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
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,
UPDATE 11.7.2016: Vagabond Players have publicly apologized.
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):
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:
As did others, including original Avenue Q cast member Erin Quill:
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 email@example.com.
Achilles Feels is at firstname.lastname@example.org and Pandora Locks is at email@example.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.