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The Wicked Stage on Vibratorgate at the Playhouse

June 29, 2012

 

Well, I’m afraid I’ve been AWOL in the Bay Area while the spectacle of “Vibrator-gate” continues to unfold at the Playhouse (see my initial review of Sarah Ruhl’s “The Vibrator Play” here, the Playhouse President’s subsequent interview here and a fascinating piece by Jade Esteban Estrada for Plaza de Armas here). The good news is that the production of Luis Alfaro’s Bruja that I saw in San Francisco was really deft and affecting and perhaps some enterprising troupe in San Antonio will pick it up; but the bad news is that we’re forced to still ponder the lessons and meaning of what happened in the Cellar in SA. So, some thoughts:

As I suspected, the Cellar did not seek permission to change the script. When I discussed Vibrator-gate with some of my non-theater-savvy friends, they were surprised to discover that licensing agreements generally preclude any alterations to the script, even a single word or setting. Indeed, Samuel French’s licensing agreement states: “The play will be presented as it appears in published form and the author’s intent will be respected in production. No changes, interpolations, or deletions in the text, lyrics, music, title or gender of the characters shall be made for the purpose of production.” This might seem draconian and legalistic, but in fact, such language protects playwrights from renegade productions—like the Playhouse’s—that misrepresent the author’s intention: after all, The Vibrator Play is not the Playhouse’s play. It’s Sarah Ruhl’s play; and if she wants to write about race, or magical realism, or boogers, or anything at all, that’s her prerogative. If the Playhouse didn’t want to produce her play as written, surely they had other plays to choose from, and better things to do.

Now, changing the play is bad enough, but the Playhouse might have at least mentioned the changes to the character and the ending in, say, the program. It’s a sorry situation when someone who has nothing to do with the production—that is to say, a critic—has to point that out. And there seems to be some confusion about the restoration (if any) of the altered text; in the Current, President Asia Ciaravino indicated that the lines were subsequently restored; but in the PDA piece, we discover the following exchange: “After Jenkins pointed out the redaction, Ciaravino asked [director] Fuller to restore the lines, but Fuller says she refused.” (It’s unclear to me how the chain of command works at the Playhouse; but I digress.)

And shall we take a gander at what San Antonio audiences (apparently) aren’t seeing? In a nutshell, Mrs. Givings—the privileged white hausfrau who needs a wet-nurse—is afraid to hire the African-American Elizabeth because she’s worried about the implications of cross-racial nursing: “It’s only that they say morality goes right through the milk. Mrs. Evans said just the other day, oh I wouldn’t use a darkie, the morality goes right through the milk.” A neighbor reassures Mrs. Givings that even though Elizabeth is “colored,” she is still very moral and God-fearing; and the scene and the themes continue from there (pp. 27-29), including a cross-racial nursing scene in the second act. Mindy Fuller argues that if re-inserted, these scenes would now be confusing with a white actress and, yes, I whole-heartedly agree, which is why they should have cast a black actress or scrapped the whole production. (Fuller argues that in the absence of Equity theaters in San Antonio, “The show must go on.” No, it certainly must not. Shows get cancelled all the time, particularly at the Playhouse, which just yanked A Streetcar Named Desire from this year’s schedule, and which has already put next season through a blender.)

About the difficulties of casting a black actress: well, I just reviewed a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in San Antonio; surely, there are black actresses available. (And nobody mentions the changes made to the ending of the play; those alterations should be restored as well.) Clearly, the misguided alterations to the play should never have been proposed, and it’s unclear why Frank Latson, the artistic director of the Playhouse, allowed them to enter production. The changes should have been caught, and squelched, at an early stage in the planning process.

