Making the Case for Letting People Observe the National Anthem However They Want To — And Leaving Theatre West Virginia Be
I’ve got utmost respect and gratitude for you both, Scott and Steve — for your personal hospitality and your commitment of personal resources, for your community outreach, your clever promotional and sponsorship ideas, for your reassessment of company infrastructure on the business end and your volunteer recruitment skills, for continuing the uphill slog of fighting for and maintaining the funding we all deserve, and more broadly for believing in the importance of reviving a theater that so many of us have been moved to call a Home and a Family year after year, no matter where we go. This last facet of course manifests in a lot of different ways. Sure there are areas with significant room for growth in communication, collaborative solution-building, seasonal production development, and artistic process needs, but it’s gotta be said that the contributions you’ve made to our company’s recent achievements are absolutely no small thing, especially given that TWV seemed to have lost its legs for good the last time it shut down. I don’t think there’s anyone here who would question those contributions at face value, but with all due respect, that’s not really all that relevant to the discussion we’re having here, and even so, gratitude and criticism aren’t mutually exclusive. We’re talking about things that are bigger than any one of us.
Honestly, I think it’s great that we got to have this kind of conversation. It seems like a lot of people might be scared of the idea of conflict, but there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with having this kind of open, healthy debate (we’re all adults — we can handle some butted heads over passions and misunderstandings), and the way I see it, you guys have got a real opportunity to pivot from this if you want to take it on. Obviously there are a lot of factors at play here. Like Teresa said, when you start talking about mixing business with civic liberties, it’s a slippery slope. But there’s way more common ground than some people are willing to acknowledge…
I apologize for the length of this in advance — since I won’t be able to make the board meeting tomorrow morning, I wanted to have all my thoughts out there. And anybody I make uncomfortable by talking about some clear and present cultural wounds and injustices still facing our society… I suppose I’m sorry for that, too, but ya know, we can’t exactly un-open Pandora’s box now. To be honest, I never dreamed I’d feel the need to write a letter like this having to do with Theatre West Virginia.
Much like Bob, and Alice, and Deb, and Teresa, and Sam, and Rick, folks like Janie, Jeff, and Steven that I don’t know personally, and those that decided not to say anything, this thread has clung to my mind over the last week for a number of reasons. First I was disappointed and frustrated to see an authoritarian approach of any kind, like kicking off a public debate with a loose threat not to serve patrons for whatever reason, directed to theatre-going people coming either from our community or traveling from all over the country — sometimes internationally. And at first I wondered if I might be worrying for nothing… but if it was meant to be a joke and nothing more, why not just say that in a quick comment to defuse the misunderstanding before it got away from you? I think that when the days kept passing with no response, people started taking the implication more seriously — I know it’s just Facebook and all, but at some point you can see how this message being out in the ether without clarification would concern people, right? Especially when you consider that the whole idea of withholding services from audience members was never redacted — in fact, it actually rose to talk of completely ejecting people — and given that this topic is a bit more specifically pointed, it started to feel more like a press release. I’ve tried wrapping my head around the great amount of people a c0mpany policy like this could target and polarize, and I’ve got to say it’s not all that pretty…
For one thing, we’re talking about hypothetical people who, nearly a year from now, might feel compelled to follow in Colin Kaepernick’s and his colleagues’ footsteps by kneeling or remaining seated during the National Anthem out at Grandview. So, to start, we’re talking about using a public forum to speak on behalf of the state-and-federally-funded, nested-in-a-national-park, non-for-profit theatre company Theatre West Virginia and all its past, former, and future contributors in suggesting some form of discrimination towards, and/or censorship of, people who truly only want to find a way to express the moral civic duty and sense of integrity they feel on a basic level, in their own way, during a theoretically patriotic tradition that’s supposed to be for all of us. People who — if you can believe it, hear me out here — carry deep devotion for their fellow citizens as well as everyone in our world, who love our country just like you do and support the troops that fought and died for us in the name of freedom — who support those Veterans after they come home, too, after they’ve been used or sacrificed for the vices of our country in our most recent wars, and then sold out by its corporatized politicians, in hopes of getting our legislatures to provide adequate resources for treating PTSD, curbing Veterans’ suicide rates, and so on — AND simultaneously mourn the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of people our government has either ordered taken down or let die here and abroad in the name of USA, since its inception.
