“There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person.”

I know this is the longest blog title ever, but I don’t care because it is awesome. It is taken from a casting note by American playwright Chuck Mee. The full note is here:

In my plays, as in life itself, the female romantic lead can be played by a woman in a wheelchair. The male romantic lead can be played by an Indian man. And that is not the subject of the play. There is not a single role in any one of my plays that must be played by a physically intact white person. And directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live, in casting my plays.

My emphasis. I really like the mention that simply casting someone outside of dominant culture does not necessarily need to make some sort or directorial or dramaturgical statement. Audiences are far more intelligent than the theatre industry gives them credit for.

Mee’s note opened a recent Jezebel article about antiquated but still very prominent casting issues for actors of color. Writer Laura Beck cites some of the more recent examples at large venues such as La Jolla Playhouse and The Royal Shakespeare Company. I’ve talked about these incidences ad nauseam with my colleagues and friends so I won’t detail them here but please, please follow the link and read about them if you haven’t already. Most theatres state that they have a color blind casting policy. However, as Beck argues, it’s not really color blind casting if you are willing to cast White people in plays about Asian people, but are not just as willing to cast Asians in roles that are presumed for White people.

I really love this part, where she calls out the casting teams on their privilege and their relationship to universality and dominant culture.

The white men casting these three shows have never had to place themselves in other people’s shoes. Because most stories are catered to them, it’s possible they never had to develop the same imaginative flexibility the rest of us are continually practicing. You might assume that when an Asian man or woman walks in to audition for the lead, the casting people think “other”. They could wonder, “How will the audience access this story since they’re not a Chinese woman?” But in reality, many of us have been doing that our entire lives. It’s possible that this might come into play in casting, with the end result almost always being: You want it to be universal, you gotta cast white.

I’m more focused on pedagogical research than I am on the industry itself, but I will continue to highlight these articles because I feel the need to remind all of us who work in or are preparing students for this industry that we are kidding ourselves if we think that simply because we are artistic, creative, and progressive, that we are not affected by dominant culture and are not capable of disempowering others through our choices.

“You need a voice,” she says. “You need a voice.”

This NPR Morning Edition episode highlights recent develops in synthesized voice technology for people left voiceless by disorders like Perisylvian syndrome.

Usually, those in need of a synthetic voice device will choose from a limited variety of voices. The segment focuses specifically on Samantha Grimaldo, who is not satisfied with the sound of her synthetic voice.

It’s not just that the voice is artificial and disjointed. It sounds, Samantha says, “older.” Samantha is only 17, and the sound of the voice — deep, methodical, mature — doesn’t exactly align with her sense of herself. Like any teenager, she feels self-conscious about it.

Rupal Patel, a researcher at Northwestern is developing more personalized synthetic voices for people like Samantha, based on open vowel sound recordings that capture melody.

“In people with speech disorders, the source is pretty preserved,” Patel says. “I thought, ‘That’s where the melody is — that’s where someone’s identity is, in terms of their vocal identity.’

It’s fascinating how a person’s vocal quality is such an integral part of who they are. Samantha’s frustration over her current synthetic voice is palpable. It is simply not her. Most Western voice teachers are aware of a connection between voice and identity but it is nice to see such a researched (and yet still very anecdotal) example of this.

“Turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking”

In his article, “Why don’t the French speak English” in the Daily Beast, David Sessions uses anecdotal evidence of recent French faux paux (yeah I went there) in relation to English and political correspondence and highlights France’s poor showing in the TOEFL, English First speaking test, and the “European Survey on Language Competences.”

When speculating about why this might be the case, he quote’s Pamela Druckerman’s French-parenting guide Bringing Up Bébé,

“Even at home, we tend to teach children to be quiet, discreet, and not make too much noise,” Fleurot told me. “Perfect work is called sans faute in French, which is a negative way to go about it. And the expression, ‘turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking’ reflects the idea that you shouldn’t speak unless you are really sure about what you are going to say. There are many small things like these that tend to show that our culture is less outgoing than, say, American culture, where kids are encouraged to speak out.”

In my experience, many English teachers don’t often realize the intricate relationship of one’s culture and the readiness, willingness, or sureness with which one speaks even in their 1st language. These cultural differences should be discussed and addressed and the learner should feel that he or she is making a choice to push against certain beliefs in order to progress in a different language that has different cultural implications. Foisting it upon them while making assumptions that non-Native English speakers have the same relationship to language as we do will not help.

Sessions also quotes a linguist to raise cultural judgments about pronunciation changes in English.

“Pronouncing English seems very hard to French students and very ‘funny,’” said Jean-Philippe Schmitt, a French professor at New York University and the founder of JP Linguistics. “For example, the th- sound seems in French like a speech impediment or lisp. French people really have to be willing to step out of their comfort zone to pronounce it.”

It amazes me how sensitive we are to certain sounds and how it can really make us feel something without even realizing it. If you are teaching a French learner of English the th sound and they believe that this makes them sound deficient, then your job as their pronunciation teacher will be all the more challenging. As Schmitt says, we all have to step out of our comfort zone to make such pronunciation changes laden with cultural judgments.

There are a few grammar forms in Korean such as 나요(nah-yo) where they are considered softer and are used mostly by women as opposed to men. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it makes me feel to say this grammar form. I start to feel a tightness in my chest and my face gets hot. As a non-classically feminine woman, it is incredibly difficult for me to use this verb form. But sometimes, in situations in Korea, it’s necessary for me to use it in order get what I want. Out of one’s comfort zone, indeed.

