In (belated) Memory of Christiane Riera

I feel very stupid about this because I had no idea that one of my classmates at Yale, Christiane Riera had died of cancer 4 years ago at the quite young age of 44, leaving behind a son and husband in Brazil. (At least I knew she had moved back to Brazil after Yale.).

chris riera I just came across an email about a Facebook post from a few months ago where a theatre in Brazil was named after her. It’s beautiful that someone so young was beloved and had accomplished enough in a relatively short life to be so honored.

So, I just want to honor, late and after the fact, but well deserved with pictures of “her” theatre. christiane-riera-teatro-municipal-in-itajuba-brazil

Obviously the bulk of her theatre, film and TV work was in Brazil, but a very good film she worked on was “The Constant Gardener” which many people should know. Here’s another person’s blog post where she goes through some of the details of Chris’ career and how she gave to her as a writer and person.

christiane-riera-teatro-municipal-in-itajuba-brazil-interior-2

But I also feel so sad because Chris was such a nice person. In the arts, there are always people with egos and insecurities that lead them to do nasty things. She was SO the opposite of that. Kind and generous. I can’t think of a moment in New Haven when she wasn’t so. She had a shared apartment down in NYC and let me stay there, which allowed me to stay so much more connected to the NY art and theatre world while I was in New Haven.

And of course, it’s impossible not to relate her death too young to some other friends who died too young like Vivi Friedman – a talented film director I knew – who also died of cancer in her early 40’s. And friends and relatives who died (and some who survived) of the same disease. And of course, my own mortality and what seems like so little accomplished. And how we fool ourselves that our time is forever but in truth we’re sitting on the ledge of a figurative Grand Canyon. The awesomeness of life is before us, but our balance is always precarious and ephemeral.

So, the one message of it all, however trite it sounds but isn’t trite at all, yes carpe diem but also seize the connections with others just as much. Do it all with love.christiane-riera-teatro-municipal-in-itajuba-brazil-interior-1

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The Cure for the Common Cold… (not literally of course, this is about theatre – what else?)

Recently, I read a story, dated February 22, 2012, in the UK Guardian that had the headline “Female playwrights still face sexism – it’s time we admitted it” in which the first line “Research shows that theatres are prejudiced against female playwrights. What can be done about it?” Here’s the link to the full article.

I have a problem with sweeping generalizations like this because it’s very hard to parse out what’s sexism (and any other “ism” e.g. agism) in decision making and really just how things get done in theatre. The lack of nuance in this article utterly annoys me.

I’ve repeatedly been frustrated myself re: getting produced, and theoretically I have very good credentials, yet I’m a man and it’s done nothing special for me. That’s because the truth is that personal – direct and indirect – connections are the driving factor first and foremost in play production. (Do a survey of literary managers and artistic directors and ask them this question: when was the last time you produced something blindly submitted through the mail by anybody male or female and the answer, I’m 99% certain based on the words of a couple dozen theatre producers I’ve heard answer this question, will be none or very few.)

Since many (assumedly most) of the ultimate decision makers (i.e. the artistic directors) are men, the sexism could be a by-product, not a motivating factor, of who’s in their personal orbit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t also conscious or unconscious sexism in the decision process as well – but quantifying that is the hard part.

On the other hand, because theatre people, in my experience at least, do tend to be socially-conscious and politically progressive, they do attempt to deliberately diversify. Thus there are specific awards, contests, grants etc. and informally season slots, for women and various minorities. This is both good and bad. It’s good because it does guarantee at least some access and visibility to people who may never have had any. The bad part is that the “black play” or the “woman play” becomes a mark to check off, as in okay, we’ve done our black/woman/Latino/Asian play for the season so the other slots are for the people the A.D. knows or is familiar with and/or thinks his/her audience is familiar with and/or will relate to. (It’s in the latter assumptions regarding the economic viability of a particular play choice that the dreaded “isms” that everyone consciously deplores can often come into play in a decision, as in “my audience won’t come see that play about so and so / by so and so”. To make matters more complicated, sometimes these assumptions of an audience’s prejudice may actually be correct. I’ve heard Artistic Directors talk about the long term education of their audiences regarding style and/or content, i.e. what they couldn’t do in season 1 of their tenure, they could do in season 7.)

