Here's to You, You Lying, Stealing, Cheating Drunks
An open letter to the theatre community
It has been one year since I came out of the proverbial covid closet in a post on social media. I was hesitant to publish as I feared the backlash having witnessed public cancellations and mob morality in action, but although I received some finger wagging, some public, some private, I also received a few confirmations of support from colleagues who had the courage to reach out. Some of that communication got me through a very dark time of doubting my own thoughts and actions. I wish I can say I’d rather you all dislike me for who I am than like me for who I am not, but at this point, I’m way beyond giving a bald soprano about being liked. I’ve been bottling this up for a few years and undoubtedly some of it will come out with a side of bitter.
I’m not going to pretend I ever was an academic of the arts. But I was bred into it. And I’ve starved for it. And I’ve bled for it. (No, seriously, I’m not being hyperbolic, I lost the tip of my middle finger moving a piano in 2007, a tale I must save for another day.) At one point, I thought it was the only thing I ever would want to do because I thought it was the only thing I could do mediocredly well. Don’t look it up; it’s not a word.
I moved to the States with only one family member and to be accepted meant the world to me so theatre folks who unconditionally opened their arms became my giant extended family. I have broken so much bread with many of you. We have cared for one another when sick. We have created beautiful art out of nothing together. We have gone on tours. We have been there for the birth of our kids. We have wept in front of one another.
Theatre was my sanity, my sanctity, my sanctuary. It was my first love, my best teacher, my only tattoo. My salvation and my sin. ‘Was’. Simply using the verb in past tense swells up grief inside not because it’s a dead thing to me, but I a dead thing to it. This incoming criticism is nothing more than my parting lines; nothing more than a scribbling of “I was here” among the medley of theatre quotes sharpied on the green room walls. The show will, undoubtedly, go on.
We all know the stage breathes aliveness in stories that help unpack the human condition. As art makers, it created an instant intimacy between us, it made us better at understanding each other’s plight, it bridged the gaps of separation that society imposed on us. We wielded our vulnerabilities as weapons against an empire that was trying to convince us we shouldn’t be equal. In our world of make-belief, there was no one weirdo better or worse than another weirdo.
We had humility. We had empathy. We had jokes.
You could have been into improv, or dada, or grit, or physical theatre…if you were in show business, you were part of a large family of folks who sacrificed comfort to feed a passion that went beyond ego. I was never even embarrassed to proclaim I loved musical theatre. I would have taken a bullet for any musical theatre nerd.
There were certain aspects that had bothered me through the years, but they were the type of things that I loved complaining about. For example, when I first started my professional career, I could have produced a whole show for a grand. Now, you’d be pressed to find a rental that goes for under a grand/week. And that’s just the rental! Actor’s Equity is possibly run by only two individuals in an office somewhere and they do not give out a copy of their union rules unless you’re an actual member. What is this, the mafia? Under the guise of mentorship, larger theatres, especially those that hold real estate, use small and upcoming theatres as a way to expand their own audiences. Critics and the Jeff Committee overlook productions that aren’t adhering to the 6 week schedule and a bunch of other limiting rules, although it’s an open secret that the Jeff Awards are a joke. The old rumor goes that Jeff Awards and STDs are very much alike: sooner or later you discover all your friends have one and no one really wants to hear you talk about it.
Side note: I’ve seen Jeff Award judges fall asleep during shows. Some of the judges are quite old. Some of the shows have been quite boring. But still…
People who can't pay attention should not go to the theatre.
Our Country’s Good
I mounted my own silent rebellions and ignored orthodoxy or skipped on inviting the press, or produced shows in modern day speakeasy spaces which can only be found through word of mouth. I lightheartedly made fun of our own institutions and I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes because I’ve talked your ear off at The Four Moon about all this at some point. Behind the curtains, I could whistle ‘Macbeth’, mock the relevancy of Jeff Awards, and yet still spend an ungodly amount of unpaid time flyering for shows. The point is that although theatre production hegemony in Chicago wasn’t my cup of tea, I still felt a part of this community, I still felt accepted. I wasn’t a weirdo of a lesser degree.
It came as a surprise when about five years ago the theatre community bent the knee to wokeism. It creeped in the shadows along the road paved with good intentions; sometime post the Profiles Theatre shocking exposé in the Chicago Reader that revealed a psychopathic presence in our community. It was the era of Harvey Weinstein and #metoo and presidents grabbing women by the p-word (apologies to Ben Shapiro, I just had to) and many of you hashtagged your own heartbreaking stories of child molestation and sexual abuse. Although I didn’t feel it necessary to recount my own instances of loss of innocence, I understood the need for others to know they are not alone, that this kinda thing happened more often than we as a society are talking about or addressing in a preventive manner. We came up with tools to solve our systemic issues within our own house.
