On March 23, playwright A. Rey Pamatmat (Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, after all the terrible things I do) delivered a keynote address at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky to an audience of college students and artistic professionals as part of "College Weekend" during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Below is the full text of his speech.
When Actors Theatre asked me to speak to you about your futures transitioning from school to the professional world, my first thought was, “Me? My transition to the professional world was a disaster! The career path for someone like me was non-existent when I finished school. So the path I walked was filled with frustration and even, sometimes, lots of sadness.”
But then they said I could see all the 2018 Humana Festival plays, so I was like, “Sign me up. I’ll figure it out!”
I honestly didn’t know where to begin with this speech. As a queer, Filipino-American playwright from a broken home who grew up middle class in one of my home state’s most sparsely-populated, economically-devastated, drug-infested areas, my career in the American theatre isn’t just an anomaly. It’s an impossibility. Even if the American theatre isn’t actively hostile toward me, it is very rarely welcoming.
Literally no one like me gets produced.
Literally no one sits at home saying, “Oh, I can’t wait for the next play from the perspective of a queer, Filipino-American from a broken home who grew up middle class in one of Michigan’s most sparsely-populated, economically-devastated, drug-infested areas.”
No artistic director or literary manager or young actor starting an ensemble theatre in a basement is saying that ever.
Literally no one is saying that.
In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that I have walked through rooms filled with people who didn’t care about (or even hated!) everything I stand for.
And so that became my starting point. Because if someone like me can actually get somewhere in the American theatre, then there must be something to learn from the path I took to do it, no matter how circuitous, unintentional, or un-reproducible parts of that path are. Because here I am, still loving what I do and eager to keep at it, day after day.
Any normal person would start at the beginning, but as just established: very little about my career is normal, so I’m going to start on November 9, 2016.
Yes, I’m starting with the election of Donald Trump.
Some of your hearts just fell through the earth. “Do we really have to talk about this now? Again?” It gets worse, because really I’m going to start with social media posts the morning after the election of Donald Trump. So if you want to roll your eyes, now’s the time. Get it out of your system.
Right now I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or apolitical. If you were of age to vote, I don’t care if you voted for him because you hated her or because you’re a neo-Nazi. Or if you voted for her because you hated him or because you’re a social justice warrior. Or if you abstained because you hate both of them or because you never vote.
Because here’s the thing: however you voted or didn’t, I’m sure we can all agree that a Trump presidency is a direct threat to my well-being.
My parents were immigrants—one of whom only became a citizen in 2015 after 42 years of permanent residence. Which was really, really lucky because we’re from a shithole country with lots of Muslims. And apparently in Michigan even a white, permanent resident of 40 years, who is a doctor, with an American spouse can be detained indefinitely by ICE now. (Google Lukasz Niec when we’re done here. Seriously. Do it.)
So, my parents were immigrants, but I grew up in a predominantly white area on a non-working middle American farm. I’m brown. I kiss boys. I’m in the artist class—that weird group that delights and reviles both the 99 percent and the 1 percent, and who bounces back and forth, above and below the poverty line, year to year.
I protested the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mass incarceration and multiple murders by law enforcement of black men, DOMA, marriage inequality, and income inequality. I marched on Washington for gay rights, blocked traffic with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and I’ve been arrested for blocking traffic while fighting for the right of grad students to unionize. I write queer narratives that de-center or ignore straightness. I write Asian-American narratives that displace or ignore whiteness. And I have always, always been very honest about what I stand for. I don’t hide these parts of who I am.
For all those reasons, I am more American than the person you picture when I say “all American.” Unlike that mythic Aryan hayseed, I could only exist in America—a country birthed from immigrant dissidence and revolution. I am an American, and President Trump is a direct threat to my life because he is a direct threat to everything that America makes possible.
Yet when I saw the despair that covered my Facebook timeline after the election, I didn’t have exactly the same incapacitating experience as many of my friends. Particularly the straight ones. And so early on November 9, 2016 at 7:52 AM, I posted my thoughts on Facebook:
Good morning, America.
