by Jared Adamson
Recently, I had the honor/privilege/daunting task (you creative types know my quandary for word selection here) of working with DIVA founders, Andy & Amy Dudas, on a production of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins for Richmond Civic Theatre. There is much I could say about this project, and perhaps will someday. Nearly every detail and moment of it (except the memorization process) was overwhelmingly positive.
But that conversation is for another day.
One element that was especially refreshing to my creative nature in this show was its collaborative environment. When the cast is only two with two co-directors (who were absolutely single-minded on this project, also refreshing), the ability to discuss and disagree and present perspectives and ask questions about character and movement/blocking and artistic choices made and the microcosm and macrocosm of this work of art is rare, to say the least. I get it. When the cast is 16 or so players, and everyone thinks they need to be heard and contribute ideas—well, it can be overwhelming and counter-productive. This was a rare jewel of an opportunity that really helped to bring out my best performances.
In creating my character (based on a historical human being), “we” came to the notion that he was a smoker. There was something about Cosme McMoon that screamed “he needs a cigarette in his hand.” To paraphrase Chandler Bing, “it is the thing that made his hand complete.” Or maybe that was Sweeney Todd. There is a theatrical tableau of the silhouette in blue light with a trickle of smoke rising up as the stage lights came up that told the audience so much about who he is and what he does, even before a single word was spoken (this is one of the glories of live theatre). This detail was not in the script, but we unanimously agreed that it was the right choice to play.
And then, as often happens amongst us insecure creatives trying to collaborate with other insecure creatives, we second-guessed ourselves.
We actually started second-guessing because we decided to add a performance that absorbed the ticket price for any high school or college student that wanted to attend. We were sure there would be artistic value in the show for teens and students. But when we did some research into what constitutes various movie ratings (translated: age-appropriate), we learned that smoking is considered “on-screen drug usage” and would necessitate a PG-13 rating. WHAT?!
I grew up with classic Hollywood. Can you picture Humphrey Bogart in the Café Americain without a cig dangling from his crooked mouth? What about Groucho Marx? His mustache was painted on, but that cigar was real. And Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. I contest that movie icon would not be the same without her up-do beehive and long, slender, black cigarette holder. Sure, cancer eventually killed John Wayne, but cowboys without tobacco? It just doesn’t seem right.
And these movies weren’t PG-13. I watched them on Saturday afternoons with my dad.
So, we asked around. The responses were, as you would imagine, varied.
- “Oh no. Sex, language & violence wouldn’t bother me as much as smoking.”
- “I don’t care the reason, PG-13 is not for my family.”
- “This is what’s wrong with America. You can’t even ‘pretend’ to smoke on stage without offending someone.”
- “I get it. I don’t agree with it, but I get it.”
Where does that leave us? Make an artistic choice that limits our audience appeal or adapt to sensitivities for a better return?
We opted to omit the cigarette for the student performance. Generally and generationally, the perspective on smoking has changed significantly…and I admit, for good reason. It’s not healthy (and our health truly ought to trump our cool factor). So after 4 months of rehearsing, I shifted my mental processes and went without (it turned out to be easier to adapt than I expected). Then, we planned, resume using it for the rest of the run of our show. At the end of the day, right or wrong, agree or disagree, I felt it was a good choice. And unless you were one that we polled, the audience was none the wiser.
But my perspective on offensives changed.
I often find myself in the category of “I can’t believe you find that offensive”. It’s not an issue of agreeing or disagreeing with you; it’s that it never crossed my mind that you wouldn’t see things the same way I do. And it’s not an issue that you don’t see the mental processes I went through to come to my decision; it’s that you disagree with my conclusion. Our perceptions are different and that affects how we see the world and how we see each other.
Recently, fellow DIVA board member, Amy Allen Sekhar, was commenting that a well-loved local eatery was not disability-friendly. I’d been to that establishment and counted myself among those that loved it. My perspective was very different than hers. But upon a second visit to said, unnamed-on-purpose eatery, I understood her point of view though I’d never seen it through her eyes before.
You don’t have to understand why someone is offended or bothered or put-out or uncomfortable. And I honestly don’t believe that you have to try to understand why another has their particular sensitivities (though some might disagree with me on that point). I try to understand, but that’s me. And regardless of which side of the fence I stand, I can choose to listen before reacting. I can be respectful even while disagreeing. I can maintain relationships across socio-economic lines, political parties, and religious belief systems, skin tone, gender, hashtag slogans and so much more EVEN IF I DON’T SEE EYE-TO-EYE with them.
DIVA, though still in its infancy, strives to be inclusive. Our biggest dreams for the facility are on hold simply because the space is not accessible except with a very steep staircase (we’d love your financial gifts to help make an elevator a reality). “DIVA provides a flexible open venue for the exhibition and performance of any (Really? ANY?! Eek!) art form and fosters an inclusive collaborative environment of inspiration and creation.” Boy, does that run some risk!
But like I learned from my experience with that silly prop cigarette, I don’t have to understand or agree with you taking offence to be aware that you are in fact, truly, actually, offended.
PS – after our student performance, we were resetting the prop cigarette to be used in the rest of our shows when the darned thing broke and I didn’t get to use it a single time for any of our run of performances! (sad trombone)
Jared Adamson is the Minister of Worship and Creative Arts at Centerville Christian Church in Centerville, IN. Studying voice, composition, organ and improv, he has a Bachelor of Music in Church Music with a double major in Bible and piano from Cincinnati Christian University where he later served as an adjunct professor in the music and worship department.