of 37 plays by women and trans writers of color most recommended in a survey of “273 influential new play leaders”  Most of the plays have never been produced; none have been produced more than once. This is the fourth annual list by the Kilroys, a playwright and producer collective. 
The plays are below are those that received the most nominations; the Kilrosy provided the descriptions.
CAMBODIAN ROCKBAND PLAY by Lauren Yee
Part comedy, part mystery, part rock concert, this thrilling story toggles back and forth in time, as father and daughter face the music of the past. Neary, a young Cambodian American has found evidence that could finally put away the Khmer Rouge’s chief henchman. But her work is far from done. When Dad shows up unannounced—his first return to Cambodia since fleeing 30 years ago—it’s clear this isn’t just a pleasure trip.
 
THE GREAT LEAP by Lauren Yee
When an American college basketball team travels to Beijing for an exhibition game in 1989, the drama on the court goes deeper than the strain between their countries. For two men with a past and one teen with a future, it’s a chance to stake their moment in history and claim personal victories off the scoreboard. American coach Saul grapples with his relevance to the sport, Chinese coach Wen Chang must decide his role in his rapidly-changing country and Chinese American player Manford seeks a lost connection. Tensions rise right up to the final buzzer as history collides with the action in the stadium. Inspired by events in the life of the playwright’s own father.
 
YOGA PLAY by Dipika Guha
Just when newly hired CEO Joan is about to launch a new brand of women’s yoga pants, yoga apparel giant Jojomon is hit by a terrible scandal. Desperate to win back the company’s reputation (and her own), Joan stakes everything on a plan so crazy it just might work. YOGA PLAY is a journey towards enlightenment in a world determined to sell it.   
 
THIRST by C. A. Johnson
Samira and Greta lead a peaceful life. They have their own clearing in the woods, their own hut, and their son Kalil to keep them laughing. When Kalil returns home one day without their water rations, however, Samira and Greta find themselves in conflict with their local political leader. Set in a tense segregated society, Thirst is a complex look at race and love in war-time.
BLKS by aziza barnes
Some days feel like they will never end. After a morning that includes a cancer scare and kicking her girlfriend out of the house, Octavia decides to have a last turn up with her best friends. 
 
IF PRETTY HURTS THEN UGLY MUST BE A MUHFUCKA: AN UNDERSTANDING OF A WEST AFRICAN FOLKTALE by Tori Sampson
In Affreakah-Amirrorkah, an imaginary but uncannily familiar place, debutantes Akim, Adama, Kaya, and Massassi embody the culture’s notion of Beauty in all its shades and shapes. Still, something about Akim sets her apart, and her allure makes her a target for Massassi and her pretty, “jealous” peers. If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka weaves contemporary African and American cultures into a sweeping journey about what—and whom—we suppress in pursuit of an ideal always just beyond reach.
 
IS GOD IS by Aleshea Harris
IS GOD IS is an epic tale of twin sisters who, haunted by a brutal family history, sojourn West to seek revenge.
 
WE, THE INVISIBLES by Susan Soon He Stanton
In 2011, the director of the International Monetary Fund was accused of sexual assault by a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo, but all charges were dismissed. we, the invisibles shares the rarely-heard stories of people like Diallo, people from all over the globe working at New York’s luxury hotels. Funny, poignant, and brutally honest by turns, the play is an investigation of the complicated relationship between movers and shakers and the people who change their sheets.
 
QUEEN by Madhuri Shekar
At the very last minute, a scientist realizes that her groundbreaking environmental paper – co-authored with her best friend – is based on flawed data. Should she risk her friendship, her career, the fate of the world… for the truth?
 
THE OPPORTUNITIES OF EXTINCTION by Sam Chanse
Taking refuge from a twitterstorm and other assorted upheaval on a last-minute camping trip, Mel and Arjun meet Georgia, a solitary young woman studying the impact of climate change on the imperiled Joshua tree.
 
HANG MAN by Stacy Amma Osei-Kuffour
The community of a shitty southern town grapples with the murder of a Black man who is found hanging from a tree.
 
LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays
When Monique and her 10-year-old daughter Samantha show up unexpectedly on her sister’s Brooklyn doorstep, it’s the beginning of the end for Rachel and her partner Nadima’s orderly lifestyle. Monique is on the run from deep trouble, her husband Reggie is nowhere to be seen, and Samantha becomes ever haunted by the life in southern Georgia she was forced to leave behind. Poetic, dark and often deeply funny Last Night and the Night Before explores the complex power, necessity, and beauty of loss. 
 
EL HURACÁN by Charise Castro Smith
In Miami, on the eve of Hurricane Andrew, three generations of women huddle together to weather the storm. Beset by late-stage Alzheimers, Valeria (the family matriarch and a former magicienne) wanders between present-day family tensions and the siren call of her memories. But thirty years later, in the wake of a seemingly unforgivable mistake, the family is faced with the impossible necessity of reconciliation. Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, El Huracán is a story about what we carry when we’re forced to leave everything behind. 
 
TWO MILE HOLLOW by Leah Nanako Winkler
When the Donnelly’s gather for a weekend in the country to gather their belongings for their recently sold estate—both an internal storm and a literal storm brews (uh oh!). As this brood of famous, longing-to-be-famous and kind of a mess but totally Caucasian family comes together with their non-white personal assistant, Charlotte, some really really really really really complicated and totally unique secrets are revealed over white wine…
 
BLACK SUPER HERO MAGIC MAMA by Inda Craig-Galván
Sabrina Jackson cannot cope with the death of her 14-year-old son by a White cop. Rather than herald the Black Lives Matter movement, Sabrina retreats inward, living out a comic book superhero fantasy. Will Sabrina stay in this splash-and-pow dream world where sons don’t die, or return to reality and mourn her loss?
 