How much of this is self-fulfilling prophecy? Even if only partially a real problem (what an audience will accept) for an artistic director, as frustrated and depressed as I can be about my own career stasis, I sympathize with the difficult position these leaders are in during such hard economic times: too much risk and the theatre folds; not enough risk and the audience slowly withers away from boredom.

And, after all, artistic directors are making decisions about a season from a variety of motivations that mix in art, commerce and personal history in a complex manner. So to really get at the “why” of these decisions and therefore the “how” of fixing it would need to take into account more variables than what is presented in the above article. Now that’s a hornet’s nest of complexity to just figure out the management side of this imbalanced gender equation.

On the creative side, here’s a simple variable not quantified in the above – how many playwrights are women and how many are men? The article assumes more men submit plays but exactly how many more? To throw a wrench in figuring out this number, does one even try to figure out if all who claim themselves to be writers can be labeled “professional”? What makes a professional in a profession where most writers get “paid” not with money but with “exposure” that they “should” feel grateful they’re getting? That leaves separating the serious writer from the amateurish one by quantifying quality – a notoriously difficult thing to quantify.

(Maybe the problem is even worse than the writer implies – maybe there are more amateurish men filling up the script piles of world’s literary offices – I don’t mean that to be snarky – I was a script reader once. Most scripts are pretty awful, so I really don’t know since I didn’t differentiate the bad ones by gender at the time. Maybe there really are more bad male writers than female ones. Who knows! There’s just lots of assumptions and guesses.)

So, to study this gender imbalance correctly would take a lot of time and money. As theatre is an industry where there isn’t a lot of money to be made, comparatively, to other businesses – realistically, a nice complex, well-designed sociological study isn’t going to happen.

Metaphorically, is a cigar just a cigar here, or is it really something else? Personally, I’d love to see a theatre world, as well as a whole wide world, based solely on merit and quality rather than inheritance, connections and luck, but I’ve lived too long in this world to know that it’s inherently unfair.

So, do nothing?

Let’s remember one other thing, in the few places where plays are actually occasionally selected from reader recommendations, these play readers are low paid freelancers (often paid by the script, which only encourages reading something quickly without care), or are unpaid interns (often young and inexperienced college freshman), or of course unpaid volunteers in the smallest companies. Moreover, often it’s only a single reader’s opinion that is tallied before a year’s worth of writing work is assigned the rejecton form letter.

So, if one really is most concerned about quality as opposed to any particular quota, the first place is to change is to make sure the reading committees are experienced, relatively well-paid and are actually decision makers.

And in this new, utopian system, absolutely, set it up as a gender / race / age / sexual-orientation blind-selection system. That’s the way many orchestras hold auditions (where a curtain blocks off the player from the listeners). Unfortunately, that’s not the way plays (or movie scripts) are selected for production, or ever will be.

What I’m saying that there is no magic bullet for this problem, in the same way there is no magic pill to get rid of the common cold. You can relieve a few symptoms, but mostly it’s about following certain common sense procedures and slowly things get better. If your polemic has holes in it, then the whole argument can be rejected – even when a portion of it may be very, very right. Build a real case – don’t just make assumptions. And until you can prove actual intent, rather than say, “you’re being sexist” – it might be more effective, to ask, “Do you think you’re making any assumptions here that have to do with who this playwright is or is not, rather than the play itself?”

In the long run, the most effective change will come slowly if people are self-aware and question themselves – not just in picking a play for a season but in everything they do in life.

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Registering a work with the Copyright Office vs. the WGA

Unlike my previous posts which have had more personal content, this is just a pragmatic, public service post … of interest only to other writers, but if it helps one person, then I’ve done a mitzvah: I was relatively recently at a Dramatists Guild all day seminar on various business aspects of writing. I was rather surprised to hear a question – echoed by a friend of mine sitting next to me – asking which was better, registering a work with the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights or the Writers’ Guild.

I hadn’t realized that the WGA was now registering non-screenplays as well. I like the WGA, and even more, the Writers Guild Foundation. BUT Writers Guild registration is NOT a substitute for registering one’s work with the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights. The latter’s website is fairly easy to use now.

