Something’s Rotten (aka My Stomach Hurts)

UPDATE 11.8.2016:  Alan Zemla has apologized.

Below is a response from Mr. Alan Zemla regarding his recent comments to Bad Oracle reviewer Achilles Feels.

Here is what we would like to say about it: EVERYONE fucks up, and if you think you don’t, you’re dangerously wrong. Everyone does and says things, in anger, that are inappropriate, mean-spirited, not a true representation of their beliefs. Today, Mr. Zemla demonstrates that it’s how you act AFTER you make a mistake that should ALSO go down in history. He has not only sincerely apologized, he is removing himself voluntarily from the Spotlighters Board of Directors. We feel that his response demonstrates dignity, character, and grace. This is how things and people change. This is how a light is found on a dark day for our community. From us to you: thank you, Alan.

Let’s move forward in the light. – TBO

Mr. Feels,

I would like to personally apologize for the hugely inappropriate comments in my October 31st email. There was no reason to attack you as I did, particularly your physical challenges, and it was wrong. No excuses. I regretted it almost immediately after sending it, and have been struggling with how to say “I’m sorry” in a sincere way ever since. I still can’t seem to find the right words for an offense of this magnitude, so I’ll just say: I’m sorry. I was wrong. I should never have mocked anyone with physical challenges. It will NEVER happen again.

It has been my intent to apologize ever since the email was sent, but I was advised by several people to wait until things “cooled off.” Clearly, that was also a wrong decision; this apology should have been issued immediately. So, I am sorry for the delay, as well.

I will be issuing an apology to the Spotlighters Board, who had no knowledge beforehand of my email. I do not ask you to forgive me, but I do ask that you forgive The Board since they were not involved in any way. Also, I have spoken to Fuzz, and in addition to issuing an apology to the Board at the next meeting, I will be offering my resignation.

Wishing you the best of luck and success in your artistic pursuits,

Alan Zemla

 

UPDATE 11.7.2016:  Vagabond Players have publicly apologized.

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Hi, Baltimore Small Theater Community.  The Bad Oracle here.  We need to talk and yes, it’s one of “those” talks.

This morning, a community member alerted us, via Tweet, of something brewing at Vagabond Players that was quickly blowing up.  The controversy centers around the PR response of the stage after being called out on the decision to cast a white actress in the role of Christmas Eve, a Japanese character, in their current production of Avenue Q.  The casting is being seen as an example of “yellowface”, a term that originally referenced theatrical makeup worn by white performers depicting Asian characters, and is now more broadly used to refer to a non-Asian actor cast as an Asian caricature.  Here is what Vagabond posted on their Twitter page this morning (for those not Twitter savvy, it reads from the bottom up):

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This response is incredibly disappointing.  Vagabond is essentially blaming Asian actors for not turning out for auditions, putting the burden on them (the “ethnic”) for the theater’s racially insensitive casting decision.  Robert Lopez, the co-composer and co-lyricist (with Jeff Marx) of Avenue Q has been quoted on this issue directly:  “In America, where we have diverse populations, even if you’re in a community theatre, I think it’s better to not do the show rather than do it in yellowface or blackface.”  Howard Sherman details exactly why this is a shit casting choice in his excellent Why A White Christmas (Eve) Is Nothing To Celebrate On “Avenue Q”.  Sherman himself commented on Vagabond’s response this morning:

screenshot2016-11-06at4-32-10pm

As did others, including original Avenue Q cast member Erin Quill:

screenshot2016-11-06at4-50-36pm

The entire affair makes us sad and mad, not just as critics, but as members of the Baltimore small theater community.  Sad, mad, but not exactly surprised.  This pattern of committing an offensive action, responding defensively, and then doubling down on that response after being called out on it, struck us here at The Bad Oracle as more than just shameful – it felt oh-so-disappointingly familiar.

