Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Cool Cool Considerate Men

Claire Rice is a firebrand.... and thinks you should be one too.

Not long ago, a small and angry movement among women theatre artists in the San Francisco Theatre community burst into a buzz of activity when American Conservatory Theatre announced part of its 2013-2014 season. The movement, made up partially of members of the group “Yeah, I said Feminist” and some unassociated individuals, wanted to use A.C.T. as an example of a bad producer that had not taken gender equity into account when doing season planning. One of the biggest sore thumbs was 1776, a musical with a whopping thirteen male speaking parts and only two women. As the rest of the season was released it became apparent that no other show presented in the season would balance out the musical historical sausage fest with an equally heavy female cast. Some called for a boycott (well, girl-cott to be precise). Other less confrontational advocates wanted to use the controversy as an opportunity to open a dialogue with ACT and other institutions.

While the long term reaction to the efforts of such groups as “Yeah, I said Feminist” by A.C.T. and other theatrical producing companies can’t be seen yet, the short term reaction felt, to this author anyway, tepid and unconcerned. Most reactions this author was present for were along the lines of: 1) A great deal more goes into season planning then you know. 2) It is important to look at more than one theatrical season. 3) Calling for a boycott will only make companies retreat away from open dialogue, not actively seek it out. It is more than fair to say that all three are true to a degree, though the air of condescending dismissiveness does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

“What we do we do rationally
We never ever go off half-cocked, not we
Why begin till we know that we can win
And if we cannot win why bother to begin?”

– sung by a Cool Cool Considerate Man

Being a few months out from the initial reaction to the season announcement and having gotten little back from most organizations than the above three points, the righteous anger has cooled considerably. 1776 opened with no picket lines, no angry blog posts, and no noisy reaction from a roused rabble. This member of said rabble got a ticket and decided to see what the fuss what all about.

Even from way up in the nosebleed section it was easy to see that 1776 was beautifully dressed and well performed, but it could not overcome the silliness of its nature to ascend to satirical social commentary. For every beautiful moment in “Mamma, Look Sharpe” or “Molasses and Rum” there were stupefying turns like “He Plays the Violin” and “The Egg”. The two women characters were laughably unnecessary. All of their scenes could have been cut with no harm done.

The Declaration of Independence didn’t make an appearance until the second act, but most of that act was like a breath of fresh air. After all the slow moving dialogue and needless subplots, the audience was pleasantly surprised to find out that the creation of the actual document had very high stakes and was thus entirely interesting and entertaining.

Of course, 1776 isn’t so much a picture of the year the declaration was signed, but the year in which the play was created. In the show, powerful white men stand around complaining that it’s too hot and there are too many flies while young men elsewhere die in a war that is not yet a war. These men make jokes about their own ineffectiveness as a governing body even while some outright refuse to participate. In 1969 Nixon was elected, protesters where being put down by the National Guard, and the long war that was raging in Vietnam had not yet reached it’s apex. It isn’t a far stretch to relate those times to our current ones and find the direct line between where we are as a country and why A.C.T. decided to remount a show like 1776.

I say “a show like 1776″ because 1776 was terrible. What greater signpost to the institution’s oddly backwards looking artistic aesthetic could be better than a remounting of the dusty, shamanistic, odd ball little theatrical that is 1776? It is out of date, filled with pointless little absurdities that simultaneously prevent the show from functioning as social commentary and light entertainment.

I’m going to throw out there that A.C.T. will probably never be able to figure out how to fix its ongoing and odd actor/playwright gender imbalance issues because it can’t buy enough Pledge to make their season selections shine as it is. Unfortunately, girl-cotting one of the biggest non-profit rep theaters this side of the Mississippi isn’t going to do anything. In fact, I propose we do the opposite.

Buy tickets to A.C.T. Get your snarky-ass, bitchy friends to buy tickets to A.C.T. Subscribe to the season. See their shows. Then talk. Talk out loud and a lot about what you see. We must save the regular theatre going audience from the next 1776. We need to open our mouths and start talking. Why aren’t we already? Because we are worried if we say something critical we’ll a) have to defend ourselves and/or b) possibly not get hired by A.C.T  and/or c) be seen as a hot head with nothing but ugly opinions.

A) This is always true. If you put something out there you have to defend why you did it. A.C.T. should have to defend itself too, and not just to granting organizations.

