Monday, October 12, 2015

An Open Letter To Meg Rosoff

Dear Meg Rosoff,

You have totally missed the point. 

I wish I didn't feel compelled to write you this. It has been a long day for me - I started by making a pot of turkey chocolate chili, then attended a preview for Perfect Arrangement, the off-Broadway show I'm directing, then hosted a meeting for my theater company, where I served aforementioned turkey chili. I would much rather be reading about my friends' outrage on Facebook  about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's project to translate the Bard's 39 plays, or playing board games online, or watching Attack on Titan.  But when someone is so off the mark in a such a public and egregious manner, it demands correction. It is National Coming Out Day, for god's sake.

The heart of the matter is that everyone deserves to have the experience of reading about themselves.  Yes, of course, you don't have to be a woman in an unhappy marriage in turn-of-the-century Russia who commits suicide by jumping in front of a moving train to appreciate Anna Karenina.

But if you've never had the experience of seeing and reading yourself in a story, you start feeling like your story isn't worth telling. Which isn't that far from feeling like your life isn't as important as those other lives you keep reading about.

Yes, a great story transports you. A great story makes you empathize and sympathize with people and situations you've never imagined.  I would never follow the advice of three witches and kill the king of Scotland to assume his throne. But yes, in a great production of the unmentionable play, I totally get why Mackers has done it all.  

But still, am I wrong for wanting to see queer characters? Armenian protagonists? Non-Israeli Jews? About-to-be-forty-year-olds who have dedicated their lives to the not-for-profit arts and only sometimes regret it?

This is why diversity in story-tellers is so important: so that diverse stories are told authentically.

“Books do not have a job,” you write, then follow up with, “Books are to teach kids about the world.” But isn't that a job? Why do you feel like your definition of a book's job is more valid than someone else's? And since queer black boys exist in the world, wouldn't it behoove a non-queer, non-black boy to read about that character's perspective to learn about the world?

Any attempt to define what books can do is reductive, because books can do anything and everything.

This isn't an "or". This is an "and." Books can teach about the world AND expose us to infinite perspective and character, AND change the world, AND help me get through my rehearsal process, as all 1400 pages of N. K. Jemisin's beautiful Inheritance Trilogy just did. Let books be everything.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors

 What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors

The first time I cast a show using a full, professional audition process was about ten years ago. As I sat in the room with the casting director, the reader, and the artistic director, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I had sat in on auditions before, mostly for directors whom I was assisting, but that was just a spattering of understudies. I had no idea how much I was supposed to work the actors, if I could interrupt them before they were done with the side, or even how to choose a good side, for that matter.  I didn’t know anything.

I’ve been through this process a many times since then, for off-Broadway, regional and off-off Broadway theaters.  This is a post for directors (about what I’ve learned) and for actors (about what I’ve observed). 

(From L to R): Producers Mark Johannes and Amy Danis of MARS Theatricals, moi, playwright Topher Payne, Producer Dan Shaheen, Michelle Bossy, and Casting Director Stephanie Klapper. 


1.     Use ten-minute slots

Be civilized.  Five minutes just isn’t enough time, because an audition isn’t just about the actor  showing you what work s/he has done. It’s about you working with the actor, and the only way you’ll have enough time to do that is if you use ten-minute slots and if you…

2.     Choose short sides.

Seriously, you know in the first 30 seconds if the actor and the role are the right fit. Don’t waste their time preparing ten pages. If you need to see ten pages, you’re a horrible director.  Besides, short sides allow you time to work with the actors, which leads me to….


3.     Work with the actor

Any actor worth their salt, as was EVERY SINGLE ACTOR that I saw this week, comes to the audition prepared, focused, intelligent and rehearsed.  They worked on their sides, looked great, got up that morning, put their audition outfit together and traveled to studio in horrible humidity from all over the city, and sometimes further. One actor (to whom we made an offer) commuted down from the Berkshires  for both the audition and the callback a few days later.  Treat every actor as if they’re traveled that far. 

