WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Controversy In Boston!

As ya'll may or may not have heard, The StageSource ice recently received an anonymous letter with a list of grievances regarding the casting process and difficulties of being a Boston actor. The excerpts posted by StageSource are worth reading, and many people have commented, but I have additional thoughts:

I read this letter wearing two hats. Responsible, thoughtful analytical Kenny. And "z0mg what a whiny little..." Kenny. We shall start with the first hat.

So many of us are freelancers, and I think we all have at least a little sympathy for the frustrations of moving up the ladder in a competitive market. I know plenty of actors (and directors, playwrights, etc.) who have expressed frustration with the predictability of some companies and their casting choices. Sometimes these gripes are valid and sometimes they are not. Casting directors and producers are sometimes scared to take risks, and play it safe. As a small theatre producer and director myself, I assure you, that we're scared shitless when it comes to casting. It takes balls to take a risk on new or unfamiliar faces, though I do agree that the risk is well worth it.

However, I do not believe this is unique to Boston. I know there will be a few people who feel this way, but it's so easy to believe that one's feelings are universal. I would be interested to see a legitimate study done on this topic. TCG does these surveys on a national level all the time. Before we go making large, broad accusations, maybe we should try collecting some data and getting that ball rolling. Hell, the writer of this letter did just that, though I'm not sure they expected to be published. I for one commend StageSource for making such a big deal about this, because yeah, it is a really important question to discuss. And to those who immediately go off about "Nothing will change"...

Grow up. This is a self defeating attitude and there's nothing I find more frustrating than the whiners who do nothing.

(Excuse me while I put on the second different hat.)

I've always been a late bloomer. When I started out as a freelancer in Boston three years ago, I was sleeping on couches, surviving off expired food and going to every audition I could go to. I had no name, I had no resume outside of college and I certainly had no confidence. I did a few shows my first year, some of which I enjoyed, and some of which I had some gripes with. Rarely, did I ever feel disrespected or treated like cattle, which is something that does happen in some of the larger markets. But I, too, became frustrated with some aspects of the Boston theatre status quo However, as loudmouthed as I am, I did one thing very different.

I did something about it. My main gripes about theatre, as many people know, are 1) lack of paid work at the fringe level and 2) the lack of focus on solid, improvisational and liberated acting in favor if overly polished, excessively rehearsed mechanical acting. But I digress. What's really important is that I did something about it. I self produce, I network the hell out, and I publicly own up to all my crazy thoughts. I have confidence in my logic, passion and righteousness and that is why I put my name on things. This goes for all things in life, whether it be art or politics or love or what have you.

I'll go off topic for a moment and recall the 2004 presidential elections. I remember being a young lad in college, sighing with disappointment at the apparent reelection of Grover Cleveland, the dasterdly yankee president who put down the Whiskey Rebellion (look it up) and I wondered what would happen to this nation. How could we have lost? And then I remember the chorus of whiners: "I'm moving to Canada" and "Americans are so stupid, I can't believe we elected Cleveland on two nonconsecutive occasions" types. The whiners. The people who bitch and moan from afar, but whose idea of "political activism" meant wearing a hat covered in political slogans and preaching to the choir in the student campus center, enjoying their care packages shipped overnight on their mommy's credit card...

Woah... Sorry. I got off topic there... So my point is, there's a mature way to go about things. And there's the one that makes you feel good, but ultimately does nothing to solve the problem.

Grow up and do something. Self produce. Organize. Stir up controversy. Be like Ian Thal or Thomas Garvey, and HAVE SOME BALLS! Nevermind what you think about their opinions, these dudes are heard and people take them seriously. Say what you think, be bold and take that risk because chances are, people are out there who agree with you and will stand with you. They're just waiting for someone to speak up.

Hmm... I didn't swear as much as I thought I would...

And finally, I'm going to take off my hat and tip it to StageSource. You guys were attacked for no reason. It is not your job to tell theatres how to run their businesses. You did your job beautifully by engaging the community in a constructive manner in the face of adolescent tantrum tossing. I would've been tempted to just take that letter and either 1) throw it out or 2) show it to the office, laugh and throw it out or 3) post it on the blog edited with MS paint. Which, of course, is totally immature...

But seriously. Alot of people are talking. I'm not the first, and I know I won't be the last. The CoLab strives to break the chains of safety casting, and I know there's many other young producers and directors out there who will take heed and think seriously about the real underlying issues at hand here.



Kenny Steven Fuentes
Founding Artistic Director
The CoLab Theatre Company

You know how to find me.

We believe in the how, not the what. The process, not the product!


  1. Be like Ian Thal or Thomas Garvey, and HAVE SOME BALLS! Nevermind what you think about their opinions, these dudes are heard and people take them seriously.

    Awesome! It's always been my aspiration to have my balls feature in discussions about Boston theatre!

  2. This is such an interesting conversation to have going on right now. Not because the original letter was particularly perceptive or well-constructed or revelatory or anything, but because it seems to have touched so many raw nerves and pre-existing concerns, and brought a lot of smaller conversations and gripes that had been happening around in the corners of our little community out on to the mainstage for a bit.

