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My first encounter with Peggy McIntosh‘s concept of “the invisible knapsack” was in 1999. I was 23 years old. I had just moved to Washington, DC a few months prior to work at Arena Stage in the education department (a two person plus an intern office at that time). We were to work closely with Living Stage Theatre Company, seek alignment between the “two organizations” (not really separate since Living Stage was a part of Arena but that’s another story). The entire staff at Living Stage and the education department went through an intensive, multi-day anti-racism/anti-oppression training with the great Rebecca Rice and Erika Thorne. I contextualize because it was a gift I thank the universe for every day.

It was the first time I became aware of the reality of systemic racism, White supremacy, and the backpack of privilege I carry with me everywhere.

walking-backpacks-canvas-rucksack-backpack-for-school.jpgW.E.B. Du Bois described the concept of “psychological wage”in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction in America. It was a mindset, a status boost, that allowed White laborers to feel superior, to feel better-than Black ones in the workplace despite being on the same employment level. Du Bois would go on to identify the colonial activity of Europeans and subsequent “White supremacy” across the world. While the term “white-skin privilege” was used during the Civil Rights era by activities, it wasn’t until Peggy McIntosh, a Women’s Studies scholar at Wellesley, wrote her essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” in 1988 that the term gained traction.

McIntosh, a White woman like me, was “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” But in methodically going through and identifying the daily, seemingly mundane effects of her White Privilege–her mind was blown.

My mind was also blown when my knapsack was pointed out in 1999… and I journeyed through a series of extremely typical responses people of privilege do when confronted for the first time (in this case White people confronted with White privilege and systemic racism):

  • What?!? No!
  • Sure, but not me? I’m not like that.
  • All White people!?!?
  • But I’ve had friends who are not White. I’ve dated non-Whites. I’ve….
  • Does this mean [enter Black friend’s name] won’t be my friend anymore?
  • Not me.
  • Oh my, me? Me? 

And this was not a five-minute journey. And there was crying. Because of course there was. There was a lot of guilt. There were long periods of knapsack removal and ignoring attempts. There was a long stretch of extreme over-compensation in which I was the most obnoxious “righteous not-listening person because ‘I am a person in-the-know’.”

At this point, I think I’m in a phase of perpetual “working on it.” But that’s a wobbly phase. The knapsack, it is invisible and therefore so easy to forget. There’s no ridding myself of it. There’s no emptying it. Somedays I am back in my “not-listening person” state and bless the patience of everyone around me as I swing my knapsack around and point screaming at all the knapsacks on everyone around me. [shudders at self with embarrassment, then gets over it]

The point: privilege is a knapsack society packed for us and slapped on our backs. The first step on the journey is acknowledging it’s there.

Is that your bag? Yup.


Not familiar with McIntosh’s article? Follow this link for a commonly excerpted version.

Because

May 5, 2015 — Leave a comment

WhyB_500x500_squareI’ve been in a major U.S. city the past four days running auditions for a dog & pony dc show produced by another company. The auditions consisted of three 2-hour open-call “workshops.” After the first two audition/workshops I expressed mild concern over the diversity in the pool thus far (three people of color, everyone was able bodied) despite our stress that the roles were only specific in terms of an age range and gender (and even those could be negotiated a bit). I inquired if my dog & pony dc colleague and I could take some action, maybe go through casting files and call in actors of color at an added audition? We would make ourselves available for whatever it would take.

Long story short: the answer was no. The theatre would tap some people in the area to see if they could nudge communities but we would not be engaging in any acts of “discrimination” in the manner I suggested.

In the meantime, back home in our nation’s capitol, dog & pony dc continues to openly wrestle with (among many other topics) diversity and inclusion. And on day four of my stay in the major U.S. city, after the casting was complete, I had a meeting with a subgroup of ensemble members to work on our homework. The question was raised by one of my colleagues, which has been raised by others before at different times explicitly and in not so many words: “What do we want? Why are ‘we’ having these conversations?”

We discussed some answers, revisiting some ground that had been covered and also going deeper with some of us individually.

But the point of all this…

I awoke just after 3:00 this morning having dreamt of fighting collusion and supremacy in two different languages and battling not only with my enemies, but also with my partners and myself.

“Why” are we having these conversations is no longer a useful question as far as I’m concerned. It’s an evasive one. It’s an excuse.