Even if you don’t think they’re going to get a call back, they might be right for something else you work on.  You might learn something about the part or the role.  They’ve traveled all that way.  See what they can do. And show them what you want. They’re not just auditioning for you – the actor you want might get a conflicting offer, and then they’ll have to choose which project they’re going to work on. How you treat them in the rehearsal room might be an important factor. You’re auditioning for them, too.

4.     Be present

I was exhausted after my week of auditions, they same way I would’ve been after a week of rehearsals. That’s actually a great way to think about auditions: as a series of short rehearsals.  Like rehearsals, they require you to be present so that you can respond to the choices the actor is making. The director is an audience of one. Be the kind of audience member you would like to attend one of your own shows: present, kind, and easily delight-able.

And if you think the actor isn’t reading for the right role, ask them if they mind taking a few minutes to look at a different side. This happens even with a great casting director, and don’t be scared about asking them to look at a different part (another one of our offers is out to an actress who was game enough to read for someone else with no notice). Be especially sensitive if you’re asking the actor to read for a part that’s smaller, or older. But ultimately, I think actors would rather read for a role that they actually had a shot of getting.


5.     Don’t call someone back you don’t think you’re going to cast

Don’t waste their time because they’re your friend, or you think they’re cute, or you saw them in a show a few years ago and they were amazing and even though they’re not right for this part, wouldn’t it be fun to spend a few more minutes with them?  You are taking hours out of this actor’s life. Don’t do it in vain.

6.     Tell them what you want to see

You’ve called them back for a reason, right? Tell them why – tell them what you and the people in the room responded to, and tell them what you’d still like to see. It shouldn’t be mysterious or enigmatic. You have an idea about the part, they’re bringing something that you’ve responded to.  Identify the space between those things and let them show you what they can do.


7.     Email your friends when you know you’re not going to cast them

I described auditioning to my husband like this, “Imagine interviewing twenty of your best friends for a job for which they’re over-qualified, then not being able to hire most of them because there are only three slots.”  He looked horrified. That’s what we have to go through.

Your relationship with your actor friends has to be strong enough to withstand that kind of pressure, and it’s your job to make it as easy as possible. Reach out to them. Tell them they were wonderful. Thank them for coming in.  As the director, you job is to see as many brilliant actors as you can, so that your show has as many options as possible.  As a friend your job is to thank your friends for making that possible.

Your friends will thank you, and write you back, and be so kind that you’ll be amazed.  And if one of them sends you a drunken email at 2AM berating you for not casting them, let it go and tell them you love them. Be a lover, not a fighter.

In many ways, I think, this post is a love letter to the pavement-pounding actors of New York.  Actors are New York’s best and brightest, one of this city’s most potent natural resource.  I could’ve cast my show three times over from the people we saw.  And actors, how do you get off-book so quickly?  I don’t just mean sort of off-book.  I mean like totally and 100% off-book.  And how do you take adjustments and change your performance just like that?  It’s really amazing. You’re really amazing. You are the greatest subsidizers of art in this country.

Bless you all.

p.s.  And please comment - there is so much mystery around the auditioning process, and one of my goals in this post was to blow that open, and get a dialogue going about what you like in auditions, what you don't.  Talk to me!

Monday, April 6, 2015

I Should've Brought Tissues: Wendy Wasserstein's Former Typist Reflects on THE HEIDI CHRONICLES

I Should've Brought Tissues

In retrospect, it was stupid of me not to bring tissues.  I can't guarantee that you'll have the profoundly cathartic experience I did at the revival of The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway, since you probably didn't have a day job as Wendy Wasserstein's typist for the last five years of her life.  But it would really be a pity for you to miss this A-class production of this brilliant play.  Do yourself a favor and go.  It's special.  And Pam MacKinnon's direction is firm, clear, specific and light-handed: exactly the touch that Wendy's plays need.