This week, I received an e-mail and forward from Fuzz Roark, who is the Managing/Artistic Director of Spotlighters Theatre.  Roark warned me that the board at Spotlighters was unhappy with the tone and publication schedule of a recent review of the show Das Barbecu written by one of my reporters, Achilles Feels (you can read that review here).  The forward was an e-mail from Alan Zemla, a board member at Spotlighters and Set Designer/Scenic Artist for Barbecu.  To avoid any accusations of “cherry picking”, here is the entirety of the message: zemlae-mail.

I want to be perfectly clear: the problem is not with Mr. Zemla’s disagreement with the review.  We are aware at The Bad Oracle that our style, tone, and content is not everyone’s cup of tea.  We’ve been told, more or less, that our standards for small theater are impossibly high, our smarts impossibly low, that we’re mean, unfunny, coarse, rude, wrong, uneducated, and more, so much more.  It’s part of the gig (and don’t cry for us, Argentina, we also get blushingly high praise for our work).  We dish it out, and we can take it.  No, here’s the problem:  “I attended Sunday’s performance to see the “YOOGE amount of pupil-dilating glare” that you experienced.  I couldn’t find it.  At all.  Maybe you need to get your vision checked (Yes, I know who you are and the significance of that statement)“.

Let me expand on “the significance of that statement”.  Achilles Feels has a physical disability due to an accident he sustained years ago that destroyed a large part of his vision and almost took his life.  He has endured surgeries and corrective efforts and physical therapy to be able to compensate for his injuries.  I wrote a message back to Mr. Roark in astonishment, confirming that a Spotlighters Board Member wrote and Managing Director endorsed an e-mail to a member of the press mocking a reporter’s physical disability.  Here was a portion of his response (full text of both here: roarke-mails):

If you want to make this about Alan’s decision to call [Achilles Feels] on his repeated dislike of Alan’s designs and the scenic choices, that is fine, and his questioning how someone with a vision issue can critic the visual aspects of set design.

Here is my response: lettertospotlightersmanagement.  I have not yet received a response from Mr. Zemla or Mr. Roark.  I shouldn’t have to say this, but apparently I do:  Achilles Feels’ disability has not stopped him from serving as a professional set and lighting designer, and, though he is disabled, and has been outspoken about that fact, he is absolutely 100% qualified to serve as a critic for this website.  Because people with disabilities are not defined by them.

At no point did either of these gentlemen indicate that their comments were intended to be “off the record” (again they e-mailed their statements to known, identified members of the press at our published Bad Oracle e-mail addresses).  They, acting as representatives from their organization, casually, flippantly, blithely, made and then doubled down on a personal, ableist attack because they felt hurt that a reviewer didn’t like their work.

And that’s the thing.  When your organization makes a racially insensitive casting decision, or takes aim at a disabled reporter on the basis of his disability, that’s bad.  But it is worse to double down.  It is worse for official representatives from those organizations, be it through an official Twitter or e-mail account, to continue to defend those choices instead of stopping and listening.  The world is different in 2016 than it ever was before; it is so much harder for those in powerful positions with fossilized viewpoints to hide (and, to be clear, these viewpoints were never acceptable, what they were was tolerated).  Why does this matter?  Because you should know what you support when you support them.

All is not, however, lost.  I am not interested in “burning down” two long-standing community theaters.  This doesn’t make me feel good.  I don’t want to weaponize the Oracle, I want to see this fixed because that can still happen, oh yes it can.  It is worth noting that several of Spotlighters board members have come forward to apologize, to state that these statements do not represent them, and that is the beginning.  Both Vagabond and Spotlighters have a choice now to listen and learn from this.  That’s what I’m hoping, crossing my fingers, will happen.  We’ll see.

If you would like to contact me, my e-mail is emailthebadoracle@gmail.com.

Achilles Feels is at achillesfeels@gmail.com and Pandora Locks is at pandoralocks@gmail.com.

*Achilles Feels is aware that there are several details in this post that might “doxx” (expose his identity) him.  He is willing to take that risk and has urged me to publish regardless.