This is about the time when the movement started to take a strange turn. Your hashtags began to sign off at the end of stories about bad dates and showmances and even innocuous flirtations behind the scenes. I mean, let’s face it, who wouldn’t have gotten cancelled today over them butt smacks and credit cards swipes (IYKYK) that we ALL participated in? I began seeing glimpses of dread and fear in the eyes of my white straight male friends, especially those with whom I had relations straying from the plutonic in collegiate and professional settings. Would I call them out and sic the mob out on them? I had to assure a few of you to relax, that our relations were consensual, be they bad judgement calls. It has become so chic to be a victim nowadays, hasn’t it? This victimhood trend not only takes away from the potency of real transgressions, but it also somehow throws a disempowering blanket over all my decisions, as if I’m not allowed to take ownership of my own bad calls.
I didn’t know how to articulate any of this back then. I’m sure it was conflated by my own morality. Who am I to judge who is a victim and who a perp? I opened a Twitter account, the judgiest of all the public squares, but it exposed me to everything and I was able to judge even less…
Fans of Ubu Roi, see what I did there? Your response, however, to all this, be it real or imagined, was overwhelming: intimacy coaches, pledge signings, sterile environments, safe spaces, removal of artistic and board directors, public shamings… a particularly cowardly time because even if you thought this digital court-and-execution style was inappropriate, even if you thought someone was innocent, you coiled away from publicly defending them less you be dragged. This collective fear ushered in The Great Woke Pandering.
The first time I distinctly remember seeing the pandering on display was when during my short stint as a theatre critic, I received a press release inviting me to the opening night of Four Women “featuring an all female cast”. It seemed like an inconsequential enough event, but before I knew it, other ‘marginalized’ voices were used to sell shows and there was a bespoke expectation that no matter what your play was about, it was also about social justice. Suddenly every theatre company under the sun scrambled around to flaunt (ahem, not my acronym) BIPOC faces and non-binary actors as part of diversity and inclusivity PR. Some of you even changed your pronouns and painted mental illnesses debonair because suddenly that became a trend?!? Y’all living out some kind of abandonment trauma? Because such desperation to be “different” has to be a real pathology of some kind. Some of us (assorted weirdoes of all color, sex, and creed) watched with incredulity. Why were you sorting people out into groups again; keeping divides alive like a zombie feeding on superiority hustlers? What better way to show your support of an equitable society than to simply participate in it without thinking you are better or worse than others?
But so the appeal to tribalism goes. Consequently what followed was an influx of fakes that you allowed to propagate the space as long as they were holding the right kind of banner. You designed grants and promotions that were based on identity rather than merit. You donned an a cloak, even if you weren’t born there, even if you didn’t speak the language, even if you were secular, even if you were only a quarter, even if your pronouns weren’t trending, even if you simply identified as, even if you felt uncomfortable in your own skin as you promoted the values set up by the tribe just so you can receive some lukewarm applause over your manufactured diversity. You spoke for minorities or at minorities, but rarely did you speak to them. If you had, you might have learned that parading inclusivity and diversity until our black and brown colleagues were suffering from tokenism exhaustion is antithetical. Just shuffle the ‘marginalized’ deck and don’t be a straight white male, right? Those guys must be the reason everything is so wrong in the world.
There is a sad desperation that oozes out of these social media virtue signaling posts. An unspoken pestering question of “Am I a good person?” sits unanswered in all of them. A quiet fear that you might be called as an oppressor so you steal the mic from what you view as the oppressed. It’s a lack of self awareness that is rampant within our community.
A small example of this lack of self awareness is the story I recently recollected about my experience after the opening of A View from the Bridge at the Goodman Theatre:
I left during the standing ovations that lasted quite a while. Outside, was a woman with a stroller. It’s a long play, it was 11p, and she is begging for money. As the audience spilled onto the street, clamoring over one another to get to the reception at the restaurant next door, they completely ignore this woman. They just spent the last three hours congratulating themselves over their intellectual superiority, but had to stampede over one another to go get that free drink. I was so disgusted. I didn’t go to the reception. Instead, I headed into the subway, paid and waited on the platform. Then, as my train approached, I turned on my heals and went to find the woman and asked if she had a place to stay, that I was really uncomfortable with her being out on the street at almost midnight with her toddler in a stroller. I told her I’ll get her to a shelter if she didn’t, but if she did, then she is not allowed to use her baby as a prop to get sympathy coins. She pulled out a cellphone and called (her brother, I think) and I waited until a car came to pick her up. I know, in the grand scheme of things, she probably just moved locations. But the experience colored me cynical and I went home to write that review.