Heidi starts funny and light and a bit odd.  And it does feel dated at first, and not just because the first scene is set in the late '60s.  But the amazing thing about theater is that it acts like a time machine: we, today, have a perspective on the '60s, '70s and '80s, just as the audience did that first watched Heidi in 1988.  It might not be the same perspective as that original audience, but the play educates and triangulates now much in the way it did then, I imagine.

When I directed Blithe Spirit at Syracuse Stage last year, I begged Tim Bond, the artistic director, to let me cut it.  But he insisted against it.  The entertainer in me (the one who learned from Wendy, ironically enough) knew the show could stand to lose around 20 minutes of repetition.  But on opening night, the purist in me loved that our audience listened to the exact same words spoken in the exact same order as its original 1945 audience did.  Theater doesn't just teach about history in content: it does so by form.  Blithe Spirit teaches me about what 1945 audiences enjoyed, just as Heidi teaches me what a late '80s audience had to learn watching a piece that spanned the last thirty years.

Content Over Form

Although the character Heidi certainly has moments of pro-activity, of temper flaring and ego clashing, I think it would be hard to name a more passive protagonist.  Throughout the play, her scene partners (the gay best friend Peter, her on-again/off-again boyfriend Scoop, and her perpetually re-inventing best friend Susan) bulldoze her.  If I stumbled upon an individual scene from this play say, in scene study class, I think I'd be surprised to learn that Heidi is the lead.

Her famous soliloquy breakdown, in the third-to-last scene of the play, is really the breakdown that she's been building up to her entire life.  But in truth, we see that Heidi can only be the active, have a monologue (let alone a breakdown) when she is the only person on stage.  She is a character so used to defining herself as an outsider and as a passive that the only way for her to find the space she needs is for her to be alone.  Without a scene partner.  Isolation is the price of expression.

As a writing feat, it's an incredible thing, to successfully build a story around a passive protagonist.  As a response to the feminist movement, it's an even more astonishing.  Although the play makes it clear when Scoop and Peter bulldoze Heidi on a TV Studio Set (II/2) that men are often the guilty parties here, Susan (who's really Scoop's alter ego) is equally guilty of the same crime in the restaurant one scene later.

 We Both Must Fade

I know that Wendy has a reputation as a boulevard comedienne.  But few writers of that genre crafted plays that spanned 25 years.  I met Wendy on Old Money, generally considered her least successful play, but one that also showed Wendy's desire to experiment with form (it jumped back and forth 80 years over the course of a dinner party thrown in a robber baron mansion on the Upper East Side).  And I can't help but wonder what other experiments in form Wendy might've attempted had she been with us longer.  At least, I hope this production ushers in a Wasserstein Renaissance, full of productions that embrace the possibilities of her texts.

A Story About A Woman Who Got Sad

Wendy once said to me, in that wonderful funny/serious/joking/not-joking way she had, that Heidi was a play about a woman who got sad.  But as someone who'll be turning 40 next year, I feel like I truly relate to Heidi's alienation in a way that I hadn't before.  Yes, it's a story about a woman.  But its universality lies in the profound 40-something sadness you feel when your friends abandon you for their kids and the suburbs, for their partners or professions, to other cities and states and countries.  I recently removed three friends whom I've known for over twenty years from my speed dial because we didn't communicate enough to keep them there for even nostalgic reasons.  I don't know what I would do without the guys I met on the Ramblers soccer team, guys on average 10 years my junior, who haven't yet reached that point in their life that they withdraw.  And that's the story of Heidi: the story of a woman who is about to withdraw in response to the world that has already withdrawn around her, but who finally decides that she can't. 

This post would be remiss without two more things:

First, Bryce Pinkham's performance is, well - this is why we go to the theater, folks.  He'd start talking and I'd start crying.  His scenes with Heidi were sharp, heart-breaking, moving, real.  I've seen him on stage three times in the last two years and each time I feel like he's the best that we've got.  If you know him, tell him I'm a fan.  He's pitch-perfect.