Because Freddie Gray.
Because Trayvon Martin.
Because Carl Dupree.
Because Matthew Shepard.
Because Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six.
Because Catalina Sandino Moreno in Medeas.
Because Daniel Handler at the 2014 National Book Awards.
Because unpaid internships.
Because complicated grant applications.
Because privilege.
Because responsibility.
Because hope.
Because reckless imagining.
Because change and building shit is hard

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, and we sure as hell shouldn’t do it alone.

I don’t “blame” the theatre for not doing more. I “blame” myself for not remembering that I needed to take action months ago with them and without them in order to ensure we had done our thorough due diligence to meet, educate, and welcome. And “we” are having the conversation because “I” am not an independent artist I am an ensemble artist. So I also “blame” the ensemble for not reminding me that we needed to take action months ago with them and without them to meet, educate, and welcome.

I know for sure that we will continue our process of meeting and educating in this major U.S. city, and then, hopefully, allowing the art to ultimately serve as a facilitation for some of these conversations as part of the performance. Because we need to have them.

flesh colored crayonsIn honor of February, I propose an official ban on the phrase “I don’t see color” and derivative phrases of this sentiment used in the non-profit theatre community like “color-blind [___fill in the blank___].”

Who’s with me?

Not convinced already.

/sigh

  •  Watch part two of Jane Elliot’s The Angry Eye, starting at 10:00 (ps found one #withcaptions). Sharing not as an endorsement necessarily, but at 10:15 she asks a student if he identifies as male and black; he confirms he does. She asks if it is important to him ; he confirms it is. Why would we want to deny this of him by “not seeing” it, she asks.
  • Did anyone hear about Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of “colored people” in an interview with Tavis Smiley, referring to black actors? (what he said at bottom of article) Yes, the phrase “People of Color” is widely used, abbreviated to POC. I have also heard POC referred to as “People of Culture” which I both am interested in (gets away from “colored people”) and uncomfortable with (moves us in the #allLivesmatter direction). This is a roundabout way of saying, let’s check our vilifications and generalizations.
  • In December Lavina Jadhwani (Artistic Associate, Silk Road Rising and Oak Park Festival Theatre) shared her thoughts on color conscious casting in a HowlRound journal article. She details the process she and her design team went through in casting The Dutchess of Malfi at DePaul University. Getting a thorough look inside their decision making—fascinating. But what I loved was how concisely she summarized “the issue” in her opening paragraph: “I can’t think of an environment, in real life, where race doesn’t factor into relationship dynamic….I prefer the term ‘color conscious casting,’ by which I mean that race is acknowledged in, and ideally deepens, theatrical conversations.”

While my undergrad theatre instruction was narrow, it taught me that “to ignore” is not an active verb tactic. The same is true of white people when it comes to negotiating conversations about race.

If you too decide to ban “color-blind [___fill in the blank___]” from here on out, I recommend starting with reading Jadhwani’s HowlRound piece and these two articles. The first one (shared with me by the amazing Natalie Hopkinson who you should also follow because, well, she’s amazing) eventually introduced me to the word “unbalanced” to describe the feeling people of privilege have when discussing or navigating situations that spotlight their privilege. It’s not something we’re used to seeing. But it is a part of our identity, and there’s humbling strength to embrace it.


FWIW, Benedict Cumberbatch said:

“I think as far as colored actors go it gets really different in the U.K., and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change.”

“We’re not representative enough in our culture of different races, and that really does need to step up apace.”

How long have I been percolating on engagement and the arts? At least since 2006.

In cleaning my office, found these notes from the 2006 TCG Annual Conference in Atlanta. The topic? “Building Future Audience”

Thought I would share some notes from Kevin McCarthy’s “Understanding Arts Participation as a Behavioral Process,” a panel entitled “Who is the Audience of the Future?” with Guy Garcia and Wendy Puriefoy, moderated by Susan Booth and a closing address from TCG’s former executive director, Ben Cameron.

Enjoy (if you can read) and THANKS TCG for being awesome.

Previously on A Big Eyed Fish, in defining audience engagement I noted that it was “artcentric” and differed from community engagement and audience development.

In order to better show the relationship between a work of art, audience and community engagement, and audience development, I whipped up this infographic using my low-tech graphic design skills in PowerPoint:

Slide1Totally clears it all up, right?

Ok. Unlike a really excellent infographic, mine needs a little additional explanation.

