Photo: Brownsville, United States, June 28, 2018. EPA-EFE/Larry W. Smith
In support of the protests happening this weekend, I’m making freely available my near-future science fiction story, “Blue Nowruz.” Listen to the audiobook if you can, because the story was written to be performed, not read; but the text is there too.
It was commissioned for TED 2015 by Neil Gaiman and Chris Anderson, the only prompt being: it had to occur in the next fifteen years, and it had to offer an optimistic vision of the future. So—having been pro-open borders for as long as I’ve been aware of the concept—I wrote about what a simultaneous, worldwide border protest would look like, and how it would begin to change the world.
I hope we’re getting closer to realizing that vision.
Photo: The Nature Geek.
It’s finally warming up in North Carolina, which means the carpenter bees are out and about. Dad and I waited until now to publish this poem, one of my favorites of his, and of all time. Read it aloud.
by Donald E. Byrne Jr.
A fat, black bee
whirls down from its
hole, bored in the
trim of the porch,
to bless me in
my chaise. So close
to the nape of
my neck I thrill,
so near my bare
chest I feel the
breath of its wings,
the quick bee signs
up, down, left, right,
as if to ask:
are you the one?–
up, down, left, right–
are you the one?
Are you the one,
a sweet balm, a
bee balm, the one
who called me with
you, bee, bless me;
black bee, bless me;
bless me, fat bee,
with your sun sign:
up, down, left, right,
up, down, left, right.
American Theatre Magazine wrote a response to my blog post about their enablement of sexual abuse in American theatre. I appreciate their engagement and their apology, and wrote Robert Weinert-Kendt, the editor-in-chief; and Teresa Eyring, Executive Director of TCG, to tell them so. But I felt the response left quite a lot to be desired.
Specifically, they did not list any concrete steps to address the fact that they had solicited and now know the name of serial abusers working in the field, including at their own member theaters, and are now choosing to sit on them indefinitely. Rob writes, “The magazine has never been, and has never represented itself as, an investigative news organization.” I disagree. “Investigative” is an arbitrary label, applied retroactively for convenience’s sake; they brand themselves as is “the nation’s only general-circulation magazine devoted to theatre,” which anyone—including I, as a source—could rightly interpret as including work categorized as “investigative,” especially when they’d authorized their reporter to initiate an investigation. If ATM is in fact a magazine-length glossy ad for their member theaters, they need to put that on their About page instead. If they are or want to be something else, then they have an ethical obligation to act on the information they solicited. From what I understand, they are now refusing to do so on technical and legal—in other words, financial—grounds. This, while publishing pieces like this, wherein Teresa herself writes, “The culture of silence can be profound and entrenched. And what’s required when there are reports of workplace misconduct, sexual and otherwise, is immediate action and transparency on the part of boards and leadership.”
So. Here is my question to Rob, Teresa, and the board of TCG:
Where is your immediate action?
Moreover: what made you think that real change would be safe?
What made you think that real change would not come without social, financial, and legal risk, to your institution and to yourselves?
I’m well-acquainted with these risks. I’ve taken them on several times now, and will again in the future. But it’s time for the burden of those risks to stop falling on individuals. We already did our part by coming forward. We’ve done it over and over and over. Now it’s your turn.
Your two options are to (1) authorize Ms. Tran to publish the stories, and take on the social, legal, and financial risks that comes with that; or (2) partner with a national media outlet that was built to take on such risk, such as Buzzfeed or The Washington Post. In my opinion, not doing so would represent a final and irreparable breach of trust between your organization and the entire field of practice, especially the women and people of color who are disproportionately impacted by your silence.
Now, here is my question for the leadership of all TCG member theaters:
Why so quiet?
I’ve received messages of support from exactly three Artistic Directors of TCG member theaters, out of five hundred and six. Two were already friends.
