Casting Changes

Frequently in theatre, roles are cast more from the look of an actor first and the talent second. On the flip side, roles can be gender bent, interpretations can be made, and the script is used as a suggestive tool, not the end all.

However, some playwrights are particularly strict about a production meeting the exact framework laid out by the script. Beckett’s plays for example were expected to follow exact stage directions from the original show. Edward Albee is a famous American playwright, and his estate distributes production rights for his shows. Albee passed away in 2016. His play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” was scheduled to perform this summer in Oregon, and cast an African-American male as Nick, a young professor. Because of this, the estate revoked the right to produce the show, due to its commitment to accuracy in casting. More details can be found in this article: NPR – Who’s Afraid of a Diverse Cast, and this one: NYT- A Black Actor in ‘Virginia Woolf’? Not Happening, Albee Estate Says. Citing the numerous references in the show to Nick’s Caucasian appearance, the estate claims casting outside of those parameters does not do justice to the integrity of Albee’s work.

So, it seems there are two sides to this discussion. The modern day representation of minorities (including women, ethnicity, religion, etc.) is always hotly discussed in theatre and film. These mediums (especially mass market movies) deliver the stories of our society, affect our opinions, and drive our discussions. There should be equal and adequate representation of characters from all walks of life. And as a side note, those actors should be treated and paid equally as white or male counterparts.

But, when looking at historical shows, where should a company draw the line between discrimination and artistic integrity? Should the playwright’s intention be respected, and the original work be maintained, or should it be allowed to grow and change with the times.

As a theatre artist, this is always an interesting debate to me. Plays are living breathing pieces of art, that generally reflect the time period and audiences of their day. It is important to consider the historical representations in a show such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, set in 1962. If we look at America during that time- would an interracial couple been as widely accepted as it is today? Definitely not. And as the article states, there is the fact the script itself calls out the blonde-haired, blue-eyed attributes of Nick, the character in contention. We wouldn’t pull down the Mona Lisa and make changes to bring her into modern times, and we shouldn’t do the same to Albee’s play. However, the director, producer, etc. also have artistic license of their own to present the show as they see fit. Race still means something in our society, so it isn’t as though we are colorblind enough to see past the change of race in casting. As an audience member, would we be more focused on the alternative casting, or the work being produced?

I fully support equal representation of all in our film and theatre, as well as the director’s choice in this instance to cast as they wish. However, I also understand a playwright wanting to maintain their work- their piece of art, in its original form.

It is a very interesting debate between respect for accurate historical representation (especially in our current world of alternative facts) and progressive artistic choice.


Art Challenging Art

Hey all,

Just read an interesting post about the recent addition to New York’s financial district- “Fearless Girl“. Wanted to share and see what your thoughts might be!


Fearless Girl, Kristen Visbal. Plaque states “Know the Power of Women in Leadership. SHE makes a difference”

“Fearless Girl” was debuted by State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) on the eve of International Women’s Day (March 8th), and is meant to call for Gender Diversity in senior leadership. SSGA manages the SHE Index, which enables investors to support companies with greater levels of Gender Diversity in leadership, influence and impact. “Fearless Girl” was cast by artist Kristen Visbal. At first glance, the little girl appears to be bravely standing in the path of the “Charging Bull“, another famous statue in New York. She is an inspiring symbol which has gained much praise by gender equality enthusiasts but has also gained criticism as an exploitation of feminist principles, and as a PR stunt for corporate interests. Without getting into the nitty gritty of those arguments, I wanted to write about another argument against her.

The sculptor of “Charging Bull”, Arturo Di Modica, claims “Fearless Girl” has altered the artistic integrity of his own statue. “Charging Bull” was originally constructed as a representation of the resilience of the American People after the market crash of 1987. As the article states, the bull now appears menacing and frightening when facing down the brave little girl.

So, can a piece of art change another piece of art? Or is it just our perception of the original piece which has changed?

From my own perspective, it is important to continually challenge the symbolism of art as the world changes. Art after all, isn’t really anything without context. Since 1987, a lot has happened in America. The bull has seen not only the smaller recoveries and failures of the market, but has also seen the crash of 2008 and the global implications of greed and corruption on Wall Street.  It could be argued that along with a host of other American values, the resilience which the bull originally represented has become distorted itself in American society, perhaps now representing avarice and destructive ambition. The bull has also seen the advances and failures in gender equality through the last 30 years. Equal representation, pay, and treatment have returned to the forefront of gender relations, and even “Fearless Girl” herself has been the victim of crude jokes and harassment in the short month she has been installed. Imagine what she might face over her entire career as a woman in the corporate world (or any other world for that matter).