These are people that might want to find a way to pay homage to the fact that throughout history people in positions of power and wealth have used our land, nation, and courageous soldiers and service people for despicable things, from the original sin of colonizing the Native Americans to the enslavement of African Americans to interventionist wars in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and so on; to somewhere along the line never really learning from our revolutionary escape from tyrannical European rule; to growing police militancy and the War on Drugs [a quite dignified title that captured the criminal justice system’s pattern of cracking down hardest on the drugs the government routed into overwhelmingly poor and minority-dominant communities — always with the goal of holding down people of color and the working poor the best they can, as long as they can — and if you don’t believe me, one of President Nixon’s top advisors recently admitted this flat out]; to Johnson’s “War on Poverty” which pushed welfare, public housing, and food stamps onto poor families and families of color, before these means were ultimately ripped away from them unceremoniously by new welfare reform policies in decades to come, only once they’d developed a dependency to them — poverty rates in the black community specifically rising to almost a third of its population, crime rates unsurprisingly rising, and so on, ultimately reversing the course of progressively declining crime and poverty present in these communities at that time; to the plethora of systemically racist institutions still in place today… all of which keep the finger pointed at the recipients, shamed for their struggles and blamed for the repercussions by other Americans who supposedly believe in the core principles of this country, those of creating a place where everyone could make a life for themselves despite their differences and not be harassed for them; down to a couple of modern favorite retorts to any waking mention of these realities that never fail to amaze me with their irony: “If you don’t like it, get on outta our country!” or “Go home, illegals!” As Teresa points out… it’s as if it’s perfectly fine for us to kick out whomever we want and for any of us to trounce around anyplace else in the world we’d like, only not in our territory.
Scott — my dude — I really appreciated one night when I happened to overhear you making a really strong remark during the preshow — something like, “Yeah, I know our country isn’t perfect and we sure don’t all agree on how to fix it, but we’ve done a lot of great things, and I think it’s important to honor those who came before us.” I loved that. And I think it was really effective. I assure you that the people who feel the need to abstain from the status quo’s version of displaying patriotism, or are on the fence about it, feel the exact same way.
But as far as I can tell, just to be totally clear, right now it seems like we’re still talking about and proposing a couple of ways that we can potentially single out people who might simply have a love/hate relationship with the anthem but hope to — silently, peacefully: no signs, no chants, no funny business — bring some much needed attention, localized action, or even just some compassionate solidarity to the causes of reforming ultra-violent police training commonalities; to diversifying police departments and de-militarizing their forces, and holding them reasonably accountable for their past records; to reforming a criminal justice system that incarcerates and sentences black, brown and poor people with monstrous frequency and severity — e.g. jailing 1 in 4 black men for some charge by adulthood (some predict the chances for black children growing up now are 1 in 3), too often for minor infractions, non-violent petty drug offenses, and crimes they didn’t even commit — while wealthy people and white people statistically either make it out unscathed with warnings, or with fractions of the sentences, for these same crimes all too frequently… all while police get off (sometimes without even being charged or seeing a grand jury) for shooting, choke-holding and suffocating, or even severing the spinal cords of unarmed civilian men and women of color and/or poverty, unarmed teenagers of color, unarmed children of color — at alarming rates disproportionate to their U.S. population — and are frequently punished with six-figure desk duty; to further breaking down injustices in our criminal justice system and housing & job markets by taking such measures as eliminating oppressive regulations like the longer sentences some receive from arcane mandatory minimums simply because of the year they happened to be arrested and “the box” that indicates your criminal record on job applications — as well as amending to move background checks later in the hiring process — all to give people a living, breathing chance of making it back into the functional, working world without ending up right back inside; to, more broadly, creating and funding better schools and other forms of education in struggling communities, better jobs, better community centers and other local opportunities, better arts organizations, and so forth — rather than gentrifying them with more Starbucks locations and gelato shops; by reallocating exorbitant military-industrial funds — or some of the enormous international capital the U.S. dishes out to nations like Israel — for funding some of these reforms and programming; and finally by paying homage on a basic level to all the countless families destroyed by these systemic chains.