So I’ve been quietly working on this cycle of plays lately. It’s this big, queer series of three: 1) one play about falling in love when the world says you’re unlovable, 2) one about making life decisions when the world says you don’t deserve life, and 3) one about wrestling with being accepting when the world says you yourself are unacceptable. Basically, they’re about being human in a world that has dehumanized you.
I’m shocked that while working on these plays, I didn’t see the results of last night’s election coming.
Many queers know the feeling so many of us are waking up with this morning: being faced with a reality that a person (community or country) that we believed would love us (perhaps unconditionally) doesn’t even see us as human. That sometimes, we don’t even see ourselves this way: human beings as deserving of life’s bounty as everyone else.
The main point of these plays is to communicate that fighting for inclusion isn’t enough and that wanting to be included is, in fact, a fight for and from a position of weakness. We must also fight more radically to end exclusion. We must empower ourselves to take every goddamn thing we can so that no one has the power to decide who is human and who isn’t.
The point of this ramble is that someone should do these fucking plays.
The point is that for some of us [this election] is business as usual, but instead of our parents telling us we’re disgusting and should just die it’s the United States of America. Sure, we’ve been punched in the gut, and it will take a bit to recover our footing, but I have to believe I’ve spent my whole life developing the tools to fight this hostility while retaining and celebrating my own humanity. And I believe that we’ve taken 10 steps forward in my lifetime and this is only 1 (maybe 2) steps back.
And so for all those reeling from these results, I’m saying that I’m pretty sure we can hold each other up until we find our footing again. Find the queerest person you know, the women inside you and that surround you, take a breath, and we’ll figure out what to do next.
And, you know, if you feel like it, you can do these fucking plays, too.
One and a half years later, I stand by this Facebook post. I know how to survive and sometimes even thrive when the rest of the world literally wants to kill me or, at least, huge parts of me. It’s not pleasant, but it’s possible.
And that’s where we are as artists in America today. That’s the professional world that you are entering. A world where the President can propose a budget that will kill the already threatened National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and PBS. One where the tax law has been changed to specifically gut the middle class in our most socialist, wealth-producing states—two of which (New York and California) are where you have the most potential of getting paying work, where much of your ticket-buying audience lives, and where your future agents, managers, producers, and publishers live. One where the new tax law has taken away the incentive for middle class people to give money to the arts and the incentive for the wealthy to give money to the arts by removing itemized deductions and doubling the estate tax exemption.
In just 15 months, this administration has declared that it does not want the federal government to support the arts, it wants to disrupt the economic stability of people who do, and it wants to cut off income streams to the institutions and support organizations that put up our work and sign our paychecks—to cut off income to places like the one you’re sitting in right now, the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
This administration does not believe that you as artists deserve life or support. It barely believes that you are human.
But you do and you are. You deserve life. You are human. And by remembering that, you can keep making your art.
I actively try to quit the theatre about every eight or nine years. But I find that all of the things I can’t quit are the things that keep on bringing me back to it.
The question, of course, is why do it? Why stay in your profession, in a world that hates your profession?
For a life, you have no choice. I cannot quit being a homosexual male. I cannot quit being a bicultural person of color. I can’t even choose to be in a country that doesn’t have homophobia encoded in its laws, mores, and social attitudes. That country doesn’t exist. There’s also no country that will fully embrace my ethnicity as theirs. I’m too American to be Filipino, and many Americans are too prejudiced to let go of my “perpetual foreignness.” (I mean, I could maybe move to Hawaii—that’s probably as close as I’m going to get. But what am I going to do in Hawaii?)
I could stop my political activities and writing, however. I could stop being queer. I can’t stop being homosexual, but I could stop being queer. And I could stop being an artist. No more theatre. I could go back to school, hone my secret ability (collected from a long, strange string of theatre survival jobs) to work with databases, and start pulling in six figures organizing and designing data systems for Google or Facebook or, hell, Cambridge Analytica.
And so could you. You don’t have to do what you’re doing, and then I wouldn’t have to feel that tremendous guilt that many of your other teachers and mentors undoubtedly feel when they encourage you in this profession.