So, has the bull in this context been unmasked as a symbol of egoism, patriarchy and corrosive masculinity? Is the bull’s integrity too fragile to stand on its own in the face of a little girl? Have the courage and American values the bull represents been compromised by the girl’s own pursuit of success? Or, are the two statues independent of each other, representative of their own time and place in the world? Have they combined to make a new piece of art?

This brings up a potentially great discussion, regarding not only these statues but many other works. How might this apply to other famous pieces- are there representations elsewhere which need to be challenged, and brought into modern times? How do you respect the original artistic principle of a historical piece- and should you?

I’d love to get into this with someone (maybe over a nice pint). Until then however, stand strong “Fearless Girl”!

Fuel for the NEA fire(s)


(Aurora, IL)

I’m going to challenge myself to do something a little different today, and write a post both for and against defunding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). I’ll focus on the NEA, though I feel strongly the other organizations are equal in importance. A disclaimer before we begin: I currently work in the arts, in a community organization that is not NEA funded, but is funded through taxes.  Our programming as a whole encompasses athletics, arts, parks, community activities, pre-school, senior programming, and a whole lot in between. We also receive revenue from program fees, and a very small percentage from private donations.

First, a little background about the funding structure of US art organizations- only a summary mind you! The NEA is a piece of federal funding. The US Government allocates a budget (last year $147.9 million) to the NEA, who then allocates funds to state agencies. Some of the funds are given out through direct NEA grants in a variety of areas, for which applicants must submit detailed applications. State agencies allocate funds at a state level, the NEA at a national level. Most organizations receive additional funding through corporate or foundation grants, private donations, and revenue from tickets or admission. The US Budget last year was $3.9 trillion dollars, so with those numbers, it means the total budget for the NEA was .004 percent. So that’s 4 cents out of your one hundred dollars.

The argument for defunding:

Without getting too deep into economics, a subject I enjoy but am certainly not an expert in, A free market is one that allows “the invisible hand” of the market to decide which activities succeed, and which fail. Governmental oversight, regulations, etc. are all removed from the economy, and the success is dependent on the consumer, who chooses which to consume. The free market has also become a sort of subjective term for capitalism, which means activities exist for profit, and are not controlled by the state (i.e. communism). Theoretically, this gives all power to the consumer, by allowing them to choose by voting with their wallet. Services or products are reliant on quality, price, brand, and ethics to succeed. This applies to all your purchases right now as a free individual! If you don’t like a company, don’t buy their product.

This type of economy is sort of like what we have in the US, but we have distorted it by imposing regulations, taxes, and subsidies because we don’t live in a utopia. Theoretically, a free market would rule out companies that pollute, provide unsafe products, etc. but sadly that isn’t the case, as we’ve seen throughout history.

Subsidies prop up parts of the economy that would otherwise fail, due to market events, natural causes, or consumer demand. Agriculture for example has huge subsidies in the US, because of its importance to the economy and strong lobbying in congress. If agriculture suffers, the US will also take a major hit. In many cases, and on other blogs, there are likely discussions about agriculture subsidies, healthcare subsidies, etc. because many companies have taken advantage of them. Subsidies can also act as a sort of “non-consuming” consumer. The government may pay a farmer for his silo full of corn, but that corn will never actually be used. Producers may also benefit from tax breaks, incentives, and other “artificial” market influences. So you see how they can get tricky.

This same concept applies to the arts, in the form of grants. Nobody says the arts are subsidized, because that doesn’t quite make sense. There is nothing to subsidize. The government can’t buy art as a concept, because art is dependent on being brought into existence in the first place. So grants offer a chance for artists and organizations to have the funds to pay for the art, supplies, research, wages, and other costs which go into the art itself. Because art has a non-monetary value, it is dependent on the appraisal and inherent values society ascribes to it. Two paintings may be exactly the same in outward appearance- but what is the value of a painting produced by a robot, vs. produced by a human hand?

As this is an argument for defunding, the main point would be to let the market decide if they want art. If a community truly values its theatre, then theoretically they would pay enough in revenue and private donations to keep it open. From a market perspective, a theatre that doesn’t make enough in ticket sales to stay open, it shouldn’t stay open.

Many organizations who do receive funding year after year could come to rely on this funding, and because of this can take more risks such as staging a show that might not be popular or sell well. In this case, the incentive to provide what consumers want has been removed. The necessity to pay back the grant giver has also been removed, as a grant is different than a investment, which would fit better into the role of a Producer in commercial or market driven theatre. Producers do expect to make their money back.

