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Diversity in Musical Theater!

sm04About a year ago I got drunk while live tweeting the Tonys and did a joke video with the catchphrase “Black Lives Matter but not in the theater!”

A few months ago, I was invited by musical theater writing team Michael Walker and Kyle Ewalt to be on a panel that would be discussing the lack of diversity or more urgently, the ever present whiteness of musical theater.

A little over a week ago, I awoke to a Facebook message from a black friend alerting me to the fact that I’d gotten a shout out and link to my website in a blog written by white actor and writer Brett Ryback about, among other things, the increasing lack of diversity in musical theater or more urgently, the ever present whiteness of musical theater. You can read it here:

http://brettryback.com/2015/08/03/race-and-the-new-generation-of-musical-theatre-writers/

My first reaction to Brett’s shout out was panic because I haven’t updated my website in over a year and I worried briefly that his linking to my site would drive people here and further expose the extent to which I am not exactly the world’s greatest musical theater business person. For me, the business of being a musical theater writer is an extremely taxing and soul sucking one. There’s so much about this business that seems to be about relentlessly promoting one’s “brand”, saying “ameezing,” and “theenk yo” a lot, and pretending that you are famous–all things I fail at miserably because I have to work a day job and am thus, less available to participate in the business part of this business which is one of the reasons I have to work a day job instead of more doggedly pursuing my art, blah, blah, shampoo, rinse, and repeat with sour grapes.

But it was also flattering to be shouted out by Brett in the context of so many salient points about an important set of issues that the musical theatre community is only very slowly waking up to–and in the same breath as Lin Manuel Miranda who, from what I understand, is changing the musical theater game like a true gangsta with “Hamilton” which I will likely never see because I’m the brokest nigga ever, I can’t with lotteries and that shit is EXPENSIVE AS FUUUUCK! WHY DO MUSICALS HAVE TO BE SO FUCKING EXPENSIVE?!?!? DON’T THEY ACTUALLY WANT PEOPLE TO SEE THEM?!?!? DO WE NEED TO ASK RUMPLESTILTSKIN TO SPIN STRAW INTO GOLD SO WE CAN GO TO THESE SHOWS?!?!?

But I digress.

I met Brett last January as a weeklong participant of the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at the Goodspeed Opera House where I had been invited to develop my piece “A Strange Loop.” Like Brett’s shout out on his website, I felt a 30/70 combination of flattery and panic. On one hand, it felt great to actually be selected to participate in this respected writer’s colony because of the quality of my writing. It gave me a small sense of professional legitimacy in an industry that can often feel so exclusive and cliquey when you’re trying to climb your way up. On the other hand, it felt unnerving to be walking into such a respected community to share an essentially autobiographical piece that is very explicitly about a black gay man who is in conflict with his own experience of himself–a piece that is explicitly from his own unique point of view–a piece that endeavors to force the hegemonic white gaze of the audience to lie dormant and see things as he sees things as a black, gay man. It was unnerving because like most things, I was going to be revealing some uncomfortable aspect of myself in front of a bunch of white people. The same white people who were and are, to my eyes, usually the exclusive recipients and administrators of these kinds of residencies, commissions, and musical theater awards, But gasp, those same white people were into it. And if my spidey sense was accurate, not in an even remotely racially patronizing way. They were legitimately into it. And on some level, I’m still unpacking that.

But here’s the thing: commercial theatre is a business like any other. Producers and theaters decide the appropriate ratio of art/entertainment to commerce in order get butts in the seats when investing their dollars in putting on shows they hope will be successful. Theatergoers then decide with their dollars where their butts will be sitting in theaters all over the country. As much as we might wish it were otherwise, at this point, the majority of those butts are white. And how open are those white butts to spending two and a half hours with characters, songs, and stories that have little to nothing to do with them? How open are those white butts to spending two and a half hours having to empathize with that which is unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable to them? How open are those white butts? It’s hard to say because those white butts are so rarely asked to do any heavy lifting in that regard. Those white butts are so catered to, powdered, diapered, and put to bed with the theatre that is presented to them for mass consumption. There is a strong and consistent supply and demand for whiteness on stage. I repeat: commercial theatre is a business like any other.