ENDLINGS by Celine Song
On the island of Man-Jae in Korea, three elderly women spend their dying days diving into the ocean to harvest seafood with nothing but a rusty knife. They are “haenyeos”— “sea women” —and there are no heiresses to their millennium-old tradition. ENDLINGS is a real estate lesson from the last three remaining “haenyeos” in the world: don’t live on an island. Unless it’s the island of Manhattan…
 
EVE’S SONG by Patricia Ione Lloyd
Outside, black men and women are being killed by police. Inside, Deborah is trying to keep her smart-but-weird son and newly-out daughter safe and happy as light bulbs pop, shadows come to life, and the house gets strangely colder. With theatricality and lyricism, this unlikely ghost story explores what it means to let your song be heard in a world that’s trying to silence you.
 
TO THE YELLOW HOUSE by Kimber Lee
1888. Paris and Provence. A failing artist in desperate pursuit of a new way of seeing, haunted by his past, and hoping to remake his future in the color and light of the south. At what point in an endless cycle of failures does faith and persistence become delusion and foolishness? A meditation on love, art, and not being popular.
 
florissant & canfield by Kristiana Rae Colón
at the intersection of tear gas and teddy bear memorials, at the intersection of darren wilson and michael brown, at the intersection of looting and liberation, florissant & canfield refracts the realities of ferguson in the wake of the black lives matter movement. colliding in the unlikely eden of a civil rights renaissance, a newly formed alliance of protesters are forced to put their nascent ideologies to the test in the quest for new visions of justice.  
 
LES FRÉRES by Sandra A. Daley-Sharif
Inspired by Lorainne Hansberry’s Les Blancs, Les Fréres tells the story of three estranged brothers of Haitian descent, who come home to Harlem for their father’s final days. Troubled memories filled with anger and abuse come rushing back as they deal with their father’s death. They are forced to deal with how each choose to deal with memories, how each have escaped, feelings of abandonment, betrayal and loss. Finally, the end asks two of the brothers if they will escape back into the lives they have forged for themselves or will they try to make new life amongst the embers of pain. The play deals with issues of race and culture, family, and identity.
 
THE HOMECOMING QUEEN by Ngozi Anyanwu
A bestselling novelist returns to Nigeria to care for her ailing father, but before she can bury him, she must relearn the traditions she’s long forgotten. Having been absent for over a decade, she must collide with her culture, traumatic past, painful regrets, and the deep, deep love she thought she could never have.
 
REDWOOD by Brittany K. Allen
Redwood concerns an interracial couple (Meg, a middle school teacher, and Drew, a physicist) who are thrown into crisis when Meg’s recently-retired Uncle Stevie makes a project of charting the family tree, via Ancestry.com. When Stevie discovers that his would-be nephew-in-law is heir apparent to the family that owned his (and subsequently, Meg’s) relatives in an antebellum Kentucky, a time and space-bending dramedy of manners gone very far South ensues. Long-dead ancestors appear, to comment on their light-skinned progeny. Meg speechifies on the nature of forgetting before the State Senate, and a hip-hop dance class chorus guides the action. The play is interested in the ways love can and cannot transcend both modern social barriers and historical power structures. Meg and Drew must learn if we can we ever truly forgive, champion or fully understand those beloved who are fundamentally ‘other.’
 
BURNED by Amina Henry
Jamal wants to be force for good, like a Jedi in Star Wars, but he did a bad thing, firebombing a synagogue for money. Now he wonders if he’s an evil Sith. A fugitive, he lays low at his mother Mary’s house. Mary and Jo, Jamal’s girlfriend, wonder about the good and evil in Jamal, too, as they witness the different parts of him. For Officer Brown, Jamal is just one thing: black.
 
HATEFUCK by Rehana Lew Mirza
A local Michigan literary professor seeks out a famous Muslim-American novelist to find out if he’s a self-hating Islamophobe or a really good lay. But they find that getting under each other’s skin can easily become a habit, for better or worse.
 
MAGIC CITY OR JULIE IN BASEL by Hilary Bettis
An explosive elixir of power, class, and immigration status, which, when shaken hard with love and betrayal, creates a dangerous cocktail that threatens to destroy lives. In this Spanish language infused contemporary adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie is set in the back kitchen of a Miami hotel during a night of debauchery.
 
NOMAD MOTEL by Carla Ching
Alix lives in a tiny motel room with her mother and two brothers, scrabbling to make weekly rent. Mason lives comfortably in a grand, empty house while his father runs jobs for the Hong Kong Triad. Until the day his father disappears and Mason has to figure out how to come up with grocery money and dodge Child Services and the INS. Mason and Alex develop an unlikely friendship, struggling to survive, and trying to outrun the mistakes of their parents. Will they make it out or fall through the cracks? A play about Motel Kids and Parachute Kids raising themselves and living at the poverty line in a land of plenty.
 
NOURA by Heather Raffo
NOURA reflects the dilemma facing modern America: do we live for each other or for ourselves? Told from inside the marriage of an Iraqi immigrant family to New York, the play speaks directly to modern marriage and the leaving of home. This fast paced script highlights an acutely relevant awakening of identity that tackles our notions of, shame, violence, assimilation, exile and love. It’s a unique insight into the interior crisis that lies behind the collapse of the modern Middle East and America’s inseparable relationship to it.
 
USUAL GIRLS by Ming Peiffer
On an elementary school playground, a boy threatens to tell on a group of girls for swearing – unless one of them kisses him. But just before lips can touch, Kyeoung tackles the boy to the ground. The victory is short-lived. Over the coming years, Kyeoung herself is knocked down again and again. By an alcoholic dad. A group of quick-to-judge friends. And an endlessly invasive parade of men. As we follow Kyeoung from the discoveries of childhood to the realities of adulthood, her stories get stranger, funnier, more harrowing – and more familiar. How do girls grow up? Quickly, painfully, wondrously.
 
AZUL by Christina Quintana
When a lifelong New Yorker faces the loss of her Cuban-born mother and her own sense of identity in the process, she digs into her legacy and uncovers the story of her mother’s beloved aunt, her own tia-abuela whom she never met. While the family fled Cuba at the time of Castro’s revolution, she remained on the island for the love of another woman—a complicated choice in a less forgiving time. 
 
BREACH: A MANIFESTO ON RACE IN AMERICA THROUGH THE EYES OF A BLACK GIRL RECOVERING FROM SELF HATE by Antoinette Nwandu
What happens when a woman trapped in a dead-end job and a fizzling relationship accidentally gets pregnant by a man that she’s not dating? A coming of age story about race, class and motherhood, BREACH examines how hard it is to love others when it’s you that you loathe most of all.
 
