In recent years, it’s been suggested that some companies and organizations have intentionally caused upset through a statement or product, only to quickly recant, for the express purpose of getting two press “hits” out of one incident, in the process demonstrating their responsiveness to their customers or the population at large. As a one-time publicist, admittedly in the lower-stakes world of not-for-profit theatre, I’ve never been entirely convinced that this is a valid or even calculated strategy, or that it benefits the “offender” in any way. Of course, in the current presidential election we’ve watched one candidate make incendiary and offensive statements and receive great press attention and outrage for doing so. The result there is that it appeals to a certain portion of the voting population and, while the candidate may “walk back” or “recalibrate” his statements, actual apologies are exceptionally rare.
Watching this sort of “offend-apologize” dynamic when it comes to the arts can be instructive, whether it’s the Old Navy t-shirts that crossed out “artist” in favor of “astronaut” or “president,” or the AT&T campaign that urged people to watch football at the theatre. In the former case, the product was dropped; in the latter, AT&T expressed their love for the “thespian community,” saying they meant “no disrespect,” but the ads actually continued after that.
The just-finished Labor Day weekend saw two examples of affronts to the arts community. The better known example was the Wells Fargo “Teen Day” campaign, which used “ballerina” and “actor” as the abandoned pursuits of teens, in favor of current interests as “botanist” and “engineer.” While the Wells Fargo campaign did allow for something else to come along in the future, the fact that it didn’t offer anything but the arts as being in the past yielded an avalanche of outcry, and as awareness peaked on Saturday, Wells Fargo offered an apology late in the afternoon (east coast time).
Somewhat less noticed was the dismay over a casting notice from San Francisco mainstay Beach Blanket Babylon, shared online by monologist Mike Daisey, which stated that while “historically we have used performers whose facial features make them appear conventionally Caucasian,” “all ethnicities are welcome to audition.” They generously noted that “If you don’t [fit their description], your voice and stage presence could change our minds.” This is tantamount to saying, “white people preferred, but hey, people of color, if you go above and beyond, you may get a shot.”
To those who say that artists have the right to cast whom they choose, I will absolutely agree, but doing so in a way that is patently discriminatory is not OK. It’s all the more puzzling since the notice, so far as it was disseminated by Daisey, doesn’t actually describe any characters (performers double, triple, quadruple and more in BBB) – and the show has clearly hired artists of color in the past. But BBB pulled the casting notice within a day and issued their own apology.
The Wells Fargo and BBB apologies are worth looking at closely, because there’s a distinction between them. The bank’s mea culpa read, “Wells Fargo is deeply committed to the arts, and we offer our sincere apology for the initial ads promoting our September 17 Teen Financial Education Day. They were intended to celebrate all the aspirations of young people and fell short of that goal. We are making changes to the campaign’s creative that better reflect our company’s core value of embracing diversity and inclusion, and our support of the arts. Last year, Wells Fargo’s support of the arts, culture and education totaled $93 million.” Note the phrases “sincere apology” and “making changes to better reflect our company’s core value.”
Whether you think the ads should have ever gotten through in the first place, the statement is reasonably definitive. There’s no waffling. I know I won’t be alone in watching for new materials, although there are currently flyers with the old language in Wells Fargo outlets around Manhattan and presumably the country. Will they all be recycled today and new ones rushed to offices around the country? After all, Teen Day is less than two weeks away.
The apology from BBB is rather less absolute. “We apologize to anyone who may have been offended,” it reads, “by the audition notice that was posted on our website. Beach Blanket Babylon was founded on the principle of poking fun but never offending anyone and we hold these principles true today. We have removed the audition notice from our site and promise to be more sensitive in the future.” This statement deploys the worst kind of “non-apology apology,” in that it is only sorry that some people were offended. It doesn’t actually take ownership for what it did, and places responsibility on those who were upset. Are they sorry for what they wrote, for the sentiments expressed, or only sorry that it bothered some people?
Even though BBB says they’ll try to be “more sensitive,” all they’re really saying is that they won’t be so boneheaded in the future. That this took place in a city that has been at the forefront of diversity is particularly startling. Just because BBB pulled the notice quickly over a holiday, and because it wasn’t quite the national cause celebre that Wells Fargo’s gaffe became, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to skate on this.
The “we’re sorry if you’re offended” construction is oft-floated, and I’ve had it thrown at me directly in my role at the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. When a prominent critic wrote about Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan in the recent Broadway revival, they repeatedly used the word “cripple,” which is deeply offensive to people with disabilities, throughout their review, and not simply when referring to the title of the play. When I conveyed the fact that the term was an affront to many, and that even the character in the play objects to it, I was told that since the play used the word, so could the critic. “I’m sorry if any of your group was offended,” was the response, as if I was representing some fringe opinion, ignoring the millions of people with disabilities in the country who might see things my way.
The BBB notice has a corollary in a recent casting notice from City Center’s “Encores!,” for its upcoming “concert version” of The Golden Apple. While the construct of Encores! shows being concerts, as opposed to relatively simple, quickly rehearsed productions, is largely in the past, one might think that it still affords the opportunity to cast with less concern for appearances than the average full production. But when “Encores” posted a casting notice that repeatedly emphasized they were “not looking for heavy character actresses,” they were called out quickly thanks to actor Kirsten Wyatt (saying “Pretty sure #Encore is saying no fat checks. Fat men – feel free to audition”). Again, an apology, with the offending phrases removed, but it was impossible not to be aware of the bias at play.
The Wells Fargo, AT&T and Old Navy disrespect isn’t exactly new, and while some claim it may be inadvertent, it belies an attitude towards the arts that says they’re dispensible, or easily treated as the butt of jokes. It’s fair to acknowledge that ads are intended first and foremost to sell a product, not to be arts advocacy. But let’s remember that Misty Copeland’s Under Armour spot was a sensation precisely because it championed an artist not as some silly nerd, but a paragon of skill. It’s a shame the Madison Avenue folks can’t get the message about valuing the arts more generally. It’s still too much about the cool kids making the arts nerds the butt of their jokes.
As for these casting notices that seem blithely unaware or uninterested in the offense they give, that’s even more shameful. We hear a great deal about the arts being a big tent and embracing talent first and foremost, yet casting notices seem to periodically reveal fundamentally exclusionary sentiments. Perhaps its better to hear about them than not, so they can be called out for what they are, but if the result is simply to cause producers, casting directors and the like to employ better language to mask their intent, the field isn’t exactly advancing, is it? If we expect others to portray our field with respect, admiration and value, we need to do better too.
Update, September 7, 7 am: Late yesterday afternoon (west coast time), Beach Blanket Babylon issued a second apology regarding their casting notice, more detailed and definitive than the first. It appears below.