Joey Stocks: I think I first heard the term “radical hospitality” during a conversation with artistic directors of nonprofit, regional theatres. I don’t know if that’s where the term originated or not, but during the time of COVID, I’ve noticed this term cropping up in more conversations. Today, I’m interested in talking about it from the writer’s perspective. I have two big questions for you today.
First, as a writer, what are some of the ways the institutions with which you’ve engaged have been hospitable, and what are some ways where they could be radically hospitable?
Second, whether through casting, script formatting, contracts, negotiations, et cetera, what are some ways theatre writers can actively be more hospitable in their work?
Jewelle Gomez: Just before we launch in, I want to say something about the phrase radical hospitality. I think radical hospitality has been recently named but is, in fact, a tradition in many communities, certainly people living in extreme or isolated circumstances. I know, as part of the lesbian feminist movement, it was a common theme. There’s even a magazine where women list their names and addresses, and if you find yourself in a particular town or location and need assistance, you can go to these women’s homes. I think it’s a concept that many people on the margins—that includes a lot of different kinds of margins—have practiced as a survival technique and as a way of reaching out to be supportive of others. So, even though it’s just recently starting to have this name, I think of it as a time-worn way of approaching a life that is not bounded by just yourself.
Joey Stocks: Thank you, Jewelle. I think that that’s exactly right. That’s certainly been my experience, and your comments are very helpful to this conversation.
Let’s begin with talking about institutions and what they’ve done well in terms of hospitality.
Nikki Brake-Sillá: I mean, there are several instances that come to mind, especially with Zoom and not knowing what is going on for anyone before they turn on that camera. It’s been comforting to come into these spaces and feel connected by how people are handling the room—you know, with check-ins at the top? Asking, “How are you?” What’s your accessibility check-in? And the people asking really want to know how you are doing, how the space is affecting you. That’s been interesting to see that evolve across the pandemic, because it was completely different at the beginning. But now, X number of months into it, we’ve found our footing and we’re okay. This is how we can continue to support everyone in these spaces.
Joey Stocks: Thank you, Nikki. Todd, what are some things you’ve encountered?
Todd Bauer: I am visually impaired—legally blind—and so my eyes have certain sensitivities. My most comfortable way to write is [using] a special keyboard, a large monitor, and magnification software. To read, I use a closed-circuit TV, which is a little camera type thing that I pass over the material and it comes up real big on the TV. So, certain residencies have done things at my request, like adjusting the lighting, which, for me, is maybe hanging up a blanket over a window because I’m really sensitive to glares. Certain institutions where I’ve done some directing and stuff out of town, someone will be there to meet me and help me navigate from the train station or airport to the theatre. Things like that.
In production, one of the most helpful things for me is to have [someone] like an assistant director to be right at my elbow giving me audio description at my request. I’m actually a visually impaired person who finds audio description—which I fully support for audience members to be able to appreciate a production—distracting when it’s constant. I prefer it on an as-needed basis. If I’m somewhere where my work is being developed and revisions are needed, simple logistical things like helping me print and make copies, you know, things like that are just a little tougher for me to do. Those things have been really helpful at different places.
Joey Stocks: Would you give us a sense of what those conversations are like? At this point in your career, how much do you still need to negotiate and/or ask for?
Todd Bauer: Very much. I’m 55 and I still feel the onus is on me to articulate my needs. It’s a rare experience that someone will anticipate what I need. You know, I guess for my generation, that doesn’t bother me to articulate my needs. In terms of radical hospitality, I’ve thought of some instances, like at an opening night where they have hors d’oeuvres and drinks afterwards, having someone to either describe to me what hors d’oeuvres are there, or just grab me a little plate. That seems a really small thing but, to me, that is radically hospitable. It makes a big difference because a little thing like that is difficult for me to navigate. Once I’ve been around a while, sometimes people develop that awareness and are proactive.
Joey Stocks: That’s great. I’m from the South and think everyone should be picked up at the train station or the airport without asking. That shouldn’t be radical!
Todd Bauer: Well, yeah. Sometimes in New York, it’s a whole different ballgame. I had a little thing at BAM once and didn’t know how to get out to Brooklyn, so I talked to some people who were part of the production and tagged along with one of them. Often, it boils down to resources. My experience with universities has been there’s always a grad student who’s able to come pick you up. But if you’re dealing with a little storefront theatre, that’s a different story. They may not have the resources.