HOW TO CATCH CREATION by Christina Anderson
A wrongly convicted man is released from prison after 25 years. As he settles into a new life he begins the quest to become a father. Spanning more than 40 years, this play explores family, connection, parenthood, and the right to start over.
 
NIKE or WE DON’T NEED ANOTHER HERO by Ngozi Anyanwu
Is an Origin story of the Goddess Nike and a retelling of the Olympus myth Black Greek Super hero style
 
SELLING KABUL by Sylvia Khoury
Taroon once served as an interpreter for the United States military in Afghanistan. Now the Americans – and their promises of safety – are gone, and Taroon spends his days in his sister Afiya’s apartment, hiding from the increasingly powerful Taliban. Desperate to escape with his wife and newborn son, Taroon must navigate a country left in upheaval, in which everyone must fend for themselves and few can be trusted.
 
SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER by Chisa Hutchinson
A Chinese-American guidance counselor helps a troubled protege through some gender-bias bullshit. 
 
THE PAPER DREAMS OF HARRY CHIN by Jessica Huang
During the Chinese Exclusion Act, Harry Chin, a Chinese national, entered the U.S. by buying forged documentation. Like other “Paper Sons,” Harry underwent a brutal detention and interrogation, and lived the rest of his life keeping secrets – even from his daughter. Told through the eyes of a middle-aged Chin, THE PAPER DREAMS OF HARRY CHIN reveals the complicated loves and regrets of this Chinese immigrant who wound up in Minnesota. Through dreamlike leaps of time and space and with the powerful assistance of ghosts, the story of the Chin family reveals the personal and political repercussions of making group of people “illegal.”
 
THE THANKSGIVING PLAY by Larissa FastHorse
In this satirical comedy, a mismatched but well-meaning foursome sets out to devise a politically correct school play that can somehow sensitively celebrate both Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month. How can this wildly diverse quartet-separated by cultural chasms and vastly different perspectives on history-navigate a complicated, hilarious thicket of privilege, representation, and of course school district regulations? The schools are waiting, and the pageant must go on!
 
UNRELIABLE by Dipika Guha
Gretchen is a lawyer. Yusuf is her client. Yusuf is being held indefinitely without trial for terrorism. Hattie is Gretchen’s mother. Only, Hattie thinks Gretchen is a secretary, Gretchen thinks Hattie is sick and Yusuf believes he’s been framed. In a world of competing narratives, facts no longer exist. UNRELIABLE investigates the consequences of living only in a story of your choosing.

#OscarsSoWhite. #BroadwaySo….Better?

AprilReignApril Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag that resonated with so many people that it helped foment a national debate over the issue of inclusion in Hollywood. She’s been speaking to reporters and at conferences ever since.

What some may not know is that Reign is primarily a theater lover – ever since she saw The Wiz starring Stephanie Mills on Broadway. Indeed, she walked away from a 20-year career as a lawyer “to pursue my true passion” – the arts. She’s now the managing editor of Broadway Black, a theater website!

Is Broadway any better?

“The issues are the same in theater,” April Reign says, “but perhaps they are less pronounced than they are in film.”

FILMS

Reign has been interviewed widely about the movies. For example, she suggested to the Guardian newspaper ten ways that the film industry and regular moviegoers could bring about change in Hollywood, eg.:

1. Judge a film by the “DuVernay Test,” named after the director of Selma: A film passes the DuVernay Test if “African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories”.

6 “Seek out smaller, independent cinemas that may be showing films one might not see in a huge multiplex.”

On Friday, she was part of an #OscarsSoWhite panel discussion at The Greene Space that offered some arresting information:

More white women have won Oscars for playing Asian roles than Asian women have won at all

The movie industry is one where looks and youth trump age and experience, even for writers and directors

In other words, the issue of exclusion is not limited to African-Americans in films.

FILMS, BROADCAST AND CABLE TV, DIGITAL STREAMING

This is driven home by Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment, which looks at the distribution by gender, age, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation of entertainment presented in fictional films, both broadcast and cable TV shows, and digital “streaming” series. It’s worth looking through all 18 tables and 25 pages of the report, but here for example are three tables. (Click on any of them to see them enlarged)

BROADWAY-HOLLYWOOD CONNECTION

The connections between Broadway and Hollywood are dizzying, as I’ve pointed out in articles both this year and last year

Of the 20 performers nominated for Oscars this year, seven have performed (or are soon to perform) on Broadway. (Last year, it was 11 out of 20.)  There are some half dozen shows on Broadway currently based on Oscar-winning films. Three Oscar winners are starring on shows opening this season on Broadway — Forest Whitaker (in Hughie), Lupita Nyong’o (in Eclipsed) and Jessica Lange (in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.) Is it significant that two of the three are African-American?

(It’s important to point out that one of the essential differences between stage and screen is that “Hollywood” is a far more accurate representation of (or metaphor for) the American film industry than “Broadway” is for the theater industry in America, which encompasses Off-Broadway, regional theater, and arguably community and school productions as well.)

Broadway …Any Better?

The past year on Broadway has been extraordinarily varied in terms of both performers and characters, given such shows as Allegiance, Spring Awakening, The Color Purple revival, On Your Feet, the Fiddler on the Roof revival, and, of course, Hamilton.

Although Reign concedes this has been “a good year for historically unrepresented communities on stage,” she’s not confident such representation will continue.  “The blockbuster musical Hamilton has proven that a great story with an intentionally multicultural cast will fill the seats night after night,” Reign says.  “However, Broadway theaters are still only owned by a handful of families who seem reticent to reflect the beauty, diversity, and nuance of American theatergoers in productions, even as statistics show that the audience is becoming more diverse.”

There is no single report as comprehensive about the stage as the new Annenberg report is about screen entertainment,  but I’ve written about the three-year-old  report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition:

(Click to see enlarged)

To Reign, “the issues regarding inclusion of marginalized communities are present  just as importantly, in the wings, with respect to showrunners, playwrights, directors, and the tech staff.”