Calling all ‘self-professed egalitarians’…

Tamar Szabo Gendler (Yale University) and Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University, Blindspot) discuss the Implicit Association Test, which I highly recommend taking. I took this test for the first time when I was in high school (I discovered that I was incredibly racist, to my embarrassment). They also look at how one can address these implicit biases and discuss how attitudes are and aren’t changing across age groups. bloggingheads1 WordPress and bloggingheads.tv appear to be frenemies, so apologies for not being able to fully embed the video. You can either click the image above or go here. This ain’t a short clip, but really good and super important, especially if you are interested in exploring your own implicit biases when it comes to identity locations (psssst: you should be interested!). Also, bloggingheads.tv does that cool thing where you can jump to different parts of the video based on topics discussed.

After describing the background of the IAT and how it works, Gendler and Banaji discuss the difference between explicit and implicit bias and how implicit bias can impact those around us in quotidian situations. Banaji points out

…You and I are teachers- Who we call on in a classroom, how we might judge a paper- these are all possible instances in which our beliefs about groups of people can enter into our assessments of them.

She’s even had her classes audited where someone counts the instances she calls on students based on gender, and her implicit biases still show. Banaji seems to get a bit frustrated when she discusses how many studies have been done with regards to the IAT and yet there is still resistance. She says,

To me, what’s amazing is that each group refuses to be persuaded that they are capable of making these errors until a study is done with their population of people. And that itself to me is interesting  that somehow if I know that lawyers or judges or [inaudible] say “I can’t believe that it could be me. I have to be shown that it is my group that is doing this or I am doing this.

Which makes me wonder when someone will specifically research IAT within the context of drama conservatoire/BFA program faculty and staff. Will that be necessary?

Gendler and Banaji discuss some effective ways to combat implicit biases. One of them is to view images and other forms of media that contain anti-stereotypical messages. Banaji challenges us to take full advantage of our choices:

And of course, the question for person, especially a young person, is, now that the world is at your feet, now that you can listen to Mongolian children making rap music – what will you choose to listen to? What now? – It’s not the three TV stations anymore and the one newspaper at your doorstep…

The conversation closes with this lovely nugget, a point raised by Banaji:

In modern minds like ours, discrimination does not unfold by harming the out-group. But rather, that discrimination has its effects by helping the in-group.

What a concise, clear way to explain privilege. Mmmmmm.

I urge you to take some of the tests over at the IAT website. You might feel really gross afterwards (like I did) but as these two professors discuss, awareness is really the only way to start addressing bias. As ‘self-professed egalitarians,’ we owe it to our students to continually examine our more implicit biases.

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, how are youuuuuuu?

I’ve heard a few voice teachers, particularly accent coaches, bemoan technology such as texting and chatting and how it’s clearly the dearth of good speech. We often present a foundational binary to our students, that vowels are emotion and consonants add sense to speech. And those whippersnappers these days, are sending texts like, ” r u gtg 2 the prT?,”  which is sucking all the feeling and emotion out of written speech and negatively affecting spoken trends.

In her article, “Why Drag It Out?,” Jen Doll explores the linguistic phenomenon of the written text elongation through the adding of extra vowels (and sometimes consonants). She writes,

But why is anyone adding extra letters in the first place? Blame our ever-loosening standards for written language, our desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely, and the brief time we devote to creating an electronic message. Perhaps, suggests Michael Erard, a linguist and the author of Babel No More, we’re simply trying to incorporate aspects of verbal speech into our digital communications. “When people talk, they use intonation in a number of varied and subtle ways,” he told me. “There’s a lot of emotional nuance that can be conveyed that you can’t do in writing.”

My emphasis. A desire to express ourselves independently and uniquely sounds pretty great to me. It sounds like something I am working towards in all my voice students/clients. I think there some legitimacy to the narrative that texting/chatting is has a potentially negative impact on our speech (especially if these young thangs are trying to work with something as challenging as heightened text). However, it’s important to also see that people are using also technology to explore intonation and other verbal nuance. They are finding ways to put that shit back in.

The reference to extra vowels in texting is a great way to practice vowel explorations with students. Some of them might even benefit from examples or seeing them typed out. Henry Giroux encourages teachers to include popular culture (like texting) within a student’s learning experience. He warns,

“By ignoring the cultural and social forms that are both authorized by youth and simultaneously serve to empower to disempower them, educators run the risk of complicity in silencing and negating their students. This is unwittingly accomplished by educators’ refusing to recognize the important of these sites and social practices outside of schools that actively shape student experiences and through which students often define and construct their sense of identity, politics, and culture. The issue at stake is not one of relevance but of empowerment.” (2005, 159)

I’m aware of the implications of my point here. It might sound a bit dramatic to equate the poo-pooing of texting to the disempowerment of students. But if texting and chatting is something I do all the time and is embedded within my view and experience of popular culture, I might be more motivated to learn voice work if the teacher is finding positive examples within said popular culture example. Doll’s article is a nice reminder that there are such positive and dimensional things about our interactions with speech and technology and that our spoken cultural norms continue to evolve as a result. Yesssssssssss!

as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied

Photo: Amy Mihyang Ginther, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, July 2011

“Final Notations” by Adrienne Rich:

it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple

it will touch through your ribs, it will take all your heart
it will not be long, it will occupy your thought
as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied
it will take all your flesh, it will not be simple

You are coming into us who cannot withstand you
you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you
you are taking parts of us into places never planned
you are going far away with pieces of our lives

it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will