Last year was a hard one for theater folks in Philadelphia, and this one is likely to be, too. For some, what feels like a brutal callout culture doesn’t leave room for change or growth and is tantamount to censorship. Others have been made small by sexual exploitation and blatant racism, and find it almost more painful now that these issues are being brought to light.
Criticism is hard within any artistic community, and it’s not something at which we in Philly theater are skilled. We hate one professional critic, forgive the rest, and generally keep our own opinions close. Some of us pay the rent this way — and all of us covet the social capital we build with other artists.
"She likes it, she's a slut."
We are each other’s friends, but also each other’s potential source of employment. Theater people have a reputation for being phony, and this is probably why. Whether we like it or not, every interaction is an audition where being completely honest is inadvisable.
I recall an audition for a show on which I was assistant director. We were hiring a male partner for the female romantic lead, and when the first actor stepped in, the director blithely instructed, “I want you to really let loose for this, do whatever you want to her. She likes it, she’s a slut.” In one brief moment, the woman's eyes met mine. I saw her terror, shame, and vulnerability. They did the scene. The following actors got the same speech.
After auditions, we all had a drink together. I didn’t mention it and neither did she. We never would have. Not just because she was at work and I was trying to build a relationship, but also because the assumptions of confident people are roughly equal to the truth. I think this is the hardest thing to understand about this kind of interaction.
There is personal injury, and then there is injury that fits into a system or pattern. When hurtful things happen to women, queer people, trans people, and people of color, it contributes to a working understanding that the insult is true. It makes more sense to believe we are out of step with reality than it does to think that something terrible is happening and no one cares. Besides, these are our friends.
Not breaking ranks matters on a deep instinctual level. When everyone is laughing, saying “that’s not funny” feels like stepping into traffic. However, more people in the theater community are doing it.
Stopping traffic with truth
We should be ashamed that those who suffer most were first to step out. Allies have moved in the wake of that bravery and stood beside them. In conversations online and in person, it has become less frightening to point out the harm — because when enough people are in the road, cars have to stop.
Still, plenty of confused motorists among us cannot figure out why their commute is being halted. I am certain that if I called out the name of the aforementioned director today, he would be shocked and hurt. He considers himself a feminist and an ally. Unchallenged assumptions are the reality upon which he’s built his career.
When something that used to be fine suddenly isn’t, the result is usually defensiveness and anger. But we need a stronger response than politeness, deference or civility. We need love. Real love is work. It requires negotiating truth and, where possible, reconciliation. Real love can hold hurt and anger. When I didn’t say anything to the director, when I didn’t protect the actor, I was being polite. I wasn’t acting out of love for them or for theater itself.
I wish I could say that this truth has always been obvious to me, but it came from a conversation with actor Carlo Campbell when we discussed solutions to Philly theater’s inclusion problem. Carlo isn’t naive. He spoke about the brutality of white supremacy and the othering silence in our theaters. Still, he said, “I don’t care if it sounds cheesy, because it’s true: We need love. None of us is in this for the money. No one is getting rich. Why don’t we come at each other with love?”
Our artistic community is based on relationships that are trapped in a strange combination of the transactional and the sacred. The transactional can be made to comply with rules and contracts, but the sacred will only thrive with love.