I honestly wish I could figure out what makes one blog post a roaring success, and another a blip on the radar. Certainly the topic under discussion has some impact, but readership seems just as likely to be affected by the title, a photo, the Facebook algorithm, the timing of a tweet, what else is happening in the world, and so on. In short, I have no idea.
In looking over my most-read posts of 2015, I do know which ones took a great deal of research and time, and which were dashed off in under an hour. I know which ones were written after a great deal of consideration, and which were wholly reactive to something I read or heard. They don’t necessarily correlate to readership at all.
I am surprised by the way in which my most-read posts were grouped in the latter half of the year, with seven coming since October 29. Is there any correlation with the fact that I began regularly working out of The New School Drama offices starting in early October, in my new role as director of the Arts Integrity Initiative? I think it’s just coincidence, but it’s possible that the new environment meshed with some significant incidents to yield my most successful writing.
While it may seem paradoxical to offer up my most-read work once again, I have no doubt that there are plenty of people who didn’t read one or more of these when they were first posted, and perhaps there are a few people who would like to catch up with them now. You’ll note I’m not providing them in order of popularity, because it’s not a contest, but I can say that even within these ten, there’s a differential of some 10,000 views.
* * *
I had spoken with the leadership of the PACT community theatre in Tullahoma, Tennessee when they first began experiencing resistance to their production of Rent, but they decided that they’d prefer to try to address the opposition on a local basis. But ten days before performances were to begin, they learned of a letter in opposition to the show that was being circulated to the local clergy, and felt it was time for me to take up their cause and make it a national issue. I traveled to Tullahoma for the opening night, where I was welcomed by numerous members of the community, including the mayor, but the opposition had failed and the show played to an enthusiastic crowd. A prayer circle outside the theatre, in quiet protest of the production, drew only four people, including the two pastors who had been most opposed to the show.
Words Players Theatre found itself in the midst of a firestorm when several bog posts, mine among them, questioned their practice of soliciting plays for production with their teen actors, but saying that the director had the final word over the show, contrary to the tenets of The Dramatists Guild. I stand by what I wrote at the time, but I was troubled by the degree of vehemence that some directed at the company, which didn’t necessarily seems the best way to educate students, their parents and the company’s leadership about respect for scripts in production. I ultimately wrote a second post, trying to walk back some of the rhetoric that surrounded this situation, not just mine, by the way.
I was far from the only person to speak out against the archaic, stereotypical use of yellowface in a production of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players production of The Mikado, but I was among the first, with my blog post going online alongside two others on Tuesday, September 15. The groundswell of reaction grew very quickly in subsequent days, and advocates against the practice of yellowface awoke three days later to find, with great surprise, that the production had been canceled. NYGASP says they will return with a reconceived Mikado that’s appropriate to 21st century America. Perhaps I’ll be writing about that in 2016.
October 29: When A White Actor Goes To “The Mountaintop”
It took three weeks after the production closed for word of Katori Hall’s Olivier Award-winning play being produced with a white actor as Martin Luther King to find its way to general awareness, but once it did, it brought great scrutiny to this production, at a community theatre based out of Kent State University’s Department of Pan-African Studies. What was even more remarkable, and remains still less known, is that the concept of having white and black actors each do four performances as Dr. King never happened – the white actor played the role for the entire run.
I wasn’t exactly mystified as to why an interview with Pam MacKinnon carried a headline that mention her collaborators Al Pacino and David Mamet, both more famous, but it didn’t seem right that the person the paper actually spoke with was subordinated in this way. Intriguingly, not long after I posted my piece, the headline was altered, removing Mamet and Pacino – but it still didn’t mention MacKinnon by name. I was intrigued to discover that in coming up with a headline, I had birthed a Twitter hashtag: #SheHasAName.
Critic offers his extra complimentary press ticket for sale, via the personals section. This one pretty much wrote itself. But I have to say that I quickly came to regret the tone of this piece, because I let myself succumb to snark precisely because it was so easy in this case. I should have stuck to the facts and let the story speak for itself. My feelings about what this critic did (or tried to do) haven’t changed, but I should have done better.
November 13: Erasing Race On Stage At Clarion University
Coming on the heels of the Mountaintop situation at Kent State, this dispute over racial representation in a college production of Jesus In India at Clarion University led to playwright Lloyd Suh pulling the rights to the show. There was a backlash against Suh from those who didn’t understand, or didn’t wish to understand, what it means to have white actors, even students, playing characters of color. Statements from university figures to the press only fed the uproar. But it has led to multiple offline conversations between Suh and the professor who was directing the show, and between the professor and me as well. Suh and I will be visiting the KCACTF Region 2 festival in a few weeks where we’ll meet for the first time and discuss the issue with the college students and their professors in attendance.
After the heated dialogues that both The Mountaintop and Jesus in India engendered, on social media, in comments sections and in direct correspondence, I was moved to wonder aloud about how the playwright-director dynamic was being addressed in college training programs, both undergraduate and graduate. It prompted yet more comments and e-mails, and frankly helped me to learn a great deal more and provide the basis for further exploration. The post became the basis for a panel added to the KCACTF Region 3 festival, and I’ll be headed to Milwaukee to participate in the conversation right after the first of the year.
With Hamilton being cited as a reason why white actors should be permitted to play characters of color, I took the opportunity of a previously scheduled and wholly unrelated interview to ask the show’s writer-composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda for his take on race on stage, both in his own work and the work of others. He was, as always, thoughtful and eloquent, during his dinner break on a two-show day.
When a community/semi-professional theatre in Connecticut staged a production that looked startlingly like a professional production that had been stage nearby three years earlier, it was an opportunity to address the issue of appropriation from other productions and what constitutes originality in directing and design. While the company in question suspended performances within 24 hours, and have subsequently restaged the show on a new set, the outpouring of anecdotes (and expressions of frustration) about productions that have slavishly copied others came pouring out. I expect to write more on this subject.
* * *
While it didn’t make the list of my ten most read posts, top on my list of posts that I wish had been more widely read is this one. Written on a day when a combination of medications for an infection laid me low and found me laying on my sofa most of the day, an array of tweets and comments roused me to string together a few sentences which were probably my only coherent thoughts until the drugs wore off. Even if you don’t read the whole post, take a look at the italicized midsection, which is what I actually wrote that day; the rest is subsequent framing.
Truth be told, this was one of my ten most read posts of 2015, but that has little to do with what I actually wrote and everything to do with the video I’d discovered and embedded, once again with framing material that isn’t essential to enjoying the video. My greatest contribution was a snappy title. But if you haven’t seen it and need a laugh at year end, this vid’s for you.
* * *
My thanks to everyone who read, commented, shared, tweeted or wrote to me in connection with my writing this year, and special thanks to those who brought situations to my attention so that I could explore them and share them even more broadly. You all have my very best wishes for a safe, happy, arts-filled 2016.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts and interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.