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The Tobyman Cometh

With performance artist Abel Flores Jr. and Toby attempting to move forward the diversity conversation in DFW theater, Shelby-Allison Hibbs ponders the significance of an activist approach.



published Sunday, April 3, 2016

Photo: Alisa Eykilis
Abel Flores, Jr. and Toby

 

Diversity is a hot-button issue in American theater, but how does a revolution for more inclusive theater practices begin?

Perhaps through Facebook.

Abel Flores Jr., a local actor and teacher, posted a link (as many of us do) concerning the parity issue in theater. It’s no secret that the vast majority of plays that get produced are written by straight, white, men (SWM). After posting, Jason Rice of Rover Dramawerks in Plano initiated a dialogue with two words: “Send money.”

I’m sure we all know how social media arguments go, two people at their phones start a heated dialogue and then others piggy-back until one person finally stops responding. Unlike others, this exchange resulted in real action: Flores received an invitation to perform for one night at Rover. But this invitation came after prying open Pandora’s diversity box; and at one point theater by underrepresented playwrights was compared to choosing a favorite snow cone flavor. (Am I in the mood for a specific kind of theater like African-American, LGBT, or disability-oriented themes… because all plays written by a black and/or LGBT person are the same, right?)

Look, we all know that social media is not the ideal place to discuss anything, but let’s unpack that snow cone idea, shall we? Do we really choose a play in the same way we select the flavor of a delicious, sugary treat in the middle of a hot day? A snow cone implies that you can easily select from many, and that you can hold your own individually-crafted ice world in your hands. It’s a crude version of those computerized Coke machines at movie theaters. Whatever you are craving, you can get—maybe even a Coke with a splash of raspberry, Sprite, and just a hint of diabetes. You have the power to choose. Whatever flavor you want, the snow cone man will push the syrup dispenser on demand. But the shaved ice is the same, or the core foundation remains in common with all the other snow cones. It’s the layer poured on top that adds the flavor and color.

Can we really think of theater diversity within that same constraint? When you ask yourself, “What am I in the mood for?” You’re probably not talking about live performing arts, you’re most likely picking a movie on Netflix. You can even fall into “decision limbo” on a streaming service because there are too many options. Think about when you went to a theater. Say, Theatre Three, for instance. At the most, you’ll have two options, not even “three” like the name says! It’s not the same process.

And even if it were (because I just can’t get the problematic nature of this snow cone analogy out of my head) let’s play a game of theatrical fantasy for a moment. Let’s say you could go to a theater and have multiple diverse options right in front of you. In this dream scenario, someone took over an old movie theater and decided, this will be a brand new multi-show, multiplex theater space. We’ll have feminist theater in one room, SWM in another, Latino in another one, Native American, Arab-American, LGBT, disabilities—every category will get one theater under our multiplex roof. Even if something like that existed, what would it actually imply about our culture? It would say that we’re all in different rooms not talking to each other.

Is that the kind of diversity we want?

Yet the discussion of “flavor” in regards to diversity separates the established boundaries more securely. To intentionally say “We’ll do a Chicano show here, we’ll do a show for the older crowd here, and then this one to the side, that will be for the LGBT people…” it divides. And sure, a performance may not be up to your taste, but that’s another fundamental part of theater. It builds empathy and understanding for other points of view that you may not encounter on a day-to-day basis. In a culture of choice, where you can quite literally filter which points of view you want to absorb on social media feed, theater can expand your perspective.

But only if the people in charge are willing to provide that.

Many of these issues had been building up inside Flores’ mind; and he teased them out to the public at Rover with the help of his friend, Toby.

For those of you who saw Dead White Zombies' KaRaoKe MoTeL, you know that Toby is no ordinary puppet. He speaks truth whether you are ready for it or not; and he hates every whiff of bullshit (he’s called me most profane terms on many occasions, Lord have mercy). He even has his own Facebook page. While Rover presumed that this was a friendly visit to assist Flores’ career and bring in a new audience (flavor)—and big kudos to them for even inviting him—Flores had a very different idea: activist theater. Many of the people in attendance (including DWZ associates and my students) were aware of the spin Flores would take with “Whatever Works.” The folks at Rover did not. (Editor's note: TheaterJones was aware that the show was happening, as it was promoted on Facebook, but not of Flores' intent.)