I know this not only from taking Law and the Arts taught by an attorney at Yale, but I’ve had day jobs working for and with lawyers, including intellectual property rights ones, for over 10 years. Finally, I’ve worked for 20th Century Fox Film Corp. in the legal and business affairs departments where dealing with screenwriters’ credits is a common issue – so I have direct and theoretical experience here.

Copyright exists the moment expression (not ideas, but the expression of that idea… likewise titles of a work are not copyrightable) is put into a fixed form, i.e. typically ink on paper. However, to enforce one’s copyright, i.e. bring suit for infringement, one has to have registered that work first with the Copyright Office.

Registering with the WGA is only necessary for screenplays, particularly in terms of determining film credit in WGA arbitrations, and otherwise should only be seen as a supplement to Copyright registration for both screenplays or anything else. It could be useful for instance as supporting what specifically is the date of creation in a more official way than mailing a script to oneself. But if you want to save money, yet do what’s absolutely necessary, just register with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Never submit a work until you’ve done that first.

Also, film companies typically require a clear chain of title, which includes U.S. Copyright Registration.

As far as re-registering after substantial changes have been made, that’s more of a gray zone decision. The
suggestion I’ve heard is to so again upon publication or that first production. There is a section on the form where you can specify that this is a previously registered work, and what changes have occurred since then.

By the way, the Dramatists Guild business affairs person was even more dismissive of a non-screenwriter doing anything other than registering with the Copyright Office, but I thought that was being too black and white myself.

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Much Ado, seen

… well in continuation with yesterday’s post, now that I’ve actually
seen “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Santa Monica tennis courts last night – I can say it was the usual mix of good, bad and okay performances but as many of the good included the leads: Bennedick and Beatrice (Bridget Flanery, perf. again on Sunday), the Prince, Antonio and especially the father Leonato (particularly after his daughter is accused of sexual perfidy…quite moving). I don’t have the program with me so unfortunately, I can’t credit all of these actors properly. So, it’s worth seeing just because of them, and of course, it’s pay what you can so the price is right for everybody.

The director’s concept was a grab bag of contemporary anachronisms – the women wear tennis outfits, the men fatigues… at one point Benedick comes out in roller skates… the show stops often for choreographed movements to a soundtrack ranging from techno to classical to big band jazz. There are clever, even inspired aspects to all of this, but it’s also very unevenly executed (both technically and performatively), so there are painful, bizarre pr boring moments alternating with very entertaining ones.

In other words, I liked the energy and the idea of the production more than the totality of the production. Too many of the ideas felt so arbitrary. In fairness, this morning I had a more positive feeling about the production as a whole.

After all, the play itself is far more problematic and not the summer lark that it is often ascribed to be. There are wild variations of tone that don’t jibe with well with our modern sensibility. In a way, the “problem plays” (Measure for Measure, Pericles, etc.) are most easily solved by treating them essentially as dramas not comedies. But what of “Much Ado”? This production just added even more wild tonal swings and arbitrary actions in a shotgun attempt at creating comedy when the play itself isn’t being very funny at all, or perhaps is just being more quietly witty than knockabout farcical.

So, the flaws of that approach actually inspired me to want to try to tackle this play and direct a production… I’ve already come up with staging and scenic ideas… and alternate ways the scenes should have been interpreted. I don’t recoil from the arrogance of the word “should” since some scenes really have one way that they can be played if they are to work within the play as a whole.

That’s not to say there can’t be multiple wiggles within that “one way” but sometimes certain things just have to be accomplished so the final arc for the particular character or even the entire play makes sense.

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Much Ado

This is a second test blog… to add some content, I’m seeing “Much Ado About Nothing” in a park in Santa Monica tonight. This is notable, at the moment, solely because Bridget Flanery is playing Beatrice tonight. Bridget is one of my very favorite stage actresses in Los Angeles… a real gift… worth seeing in a very good productions like “The Rainmaker” a couple of years ago at A Noise Within and even in a painful to watch exercise of ego (not her’s, but rather that of the lead actor who was also the director who was also the artistic director) in the worst production of “The Taming of the Shrew” that I have ever seen. Back to the play tonight, I can only hope she is surrounded by actors commensurate with her talent and that all are directed competently. There may be more theatre in LA than most other cities in this country, but the quality is wildly hit or miss.

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