An Actor Exits

Broadway World reported yesterday that the Tony Award-winning actor Tonya Pinkins had resigned from the cast of the current Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at Classic Stage Company (CSC), directed by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick (who is in his final months at the helm of that theatre company).  Pinkins’s statement about the reason for her departure, printed in full today on Playbill.com, is crucial reading for any director or student of directing that’s interested in the many recent and current conversations about equity, diversity and inclusion in theatre, directorial authority, and more.  For directors especially, it is also very interesting to read Kulick’s response to Pinkins’s decision.

What issues does this situation raise about who should be producing and directing what, who should be making what decisions, and how the actor-director collaboration is affected by issues including white supremacy, stardom, patriarchy, and the director/producer phenomenon?  Did Kulick handle this as well as possible in the best interests of the theatre company, the production, and his directorial vision for it?  What else does the Pinkins departure and the Kulick response bring up in your mind?  Thoughts (and other questions) are welcome in comments here or on The Director’s Vision Facebook page.

UPDATE: In a clarifying status update on Facebook, fellow Mother Courage actor Michael Potts wrote: “While I won’t talk publicly about our process on Mother Courage, I do feel compelled to correct the record on a particular statement made in [the] broadwayworld.com article before an actor’s reputation is ruined. AT NO TIME did any actor threaten ‘to kill’ Tonya. The actor said IN REHEARSAL, that as his character (an armed, enemy soldier), if Mother Courage made such a move, the truth of the scene would dictate that he kill Mother Courage. This was the script we were using and had been rehearsing with Tonya for 5 weeks. Again, this was said to Tonya in rehearsal with other actors present. NO ONE threatened the life of Ms. Pinkins.”  That’s what I understood from Ms. Pinkins’s statement, but perhaps Mr. Potts is correct to go out of his way to avoid any possible misunderstanding.

AND ANOTHER (January 1, 2016): Michael Potts has published a more lengthy update on his Facebook feed.  In it he strongly supports Tonya Pinkins’s declaration on race and gender in theatre, but offers a differing perspective on the rehearsal and preview-performance process behind CSC’s Mother Courage:

I’ve tried to avoid this, but I see things spiraling out of control. Two issues are being conflated. The first, ‪#‎BlackPerspectivesMatter‬, in which she is completely correct and I wholeheartedly support. The polemic she sets forth in her incredibly well composed statement on race and sex in the theater, is spot on. The second, the Mother Courage rehearsal process is pure hyperbole.

“The question of Mother Courage being delusional (inelegantly put by the director, for certain) was brought up during our very first week of table work. The director was referring to Brecht’s own writing about the character. As he put it in more elegant fashion and repeatedly stated during the entire rehearsal process, Mother Courage is a tragic character because she never learns. War teaches her nothing.

“Actors know very well that there is nothing incongruous about a director holding one view of the character and the actor holding a different view. Directors normally defer to the actor in nearly all cases. Hopefully, out of this creative tussle, something transcendent appears. Such was the attempt in our production.

“Make no mistake, Tonya ran our production from the start. She was Momma Courage, yes ‘momma’, her request and everyone complied including the Brecht estate. Throughout the rehearsal period, when she wanted to make a change, any change, it was allowed.

“Also, actors are aware that even during technical rehearsal and previews, performances are still evolving and subject to change. However, we also hope by that time, after weeks of rehearsal (4 weeks in this case), certain things are beginning to set up. Though, it’s still possible, wholesale changes in blocking and script are normally less frequent at this stage. Therefore, it is also expected that when an actor decides to make a major change in dialogue and/or blocking that involves fellow actors, that there’s a little friendly heads up if not rehearsal given to those actors. Unfortunately, Tonya didn’t get around to doing that. Still, every actor rolled with it. The director wishing to protect the whole has the job of addressing the situation for the sake of everyone involved in telling the story.

“Allow me to address the ‘fur incident’. This was in the script from day one of rehearsal. There were no problems or questions about this part of the scene through 4 weeks of rehearsal. None. We move to the theater. Costumes are added to the technical process of mounting the play. The scene proceeds and only then is there a conflict about a fur. Tonya states her intention to take the fur and explains it’s what Brecht wrote. This is true…in another translation,-not the one we’d been rehearsing for 4 weeks. The actor wearing the fur defends his position grounded in the text we’re working from. Tonya again asserts it’s what Brecht wants and that she intends to take it. The actor defers to the director. Compromises are immediately offered to resolve the issue. None were suitable to Tonya. The debate is tabled and both Tonya and the other actor confer with the director privately. The decision is reached to do the scene as written. During that evenings performance, Tonya takes the fur. The actor has no choice but to let it stand. She is Mother Courage, after all. Too long a story, shortened, both director and actor acquiesce to Tonya’s choice. Tonya takes the fur for two additional performances then announces that she won’t do it anymore. No explanation. Why was it so essential that a week and a half debate was required? Why after 2 performances, was it now ‘suddenly’ not essential? Was it really about Brecht’s intention? What was this conflict/demand really about? Such was the process of this Mother Courage. I witnessed time and again our director bend over backwards, to the point of spinelessness to try to appease Tonya.