In fact, I really think you should quit. If you are 20-whatever, and you’re thinking about quitting, do it. Because if you’re already thinking it now, you will quit soon. As hard as your artistic career may have been up to this point—and as a guy who did four years of conservatory and three years at a graduate arts professional school, I know how hard it can be—as hard as it’s been, this is as easy as being an artist will ever be. And if this administration has its way, it’s about to get much worse. So if you’re already thinking about quitting, I mean it: quit. I’m not being cute. This isn’t reverse psychology or tough love. This is honesty and actual love—the gentle, supportive, concerned about your welfare kind of love.
If you can.
I actively try to quit the theatre about every eight or nine years. (Again, real. Not being cute.) But I find that all of the things I can’t quit are the things that keep on bringing me back to it.
I cannot quit being a homosexual male.
I cannot quit being a bicultural person of color.
And so I cannot stop talking about it. I cannot stop writing about it. I cannot stop telling people that I shouldn’t have to stop being queer or brown to be treated as though I am endowed with certain unalienable rights, among them Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. And when I successfully communicate that I am real and have a right to exist to an audience, my peers, a classroom, a reader, or a listener I feel peace. That imaginary loving country I cannot live in with laws based on liberation for queers and empowerment for people between cultures becomes less necessary, because I have peace without it.
And so, as the world becomes more hostile to us all as artists, you must find that thing in making art that brings you as much peace as reifying my deeper self does for me. Not the thing about theatre that makes you feel ecstatic and high, not the thing you would suffer and die for like artists do in all those stupid movies that romanticize us. Find the thing or idea or core value in your artistic practice that brings you peace. Because when the show is a hit, that peace is what will carry you through self-doubt and self-sabotage. And when the show is a failure, that peace will hold off self-destruction. And when there is no show at all, which is most of the time, that peace is what will remind you that it doesn’t matter.
Okay, so pretend I’ve successfully scared 70 percent of you off from this profession. Or, at least pretend I’ve planted the seed for 70 percent of you to realize a year or two from now that you don’t have that thing that brings you peace as an artist, but you do have that thing that brings you peace as an educator or a packaging designer or a doctor without borders or a nanny. I’m really happy for that 70 percent of you. Please continue to support the arts, especially if you can donate, especially because of this culture-killing tax law.
For that other 30 percent, here’s the part where I say: “Now you know what brings you peace with your work and that’s the hardest part.” Right?
Have you been listening to me?
You are surrounded by a world that could care less whether you stay connected to that peace and which, in fact, is structured to pull you away from it.
All I said so far was figure out what it is. Now comes the actual hard thing: fighting to stay in touch with it. Because you will be fought. So if that peace is real, but it’s not worth fighting for, then join that other 70 percent. Go get rich coding a revolutionary app in Objective-C that appeals to millennials, is profitable, and has a social justice component (and keep supporting the arts, especially as a donor, especially now).
For the, let’s say, 20 percent of you that are left now, let’s talk about some times when I was made to fight, and why I think it’s worth it to put yourself in the line of fire. Sure success, happiness, and self-preservation seem more achievable if you remove yourself from a hostile environment. But when the hostility is as strong as it is now, we can’t afford to do that if we want to remain artists. We don’t, for example, defeat racism and homophobia by hiding who we are, by being self-segregating brown, queer people or anti-racist, anti-homophobic people in a bubble. We don’t show people there’s another, better, funner way by hiding it from them or by telling them we deserve its benefits, and they don’t.
And so now is the part in the speech where I tell you “all of the terrible things that happened to me.” Boo hoo hoo. Blah blah blah. And it may or may not surprise you (depending on your own mixed up mash up of political identities) that a lot of the terrible things that forged the person you see before you happened while I was in school. In the place where I was supposed to be enlightened, I often found deep, deep ignorance. Where I was supposed to cultivate confidence, bravery, and a clear artistic voice, I instead found insecure people spreading fear. Crippling fear.
But before I get into all that garbage, I want to tell you that I ultimately love my undergraduate and graduate experience. That’s where this is heading. So stick with me through the slog, and I promise you’ll see why. But first…
HOLY CRAP, SCHOOL SUCKED!
I studied acting in undergrad, not writing, as many nascent playwrights do. Undergrad is where I learned that Bharata Muni’s Nāṭyaśāstra exists, and that it’s an ancient South Asian theatre manual documenting the longest continuous theatrical tradition in the world, and that it predates Aristotle’s Poetics by more than 100 years. But undergrad is also where a movement teacher told me that my slumped shoulders were caused by Asian people’s genetic predisposition towards subservience and low self-esteem.
