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June 05, 2008


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George Gibbs. That makes so much more sense than what everyone was speculating.

Annie D.

So there's that.

Some of the most brilliantly understated acid sarcasm I've ever seen on the internets. (I think.)


As in...Ross? Tell me they got Christina Pickles to play Mother Gibbs. Oh please!

Mark Jeffries

Now--are there any theories why Schwimmer's being slammed so hard by Jones' commenters? And why Billy Petersen and Gary Sinese aren't dismissed as "TV actors" along with Schwimmer?

As for me, I suspect that there's been a hostility among some in the theater community towards Lookingglass (which is not necessarily towards Schwimmer by himself) that was successfully squelched by the media that was all too happy to parrot the League's "we're all a big happy theater family in Chicago" meme unchallenged before the blogosphere came around to bury that bromide forever. And I believe that this hostility towards Lookingglass also extends to the House, which is in many ways the Gen-Y, pop culture version of Lookingglass (and they freely admit that Lookingglass is one of their influences). Not a solid theory, just a belief. Have I got something or am I full of shit?


Mark - I don't think you're completely off-base. I have noticed a lingering resentment towards Lookingglass similar to the resentment some feel towards the House, and I'd wondered if it's just a matter of people finding nothing to appreciate about the aesthetics. Since both companies tend to traffic in spectacle-based theater (Lookingglass more proudly so), I imagine that they get slammed by people who complain that it ain't real theater unless it's got some "dramatic" weight on its bones...the idea that the storefront producing True West is intrinsically more valid than acrobats retelling Greek mythology.

Couple that, I think, with a little bit of envy for a company that doesn't really have to struggle as most other companies in Chicago do--having a few celebrities in the ensemble helps, as does the dollar space they were given by the city.

In my mind, I have to believe that the company as a whole, as well as Anna Shapiro and Jessica Thebus, were ready to hear people grumbling that Schwimmer is too old to play George, and have already determined how to counter that in the production itself.


Although I should hastily add, that my "spectacle-based" theory of derision doesn't quite explain why I don't notice the same sort of negativity towards Redmoon.

Mark Jeffries

Probably because Redmoon used to have lots of kids from poor neighborhoods involved in those Halloween and winter pageants they used to do. Those sort of things almost defy people to attack them on a social services basis.

It perhaps also helps when you only do a couple of shows indoors a year in a relatively out-of-the-way place with relatively little publicity (even if they were the first TOC cover--a pleasant surprise, since I thought it was going to be either Oprah or Mancow) and you don't charge admission to your big outdoor show. Personally, I'm surprised that they don't get sniped at by the fringe community because of all that corporate underwriting they get--perhaps they're respected by the fringe too much to get the "sellout!" finger pointed at them.


Re: Mark's comment about resentment/hostility towards the House (with apologies for completely diverging from the post topic)

I've thought and talked about this a bit with several people in the theatre community over the past few years. I don't doubt that a certain amount of sour grapes and straight up envy is involved. But I think the issue from a lot of people's point of view seems to be insularity (or the appearance of insularity)- i.e., that it isn't the success of the House that was sticking in people's craws so much as the lack of any kind of artistic exchange between them and the rest of the Off-Loop scene. After listening to the artistic director of one company (don't bother guessing, you won't get it right) try to verbalize their issue with the House a few years back, they agreed with this summing up on my part of what they were saying: "essentially, you're saying you get this vibe from them that they think, 'of *course* everyone in Chicago checks out our work, we're awesome...but *your* work? Well, we just can't be bothered." It seemed like for a while you didn't see House company members out and about seeing work produced by other similarly-sized companies, or participating in projects with other companies. And for awhile very few non-company members ever appeared on stage with the House (since improved, but bluntly, not by much). Which has come across as standoffishness and/or snottiness to some people.
I don't know where I stand personally on that. I've loved some of their work (even bought a DVD or two), and I've thought that some of their work has needed more polishing. The company members I've met seem to be okay folks. And bottom line: it's their company. They can run it however the hell they want.
But as a performer, I know there have been times when I've gotten vexed with other performers I know when I regularly come out to see their stuff but they never make it to mine. Quid pro quo is certainly not my main motive for seeing shows, but I notice if I've seen an actor in the past eight things they've done and they haven't bothered to catch me onstage even once. And sooner or later, it does start to matter. Does that kind of irritation happen between companies as well?
Just my scattered thoughts. Am I completely off base here or am I touching a chord?


To comment on a positive level about the House ... they have come to see a couple of GreyZelda productions because a few people who who went to school with them were involved in our shows as actors, so ... they got out to see a small, storefront company. Like everything, it depends on who they know. And they went to college with some of our peoples.

They are also very busy people who collaborate outside of the company on projects, as well.

I think the David Schwimmer issue (which is really stupid to me - the show hasn't even opened but people feel entitled to rip it apart just because they don't agree with a casting choice) is different than the animosity towards the House. Which, Ed, I think you're exactly right ... comes from envy above all other things. I would love to have the houses, audience enthusiasm and constant group of collaborators to work on our shows and very much envy them that. What theatre company wouldn't want that?