Second, the story of how I scored these tix:  My friends Amy Danis and Mark Johannes, who are MARS Theatricals, were having lunch with Susan Gallin, one of the lead producers of Heidi.  They told her about me.  Then she emailed me and offered me comps.  This is exactly the kind of elegant, classy, random-act-of-kindness thing Wendy herself would've done.  Of course, I was going to find a way to see this show, but it probably would've been from the balcony, and it definitely would've set me back at least one hundred bucks I certainly don't have right now (two hundred to take Rafael, who said, "This is one of the best plays I've ever seen in my life.").  So thanks Amy, Mark and most of all Susan.

And of course, Wendy.  I hear that cackle of your laugh as distinctly as ever.  Especially in the theater.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The New York Times Can Kiss My Ass

The New York Times Can Kiss My Ass

Dear New York Times,
I understand that an organization that produces as much content as you do will, occasionally, produce something impressively tone-deaf (see Alessandra Stanley's piece about Shonda Rhimes last September).  But for the most part, I love your paper.  I read it daily.  I get it on my Kindle and my iPhone, just in case I'm jonesing for some news and one of my gadgets isn't available.  Reading the Sunday Times is probably the only ritual I've performed for over twenty years. 

Imagine my glee when I saw "9 Kisses," in this Sunday's (12-14-14) edition: a movie that promised to show me 9 short films, each one featuring a kiss between two great actors from the last year in movies.   

I like kissing.  I like movie stars.  This'll be fun, I thought.

Each kiss hits a different note, and the piece is successful as a whole, on an aesthetic level, because of the gamut it runs.  In their stolen kiss outside a costume party, Reese Witherspoon and Benedict Cumberbatch show us how furtiveness ups a kiss's sexiness like nothing else.  The unexpected passion of Laura Dern and Steve Carrell's lip-lock is used to great comedic effect.  When Shailene Woodley kisses her trainer Jack O'Connell after accidentally punching him in the face, something unexpected bubbles between them, a surprise that reveals a world underneath.  Each kiss in each of the short films has a definitive, unique tone.

Which is why I find it so incredibly offensive for the only guy-on-guy kiss in this piece to be a desparate ploy, between David Oyelowo and Timothy Spall (4:50 - 5:35).

I encourage the readers to watch all eight minutes of the movie (video box at the top of this blog, or click here) - it's quite enjoyable, for the most part.  Here's the synopsis:  David Oyelowo and Timothy Spall are in a saloon, arm-wrestling.  It looks like David Oyelowo (younger, stronger) is going to win, but then that rascal Timothy Spall kisses his opponent (on the lips, no less!), distracting him and giving Timothy Spall the edge he needs to win.

This kiss is aggressively anti-romantic.  It is a tactic between two real guys partaking in a macho activity, something so butch that it eliminates the possibility that either one of them might be actual homosexuals. Don't worry - your movie tells its viewers - not only is the guy-on-guy kiss de-sexualized as much as possible (it's also the shortest kiss in the flick), none of the characters in this movie are gay men. 

And I think this is really at the heart of why I think your film sucks, New York Times: you were too cowardly to dare to show what a real kiss between two men looks like.  The girl-on-girl action (Jenny Slate & Rosario Dawson, 2:15 - 3:00) is sexy, joyous and full of love.  And I get it - from before we are conscious of sex, we're taught to think that lesbians are sexy while fags are scary.  But this film has an opportunity to combat the nasty, latter part of that stereotype, to show some genuine warmth or romance or kindness between two men kissing.  In failing to do so, you don't just eschew your responsibility: you perpetuate close-mindedness.  

In the behind-the-scenes movie that accompanies "9 Kisses" (entitled, obviously enough, "The Making of 9 Kisses") director Elaine Constantine says that, "We decided it would be all public spaces at night." (1:20)  Gay marriage is legal 35 states in the USA right now.  Wouldn't a more powerful dramatic choice, let alone a less homophobic one, be creating a film where two men kiss after reciting wedding vows to each other, for example?  Or what about a proposal.  Getting down on one knee and proposing to my now-husband was the scariest moment of my life - full of dramatic possibility with infinite richness.