Now to be fair, I’m annoyed by wokels and anti-wokels alike. I definitely don’t mean to suck up the air from the importance of social justice. I’ve long said that we as artists have a duty to the world. What I have a problem with is the lack of authenticity. You reek of posturing.
A lot of the "anti-wokeness" thing seems to come from people knowing they're being manipulated by the powerful but having no lucidity on the matter, so they end up going after the wrong targets. It's not all hateful bigotry; a lot of it is just confusion about where the enemy is. People have an intuitive sense for when they're being manipulated, but figuring out exactly how mass-scale manipulation is manufacturing consent for the empire takes a lot of learning, and none of it is information they give you in school or teach you in the mainstream news.
Liberals who exploit social justice in a cynical and transparently phony way are largely responsible for this dynamic. People can smell phoniness, and they're smearing that smell all over real social justice issues.
Coming under fire for what I say here publicly seems pretty inconsequential at this point. How can it be career suicide if there’s no more career, amirite? So since I have nothing to lose, I’m just gonna jump feet first in the cancel culture morass and you can have at it. And if you wish to paint me as the enemy, maybe it’ll draw out all the puss so we can actually have the real conversations. And those conversations need to happen. You have destroyed what we have been building for years and you have silenced everyone daring to walk away from your group think.
You can cancel free speech all you like, but that’ll just force people to make free speech in their bathtubs.
So let’s get to what has been my real unpopular topic, the real cat on a hot tin roof.
You fell victim to the spell of pharmakeia and it turned you into its tyrannical bullies.
Woke culture primed your righteous thrones and the pandemic opened up the gates to align against the perfect enemy: those that dared question the narrative; those that didn’t blindly follow the rules. Those who didn’t obey your orders.
It wasn’t always like this, you must admit, you didn’t suffer much from mysophobia, with all the swapping of spits, drinks, and joints at parties. But it was the perfect storm, in the end. You feared and you othered and you shamed and you demonized and you laughed yourself all the way to your “vaccinated only” venues. Under the misguided leadership of The League of Chicago Theatres you banned together to prohibit entry to those who you deemed unsafe even though your jabbed and boosted asses got covid over and over again. As far as I am concerned, if you were one of the theatres that required a proof of vaccination to enter, you should carry asterisks by your names to denote your participation in medical discrimination.
You couldn’t see the irony that your “vaccinated and masked only” venues were cancelling productions due to covid outbreaks.
People love their post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies, but if you kept the unjabbed out of work and out of you audiences, who do you think was passing covid around? You just couldn’t let go of the pandemic. You loved the control. Long after it was moot everywhere else in Chicago, long after the science was proven wrong, long after covid had become just another cold. You demanded obedience. Some of you are doing it still.
Of course some of the jabbed are also finding out they’re underjabbed and it’s getting helluva hard to police and sort all of this out.
Now, some of you quietly removed these guidelines with no fanfare, no public announcement, let alone an apology. Just a quiet mention on your website…
…as if nothing ever happened. As if you didn’t cast us out. As if you didn’t demoralize us. As if you didn’t take away bread from our mouths by gatekeeping paid work. I see now that you’re dropping down your discriminatory rules so you can save your flailing houses. I see you switching jerseys when no one’s looking. Your club, however, sucks. It stinks of coviditocracy. As Mark Oshinskie puts it ever so much more eloquently:
As these sequelae develop, I’ll remind anyone who will listen—and those who won’t—that they’re seeing a true form of Long Covid, encompassing social, psychological and economic devastation. Manifesting residual denial, most who embraced the Covid overreaction and eventually perceived that were played will fail to perceive the linkage of these enduring problems to Scamdemic “mitigation” measures. They’ll refuse to accept the blame they deserve for supporting all of the Covid hysteria.
Predictably, many have begun, and will continue to, hide behind the hollow, but psychologically and socially convenient, notion that “We couldn’t have known!” that all of the mitigation efforts would fail and cause harm. But they clearly should have known; many people, like me, tried to warn them. Any failure to know is based on ignorance, which, in turn, was driven by censorship of—or the refusal to consider—the anti-panic perspective italicized above.
