This is the second of two responses to Maya Phillips's piece; the other one is here.
On November 28th American Theatre posted an article entitled “Black Bodies, White Writers.” In it, Maya Phillips writes about the ways in which theatre criticism suffers from a lack of diversity among its ranks. She opens her article by citing my company, Elevator Repair Service (ERS), and our 2017 production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which I directed. Our production contains a scene that she found racially insensitive. Phillips’s reference to ERS was a jumping-off point for a larger discussion of theatre criticism, but her reaction to our production warrants acknowledging.
Being called out this way was startling and embarrassing, but by the time this article was published, not surprising. Though Phillips was alone among critics in thoughtfully addressing race in our production, she was not the first to bring this to our attention. Not long after the production opened, comments started to reach me that our handling of a part of Act IV was upsetting. After several frank discussions with members of my ensemble, we made changes to the show.
Regardless of what changed, I cannot deny anyone’s experience, nor can I excuse what anyone found upsetting. I do not dispute what Phillips saw, nor do I question her reaction. In this situation, what’s most important for me to do is to listen—not to defend or to explain. That said, I hope that reflecting on our experience, our mistakes, and our response can be helpful.
In Measure for Measure, the character of Claudio is sentenced to death for having premarital sex. In Act IV, a recently deceased prisoner who bears a striking resemblance to Claudio is substituted for him to save him from being executed. Our Claudio is played by Greig Sargeant. Greig is a long-time member of the ERS ensemble and a co-creator of the production.
When ERS begins work on a show, I do not immediately assign roles or hold auditions. The actors find their parts organically, and roles are not restricted by physical type, age, race or gender. In early workshops Greig, who is African-American, gave an inspired reading as Claudio, one that helped me choose this play to produce. I knew that casting him in this central role would introduce the issue of race; but I was comfortable with the narrative of a black Claudio being spared and vindicated, while his cruel jailer (a white Angelo) is brought down in disgrace. Claudio’s story, however, turns on an unlikely coincidence.
I have always been skeptical of mistaken-identity plot devices. In Measure, I found it perplexing that Claudio’s salvation depends on something so implausible as substituting one dead body for another. I wanted to make this unlikely coincidence believable by staging it with a genuinely convincing Claudio look-alike. We secured a special design grant that enabled our props designer to create Claudio’s body-double, the dead prisoner “Ragozine,” and make it look almost exactly like Greig. We wanted the audience to be convinced that Angelo could be fooled by the swap. Using a Hollywood-style technique, our designer cast Greig’s entire body in silicone and made a life-sized dummy to play Ragozine.
We rehearsed for weeks with a half-realized and not very human-looking stand-in for Ragozine—one with the Halloween store head of a scary white man. When the “real” (and realistic) Ragozine arrived, I was impressed with the quality of the work and determined that the resemblance would be convincing. But I didn’t see clearly what others in my company had already begun to fear: A realistic black man’s body being dragged onto the stage, beheaded, and then cast aside was bound to trigger strong feelings. I assumed that audiences would see it as I planned: Shakespeare’s completely implausible head-swapping was now plausible! The absurdly comical treatment of the dummy, I reasoned, suited the play’s tragicomic split-personality.
Once we were in performance, the feedback we received to the Ragozine scene ran the gamut from enthusiastic enjoyment to offense. As reports of the negative reactions gradually accumulated, we met as an ensemble to discuss the scene, the responses to it, and what we could do. At first I hesitated to make changes, partly out of caution. Second-guessing your choices late in the game can lead to uncertainty and undermine your actors’ efforts. I was also guilty of some knee-jerk defensiveness. Though I knew the reported experiences were genuine, I was reluctant to take full responsibility for something I had never intended.
Eventually I had to question whether our audiences were seeing what we intended for them to see. Our professionally designed and exquisitely wrought prop was meant to suggest that only an uncanny likeness of Claudio—not just any other body—would make for a credible “head swap.” Instead, we accidentally implied to some in the audience that black bodies were interchangeable and dispensable. Phillips (and others) especially took issue with the way in which the beheaded Ragozine was left ignored onstage for the remaining scenes of the play.
Fortunately, some audience members were willing to candidly share their reactions with us, and that helped us see that something needed to change. Unfortunately, in professional theatre, there is a rule that after a show officially premieres it will be “frozen.” After opening night, directors usually move on to other projects, leaving stage managers to ensure that everything stays exactly the same. Ignoring this rule, we were able to address the parts of the show that caused the discomfort. Whether those changes were sufficient is, in the end, not for us to say. We simply have to commit to doing better as we move forward from this experience.
ERS has a built-in deliberative slowness to our creative process. We take years to build our shows. Working collaboratively over all that time makes it easier for us to notice and flag anything offensive or problematic, but time-intensive collaboration is not always a perfect safeguard. The responses of Phillips and others made us more aware, helped us make changes and will inform our work going forward. I am grateful for that.
A critical distinguishing feature of the medium of live performance is that, despite everyone’s best efforts, each performance is different. More to the point, any performance can be different. Whether in previews or late in a run, the actors, designers and especially the director have a responsibility to listen when our unconscious bias is called out. This is a unique opportunity we have as theatremakers: the fact that we’ve “opened” a show doesn’t have to stop us from reconsidering a great idea that has backfired.
Theatre is a field dominated by people of privilege, experimental and avant-garde theatre even more so. We are no exception. I hope that will change and that ERS can be a part of that change. In the meantime, we can make changes when they need to be made and we can redouble our efforts to stay aware and actively listen.
John Collins in the artistic director of Elevator Repair Service Theater.