While I was working on Merry Wives in Richmond, we had a wave of COVID pass through the cast, ultimately infecting seven of the eleven core actors. It was unfortunate, but not surprising. We lost a lot of rehearsal time, and every evening, I didn’t know who was going to be there when I walked into the room. It took a lot of creativity, quick thinking, and support from my rockstar ASMs (the lead SM also got COVID, so she missed much of this ridiculous week). But we managed to find useful things to do every evening, and kept moving forward.
During this time, I heard from those who were sick, both directly and through others, that they were concerned they were going to be fired. When people said it to me, they said it like a half-joke; when they shared these feelings with others in the ensemble, though, it was closer to a serious concern. Like so many of the stories that inspired my Take 5 work, this broke my heart. I did my best to reassure people when I checked in with them: “You did such great work up to this point that I know when you feel better, you’ll jump right back in and be fine. I am not concerned about our show, only about your health. Please take care of yourself. I will take care of the show. All of us miss you, and we can’t wait for you to be back with us.” I don’t know if anyone believed me, although I was being sincere.
Aili can’t take a joke (sorry).
The second night we had everyone back, somebody missed a cue or forgot a line or something during fight call. Someone else said, clearly joking, “Be careful, you’re going to get yourself fired.” I don’t even know why—I did understand that this was meant as a joke—but that sentence made me furious. Not at the person who said it (I didn’t catch who said it, and if I did, I wouldn’t be mad at them because they were speaking out of their own trauma), but at a culture that makes actors seriously believe that they will be fired for being human. In our circle, once we had finished thanking each other for our work and our presence, I said, “I have something I need to say to all of you. I know I take this stuff too seriously and you’re going to roll your eyes, and it was all just a joke, but I never want to hear anybody joke about anybody getting fired. Because on some level, it is not a joke. We all know someone who got fired for missing an entrance or stepping on someone’s line or getting pregnant or getting the flu at an inopportune time. That is a problem with our culture as theater artists, not a problem with any individual. I need you to know and to believe and to trust that I will not ever punish you for being human, for getting overwhelmed, for catching a disease that literally everyone is getting in the middle of a global pandemic. I am sorry that anyone ever made you feel like you were replaceable. Nobody in this circle could ever be replaced. You are each absolutely necessary. Please, do not joke about this. It hurts my heart.”
A couple days later, one of our teen company members forgot a prop and another said, “Oh, you’re going to get yourself fired.” It was a joke, and I knew it was a joke, but I raised my voice for the first time in this whole process: “We do not joke about anybody getting fired!” I think I shocked them all with how seriously I took this joke that everyone makes, but the not-joke underneath of it is unacceptable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about phrases I want to ban, things we all say that are unhealthy and destructive. These are things I never want to hear in my rehearsal room again, and if these are things you say casually, don’t do it around me (unless you want to see me at my most absurdly humorless).
“Everyone is replaceable.“
They are not. If you have built a true ensemble, every person has a connection to every other person. We can’t swap out people without breaking bonds between them, and without breaking the trust between actors and artistic leadership. Bonds are hard to build; trust is harder. My high school theater teacher used to shout this at us, and we lived in absolute fear of being cast out into the darkness. This is not a healthy way to work. Who can do their best work under these conditions?
Directors use this phrase to describe a range of behaviors. I’ve become pretty unpopular in those circumstances were directors are telling “actor problem” stories to be funny, and I start asking hard questions. Why did the actor think they couldn’t come to you before this issue became too much for them to handle on their own? Did you create an environment where they could have meaningful consent? How did you support this actor as they processed their challenging work? Nobody has answers to these questions; it’s easier to externalize the “problem” onto an actor than to examine your own practice. Self-examination doesn’t make for such a good story at the bar.
“They’re not hungry enough.”
Is this what we want? Do we want people to be starving for work? I don’t want to do art from a place of scarcity. Surely abundance is a more joyful way to work. Am I passionate about my work? YES. Am I eager and thrilled for collaboration? BEYOND YES. But hungry? Let’s not make that a virtue. When we say this, what we mean is, “This person is not willing to destroy their physical and mental health to work with me.” I don’t want anyone to feel like this is what I demand of them.
This phrase always makes me think of something Rachel Spencer Hewitt (my friend and founder of PAAL) said in a talk I saw her give once (I’m paraphrasing): “Early in my career, I’d do anything for work. Chop my own arm off? Sure, if that’s what you need. Then I had my first child, and I realized that taking certain jobs would mean chopping her arm off, and I wasn’t willing to do that. I started to wonder, ‘Do we really need to be chopping off arms at all?'” We don’t. Keep your limbs unhacked, friends. Bring me your passion, your joy, your wisdom. But don’t feel like I need your hunger.
“I don’t want to be that actor.”
Even actors who trust me deeply preface their concerns about legitimate problems with, “I don’t want to be that actor, but…” Before I can engage with whatever their concern is, I have to pause and unpack the fact that they are concerned that I will punish them for raising an issue. I hate how that feels, because I wonder if I’ve done something to make them not trust me. I hate that our industry has conditioned them to be small, to never be inconvenient, to de-prioritize their own well-being. So first I feel like I’ve failed them, and then I feel fury at an industry that has failed them, and then I am in a space where I can hear them ask for two inches of glowtape on the dark edge of the stage. I have been directing regularly for 25 years. I have yet to meet that actor, but I’ve met hundreds who are worried that it’s them.
“good to work with”
This is code for “compliant.” I don’t do my best work with actors who just say yes to whatever I ask of them, or who waste a ton of energy trying to guess whether I mean what I say. I want actors who will engage with me, who will push back sometimes, who will show me their boundaries so I don’t have to find them the hard way. Nearly all of the difficult experiences I have had with actors have arisen from their desire to be “good to work with,” which made them say yes to what they thought I wanted, when they weren’t actually comfortable with that, and when what I truly wanted was their truth.
In Merry Wives, I found actors pushing me, asking questions, making sure they understood a note I gave them. They’d try what I asked of them, and if it didn’t work, they’d say so and we’d figure it out together. They helped me get good at saying, “Here’s the story point I’m trying to create in this tiny moment. I’m not sure how I want you to communicate it, exactly. I have some ideas, but what do you think?” We figured things out together, instead of them just saying yes to whatever they thought I wanted. That, to me, is “good to work with,” and I think that it has to come from the director more than the actors.
This deserves its own post, and will get one at some point. But for now, just … no. Our bodies and our vibes change over the course of our lives. What happens when we think we’re one “type” and then we don’t look or feel that way anymore? Also, who wants to play the same kinds of characters, over and over? I want to explore the corners of an actor’s range. I want to walk alongside them to some destination they haven’t dreamed of before.
We can’t keep putting people in boxes.
What else? What next?
So, first of all, if you’re in my room, don’t say these things. Further, don’t operationalize them. Leave them outside; stretch into the experience of working in a space where those ideas are not allowed to exist.
Second, what else should go on the ban list? What do you hear in theater spaces that hurts your heart?
Thirdly, should I learn to take a joke? (I mean, I’m not going to, but like…I could try)