Instead, in depicting the kiss between two men as a desperate ploy and last resort, you reinforce the idea that the only appropriate response to kissing another man is to feel shame.  Well, I think you and the film's director, Elaine Constantine, are the ones who should feel ashamed. 

Or, better yet, do something about it.  I dare you, New York Times and Elaine Constatine: get two great male actors from 2014 movies and create another 45 second film showing them kissing in any scenario that's not drenched in shame.  Show me funny, show me touching, show me stupid.  Show me anything.  But don't show me shame.  I grew up surrounded by it.  I have to deal with looks and threats, still, when I hold my husband's hand in public.  I have had enough shame.

To end on a what I hope is a positive, constructive note: here's a picture of me and my husband kissing at the end of our wedding ceremony.  I thought I'd include it in the hope it might inspire you to see the gorgeous possibilities.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stories of Joy & Triumph

Would it have killed the photographer to tell me to fix my hair?
Stories of Joy & Triumph

It's been a while since I blogged.  The contributing factors:  I haven't really cared about anything enough to blog about it, I've been investing time and resources in my newsletter, which felt like a more efficient means of getting the word out about One Man Guy, and because let's face it: it's hard to imagine an entry that's going to get as many hits as the one about my wedding, and not just because we had a freakin' rainbow, as clear proof we're going to get that God loves the gays.

Recently, however, something got me so riled up that I took the keyboard again.  After a certain public library obtained One Man Guy, it decided to place it in the adult section, instead of Young Adult.  

First of all: how could I possibly know this?
Well, I'll tell you how.  Like most things, it traces back to Vassar College, where I directed a production of Six Degrees of Separation (cast pictures below).  

(Top Row, L to R: Alec Duffy, Ken Perko, Rachel Stack, Linsay Firman, Brian "Dingo" Lamont, Gerard Karsenty, Kevin O'Hara, Kevin Maher.  Middle Row: Geoffry Milam, Milton Welch, Amy Boyce Holtcamp, Michael Bird, Josiah Trager.  Bottom Row: Jeff McKay, Marguerite Moreau, Angela Goethals, Matt Newton.)
I remained friends with the actor playing Flan Kittredge, even after he left New York, through the magic of facebook and a deep affection we shared.  Turns out a relative of "Flan"'s works at a Public Library Whose Name I'm Not Disclosing.  This relative heard about my book, advocated for its purchase even though, "Some dingleberries in charge of such things apparently expressed some concern over its non-traditional content."

The compromise, apparently, was to purchase the book, but to put it in the adult fiction section to make sure that young people's mind aren't polluted by its non-traditional content, even though in an email that "Flan" forwarded to me, "ALL the other membership libraries have it in YA, as does Barnes & Noble."

I have been incredibly moved by young people's reactions to One Man Guy, from the teens I meet at B&N whom I convince to buy the book, to the ones who write me via my website to tell me what the book means to them.  Some samples quotes:

 "It's the girl that you saw at Barnes & Noble a few days ago. :) I finished your book the night that I got it. I really enjoyed. It was really funny and I just couldn't put the book down." -Jasmin

"Hi Michael! I recently finished your book One Man Guy and fell in love with the story. I can relate to the characters. Thanks so much!"  -Jacob

"I'm a part of the LGBTQ community and this book means something to me.  The reason i read this book is because i was looking for a book to read on the plane to Cali and I picked up your book and saw what is was about. My aunt was the one purchasing the book and saw the cover and whisper "no no this supports homosexuality" and would not buy. I did not want to make a scene but I was so angry that i made it a personal goal of mine to read and one day own the book. Thank for make me feel proud of my sexuality and who I love."  -J. Thomas

"Thank you so much for writing this book.. It has given me so much hope that when I come out to my parents they won't freak out.. I'm the same age as Alek is in this book.. It's just made such a difference on how I look at everything."  K.W.   