Also, the NEA does not fund individual projects (only writers and translators), due to the historical objection to funding of artists like Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. A case could be made here for free speech. Another post, another day!

Grants create an uneven playing field for artists and artistic organizations, and do not allow consumer to decide what they wish to support. If art truly wishes to be free, then it needs to be freed of constraints in artificial funding. Because of the ascribed value of art, there is no way to assess the appropriate amount of funding for projects. A large theatre, for example, should sell more seats than a small one, and may require a larger grant to recover overheads and expenses, but does that make one show more valuable than the other?

Fight for funding:

NEA Funding does not just benefit large organizations. It also benefits community groups, rural organizations, youth programming, and many other groups who wouldn’t exist without funding. Often, programs are free admission or extremely low cost, which is a huge benefit to communities who otherwise would not have access to the arts. These groups use the funds to pay wages, pay rental fees, pay for supplies, pay for essentials to their programming. As I come from a business and arts background, it makes sense to me why something as effective as an arts driven program are important to fund. The arts are not being funded, rather, the benefits to the community and participants are.

Arts and culture are an essential part of society. Imagine our collective human history without museums, music, galleries, and theatres. If we value the Athenians for democracy, should we not also pay heed to the cornerstone of theatre in their society? Imagine where we would be without creativity. Creativity is an essential component of learning and development, which benefits and individual years down the road. NEA-funded programs benefit our society through the skills gained by workers and children, art therapy for veterans, and one of the biggest benefits, tourism. Think of Times Square without theaters, DC without the museums, (and on a smaller level, Chicago without the “bean”!) and how quiet the nearby cab drivers, restaurants and shops would be without the arts to draw the crowds in. They create rich cultural fabrics in our cities, and gathering spaces for our neighborhoods. NEA funding provides organizations resources to create jobs, retain quality workers, and recruit a diverse workforce. (Information on how many jobs in industry here). Our tax dollars go towards guns and roads, salaries and buildings and hosts of programs. The value we place on these things is different for every American. We all have to give money to people and causes we don’t agree with, and towards services we may never use, because we live in a complex society. The elderly pay school taxes and the rich subsidize insurance for the poor because these policies aim to make our society stronger.

The most important part of this argument however, has more to do with the societal statement the United States sends by saying it does not support arts and culture, because that is what defunding these programs says. We are the only developed country without universal, single payer healthcare. We are far behind other nations in gender equality (1 to 5 ratio of female to male representation in government). Income inequality is huge. Gun control is depressingly pitiful. A large minority of us are still struggling to recover from the recession. We are vandalizing cemeteries, throwing insults at people different than us, and banning foreigners from entering a country of foreigners. Despite the safety of our borders in recent history, we are increasing funding for defense, building up the military and telling the world we are frightened. We are racist. We are misogynistic. We are afraid of progress.

The arts may not provide huge revenues, though according to this study, this study, this study, and many others, they do. But what they do provide is an opportunity to approach these issues which form society from a consumer’s standpoint, and consider our place in them. They encourage our brains to form new connections, they provide an escape, they provide mental, physical and spiritual health benefits. They provide employment directly and indirectly. They encourage discussions, build communities, and allow us an outlet for freedom of speech. Every other developed country in the world funds the arts, because they value their heritage, their culture, and their artists. We should too.

The United States will be taking another turn for the worse if we defund the NEA.

Is the Islamic Headscarf Ban Part of an Ongoing Cultural Rift?

stelios article

A guest post today by Stelios Hadjithomas, another MA alumni. This post was originally published on March 21 on Pulse, and offers a perspective on the recent European Court of Justice ruling regarding religious symbols in the work place. BBC article on the ruling here. (VZ)

In the wake of the terrorist attacks at the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris on January 7, 2015, people gradually formed groups and protested out in the streets in solidarity with the French. The groups, which later spread throughout the globe with the help of the media and the internet, were believed to distribute awareness regarding freedom of expression. Within hours, everyone tweeted #JeSuisCharlie, advocating for the right to express oneself. But soon a new threat came to life; Islamophobia being deployed by radicals who would exploit the attack to promote extreme beliefs. Shortly after, thoughts concerning public safety due to an alleged Muslim-threat arose. The issue of security being undermined due to women and men wearing symbols rooted deeply in the culture of the Muslim religion was brought again to the surface. Since then, a number of European states have taken measures against individuals – mostly Muslim women – who withhold their identity by covering or veiling themselves, hence posing a threat to public security. A bit over two years after the Charlie Hebdo attack, with the Trumpean anti-Muslim policy climaxing across the Atlantic, and an Islamic religion under fire, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that wearing “any political, philosophical or religious” apparel at work can be legally banned.

