Bashed.

I’m still recovering from Monday night’s Bias Bash at the Ovations. So much planning, so much smashing. Such a wonderful community of theatre-makers worth celebrating. I’d tell you all the good parts but I’m too tired. Here’s one of the rowdier moments (last five minutes of the show, condensed to 45 seconds):

And yes, that is indeed Paula Vogel in the sparkly white jacket.

Irreverent yet tasteful.

So yeah, the Kilroys are hosting the Ovation Awards in Los Angeles on Monday.

When the director of the show invited us to participate, I don’t think it totally clicked we were being asked to do something BIG– like, more than just read winners off a card and do shots in the lobby.

But lemme tell you, it is NO JOKE. We gotta write a 30 page script, invite presenters, organize announcers, edit bios, do other stuff, and basically try not to bore the living crap out of 1600 theater people in tuxes and gowns.

Backing up.

What does it mean for an advocacy group to associate itself with an awards show? We are independent by choice, unbound by the constraints of a governing body or the interests of a funding source. But when our name gets stamped on a program, isn’t that an endorsement? What if we don’t agree with something on principle?

Like, say a theater nominated for Best Season produces a year of plays written exclusively by white men. If that theatre wins, we’re the ones waiting for them at the podium. Which is… awkward?

And what of the awards show itself? Can the Kilroys belt out a compelling choral rendition of “Everybody Says Don’t?” (Not currently.) Are the Kilroys known for telling irreverent yet tasteful jokes that poke fun at AND revel in life’s absurdities? (Not remotely.)

We drop lists. We give cakes. We publish books. We make noise. We advocate. And while it’s ballsy for the Powers That Be to give the mic to a gang o’gals with a reputation for stirring shit up, it’s friggin’ nuts when the gang en masse has zero experience entertaining large groups of people for multiple hours at a time. (It’s gonna be GREAT.)

Meanwhile. This event marks the evolution of the Kilroys. The 13 founding members will officially pass the torch to these 14 super badass killer queens. Which is suddenly and unexpectedly very emotional. (For me. Heh.)

We built this thing in 2014 out of frustration and desperation. It has been a refuge, a vessel to contain our energy and hope and anger. A place of recognition. But the work is grueling. Over the past five years we’ve acquired spouses, kids, careers. We’ve run TV shows. We’ve had theatre premieres. We need replacements so others can prioritize what we no longer can.

It was the right choice, no question. Except now I’m like, where will I dump all my spectacular feminine rage? I’m already a spin instructor for chrissakes…

The author in repose.

I suppose I can launch the occasional prickly missive here. But every time I post something that skews even lightly towards sermon, I hate myself. I’m uncomfortable with my own moralizing. I care too much what people think. I don’t know squat. But also, nothing ever happens. The chances of impact are like, microscopic.

At least with playwriting I have persuasive tools like character and story at my disposal, which makes it easier to assert a potentially challenging point of view. But even when my work is political and/or impactful, the act of making a play is mostly self-serving. The main beneficiary is me.

But with the Kilroys, it’s all action. Exhausting exhilarating obsessive righteous action. And while any impact we foster is a product of our own individual efforts, the beneficiary is Theatre. Women. Art. You. When it works, it’s thrilling beyond words. I’m gonna miss the heck out of it. But I’m stoked to cook up one last bash with these fierce new ‘Roys.

So… as we collectively struggle to find outfits for Monday that won’t cast us as victims of the patriarchy, here are the questions we ask ourselves:

1) What is a reasonable level of entertainment one can expect from a gang of grass-roots activists?

2) How does one perform one’s principles in formalwear?

3) Is it possible to publicly identify institutional bias without taking anything away from the institution at hand?

4) Can we shout-out the artists who aren’t being honored while lovingly celebrating the ones who are?

Guess we’ll find out next week…

More critics.

Last week I plumbed the depths of my own pettiness for your entertainment. This week I offer a more literary frame as a reflective surface. Wheeeeeee, buckle up…

Ok. Say you get one’a those reviews. You know the ones. The kind that makes you feel totally incapable of rising above your worst self. Like you’re suddenly ashamed to be a person in a body. Maybe it helps you to picture this dude tossing the newspaper aside, screaming “ENOUGH,” ripping the cover from his Underwood, and banging this out on your behalf:

FROM W. H. AUDEN'S 1952 ESSAY 'DE DROITE ET DE GAUCHE'

“The desire to link art to life, beauty to truth, justice to goodness, almost infallibly leads criticism to utter a host of stupidities; a critic who ignores or represses this concern and contents himself with being no more than an amateur or an historian of art avoids covering himself with ridicule, but at what cost. No one reads him.

“Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices.

“Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

“The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.”

.

If you get these posts via email, you’re probably like, “Banging what out? Nothing’s there.”  Yeah, sorry. The content exists in dropdown script for my website. What you missed is an excerpt from an essay by W. H. Auden that reads like a treatise on the Critical Ideal. The dude got so chafed he decided to tell reviewers how to do their jobs better.

It’s a cathartic read for any writer who’s ever been dinged in the press. But when Auden claims the best critics are aware and openly accepting of their own prejudices, for the most part he seems to be talking about artistic bias.  Which is um…

Ok. It’s easy for those of us who have any kind of career in the arts to imagine we’ve consciously styled our aesthetic biases. And as long as we’re able and willing to put those biases aside, we feel capable of delivering a thoughtful educated impartial appraisal of a play.

But what about the influences we didn’t cultivate? The ones we don’t even know we have?

In Quiara Hudes’ keynote address for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference last year, she said this: “I struggle increasingly with the atheist white male aesthetics I inherit.” She uses the word “inherit” to describe a sensibility that was grafted upon her, while framing her discussion in terms of her Latinx-ness. And she says this about critics:

“Even positive reviews yank my art from my hands and serve up my heart like a well-dressed ham. Even rave reviews have deposited me, post-celebration, in a disorienting depression where I feel my mouth has been slapped with duct-tape. People call and congratulate me not on the work but on the Times review.”

Because her writer sensibilities were shaped almost exclusively by the work of white men (Miller, Albee, O’Neill), she feels comfortable penning canon-friendly plays that create a safe space for the average theatre patron. But the act of creating Latinx characters who perform their brownness for mostly white audiences is humiliating to her.

So when she asks, “Can institutional theatre not hold multiple aesthetic paradigms?” she is using the language of bias to discuss both literary taste and cultural conditioning.

In my own life and career, I find it a lot easier (and much less existentially troubling) to identify my artistic biases than I do my racial ones. Primarily because I don’t recognize the latter until someone else points them out.  However, I have very little problem perceiving sexism, having been its victim once or twice or a thousand times.

Ideally, a good critic will consider self-accountability a requisite, and tend to it with regularity. But what of those powerful few who, while fastidiously tuned to their artistic biases, have no awareness of the other kind? It’s certainly not unusual to have trouble locating the effects of socially sanctioned bigotry in oneself when one has never been a target of it. You can’t police something you don’t perceive.

However. As we all know. Taste is not formed in a vacuum. And it’s dangerous to believe otherwise.

When our opinions about the quality of a work are shaped by prejudices we don’t even know we have, we perpetuate a sickly narrow idea of how a play should look/sound/feel. This is damaging to artists for all the reasons Quiara mentions in her speech.

But also, it’s corrosive to the field. Our under-examined instincts become criteria for identifying what a play is, thus depriving us of the more essential question: what is it doing?

And like, isn’t that the burning question at the molten heart of any vibrant, passionate, culturally fluent discourse on art????

Unfortunately, the way we tend to address the bias of critics is to scream at them on Twitter, or scream on Facebook, or scream in the comments section of the review and hope it gets past the moderators. None of this is particularly effective. It further affirms the status of victims and reinforces the authority of power structures.

I have no answers. But I’m no cynic. I’m a broken-hearted person who wants to be in love. I’ve seen a bunch of articles lately that give me hope, like this one from Maya Phillips and this one by Kelundra Smith, both from the November 2017 issue of American Theatre. And people are still talking about Victoria Myers’ takedown of Hilton Als in The Interval for his appallingly sexist New Yorker review of Sweet Charity.

And although a precise public discussion about these issues is meaningful, we still need to act. We gotta make work that talks. We gotta support work that walks. We gotta stir up a ruckus. We gotta shine a light on one another’s blind spots. We gotta receive the same light from others with grace, even though that ego-squeeze is hella uncomfortable. We gotta do a fuckton more to bash some biases than we have in the past.

Starting with our own.

You in?