Suddenly Free Fiction

Mike Allen has posted five stories from Clockwork Phoenix 5 online for free. Including my own contribution to the volume: “The Wind at His Back.”

I’ve already talked about this story, so I’ll keep things short. Set in what I’ve been calling the Tallverse – a weird western world where tall tales and folklore are real – this is the story of Benito Aguilar, small town sheriff and former tornado wrangler who just wants to live a simple, happy life with his husband Casey. It’s a story about living with your past, about the strength of acceptance and community. It also has tween giants and snakes that put themselves back together and magic fruit trees and storms with souls.

And now, you can read it start to finish all for free. So if you’ve got a second, click on through and take a look.

Missing by a Hair’s Breadth

I’ve started to hear a lot of applause for Bernie Sanders’ “no nonsense” response to a question about Hillary Clinton’s hair coverage by the media:

When the media worries about what Hillary’s hair looks like or what my hair looks like, that’s a real problem. We have millions of people who are struggling to keep their heads above water, who want to know what candidates can do to improve their lives, and the media will very often spend more time worrying about hair than the fact that we’re the only major country on earth that doesn’t guarantee health care to all people.

It looks good on its face, I suppose: Sanders is, in general, running on a platform that he’s not putting up with the media circus because there are stakes which deserve better than spin and calculation about the best news cycle. “Hair questions” are silly.

The big problem here is that I think someone who thinks that way ought to have more than enough insight to realize “Do you think it’s fair that Hillary’s hair gets a lot more scrutiny than yours does?” isn’t about hair. The media focus on female candidates’ appearance is the least painful symptom, surely, but nevertheless a symptom of gender inequality.

This was, then, a prime opportunity for Sanders to discuss the way women’s health is a political football or the pay gap between men and women (and, for extra intersectionality, the even larger gap for women of color).

Yes, Sanders mentions both financial distress and health care in his dismissal of the question, but because he flatly ignores the gender element (even after the interviewer explicitly says this is about gender) the whole thing winds up taking the unfortunate tone of some kind of #AllLivesMatter tweet.

Then again, in the same interview, Sanders expresses his surprise at having Black Lives Matter activists interrupt an event that was to feature him, pointing to his record on civil rights. Said record is good. I’m not trying to impugn anyone’s efforts here.

I am saying, though, that maybe the reason activists come at Sanders are the same reason a reporter who happens to be female thought she could ask him a not-particularly-coded question about gender inequality and he wouldn’t need it spelled out for him: because the people most likely to help, by signal boosting or allowing for their own errors or checking their privilege, are going to be those who’ve done so in the past.

And if we can’t get them to recognize the ongoing issues, how the hell can we expect to move the needle when it comes to those firmly entrenched in opposing rhetoric?

How Long Until Blue Cross Becomes Blue Crucifix?

It looks like Arizona House Bill 2625 is getting some Tumblr attention, and while the sourcing that indicates this law just passed seems to be wrong (it was in fact enacted 2 years ago), the content of it remains disconcerting, perhaps not least of all because it was adopted two years ago without being caught up nationally by news agencies.

People are rightfully upset about the weird language which seems to indicate women of “religious objection” companies would have to submit proof from their doctors if they want to be covered for prescribed contraceptives being used for non-contraceptive reasons (acne and hormone control appear to be the common examples):

A health care services organization, employer or other entity offering the plan may state religious beliefs in its affidavit and may require the enrollee to first pay for the prescription and then submit a claim to the health care services organization along with evidence that the prescription is not for a purpose covered by the objection.

Things get jumbled up here, in that there’s a lot of weird language where “corporation” is being used. So far as I can tell, though, “corporation” is meant to be the insurance provider, not the company employing the women. The very next section makes it clear that an employer still doesn’t get to ask for your medical information.

Quick, knee jerk block: I still think this entire exemption on contraceptives is the stinkiest of cow dung. But before I get into the real nasty bits, I’m trying to get in a fact check on the “your employer can fire you for using contraceptives if he finds out you’re using them for birth control” stuff. So far as I can tell, this is between the employee, her doctor, and the insurance company (because the government shouldn’t interfere with a doctor and patient’s private health decisions; that’s the insurance industry’s racket). An employer insisting on medical records is still off the table, and violates all the same privacy laws it did before.