But, yes, it's definitely a complicated, grey-based distinction and everybody's motivations are different.



Oh, and add press support, touch of luck and constant word of mouth to the envy list.



Personally, I dislike the House because they don't produce plays that aren't written by white males. It's the ultimate young boys club.

Mark Jeffries


You could say the same thing about a lot of other companies in this town. At least two of their three shows last season were directed by women--and I don't think Molly Brennan would allow herself to be around a "boys club."


I also dislike those companies.
Those two shows were the first shows in six season with women at the helm (and about time,) They're back to all-male directors this season. Anyway, I was talking about playwrights, not directors.

They've done a huge, huge amount of new work in the time they've been around- seven seasons of all new plays. Which makes the homogeneity of the playwrights very striking.


Since the plays are largely created in-house, though, you could ask if the issue is that the company doesn't seem to hire women with an interest in writing for the company. Then again, you could also ask if that's even an issue at all--if the women of the House are satisfied working in every other capacity except playwriting...if they have no desire to do so...then that's not necessarily a knock on the company.

If there's some sort of definitive proof that the House actively stifles their female playwrights, that's another thing.


I know that female company members write, and that female company members have submitted work to the season selection. There is of course, like, one company member of color. Also, they did once do a play by a non-company member (white male).

I think it's a specious argument anyway, Bilal. If a business had no female CEOs, could you defend it by saying its female employees are satisfied in every way working as secretaries?

That's not a completely fair example- playwrights not being CEOs, and the House having had fully 10% of its shows directed by females. But for me, 20 world premieres by white dudes- and only white dudes- is a knock on any company, no matter how many conceivable excuses there are.

It's related to the generalized insularity that gets on some people's nerves- but that's how these clubby networks start to have larger societal problems, when their insularity reliably hits some groups above others. TOC did a pretty neat article on this as it relates to race. The bad mojo works on gender, too.

I wonder what counts as "definitive proof that the House actively stifles their female playwrights." A secret "no-girlz" manifesto? Video footage of the literary manager sneaking into female company members' apartments and smashing their computers? And going bwa-hah-ha?

As in so many cases, there's no plot. There's just an unfortunate thing that keeps happening because it's not examined.


MS - I think you're extrapolating what I said into a specious argument. Your CEO example is not at all what I was getting at.

I didn't know that their female company members wrote. If their women are writing but not being given a shot to see that writing produced, that's pretty much the sort of suspect behavior I was wondering about, although I find your hypothetical image really funny.

My point was that I had no knowledge that any of their women were even interested in playwriting for the House, and I couldn't just assume that they had any such interest, when it was just as likely that the women who are currently members of the House prefer to focus on acting, directing, dance, music, etcetera. (The question that would spring from that, of course, is "Why doesn't the House seem to attract into their company female performers who also want to write?" But as you contend their current membership includes women writers, that question is moot.)


"20 world premieres by white dudes- and only white dudes- is a knock on any company..."

MS, I must admit that comment raised my hackles. In my opinion the only real responsibility of a theatre company is to produce good work that fits its mission statement. If the mission statement of the company deals with diversity (Twenty Percent for example), that's one thing. If 20% started doing plays by white dudes, their audience base would be completely justified in saying, "what the hell?!" But otherwise I strongly feel choosing scripts should always be about the plays themselves, and never the demographic of the playwright. A play either knocks me on my rear end when I read it or it doesn't- and that has happened with playwrights of both genders (for example, Paula Vogel is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, with her "The Baltimore Waltz" being among my favorite modern scripts).

If I were running a company I would never, ever want to feel pressured to favor a script simply because of the gender, race, religion, or any other quality of the playwright. Of far more crucial importance is how I respond to the actual play.

So I guess my thesis here is that we should be calling for and supporting the formation of more theatre companies (or stand-alone productions) that make such diversity part of their missions, rather than knocking the existing companies that weren't formed with that kind of mission in mind.

Taking a broader (and possibly more incendiary) point of view on it- what is more important? That a playwright be female, or that a play have strong well fleshed out female characters? The play "On the Verge" is written by a guy, but the script is dominated by three amazing female characters- better and stronger characters, I think, than the one female character in, for example, the Wendy McLeod play "Juvenilia." Or to draw on the company under discussion, yes, many of the House shows were written by guys, but have very strong and nifty female characters in them- i.e. "The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz," "The Nutcracker," "The Sparrow," etc., etc.


And the instant I finish posting, I remember that there's actually two female characters in Juvenilia. I still think the example's accurate.


As a playwright of an ethnic minority, I agree with Ed. If you like the play I wrote, then produce it. If you aren't incredibly excited about the play but you really want to include in your season a minority playwright...

...well, honestly, I don't have the cache to stand on principle, but for me the experience will always feel a little tainted.