Jewelle Gomez: I agree. I’ve been in residence at New Conservatory Theatre Center for a while now, and one of the things that has been wonderful to me is being asked to participate in different things at the theatre that are not specifically around my play, or that are not specifically lesbian, or that are not specifically about people of color, and I think that conveys a real sense of welcoming. I understand that the first step in our culture is you have a slot and you fill it, and I’m appreciative of that. But then the next step is including the person in that slot to mix and be involved in the theatre’s world so that I feel connected, valued, and I can contribute in ways that are not as narrowly defined as a surface identity. That has happened for me at New Conservatory a lot. When I found myself in a reading with a young, white, hip-hop, avant-garde playwright being invited to discuss with him his work, I thought, “Now I’m really welcomed in!” I bring a different perspective, yet I could learn something from an area that I knew very little about. That has been very valuable and welcoming to me.
Nikki Brake-Sillá: I would like to like piggyback off what Jewelle said. There have been very few places where that sort of hospitality has been extended naturally to me. I’m Southern also, it’s what I do, and of course you’re going to pick somebody up from the train station! If you’re a guest in my home, of course I’m going to fix your plate first. I was not raised by wolves. [Laughter]
There have definitely been instances where people only want to hear what I have to say in February, or if there’s some incendiary thing in the news and they want to hear my reaction to some sort of pain that has been acted out on the screen. And to me, that exacts a type of harm because it’s like you have no concern for my pain. You’re just looking for a soundbite, and then you forget about me for the remainder of the year until you’re like, “Oh wait, who was that person who could fit into this one little square that I have? Let me see what she has to say.” So, I completely agree with you, Jewelle. If I’m always at the table, then you don’t have to seek me out, and everyone’s opinions are automatically brought in, thought about, and cared for from the start.
Jewelle Gomez: Yes.
Joey Stocks: Thank you for that, Nikki. The conversation is already veering towards how institutions can be more hospitable. Let’s continue down that road. I’m curious to know what else you all have to say.
Jewelle Gomez: I think it’s like everything in our society right at this moment. This is our chance to change things and I think if we, as individuals, start to widen our perspective on how we look at other individuals, it becomes easier. So, if organizations, institutions, can look at me and say, “Here’s a woman of color, she’s older, female, lesbian,” and then keep looking—so while they know I have those things going for me, I also am a novelist, I am a poet, I write speculative fiction, I’m from Boston, which is a very specific place to be from. When a theatre takes me on, they get all of those things. They get someone who could talk with another playwright who might be interested in writing science fiction plays. If they have a playwright who’s writing a play about New England, they’ve got someone who could be useful in that arena. I think it starts with looking more fully at the people you are engaging with.
Joey Stocks: Yeah, agreed.
Todd Bauer: Yeah, for me, it begins with deeply listening to each other and paying attention. Also, as a disabled person, I would love to see institutions—theatres in particular—make it radically hospitable for all audiences to be able to access the theatre so they can see themselves represented on stage. I think there’s a hesitancy sometimes to tell a story about a particular group… there’s a perception that that group is not going to be able to come see that story, and so then there’s a hesitancy to get behind that. And there are many things you can do. Only having spaces for two or three wheelchairs really doesn’t cut it. I do know theatres that have the first two or three rows of removable seats, so if enough people in wheelchairs show up, they can create more space. Thinking about things like that would be a great way for it to become universal.
Nikki Brake-Sillá: And the onus shouldn’t always be on the playwrights to make these suggestions. Just like Todd said, the [theatre should be] forward-thinking. For all the video components in my plays, I go to Rev.com and have them closed captioned to be uploaded. That’s something I do because I got tired of attending performances and not having that as an option. But it’s also one more thing that the playwright has to do, and then you have to have that pushback on top of every other thing that you’re battling for, and it gets tiring to be the one voice in the room. I’m like, you want me to be here but then you don’t really want me to be here.
Joey Stocks: Again, the conversation is naturally finding its way to my second question so, Nikki, I want to stick with you here. How would you want to see that change? What would that look like for you?
Nikki Brake-Sillá: For me, it would look like theatre companies already having relationships with Pro bono ASL interpreters for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. For them to already have accounts set up with Rev.com and say, “By the way, will you please give me your latest script because we want to upload it to Rev.com so we have that during rehearsal? And these are the BIPOC ASL translators that you’re going to have who just also happen to be Queer and correspond to the characters in your play.” And so it’s all the things I’ve already thought about and have in my arsenal, but I know that you’ve thought about it, too. Then when I bring it up, your first [reaction] isn’t, “How much is it going to cost?” or “I don’t know if we can do that.” Or you ask me all of these questions and then [educating you] is another load on my plate that I have to do when it’s something that you could just… Google is amazing. Google has all the things.