You know, last Thursday was the anniversary of the KKK’s church bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls and injured numerous others. That was only 53 years ago. The Thursday before that was the birthday of the first African American who attended a formerly all-white southern public elementary school — she’s 62 years old. Last Wednesday, a cop shot down a 13-year-old black boy with a BB gun named Tyre King. Didn’t try to taser him, or strike him with a baton and disarm him, to check if the weapon was even loaded, or maybe try shooting him in the leg or somewhere else less lethal. Shot him multiple times and killed him right off. Today, the autopsy report revealed the kid was 4’11”, weighed only 95 pounds, and was shot while running away. Another family ripped to pieces. Sure, you can argue that people make mistakes, but this was a huge one, one that’s happening alarmingly often, and this is what people mean when they talk about police training reform as a problem with the system, and therefore not every single cop within that system. For instance, in a case that stands in contrast to the frighteningly common police killings of unarmed people of color, the other day a report came out disclosing that a police officer from Weirton, WV, was first placed on administrative leave and then fired during the summer because he refused to shoot a man who brandished a gun while begging the officer to “just shoot” him — his superior told him he would be investigated because he “failed to eliminate a threat,” when in actuality he was able to effectively use his military and situational police training to exercise judgment in identifying that the man was a mentally unstable danger to himself, telling him he wasn’t going to shoot him, and talking with him to deescalate the situation. Two other Weirton cops suddenly showed up on the scene and shot the guy the moment they saw him waving his gun — of course they didn’t have the same context the other cop did, and they did what they felt they needed to do… but the man’s gun was soon found to be unloaded.
Surely it isn’t unpatriotic, ungrateful, or hateful for grieving people to be wondering: instead of cops being trained to “eliminate the threat” — with every shot aimed for the head or torso, and discharging your gun now being seen as a first resort rather than the last — why are we not intensely focused on training police officers to use more effective, and less brutally violent, methods of de-escalation to bring suspected criminals to justice? They’re not soldiers in the military. And while the specifics and statistics aren’t the same across the board nationally, yes, people are justified to be wondering this: why are so many officers being trained to be more and more like Super Cops that keep so many men, women, and children from ever seeing their day in court, being provided the rehabilitating treatment they deserve just like anybody else, or in most cases, merely making it home alive?
Little more than a year ago, Dylann Roof snuck into a prayer service at a church in Charleston, South Carolina — the oldest African American church in the country — and massacred nine African American men and women, including the senior pastor and the state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. After running away from the scene and becoming the target of a manhunt, he… not so surprisingly… made it out alive — and upon capture, he was actually escorted away with a bulletproof vest. Authorities soon discovered a website the shooter created which displayed a manifesto he wrote against black people, images of Roof posing with white supremacist and neo-Nazi symbols, and more pictures of Roof burning the American flag. He was burning American flags, and truth be told, at the time I don’t remember there being much cries about — or media attention devoted to — a possible epidemic of anti-patriotic, American flag disrespecting, Veteran hating, militant white youths. I remember more cries of racism being in the past.
Anyway, whether any of us know them personally or not, there are millions of people out there facing crimes of humanity just as real as those afflicted upon the coal miners in West Virginia and the rest of the Appalachian region. Human beings out there just as real as the immensely hardworking people who get taken advantage by coal mining companies across the region, companies who hire out lawyers and medical experts to withhold or cherry-pick evidence of their Black Lung Disease in order to keep them, their families, or their widows from receiving the benefits they need — unless there are attorneys like my dad willing to fight back against the companies and their law firms and make them turn over that evidence and pay the benefits they owe: companies who would rather keep their employees focused on the preposterous idea of the EPA and all the liberal politicians trying to ‘kill the coal mines and take away their jobs,’ rather than put in the work to create a more safe work environment for these people or fork over the necessary health benefits they owe. Just as real as the regional legislatures’ decades long neglect of the white working poor in Appalachia — people who look around them hoping to see better, safer jobs, a training path into newly created jobs similar to theirs, or any jobs at all — who need better educational funding; who too often wait around for health benefits until they die decades before their time, or develop addictions to opiate pills and heroin; and who need better access to public health programs devoted to issues like opiate abuse in addition to better mental health and addiction treatment facilities.