In late 2015, the Dramatists Guild and the Lilly Awards issued The Count, which found that only 22 percent of plays produced in regional theaters over a three-year period were written by women. (Click on chart to see it enlarged:)

About the same time, the League of Professional Women put out a reporte entitled Women Count,  which “analyzes employment for 13 professional roles in 455 Off- and Off-Off-Broadway productions by 22 theatre companies in five complete seasons, 2010-2011 through 2014-2015.” Sample chart (Again, click to see enlarged):

Writing in the Daily Dot, Aja Romano suggested there might be a parallel between Hamilton, which has been piling up the acclaim since it opened last year (first Off-Broadway in February and then on Broadway in August), and Twelve Years a Slave, which got Oscar love in 2014. “Its Oscar wins have been followed for the last two years by an all-white field of nominees.”

Romano was covering a diversity panel at the first-ever BroadwayCon, a fan convention held on a snowy January weekend. It’s worth pointing out that the issue of inclusion for the theater has been extensively discussed for quite some time —  check out, for example, the avalanche of essays published by Howlround on the subject of “diversity and inclusion.”  If it hasn’t reached the level of intensity or attention as the #OscarsSoWhite debates, protests and pronouncements, that might reflect the differing place of the respective art forms in American culture.

As the BroadwayCon panel’s moderator, Broadway Black founder Andrew Shade put it, “Hopefully we won’t ever have a #TonysSoWhite.”

 

Soul to Soul: Yiddish and African American Music and Performers Bond

Elmore James, who will be singing with two Jewish blondes and another African-American man in the “Soul to Soul” concert this Sunday, grew up in Harlem and made his Broadway debut in the black gospel musical “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.” So it seems only natural that he would fall in love with Yiddish music.
“I first heard Yiddish music sung by Paul Robeson,” James says. “It resonated with me.” The great Robeson — athlete, lawyer, scholar, activist, concert singer and actor (among his landmark performances were the original Joe in Show Boat; Brutus in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones; Othello) – was also a remarkable linguist. He spoke 15 languages, and sang in 25. He is said to have learned Yiddish to help improve his delivery of comic lines by the characters he portrayed. He also added Yiddish songs as part of his increasingly political repertoire. Among his favorite was Zog Nit Keynmol, written by Hirsh Glik, a Jewish resistance fighter during World War II, whose song had been sung by the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Elmore James set out to learn Robeson’s entire Yiddish repertoire. First, he had to find it. He walked into J. Levine Jewish book store on 30th Street, and asked for help with his mission.
“Talk to Theodore Bikel,” the proprietor advised.
So James went to Bikel, who was as startlingly versatile as Paul Robeson: an activist, singer, actor (among his landmark performances were the original Baron von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof)…and a linguist.
Bikel told James: Talk to Zalmen Mlotek
Zalmen Mlotek, who worked frequently with Bikel, was a recognized authority on Yiddish folk and theater music. He is also the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, now celebrating its 101st year. (They are the company that produced The Golden Bride that I loved so much.)
“Elmore came to me, “ Mlotek recalls, “and he sang for me – and I thought ‘oh God, what a voice!’”
It was in that moment that Mlotek was inspired eventually to create the “Soul to Soul” concert, the first of which was some five years ago, the latest of which will be performed this Sunday afternoon, January 17, 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (Details)

The 19 songs include about a third that are English-language, about a third Yiddish (with English and Russian subtitles), and a third that are a sly mix. They sing Louis Armstrong’s “What’s A Wonderful World,” for example, in Yiddish, and perform a medley of Depression-era songs, pairing “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” with a similarly-themed Yiddish hit song, “Vu nemt men parnose”
(roughly translated as “How does one make a living?”)

The quartet of singers includes Magda Fishman, an Israeli-born cantor. Unlike the Al Jolson character in “The Jazz Singer,” she didn’t have to choose between a religious vocation and a performing career; she does both. “I live in different times. Women can be cantors.” Her first album, “Magda & Shorashim” is full of Hebrew songs, but in her concerts “I like jazz and I sing musical theater – Yentl, Rodgers and Hammerstein…”

All this mixing and matching provokes some questions. Yes, George Gershwin was famously influenced by the music he heard in Harlem, and wrote for African-American performers, and, yes, Paul Robeson sang Yiddish songs. But how much do Yiddish and African-American music have in common? How much did they influence one another? And (since this is my beat), how much they contributed to American musical theater?
“You hear the plaintiveness, the rhythmic intensity that inspires both music,” Mlotek responds to the first of these questions. “In klezmer music, you hear the joy and you hear the sorrow. It’s the same with the blues.”
But the artistic director makes no claims for their mutual influence. “There was no conscious effort to make this connection. I’m doing this now because it’s an opportunity to bring cultures together.”
As for their contributions to the American musical, the Broadway performer Elmore James has a judicious response: “Every ethnic group has brought a certain vitality to musical theater – Jews, black people, Irish people. He can’t help adding: “Gershwin loved jazz, and Cab Calloway loved klezmer.”

“Soul to Soul” playlist
performed by Tony Perry, Elmore James, Lisa Fishman, and Magda Fishman,

1. A Change is Gonna Come (Tony) / Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around (Elmore) / Chiri Bim (Lisa/Magda)

2. A Niggun (Magda)

3. Change is Gonna Come (Tony)

4. Summertime (Lisa and Magda)

5. I’m on My Way (Elmore)

6. New Colossus/Ellis Island (Tony)

7. Parnose / Brother Can You Spare a Dime? (Elmore, Magda and Lisa)

8. Vi Azoy Trinkt a Keyser Tey? (Elmore)

9. Ot Azoy (Tony)

10. And the Angels Sing (Lisa)

11. Vos iz Gevorn? (Tony)

12. Dona, Dona (Lisa)

13. Es Brent (Elmore)

14. What a Wonderful World (Lisa and Magda)

15. Ale Mentshn Zaynen Brider (Elmore with Magda, Lisa and Tony)

16. Shnirele Perele (Magda)

17. Civil Rights Medley – Follow the Drinking Gourd, Oh Freedom, Woke Up This Morning, This Little Light (Tony, Magda, Elmore and Lisa)

18. Spiritual medley – Wade in the Water, Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Down by the Riverside, Lo Yiso Goy El Goy Kherev, When the Saints Go Marching In (Tony, Magda, Elmore and Lisa)

19. Ale Brider (Magda, Tony, Elmore and Lisa)

Top New York Theater Stories of 2015

New York theater in 2015 has been a year of hope and fear; of Spring Awakening and Misery; a year with three different new plays about British royalty on Broadway, and the year when a musical about an American revolutionary — an American original — reigned over all.