Truth and Justice and the American Way prevailed, however, as the library's director, in response to this fierce advocacy, decided to move OMG into the YA section.

I'm so grateful for everyone who has championed my little book, and helped it find its readership.

p.s.  I just got an email inquiring about the availability of OMG'S tv/film rights!


Friday, April 4, 2014

Blog Hop

Author Blog Hop

Elise Forier Edie
I got invited to do this author blog hop thing and since I haven't posted in (who even knows how long) and because I like the author who invited me to do it so much, I said yes.

Elise Forier Edie wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics to the ah-mazing musical Rebel Girls, inspired by the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 in Lawrence, MA.  I was match-made with Elise and the show's composer, Tina Lear, to direct a workshop of their musical.  They were awesome.  With the help of lots of index cards and yummy snacks, we holed ourselves into the CAP 21 conference room and re-organized the entire show in a day.  They trusted me, I loved the material, and we had one helluva time.  Apparently, Elise even blogged about how great our experience was.

So when Elise invited me, I took Bob Moss's advice: say yes.  I said yes.  Here are the answers to my questions, and at the end of this post, you'll find Elise's info, along with the info of three other fab writers whom I invited to participate in this thing.

1)  What am I working on?

My first book, One Man Guy, is being published in May (Macmillan, FSG).  It’s about Alek, a fourteen-year old Armenian boy who falls for New York City, the music of Rufus Wainwright and a totally hot skater boy over the course of one epic summer.

I’ve been working on my second book, The Aether Wild, for a few years.  It’s a collaboration with two friends, Suzanne Agins and Rosemary Andress, who are both primarily theater directors like me.  How many directors does it take to write a book?  Three, apparently.  The Aether Wild is a science fiction/fantasy post-apocalyptic adventure story about a girl determined to save the world at all costs.

My day job, as day jobs go, is as a theater director.  I’m currently in rehearsals for aproduction of Spring Awakening (themusical) in Syracuse, and am in pre-production for my next production with TheUpstart Creatures, a company of theater artists I assembled last year.

Other projects include adapting Paradise Lost for the stage and a commission from the Sloan Foundation, which I’m using to write a play about Lucretius, the Ancient Roman scientist/philosopher who wrote De Rerum Natura, which translates into something like: The Way Things Are, The Nature of the Universe  or The Nature of Things.   

2)  How does my work differ from others of its genre?

To be honest, I haven’t read many coming out stories, so I’m not exactly sure what the norm is.  Going by the feedback I’ve been getting from Goodreads, it seems like most coming out novels fall on the angsty side.  I came out when I was twenty-one (and not to my parents until I was twenty-three) and I remember how incredibly anxiety-making it was.  I was not, however, especially interested in writing that because my parents, like the parents of most people I know, accepted my coming out with great love.  I’m not saying it wasn’t awkward, or that other people’s coming out isn’t more traumatic.  I just felt like we’d seen and read that story plenty, given how the times are a-changin’, I wanted to write a story in which the coming out wasn’t the big deal event.

3)  Why do I write what I do?
Wendy Wasserstein

For most of my life, writing was like going to loud bars: I knew lots of people who appeared to enjoy it, but it never occurred to me that it was something I myself would like.   Then Wendy Wasserstein died and I missed her, and writing was an activity that I associated with her, having been her typists for five years.  So I started writing as a way of remembering Wendy.

When I write a play or book, it’s because I can’t not write it.  Something about the story demands to be told.  I have one such story bubbling inside of me.  I don’t want to write it, in that I’ve very busy now and over-committed and don’t really have time, but it is insisting on being told and so soon, I imagine, I will start typing.

On a more conscious level, I try to write stories that I don’t think have been told (or told enough) yet.  Many readers of One Man Guy learned about the existence of the Armenian genocide through the book, and the idea that I can help tell that story feels incredibly important to me.

4)  How does my writing process work?