Is a wider total ban on headscarves and similar headwear in public space possible?

Legally speaking, a total ban on religious headwear would provocatively oppose sovereign states’ international obligations: to guarantee individuals the right to freedom of belief and equality before the law, for countries which are acceded parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. These multilateral texts include provisions safeguarding the rights to autonomy and self-expression, as well as religious freedom and equality. Enforcement of such a ban would particularly discriminate against Muslim women, by excluding them from social life in their society, on the grounds of faith and culture, thus rendering them unable to freely express their identity, autonomy, and religious beliefs.

Generally speaking, arbitrary and generalized restrictions of religious symbols in public places, translate to restricting a practice followed mostly by females associated with the religion of Islam and damage these subjects’ enjoyment of fundamental rights. A total ban on religious symbols would specifically endanger freedom of religion and, potentially, gender equality. Manipulation of a person’s religious beliefs by law violates the right to freedom of religion and equal treatment when in fact, international human rights standards protect these rights, i.e. the ability to choose what to wear and the ability of each person to exercise control over their religious beliefs. Coercion in issues of conscience should, as a rule, be avoided. It is undeniable that an obligation to wear a headdress against one’s wishes is in clear violation of the right to personal autonomy and is opposed to international law (i.e. article 11 of the CEDAW and ICCPR). The same applies to the prohibition of the right to wear a specific garment. The right needs to be practiced voluntarily. Legitimate efforts to support those who do not wish to wear a specific type of headwear, but are coerced into doing so, do not justify coercing others into not doing so. And assuming that all those who wear religious headwear are forced to do so, is not representative of reality.

Particular protection for women

According to international human rights law, countries are required to respect the human rights of women specifically, including their right to privacy and self-expression, and to provide equal treatment without discrimination. In addition, by ratifying CEDAW, member states accepted an obligation to act towards ending discrimination against women in all forms. The first article of the convention calls upon its members to extirpate

“any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women…, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

Furthermore, the Human Rights Committee, which is responsible for the supervision of states’ compliance with the ICCPR, declared (General Comment No. 28,  Art. 3) that states are responsible for ensuring for both men and women the equal enjoyment of all rights provided for in the ICCPR without any discrimination, by taking all necessary steps, including the removal of obstacles to the equal enjoyment and the adjustment of domestic legislation. The Committee has also emphasized that

“[any specific regulation of clothing to be worn by women in public] may involve a violation of a number of rights guaranteed by the [ICCPR], such as: article 26, on non-discrimination… articles 18 and 19 when women are subjected to clothing requirements that are not in keeping with their religion or their right of self-expression; and, lastly, article 27, when the clothing requirements conflict with the culture to which the woman can lay a claim.”

The right to freedom of expression is also set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 19), although non-legally binding.

In the case of headscarves, burqas, niqabs and hijabs, which play a significant part in the cultural identity of women who choose to wear them and also reflect their religious beliefs, arbitrary restrictions are in violation of the corresponding rights, and particularly prevent women from having a personal cultural identification through the display of their religious symbols, which is unfair, illegitimate, and inconceivable in democratic societies. 

When can rights and freedoms be restricted?

Traditionally, under the law, in cases where needed, rights can be limited if necessary, in order to safeguard a greater value. The rights to freedom of religion and self-expression are considered relative, as opposed to absolute rights. Restrictions can only be justified when they’re necessary to regulate a legitimate interest, such as the protection of public safety and order, health or morals, or of the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; and should be applied with caution to avoid damaging the relevant rights in their core principles. According to the Human Rights Committee (S.W.M. Broeks v. The Netherlands, CCPR/C/29/D/172/1984, April 9, 1987), the restrictions should be based on reasonable and objective criteria, pursue a legitimate goal, and be proportionate to the aim sought to be realized.