2015 was the usual star-studded affair, with Broadway debuts of Jennifer HudsonKeira KnightleyMarlee MatlinClive Owen, George TakeiBruce Willis. But New York stages also seemed unusually inclusive, of characters and performers who’ve been pushed to the margins of society — so many shows involving transgender characters, for example (some portrayed by transgender performers) that it felt like a trend.

Attention was paid to the work of Arthur Miller on the centennial of his birth, and to the plays of A.R. Gurney on his 85th year, but there were many we’d never heard from before. And of course, for better and for worse, much New York theater news happens nowhere near a stage.

Below are some of the top New York theater news stories of 2015, and some of the weirdest theater stories of 2015. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. There are also some of the people that the theater community lost this year.  The stories are offered chronologically by month, and paired with some articles that I wrote each month.

January

NYTheater2015MetropolitanRoomvarietyshow

Some 265 performers over 60 hours starting New Year’s Day helped the Metropolitan Room to break the Guinness World Record for the longest variety show ever.
It was the last public appearance of long-time talk show host and theater district fixture Joe Franklin, who served as MC. He died three weeks later at age 88.

Masked terrorists killed 12 people in the offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, prompting a worldwide artistic response. The year began and ended in terror.

The “Blizzard” of 2015

The forecast of a “crippling and potentially historic” snow storm turned out to be inaccurate, at least for New York City. But public officials had put so many restrictions on travel – the governor shutting down the entire subway because of the threat of snow for the first time in its 110-year history – that all Broadway performances were canceled for Monday, January 26.

wphoto1

 

My articles

Live Theater in the Age of Screens

Cultural Sensitivity or Censorship? Three Tales, Many Questions

Can A Play Explain The Muslim Diaspora? Nadia Parvez Manzoor’s Burq Off

 

February

Hamilton opens Off-Broadway at the Public Theater on February 17. A hit praised by both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, it will not only be  the most celebrated musical of the year, but one of the cultural phenomena of 2015.

Broadway Girl unmasks herself
Not the last of the popular anonymous theater Tweeters to go un-anonymous this year. Laura Heywood certainly made up for lost time:

My articles

Audience Participation: Do Taylor Mac et al Tickle or Terrify?

Broadway and the Oscars

Presidents on Broadway

Five Books Tell Broadway Tales

March

 

Lincoln Center announced that it would rename Avery Fisher Hall after the entertainment mogul David Geffen, because he agreed to give $100 million to renovate it.

oprah-winfrey1

Oprah Winfrey changed her mind about appearing in Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother because “I’d like something with a happier ending.”

 

 

In honor of π day/ pi day (3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399 etc.) on March 14th,  the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time offered a lottery for tickets costing $3.14

RIP Gene Saks, actor and director of 33 Broadway shows, best-known as Neil Simon’s director, at age 93.

gene-saks

My articles

TEDxBroadway 2015: Ten Lessons 

Hamilton: Five Ways Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hip-Hopped History Musical Breaks New Ground

 

April

 StephenMcKinleyHendersoninBetweenRiverside

Between Riverside and Crazy written by Stephen Adly Guirguis won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The production that starred Stephen McKinley Henderson, one of the foremost interpreters of August Wilaon’s plays, was unusual in that it transferred from one Off-Broadway theater to another.

 HelenHayesmarquee

Second Stage at long last closed the deal to buy the Helen Hayes Theatre for $24.7 million, making it the fourth nonprofit to own a Broadway house.

hand-to-god-marketing

Hand To God, one of the 14 (!) shows opening on Broadway during the month, had as its initial marketing campaignNo movie stars, no London transfer, no film adaptation, pray for us.”

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Theater artists and disabled activists debated whether an autistic actor should have been considered to portray Christopher in the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

LivingTheaterJudithMalina

RIP Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theater, age 88.

JulieWilson

RIP Julie Wilson, a seven-time Broadway veteran (Pajama Game, Kismet) who went on to a stellar career in cabaret.

My articles

Are Theater Critics Critical? An Update

Bringing Foreign Theater Artists to the U.S.

 

May

MirandaatWesleyan

Many of the theater awards presented this month showed great love for Hamilton; it got a record-breaking ten Lucille Lortel Awards honoring Off-Broadway shows, for example. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical was not nominated for any Tonys, however, because the producers decided not to transfer it to Broadway until the summer, after the Tony eligibility cut-off date.

Among Miranda’s personal honors was his selection as Commencement speaker at his alma mater

Robert DeNiro was also invited to be a Commencement speaker, at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Tisch graduates, you made it,” he began “And you’re f—ed.”

In what was described as “virtually unprecedented in the history” of Actors Equity Association, an incumbent president was defeated in May. Kate Shindle, the new Equity president, is a Broadway veteran as both a performer and producer, a licensed real estate agent, and the former Miss America.

 

NEW YORK - MAY 03: Actress Anne Meara attends the Rwanda reception held at The New York Academy of Art during the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival on May 3, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

RIP Anne Meara, 85.  Best known as one half the comedy duo of Stiller and Meara and as Ben Stiller’s mother, she also performed in the original Off-Broadway production of the John Guare play The House of Blue Leaves; starred in her own television series; performed in five Broadway productions, including Eugene O’Neill’s Anne Christie and Brecht’s The Good Women of Setzuan; guest-starred or was a regular on dozens of television series; became an award-winning playwright

My articles

Can Theatre Change the World?

Should Torture Taste So Good? Belarus Free Theatre’s Trash Cuisine

 

June

 

Fun Home won five of the 12 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical. Curious Incident won five of the six Tonys for which they were nominated, including Best Play.