The Coronamaniacs failed to think critically about the foolish measures implemented to “crush” a virus because they kicked me, and other anti-Covid-madness messengers, out of their groups. As did my musical friend during his teens, many Americans realized too late that those whom they blocked or tuned out had something unpopular, but important and constructive, to say.
And like my friend’s big brother, I’m not eager to rejoin their lousy band.
You know, every curse ends up as a blessing in disguise and such it was that when I was cut off from your approved circle, I picked up these other skills in media and am able to scrape together a living while still enjoying my work. I am finally able to give more attention to my family and the authentic people in my life. I can claim a corner of the world on this here Substack. Recently, other theatre weirdoes have reached out through the abyss. They, too, have had their glass menagerie broken. We all echo the same sentiment: “How did this happen here, among us?”
And look, I know that at this point, I’m not the most fun to be around. We have a lot less in common than we used to. Being around me is taxing, or so I’ve been told.
So when I met these like-minded artists on Substack, I can’t help but to have faith that our industry is gonna be ok, in the end. With me or without me.
I met Daisy whose borrowed character Daisy May "Granny" Moses from the Beverly Hillbillies will surely make you read out loud in a thick Texas accent:
There’s Mary who found my email and was ballsy enough to hand me her phone number without even knowing me. So I did the same. Her experience seems very similar to mine:
There’s Air Lift Underground with whom I collaborated on a whim. Remotely. We did it without knowing what we looked like or who we invite in our beds:
And then there is this one special person who I even call a friend. Is it possible to consider someone a friend if you’ve never met in real life? Could the universe sometimes slice through the fabric of generations, space, and culture and simply deliver a connection? This writer (new friend!) and this stack are a bit addictive, as I go for the mystery and stay for the zany British humour, but it’s also meta because the absurdity of our industry gets exposed like a baboon’s butt.
To all my non-theatre readers, thank you for making it this far, I know this isn’t your jam, but I had to get it out of my system and I hope to stay away from addressing my old theatrical family again. To those who have recently started sliding into my DMs - I hope you find the courage to start speaking out. You don’t have to make grand statements on FB (no one listens on there anyway), but don’t be afraid to speak your peace in conversation. You’re the second dancer at the party now. And to those who are seething in disgust at the moment (and I know a lot of you are reading and lurking in the darkness because there’s this analytical algorithm that tells me where my readers are coming from and there’s quite many of you FBers out there…), I hope you take in the following words from Toby Roger’s thinking points and reconsider your stance:
It's open enrollment period to join Team Reality
It must be so completely humiliating to believe in the thing. Each day brings with it ever-greater indignities:
• The thing was going to be safe. Then it made you sick.
• The thing was going to stop infection. Then you caught Covid.
• The thing was going to stop transmission. Then it didn’t.
• The thing was going to stop severe outcomes. Then more sullied people died than unsullied.
• The thing was going to stop the pandemic. Then it accelerated the rise of new variants.
• The thing was going to set you free. Then they imprisoned you inside your home.
• The thing was going to confirm that “experts know best.” Now the expert class has been revealed as a fraud.
• The thing was going to confirm that your worldview is good and right and true. Then you had to embrace fascism to stay in the club and now you don’t recognize yourself anymore.
You’ve been lied to, bamboozled, led astray. But the sunk costs in the wrong thing are so enormous, you’re reluctant to acknowledge reality.
The world of theatre has left a taste of acrimony in my mouth and I can’t undo it, friends and colleagues, current and former. I’ll keep quietly doing my art, how I can, but I can’t participate in your farce, in your fancy for fascism. The theatre community has made its choice. When you’re done being hateful, let’s talk. When you’re done shaming, let’s warm up the back room of the Moon. When you are ready to shed the fronts you have been wearing and can practice a little humility, a little non violent communication, a little authenticity, a little empathy, perhaps we can one day make beautiful art together. It’s gonna be a long and winding healing road but maybe we are on it. Seeing how many theatres closed their doors because they followed the ‘go woke and go broke’ model makes me think self-corrections are already underway. I acknowledge that some of you will not be able to swallow your pride, will not admit the role you played in this tragedy and for those, it’s the last night of ballyhoo. I can only offer my repurposed Irish toast I used to do with you on opening nights as we did a shot of whatever, slightly adjusted now to appear in the past tense and suspended in time:
Here’s to you, you lying, stealing, cheating drunks.
But when you lied, you lied to save a friend.
When you stole, you stole people’s hearts.
When you cheated, you cheated death.
And when you drank, you drank with me.