I’ll grant, it’s given me a sense of just how pervasive the culture of silence is in the field. It’s also helped me understand the role of “niceness”—or, reluctance to confront or offend—in the machinery of enablement. Niceness has been the leadership’s norm on that national nonprofit theatre scene for as long as I’ve been aware of it, but it is in fact anything but niceness. It is cowardice. Niceness means speechifying on Facebook without ever naming names. Niceness means, in Rob’s words, “urging the field as a whole (rather than any specific theaters) to do better,” so that no one ever thinks they’re part of the problem. Niceness means you never acknowledge that you or your friends may be part of the problem. Niceness means that you never have to have difficult conversations with your colleagues. Niceness means you’re terrified of not being liked, or how not being liked could affect your career. Niceness means you’d rather cover up abuse than run the risk of alienating donors. Niceness means you convince yourself that, because you’re a good person with good intentions, you can’t possibly be part of the problem. Niceness means believing that, because an institution has done some good sometimes, that outweighs the abusers who both operate from within it and benefit from its silences. Niceness means you never actually risk anything.
I’ll be as clear as I possibly can: An institution that prioritizes its own continued existence over the safety of the individuals who work there does not deserve to exist.
That applies to American Theatre Magazine. That applies to TCG. And that applies to every single theater that knowingly employs and harbors abusers, or neglects to speak out against their continued enablement, now, in the MeToo era.
Rob, Teresa, and TCG member theaters: you already know the right thing to do. You just have to be brave enough to do it.
This is a case study of how the machinery of enablement of sexual harassers and abusers works in American theatre. It involves Raphael Martin, the ex-Director of New Work at Soho Repertory Theatre in New York; and American Theater Magazine and its publisher the Theatre Communications Group (TCG).
In October 2016, I read this piece by poet Annie Finch, an account of sexual harassment in the literary world. Her descriptions reminded me of the sexual harassment I’d experienced from the then-Director of New Work at Soho Rep, Raphael Martin, in 2013; and how that harassment had negatively influenced my career trajectory, and informed my negative feelings toward Soho Rep. Inspired by Finch, I wrote a Facebook post about my experience with Martin. Many people saw it and responded, but apparently none at Soho Rep. I looked at their staff and board list, recognized the name of a Facebook friend, and sent my friend my Facebook post via private message. My friend responded immediately and, with my permission, shared my post on their personal Facebook wall, asking if anyone else had also been sexually harassed by Martin. Apparently many had—all young female theatre artists, like me—and submitted their accounts to my friend. Within a few days, Martin was fired.
At the time, I felt satisfied that Soho Rep had done the right thing. But I was a little confused that none of the leadership at Soho Rep had reached out to me, and that there was no press coverage of the incident; the firing of the Director of New Work at one of New York’s most prestigious independent theatre institutions had apparently gone unnoticed.
Since then, Martin has set up a theatrical consultancy agency in London. In other words, he was free to simply pick up and move shop, with few the wiser. This pattern is a crucial element in every culture of abuse: academia, high school sports, the Catholic priesthood, and so on. So I wrote to Sarah Benson, the Artistic Director of Soho Rep. She responded very kindly and thoughtfully, acknowledged the harm done to myself and the field, and thanked me for coming forward, then and now; but said that, as difficult as it was, the theater was not in a position to revisit the incident in a public way.
I don’t know why. And I wonder if there are reasons I can’t know why.
I wish they’d noticed that Martin seemed to pursue meetings only with young women theatre artists.I wish they’d reached out to check in with me after I came forward. I wish they’d publicly taken responsibility for Martin’s long-term employment and the extensive damage it did to the field. And most especially, I wish they—and all theatrical institutions—would look more closely at their part in the American theatrical community’s culture of scarcity, secrecy, and exclusivity, which deters so many women from coming forward.
I wish Soho Rep knew me as a playwright and not as a whistleblower.
Last fall, a friend sent me a post by a journalist at American Theater Magazine (AT), the nation’s “only general-circulation magazine devoted to theatre.” The journalist was soliciting accounts of sexual harassment in theatre. I was one of approximately a hundred people to get in touch with her, and spent a long time talking to her on the phone about my experiences, which included naming names on the record, including that of Raphael Martin. She was terrific, receptive and compassionate.