All that said, the thing I’m far more concerned about is this bit of the law:

Notwithstanding subsection Y of this section, a contract does not fail to meet the requirements of subsection Y of this section if the contract’s failure to provide coverage of specific items or services required under subsection Y of this section is because providing or paying for coverage of the specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs of the employer, hospital service corporation, medical service corporation, hospital, medical, dental and optometric service corporation or other entity offering the plan or is because the coverage is contrary to the religious beliefs of the purchaser of the coverage.

Emphasis mine, because folks, remember how I pointed out above that “corporation” was being used to mean the insurance companies? Given that, if I’m reading this right, two years ago, Arizona effectively declared that insurance providers themselves can claim a religious objection to providing contraceptive coverage.

Since the only requirement that needs to be met to get that exemption under this law is that “a written affidavit shall be filed with the corporation stating the objection,” all they have to do to get that objection is write a note.

To themselves.

And just in case we forgot, this law passed two years before the Hobby Lobby case. Who needs doors opened, when state legislators are willing to burn down the whole damn building for you?

Internal Conflict

Venice Theatre, whom I last mentioned when their open secret of paying some but not all performers went public, has decided to modify the script some more. They announced a move hinted at in the previous Jay Handelman article on the subject of payment–acting internships:

The chosen actors will get housing and a small weekly stipend. They also will be expected to audition for several mainstage, Stage II or cabaret shows, where they will compete against other local performers. [Producing Director Allan] Kollar said there are no expectations that the interns get leading roles. Auditions will remain open to all interested actors.

The interns will also take part in a variety of outreach programs, presenting brief shows at community and retirement centers and schools in the area.

The first few times (that I know for sure) I was in a Venice show with a paid performer, those performers were Equity actors. It was a pretty solid line: union received paychecks, and had their names marked specially in the program, making their status clear. It wasn’t until later that I discovered non-union volunteers were receiving paychecks in some cases, as well, which is where things start getting incredibly muddy.

On one level, I think this new program is perhaps meant as an attempt to re-establish that “professional” line. Over here are the people who will be paid. They went through special criteria to get on the books. They are, effectively, staff. Or, at least, they’re meant to be regarded as such.

I’m especially interested in the comment about the roles interns will play in shows. In what I’m assuming is a bid to assuage volunteer fears and head off attrition, the theatre wants to make sure folks know that interns aren’t guaranteed any kind of lead roles. They’re auditioning just like everyone else. And I’m sure most directors will try to be fair about that kind of thing.

Of course, it seems like it would speak especially ill of either the applicant pool or Venice’s choices if their interns aren’t the kind of performers who are going to be in contention for significant roles throughout the year. Especially when they’re picking the interns knowing full well their performing needs for the season.

Even tossing that aside, it’s hard not to expect that interns won’t be used regularly, lead or no. Not using them would seem to be a rather horrible ROI, after all. If they aren’t the leads, then it only stands to reason they’d be filling out the ensemble of Venice’s larger shows. Which brings us to the same, chafing situation as has happened before if you’re paying ensemble members and asking your leads to do it all for free.

Let me stop right now: ensemble is hard. It’s exhausting and frantic and often filled with the kind of nightmare quick changes and whiplash shifts in character that no featured role outside A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder will experience. This isn’t about belittling any of that.

However, if we’re talking about teaching folks about professional theatre: barring hazard or specialty pay, in professional theatre, isn’t ensemble remuneration lower than that of featured performers? Not only, then, might that situation wind up rubbing featured performers badly; it seems to be actively working against the stated intent of the internship, which is to prepare the interns for the reality of a professional career.

I’ll give a thumbs up to this inasmuch as this program, on the books and publicized, provides the kind of transparency that I think a community organization should have. It’s out there and everyone knows about it. Or, at the very least, folks would have a hard time pretending anyone was hiding it.

Of course, this kind of publicity is also one of the continuing frustrations. You know, hooray for bringing it out in the light, but I’m not sure this does much of anything to change the message to volunteers or the frustrations I outlined last time.

It’s also hard not to notice this announcement rather neatly sidesteps questions about how much other hiring might still happen. In any event, I’ll be especially interested to see how this inaugural class shakes out, both in the way Venice implements and uses the interns, and the way volunteer performers respond to them.