When I’m dealing with the frightful proposition of a blank screen, I need to write early, before my husband wakes up, when I’m barely conscious, when I can’t filter or even think about what I’m writing.  I usually have a sense of what I’m going to write (I outline and research heavily before I begin), but I do my best first-draft writing first thing in the morning.

Then I’ll try to do something that has nothing to do with writing – I’ll go to my yoga studio or do some cooking, take a bike ride.  I’ll revisit the pages in the afternoon, and often be totally surprised at the words I’m reading, as if someone else wrote them.  I find that’s the best way to look at my own work.

When it comes to re-writing, I’m better at that in the afternoon.  I like to work a little, take a nap, work some more.  I prefer to do that at tables, rather than desks, because tables are bigger and I like to spread out.  Or, if I just need to read, I like to do that lying down on a sofa, because then when I want to take a nap I don’t need to move.

The Writer Who Invited Me To Join The Blog Hop


TWITTER: @EliseForierEdie




The Writers Whom I Invited To Join The Blog Hop (all Vassar Grads, oddly enough)

Amy Boyce Holtcamp - was my muse in college, the lead of just about every play I directed.  She continued to go to UW to study directing, and now lives in the sexiest city in the country, New Orleans, with her rock star-dramaturg husband Victor who teaches at Tulane and often proofs my blog out of the kindness of his OCD heart.  Amy is one of my favorite collaborators, a great writer and director. 

Mary Beth Caschetta and I met at the memorial service for Ann Imbrie, who had taught us both at Vassar a decade apart.  Ann had mentioned Mary Beth regularly, and by the time I met her I felt like I had already known her.  Being able to share the loss of Ann with someone else who had known and loved her was incredibly valuable to me, and I love how Mary Beth writes about painful things directly and unsentimentally.

Isaac Butler, on the other hand, got to Vassar the year after I left, and we met at Soho Rep, where he assisted me one summer producing a festival of new plays.  Like me and Amy, he's a director and writer, and without a doubt the most well-read and well-watched guy out there. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I'll Have Some Proof: My Fury Over The End of Shakespeare Santa Cruz

An Open Letter to David Yager, Dean of the UC Santa Cruz Arts Program,

Dear Dean Yager,
I am many things.  But I am not stupid.  And neither are any of the thousands of other artists who have worked at Shakespeare Santa Cruz in its 32 years, or the hundreds of thousands of audience members who have attended its productions.  It is certainly within your prerogative to close "one of the top ten influential Shakespeare Festivals in the country," (I'm quoting your website).   And girl, I understand that times are tough.  But I do wish you wouldn't insult our intelligence in the press release you released explaining your decision to terminate Shakespeare Santa Cruz.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, this is what the Shakespeare Santa Cruz stage, the Glen, looks like.

My Kingdom For A Balanced Budget

The numbers you offer simply don't add up.  In the press release, you claim that "Even with an initial campus contribution of $250,000 during the most recent full fiscal year, revenues still fell short of planned expenditures by nearly $500,000 — effectively making the total shortfall $750,000 for 2012-13."  But adding your contribution to the Festival's shortfall is totally bogus.  You committed to give that money, and you gave that money, ostensibly, because of the value added that the Festival contributes to UCSC.  I bet you some of your undergrads chose to attend UC Santa Cruz because of the Festival.  For example, Lynn Baker-Nauman writes that, "UCSC's enrollment will be affected by this decision. The chance to work alongside professional actors while training as an undergrad was a huge pull for me."  How many other students are you going to lose because of the Festival's absence?

In addition, on the aforementioned website, Shakespeare Santa Cruz offers this graphic to illustrate its finances:

Even with the in-kind donation SSC receives from UCSC, which does not actually cost the University capital and, I would argue, is more than repaid by the presence of an actual professional theater company in residence, the projected shortfall for 2012 was 350K.  Do you really expect us to believe that this year, the total shortfall was over double that?  The accusation is ludicrous.  And if it were true, the idea that the University would allow the festival to go so egregiously over budget makes you, as the power that is supposed to keep the festival in check, at least as - if not more - responsible for the mismanagement.