Photo: Alisa Eykilis
Tobyman

Flores began the performance portraying Hixon (a southern belle) and Toby as Catwoman and Batman, respectively. Toby declared that Dallas is in need of a Dark Knight, to save the theater scene from overwhelming white-ness. Hannah Weir joined Toby and Hixon to explore the powerless nature of women on stage, getting on her hands and knees to elevate the male protagonist, (as many secondary female characters metaphorically do in plays). Toby also invited the audience to participate in the discussion, separating this experience from the typical theatrical performance in which only designated people are allowed to speak and the rest must watch in silence. Theater itself is a display of power, it is political by its very nature. Flores made an attempt to offer that agency to the audience so they could ponder: Whose narrative gets told? Whose narrative remains invisible?

The performance poked at the stereotype of Plano, a northern suburb of Dallas in Collin County that was once synonymous with suburban affluence, until the economic boom of even farther north cities like Frisco, Allen and McKinney. While in close proximity to diverse Dallas and Richardson, which is known for a large South Asian population, Plano has a caricature for being, well… plain. You know, strip malls, office parks and chain restaurants. According to the 2010 census, 67 percent of Plano is white, with minorities filling in the rest of the population. While whites are still a majority, diversity is rising all around the Metroplex. One of the audience members at the performance claimed that the demographic data illustrated that Plano is one of the most diverse communities in the area. Flores then questioned that if this city is so diverse, where are these minorities in the theater there?

The uncomfortable situation was palpable at certain moments, particularly as Toby directly addressed Rice, who remained in the back of the theater. While this may have felt like a personal attack, it was not meant as such. Flores could have raised this issue in several theaters around the Metroplex; Rover just happened to be the group that opened their doors to Flores (and again, for willing to take that risk, they deserve credit). Take a look at season announcements around North Texas. Flores could have raised this issue at even leading regional and AEA Small Professional Theatres, or even some of the smaller companies that are regularly praised in the local press. (Rover is not an Equity theater, but does pay all its actors and artists.) Later in the performance, Flores broke character to reassure that he wanted to promote change and assist if they were on board.

In this first session of activism, Flores may have been too optimistic. He asked Rice multiple times if he would pursue a Jubilee season in four years (meaning a commitment to do a full season of all playwrights of color, LGBT, or disability). Flores states:

 

“After asking to collaborate to help raise at least 1/3 of the budget for a Jubilee season, offering assistance in finding the diverse plays they would be able to produce, and be their working connection with local organizations they’ve yet to work with, I honestly thought I had a chance. Even after seeing the entire house raise their hands when asked if they would like to see a season of more diverse work, I figured it was in the bag. My mission was to get an organization to try something new while offering the underserved patrons and artists of Plano a chance to contribute to their local theater. Although Toby can be a little coarse, my intentions come from a positive place in hopes of creating growth.”

 

To be fair, Rice could not have committed to that on the spot even if he wanted to, as he runs an organization responsible to a board of directors.

To its credit, for the second year Rover is producing the 365 Women a Year Festival in May, which is readings of works by women playwrights from seven states, including Carol M. Rice, Rover's Artistic Director (and wife of Jason Rice). Also, if you look at press photos and releases from Rover’s productions, it’s clear they respect diversity in casting and directing. To boot, four of the nine titles on Rover's 2015-'16 mainstage season are by women (Agatha Christie, Nancy Frick, Susan Goodell and Ayn Rand). That's a far better gender ratio than many area theaters.

Clearly, Flores did not receive the answer he wanted. What Rice did say echoed the social media exchange: “Send money, send me scripts that will sell!”

I paused at this statement. How do I know that my script will sell? As a playwright, is there a formula I should follow? I didn’t know that this category of sellable plays existed. Is there some kind of notary who can give my plays the “stamp of sellability”? Should I tell the theater companies I send my scripts to the amount of money they can potentially make on my work?

Jokes aside, Rice also explained the sober reality that the rent alone for his space costs $6,000, and therefore money determines what can be produced. But again, how do you know “what sells”? Even if we could determine that, the anarchist within me cries out that money will not solve everything. But still, many companies look for the familiar: a strong trope already tried, an old story with a new “twist.” And what kind of pressure are you giving minorities, LGBT, and women to say “we need extra security to produce your plays”? I don’t think anyone would actually say that out loud, but that is implied across the board by when theater seasons around DFW includes only one playwright of color, or only one or two female playwrights, or zero playwrights of disability.