Much criticism of the broadcast. Each Best Musical nominee got more time to perform on the 2015 Tony Awards broadcast than all the Best Play nominees combined. Playwright Lisa Kron’s Tony acceptance speech for Fun Home was not even televised

The Dramatists Guild wrote  a protest letter to CBS about major Tony Awards for writing being presented off-camera.

Why are the Tony Awards so afraid of the Tony Awards?

The Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage in all 50 states was greeted with euphoria by many in the New York theater community (but not all.)

Audra McDonald: “I feel like any second we are gonna see Justice Ginsburg come out of the building on a rainbow clad motorcycle and ride into the sunset.”

Lea DeLaria: “Now I too can get drunk in Las Vegas and marry a hooker in the Elvis chapel.”

Larry Kramer: “There is too much work yet to be done to be able to look back and congratulate anyone.”

Gloria, a play depicting a mass shooting opened Off-Broadway the same day in June that there was a mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C. At a eulogy for the slain minister, President Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace, the song that was the inspiration for the musical of the same name that opened (and closed) this year on Broadway.

“Bombshell,” the fictional musical about Marilyn Monroe that was at the center of the backstage TV series “Smash,” actually made it to Broadway in June, as a one-night only concert at the Minskoff Theater reuniting the principal cast.

DickVanPatten

RIP Dick Van Patten, age 86, Best-known for his TV role as father in Eight is Enough, which ran on ABC from 1977 to 1981,
he made his Broadway debut at age eight in a musical by Kurt Weill; at 13, he was in the cast of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, along with Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March and Montgomery Cliff; at 17, he performed on Broadway as the teenage son of characters portrayed by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; he performed in “Mister Roberts,” starring Henry Fonda. By 1974, he had performed in 20 Broadway productions.

My articles

In Defense of Broadway

Violence on Stage: Healing or Titillating?

July

Ham4Ham

 

Hamilton began its performances in Broadway’s Richard Rodgers on July 13th, with a lottery – ten dollars for front-row seats at every performance.  more than 700 people entered the lottery. The lottery acquired a name #Ham4Ham (translation: a Hamilton – ten dollars – for Hamilton.) #Ham4Ham soon grew into its own innovation, because Miranda organized short and varied performances before each drawing. #Ham4Ham has been called the best entertainment on Broadway this year.

 

 

NeedaChargeHandtoGod

Getting a charge out of Hand to God:  19-year-old theatergoer Nick Silvestri attempted to charge his cell phone in the fake electrical outlet on the set of Hand to God. This garnered international attention. Set designer Beowulf Boritt’s reaction to Charge-Gate: “It’ll keep me from ever putting a toilet on stage.”

Silvestri

Silvestri offered an awkward apology in front of a bank of microphones outside the Booth Theater at a well-attended press conference.

Later in the month, during a performance of Shows for Days , Patti LuPone snatched the cell phone out of a theatergoer’s hands. “I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work onstage anymore,” she said in a statement released to the press.

The Shubert organization has renamed The Little Shubert Theater, its only Off-Broadway house, which it built in 2002, Stage 42

RIP Theodore Bikel, 91. Folk singer and character actor, he originated the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway and starred in “Fiddler on the Roof” onstage in thousands of performance. “I prefer to make common cause with those whose weapons are guitars, banjos, fiddles and words.”

E.L. Doctorow, 84. Author of a dozen novels, he’s best known for Ragtime, made into a musical

 

Roger Rees

RIP Roger Rees, age 71. A familiar face on television — he was the snobbish Robin Colcord on  “Cheers” and the eccentric British ambassador, Lord John Marbury, in “The West Wing,” — Rees made his mark as a theater artist of great energy and inventiveness. He wowed New York audiences in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s marathon adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” for which he won the 1982 Tony for best actor in a play. He was last on Broadway this year in The Visit with Chita Rivera.

Changing My Major from Fun Home goes on network television, albeit late night

 

My articles

A Nationwide Menagerie of Tennessee Williams Festivals

Who’s An Amateur? Shows for Days and The Evolving Definition of “Professional”


Tom Kirdahy on Love, Law, Marriage, Producing Theatre, and Making a Difference

Siblings on Stage

 

August

Hamilton opens on Broadway to even bigger raves than Off-Broadway. It literally sets off fireworks – the producers paid for a fireworks display over the Hudson.

desnudas

Although there is more nudity on Broadway stages than on Broadway, the mayor and the police commissioner, goaded by several days of front-page headlines in the Daily News, are determined to do something about the dozen or so women who call themselves #Desnudas and parade around in the Times Square plazas wearing little more than body paint.
“I’d prefer to dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was”-NYPD Commissioner Bratton on Times Square pedestrian plazas

The announced forthcoming season at MTC provoked protest for its lack of female authors and people of color. “These are really respected artists,”Zakiyyah Alexander, a member of the Kilroys, was quoted as saying. “It’s not their fault that they have been put in the position to only be surrounded by white male playwrights.

kyle-jean-baptiste2

RIP Kyle Jean-Baptiste, 21. Hired recently as an understudy, he became the youngest and first black actor to play Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway. He died on August 29 after falling from a fourth-story fire escape in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

 

My articles

Fringe NYC: From Silly Titles to Serious Issues

American Idol and Broadway

Twitter Plays Aren’t Revived, They’re Retweeted

September

Four theater artists, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, receive the 2015 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, which gives each $625,000 over the next five years to do with as they wish.

Mamma Mia had its, um, Waterloo, after 14 years and 5,765 performances. Reasons why even fans need not feel sad about this:
Still playing in UK
Worldwide gross: $2 billion
Seen by 54 million in 400 cities

The Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s  Sheen Center  for Thought and Culture had its official grand opening,, followed by weeks of inaugural events

Hedwiges

Hedwiges

Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, closed after 22 previews,506 regular performances, and six Hedwiges ‬

Fences by August Wilson: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Rose)

Fences by August Wilson: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Rose)

Denzel Washington said he will direct and produce all 10 of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays (also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle) for HBO, one per year, over the next decade. He will also star in one of them, Fences, with Viola Davis, reprising the role both played on Broadway in a 2010 production directed by Kenny Leon.

