I don’t know if anyone regularly commenting here cares about the punishment of the acting student for his politically incorrect choice of words in an improv exercise as much as Curmie (above) and I do, but we care about it a lot. As with the Ethics Alarms baseball ethics posts, the various theatrical ethics posts here sink quickly in readership, which, I’m afraid, speaks to a regrettable narrowness of vision. Ethical issues are seldom restricted in their applicability to the specific area in which they arise. I’m especially sensitive to ethics issues others might miss in certain areas where I have a lot of experience and expertise. The same is true, obviously, with Curmie.
Incidentally, I again urge readers to check on Curmie’s blog routinely. He has been through a light writing period of late, but when he speaks, as they once said of E.F. Hutton, people listen, or should. And maybe we can get him writing more again. I know of no more thoughtful, fair, and eloquent blogger, regardless of the topic.
See Curmie? The pressure’s on now!
Here is Curmie’s Comment of the Day on the post, The “Unacceptable Word” Fiasco: OK, Now I Really Want To Know How Many Progressives Seriously Endorse Stuff Like This?:
I am not an acting teacher by trade, but I have taught about two dozen sections of various college-level acting courses over the years. I’ve also taught directing maybe 15 times, and I’ve directed about 40 full-length plays (and a bunch of one-acts)—I’ve used improv techniques in the classroom and in rehearsal many times, although perhaps fewer than some of my colleagues of equivalent experience may have done.
It is remotely possible that the professor, Craig Rosen, imposed some restrictions on the exercise. I’ve done this. For example, if a student is working on a period piece and the language is, shall we say, less explicit than that of a work by David Mamet or Neil Labute or Sarah Kane might be, that young actor may be having trouble finding the anger a character feels if the verbal expression of it seems mild by 21st-century standards.
I’m reminded of working on a book chapter about an Irish version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The translator/adapter had Masha, one of the title characters, refer to her sister-in-law as a “bitch.” I happened to have access to a good friend and native Russian speaker, who also happened to be a scholar of dramatic literature. No, she said, Masha’s expletive doesn’t really translate that way… but for her expression of class-driven disgust to have the same effect on a modern audience that Masha’s line would have had in Tsarist Russia, she’d have to call Natasha a “fucking shopkeeper.”
I’ve therefore sometimes staged an improv scene and told an actor he can’t say anything gender- or race-related, or use any of George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television.” If Joshua Zale had been told explicitly that he was not allowed to use, say, “cunt” or “bitch” in his improvised screed, then his doing so would violate the rules of the game. Similarly, it’s sometimes off limits to refer to one’s partner by her real name, especially if such a linkage of actor and character is potentially offensive (e.g., implying that the female student is herself a sex worker). So the “unacceptable word” could be “Heather.” The chances that any such restrictions had in fact been put in place are, of course, slim, but I’ve around long enough to suspect that Mr. Zale’s account of events and reality might conceivably diverge at some crucial junctures.
There are other ways young Mr. Zale may have crossed the proverbial line, but none I can imagine that would precipitate the response he received, even granting that Assistant Dean Kelsay would apparently come in third place in a battle of wits with a corn dog and a barstool.
In all likelihood, of course, Joshua Zale’s description of the incident is substantially accurate and complete, in which case we are faced with a number of very serious problems indeed. First off, literally the first thing taught in any introductory theatre class is that what happens on stage, or indeed in any theatrical performance event, isn’t real. We can dress it up with terms like aesthetic distance, but ultimately the bottom line is that we’re not shocked to see the actor who played Hamlet come out for curtain call even though we just saw “him” die, nor are we surprised to learn that the actor who played Claudius is a really great guy. What Zale did in character is utterly distinct from what he may do in real life.
Several years ago, I had a very talented woman in a Beginning Acting class. I’d told the class if they were uncomfortable with certain kinds of scenes, they should let me know and I’d assign their scenes accordingly. She said nothing, and it happened that the first scene I gave her involved some pretty explicit references to sexuality. She was outstanding in the part. It was only later I learned that she never (literally never) uses that language in her real life. I apologized to her for putting her in that scene. She waved it off: “You gave me the chance to say ‘no.’ I want to be an actress; I’m going to have to decide what I’ll do and what I won’t. Besides, what she says and what I say aren’t the same thing.”
Second, the scenario Zale and his partner were assigned to enact is a really bad choice for an improv scene. A really bad choice, even apart from the likelihood of engendering inappropriate language (assuming that’s a legitimate concern). Even experienced actors or improv-ers, as opposed to those taking a basic acting course at a community college, would be hard-pressed to find anything constructive in such a scene. The temptations to show the audience the relationship instead of allowing them to see it, to play stereotypes rather than three-dimensional characters, and/or simply to play for laughs instead of truth: all these are powerful, and all ultimately subvert the presumed intentions of the exercise. As noted above, I suppose that there may have been some specific instructions in place, but frankly, I doubt it.
Third, the idea that the mystical “unacceptable word,” even if it were spoken by Mr. Zale in his own persona, could not be revealed, is terrifying. Is this a bad re-make of Harry Potter, complete with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Or are we more in First Rule of Fight Club territory? Whatever, I’m beginning to think Kafka was an optimist.
Fourth, Dr. Kelsay has no business anywhere near the liberal arts. She is what every professor fears: an idiot with a degree and no practical experience. If her LinkedIn profile is to be believed, she’s taught only a course or two as an adjunct (and not in the liberal arts), yet somehow has authority over people who actually teach for a living. This happens de jure not infrequently, but generally such non-academics know enough to leave the real decisions about teaching matters to someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about. (Of course, Mr. Rosen hasn’t exactly demonstrated much acumen in these matters, either.) I wish I could say I’m shocked that Dr. Kelsay thinks, as Michael aptly points out, that a student can somehow violate the dictates of Title IX. Alas, such idiocy gets only a sardonic smile from me. Notice also that it is Kelsay, not the female student, whom Zale is accused of “mistreating as a woman.”
It’s unclear if Zale may have uttered the same magic word to Kelsay that he did in character to his scene partner, but the one thing petty administrators cannot stand is to have their self-image as omniscient and infallible beings questioned. It is certainly possible that Zale actually did insult Kelsay with a gender-specific epithet. This is not the right way to go; even if she deserved the vituperation, the expression may have been inappropriate. But the fact that he was in the same room with Kelsay to begin with suggests that something is seriously wrong at Moraine Valley, and that something has little to do with Joshua Zale beyond the fact that his predicament is a symptom of the disease.
I do disagree with one thing Mr. Zale did, however. Passing up the opportunity to write that “what I learned” letter was a mistake, unless he was already under advice of counsel not to comply.
What he learned, after all, is useful information to those who might otherwise have attended a juco which readily abandons its “core values” of integrity, responsibility, and fairness when they conflict with authoritarian and nightmarish visions tangentially related to “respect” and “diversity.” Saying that, and sending a copy of the missive to every media outlet in Chicagoland, would have been a boon to the population at large.