When did “more of the same” become the safe choice? Where does this idea stem from? If the issue is money intake, how long will it be before the vanilla snow cones become too… vanilla? The way our current theatrical snow cone machine is stocked, we have vastly more vanilla syrup bottles than any other flavor. The others are special order.

I’m sorry, I just can’t help but go back to the snow cones.

Diversity isn’t just putting the other kinds of stories on an equal playing field. Eventually, it should also display these narratives in concert and in conflict with each other in the same work. This is how America transforms into the true “melting pot” it claims to be. For example, plays like Ayad Akthar’s controversial and Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced need to be a part of the major theater conversation here.

We’re still sitting in different rooms not talking to each other.

The heart of Flores’ performance concerns the future of his students, a predominantly Hispanic and African American group. When he takes his students to see plays, he notes that many students don’t see themselves represented on stage. It’s not just that they don’t see their stories, but it teaches them that the theater is not a place for them. As Jeanine Tesori said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” As more of these “minority” groups grow, do we really think that promoting more straight, white, male plays is the realistic answer?

And let’s be honest that SWM have had a very good run for modern theater history, under the masculine umbrella of “universalism.” They’ve determined what stories matter in the canon of theater. I’ve heard a saying that “The patriarchy dies hard.” It’s a slow, agonizing, gruesome demise for the precepts that have held together their theater. Along with this, theater has combated the growing pains of a digital age—and I think this goes hand in hand with the representation issue. Now, anyone can post their work online through video, photo, text, and streaming content. The story of the human experience is not in a separated space like a movie theater or performing arts space, but in your pocket or on your desk, accessible at any time.

Photo: Alisa Eykilis
Abel Flores Jr. and Toby

Sometimes I’ll also hear anger from artistic directors, “Why aren’t people coming to our shows? We do good work!” I’m sure they do, but something that these leaders who have been in the business for decades did not anticipate is the age of the internet. Everything can turn upside down in a moment, from how you communicate with your audience, how a bad review can become viral in your community, to the possibility of streaming performances. The ability to get entertainment instantaneously is something that no one in the performing arts scene expected. With this globally connected world, shouldn’t our work in the theater mirror the diversity, multiplicity, speed, and complicated narratives we are bombarded with daily?

In one of my first classes in graduate school, my professor asked “What makes theater a vital and powerful entity?” One student answered, “Because it’s live, right in front of you, and something exciting could happen even if it is all planned.” My professor replied, “For theater to survive, you have to come up with a better answer.”

We can see anything live all around the world in an instant. We can watch masterworks of theater online. So, yes theater is “live entertainment,” but streaming digital media is convenient and cheap. Why would I go to a theater to be “entertained?” Is theater a space to be entertained or to feel alive? For 21st century theater to not simply survive but thrive, it has to find a necessary, local place.

So, is the theater a space welcome to all, or a select few? We can say whatever answer warms our heart the most, but the proof is in whose words get spoken, what bodies are represented on stage, how those bodies are represented, and the cost of a ticket to get in.

Maybe more people would come to theater if there’s a dangerous chance the whole thing could be turned upside down. Maybe more people would be interested if the most exciting thing wasn’t a farce. Maybe a movement can start if more people truly felt that the theater is a place for them.

Can Flores and Toby use their powers for good? Activist tactics might not be for everyone, but it's certainly one way to heat up the conversation.

Besides, I hate snow cones.

 

» What's next in the adventures of Tobyman? We're not sure, but you can follow them on his Facebook page

» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Beginning in April, Hibbs will launch a new bi-monthly column for TheaterJones that is focused on new theatrical work and all that entails, because we're finally at a place in North Texas where there are many new plays and musicals being developed, in a refreshing range of stylistic and playwriting diversity. Look for the first entry soon. Thanks For Reading





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The Tobyman Cometh
With performance artist Abel Flores Jr. and Toby attempting to move forward the diversity conversation in DFW theater, Shelby-Allison Hibbs ponders the significance of an activist approach.
by Shelby-Allison Hibbs

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