Non-Binary Digital Debates

I have to give a lot of thumbs up to the points John Scalzi raises in his recent essay on the Amazon-Hachette public negotiation troubles. My favorite quote:

This is where many people decide to opine that the cost of eBooks should reflect the cost of production in some way that allows them to say that whatever price point they prefer is the naturally correct one. This is where I say: You know what, if you’ve ever paid more than twenty cents for a soda at a fast food restaurant, or have ever bought bottled water at a store, then I feel perfectly justified in considering your cost of production position vis a vis publishing as entirely hypocritical. Please stop making the cost of production argument for books and apparently nothing else in your daily consumer life. I think less of you when you do.

It’s one of the things at the heart of digital pricing: the specter of production costs, and the impact these sorts of arguments have on the perceived value of content itself. I won’t for one second pretend there’s not a discussion to be had about the value of content. It’s just that sometimes “lower production costs” winds up as a stand in for “this didn’t cost you anything to make,” which is both not true and tends to overshadow any other discussions.

Favorite sound bite notwithstanding, the biggest reason I’m linking Scalzi’s post when I’ve not really pointed at anything else I’ve seen on these sorts of negotiations is because the essay as a whole actually sounds like an opening for discussion. Just about everything else I see seems to declare that either the publisher or Amazon is Evil and Trying to Screw Us, and by comparison the other party is Totally On Our Side.

Scalzi rather directly makes the point that BOTH Amazon and any given publisher (1) are not evil, but (2) are on their own sides. If you want to have a debate about which position is best for authors and/or readers, I think that’s vitally important. The binary ideology here is a trap, and winds up shutting down real discussion in favor of one spin or another. That in turn retards real progress that helps the people at either end of the production chain, instead of just the corporations in the middle.

Throwing Coins with the Roses

Venice Theatre (née Venice Little Theatre) has had something of an open secret amongst local community theatre actors and assorted other theatre folk for a while now. This weekend, local critic Jay Handelman outed them:

While preparing to write a story about the upcoming Venice Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” I discovered that the actor playing Curly McLain, the leading male role, is being brought in from New York, provided housing and a small stipend. He’s a young actor just beginning his career and it will be good experience for him.

[…]

Then I discovered that several other performers in the show also are being compensated with what I’m told is nothing more than gas money to help cover the cost of their driving some distance to nightly rehearsals and performances.

None of this is really news to me, or to a lot of people who do shows regularly in our local community theatres (I was rather surprised to hear that The Players in Sarasota has supplied “gas money” to folks; I suppose theirs was a better-kept secret).

The article is generally an overview of the issue, asking each of the Artistic Directors of the three local community theatres (Manatee Players, The Players in Sarasota, and Venice Theatre) if and in what context they’ve provided financial compensation. Handelman poses a host of questions, clearly intending this to be a conversation starter.

Anyone who’s spoken with me much about local community theatre knows I’ve been waiting for that public conversation for a while now.

I may or may not come back to this and take on different aspects from the article, but for now, I’ll try to give this some focus by using Handelman’s questions concerning other volunteer performers. Since, you know, I am one on occasion.

I’ll take them in order, and with the obvious caveat that I can only speak from my own experience, from my own thoughts and feelings on the matter and what I’ve personally heard in a reasonable number of conversations on the topic with other theatre friends. Much as I want to, I don’t have psychic powers; I can’t tell you what everyone in the community thinks and feels.

Some personal context, to whatever extent it might influence your interpretation of what follows: I’ve never received financial compensation for a community theatre show. Venice did arrange for another cast member to provide me with a workout plan when I was Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show, but I can’t tell you if they paid her or not, because I honestly don’t know. At the time I assumed she did it for free, since she was a pretty big supporter of the theatre and the show.

I have been paid for two shows I did through PLATO, the nonprofit started at the former Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. As did every other performer in a PLATO show.

All that out of the way, let’s get to the questions:

Don’t fellow performers become resentful if they realize they’re not getting stipends that others are getting?

Not everyone, and the extent and the target of said resentment will depend on the person, but it would be silly to expect there wasn’t some resentment. Personally, I’ve never taken issue with any of my cast members who were pulling a paycheck. As I’ve pointed out before, doing a show is always hard work. It’s hard work we often love doing, but it’s still hard work. Hard work is always deserving of reward, and every person I know who’s been paid did that work.

But with rare exception, so does everyone else in the cast of the exact same show. It’s incredibly difficult not to take selective payment practices within a cast as an implicit indictment by the theatre of one’s worth as a performer. No one likes to feel de-valued.

What does that do to cast bonding?