Starting with the work of art:

  • The artwork drives our audience engagement programming choices. There’s a strong one-way relationship there and lots of overlap.
  • IMHO: audience engagement programming creation works best if we involve many different micro-communities or stakeholders  in the process. As a result of the art making or audience engagement program creation, we may form relationships with individuals outside our current artist/staff/board/audience/volunteer sphere. As soon as these new-to-us individuals or organizations become key participants in programming, this transitions into “community engagement.”* There is a strong two-way relationship between strategic community engagement and audience engagement, with some overlap.
  • The strong two-way relationship between audience and community engagement can result in a strong, positive audience growth for that specific artwork/art event or audience engagement program. It’s possible that as a result, this could result in future audience and community engagement programming.

While my infographic pales in comparison in terms of creativity and exploration of content, I believe it serves as a helpful reminder.  Each “programming area” has a distinct objective and, while related, they do not seek to achieve the same ends. Actors cannot play two objectives. Neither can engagement programmers. Don’t ignore what else is happening, but play out your part to its fullest.

 

*Note: as soon as one embarks on “community engagement” a different set of rules of engagement (pun intended) apply. More at another time but worth saying that you cannot “drag and drop” people. 

New blogger request for forgiveness, the original post needed more before I moved on. All updates, made 1/24/15 appear in this fetching orange.

A Google search of audience engagement yields a bevy of infographics:
Audience Engagement Confusion

And many definitions… (underlining all mine)

From Doug Borwick’s blog Engagement Matters:

“Audience Engagement is a marketing strategy designed for deepening relationships with current stakeholders and expanding reach over time. Also internally focused (artcentric), it may result in new modes/venues of presentation and means of illuminating/explaining the arts to the public. Typically, ‘outreach’ is an example of audience engagement.”

From Trevor O’Donnell’s blog Marketing the Arts to Death(link updated)

“Development professionals are unusually adept at initiating, nurturing and sustaining relationships with community members so the fit is ideal: engagement is merely an extension of the work that development departments already do.”

From WolfBrown’s Report Making Sense of Audience Engagement:

“Audience engagement is defined as a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant. Others refer to this vein of work as ‘enrichment programming’ or ‘adult education.’

Is it a “marketing strategy” as Mr. Borwick suggested? What does that mean for measuring success–ultimately only in numbers of people and dollars through the door?

Is it more relationship cultivation akin to development as Mr. O’Donnell suggested? If we embraced this, might it dramatically alter arts funding practices?

Is it essentially an organizing principle + strategic thinking framework as WolfBrown suggested? Why look outside of arts organizations’ artistic programming to do that; why not radiate from the artistic experience outward? Engagement as artistic imperative?

#thisdefiningaudienceengagementshitcanbesuperconfusing

SO WHY DON’T YOU TAKE MY WORD FOR IT!?!

Slide3

You caught me: I launched another definition into the blogosphere. But the intention of doing so, as an artist-administrator obsessed with integrating artistic and organizational advancement work, is to simplify and personalize, and stop the “whose responsibility should it be” back-and-forth that many definitions of audience engagement result in.

Points of clarification:

  • “Artcentric”: extending Mr. Borwick’s definition, audience engagement is driven by our role as artists in our community; therefore, our sweep of activities is going to be driven by our work (a.k.a. the art).
  • Mission Oriented (or even driven!): audience engagement should be an extension of your raison d’etre. Work within the enabling constraints of why the organization exists and what it seeks to accomplish.
  • Organization Curated: at the most basic level, someone inside the organization originated the audience engagement program idea or is saying “yes” or “no”; organizations can provide tremendous leeway and agency to collaborators and partners but audience engagement is selected and “held” by the organization.
  • Different from Community Engagement and Audience Development: these all have different outcomes. (More on IMHO the difference in a future post).

In addition to knowing why your particular organization (based on its mission) is embarking on this “audience engagement” thing, a baseline of shared values must exist and woven into the fabric of every activity.

Slide4

And that seems as good a place as any to stop, and step away from the keyboard. 

Do you have a preferred definition of audience engagement, whether it’s your’s or someone else’s?

We at A Big Eyed Fish would love to hear it!

Are we being honest with ourselves about audience engagement work?  Let’s take a second look…

 

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time-for-a-change-pic

 

 

Seems par for the course that I would start out 2015 blogging about the use of jargon-y words and then jump right in the following week using words like “meme-ification” and “authenticity” and referencing “Walter Benjamin” (pronounced Ben-ya-mean because, of course, Germany,) but here goes nothing.