Joey Stocks: Yes, it does.
Jewelle Gomez: I agree. The most important thing is, as Nikki said, for a company to really incorporate this. You know, if a company asked to do my play and signed a contract, they’re not going to read the play and say, “Do you think we really need to have lights here? I mean can’t we just do it in regular lighting?” They’re not going to say, “You know, I think we’ll just do this on a bare stage because we really don’t want to have to build anything.” And, you know, I think if theatres start to think about [accessibility] as part of the baseline of what they provide—and we know everything costs money—then it becomes part of the project, not some add-on. That’s the psychological place that companies have to start at.
Todd Bauer: Yeah, I think this is really raising consciousness. Coming at it from the disability community, I’ve been heartened in Chicago that more and more theatres [have] sign language interpretation, touch tours, audio description, all those things. And I’m encouraged that some of the theatres with larger resources, [let it be known they] have this equipment and if they’re not using it, [others are] welcomed to it. I think those are steps that can get us there.
Joey, if you don’t mind, getting into your next question: as a writer, I think one of the best and courageous steps is if I’m writing a play that has characters with disabilities, I stipulate that those characters must be played by actors with disabilities. There’s a lot involved with that, but that’s the next step to take.
Joey Stocks: Absolutely. Thank you, Todd. I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of writers, and it is astonishing how many writers don’t know or feel they have the agency to stipulate that in their scripts.
Nikki Brake-Sillá: I can add to that. I generally assume people are going to cast as I would and that’s a horrible assumption to make. So, I have been going through my character descriptions and, instead of saying, “This person can be played by a disabled actor,” I’m changing it to, “This character must be played by…” Because everyone looks for the loophole. “Well, she didn’t say it absolutely had to be…” No. She said this person must be Black. I know that’s a non-negotiable term, and I’m just eliminating all of the gray area. And it’s work that is important, because otherwise people will just do what’s easy.
Joey Stocks: Yes.
Jewelle Gomez: I would reiterate that, as artists and as institutions, we have to understand in order to make social change happen, we have to do a little bit of work. It’s not going to be easy. You’re not just going to go snap your fingers, ping, and things are better. And if we’re willing to take the extra time or effort to look for the right people, that’s how we see change happening. And to know it’s not going to be easy; it’s not even going to come naturally sometimes to those of us who are deeply involved. We have to check ourselves. And if people accept that, we can radically change how the theatre and how playwrights develop in this country.
Todd Bauer: I think it’s really important because the pushback often is, “Well we can’t find an actor with the chops who’s disabled to do that role.” And there are two things involved with that. First, in order to develop actors with the chops who have disabilities, young kids who are disabled need to see actors with disabilities to know that that’s even a possibility. Then what needs to happen is the grade schools and high schools they’re attending, need accessible stages, rehearsal rooms, bathrooms, dressing rooms—and then the same thing at the colleges they go to. And then obviously the first step is then typically your career is going to start in smaller theatres, and so it’s a whole universe. It’s not just going out and finding the one really talented disabled actor to fill this one production. It’s really changing the whole consciousness and realizing that this is problematic. I mean, now we would never think of casting an African American character with a non-African American actor, and I’m hoping we can get to the point to that with disability as well.
Nikki Brake-Sillá: Yes. As soon as you said that about never thinking about casting a non-Black person [in a Black role], I mean, cartoons have been doing it for years and they’ve only just recently stopped. I think people need to realize that it’s not going to feel comfortable. It’s going to feel icky [sometimes] because you’re going against an entire system. You have to be able to sit with it and be okay with not knowing what’s supposed to happen at this point but knowing that you want to find out and that you want to be better, because Lord knows none of us are perfect. I have no problem being like, “Well I don’t know, but I can try, or I can ask, or I know someone, or I’m friends with someone that I can go to as a resource.” I’m hoping that people expand their circles of who they’re friends with, who they communicate with, who they break bread with. Then [the excuse is] no longer, “I don’t know anyone disabled. I can’t find a disabled person.” I’m like, “Well I know ten and they all freaking kick behind.” I know I’m not the only one here who knows these ten people so…
Joey Stocks: Have any of you ever stipulated something like that into a contract?
