Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Moving On Up - The First Time I Made The Audience Mine

Picture it - San Antonio - 1991.  A curly headed Puerto Rican/Brazilian trumpet playing teenager prepares himself to visit Kerrville, TX for band camp to become the leader he always knew he'd be - a section leader.  He looked forward to the good things in life: his friends, his music, and the chance to see hot girls in bathing suits...
I was/am a band geek.  I love the idea of taking the disciplines of military drill & marching, the creativity of theatre, and the wonder of music and mashing them together to produce a 10 minute half-time show.  The Mighty Alamo Heights High School Marching Band took refuge in a town roughly 90 minutes northwest of San Antonio every summer for a week.  For many of us, it was the first time we were allowed to go away from home so we made the best of ever opportunity to act a fool as we could without getting caught or in trouble.  Most of it revolved around the pool and our dorm rooms.  We'd shoot for scoring with girls when most of the time it would end up being a male bonding experience where we strengthened our beliefs in the band's prospects to put on a great show and place well in competition.  It was also a great place for us to showcase, i.e., show off, our skills and prove that we were the "best" at what we did.

When I went to band camp as a sophomore, I was full of arrogance.  I was a section leader which meant I taught others how to march and play.  I also was in contention for first chair which came with all kinds of personal bragging rights and pride (none of which make you cool as an adult later).  I also had my best friend Ricky on-board as a freshman who I would help shape and mold into my protege (remember, I was really arrogant).  Ricky and I lived in the same neighborhood, were both trumpet players, and both supported each other.  It was awesome.  We were an unstoppable force to be reckoned with and along with our buddy Dan, we were the Three Amigos reincarnate (except Dan played tenor saxophone but we'll let that slide).

One of the rules we followed at band camp was that we were to keep every place we visited tidy.  If you left behind anything of importance, you got punished with running laps, push-ups, or public admonishment.  Once you served your punishment, you got your item back.  One morning Ricky and I left our music on the field when preparing for morning block and some upper classman found it.  We didn't even know it was gone until lunch time when we had a meeting after lunch to go over our afternoon activities.  Once we found out, we were asked if we wanted it back.  We both said "Yes." and walked up to the front of the group to receive our punishment.  We hung our heads down expecting the worse punishment possible when all of a sudden the Drum Major David Henslee says, "You have to sing a song in front of everybody".

Sing a song?


Seriously?  What kind of punishment is that?  perform in front of everybody?!  I look at Ricky and without hesitation bust out into the theme song form The Jeffersons.  People start laughing which was impetus for us to go all out with it.  I dug down deep, channeled my best Sherman Henslee attitude, and belted the song out even louder.  Then at one point, in an almost possessed state I point at the crowd and yelled, "CLAP!"  We got the back beat going in the room and we finished the song in a Christina Aguilera-like "We finally found a piece of the piiiiiiiiii-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!"  We got a massive applause and cheer at the end of our performance.  We accepted our music back, sat down, and both had red faces and huge grins on our faces.  We did it.  We rocked the party!

Afterwards, Ricky and I were reliving our moment and he goes, "That was awesome when you yelled out 'CLAP!' and got everyone in it."  I tried to be cool about it with a meek response of "Yeah" but inside, I knew I had tapped into something greater about performing for people; when people are involved in the performance and are having a great time, it just makes those coordinating it that much better.    That philosophy and fun is what I try to bring to my performances now.  Los Improviachis is the perfect amalgamation of what I started 20 years ago.  Rapture also has an audience element in it as well.

My CPCTIF2 classes have a show coming up.  I get to pass on this nugget of wisdom onto a new generation of actors.  It's awesome to see something so powerful continue for all to make their own.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


There's an article making the rounds online where Matthew Klickstein, the author SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, addresses his thoughts on racial diversity in Nickelodeon's modern programming.  Klickstein asserts that modern Nickelodeon shows featuring non-white actors in lead roles are a disingenuous attempt at racial diversity and serve to perpetuate tokenism in order to serve their true interest of turning a profit.  Unfortunately, one has to re-read the article 2-3 times to dig that point because he goes about getting to it in completely inappropriate way.

Problem? What Problem?
Do you think classic Nickelodeon shows would work today? They’re timeless, like Pete & Pete, but there’s the argument about how inclusive the series are and how they’re focused on white, well-off families. Shows like My Brother And Me, Taina, and My Cousin Skeeter are never going to get the same nostalgic treatment.

"I think it’s about quality.

The reason Pete & Pete does so well is it’s the best show from that era. It’s the best show from that network! Hands down: the way it looked, the music, the fact that they got all these really interesting cameos… so the fact that it happens to take place in the suburbs of New Jersey, you know, it’s a whitewashed area! There’s nothing to be said about that. So too with Clarissa."

Our nation's willingness to not discuss and accept our race issues creates problems in other ways.  Denying that there's a race problem creates a system where those in power (un)consciously place advantages for those who look and act like them, and those who benefit may not even realize that those controls are in place, thus, allowing those people to feel that no problem exists as they've never seen or experienced issues.  So, when the system is challenged and is accused of being "unfair", those in power can say, "We have people in here who are qualified to be here" as a simple all-things-considered excuse to continue their behavior.