I had never heard of #BlackBrunch until someone brought it up in the office the other day. This particular form of protest is simple, non-violent, and (I think) packs a punch. A group of African American protesters walk into a restaurant during peak brunch hours and read off the names of victims of police brutality, those we’ve heard of before and those we haven’t. In between each name, the group will say “ashe” (ah-SHAY), a Yoruba term that translates loosely as “amen” or “so be it.” They then called on patrons to stand in solidarity (to varying degrees of success, I imagine). This ritual from start to finish takes four-and-a-half minutes; this time is specific to reflect that Michael Brown’s body was left on the street for four-and-a-half hours in Ferguson, MI.*

This phenomenon appears to have started in either Oakland, CA or New York City, NY — which came first is unclear and probably not important. What is of note is that due to Twitter presence, this #BlackBrunch protest/ritual has been copied, even “gone viral” (the byline that the LA Times wants you to tweet out) and has already been seen in DC, as my friend was explaining.

The conversation that ensued in the office became one about authenticity. When an act of protest like that is replicated so many times, does it reach the intent of the proto-action, the very first time it was enacted? Does it echo it? Does it honor it?

One hand of the argument would say it doesn’t, and with each imitation it loses a level of sophistication, the complexity involved with the action itself. Like taking a picture of the Mona Lisa, which will not, and never be, the real live Mona Lisa with its two-hundred-plus year old paint on canvas and dust and all of that.

The other hand of the argument would say it does and it can.

I managed to catch the end of a morning program on NPR, listening to some folks talk about Hashtag Activism, which I feel like is coming up more and more in conversation as of late with #JeSuisCharlie — the women on this program were speaking specifically on the tag #BringBackOurGirls. “What is hashtag activism really doing?” the host inquires. It is no surprise that a hashtag won’t make the Boko Haram return kidnapped young girls, but it will, one expert mentioned, “make (Boko Haram) a name that can be said in households.” It raises consciousness.

Meme-ification has its perks. It means that the thing (the idea, behavior, or style [x]) being replicated or imitated can easily be replicated, and therefore has a shot at becoming a widely adopted belief.

This idea of meme-ification got me thinking on the subject of authenticity and art, which I explored a lot in a Visual Anthropology course in undergrad. We read “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (remember: Ben-yah-mean) which you are welcome to read all of here if you have an afternoon.

So, following the logic that ritual is the root of performance, which would then make the #BlackBrunch protest a kind of art…. what would our BFF Benjamin have to say about meme-ification of protests/rituals like #BlackBrunch?

In this article, Benjamin’s big theory is, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” I’m just going to include this excerpt from section two of this essay for you:

“The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated… In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.”

He goes on to refer to this sensitive authenticity nucleus as an art object’s “aura.”

So it sounds like #BlackBrunch is screwed, right? “…the historical testimony rests on the authenticity (…) what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.” Yikes. Authority jeopardized doesn’t sound great. Until he starts talking about performance.

Describing the reproduction of an actor’s performance in film (which to him, film is one big mechanical reproduction) he sums it up:

“This situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it.

Okay, so, “aura” tied to the “sensitive nucleus” of authenticity… this could then substantiate an argument that #BlackBrunch is an authentic, meaningful form of protest, yeah? I think Benjamin would agree (and Brecht would probably love it too, as a concept.)

I think I land on the side of Benjamin here. As long as live human beings are connected to the center of the protest, they will be authentic. They will be heard, even if they are dismissed, ignored, or stood up with in solidarity. I think as far as non-violent and meaningful protests go, this one is beautiful.

*Thanks LA Times for breaking down what happens during #BlackBrunch so simply, since I’ve not witnessed it yet myself. You can read their article here.

 

Melanie Harker is a conspirator with dog & pony dc, as well as Rachel Grossman’s sidekick. You can see her musings @MelanieGwynne on twitter.

Prologue

I am following up on recent DC theatre community hullabaloo and this New York Times piece about Oscar nominees.

Cannonball

This is a Helen Hayes Award:

It does close to nothing to advance individual theatre artists or arts organizations. Being nominated or receiving one. That is not meant to be an ungracious statement in the least. But really: let’s dispense with this belief.

#1

I was over the moon ecstatic for my husband the year he was first nominated for Outstanding Lighting Design. It was one of his first shows at a larger regional theatre, early in his professional career. I was even more ecstatic when he received his first award. Both designs, in my hyper-critical-but-also-super-biased opinion, were high caliber. In subsequent years, regardless of the quality of the production, designs of his that were truly outstanding were looked over and functional designs which looked like lights on stage or were just nothing earth-shattering were nominated for awards…. and nominated in “competition” with one another.  My husband has been nominated over 10 times and received 3 HHAs. He has received ONE (1) gig as a result of the award. (Which is a long story.)