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14 comments

  • You have to cast from what arrives at the call. Yes, Vagabonds could have put out a second call or continued searching, but they are a small theatre doing the best they can. Would I have preferred them to put out a second call or continued to search? Of course, but I do not work at Vagabonds, so I am not privy to their constraints, nor do I presume to be privy to such information.

    Do the author or the critics know how many Asian or Asian-American actors showed up for the call, or are they just assuming things?

    Instead of publicly punishing Vagabonds, why not encourage them to cast show with an entirely Asian cast instead? Shaming small theatre is not the way to go, in my book, but it certainly is an easy shot to take.

    • There’s another option for Vagabonds or any theatre that finds itself unable to cast a show, in a way that honors the writers’ intentions, based on who shows up for auditions: Don’t Do The Show. (To requote Robert Lopez, from the article: “In America, where we have diverse populations, even if you’re in a community theatre, I think it’s better to not do the show rather than do it in yellowface or blackface.”) Better yet, when planning your season, ask yourself — and honestly answer — whether your expected casting pool contains enough diversity to allow you to do the show as intended. And if the answer is no, are you willing to do the extra work to find and invite a more diverse group? Perhaps that’s a multi-year project — but it’s a project that every theatre should commit itself to.

      If after all this soul-searching and effort you still cannot find the actors you need, perhaps Avenue Q is not the show for you.

      • Oh yeah…don’t do the show & fuck-over everyone who was going to be in it or come see it. Yeah, great way to keep a theater open, dumbass. Have you ever managed anything more complicated than changing a light bulb?

    • Or: don’t issue a call for a multiracial production if you’re community is racially homogeneous. Grow your community to the point where you’re not stuck in this embarrassing position.

      • Yes, it would be great to live in a perfect world, wouldn’t it? Until your (note spelling/punctuation) ideal arrives we’ll have to go see plays about murder by Shakespeare, about poverty by Brecht, about homophobia by Hellman…by writers inspired by the real world we live in.

      • Jon, it’s pretty depressing that, to you, a “perfect world” is one where community theatre actually tries to build and sustain a diverse community.

    • There is another option — hold auditions, see who shows up and then, if there are vital gaps you still need to fill, whether it’s an actor with a killer singing voice for that solo bit or an Asian actor for that role that’s built around the fact that the character is Asian, you go above and beyond to find the right people before you start. Put out an additional, more targeted call for actors, work your contacts, reach out to the people you know who might know someone else even if they can’t do it themselves. You will almost always find someone if you put in the effort. Saying “actors are adults” is a patronizing response that absolves the company of all responsibility for something that is, in fact, their responsibility alone.

  • OMG, I just re-read your article. Comparing Vagabonds Theatre to Donald Trump???? Shame on you. Truly, shame on you.

    • No snark here: but are you sure you read the article? There are two theatre companies discussed here. Neither are compared to Donald Trump.

      • Yes, and I find the comment about mocking a disabled reporter on his disabilities to be shades of DJT. Maybe I’m just election fatigued, no, for sure I am election fatigued, but I found that uncalled for. I could be 100% wrong. If I am, mea cupa.

    • The Bad Oracle contacted Spots to clarify that remark. If the remark wasn’t intended to be mean-spirited or mocking, Fuzz Roark could have said so; he could have gone back to Alan Zemla to clarify his meaning; he could have said “I’m so sorry, I didn’t read that part of the letter carefully” or “It never occurred to me that Alan intended offense” or any number of replies that acknowledge the problem. Instead, he deflected. I agree with TBO — that’s a problem.

    • It’s not a false comparison when you’re literally just describing what the person did.

      • Zemla was not insulting the critic, but rather suggesting that maybe his self-admitted disability affected his perception, in more ways than one, of technical issues involving this particular show. I saw the show & I agree w/Zemla. (I’m not connected w/either Spots or Vags, except as a spectator.)

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