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Anger Policing in Theaters: "Brown Bag" Discussion #26

Equity in the Arts
A brown paper lunch bag sits on a desk with a blue mug, filled with lark business cards, that says "rewrite your script." Assorted pencils and notepads lay nearby, along with two containers of play-doh.

During our latest Brown Bag Lunch, the staff and apprentices of The Lark sat down to have a conversation about Anger Policing in Theaters.

"Brown Bag" is what we call the conversations we have in our office every six weeks, when the full Lark team sets aside an hour of a Wednesday morning to gather and discuss a chosen subject. The time is allotted to provide space for open, regular dialogue on topics of equity within and outside the theater field. Our discussions operate on the belief that the practice of engaging in these conversations should be routine, like morning coffee (which, like our Brown Bags, helps give us a wake up)! And the key word is practice. These discussions can get difficult, so in order to create a welcoming environment, each one begins with a reading of Lark's Discussion Guidelines (which can be read on the Equity, Access & Inclusion page of our website). The first tenet of these is:

What is said here stays here, but what is learned here leaves here."

In the spirit of sharing our learning, we're extending our topics of exploration to you! Check out the information below for highlights from our most recent discussion. We know these topics are vast and complicated, and we often come up with more questions than answers during our hour in The Lark's conference room. We encourage you to continue the conversation both in your own lives, and in the comments section. And, as always, thank you for engaging!


Resources and Discussion Takeaways...

The following resources were brought up either during or after the discussion, and may be useful in exploring the questions below.

Who Gets to Be Angry?
  • This New York Times op-ed by Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist) guided our discussion. In the piece, Gay goes into how a person's identity, specifically in terms of race and gender, affects how their anger is perceived.
No, We Won't "Calm Down"
  • We also used the definition of Tone Policing provided in this comic from Everyday Feminism to help guide our discussion. It reads, "Tone policing is a silencing tactic, part of a set of tools used by people holding privilege to prevent marginalized individuals or groups from sharing their experience or oppression. Tone policing works by derailing a discussion by critiquing the emotionality of the message rather than the message itself."
NY Times Responds to Producer's Complaint About BIG RIVER Review
  • publishes here the full text of a letter written by Jack Viertel, artistic director of City Encores!, in response to Laura Collins-Hughes'
    New York Times review of Encores!'s production of Big River.

Jack opens the letter with a list of his accolades, in an apparent attempt to justify the anger in his subsequent letter. By framing himself as a person in a position of power before expressing his opinion, Jack implies what he says should be read instead as fact, and seems to suggest, quite dangerously, that there is only one correct way to react to a piece of art.

Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What that Says About Our Theatres
  • ​Back for the second month in a row, apparently we just can't stop talking about Dominique Morisseau (and why would we want to, she's fantastic).

Of particular relevance to this discussion, the comments section of this piece as compared to the reaction to Frank Rich's Facebook post (where Jack's letter was originally posted) is worth noting. While, the response to Frank's post was overwhelmingly positive, comments on Dominique's piece often contained personal attacks on the author. This discrepancy hearkens back to the points Gay makes in her essay. Also worth noting, in expressing her anger, Dominique wrote an essay that was published in a major magazine, meaning it was first subject to heavy vetting and editing before going public. Jack, in his letter, did not need to synthesize his anger in the same way.

Does Race Have a Place in Theatre Criticism?
  • Diep Tran, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion columnist at American Theatre, was following the controversy over the Big River review when she noticed something. "In the back and forth that followed on social media (and in Nicole Serratore’s wonderful take in Exeunt) authoritative critic of color had weighed in." So, Diep called up AT contributor Kelundra Smith, a black critic and journalist working in Atlanta to have (well what do you know) a conversation.


we had going into the discussion
  • What do you think each author wanted when writing their pieces?
  • What tactics did each person use?
we left with
  • What does silence in a theater actually mean?
  • Who are you putting at risk with your anger?
  • What is the value of having these conversations without an opposing voice in the room?
  • How does anger, being such a personal emotion, imply ownership?
Questions of your own? Comments? Continue the discussion in the comments section below!