Months went by. I tweeted at AT, asking whether they were planning to publish anything from the amounts of information they’d gotten. They sent me link to a published article, here. I hadn’t heard anything about it, and it’s not hard to see why: because though it’s well-written, it says very little except that sexual harassment and abuse is an enormous problem in American theatre, with illustrations thereof, but no names or institutions attached. I didn’t blame the journalist. I gave her names—lots of us did—and she seemed to want to publish them. So I got in touch with her to ask what had happened. She said that the leadership at TCG (the publisher of AT) had overruled her, opting instead to anonymize everything because they didn’t want the legal liability, and that naming names (of people or institutions) was “not in line with their mission.”
This is how the machinery of enablement works.
And this is how it breaks: when individual victims take on the risk of speaking out.
For a variety of reasons, I do, and have before. Those reasons might merit their own blog post one day. But what I want to emphasize now is: this is not a matter of “having a chip on my shoulder.” It’s a matter of sexual harassment and abuse being a major public health and safety issue in all sectors of our society, and wanting to do something about it, especially when the leadership of arts institutions tend to do whatever it takes to preserve themselves first, at the direct cost of the health and safety of the individuals they’re supposed to serve. There is a vacuum of moral leadership in American theatre. This is especially ironic given theatrical institutions’ self-positioning as bastions of progress. Many are not. They merely replicate the same biases, abuses, and failures that exist in larger society, and then brand it as “arts advocacy” to its donors. Adding insult to injury, this “advocacy” is a means by which hundreds of people make a sound living, with health insurance and retirement benefits; meanwhile, actual theatre artists cannot make a living at all.
I wrote to the Editor-in-Chief of ATM, Rob Weinert-Kendt; and the Executive Director of TCG, Teresa Eyring. Both of them wrote me back kindly, but did not reverse their decision. I told them both I appreciated their responses, but did not agree with their decision or their reasoning. I think American Theater Magazine leadership should have empowered and supported its reporter to name the names we gave her. I think American Theater Magazine and its publisher, TCG, should seriously reexamine its mission if its mission does not include protecting the basic health and safety of theatre artists. And I think American Theater Magazine and its publisher, TCG, owe an apology to the entire theatrical community for its complicity in the machinery of enablement.
No matter what, donors to AT and TCG should start asking questions.
In my opinion, Martin needs serious psychological help, and until he receives it, he should not be in any position where he works with younger women in a theatrical or other context. If Mr. Martin would like to sue me, he’s welcome to try; I have exactly one asset—my car—and $159 to my name. Luckily for me, truth is an absolute defense in defamation cases. Nothing I’ve said in public or in private is untrue.
If any commenters are looking to engage me in “debate,” you should know that I have to approve all comments before they go live, and I’m not interested in debating. I’ve thought about publishing a post like this for months, discussed it with many people I trust, and am at peace with my decision. I will delete your comments.
If any reporters would like to get in touch with me to speak on the record about any of the above, you can contact me through my web site.
Thank you for reading.
Here are my prepared remarks for the Durham City Council public hearing on the budget, March 19th, 2018, on behalf of independent artists in Durham. Thank you, as always, to my sustainers for enabling me to do this work.
My name is Monica Byrne. Twelve years ago, I moved to Durham because of its affordability and its incredibly rich independent arts scene. Today I’m a full-time novelist, playwright, performer, and activist. Independent artists like me have played an essential role in making Durham a place where people love to live. Now, it’s becoming unaffordable for me, and for all the independent artists I know, both as a place to live and a place to make work.
Of course, that’s the case for a lot of Durham residents. I want to stress that artists are no more inherently special than any other kind of worker, but are treated as such, which means there are a few crucial points I’m asking the Council to consider when building a new budget.
(1) That in all private and public sectors, including the City of Durham, because art is treated as a hobby and not as work, artists are vastly under-compensated—to the point of no compensation at all.