If you feel as frustrated as I do when people from outside the area make fun of West Virginians, stereotype us as white trash hicks, or don’t take these issues and sacrifices seriously, can you picture what it might be like to be in the shoes of someone in the black community — not just around the country: in Beckley, even, or someone in TWV’s artistic staff — who goes through life every single day stunned to hear people talk as if all these deeply complex, exponentially developing problems went away when slavery or segregation ended — seeing commentators talk sideways at you on TV, either calling your people thugs who need to stop playing the victim and pull yourselves up by the bootstraps, or — in the case of Kaepernick and others who use the platform of their fame for good — writing you off as uppity rich griping Scrooge McDucks, only in it for the publicity? And even when you tried to clarify that you hold our nation’s service people in nothing but high regard and respectful reverence — that your statement actually has nothing to do with that — and when you listened to these outcries and tried to compromise by kneeling, you still couldn’t win? If you were looking around you and seeing how much pain your community was going through, even if you yourself didn’t face all of those struggles so severely, would you be okay with people telling you you couldn’t express solidarity in a non-disruptive way? Let alone that doing that makes you an unpatriotic, flag-disrespecting, free-country-hating scumbag? Seriously, how do you think that would affect your psyche?
I read something today that touched on this perfectly:
“If Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have the right to sit during the National Anthem, then standing for it isn’t a freedom, it’s an obligation. It is possible to appreciate our individual military members but not the profit-driven industrial military complex, just like it is possible to appreciate individual police officers but not the system that condones the killing of innocent people. It is possible to understand we have freedoms, but still want our country and our people to be held to higher legal and ethical standards. For those of you saying, ‘He should just go to another country,’ why can’t he stay here and use his platform as a professional athlete to demand that THIS country become greater and more fair to all of those living here?”
Keep in mind that there are also a lot of people who felt this compulsion, or had their doubts, long before Kaepernick made his mark. Within that group, there are people who are generally used to following along with this traditionally expected display of patriotism but whose discomfort with aspects of it grew after realizing that, in the anthem’s third verse, Francis Scott Key drops a Freudian slip of white supremacy by bragging of slaughtering those African Americans who fled the horrors of slavery to fight for the British in exchange for freedom: there’s not much getting around it, he writes of cleansing the ground soiled by British invaders with those former slaves’ blood.
… Of course no one ever sings the third verse (let alone knows about it — I personally didn’t until recently), so at least there’s that — and many people who carry those doubts will still make the case that they stand and cover their hearts to honor those who came before despite feeling this cognitive dissonance, choosing the traditionally accepted way of honoring those who gave us the opportunity to stand where we stand… while they also, in their own way and time, grapple with the unforgettable atrocities inflicted upon those who were trampled beneath the feet of free men. I promise it’s possible to do both. I think that classic first verse inspires a great, great many people. Who knows, maybe a majority of Americans. But that doesn’t mean they can’t feel conflicted about it.
And that’s the thing — especially among people who want to come see theatre in West Virginia, my guess is that there are tons of people just like Neal, whom I’ve read beautifully articulate his commitment to standing for the anthem[’s first verse] — to honor troops past and present who fought and still fight for our freedoms — while still recognizing all of these human and moral (not political) realities, talking about them, and listening to others’ experiences. Trying to find appropriate and constructive ways to contribute to breaking down different barriers, even on as simple and personal a level as making disenfranchised people feel seen and heard as real human beings who really exist during day to day interactions. I really do think a great majority of people will weigh all the factors and go with expressing the civic duty they feel by standing. Still, yes, there will be those people whose moral compass tells them to express their patriotism by sitting or kneeling, while of course on the flip side, there are people of various cultural backgrounds — like Teresa mentioned — that predate the anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance and/or don’t identify with them for their own reasons. Or people whose commitment to pacifism, whether due to religion or personal ideology, gives them an aversion to overtly militaristic or nationalistic language and imagery — and who wish to express their love for their country differently than through a song that only became the norm roughly a hundred years ago. People like me that grew up practicing the philosophy, “Support the Troops, Not the War.” Or people who simply need to sit for health reasons. None of these people, however — in this thread or anywhere else — have I ever once heard or read say that it wasn’t okay for others, who are likely the majority, to express themselves by standing during the Anthem. Some of them might even hope that one day some bright young patriot could write another, updated anthem that represents all of us, while knowing that chances are, that’s not happening anytime soon.