#2

Matt Wilson, J. Argyl Plath & Jon Reynolds from 2011 premiere.

I was shocked, like scene-from-a-movie said “did they just say Beertown?” shocked when dog & pony dc received its first and only HHA nomination for Outstanding New Play or Musical for Beertown. Making the show had nearly broken up the ensemble, and to have made it through the 14-month devising and production in one piece, have the show critically well received, have decided to remount a show for our first time ever, then suddenly be heading into the remount with either an HHA nomination or an HHA winner felt like a triumph for a barely 4-year old company. More importantly for us, a company no one seemed to understand, we got to the the first ensemble to be nominated for this award: 17 of us were “the playwright.” 17 of us attended together with significant others and sat together and had a lovely reunion. When they didn’t say Beertown had received the award, we breathed a strange sigh of relief. When they showed the Beertown artwork last in the coming-soon montage, all of us agreed this was the Awesomest Night Ever. Because we were there with each other.

Yes, d&pdc lists the HHA nomination as an accomplishment because it gave us street credit and matured us slightly in the eyes of some larger funders, out of town producers, etc. However: no one locally sought to hire any of us, book any of us, or give any of us money. No one who saw Beertown in summer 2012 reported on our audience survey they came because they heard about the HHA. Most reported they heard it was a great show that they missed the first time around.

And so…

The largest thing Washington, DC’s theatre service organization, theatreWashington, does for theatre companies and artists is to produce an annual awards ceremony and party. Instead of questioning that fact, the community always seems to be questioning the way tW is coordinating and producing the awards and party. In every sub sector of our community, at every budget scale level.

Radical inquiry, but are we experiencing a tension here between service priorities and community needs? Possibly a tension DC theatres and artists are unable to see because we just accept the status quo of service?

tW exists to:

  • Create and invigorate audiences
  • Strengthen the regions theatrical workforce
  • Celebrate the excellence on Washington stages

tW’s first goal is to ensure its own operational stability; second is to heighten awareness of the theatrical landscape; third is “TO UNIFY AND STRENGTHEN THE PROFESSIONAL WASHINGTON REGIONAL THEATRE COMMUNITY THROUGH INNOVATIVE AND VALUED PROGRAMS AND SERVICES.” (emphasis mine)

Once I start meditating on tWs “about us” information these questions come to mind. And so I leave them with you:

Who is in control of the service–needs narratives in our personal and professional lives? 

How can providers be responsible and accountable to their communities? 

How can communities see beyond a set needs or a sphere of interests to one that is more broad or limited, more strategically short or long term?

How can a community leverage agency?

Prologue

Wave Tension by Dale Witherow

“Do you sense a tension…”

“I’m hearing a tension…”

“Let’s explore that tension…”

The “t” word appeared many of my sentences last year as I attempted to more closely examine the relationship between beliefs or practices with conflicting implications, rather than my opinion of a particular situation.

What do I mean by “tensions”?:

  • the Narrative – Experience tension
  • the Impact – Reach tension
  • the Privilege – Responsibility tension

However: it isn’t until months later that I feel I’ve gotten enough distance on a particular event of 2014 to be able to clear my vision and articulate the tensions in spite of my opinions. I knew that when I jump started A Big Eyed Fish that I needed to force myself to tackle this topic in the first few posts.

There’s a laundry list of disclaimers I could go into, but instead I ask everyone to know that I am writing with the best intentions, writing solely from my personal perspective, and writing with the purpose of prompting reflection… and possibly dialogue.

Cannonball

This fall, Virginia-based theatre company WSC Avant Bard jointly produced the world premiere of Visible Language with Gallaudet University.  The show told “the true story of the 1890s culture war when two powerful and egotistical men—Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet—clashed over how the Deaf should be taught to communicate. The outcome of that contest…changed the life of every Deaf person in America.”

Tension: Hearing Production – Deaf Story

Visible Language was written, directed, featured, and publicly produced predominantly by hearing people. And I want to emphasize publicly produced; I was surprised to learn after see the show that it was a “joint production” (the phrase on WSC’s website) with Gallaudet University’s theatre department (addressing this next). The dominant language in the show was spoken English. The show was 100% captioned and a handful of scenes (regretfully I don’t know an exact number) transpired in American Sign Language (ASL). A number of the characters engaged in “Sim-Com” or simultaneous-communication, speaking English and signing at the same time, which is technically speaking two languages at the same time and still privileges the spoken word over the signed.