Jewelle Gomez: I’ve never written something into a contract, not so far. I have depended on my character descriptions. I do wish at one point I had written in something into a contract because in an early play [of mine], I had a Native American character and the [producer] said they could not find a Native American woman to fulfill the role. And it was one of those situations where I was on the West Coast and they were on the East Coast. They had somebody they wanted to do the part and she was Filipino, and I said, “ I have to rewrite the part. I can’t just have her play a Lakota Sioux.” So, I rewrote the part using Filipino history, and that was my compromise. And, you know, I’m glad I did it, but if I were to do that piece again, that would go in my contract.
Joey Stocks: It sounds like you were the one being radically hospitable at that point!
Jewelle Gomez: Yeah, I felt like I don’t want the company to stumble on this one thing, and I’m not going to insult a whole nation of people by having somebody from a totally different ethnicity play this part. Once I was able to figure out how I could historically, culturally justify a Filipino in the part, it was fine. But the situation was upsetting to me.
Nikki Brake-Sillá: Anything I write—especially now over Zoom and moving forward to when we’re back in person—it is actually written into my plays where there needs to be ASL interpreters and there has to be a video component that’s streamable. And for me, it’s a different written piece when you do Zoom versus when it’s in-person, [because] I don’t want either of those forms to be compromised, but both [versions] would feature captioning and feature live ASL interpreters on-site. That’s something that’s non-negotiable for me.
Joey Stocks: Thank you for sharing that.
Todd Bauer: I absolutely think it’s important to have our lines drawn in the sand, but also, as long as you know the ASL interpreters are part of it, to remain flexible as to how that’s done. My experience has been that all theatre spaces are conformed differently, so I want flexibility on both ends, basically, without compromising our standards.
Joey Stocks: Thank you. Does anyone have any final thoughts?
Jewelle Gomez: I have a pet peeve. I’ve been part of grant-making panels and playwrights sometimes will say, “Character A could be a person of color.” And I think, “Is there a person of color planet that we’re getting these actors from? What are you talking about?” I know they want to have the casting be open, but I think that’s kind of a cheap way to do it. If you have a character and you want that character to be a person of color, then pick a color, investigate the culture, and write the character accordingly. I just feel like it’s totally lazy.
Todd you can certainly chime in on this, it would be like saying, “This character has a disability,” and you’re leaving it to the director to decide if they should be in a wheelchair, or deaf, or blind, without taking into consideration how that would affect the dialogue that’s said and the interaction with the other characters. One person of color is not the same as the next, and one disability is not the same as the next. I feel like playwrights need to take responsibility if they want to broaden the universe that they’re representing by actually looking at the universe they want to represent.
Todd Bauer: So true. I mean, really, if you think about it, what’s implicit in that statement is that all people of color are either the same, or it doesn’t matter. And it is incredibly insulting. Another thing I want to throw in, and, Joey, you can feel free to include this or not because it’s not my story, but I do think it’s pertinent to the conversation. I’m close friends with the playwright Martyna Majok who wrote a play called Cost of Living. It’s a four-character play: two characters are able-bodied; two characters are disabled. She stipulates that the two disabled characters are to be played by disabled actors. That play went on to win a little award called the Pulitzer, and her experience was that Cost of Living got fewer productions than a typical Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Much of that was due to theatres saying they couldn’t find disabled actors with the chops to do it—or just didn’t know any—without doing a search. So, she would then furnish them with a list saying, “Well here are some guys. And they’re good. They can do it. I know them,” and there was still a hesitancy. Many would ask if they could do it with non-disabled actors, which Martyna wouldn’t permit. [Editor’s Note: Martyna Majok was consulted, and this story is included with her permission. She notes that her play Ironbound, also a four-character play but which does not stipulate casting disabled actors, has received more productions than her Pulitzer-winning play Cost of Living.]
And I also think there is a hesitancy on the theatre’s part to tell those stories because there’s an actual fear of disability. The playwright John Belluso had a great line: “No one ever got hit by a bus and became Black.” Implicit in that quote is that disability is the one minority group anybody can join at any time. And I think the fear in joining that group is that your life is somehow going to become less rich, less wonderful, and the way we neutralize that is by putting our stories on stage and having those stories told by disabled writers and actors, because then that conveys that our lives are just as rich and just as wonderful. It’s an important issue that goes in every direction.
Joey Stocks: I so appreciate your time, generosity, and wisdom. I hope what we’re calling “radical hospitality” today is common hospitality tomorrow. Thank you all for being here today.