Lord knows I’m not saying I know all the answers. I’m not saying I figured out my own views on all of these issues all at once, or that they won’t change — diving into them took a whole lot of listening and learning, and it took admitting to myself that the listening and learning doesn’t ever really stop. I’m not saying everyone else feels the same way I do or ever will — we’re all human beings with different priorities and ways of seeing things, but I guess there is a part of me that always thought that we had it in us to stay focused on where our worldviews overlap, and to stand up for the beaten down. Because there are things going on out there, right on American soil, that are bigger than any of us. Because all of these issues are inseparable. And they’re not going away with any amount of kicking, hollering, or shaming meant to scare them off — nor will they go away with any company policy put in place that aims to silence them. What I’m getting at is, we can all take a look at certain injustices and receive them in different ways, interpret their sociological context in different ways, or handle them in different ways… but given the baseline of those realities, if you’re still going out of your way to push people’s buttons by saying there’s no legitimate reason not to stand, I’m sorry. You’re just wrong. In my view, that’s willful ignorance to the point of cruelty. By now I’ve seen it implied one too many times that folks who choose to express their patriotism differently than the norm dictates have no true reason to do it but to show off and act like petulant children. And having seen so much of that, I couldn’t just keep holding my tongue. Just as there are any number of compelling reasons to stand, make no mistake: there are plenty reasons not to, from the mundane to the convictional.
So frankly, I have to say it was pretty disturbing to see that rather than deciding to take down or edit the post — nipping this thing in the bud at the first sign of what a dumpster fire it could turn into — you guys are still digging in your heels. As Devil Anse would say, ‘boys, you’ve stepped in it this time!’ All right, let’s forget all the heated specifics of the particular set of issues I dove into here: why are we still pretending it’s all right to set a precedent of speaking on TWV’s behalf about disciplinary actions taken regarding any controversial topic? The theatre doesn’t belong to any one person. Why not delete the post or write a quick retraction, amending it to clarify any confusion about this being anything else but a personal stance independent of TWV — and to dispel the furor over the idea introduced in the comments of turning away abstaining patrons? This is a claim that could seriously affect the direction and future of Theatre West Virginia, and for that reason I think the only mountains being made of mole hills here have to do with the discussion of punishing hypothetical audience members who aren’t causing any sort of physical or vocal disruptions to others visiting the theater. I don’t think it would take more than a sentence to clear this up, something to the effect of — “Because the National Anthem speaks to me on a deep personal level, of course I hope to see a lot of y’all, hopefully most of you TWV patrons, standing with me during the National Anthem out at Grandview next summer — but as a fellow American, I understand and respect your right to observe your love for your country — and those who fell before us — however you see fit.” And with that, you’ve averted any crisis right there.
But now I’m just confused and have a lot of questions. What exactly will the board be voting on at the meeting? Whether to keep the anthem at all or whether to kick out the people who don’t observe it? Either way, I can’t help but wonder, why? If you mean the latter, what on earth is there to gain from putting this regulation to a vote? Where do you see this going…? What’s the endgame here? Surely not a bump in ticket sales, right? And how could this rule possibly be enforced? Would there be an announcement made in the preshow every night? Do you think that people won’t resent having the ticket they bought held over their head like that, no matter what background or beliefs they might have? Seems like it could get to be a bit of an upsetting atmosphere. When you say you would expect employees to comply, do you genuinely expect there’ll be many people who work in the theatre for a living sitting idly by if even one audience member were turned away and told to go home for this reason– their civil liberties revoked and censored? Do you expect the National Park Service to go along with this, too? If the vote went through and all of this did get that far, how do you think the general public would react?
And picture this: if you skipped the vote, kept the National Anthem in the preshow as is with your normal introduction ending with something to the effect of “And now, _____, singing the National Anthem — please stand and remove your caps, ladies and gentleman, or don’t,” and just moved on, do you really see this becoming a significant problem?