No Legacy Is So Rich As Honesty

I can't help but wonder, also, when the University settles its books as opposed to when the Festival does.  Having spent my life working in academia and professional theaters, I suspect that the University figures out its finances in June, which is right when the Festival has spent the most (artist fees, production budgets, materials, crews) but before any of its ticket revenues have come in, which according to your own numbers, account for almost half of the total revenue.  In fact, Theatre Communications Group's (TCG) most recently compiled data indicates that, on average, total ticket income accounts for only 42% of the overall budget of a not-for-profit theater in this country, making SSC almost ten percent above the national mean. (p.8)

Omittance Is Very Much Quittance

And let's face it: The exit-pursued-by-a-bear in the room is the fact that you omitted your Artistic Director's name from the press release IN ITS ENTIRETY.  Seriously dude, WTF?  Who shuts down a theater company without at least acknowledging the guy who's been running it for the last six years, whose productions have received nearly-universal critical acclaim, and who led a fund-raising campaign one year after getting the job to keep the Festival afloat?  Didn't anyone tell you what poor manners that shows, and how the omittance just calls attention to your major sketchiness?  And who closes a theater company without bothering to inform its Artistic Director?  And in the middle of its season.  We in the theater know that timing is everything.

I can't help but thinking about Shakespeare's quote on slander from CYMBELINE, Act III/scene iv:


Whose edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue 

Outvenoms all the worms of Nile, whose breath 

Rides on the posting winds and doth belie 
All corners of the world: kings, queens and states, 

Maids, matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave 
This viperous slander enters.

I know Marco, and I have worked for him.  If you want me to believe that he so mismanaged the company that you claim to care so much about, then show me the lack of money.  You claim that Shakespeare Santa Cruz currently carries 1.98 million dollars in debt.  That's over 100% of its annual income.  If that is the reason you cite for having to close the Festival, than I think the least you should do is release the paperwork that supports your claim.  Like Othello, I'll have some proof, if you don't mind.
What A Piece of Work Is A Man

Coincidentally, I came out to Shakespeare Santa Cruz a few weeks ago, and had the pleasure of catching HENRY V, one of the best productions (Shakespeare or otherwise) that I have ever seen.  I felt so proud to be an alum of the Festival, to have seen Charlie Pasternak play Romeo in the Glen six years ago, and to see him mature and evolve into the kind of artist capable of delivering a role-redefining performance as this play's titular character.  For all of the wonderful theater that happens in New York City, I don't often have the pleasure of sitting back and experiencing three hours of exquisitely spoken Shakespeare.  I felt humbled by the beauty of the experience.

After the show, I was approached by two members of the company.  The first was Gina Hayes.  Gina ran the audience talk-back for Lanford Wilson's BURN THIS, which I directed in Marco's inaugural season six years ago.  She told me that she was so moved and inspired by our hour-long Q-and-A answer session with the community, that she got a job working as Marco's assistant and is now pursuing a life in theater: she'll be starting a graduate program in directing at Northwestern in the fall.

Yvonne Woods and Stephen Bel Davies in my production of Burn This.  Sets - John Iacovelli.  Costumes - Oliver Gajic.
The second member of the company who approached me was Jessica Bond, the SSC Production Manager.  Jessica introduced me to her husband, Ryan, who told me that our production of BURN THIS made him understand why his wife spent so many hours toiling away at a theater when she could be making so much more money working fewer hours doing just about anything else. 

You see, by closing Shakespeare Santa Cruz, you're not just eliminating the handful of professional contracts (650/week) that you feel are so expensive.  You are denying audiences and students the chance to experience world-class Shakespeare, and the opportunity to engage with the artists who make it.

I am an Associate Artist at Shakespeare Santa Cruz.  I am one of its audience members. I donated $1000 to the fund-raising drive in 2008 to keep it alive.  I demand you provide evidence of the allegations you claim led you to terminate the Shakespeare Festival that I and so many others hold so dear.

Michael Barakiva