    It's particularly interesting to me because within Flat Earth lately we've been having a related conversation from a different direction -- the question of what priorities and privileges we as an organization owe our 16 company members, and what obligations and restrictions that would place on our 16 company members and other folks who work with us. We have a very solid, very long-standing policy AGAINST pre-casting and priority-casting, which has recently come under scrutiny from within the company as some members feel they are denied the casting security that members of other companies in the community are getting.

    I know some of the companies in the STAB community have official "core casts" (though I'm not quite sure what that entails in regard to the casting of individual shows), while others seem to be regularly precasting out of an unofficial, but certainly limited, pool of actors they've previously worked with. That seems to be the kind of policy StageSource's anonymous critic was objecting to -- but on the other hand, are we, who reserve the right for our directors to cast a full set of "fresh faces" if they so choose, mistreating our in-company actors by NOT precasting?

    I don't know. I'm sticking to my guns at the moment, and the guns I am sticking to are the conviction that we-as-a-company should not infringe on the artistic freedom of individual directors to cast what they see as the best-fitting actors for the show. So far this has meant open auditions, but as we work with an increasingly wide director pool (we have two guest directors from outside the company coming in next season, which is a first for us) we may encounter directors who would prefer to precast. And what will we do then?

    I have a suspicion we'll all keep having this conversation, from its various angles, for years and years to come.

    ~ c.

  3. Seriously though, as someone who is apparently known for stirring up controversies, I'm not actually clear on the nature of the controversy: different companies have different positions regarding core-company and outside collaborators. Always have. Generally speaking, companies as they become established do develop a more solid (i.e. predictable) core. Yes, there are exceptions to the rule-- and of course, the whole reason the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston was formed was because there were a large number of small companies and individual artists that were being underserved by StageSource. There's always someone being underserverd and just as there are strong arguments that the underserved should be served, there are also valid arguments for maintaining long term collaborations.

    Bottom line is that we all negotiate these problems in the arts. I have been on the scene for over a decade mostly doing things that make most "Fringe" companies look mainstream in venues that make the Factory Theatre look swanky, and I can count on one hand the number of times people really "gave me a chance" for those first several years. Yes, I grumbled a lot. But I also wonder how much of this is a tempest in a teapot.

    It's like Mat Smart's recent post to HowlRound: Sure it was self-serving and ignored his class privileges as an MFA-approved playwright, but a.) he was right that a lot of playwrights are intellectually and creatively lazy; and b.) it was one of the few times HowlRound was actually engaging reading (mostly it's just a lot of navel gazing by playwrights and artistic directors.)

    As for me, I have a few more idols to defile.

  4. When I first moved to Boston a couple of years ago, I definitely found it more than difficult to ingratiate myself into the theater scene. To a certain extent I still do. But that's the nature of the beast. Theater, no matter where you are, is hard. The guy in the Stage Source Article referred to the Boston Theater Scene as "clique-y." Maybe life, in some aspects, is just a continuation of high school. But, what are you supposed to do, just sit around your friends basement, sneaking nips from their parents liquor and watching Family Guy DVD's (Just so you know, that is not, in any way, what my experience of high school was like . . . not remotely . . .)? If you're not invited to the party, throw your own party, because chances are, there's a lot of people looking to do something on a Saturday night just like you.


  5. Having only been here nine months, I must be exceedingly lucky in this 'clique-y' theatre scene. I've done two shows, am rehearsing my third, just booked my fourth, and am on the Exec board of an arts advocacy group.

    Then again, I'm older than your average 20-something, I've got a terminal fine arts degree and a pretty hefty resume. And I'm Non-Equity (EMC).

    It is an adjustment coming to this city, where "non-Equity" is usually synonymous with "unpaid," and we typically squat in classrooms at BU or MIT for rehearsals.

    We definitely have a deep talent pool, though I wish there was more to attract/retain talented people. If Boston had a couple more blackboxes (close to the T in decent areas), things could be so different. Groups could do longer runs, attract more audience, make enough $$ to actually pay actors/crew, etc.

    I'm working on that.

  6. I think John is correct that the real problem is not cliques but infrastructure: rehearsal spaces, black box theatre spaces, et cetera. More infrastructure creates more opportunity. In a city were the opportunities are scarce, why wouldn't companies look out for their hardworking friends?

    Last time I was in Washington, D.C., for instance, a city with a very good theatre infrastructure, I attended a workshop, and afterwards, a director who was also attending immediately approached me about auditioning for a production she was working on (as well as wondering why she hadn't seen me before on local stages.)

    Sadly, I had to explain that I would be returning to Boston in a couple of days. The show ended up getting great reviews too and sounds like something I'd have been proud to have been involved in.

    Mind you, this isn't because I'm some sort of star talent-- I'm not-- but the point is that the sheer amount of infrastructure given over to theatre in that city, makes it possible for a director to make those sorts of bold moves regarding casting (like snatching actors straight out of a workshop.)