Reaching For The (Small) Skyline

Jill Summerville

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

This letter is for you. Read it while looking at the Dayton, OH skyline, if you can. You must admit, that skyline has some worthy (some might even say, superior) competion nearby.

Columbus, OH, which has over a dozen theatres in the downtown area alone, is merely an hour away. That homage to mid twentieth century architecture, the Chicago skyline, is only four and a half hours away. Chicago's theatres can take some credit for that beauty; unlike most of Columbus', the downtown theatres of Chicago are big enough to have lights of their own that are part of the skyscape. For the little amount of illumination it provides, the Dayton skyline's glow takes much effort to maintain. Lexis Nexis was the most notable local corporation that had massive layoffs earlier this year, but it wasn't the only one. It's the one best known to me, because I applied for a job at Lexis Nexis.

As someone with a Phd in theatre, I would've been working outside of my field of expertise, but I would've been in good company. According to a 2013 survey by the website, CareerBuilder, one-third (31%) of college graduates ages thirty-five and over are never employed in their fields (“A Matter of Degree: Many College Grads Never Work In Their Major”). For a gimp actor like myself, the statistics are bleaker. In 2015, only 1% of the characters on TV had a disability (“Number of TV Characters With Disabilities Drops; Fewer Roles Go To Disabled Actors”). Broadway has an average of $1,138 million in ticket sales per season (“Theatre And Broadway In The US: Statistics And Facts”), but only one Broadway show, 2015's revival of Spring Awkening, has ever provided a role for a disabled actor. 

However, even norm actors who make theatre in smaller cities during their spare moments face particular challenges. The scarcity of jobs means union policies might strictly limit the amount of work that's available. Theatres may not have their own, local companies of actors. If the arts community isn't well organized, finding collaborators and funding could be difficult. Of course, there are benefits as well. There are fewer opportunities, but there's also less competition for them. Smaller theatres need many services, which means an artist can use her varied skill set. For someone who enjoys the work of making local alliances, there will be many chances. Succeeding in a competitive theatre market is one kind of challenge.

Creating a market is a different and equally worthy kind. Still, I should admit that no one goes to a tiny city like my own. People end up here. All of the artists I've met in the two years I've lived in Dayton, OH don't make art to pay their bills. They are working primary jobs to pay off school loans, take care of their parents, or provide stability for children. Some, like me, fall in love. Their names will never appear on marquees, because the city doesn't have any. It's scary, defining and redefining what constitutes a big success in a small space. Most days, I don't know if I'm a renegade, an activist, or someone who isn't living up to my own potential.

What I tell myself at night while I'm reading about how William H. Macy flew to three different states to audition repeatedly for the movie, Fargo, is that my greatest fear about staying here, with you, is finding I wouldn't be ambitious enough for New York City. That's not true; the kid who staged all of The Importance Of Being Earnest while being deliberately excluded from junior high gym class can make theatre anywhere. Honestly, my greatest fear is finding I'm not ephemeral. Though my passion for the theatre is genuine, I started acting because I was better at being various characters than I was at being myself. What if I like who I am when I'm with you so much I don't constantly wish I were someone else? That's the question that truly keeps me up, and if I were in a bigger city with more theatres with grueling rehearsal schedules I could mercifully avoid asking it.

One of the charms of living in a city people obviously haven't come to to “make it” is I can only guess what strangers' dreams are. Maybe that mother of two in a grocery store owns a dance studio. Maybe that twentysoming in the fedora is taking a film studies class. Maybe that elderly man who walks the same path every day with his dog stayed single so he could relentlessly pursue his playwrighting career. Or maybe, like me, he fell in love.

I'm often so disheartened by the statistics about the dearth of job opportunities for people with degrees in the humanities that I forget to consider the stories of those around me. Some of them may not be living they lives they expected, but perhaps they're still right where they need to be.

This letter is for you, for us. Read it while looking at the Dayton, OH skyline, if you can. I like seeing the light in your eyes.

“Is Mufasa Really Dead?”, And Other Important Questions Only Plays Can Answer

Jill Summerville

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist 

Recently, my best friend, Chris Schultz, lived up to his designation by giving me three free tickets for excellent seats to The Lion King at The Schuster Center! While I was wondering how I could use the cast's example of performing complex choreography in limited space while dancing in my manual wheelchair, my five-year-old nephew, Colby, had a far more elemental question: “Is Musafa really dead?”

Colby's question---or rather, the fact he had an opportunity to ask it---shows what the fiercest guardians of the theatre always claim makes defending an arts education so important. The broad argument runs thusly: Watching an actor perform someone else's story enriches an audience member's imagination and helps her find ways to be more fully physically and emotionally present in her own life  (“The Effects of Theatre Education”). The difficulty, of course, is that these unarguably useful skills arevery difficult to measure, as evidenced by the fact that Osirus Educational's website, “How To Measure Character” contains not one concrete activity or numerical value (Osirus Educational). How am I to tell, for example, that you now have the emotional maturity to handle your most recent breakup more compassionately than you did the previous ones? Because they're so difficult to quantify, the skills an exposure to the arts can build are sometimes called “soft skills,” in contrast to the concrete ones needed to learn math and science, on which the federal government spends roughly three billion dollars annually (“No Time To Waste On Making STEM Education Work”).