Steve, I love ya man, but I think you didn’t get much traction from your red shirts vs. blue shirts idea because people were still trying to sort through the executive team’s contradictory statements in the thread. At that point, I was pretty sure you were kidding, but when I realized it was a real suggestion, I was even more lost. By all means, I don’t think anybody in the TWV family would disagree that planning more fundraising efforts, merchandise based or not, is an awesome idea. But if I understand correctly, you’re suggesting the alternative of leaving it up to the audience to make the call about whether we’re going to start kicking their fellow audience members to the curb or not? So… would we be talking about publicizing a few performance nights devoted to a t-shirt-style voting campaign and then making that the rule for the rest of the summer? Or knocking out the vote on opening night? Either way, like Alice, I can’t see this adding up to much more than a snow-balling irritant for what would now be an openly, competitively divided audience — and a big distraction for everyone working on stage — which would altogether significantly dampen everyone’s enjoyment of the artistic and cultural entertainment they came for in the first place.
There’s been a good bit of talk about how those of us who are defending a patron’s right to sit down or kneel during the national anthem — not necessarily endorsing it as the right way to go about their cause, but defending their right to do it — are somehow being intolerant of people who stand by their belief in the importance of participating in the National Anthem. That we’re brazenly expressing our beliefs but not letting others have theirs. The irony is, if you are driven to stand for the anthem, you already have a place to express your opinion. The National Anthem is firmly cemented into the American status quo — its presence during practically every sports game and civic/political ceremony is and always will be your opportunity to participate and observe your beliefs! And when you already have the upper hand, if you assume this ‘my way or the highway’ mentality, you’ll never be affording anyone else the same rights that you have. What really needs to be understood is that we’re not talking about whether anyone should stand for the anthem or shouldn’t — we’re saying that, no matter how the decision is made or who makes it, booting someone from a theater based on their beliefs, principles, and civic liberties is offensive and un-American. Not to mention un-capitalistic.
The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
And there’s been some talk about Theatre West Virginia not being an appropriate “platform” to express this or any cause. Well, using the theater as a platform strikes me as something entirely different, no? That would definitely be problematic. Obviously you’d be within your rights to kick someone to the curb if they came running through the aisles with a picket sign yelling “Anarchy! Anarchy! Anarchy!” or “Make love, not war!” but man alive, aren’t we talking about the way individuals in a crowd choose to hold their bodies in total silence? Maybe more to the point, those of us who have spoken up this week are trying to tell you that it is neither your right nor anyone else’s to use Theatre West Virginia as a platform to indoctrinate or alienate anyone, whether employee or patron, who doesn’t fit a prescribed standard of patriotism or national/social principles.
Like so many others, I grew up in the halls, rehearsal rooms, wings, and performance spaces of Theatre West Virginia. I don’t think I’m alone in knowing that TWV was and is an essential building block in the foundation of who I am — along with the love and guidance my parents instilled in me, the humor and wisdom of great friends, the belief and probing challenges of fantastic teachers, the advice and inspiration of incredible colleagues and mentors (many of whom I met taking classes and working summers at TWV, several having contributed to this thread), experiences in summer camps and after school programs, and everything I learned from training in college and working at other theaters. At TWV, I learned about commitment, about teamwork, about being willing to defy all expectations including my own, about daring to be weird, and take risks, and go out of my comfort zone, and even fail. I saw with my own eyes that everyone’s best work came from embracing, loving, and celebrating all of the collective differences in our backgrounds and life experiences, not hiding them or claiming to be blind to them. I learned firsthand some of the ways we weren’t taught about in schools that rhetoric and slang can oppress people on a small but incrementally ballooning scale based on their beliefs, gender, race, sexual identity, religion, wealth, or background — ranging from making culturally or historically insensitive remarks to borrowing or appropriating phrases and ideas without giving credit. And my god, I couldn’t begin to count the number of remarkable, beautiful people that have walked those halls, left their BS at the door, and created amazing things together. That said, I also don’t think I’m the only one that noticed over the years, when things got tough or uncertain, that good people — smart, kind, very talented, generally awesome people — could lose sight of the big picture and the objective of making our theatre company the best it could be. That the possibility of anyone’s over-blown self-involvement could be to the detriment of working relationships, our role in the community, and the work we create and put out into the world.