I recognize that every play is not going to be to my taste. As a consumer of media–theatre in particular, my only requirement is that whatever is happening on the stage make me think and/or feel. The great gift of theater is that it allows you the space and time to test your empathy. As a person of color, I am asked to extend my empathy to white people of all stripes in every piece of media I consume every day of my life. I can’t tell you what it is like to repeatedly sit through movies like “Juno” with its spunky pregnant white teen heroine or plays like “The Way We Get By” by Neil LaBute with its awkward white step-brother and step-sister who comedically fall in love and have sex with each other in a plot that would have been laughed out of even my very white intro-to-playwriting colloquium at NYU where I once had the comic misfortune of having the whitest actors read the blackest playwriting scene ever in a Kenneth Lonergan master class again IN A ROOM FULL OF WHITE PEOPLE.

So strike that: yes, I actually can tell you what it’s like. It’s boring as shit. It’s boring because it’s usually the same recognizable or interchangeable white actors spouting the same brisk, hip or hipster white dialogue on the same white American Naturalism set, written by the same popular white American author in the same white artistically directed theater in front of the same white audience. Another way of saying this is that it’s boring because it’s usually pretty clear that these plays are consciously or subconsciously for and about white people which is another way of saying that most of the plays I have seen in New York City over the last 16 years I have lived here are dependent upon white supremacy. And I believe that white supremacy is super boring–artistically speaking at least. But white supremacy is also super profitable. Remember those butts I alluded to earlier?

But let me be clear: just because I think the white supremacy of the American theater is boring doesn’t mean that I don’t think there aren’t some great white writers out there whose work deserves all of the attention and support it can get. To this day I still lose sleep over a David Adjmi play that I saw a staged reading of in 2000 or 2001 called “Strange Attractors” as part of the Cherry Lane Mentor Project. While there were ZERO people of color in it, the depth of thinking and feeling in that play successfully tested my empathy. My response to that play was basically “this nigga knows what’s up!” Another person of color may have felt differently–I wouldn’t know of course, because I was the only person of color in that particular audience (more on that later).

Everything I feel about plays goes double for musicals because musicals are harder to write, harder to direct, and harder to produce as they are dependent upon even whiter butts demanding their money’s worth for their white supremacy as well as the whitest critics writing for the whitest critical establishments–critics whose credentials were very likely earned in the whitest academic and/or theatrical communities where anything non-white can only be evaluated in terms of the cold white gaze. That’s a lotta damn white supremacy, right?

In his blog post, Brett discussed his perception that today’s wide swath of young musical theater writers are writing shows that seem bogged down by white supremacy. He strongly encouraged these writers to be more inclusive in their work–to paint their fictive worlds with more color–to strive to make the theater look more like the world we actually live in. I applaud his passion but I feel of two minds about his call to action. On one hand, I encourage white writers to embrace the diversity of today’s world in their work because yes, it is ridiculous that audiences should be subjected to play after play or musical after musical telling stories that offer seemingly universal insights into the human condition and yet somehow exclude the existence or any aspect of the experience of people of color. But I’m also wary of the knee-jerk, inartistic liberalism that can sometimes manifest in well-intentioned theatre pieces that are slavishly inclusive of people of color but traffic in emotional and/or intellectual dishonesty with their characters and stories.

Writing for theatre is fucking hard. It requires single-mindedness, perspective, craft, and determination. When you add music to the mix, it gets even more complicated because of the pluralistic ways music can function in storytelling. And when you add people of color to that, talk about intersectionality!

Brett also mentioned the dearth of musical theatre writers of color in places like www.newmusicaltheatre.com, a site that is “dedicated to the distribution and promotion of a new generation of musical theater writers.” On that we agree. There needs to be more of a consistent spotlight shone on musical theater writers of color–particularly black women in my view. While we have heard the belting and “screlting” of countless black women on the stage, we have not heard from black women musical theater writers (or black women musical theater directors or hello–black women musical theater producers!) nearly enough. Kirsten Childs is one name. Sukari Jones is another. There must be others. Repeat after me: we need to hear from more black women writers!

But whether you are a white musical theater writer or a musical theater writer of color, I would advocate for something that is maybe a little less politically correct but definitely on the side of art in terms of what makes it onto the stage:

JUST TELL THE FUCKING TRUTH.