B) Do you want to get hired by A.C.T.? You, who have sat in rooms with me and derided their shows, complained about when you did work there as an usher and were treated terribly, or how when you tried to apply you never even got a “thank you for applying” email. You who STILL can’t stop talking about how much you hated War Music. You who can’t wait for the yearly touring show A.C.T. brings in because it is almost always better then anything else you’ve seen there. You who still fondly remember Black Rider and get chills down your spine when you think about that gun going off the final time, and then you remember…that was a touring show. Do You really WANT to get hired by A.C.T.?

C) Critical writing isn’t about being mean or nice. Art is a conversation. Criticism is the other side of it. Being mean or nice is the flair you attach to your honesty. Keep in mind that it isn’t nice to pander and isn’t mean to ask for something better.

This isn’t a case where someone can say “If you don’t like it, don’t go.” We are leaving it up to tourists and people trying to impress their dates to leave the most lasting impression of A.C.T. with their glowing Gold Star reviews. Why? Do they have over-priced degrees in theatre? Do they have years of theatre going and practical experience? They have no choice but to blindly follow each other about. The papers are shutting down and de-funding their theatrical review sections. Major on-line news sources don’t follow current theatre news (no, that one article on how to recognize a drama kid when you see one on BuzzFeed doesn’t count.) We need to start talking.

Start writing. Start critiquing in that beautiful poetic prose that you are known for. Stop waiting for someone else to say it. When A.C.T. announced they were doing 1776, we should have bought tickets as if it was our duty. We should have all gone with hope in our hearts that we were all wrong. And when we weren’t, we should have publicly criticized A.C.T. And then we should have bought tickets to the next show.

If I learned anything from 1776 it is that you and I need to be like John Adams. We can’t sit back with cool reasoned heads and let the people with the most money dictate to the masses what “art” is. What “good” is.

Cooler heads can twiddle their thumbs while the status-quo monopolizes the theatre going audience with their cool cool considerate theatre. Let’s you and me be hot heads. It’ll be more fun.

8 comments on “Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Cool Cool Considerate Men

  1. Erin Merritt says:

    THIS is why I love Bay Area theater. Thanks, Claire!

  2. ” If you put something out there you have to defend why you did it.”

    At the risk of sounding like an NPR soundbite: this I believe above all else. It always irks me when “artists” (or, say, the sycophantic fans around them) are unable to defend sincere creative criticism or a work so they resort to the old “S/He made it for his/herself, not for you!” If it was made for his/herself then that is the only person would have seen it. When it’s put into a public forum, then it’s susceptible to public reaction.

    Having done a pretty infamous talkback a few years ago – which had me coming strong against someone beloved in our theatre community – I’d say the only sort of truly bad criticism is that. If the “artist” is honest about their works’ intentions, and the audience sincere about their reactions, then they’ll both learn something invaluable. Not all criticism is trolling, nor is all praise brown-nosing.

  3. A. says:

    Rather than writing or critiquing that will get you nowhere, a better use of time and energy for bitter and “angry women theatre artists” would be to build their own large theatre company with a multi-million budget. Then they can program it however they want.

    • Claire Rice says:

      I would like nothing better than to have a new theatre company devoted to gender and ethnic parity to burst forth from the hills of San Francisco. Like Athena, it will be born fully formed. Like Athena, it will also be wise, courageous, and have a perfect sense of justice. Everything the company creates will be socially relevant and entertaining. It will be a perfect and shinning example for all other theatre companies to follow. It will have a national presence and be a local treasure. It will have a cult like following among young theatre artists Working there will represent the pinocle of success. It will not steal audiences from American Conservatory Theatre, but often work with them like a perfect partner. This Athenian company provides work to hundreds of artists, craftsmen, and administrators in the bay area. It sends scouts to the small independent companies in the Bay Area looking for unique and interesting shows and ideas. It accepts unsolicited scripts. It holds classes for every level of artist. It will be wonderful. I’ll love it.

      And I’ll still write about it. I’ll critique it’s shows. I’ll tell them when I think they are wrong. I’ll encourage others to do the same. This isn’t about being bitter. This isn’t about never being satisfied.

      This is about art as a conversation. Just like you and I are having.

  4. […] should note that ACT began its 2013-14 season with a production of 1776 that proved controversial once people realized that the season contained just one female writer […]

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