How does David Schwimmer starring in Our Town bring up all this vitriol about the House exactly? It's like MS was just looking for an opening and now the House is being snarked about, as per usual. MS, not to get all Gandhi up in here, but why not be the change you want to see? March into the House's offices and demand that your voice and other female voices be heard and then see what they have to say for themselves. And, if you don't like what you hear, you can either start producing stuff yourself or blog about it. I'd suggest the former.


Mark Jeffries

Guilty, Rebecca, in innocently bringing up the similarities between Lookingglass and the House. Ed took it and ran with it (with an apology), but I started it. If your next show has the audience confrontation elements that you added to "The Skriker," you are perfectly free to have the actors wipe me on the floor. :)


Whoah, RZ. Let it be known that I didn't bring up the House. Mark did, way back in comment #4, and three people joined in, including you. I just brought up a reason for resentment that's a little meatier and more interesting than "dang-blasted spectacle theatre." There's no need to take a discussion that is now stemming from a basic difference in principles, and make it personal. (Plus, marching into people's offices is rude, and might attract the attention of the secret computer smashing task-force.)

So, back to that basic difference in principals. We're kind of setting up this dichotomy between "selection based on aethetic" and "politically correct selection." Bilal/Ed, I think YOU think I'm arguing that "policitally correct selection" is more important than making good theatre. But I believe- really, truly, totally, firmly- that a conscious effort to be inclusive will lead to a net aesthetic benefit- that is, better theatre. Why? Because the world provides an amazing, hugely effective affirmative action program for upper-class white males. Now, the people who are being shut out, statistically, HAVE to include some great frickin' artists. Hence, broadening the net leads to better art. Just going with the flow leads to art based on the tiny group of homogenous people you learned about in college, made with the same tiny group of homogenous people you met in college. Ed, you're operating from the premises that the only thing that matters in season selection is a pure, gut aesthetic reaction to the play- and you know that's not how it works.

Ok- take Silk Road (the local company that focuses on Bilal's neck of the diaspora). By and large, the Silk Road playwrights are not being produced by anyone else in Chicago (I might be wrong about this, didn't have time for an extensive fact check). Aren't we better off because of it? Otherwise, it's like "Please sir, can I have some more Neil LaBute?" But I personally prefer that we don't ghettoize, or at least don't exclusively ghettoize. (Particularly when it comes to women, who make up just over half of the population, and have exactly one really small company dedicated to their work in Chicago. There are like two all-female seasons in Chicago this year, and dozens of all-male seasons.)

So, until the world is less crazily unjust, theatre companies that focus on underrepresented voices are necessary, and theatre companies that only do stuff by white dudes are part of the problem.

P.S. Ed asked what's more important: "that a playwright be female, or that a play have strong well fleshed out female characters?" I think by now you can guess how I'd respond to that, down to how I'd completely reframe the question. But I'd like to ask if you'd feel comfortable extending that question to "non-whites." I know I wouldn't.


Oh, and thanks Mark, for taking the blame for the thread drift. It's not like I haunt the internets, looking for ways to bring theatre blogging comments and feminist blogging comments together. I mean, really, I don't.


Mark - Expect a visit from the Dark Fairy. =)

MS - Well, if marching right in isn't your style, then that's fine. But, it still remains ... what can you do or are currently doing to make the world a little less "crazily unjust?" Are you on the inside circuit of the House? Do you know those female playwrights of which you speak? Tell them to leave the company or to start branching out to other companies that do produce female playwrights in town. Tell them to bring their voices up if they're unhappy about not being heard. We can get mad at the "white dudes" all we want, but the mad needs to turn into action.



Rz- Argh! I'm sure you mean well, but you're using an argument that comes up every single time anyone brings up issues of media representation. Ie:

Feminist blogosphere: How about more women in the movies?
Inevitable commenter: Why don't you make your OWN movies if you don't like it?
Feminist blogsphere: Holy god!

Yeah, so plays are lower budget, but still. "So what are you doing about it?" is not a useful or appropriate response to a critique. Especially since you don't know. It shuts stuff down, makes it personal, and turns things into yet another internet bona-fides chest bump. Since we are currently discussing stuff on the internet, we have to proceed from the assumption that discussing stuff on the internet is worthwhile, or else the whole enterprise gets needlessly tail-eating.

For what it's worth, I totally believe that consciousness raising can happen on media blogs. Blogs radicalized the heck out of me, I can tell you that. To go back to the House, they didn't really start having strong, interesting female characters until they were publically critiqued for lacking them. This blog is, in my view, a way more appropriate forum than directly, privately confronting strangers.

And no- I don't know any of these inside circuit people, not at all. I'm just a radical feminist theatre fan who pays attention. But if I did know someone from ANY company who came to me with these sorts of not-heard feelings, I would never tell them "Be the change you want to see in the world! Bring your voice up if you're unhappy about being heard" because I'd get SMACKED.

It goes back to what might be called the essential liberal premise. If people are in a certain position, it's not necessarily because they deserve it. I always assume that underrepresented groups are trying their damndest to be represented. It may not always be true, but that's where my doubt accrues its benefits.

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  • Kris Vire
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