Should historic works created during different times with different sensibilities be shelved? Should the work be altered? Can the work be done if proper context is provided? How often do you see representations of people who look like you on a regular basis? (No. Yes. Yes. Almost never.)
These were just a few of the questions asked at a Monday night forum on theater and race sparked by a recent Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of “The Mikado” that cast 40 non-Asian actors in Japanese roles. The event, “Artistic Freedom and Artistic Responsibility,” featured a panel of theater artists and was organized by the Seattle Repertory Theatre, the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, the city’s Office for Civil Rights and King County’s cultural-services agency 4Culture. In addition to the panelists, the discussion drew in discussion from audience members who had submitted comments in advance.
Seattle Channel plans to broadcast the video. Many artists in other cities who could not attend the event watched a livestream and discussed it on Twitter with the hashtag #SeattleAFAR. Here is video from Howlround.
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I first wrote about the problematic production in a Seattle Times column four weeks ago, “The yellowface of ‘The Mikado’ in your face.” The column sparked a national debate — community groups like the JACL spoke out against the show, protesters demonstrated outside most of the shows, national outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, NPR and CBC covered it, and influential bloggers like Angry Asian Man and Reappropriate wrote about it. Read, watch and listen to all the coverage at ” ‘The Mikado,’ yellowface: All the coverage.”
While Seattle Repertory Theatre organization was not involved in the making of “The Mikado,” the show did take place at its Bagley Wright Theatre space through an arrangement between the city of Seattle and Gilbert & Sullivan Society that dates back to 1962. The society is a community theater group that depends mostly on volunteers.
Kathy Hsieh, theatre artist and co-executive producer for SIS Productions, moderated the discussion. The ground rules given at the beginning of the forum would work well for any discussion about racial issues.
- Take time to listen before responding. Listen to listen not just to prepare a response.
- Treat each person’s perspective as the truth for him or her. If everything goes the way we want it to, everyone will feel a little or a lot uncomfortable.
- Be willing to accept that while you may mean well your actions or words may come off as hurtful to others.
- Give each other the benefit of the doubt.
How can producers and directors learn about what might inflame community members? The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, for instance, expressed surprise that anyone would be offended by its production and casting choices.
“The cardinal sin for the producer is to be caught unaware. When you’re engaged with the community, then you know when you are likely to piss them off,” said Valerie Curtis-Newton, artistic director of The Hansberry Project. “You make choices based on that.”
Several people said engaging a community does not mean tokenism — for instance, talking to one Jewish, African American or Native American and taking that single person’s perspective as validation.
“What you should not say is I have an Asian or Jewish friend and they’re cool with it,” said Fern Renville, managing director of Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre.
She added that she saw parallels between how people are defending the offensive stereotypes in “The Mikado” with how people are defending use of an ethnic slur for the Washington NFL team mascot.
Roger Tang, founder of Pork Filled Players, a Seattle Asian-American theater group, said, “The audience does have the right to say what it thinks of it. If you do a half-ass job on racial stereotyping and you are lazy about it, you are going to hear about that.”
How does a group go about building those relationships with a community?
One case study was presented: A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) was producing “The Ramayana” and built partnerships with South Asian and Southeast Asian community leaders in a program called Ramayana Ambassadors. While the program began as a marketing partnership, the ambassadors ended up advising the artistic collaborators on the Ramayana story, organizing events and creating programs that complemented the show. The partnership led to strong ticket sales and it expanded ACT’s reach into new audiences. Here is more information about how ACT built the Ramayana partnerships.
How should a theater group deal with protesters?
Beverly Naidus, associate professor of interdiscipinary arts at the University of Washington Tacoma, offered these pointers:
- Do not ignore them.
- Do not make assumptions about what they are thinking.
- Do not assume that one gesture or invitation is enough to address concerns.
- Do not hope that it will all blow over.
What does the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society think after hearing all of this?
Mike Storie, producer for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, attended the forum as an audience member and spoke briefly. He had just returned from a summit of other Gilbert & Sullivan societies brainstorming different ways to do “The Mikado,” which the Seattle group does not intend to produce for another six years.
“The goal here is to be able to produce the Mikado in a way that context is taken care of in a way that it can be changed,” Storie said. “Some of suggestions were good, some were ridiculous. Changing name from Nanki Poo to Frankie Poo probably won’t fool anybody.”
“I can see that it does hurt somebody,” Storie said about his recent production of “The Mikado.” “There’s no way I as a white man can get in the head of somebody who is Japanese. Nor can someone get into my head as a white man.”
Does it end here?
“What makes this time different?” asked Curtis-Newton. “Because we do this really well. Seattle does this, like ‘Let’s have a community feeling moment, make sure that everyone feels good about everyone else’s opinion and that we are all just loved.’
“I’m a double Virgo. I want to know what the hell happens next? What are you willing to do producers to make it different? What are you willing to do artists to make it different? What are you doing as audience members to make it different?
“If we are here 6 years when Mike does the Mikado again having not learned a single thing, it’s on us. This room seeds the ambassadors, seeds the conversations, each one of us can begin to help move things forward.”
Hsieh, the moderator, said the organizers plan to use this forum as a starting point for workshops and more events that will bring other national artists to Seattle. It sounds promising.
“The Mikado” remains incredibly popular for Gilbert & Sullivan community theater groups around the country to produce. Those groups want to perform and share the humor and music of the opera. The smarter groups understand that if they want the work to live on, they need to figure out a way to make the opera relevant for a modern society. The show I went to in July may have been filled with appreciative audience members, but they were almost all over 50. The fan base will eventually die out if these groups don’t think about how to appeal to younger audiences, and people will forget Gilbert and Sullivan ever existed.
If Seattle could become a lab of experimentation on producing historic works that engage the community, that could potentially move the performing arts forward not just in this city, but across a whole nation headed for a multiracial future.
This blog post, originally published at 7:03 a.m. on Aug. 19, 2014, was corrected at 9:50 a.m. and 12:26 p.m. the same day. An earlier version omitted the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture as an event organizer and gave the incorrect name for A Contemporary Theatre. This post has also been updated to include video of the forum from Howlround.