I’ve actually never experienced a problem in that arena, but as I said, I’ve never held hard feelings toward my fellow cast members because they were or weren’t pulling a paycheck. And honestly, it’s hard to do a show, to really engage in the work of doing a show, if you’re putting up walls between yourself and cast members. Some casts bond better than others, but I’ve never noticed a paywall, as it were.

Will it mean some performers won’t audition for shows if they’re not going to get compensated in some way?

I can confirm at least anecdotally that this is the case. As I said near the top, Venice’s policy as regards payment has been an open secret among a lot of theatre folks for years. I know of several instances where folks refused to accept roles without compensation. I know people who have walked into auditions explicitly requiring payment in the case that they’re cast. I know people who don’t audition because they assume Venice will just be bringing in paid ringers for X show, anyway, so why bother auditioning?

What talent will we be missing?

From the responses in the article, the argument of Venice and — to my surprise — Sarasota appears to be that we’re missing out on the talent if theatres don’t pay.

I do know a few working performers who actively suggest Venice as a venue from which other working performers should seek employment. I know some directors who, likewise, walk into auditions with the mindset that they can hire in for X roles in a show if they aren’t satisfied with the volunteers who show up to audition. That and the response to the previous question may or may not point to missing talent in the volunteer pool depending your own point of view on the matter.

*****

In the end, mileage on all of this is going to vary. No one wants to put on a horrible show. If that costs a little extra money, maybe that’s the price of admission (and, hey, if you can defer the cost of your avocation, most folks aren’t inclined to say no). On the other hand, every dollar spent bringing in a paid performer to fill a perceived shortcoming in the volunteer talent pool is a dollar that can’t be spent expanding volunteer outreach and visibility, which may in itself mean a smaller available volunteer talent pool, and then we’re heading into Ouroboros territory.

Focusing Past a Catchy Title

There are two not-entirely-related reasons why a recent Yahoo article by Quentin Fottrell, on homeowners being less than keen on neighboring renters, caught my attention. Before we start, though: I’m a renter. My best friends own their home. We get along just fine, so I have no interest in starting some kind of owner/renter turf war. Unless there is some Jerome Robbins choreography for me to poorly execute. That might be worth a scuffle.

But honestly, the first thing that has me flummoxed about this article is that I don’t even think it really speaks to its initial premise. Instead, there’s a buried lead/angle:

There has been a marked increase in “residential segregation” by income over the past three decades, according to a 2102 [sic] survey released by Pew Research Center, which cross-referenced household income and “census tracts” by the U.S. Census Bureau. The share of middle class areas in the U.S. is down to 76% in 2010 from 80% in 1980, Pew found, with the share of lower-income neighborhoods rising to 28% from 23%, and upper-income areas doubling to 18% from 9%.

I don’t know. It’s snazzy to have a title about America hating renters; you even have that funny little graphic with one of those Lazy Renters in it. Tee-hee. But, come on, how is the economic disparity this points to, and the divide between economic brackets, not the real story here?

On one hand there’s explicit acknowledgement that there are wide swaths of people who can’t afford–or for whom it would probably be financially inadvisable–to own. Then quotes like “Homeowners are perceived to care more about their property, its appearance, safety of the community and property values” go completely unchallenged.

Seriously, all the pieces are there to put together, to point to the fact that “renter” in this context is clearly less about actually renting and more a shorthand for “poorer,” and the arguments against both smack fantastically of bootstrap theory: if these people really cared about the neighborhood, they’d buy into it like I did! is painfully close to if these people really wanted to support themselves, they’d go get jobs like I did! And it’s about as short-sighted.

Of course, when the article’s stated premise doesn’t even hold through to its own conclusion, I’m not sure how much more we can expect a real examination of the pieces which are strewn about its rambling path. That’s the second thing that hit me: Fottrell starts with “Most Americans know their neighbors by name, new research finds, and might even invite them over occasionally for tea.” Half a dozen paragraphs later, however, “[T]here’s evidence that plenty of people don’t know the first thing about their neighbors: Only 46% of urbanites know their neighbors by name….” So, most Americans know a lot about their neighbors. Except for their names.

I am super-interested for the followup article here which will, I have to assume, suggest that lots of Americans are stalking their neighbors, since that’s the only way I can pair “know a lot about a person” with “never learned the person’s name” in any real-world setting.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my jazz shoes before the rumble.