Terrorism and public security

A total ban of religious apparel on the grounds of terrorism prevention and maintenance of national and public security might seem the way to go at first glance; however, it would practically denounce an entire group of females without assessment of the actual behavior of the individuals wearing the apparel. This would amount to a reversal of the burden of proof and would discriminate against minorities on the grounds of gender and religion. There are more efficient ways to confirm the identity of the people wearing these garments where needed, with the help of technology, increased security, and other methods. A complete exclusion of religious facial attires in public is not a proportionate response to maintaining public security. It is not the responsibility of women who feel religiously obliged to wear a prescribed attire to maintain political harmony by sacrificing parts of their religious and cultural identity. Authorities should take particular steps to ensure the protection of religious minorities so that they can practice their faith. They have an obligation to preserve diversity and pluralism as the proper values that democracy stands for. When an issue like human attire becomes a source of tension and argument, the role of the officials is not to remove the cause of tension by disabling pluralism. To paraphrase the words of Marjane Satrapi, a minority group established on the soil of a foreign country should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists in the same or another country.

Ideological symbols at work: What does the ECJ decision mean in practice?

Did the ECJ’s decision have a legal foundation? In short, yes. But is it moral? It is the first time the European court has issued a – pretty straightforward – decision on wearing religious (and other) symbols at work. The court assigns to the national judge the responsibility to ascertain whether the criteria that are set out are fulfilled, while clearly indicating “that an employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers is legitimate,” when this is clearly indicated and expressed in the internal regulations of the company. While this may be interpreted as an innovative decision for the court and a clear win for corporate freedom, for Muslim women who consider wearing a specific garment a fundamental aspect of their religious practice, the decision practically requires them to choose between violating their deeply held beliefs by respecting the law and suffering social condemnation, or disregarding the law and suffering the consequences. At the same time, the decision raises public concern and is seen as a harbinger of future unjust behaviors as the global war on Islam rages on. Has Europe officially embarked on a journey to purify the continent of Islam? It remains to be seen. But the future looks bleak.

Stelios Hadjithomas works in online media. He holds a law degree and a master’s degree in Cultural Policy & Arts Management and enjoys writing about the things that are important to him. His poetry has been published in literary journals online and in print in Ireland and the UK.

2017, Chicago’s Year of Public Art


Cloud Gate in Chicago, IL, USA (Public Domain Picture)

Hello from Chicago, IL!

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs have declared 2017 the Year of Public Art (YOPA). But what does that mean, and why do we care?

Public art is an ambiguous term that can be applied to a lot of different forms and presentations of art. Basically, if the art is designed to be showcased in the public realm (libraries, murals, art in the park) then it is Public Art. “The Bean” in Millennium Park might be the most famous example of public art in Chicago (pictured above), but any glance at a tourist map will also highlight some other favorites – i.e. Calder’s arch in the Federal Plaza, the Paris Metro Entryway on Michigan Ave. and the Bronze Lions guarding the Art Institute. Chicago being the thriving arts city that it is (according to the Arts & Economic Prosperity report here, Arts & Culture generate $2.2 billion in Chicago from institutions and related spending) the YOPA is an exciting designation for Artists throughout the city. In the current political climate in both the nation and the state of Illinois, a year of focus on the public art in Chicago is good for morale and for the city.

The year of Public Art encompasses a variety of things, but mostly it is about extra funding, attention and programming. The headline projects include renewed focus on neighborhoods and youth, creating a matching grant program for new permanent installations in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and funding for paid internships- the Public Art Youth Corps. The funding for these programs is coming from the city, but lists two beneficiaries on the Year of Public Art web page- Allstate Insurance and Terra Foundation for American Art.

So what does Public Art really do? The value of art can always be debated- and public art can be an especially contentious one, especially when projects go awry or don’t turn out to be as “nice looking” as hoped. Though it could be argued that debate in itself is the value of Public Art (let’s hear it for dialogues!), I would say public art matters because that sculpture, or mural, or etc. gives a neighborhood its character, pays a person, and generally has some sort of local backstory to pay homage to. One of my favorite public art installations is the light/sound “plants” on State St. They change their tune based on the season.

And, it matters even more when politicians and city officials place specific emphasis on the arts! The paid internships, new contracts for local artists, and events all bring economy, development and commerce to youth, elders, and local business. The events will be a much needed escape in weeks to come. As someone with an artistic background, I inherently value art and its contribution to society. Art generates creativity, serves as freedom of speech, and most importantly acts as a catalyst for so many other things. Out of conversation comes dialogue, out of dialogue (hopefully) comes new thinking, and out of new thinking comes societal cohesion. That’s the dream at least.

Plus, who wants to walk down any old street when you can walk down one with a beautiful painted mural? I certainly prefer the latter.

If you’d like to read some more about the Year of Public Art in Chicago, please visit the DCASE website. I’m also including a link to a Public Art guide here if you want to check out any of the existing public art in Chicago. See you there!

Stay positive people.

– VZ