It’s where I learned from fellow queer Michigander Ms. Holly Hughes that if no one will write parts for me, that I could write them for myself. But it’s also where other teachers refused to cast me in lead roles, because an Asian-American actor will never play leads in real life; where I was told I would never get “real” work at all if I didn’t figure out how to properly closet myself.
Undergrad is where I started writing the queer solo performance poems that eventually became my plays. Where my first play ever premiered a short nine months after I wrote it—a play about my discomfort dating a white guy and my fury after he dumped me. Undergrad is where I learned from mounting that play that the things other people believed were limiting me—my ethnicity, my queerness, my open lack of shame about both—were actually the things that liberated me and made my artistic life possible.
I know that many of these teachers were well-intentioned—however ignorant or downright bigoted their lessons were. They thought they were being as honest and realistic as I hope I’m being here. But to all those educators and future educators listening right now, I implore you to consider whether it’s best to subject your students to bigoted systems, possibly for the first time in their lives, or to teach them about bigoted systems and how to handle them. The former shows them (and their peers witnessing their treatment) how to perpetuate bigotry when they’re leaders in the field themselves, while the latter gives them and their peers strategies for navigating and maybe even eliminating these challenges.
Do you want to limit your students or liberate them?
Which brings me to grad school.
Look, I went to a prestigious institution, but I’m not going to name check them for you. You’ve got the Google, if you have to know where I went. The thing is, my experiences at this particular school are not rare or unique. It is not the only grad program clumsily fumbling into the present like Katy Perry showing her profound love and appreciation of Japanese culture by wearing a Chinese costume.
Some people say the very fact that I was admitted to grad school is a step in the right direction, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But the idea that I should just be happy to be at a traditionally white, traditionally straight, fancy pants institution and gratefully receive their instruction without question has disturbing undertones of straight white male supremacy. I wasn’t the heathen being brought to Jesus or the tribesman being taught civilized democracy. I was a fully formed 23-year-old human being with worthwhile experiences to share in a community committed to learning.
In grad school, however, my instructors somehow believed that they could just admit a queer, politically active Filipino-American playwright and not reassess any of their pedagogy tailored to straight white students. When my first-year play was being presented, not only did actors refuse to accept casting assignments in it because they feared the gay sexual situations in the script. These actors also took to calling me “the porno playwright” around campus, despite the fact that the situations upsetting them were romantic and included only optional nudity.
Did the school sit the actors down for a conversation on professional behavior and homophobia? Did they facilitate a conversation between these actors and me about professional responsibilities, expectations, and limits in an educational environment? Did they hire actors from outside the school to fulfill the promise of the first-year workshop they pledged to me?
No. They told me I either had to do another play, not do a play at all, or I had to personally recruit volunteer actors among the student body. In other words, they formalized the homophobic hysteria of these students and left me to fend for myself.
Were they trying to limit me or liberate me?
This drama was repeated my second year, when a role had to be recast three times—again because homophobia was accepted as an institutional value that allowed actors to reject assignments. But I also had the added pleasure of having a white woman play a lead role written for a Chinese-American actor in my second-year show. This happened even though there were three Asian-American actresses attending our school, and two of them even lobbied for the part. When I protested that yellowface was a racist casting practice, I was told by a white faculty member that I, a playwright of color, could not expect to write racially-specific characters during my career at this school. It was even implied that my inability to write and cast “colorblind” was due to my retrograde ideas of race. Meanwhile, two of the Asian-American actresses remained un-cast during the run of my play, and the third was cast in a play supporting white leads, where she spoke about three lines.
Limiting or liberating?
And that was just the stuff directly affecting me. At this school we were taught that the gibberish Dada artists uttered was inspired by primitive African languages, not that it was cultural appropriation based on the plundering and misunderstanding of an entire continent. The professional theatre linked to this school had an entire season where no actors of color appeared onstage except for one African-American woman playing a character called “The Monster.” There was even a semester where every student of color in every program in the school was on probation, and no one thought that was even a little bit weird.