(2) That compensation for artists is an intersectional economic justice issue. Art is something all people, of every age, race, gender, socioeconomic class, nationality, and ethnicity do to make meaning out of their lives. But only some kinds of art are recognized and compensated by our institutions. That art is overwhelmingly made by white men for white audiences.
(3) That the city’s arts funding, as reflected in the current budget, overwhelmingly prioritizes institutional and corporate art at the direct cost of independent artists in Durham.
(4) That the commitments to institutional and corporate art must be balanced by an equal commitment to the independent artists who make our city a place people love to live.
The good news is that it would take very little for the Council to start making meaningful change. I’m asking for three very simple things:
First, treat individual artists and small arts organizations as businesses. That is, offer them the same access to capital and low-interest loans that any other business would have.
Second, set an example by providing for compensation for all artists hired by the city, at least at a living wage. If you have questions, hire artists as consultants at a professional wage.
Third, please do not confuse funding the Durham Arts Council with funding artists. They are not the same thing. The ways in which the leadership and the board of the Durham Arts Council fail to meet the needs of independent artists in Durham would take much longer than three minutes to explain.
If you would like to talk about that more, or anything else I’ve mentioned, please get in touch, and I’d be delighted to.
by Donald E. Byrne Jr.
We thought it was going to be a neat sixties
thing to do: I’d ride a bus to Galena and we’d hike
the river hills in winter, stay in a sleazy
hotel where U. S. Grant once slept, eat the best turtle steaks
on the Mississippi in a plain café,
drink Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, and talk,
talk, talk! He said, “Bring your guitar, you can play
I Keep a Close Watch on this Heart of Mine. Don’t
Think Twice, Rock Island Line, Alberta, and Candy
Man, just like you used to.” Last time we’d seen each other–
the year JFK was shot–I was a randy
seminarian, soon to be ex-, he a deacon, soon ordained,
but we both liked country western, Johnny Cash.
Two years later, how could we know Murph would kill himself
a little before we met? They said he clashed
with Marilyn, jumped off the Key Bridge in January, washed up
near Georgetown’s M Street the 2nd of February
bloated with Potomac sludge. No one had even missed him.
He hadn’t been easy to get close to. But he
was the only one of us who took on the Dominican who taught
canned Thomistic moral theology. Murph convinced
us all that day that love, desire, feeling and imagination
were more our imago Dei than reason, distanced
vision, and abstraction–as the perspiring priest insisted.
We didn’t know then Murph was making a case against
his own stunningly lucid mind, to anchor his passion for
a girl he’d not yet met. We cheered when he fenced
the Dominican in. We knew he was right; it was in the air–
though none of us could quite keep up with how
he followed his logic to its conclusions. The word was
he came on too fast with her and she threw him out
with his pants around his knees. Loughlin treated me to
a turtle steak and said that suicide
was God’s way of saving Murph from opposing Him directly;
I said it wasn’t Murphy’s God who’d tried
to save him by killing him off, but only some church god
too insecure to be more than abstract. I said
Murph freed God up to be beautiful and desirable, the love
we loved in everything we loved. He paid
the bill and we walked some more, breaking trail across
a crunching sheet of snow turning orange and gold
in an afternoon sun that slipped too quickly behind
the bluffs. As long as I could stand the cold
slush in my sneakers, we sat on a limestone barn foundation
and talked about what we or anyone might
have done to help Murph out of the dead end he’d thought
himself into, that desperate January night
when he didn’t know how to come on to a real girl
and couldn’t think where to turn. My feet got numb.
The river ice turned gray, the hills harsh, climbing to
the car. We’d another day, but knew we’d come
to the end. We pulled dumbly on the bottle, riding back.
We took our baths and made a half-hearted stab at
picking up two long-haired river queens in the Levee Lounge.
We left them the rum and cokes we bought, and sat
at the bar with the regulars. I talked about my master’s
thesis in progress, and he about his sermons.
Or parish. Or bishop troubles. I wasn’t listening
at all, I was seeing, over and over, Murph’s
leap of faith, the dark Mississippi he kissed.