Scrutiny Is Fine, Not Vilification
Over 40 years, I’ve enjoyed countless laudatory pieces in American Theatre on the work of artists and theatres across the globe. I even wrote a couple of them. So I was astonished to see a real live hit piece about the Walnut Street Theatre (“Is It Finally Time for Change at Walnut Street Theatre?”), where I served as associate director under Bernard Havard many years ago.
Now, to be clear, I believe that those of us who’ve run theatres deserve (and receive) scrutiny and criticism from all comers. We all have our flaws. But I also believe the sordid insinuations and condescension grounding this article depict a culture entirely unrecognizable to thousands and thousands of artists, craftspeople, technicians, and administrators who’ve been employed by Bernard over the years. As I was reading, I fully expected to discover that he’d been accused of biting the heads off chickens.
Using both a lack of basic due diligence and a cherry-picking of facts and viewpoints, the writer mixes truth, hearsay, and grudges to conjure his desired despot. As just one example, he disparages Bernard for being paid handsomely in 2018-19. Forty years of leadership aside, a few simple Google searches reveal that the Walnut boasted total revenues that season in excess of $26 million, and that his compensation was entirely in line with that of other leaders of American regional theatres of similar size.
Look, I’ve known the guy for a long time. I have always found him to be admiring and respectful of artists of all colors and ages, and a true ally of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s true that he has never hewed to a TCG-approved model of running a theatre. As with any artistic producer, he gets to pick which paths to follow. In doing so, he has clearly managed to please his audience, grantors, and board of trustees for many years now, and led a theatre whose financial stability is as rare as it is legendary.
To vilify is not to report, neither is it likely to bring about change. Please. Do better.
EDITOR’S NOTE: American Theatre stands by Cameron Kelsall’s reporting and the accounts of those who spoke to him for this story, in which he also reported the theatre’s budget. These and other details should allow readers to make their own determinations about the theatre’s conduct and reputation.
How Not to Talk to Hearing Peers
As a retired Deaf educator for 40 years in Texas, I found Brian Cheslik’s May 18 article (“ASL and Theatre: Here’s What Not to Do”) to lack empathy and foresight. He forgets that Texas School for the Deaf (TSD), his employer, is on a mission to provide advisement and support on the state level, and certainly not to scold or patronize other professional educators. Unfortunately, criticizing his hearing peers, some innocently ignorant, in theatre education is not a desirable tactic. I’ve known most TSD theatre teachers since 1980, and Cheslik is not representative of their decorum, style, and professionalism.
It’s true that some of his points about challenging script translation are laudable. But he loses proactive points by “cringing” and “keeping his cool” while he moans and groans his response. If Cheslik is “tired of educating folks again,” he needs to review his approach and maybe learn to turn a new leaf.
He also loses credibility and respect by disparaging the classic play Children of a Lesser God, which impacted our lives, gave job opportunities for Deaf actors, and enhanced the Deaf community’s image worldwide. Telling more than 1,000 Texas school districts’ theatre teachers which play they should choose instead is not a viable selling point. It’s more of an insult on their professional judgement.
If Cheslik does not hear from many public secondary theatre teachers next school year, we know why. Instead of enlightening his hearing theatre colleagues in Texas, he turns most of them off. Though his prescriptive tips are good ones, they are not enough to undo his overall negative approach.
Steve C. Baldwin, Ph.D.
Retired educator/Deaf author
BRIAN CHESLIK RESPONDS: Thank you to Dr. Baldwin for his response. While I have the utmost respect for Dr. Baldwin and his career, as well as other senior members of the Deaf theatre community, I disagree with his passive approach to the education of the hearing majority. It is quite antiquated.
For far too long, the Deaf community has been brushed aside while hearing actors are cast in Deaf roles. In today’s day and age, we Deaf people are constantly forced to fight back and demand our place. If we remain passive and only placate the hearing majority, change will not happen. Look at the monumental changes from the 1988 Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University. If Deaf people did not get angry and fight back, the historic Deaf university in Washington, D.C., might still be run by hearing presidents as it had up until that protest. Today’s generation is not afraid to fight for change. We are not afraid to piss off a few people to change society and speak out when things offend us.
The response to my article has been overwhelming. I have received support from many Deaf people of all ages, professions, and walks of life; including many messages thanking me for writing the article. Many educators at Texas School for the Deaf reached out to compliment the article, and many shared it via social media. It was even shared with the entire TSD community by several members of administration. The Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD) shared the article with their entire email distribution list. Since it was published, I have been contacted by several casting directors and theatre professionals from across the country, including Hollywood, to provide production consultation and support for casting Deaf actors in Deaf film roles. That is proof that change is happening.
To quote another great Baldwin—the American essayist, novelist, playwright, and social critic James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I can and will always face things to make changes that will benefit current and future Deaf artists.
The Repertory Dream Vs. the Reality
So many extant rep companies, including multiple that are name-checked in this article (“How U.S. States Could Fund Repertory Resident Theatres”), are able to produce in rep (or just have a rep company of players who are not actually performing a rep) because they are non-Equity theatres that are not investing into health/pension, or they are a union theatre with very few union contracts that rely on non-union talent to function. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but oddly those theatres aren’t named here. There’s is nothing wrong with being a non-union performer and nothing wrong with rep companies hiring them. I just thought it was worth mentioning, since this article holds that up as a model. It’s hard to imagine state funding for the arts being funneled immediately into actor’s health funds or actor’s pockets unless the union was there to demand it.
You avoided racism in this article. Because get real: More global majority leaders need to be running theatres in order for this “isn’t the first time we’ve heard this” model idea. This idea has been here, and in the hands of the white patriarch it has created massive discrepancies across the board, not just for actors. There is a massive imbalance of who gets hired, especially into company rep models.
Rio Grande Valley, Texas
By focusing so intently on actor salaries, this article does not touch on how designers and technicians are also struggling under the current model and were not necessarily served under a rep model. A conversation about equity and sustainability in live theatre should not ignore the vast array of technical staff positions and how their salaries are often undervalued and even more often inequitably distributed based on job type. It also should address the tenuous nature of freelance designers, who struggle for visibility in regional theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!