Yet when I very openly, very publicly spoke out against these ridiculous incidents to inspire dialogue and, I hoped, change, I was privately told that I should perhaps take a break from school or even leave the program altogether.
Limiting or liberating?
As you make the transition into this profession, I ask you to step into this world that is hostile to artists and make friends, build community, and transform this country.
Why am I telling you this? Now is when I remind you that in retrospect, I am grateful for my undergrad and grad school experiences. And I’m not just saying this because they taught me the hard way to deal with several issues I continue to encounter in the professional world. Would I have preferred a faculty that knew the difference between teaching racism and homophobia and being racist and homophobic? Sure. Would I have preferred sometimes to just hide myself from these situations altogether? I mean, yeah! But at that point in my career the best choice for me to succeed was by entering, however unwittingly, that unwelcoming, hostile world.
Just like you are about to do as artists in the Trump administration. Just as I (with reservations) encourage you to do, if you know you can keep your peace facing such hostility.
Because lately it seems that in our friend groups, neighborhoods, workplaces, and even social media we’ve started only hanging out with people who are like us or who think the way we do. And if we’re not with those people, we actually fear for our lives and fret about the erasure of our existence. This tribal attitude is by definition a conservative stance, but it is one that has begun to infect the liberal mind. Which is nuts! The very definition of liberal is, “Willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” How is living in a bubble open?
This is a significant reason that liberals are losing more and more influence in the national conversation. Because if the conservatives are acting conservative and the liberals are acting conservative, then our country just becomes all conservative.
This might sound like I’m telling you to put yourself out into that world like some sacrificial lamb, ready to be destroyed. I want to be clear that I am absolutely not saying that. I’m not trying to inspire martyrs or create masochists. Do not put yourself in situations where you could be physically harmed or physically or mentally abused. If the environments you find yourself in make it impossible to stay in touch with that peace I talked about before, then step back, recharge, and ensure that you can keep sight of it.
But somehow, I managed to get through all of that terrible stuff on my path to this profession and not come out battered and bruised. Right?
I mean, do I look battered?
Because when I was in grad school first year, a few actors did volunteer to do my plays, even the gay parts, even the nudity, and they embarrassed and inspired their colleagues with the beauty and commitment of their performances. On more than one occasion, playwrights would invade my apartment bearing ice cream at the end of the really bad days. And they would sit with me through waffle brunches and “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” marathons on the good ones. I met so many collaborators at school and through school with whom I made amazing plays, and with whom I’m still making amazing plays.
Moreover, many of those peers have gone into the field pursuing progressive agendas in all areas of theatre, film, and television. We work together to seek out and uplift other artists with similar values, filling our profession with more and more like-minded playwrights and other theatre makers. Some of these colleagues even tell people that our time in school together was formative to their current conceptions of how to revise representations of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.
I look back on those times with fondness not because I’m a martyr, not because success is the best revenge, not because I’ve turned my experiences into some weirdo, self-aggrandizing hero narrative. I look back on those times with fondness, because I went into a place where I was embattled, and I walked through it and out of it making friends. And those friends built a community. And that community is getting us closer, step by step, to that imaginary country of liberation and joy where I can stay in touch with the peace my art brings every day. That community turned this impossibility into a career.
That will not happen if we stay hidden away in our little bubbles. Those communities will not form or grow if we don’t engage with people who aren’t like us, people with whom we disagree, people who might hate us. If we don’t stand in front of them and show them how kick-ass we are.
As you make the transition into this profession, I ask you to step into this world that is hostile to artists and make friends, build community, and transform this country. That is the future path I want for you.
There are maybe 10 percent of you left who are still confident you can do this. And one day when one of you is behind this podium, giving this speech, I hope you are able to just open wide your arms and welcome that next generation to an industry supported by the American people, that supports and represents the American people—all of the American people—in return. Even if we have taken one or two steps back, let’s now take 10 more steps forward. And let’s do it together.
I am enormously grateful that we shared this time together. If I may, I’d like to leave you with a blessing, which of course you are free to accept or not.
May you have peace for yourselves. May you bring peace to others. And may you bring peace to the universe.
Thank you. Have an amazing weekend.