Campaign begun by Leah Nanako Winkler against  New York Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s Mikado “in yellowface” at the Skirball Center resulted in the society cancelling the production, and replacing it with the Pirates of Penzance.

ShowScorecritics2

Show-Score, a new review aggregation site, debuted My review page

The Signature Theatre (of Arlington) retaliates, promoting their production in December of West Side Story: “Don’t let the Jets get in the way of the Jets!”

cellphoneinstadium2

 

RIP Dean Jones, Bobby in the original production of Sondheim’s Company, 84.

My articles

In Praise of Cell Phone Users

Critic John Lahr’s Theatrical Joy Ride

October

The Rockefeller Foundation announced it would subsidize 20,000 11th graders from New York City schools to see “Hamilton” on Broadway for $10, supplemented by a curriculum created around the show.

Theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber pledged $150,000 for musical instruments in 20 NYC public middle schools

The Broadway League announced BwayZone.com, a new interactive website designed to attract children aged 8-13.

Eighty playwrights signed a letter to the theater editor of the New York Times asking him to restore the names of the designers of a show in the newspaper’s reviews and listings. The paper eventually did so.

First School of Rock, then The Lion King, and then Google, have been experimenting with capturing live performance on 360 degree videos.

(Use the Chrome browser or it won’t work.)

 

Hamiltunesfirstsong

The Hamilton album was released in stores, becoming Number 1 on the Broadway chart No. 3 on the rap chart and No. 9 on the top 200 chart — the best debut of a Broadway album since Camelot in 1961. Miranda distributed the lyrics for free, and assigned yet another Twitter hashtag, #Hamiltunes.

quote-confusion-is-not-an-ignoble-condition-brian-friel-120-41-68

RIP Brian Friel, Irish playwright, 86.  His plays ranged over four decades from “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” about an Irish man about to emigrate to America to the Tony-winning “Dancing at Lughnasa,” about a family living in genteel poverty in the 1930s, which became a movie starring Meryl Streep.

My articles

Arthur Miller at 100: Attention is being paid

All the World’s a Screen, and All the Men and Women Digital Players

 

November

The Broadway opening this month of Allegiance, about the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, and On Your Feet, about the life and career of Cuban immigrant entertainers Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and the Off-Broadway opening of Hir, by Taylor Mac, the latest play to feature a transgender character, portrayed by a transgender actor, reflect what seems to be a growing inclusiveness on New York stages.

The second annual #LoveTheatreDay took place on November 18. It was no clearer what you’re supposed to do on this day than it is every World Theatre Day on March 27th, which has been around since 1961.

A presidential candidate quoted a Broadway musical. (When’s the last time that happened?)

My articles

Five Lessons The Grateful Dead Can Teach Live Theatre

History vs. Theatre

Actors as Directors

Niegel Smith, the new artistic director of The Flea, is an outsider’s insider

Shakina Nayfack Found Herself While Founding Musical Theatre Factory

Theatrical superstitions

December

Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, in the time between performances on two-play days, wrote the music for the “cantina scene” in the new Star Wars, The Force Awakens – a fact that caused the Internet to explode, with Hamilton/Star Wars mashups using the hashtag #Force4Ham.

My contribution:

 

Tennessee Williams John-Lahr-Book-Cover

Movie studio Broad Green announced plans for a movie of the life of Tennessee Williams, based on John Lahr’s biography

Disturbing (amusing) poll conducted by Public Policy Polling: 30 percent of Republican and 19 percent of Democratic voters supported bombing (Aladdin‘s fictional) Agrabah

Much hubbub over playwright ‪Dominique Morisseau’s piece in American Theatre Magazine about encounter with a white woman audience member, who gave her spare tickets for free, but then asked her to quiet down during the performance. The essay drew 256 comments before the commentary section was closed. It’s entitled Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What That Says About Our Theatres, and subtitled “How a seemingly normal night at the theatre led to an altercation with a patron over microaggressions and white privilege.”‪

The Wiz Live, the third year in a row that NBC has broadcast a Broadway musical live. What’s different this time, however, is that director Ken Leon plans to bring the production to Broadway next year.

The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), the British-based live-theater company that bought (and renamed) the Lyric in 2014, announced it would turn The Hudson, built on 44th St. in 1903 as a Broadway theater but converted in 1994 for conferences, into the 41st Broadway theater.

A change in the tax code passed by Congress means that investors in Broadway and live theater productions will be given the same benefits that have long been afforded to TV and film productions.

Annoying Actor Friend

 

An Associated Press article quoted Twitter as saying that the musical Hamilton had generated a million Tweets.”Twitter said the show reached a million tweets thanks to users using the groupings #HamiltonMusical, @HamiltonMusical, #Ham4Ham, #Hamiltunes and @Lin_Manuel.” General fan reaction: I did my part!.

 

My article

Discovering The Theatre: Lessons of The Fall Season from A Class Of New York Newcomers

 

“We keep writing plays because we hope our fondest hopes and darkest fears are universal, and can help bring us together”~ playwright Doug Wright

What Audience Engagement Means…and What It Shouldn’t Mean (Ageism)

Anti-elderly billboard in Slings & Arrows, satirizing ageism in the theater (stAgeism)

Anti-elderly billboard in Slings & Arrows, satirizing ageism in the theater. (The caption reads: “Don’t Bother.”)

Melissa Hillman has written a new essay, The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement, that is both inspiring and infuriating.

One of the smartest theater writers on the Internet, Hillman is the artistic director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley, and normally blogs as Bitter Gertrude, but this essay is part of Theatre Communications Group’s “Audience (R)Evolution” series.

Hillman first points out that “audience engagement” has no clear definition, meaning different things to different people. This won me over right away, since so much theater jargon is ambiguous. Indeed, at TEDxBroadway, Leslie Koch of Governors Island suggested eliminating the phrase “audience engagement” from our vocabulary. “Everyone talks about engagement but only consultants use the word ‘engagement.’ Real humans/audiences don’t use it, unless they have a ring on their finger, so you shouldn’t either.”