This has ranged from self-proclaimed “professional big city actors” dissatisfied with every last little thing that didn’t rise to the ideal standard they had cemented in their brains — who sometimes successfully dragged others down to their cynical level — to technical department heads acting like they owned the place as if the theater were their own personal Guggenheim… or neglecting the safety of others as a point of saving pride (and sometimes getting fired for it). Another good example would be when Theatre West Virginia closed its doors the first time, in 2008. Certain members of the executive team and board at the time kept both the artistic/office staff and currently employed touring company actors in the dark about the contingency plan for reopening they’d had in place for some time, until they were prepared to enact it. While those leaders on the business side may have had some perfectly legitimate reasons for exercising this discretion in regards to the public — and while of course this was a stressful time that often left them scurrying and over-worked — this lack of timely attention towards the people who manage, produce, create, and share our company’s work with the public led to several things: some actors and artistic staff (understandably) seeking new work, some of those actors managing to meet the task of finding said work in the middle of a performance season, the remainder being laid off once the tour was canceled, presumable losses of company income cutting into the tremendous fundraising efforts company members and people all over the community committed to saving the company (and the fundraiser’s eventual surplus), and potentially hundreds or thousands of children across the state losing access to some substantial artistic and theatrical exposure that year, as well as losing the opportunity to vicariously feel encouraged to explore their own stifled or budding needs to express and create. For the good many who weren’t fortunate enough to have an artistic outlet nearly as meaningful as a professional training academy for theatre arts in or near their hometown, like so many of us found in Theatre West Virginia (not to mention three months of professional outdoor theatre in the summertime), this actually may have been their only outlet of this kind.
Ultimately, it is what it is, and mistakes happen all the time, but we only get something out of them if we learn from our goof ups or oversights — and take them as an opportunity to regroup, remember our humility, and refocus on the job of making TWV the best it can be for all those awesome audience members out there. Doubling down at that point is fruitless. And damn right we learned from that pitfall. Around the time we first closed, TWV had lost a sizable chunk of its funding, but the community whole-heartedly rallied around us in spades — from alums to the parents and family of company members and training academy kids, to good old Southern West Virginia theatre fans. When we almost had to shut down again, in 2011, old standby Marion Waggoner returned as interim Artistic/Casting Director upon recruitment by the fearlessly dedicated Marina Hunley-Graham, enlisted the help of the touring company actors to re-orient and program the upcoming season, and pulled a company together at a time when most of the audition conferences were over — and the community rallied behind us again. Between fall 2013 and summer 2014 — and beyond — of course you know the rest… with the help of the unique contributions of the current team I mentioned at the start, loyal alums, and the proud, loving, steadfast West Virginian community that surrounds us, we rose from the ashes again. Act II. Due to the grit of this family, I know we’ll always be ready for anything, and we’ll always make it happen.
In the bigger picture, the contributions and accomplishments the executive team and board have made from 2014 on stand as pieces of a much larger puzzle in the history of Theatre West Virginia — from the astute trifecta of Marina Hunley-Graham, Gayle Bowling, and Lou Ann Yates-Grose making the theatre what it is today to leaders like Dan Henthorn and Jason Adkins returning and working to shape its future; to the longtime work of mainstays like John Benjamin, David Lively, and Marion Waggoner; to the fearless work and dedication of oft-returning performers like Andy Woodruff, the Bushes, the Yuricks, the Butchers, the Browns, Pat Smith, Sharon Fenwick, Aymen Robertson, Jason Holliday, Hilary Freeland, Dane Toney, and Cyan Maroney to name only a handful; to little-seen heroes like Amir Hasan, Susie Sayre, Sarah Halstead, Ron Perrone, and Cliff Williams; to brilliant stage managers like Jen Lane, Annie Simpson-Bellinger, Ali Simpson, and Meaghan Macey, to the unflinching artistic leadership, creativity and often thankless work of people like Toneta Akers-Toler, Donald Laney, John & Barb Yurick, Teresa McCoy, and Terry Chasteen, who have stood by the theatre through thick and thin, devoted personal time and resources in putting others and the work above themselves, and generally made and make sure we know what the heck we’re doing up there — and how; all the way to awesome performers who also took the time to teach the next generation, like Marina Hunley-Graham, Rick Olson, Dean Hart, Alli Partin, David Aubrey, Jessica Aubrey, Adam Bryan, Chris Mullens, Matt Hudson, Robby Moore, Chris McLaughlin, Lew Whitener, Sarah Swiger, Carrie Greenberg, and the Hight siblings; and finally, every other dynamic artist, student, office staffer, volunteer, director, writer, dancer, actor, musician, creative head, administrator, board member, or instructor I’ve either momentarily forgotten or have to omit now so I don’t run on forever, who have all poured their hearts and souls into this theatre. I’d be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude for all of these people in the TWV family, too.