But let’s leave The Vibrator Play for a bit. I want to focus on a specific phrase that Ciaravino uses at the end of her response: “I appreciate all of the feedback from Thomas….” Now, I realize that Ciaravino was likely speaking off-the-cuff, but I think the term ‘feedback’ inadvertently reveals a whole host of misapprehensions about the role of a critic, whether at the Current or anywhere else. It is not the function of a critic to provide feedback to artists; indeed, I don’t believe artists should consider reviews of their own work. Criticism is not a dialogue with the artists, it’s a dialogue about the artists, conducted (ideally) with individuals who like to think seriously and deeply about the arts. Now, it’s probably true that the number of serious theater-goers in San Antonio who are not also theater practitioners is likely to be reckoned around a few hundred (perhaps fewer), but that doesn’t change the nature of criticism. Critics interpret the art that artists offer—whether in film, print, or plaster—as final and polished works, presented (at a fee!) for contemplation: indeed, critics are generally banned from workshops or developmental readings because it is fellow artists who should be giving feedback, not critics. So what I offered two weeks ago was not nebulous feedback on some sort of development version of The Vibrator Play, but profoundly distraught criticism of the expurgated final product, put on sale for $25 and presented as the celebrated, Pulitzer-nominated work of Ms. Ruhl.

The single greatest challenge in San Antonio theatre is this: theater companies have failed to foster an audience of theater-goers that is distinct (and much larger) than the community of practitioners and their friends. Fiascos like The Vibrator Play only signal to future and potential serious theater-goers that the Playhouse is still several years—and perhaps decades—away from theatre as professionally produced as at, say, the Zach Scott Theater in Austin or The Kitchen Dog Theatre in Dallas. Until then, I fear serious theatre-goers will continue to steer clear of San Antonio theatre and commit their energies and resources to performing arts organizations—like the Symphony—that operate at what they perceive to be higher standards of artistic expression and professionalism. And as I offered in my initial review, that, I’m afraid, is the buzz.

 

–Thomas Jenkins, Current theatre critic.

 

 

 

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  • Michael meigs

    T, I’ve excerpted this one for AustinLiveTheatre.com; on the front page now and on the blog (www.austinlivetheatre.blogspot.com).  I’m in the Chicago area now and don’t have your e-mail with me.  Thanks for your thoughts on the ethics both of staging and of criticism.  Best regards — Michael

  • TheatreLover

    While I do not disagree with your statements that the play should not have been adjusted to fit the ethnicity of the actress, I do not agree that it fundamentally changed the nature of the play. When I saw the production the second weekend, the only lines I noticed were missing were those words that applied directly to race like “darkie”. Whether this means the lines were restored or not, I don’t know. I was drawn into the play so I didn’t think too deeply about it until I got home and looked over the copy I own of the play. The scene you mention played as an issue of class rather than ethnicity. It just didn’t bother me and I tend to be a purest when it comes to drama. As far as the ending is concerned, I am not sure the final scene worked as well as it could have and that may have been the removal of the magical realism or simply that the two actors didn’t take the passion as far as I imagined it when I read the play.
    I believe people go to the theater to be entertained…or challenged in some way that they consider entertaining. To argue that the San Pedro Playhouse allowing these changes to take place is the reason theater in San Antonio continues to struggle, is quite a stretch. I think you are wrong in that analysis. The audience doesn’t know the difference. I am glad you, as a critic, are paying attention. I would love for the Current to delve into the reasons San Antonio residents are not devoted theater goers, but I don’t agree that script changes are one of those reasons.  I think ALL of us who practice the art of play making in this town will be much more careful in the future about changing lines to the fit the needs in the production. Because it happens ALL THE TIME. And for that…I commend you for reminding us all of our responsibility to the playwrights and their work.We MUST take ourselves and our work seriously in order to be taken seriously and we cannot allow ourselves to accept anything less than complete professionalism. But I just can’t muster any anger at the Playhouse or this production for doing what we have all done in varying degrees in San Antonio. And mostly, I think its because I liked this play a lot. I didn’t walk out afterwards and feel that it was “ok” or “some moments were good” as I often do when I leave the theater in San Antonio. I left saying…”that was good, really good…beautiful set, good direction…strong, brave performances”. 

  • thomasejenkins

    TheatreLover: Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful comments.

    I suppose I’m less OK about the Cellar’s conflation of race and class—leaving aside authorial intention—because Ruhl is already treating the issue of class with the character of Annie: why repeat herself? The production I saw in Dallas—at the small-ish Kitchen Dog Theater—played the piece as written, including race, and I felt it worked better. It was certainly more interesting, and is the text that audiences are seeing elsewhere. It helps to connect San Antonio theatre-goers to their brethren in other cities.