In her new essay, Hillman then goes on: “The only thing on which we all seem to agree is that it’s tied so strongly to attracting young, diverse audiences that it’s essentially now code for that.” But, she adds, when people talk about the inability to attract such audiences, they are leaving out an important fact: Such audiences are attending the “vibrant, thriving indie scene” that exists “in most American urban centers” — theaters that are too small and too poor to be included in the statistics.

The solution for any theater in getting more diverse audiences, she writes, is basic: “Tell the stories that audience wants to hear, all the time, charge realistic prices, and create a welcoming environment—one that truly values them rather than fetishizes them but otherwise treats them as unimportant.”

So far, so good.

Then there is this passage, which prompted me at the beginning to nod and at the finish to shake my head:

“The indie scene is dominated by women directors, and is much younger and more diverse than big budget theatre. As soon as theatre gets to a certain budget level, the women and people of color both backstage and onstage become much more scarce, and the audiences—and the programming– get whiter and older.”

She mentions “older” four more times:

“…older, well-heeled donors..”

“…the older, whiter community upon which [big-budget theaters are] inextricably financially dependent…”

and twice, “that older, white demographic.”

Here it is, yet another example of what I’ve called stAgeism: Anti-Elderly Attitudes In The Theater. Why must advocates for “diversity” (another word that has different meaning for different people) present older audiences as the enemy?  As I’ve tried to point out on numerous occasions:

1. “Older” doesn’t necessarily mean “whiter” — every ethnic and racial group has its own elderly. It also doesn’t necessarily mean “well-heeled,” nor does it exclude women. (Why is the gender parity of audiences not celebrated?)

2. Individual older theatergoers do not necessarily resist the kind of work that Melissa Hillman and others say attract a “younger, more diverse” audience. Ask people like Nella Vera, the director of marketing and communications for Theater for a New Audience (whose new home is the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn), and she will tell you that older audience members tend to be more open to new work.

As I wrote to Seth Rozin of Interact Theatre Company of Philadelphia, who in an otherwise similarly praiseworthy article, included what I considered a similarly dismissive passage towards older people, saying they eschew “riskier” work:
Let’s be specific. What I know is NYC theater. When I attend shows by the Living Theater; at BAM; by the Civilians; at The Flea; at St. Ann’s Warehouse (all theaters/theater companies that do new work often at the cutting edge) or at theaters like Repertorial Espanol or Abrons Arts Center (theaters that do work about different cultures often in languages other than English) I observe an audience made up of a mix of ages. It’s true that I’ve noticed the audiences seem to skew younger at The Brick, Bushwick Starr, and the Kraine, but is that because the art in these places is “riskier” or because they are newer and the accommodations less convenient and/or more physically uncomfortable?

As playwright Keith Josef Adkins, the artistic director of New Black Fest, has written: “I have heard dismissive and insensitive blanket remarks about the 60 and over crowd. In my observation, there is a fear and a frustration that a large portion of that demographic is not interested in younger, African-American, LGBT, Latino, women and/or Asian theater practitioners. Substantiated or not… it is how many feel and what they believe about the power of the elderly in American theater. So, yes, perhaps a genuine conversation about the future of theater and the upside and downside of the 60-and-over demographic is paramount.”

When do we begin this conversation? How about now, Melissa Hillman, before you yourself become older, and feel the sting of this casual ageism.

Best Plays by Women That Aren’t Being Produced (and Should Be)

This is the “Kilroy” list: “Each play is either unproduced or has had one professional production.” Authors include Theresa Rebeck, Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, Pulitzer finalist Madeleine George and such other well-known names as Sheila Callaghan, Dominique Morisseau, Erin Courtney and Halley Feiffer.

SWIMMERS by Rachel Bonds

LIQUIDATION PLAY by Sarah Burgess

WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD by Sheila Callaghan

SKELETON CREW by Dominique Morisseau

HUNGER by Anna Moench
HANNAH AND THE DREAD GAZEBO by Jiehae Park

LOTTIE IN THE LATE AFTERNOON by Amelia Roper

ORANGE JULIUS by Basil Kreimendahl

IRONBOUND by Martyna Majok

THE CALL by Tanya Barfield

SERIAL BLACK FACE by Janine Nabers

ANNIE BOSH IS MISSING by Janine Nabers

YOU FOR ME FOR YOU by Mia Chung

THE CONSULTANT by Heidi Schreck

DRY LAND by Ruby Rae Spiegel

THE OREGON TRAIL by Bekah Brunstetter

THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS by Francis Ya-Chu Cowhig

WHAT WOULD CRAZY HORSE DO? by Larissa FastHorse

THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE by Madeleine George

DIFFERENT WORDS FOR THE SAME THING by Kimber Lee

OF GOOD STOCK by Melissa Ross

ALL THE DAYS by Sharyn Rothstein

THE TENTH MUSE by Tanya Saracho

THE COMPARABLES by Laura Schellhardt

GRAND CONCOURSE by Heidi Schreck

THE MOORS by Jen Silverman

MAN IN LOVE by Christina Anderson

BRIGHT HALF LIFE by Tanya Barfield

BLISS (OR EMILY POST IS DEAD!) by Jami Brandli

FUTURE THINKING by Eliza Clark

HOLY DAY by Alexandra Collier

HONEY DROP by Erin Courtney

REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY by Jackie Sibblies Drury

I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD by Halley Feiffer

I ENTER THE VALLEY by Dipika Guha

THE TALL GIRLS by Meg Miroshnik

WAKE UP, MRS. MOORE by Julie Marie Myatt

ZEALOT by Theresa Rebeck

CATCH THE WALL by Gabrielle Reisman

SOMEWHERE FUN by Jenny Schwartz

THE HUNTERS by Jen Silverman

TAILS OF WASPS by Stephanie Timm

DON JUAN COMES HOME FROM IRAQ by Paula Vogel

SEE BAT FLY by Kathryn Walat

JEFFERSON’S GARDEN by Timberlake Wertenbaker

BOY by Anna Ziegler

Here’s who the Kilroys are. Here’s an article in the New York Times about the list,

Creating a Supply Chain of Work by Female Playwrights: Call for Theaters to Produce More Plays by Women

The list on the Kilroys site includes the agency contact for each play.