If I address Colby's question using only concrete evidence, the answer is a simple one: Mufasa isn't really dead, because he's played by an actor who is very much alive. If we need evidence of that, we can watch the actor get up for curtain call, or verify that he reports for work tomorrow. I will address Colby's question that way, after the show. When Mufasa dies, though, I'm crying too loudly to speak clearly. Watching the lion cub, Simba, lose his father, Mufasa, I once again lose my Grampy, who died of lung cancer twelve years ago. Like Simba, I temporarily lost sight of what it meant to be my most authentic self (although I did it amelodically). Unlike Simba, who joyfully returns to his throne, I briefly considered taking depression medication, until I realized it might interfere with the level of energy I brought to my acting.

The brutal truth is that the “soft skills” aren't soft at all. These lessons are as hard as sedimentary rock, and they also often take many years to form. There is no equation that can reveal the worth of falling deeply in love, for example, and there is no promise that a romantic miscalculation can be reconfigured. A play lets an audience member practice moving through the world; it doesn't tell her what to do in it. For that, she has to rely on her own self-knowledge and her capacity for empathy.

Later, I'll wonder whether I've done Colby a disservice by reducing Mufasa's death to effects he can measure. Then I'll wonder whether there are age appropriate ways to address grief, loss, and depression. Finally, I'll decide there is no appropriate age for learning about any of those things, and he'll do it soon enough nonetheless. Worse yet, I will have no answers for how to handle those emotions when he does feel them. Luckily, I'll know just which plays we should watch.

Photo: Shaun Escoffery stars as Mufasa in The Lion King

Why Hamilton's Most Compelling Cast Member Is Its Understudy

Jill Summerville

  • OnStaage Ohio Columnist

This is a column about Hamilton. Before you take a moment to roll your eyes, we should come to an understanding. This isn't a gleeful justifying of the show's sixteen Tony nominations for 2016, or an extended marveling over how an original musical can be appealing enough to Broadway enthusiasts to garner ticket costs of $139 to $549 according to the show's official website and still have a soundtrack hip enough to top the Billboard rap charts in 2015. This isn't even a column about Hamilton. It's a column about a Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Sunday standby , Javier Muñoz.

In March of 2016, Muñoz announced he had been undergoing a treatment for cancer since October. He missed two months of Sunday matinees, during which either Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the musical and originated the role of Alexander Hamilton, or fellow cast mate John Rua (Charles Lee) performed in his stead. Significantly, the show's director, Thomas Kalí, says “There was no thought at all about [replacing Muñoz]” (“'Hamilton' Star's Secret Cancer Struggle”). Not only was Muñoz retained as a member of the cast, his fellow cast mates took care of him. Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr) organized a food drive, and the cast collectively paid for all of his meals throughout his chemo and radiation treatment (“'Hamilton' Star's Secret Cancer Struggle”). Their decision may lead to Hamilton's most startling legacy: redefining what it means to be successful on Broadway.

The Broadway theatre culture has always been designed to put profit first. Regional theatres mostly rely on grants to sustain their seasons, but Broadway shows have been tied to the purse strings of individual investors since 1811, when shop owners invested in shows they hoped would bring theatre patrons into downtown New York City (and into their businesses). (“Broadway and Theatre History”). Broadway theatres and the shows that come out of them aren't bound by a common aesthetic or mission statement. They are bound by the same thing that binds different models of the iPhone; they are expected to make steady, continuous profits, and they'll be quickly retired if they don't. The Broadway seasons, then, are usually determined by what audiences want to see, as opposed to what will challenge them. For example, Paul Robeson was famously forbidden to kiss Uta Hagen in a 1930 production of Othello because Robeson was black. Lin-Manuel Miranda is earning much attention by demonstrating that a cast comprised of people of color playing white historical figures is something millennial audiences want to see. The casting choice re-presents truths about contemporary American culture. The cast's choice to support Muñoz while he received medical treatment is a riposte to Broadway culture, the culture of profit.

Javier Munoz and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Javier Munoz and Lin-Manuel Miranda

According to the show's Broadway website Hamilton didn't take a financial loss when accommodations were made for Muñoz. Granted, the decision may have had different consequences for the cast of a less successful Broadway musical. However, we should ask ourselves: Is not the accommodation of the needs of individual cast members a natural action given the collaborative nature of the theatre? 

Perhaps so, but it isn't a common practice. In 2015, Ali Stroker became the first disabled person ever to perform on Broadway when  she was cast in a production of Spring Awakening. Though it in no way lessens her triumph, it's worth noting that her co-performers were members of the theatre troupe, Deaf West. Though Stroker wasn't performing with people whose disabilities were similar to her own, she was still in a production which was largely designed to accommodate the presence of people with disabilities. What is remarkable about Muñoz's accommodation is that, while it wasn't originally built into the production concept, it certainly wasn't detrimental to the show. His story is proof of how gracefully a truly collaborative cast can handle a cast member's physical challenges, as well as how much individuals' valuing of each other can enrich a show. Muñoz's experience proves that accommodating an ill or disabled cast member isn't only possible, it's worth doing. This is the one feat the Hamilton cast definitely won't win an award for on Tony night, but we'll be watching shows inspired by the possibilities Javier Muñoz has created for many nights afterwards.