    I didn’t mean to imply that textual (in)fidelity was the only reason that serious theatre-goers seem to be skipping San Antonio theater. (I wish that were so: there’s an easy fix!). But one reader of the original review wrote that she had seen the NYC production and wasn’t interested in seeing the ‘travesty’ in the Cellar; she, for one, was turned off by the changes. As I’ve written before, I think far greater obstacles to audience growth—at the Playhouse and elsewhere—are programming, production values, and marketing. (For instance, the Playhouse finally upgraded their website to something eye-catching, but then fails to provide the sort of marketing experience one should expect from a professionally-run theater. SPP’s web page for The Vibrator Play is just a terribly written plot summary ripped off from Wikipedia. It doesn’t even mention the playwright. Potential audiences notice these sorts of things: attention to detail is important.) There’s also the meta-category of consistency: good theater in San Antonio happens, but it’s almost impossible to predict when and where it will happen. (I mean, who’d have thunk that one of the best productions of the past few years would be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? I don’t think San Antonio Shakespeare Company has produced another play since.)

    I agree that a longer, in-depth piece on SA theatre is called for; but I think the person to write it is a marketing or business student who has gathered data on the entertainment/arts dollars of San Antonians. (I’d be really curious about the extent of the overlap between Symphony/Opera patrons and theater patrons, for instance: are these the same or different constituencies? I honestly don’t know. I suspect they are vastly different—to the detriment of SA theatre.)

    Again, thanks for reading, and for your perspective! – Tom Jenkins

  • thespia

    As much as Thomas Jenkins is a pompous ass, unfortunately his reviews of San Antonio Theatre are pretty dead on. This business at “the Playhouse” is a firing offense at any theatre EXCEPT SPP. The theatre’s reputation has been sullied, the authority of command has been compromised, and yet life goes on. Keep on going, you’ll end up just like opera and symphony here in town…. oh wait, that’s already happened. 

  • James Venhaus

     

    Although I agree with the statement, “To argue that the San
    Pedro Playhouse allowing these changes to take place is the reason theater in
    San Antonio continues to struggle, is quite a stretch.” I think the point the
    Mr. Jenkins is trying to make (and if he isn’t, I will) is the amateur mindset
    that would allow the Playhouse (and, as TheatreLover points out, lots of other
    theatres) to change the dialogue to fit the casting is what is keeping SA
    theatres from producing the type of work that would attract a larger and/or
    different clientele. When theatres in SA stop thinking like amateurs (i.e. “we
    don’t need to pay royalties” or “we can change the script, no one will notice”)
    then they stand a chance to be taken seriously by their audience and the arts community
    in SA and elsewhere.

  • Stacey Connelly

    To Theatrelover, regarding: “It just didn’t bother me and I tend to be a purest when it comes to drama,” and
    “To argue that the San Pedro Playhouse allowing these changes to take place is the reason theater in San Antonio continues to struggle, is quite a stretch. I think you are wrong in that analysis. The audience doesn’t know the difference.”

    I’m reading this three months after your post, so there is a good chance you’ll never read it, Theatrelover, but I hope you’ll check back in at some point and that other readers will consider your (and all) thoughtful comments posted here. As I see it, that “the audience doesn’t know the difference” is the whole point. Most haven’t read the play, nor should we expect them to. But above and beyond the legal aspect of preserving the playwright’s work is the ethical aspect. The point is that audience ignorance and innocence obligate us all the more to present a play as written. The audience trusts us; to take advantage of their ignorance for the sake of expedience, lack of resources, or lame excuses about casting is unconscionable. If directors aren’t willing to respect the playwright, then artistic directors must bring sufficient oversight to the process to ensure that they do. When you say the play’s omissions and distortion of Ruhl’s meaning (through its adulterated ending) did not bother you, it means that you’re not a purist, but an apologist–for inferior, unethical work. If you can’t “muster any anger” at the SPP (or any company) “for doing what we have all done in varying degrees in San Antonio,” then your complacency is part of the problem. You ultimately excuse it by saying you enjoyed the play; believe me, you would have enjoyed it so much more if it had been done faithfully. That your own enjoyment supersedes the dramatist’s rights is troubling. Finally, you say “what we have all done”; please don’t include me or my colleagues among those directors who bowdlerize texts. I know a number of directors in SA who, despite their differences in style and approach, present the text intact and are faithful interpreters of authorial intention.