Scott, Steve, Keith — I think what you’re not understanding at the moment is that if the board goes through with setting a precedent of turning people away for following ideological principles, it would jeopardize everything this family has built and created together — and would drive away untold company and audience members alike. You’re not understanding that our objections come from a deep place of respect — and like anyone fighting for something that means the world to them, we wouldn’t waste our time trying to get through to you if we didn’t have great care for you guys, or know you to be skilled, savvy, funny, immensely dedicated people. And you’re not understanding that a few people have brought up the rarity of playing the National Anthem at professional theaters… not because they’re trying to hijack the conversation to talk of nixing it, but to point out that the messy and densely complicated history surrounding it might, in fact, be why that’s the case. (You can imagine the angry letters a movie theater would receive if they adopted the anthem and started sending people away who were just sitting there, especially because most of that would come from folks being lazy or getting distracted by their friends rather than acting on principle.) And I’ll speak for myself in saying that while having the anthem played at the theatre struck me a little weird at first, I get that it’s a national park, people definitely seem to appreciate it, and honestly it’s not my place to say if it should be there or not — that’s always been your call. That aside, the sidestage and pre-show music have made an awesome addition to the theater’s atmosphere, promotional projects like the “Cash” Bar and Addams Family landscape at top of house seem to go off well, and ideas like giving out Ring of Fire comps in exchange for parking tickets are totally hilarious — but rules like this, or fundraisers based on branding theatre goers’ beliefs at the possible expense of others, feel like we’d be wading into the territory of audiences stumbling around like rowdy sports fans and amped up carnival goers on their worst days — everybody feeling on edge and defensive all the time. I mean… does that really sound like fun?
I hope to the heavens we never go down that road, because that would be the point we’d no longer be doing the job of making this theatre the best it can be and telling stories to all those bright, smiling faces out there. Please let us keep doing our job. Given all the tough times we’ve gone through at TWV; the decades and generations long devotion of thousands of people, both in the theatre and within the community that hold us up time and time again; and all the time and ingenuity spent coming up with ways to bust down doors and raise the limits of our own creativity — not to mention finding new, exciting ways to get them butts in them seats — bottom line, we just don’t need this.
Like many or most people who take on a life in the arts, I learned from making and taking in different works that art’s at its greatest when it’s a contest of ideas. A fantastic collage of words, concepts, sounds, images, movements, ideologies, motivations, and consequences. It’s a lot like democracy that way, when you think about it. I’ve learned that great art and entertainment can find ways to channel strife into something phenomenal. It can find motivation in anger or wisdom in fear — it can make fun of how mind-blowingly absurd life can be, and a lot of times it raises more questions than it answers. It can aim to make you think about something in a new light, and it can encourage you to be a part of the change, but it doesn’t shame the idiosyncrasies that make us who we are, and it totally falls apart when it becomes self-righteous, starts hitting you over the head, and tries to control you. I kind of feel like my head is spinning just imagining this… If this vote goes through and this rule is set — the moment TWV starts kicking people out and begins a Patriotic Red Scare, or turns itself into the bus that won’t seat Rosa Parks, that’ll be the moment the theatre’s over. Kicked — and lost its purpose. Using a theatre company as a propaganda machine to exclusively champion a single ideology is the literal antithesis and death of it. I promise I don’t mean this to come across as some kind of warning or anything like that — guys, I’m telling you plain and simple because it’s the truth — this is exactly why you can bet we’d start seeing editorials written to the Register Herald about saving TWV from going off the deep end, protest shows across town, and sit-ins staged outside the top of house. I know because I’d want to be involved, whether employed at the theatre or not (and believe me, I’d love to come back). You can call me a highfalutin soap-boxer for it and I wouldn’t mind, because partly as an artist — but mostly as a human being, man — I can’t shake the responsibility I have to stand up and speak up for people who’re being talked down on and held down. And like so many others, I care too much about this theatre to see it turn on itself.
You guys have an opportunity here to keep doing the great work you’re doing, stay focused on making TWV the best it can be, and maximize our viewership by making people of all walks of life feel loved and welcomed— and I hope you take it.
Originally published at brooksybrooks.tumblr.com.