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, “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.”
16 thoughts on “An Actor Exits”
Whose translation is CSC producing? I’m curious as to why no translator/adaptor is credited.
My colleague Matt Saltzberg saw the production last night and posted this concerning the translation and the cuts:
“The program attributes the translation to John Willet, although there is no one expressly credited with the adaptation – and this certainly is an adaptation: content has been either removed or reworked. I directed the Kushner translation in early 2015, so I don’t know Willet’s that well. I am hesitant to say this without having consulted the Willet translation, but it seems to me what was included in the performance could not have been a verbatim record of Willet’s translation of what Kushner describes as Brecht’s ‘strange German,’ a ‘rough and bumpy’ approximation of 17th century German via a mix of historical and contemporary idioms.”
Here’s a link to the entirety of the thoughts he posted this morning on last night’s performance: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10103603992556980&set=a.10101963213356650.1073741831.15936685&type=3&theater¬if_t=mentions_comment
Thanks for the info and the help with understanding the situation, Matt!
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I refuse to comment on the specifics of this particular situation. On the surface, I applaud Ms. Pinkins for standing for her own convictions and principles–too often, in the effort to collaborate, or “get along,” we performers allow our artistic integrity to be compromised–oftentimes, at the hands of a director/producer. So, good for Ms. Pinkins to say “no,” especially if there was no solution to be had. What I will comment on is this very notion, played out time and time again. As an actor myself, I have been a part of too many rehearsal processes where major artistic decisions regarding interpretation and storytelling were made way before the actors were engaged; usually during the lengthy pre-production phase where design elements are considered and decided upon. How many times have I sat through a first rehearsal where I’m told exactly what I’m going to be wearing and what the physical world I will be occupying; without even having a first reading under to hear and listen to the story with this specific company of actors. I understand that budgetary considerations must be taken into account and that the various shops need the appropriate times to execute the designers’ visions, but to add the acting company at the end and to have made such HUGE and VITAL interpretive decisions before even hearing the story told aloud, or to have valuable input from the people who will be living out the story, automatically sets the stage for miscommunication and misinterpretation to exist. In CSC’s case, this is only a small portion of the larger (and long overdue) conversation, but it is a foundational part of the theatrical process, and if theaters would find a way to include the actors’ voices from inception, I truly believe so much drama could be avoided. That’s not saying THIS drama doesn’t need airing, but if Ms. Pinkins and Mr. Kulick had lengthy creative conversations ahead of rehearsals–heck, when the season was planned, even–both parties could have evaluated if they shared a similar vision and whether they could execute that vision together. Chances are, if this happened, they would have made entirely different decisions about even wanting to work together. Bottom line = Start including the actor earlier in the process!
Thank you for your comment. I think this is a great topic of discussion especially for students of directing. In school productions, including college/university shows, faculty directors and designers usually make most decisions before the cast of students is chosen, and it’s important for students to consider the idea that actors could be, can be, sometimes are, maybe more often should be, involved in the early part of the creative production process.
This is a great suggestion.
In reading Mr. Kramer’s statement, I noticed this line that jumped out at me: “Doing productions of Shakespeare or opera classics in modern settings does not allow for editing out an hour of text.” Apparently he hasn’t seen literally *any* recent examples, particularly of the former. Yeah, sure, Larry. No one *ever* edits Shakespeare. *eyeroll*
It seems like the Brecht estate must have approved the translation, and the translator (and probably the Brecht estate too, I’d think) must have approved the cuts. This remains a bit mysterious to me.
[Much of this comment has been redacted as ad-hominem in nature. These portions are being published for their relevance to the questions that are the subject of this blog post.]
…I mean, perhaps Mother Courage should only consist of white actors of European background. That’s certainly how Bertolt Brecht conceived it. Or maybe Shakespeare’s play should be more authentic in casting – relegating black performers only to characters like Othello and occasional instances of servitude? Imagine the limits imposed by constraints like this. And there is frankly no difference between that and telling a white director that he can’t direct a play about black issues.
It’s mind boggling that in a time when we can have a show like Hamilton on Broadway that [an] actress starts screaming foul about “white gaze” and the lack of diversity in theatre…. Perhaps [Ms. Pinkins] should take a flight over [to the Democratic Republic of the Congo], join them and stage her production THERE where it would have some relevance….
Be careful here. You are walking a very very fine line – it seems like you almost want to say “go to Africa where you are relevant”. I assume that’s not what you mean, but it almost reads that way. Just want to point that out.
From the nature of your comment, it seems to me that you have very little understanding of why diversity is needed in the theater. No one is asking for a quota to be filled, people of color are asking to be included. So, while Hamilton is on stage, that’s doesn’t mean diversity still isn’t a problem.
Secondly, if you read her letter in the first place; she isn’t asking for more diversity, she’s asking for a deconstruction/analyzation of the way black actors are performing on the stage, as well as their characters. She didn’t say he couldn’t direct a play about black issues (which, Mother Courage is not a play about black issues anyway) but that as a black actress, she should be more involved in the creative process BECAUSE he’s not black. She’s asking for more hand in collaboration, especially since the play was adapted to a black setting. It’s susceptible to several prejudices that we as a society are working through.
Thirdly, the fact that you say she should take it to the Congo where it would have “relevance” scares me, frankly. Black stories don’t have relevance in the U.S.? What about the same Mother Courage that’s been produced with a black cast makes it irrelevant to a U.S. broadway stage?
The white gaze is real, everywhere in western media. Even this comment is rife with it. Ms. Pinkins raising several points about how not even the stage is exempt from racism and prejudice is call for scrapping an all-black production altogether? All that tells me is that you are more interested in ignoring Ms. Pinkins words instead of actually having a discussion.
I would like to amend an above statement; I said that “Mother Courage is not a play about black issues, anyway” but I meant to say that “Mother Courage is not a play about black issues without black actors, anyway). The very inclusion of black actors is what makes it a play about black issues. So why exclude them?
While I can’t say just how much cutting was involved, it’s interesting to note that the “editorial note” at the end of Eric Bentley’s 1963 translation points out that Brecht himself cut the play for its 1949 German premiere (its first production was in Switzerland in 1941) and that Bentley’s 1955 version incorporated those cuts. However, when an American production of Bentley’s version was being planned, it was “even more heavily cut,” and this was published in Bentley’s Seven Plays by Bertolt Brecht (1961). I don’t have those two versions before me but it would be interesting to see what Bentley cut.
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Thanks for your comment. It does seem that the play is an “established classic” in the sense that the text has been made more plastic by being produced in different ways over time. I have wondered if the estate is more open to cuts and changes since Stefan Brecht’s death in 2009, but I don’t know. I can tell you, having co-produced the premiere of the Bentley version of the play with songs by Darius Milhaud, that Eric considers himself the author of his translations and, working with multiple versions of texts in German (even more so with Wedekind) he is the arbiter of what’s in and what’s out. But I’m sure I’m not telling you, Dr. Leiter, anything you don’t know.
My next blog post will (I think) be about directors cutting scripts. Thanks for the segue!
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