Anyone who has worked with Tonya knows that no one silences her. ‘No one puts baby in the corner!’ Tonya is a force. Her brilliance is clear, her intelligence evident by her release referenced in this post.

“Of course, there were honest creative differences as in any other creative endeavor. However, no one was ever muzzled, rebuked, rebuffed, made voiceless or enslaved.

“Put simply, Tonya wanted to move in an entirely different direction once the show was already rehearsed and set. It was too late in the game to re-rehearse a concept.

“Unfortunately, these statements have led people to conclude that the play is a complete mess, that those of us still involved are left with something lesser and by extension we are lesser actors and a director and theater company’s reputation are being unfairly trashed. I’ve read people already conclude that the director is a racist and sexist. You would be mistaken on all counts. Though, there are justifiable critiques of this production, none of them rise to the level of what’s being insinuated.”

THE LATEST (THAT I’VE SEEN–January 2):  At the risk of appearing to propagate a squabble, I want to continue to give the fullest picture I have of this discussion.  I do so because I don’t think it’s just squabbling; I think Tonya Pinkins has kick-started a very important conversation, it has become quite public (at least among theatre-makers), and additional shadings in understanding of her perspective may be valuable.

Ms. Pinkins responded to Michael Potts’s longer statement with this comment: “It deeply saddens me that my wonderful costar feels he must defend, The establishment.  Michael, you know nothing of what was communicated between myself and the producers and anyone else. You simply saw the fallout. I’ve been working on this production long before you were even considered.  I don’t believe any of the men would have treated me the way I was treated if I was a White woman.  Believe me if I had ‘run’ the show , there would be a finer product.”

Mr. Potts then wrote: “Tonya, the show is a fine product. YOU are a wonderful Mother Courage. You are made for the role. No, I do not know what transpired privately between you and the producers. I can only and was only speaking to what transpired in my presence.”

To which Ms. Pinkins replied: “You speak to your perspective as a man in the room. The patriarchy always thinks it can tell a women what to think and feel and interpret when her No is a ‘Yes’.”

ANOTHER COUNTRY HEARD FROM (January 2): Broadway World reported that author and activist Larry Kramer had chimed in on his Facebook profile on New Year’s Day in support of Tonya Pinkins, and published his statement about the situation.

Morgan Jenness posted Michael Potts’s longer statement for Mr. Kramer to read.  Mr. Kramer responded: “morgs, i’m afraid i find potts’ response petty and simple-minded and not dealing with the main issues. first and foremost how dare kulick cut an hour from this script and what was left after this castration, which no doubt tonya was troubled by, as she should have been, and potts should have been too. as rehearsals continued and previews too it sounds like tonya was just doing what any great actress would be doing if reaching for even higher levels — trying to work things out emotionally and as is often the case still learning after the curtain comes up. so tonya didn’t tell all the actors what she was thinking, or suddenly found herself trying, or told them too pointedly, hurting the pooor baby’s feelings. haven’t they worked with great actors before? I have. glenda jackson did what the fuck she wanted, thank god because ken russell was incapable of helping her, which sounds a lot like kulick not being able to help tonya and her knowing it, thus increasing her frustration factor. i had the privilege of watching rehearsals involving such as kim stanley, geraldine page, ralph richardson, the great olivier, and was friends with the great luise reiner. they all had and did and reacted just as tonya did.”

I post Mr. Kramer’s comments not to endorse or validate them, but because his very strong point-of-view may provide additional matter for the discussion at hand, especially as it relates to the role of the director.

IN THE INTEREST OF BALANCE (January 2): I think I should mention that Mr. Potts has received more than 75 comments, more than a few of them from high-profile theatre professionals, thanking him and/or expressing support for his longer Facebook post.

THE LATEST NEWS: All comes courtesy of colleague Matt Saltzberg.  First, the role has been re-cast: http://www.broadway.com/buzz/183344/kecia-lewis-steps-in-after-tonya-pinkins-abrupt-departure-from-mother-courage-and-her-children-off-broadway/

And, the composer for the production, Duncan Sheik, gives an interview: http://www.americantheatre.org/2016/01/04/duncan-sheik-on-cscs-disputed-mother-courage/

ANOTHER UPDATE: American Theatre magazine just posted a podcast that includes an interview with Ms. Pinkins.  “I think that actors do not realize how powerful they are,” she says late in the interview.  “We’re not treated like we’re powerful.  But I want to inspire actors to take that power.”  That should be heard in context and is excerpted just to pique your interest!  Click here to listen (the Pinkins/Mother Courage section starts right around 12:40, but the news that precedes it is interesting too).

THE PRODUCTION CONSIDERED: Charles Isherwood’s review in The New York Times calls Mother Courage, now with Kecia Lewis in the title role, calls the production “terrific,” “searing,” and “by any measure the finest of [CSC]’s Brecht cycle.”  He says Ms. Lewis’s performance (given partly with script in hand) is “commanding,” “powerful, complex and persuasive.”