Klickstein's "I think it's all about quality" statement is him side-stepping that fact there are problems in how TV casts in that they don't reflect the demographics of the population.  Trust - there are plenty of sh*tty shows on TV that don't have any quality irrespective of who's cast in them.  My observations are that most TV watchers want a level of "something different" and that achieving through diverse casts & writers is probably the easiest path to do so.  I think this one line discounts just about everything he has to say afterwards as him justifying that "Really, there is NO PROBLEM with not having culturally diverse programming on Nickelodeon!".

Forcing Diversity
Klickstein continues:
"I think it’s worse when they shove it in there. Sanjay and Craig is a really good example, which funnily enough is written in part by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi from Pete & Pete. That show is awkward because there’s actually no reason for that character to be Indian — except for the fact that [Nickelodeon President] Cyma Zarghami and the women who run Nickelodeon now are very obsessed with diversity. Which is fine — do what you’re gotta do, and Dora [the Explorer] was certainly something of a success, but there’s no reason for [Sanjay] to be Indian at all. No one working on that show is Indian. They’re all white. It’s all the white people from Bob’s Burgers and Will and Chris.

To just shove it in there because, “Uh-oh, we need diversity,” is silly and a little disgusting. It needs to be the best people working on the best shows. They happen to be white, that’s a shame. They happen to be all guys, that’s a shame. No one says this about sports — they do sometimes, the owners — but sorry, that most basketball, football players happen to be black. That’s just the way that it is. Publishing, too! You might not like this or care, but it’s very hard to be a man in the publishing world. No one talks about that. My agent: woman. My editor: woman. My publicist: woman. The most successful genre is young adult novels — 85% of which are written by women. That discussion doesn’t really come up when it’s the other way around.  It is 2014 now. It’s not 1995. Political correctness needs to change."
Ouch.  All kinds of ouch exists in this elaboration.   The first paragraph above makes Klickstein just look like bigot and a woman hater.  He implies that the character choice of having an Indian in a lead role for Sanjay and Craig is disingenuous because "nobody" of Indian background works on the show and that the all-white crew makes that decision merely a reflection of tokenism.

The next paragraph  I tend to agree with his statement about shoving diversity into a production for the sake of diversity is a bit disingenous.  It's difficult to gauge anybody's intentions when casting a production but if they didn't set out from the beginning to have room for diversity in the cast then decide to include someone of color, sexual orientation, or alternate background in "just cuz", I agree, that's tokenism.  However, if they said "We want an all black cast living in an all Jewish neighborhood run by a trans mayor", I would be ok with that level of planning.

I run a Latino theatre company and when I took over as artistic director, I pushed us to open up and diversify our casts because we needed to challenge ourselves by including non-Latino viewpoints in our work so that we could more genuinely respond to them as Latinos.  It was the best thing for the company as it brought more people to our casts, bigger audiences, and a lot of great, diverse work for us to use.  At the same time, I have productions in mind that will be all Latino because that's what the production calls for.  In this regard, if I were to put in a white guy "just cuz we need something non-brown", then that would be disingenuous.

The Plight of The White Man
 Klickstein continues:
"There are worlds where white guys get shit, too. I’m starting to do stand-up comedy now and it’s hard to go up there and talk about how hard it is to be a guy. People don’t wanna hear it! A girl can go up there and talk all she wants about how hard it is to be a girl, and she gets applauded. These are obviously some of my own personal views and aren’t as important, but I’m bringing up this stuff because it’s all very malleable, it’s very flexible."
This statement just comes off a pissed-off white guy who now has to compete with others to get their work out there.  Again, my anti-affirmative action guys just come off as guys who long for the days where white privilege would get them places and they didn't have to work as hard.  Boo hoo, Mr. Klickstein. Boo hoo.

It's Just Gotta Be "Good"!
Klickstein continues:
"What we really need to bring to the fore is: how good is the show? How good is the end product? I don’t really care who worked on it. I don’t really care what sector of society it shows. What I care about is: Is it good or is it bad? Pete & Pete is an amazing show; who cares that it was made by white people and is about white people? That’s not important. What’s important is, how good is it? Some of these other shows — My Brother and Me, Diego, and Legend of Korra — it’s great that they’re bringing diversity into it now. Fantastic. But you know those shows are not nearly as good as Ren and Stimpy, which was made by all white people! Or Pete & Pete, which was all white people! I’m not saying white people are better at it or anything, I’m just saying that part of it doesn’t matter. What matters is how good is it and does it hold the test of time?"
Here's where Klickstein contradicts himself.  Above he implied that Sanjay and Craig was no good because they didn't have any Indians on staff work but now he says "I don't really care who worked on it"?  Well, if he doesn't care who worked on it as long as its "good", then why does having diversity in the cast matter then?  Or does he only care when ever the show "sucks"?  

We Got A Long Way To Go
The rest of the article delves deeper into the hole Klickstein dug for himself so I won't bother responding to each point.  It's obvious that he's not for forced diversity in shows but he doesn't seem to support any diversity at all.  He'd rather continue having everything cast and written to his own experience while saying "Oh, no. I just want quality programming."  There is no easy solution for the lack of diversity in entertainment.  It's a symptom of our country's bigger race issues.

What do you think?  Does his article have any merit?  Do you disagree with anything he wrote?  Comment down below.