What responsibility does a company have to be aware of its own privilege when producing a show that features the history, stories, language, people, and voices of a non-dominant culture and community? What responsibility do the hearing artists who wrote and directed the show have to turning over the reins of artistic leadership of this project to their Deaf artist collaborators? Who was the most appropriate company to produce the show? Should it even have been finished in the first place, after having initially been commissioned numerous years ago by another company for which it may have been stewarded with more care? I am not suggesting that Avant Bard should not have tackled this project. I love that they did. But I question whether the privilege the hearing artists held, because they are hearing, prevented them from realizing the tremendous responsibility they were shouldering with this endeavor and the amount of capital they withheld from their collaborators.

Tension: Professional Production – University Production

 While Visible Language was a professional theatrical production, it was also the student production at Gallaudet. What is the responsibility of the producing organization to serving the needs of students when in partnership with academic institutions? The needs of the faculty and alumni? What was the impulse behind the partnership for the producing organization? What did Avant Bard provide the students of Gallaudet as far as professional training? How is that being extended beyond this one experience?

And, because Gallaudet is a higher education institution dedicated to the “advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals” and Avant Bard is a hearing theatre company…where was the imperative from Avant Bard to uphold and forward that mission through Visible Language?

Tension: Promotion of Inclusion – Maintaining Critical Standards

Washington Post closed out its review thus:Visible Language makes you want to lean in and understand.”

Washington City Paper with: “There’s something mightily impressive about the fact that a show attempting to do something so unprecedented suffers from such prosaic problems….The people who inspired Visible Language were no quitters, and its makers shouldn’t quit, either.”

DC Metro Theatre Arts noted the show “moves its audience with an urgent yearning to communicate beyond whatever barriers might exist, imagined or real.”

Which is AWESOME!

But these quotes were drawn from reviews that also commented on the production as being under-rehearsed (e.g. actors dropping large sections of lines), songs as “insipid,” script as “expository,” “moving forward with blunt strokes,” and “leading to a rushed conclusion that elicits more confusion than satisfaction.” Read all the mainstream reviews for Visible Language in full, and one gets a feeling of cheerleading an underdog.

Broadwayworld.com remarks: “Avant Bard Artistic Director Tom Prewitt, Director of Visible Language, promises a ‘unique experience for theatergoers whether they are Deaf or hearing,’ and there is no question that this is a promise fulfilled. “ How does the reviewer, who I am guessing is hearing, know this?

A Twitter conversation on #OccupyVL (a hashtag initially started just for the group I attended the show with to discuss our reactions) revealed:

@jrscoyote Yes, and the pacing and staging is driven by the music, so the signing seems ‘shoehorned’ in and suffers accordingly #OccupyVL

@DrKVG I see it as driven by ENGLISH not by music. The ASL had no connections to music in terms of beat, handshape, motion etc. #OccupyVL

Also shared on the hashtag from the blog Surdus Explores:

“Most songs are given the SEE [Signed Exact English] treatment, which renders them fairly meaningless. A poem closes the show; it receives the same treatment. While SEE can help us perceive the English side of a poem in writing, it doesn’t lend itself to the performance of meaning.”

I share all this not to debate or debunk the critics, or to say the production was not a worthy endeavor. On the contrary—the exact opposite. However: what is the balance of critical review and promotion of inclusion, of equity, on DC stages? What role can the media play in this? How might the critics, writing for audiences not artists, encourage mainstream population (i.e. hearing) attendance at productions like Visible Language but in a way that doesn’t perpetuate cycles of inspiration porn?

And so…

Still, three months after seeing the show, I remain disappointed in my hearing peers’ decisions with this production. While I don’t believe they acted with any ill intentions, I believe they acted with the paper bag of hearing privilege over their heads. Who knows whether it was the scope of the project, the notoriety, the possibility for notoriety, or just the simply not knowing, and with some education, thinking you know all?

Not knowing the full story, I can only surmise based on what it felt like from the outside.

The tension in the tangled

But I am left with these questions, and so I leave you:

  • What is the producers’ responsibility in carrying conversations forward that their productions begin, once the show is done?
  • What is the tension between the privilege we have as non-profit arts organizations and our responsibility to the communities with which we collaborate? the communities we serve? the greater communities that support us?