That’s the only edict I would issue at this point. If your cast is all white, is that the fucking truth? It may be! But you need to ask yourself the question each and every time and not only when you’re casting it but also as you’re writing it. Race is a construct, so in that regard, it is arbitrary, but racism is a practice–and one that is often subconscious or defacto. And it’s a practice that affects all people of color everywhere. It’s a practice that affects white people as well and I would argue (with help from Toni Morrison) that it may even affect them worse.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6S7zGgL6Suw]

All of this is to say that unless your play or musical is set on Mars (and even then …), your story is absolutely going to be in inhabited by characters who have lived in a world where racism and white supremacy have impacted them in some way. Even if it’s not the subject of the play, it should be as much a given circumstance as the weather, or what happened yesterday in the world of the characters or the dramatic question of what makes today different, i.e., the breaking of the ritual that starts every story ever told. So I would challenge any musical theater writer to factor the given circumstance of racism and white supremacy into at least their thinking about their shows just as much as their BMI charm songs or their “bro characters” or their JRB inspired ostinatos. Doing that work is not easy. It will force you to move out of your comfort zone as a writer but it’s worth it if you are truly interested in creating complex, dramatic pieces of art and entertainment. In that same vein, I would encourage creative teams to tell the fucking truth by thinking more deeply about who we will be seeing on the stage in terms of casting. Are you making an offer to the same waifish blonde white actress you saw in a Juilliard showcase years ago to cast as “an ingenue” in a musical about falling in love in New York? What would happen if you cast the darkest, thickest black actress you could find? Are the consequences really so dire for the storytelling? Do you even think (or know) about colorism? Can you move beyond the outdated notion of “types”? Do you have to go to the surly Adam Driver clone who is just perfect for that gritty Adam Rapp play? What would happen if you broadened the scope of your theatrical nepotism? So much of theatre seems to have to do with who is friends with whom or who is sleeping with or has slept with or is friends with someone who has slept with someone who has money and/or access. If that has to be the case, then sleep with somebody black, brown, Latino, Asian and also broke as hell if that’s what it takes for your paradigm to shift.

Because white supremacy is the order of the day in commercial theatre, I always do a count at every play or musical I see. I stand up before the show is starting and I count the people of color. It’s usually less than 5 and that’s truly depressing. But I think we are primed to change that. And so to producers, artistic directors, and development associates, I would encourage you to tell the fucking truth by looking beyond the white women of a certain age and economic background for your subscriber base. A few seasons ago, I went to Playwrights Horizons to see Robert O’Hara’s play “Bootycandy,” which to this day, is the only time I have ever felt truly seen as a black, gay man on stage. When I walked into the theater with the white person who got me a comp, I saw more black people in Playwrights Horizons than I had ever seen in any New York theater in my entire life. The person I was with said “we’ve never seen this many black people in our theater ever.” Misquoting “Field of Dreams” I said, “if you build it we will come.” And so it is. People of color are hungry for media that acknowledges and/or explores our existence. And we are increasingly going to be the audience you are left with after the blue haired old white ladies of Manhattan (and Manhattan Theater Club) die. So why not start cultivating us now and in perpetuity?

I am in the unique and blessed position of being both a creator and consumer of theatre. In everything I write, I want audience members to think and feel deeply regardless of the color of their skin or their station in life. I want them to empathize even if I am presenting a world that is wholly unfamiliar to them. In everything I see, I expect the same. For that reason, I believe that white creators and producers of theatre have got to get their arms around the fact that snobby, eye-rolling black gay intersectional bastards like me (and others) will be sitting in their audiences in larger and larger numbers with both open hearts and high standards and expectations.

 

fear itself

In blog,personal by MikeJack / January 28, 2014 / 0 Comments

Maybe I will come across as one of those charlatan motivational speakers but basically I’ve decided that you shouldn’t even fear fear itself. Just let it wash over you and swim through it. When you worry about the future, you don’t live in the present. My new thing for 2014 is not worrying about the outcome because the outcome will be the outcome regardless of my attempt to control it. Yes, I have crazy credit card and student loan debt. Yes, my government is spying on me. Yes, commercial musical theater is the most foolish path to run down trying to make money (especially if you’re actually trying to push the form with your content or vice versa) but if I thought too hard about that, I’d be paralyzed. And that just doesn’t work for me anymore. So my new thing for 2014 is to just do it and move on. It’s fine if you don’t agree. 

Let it Go by The Bangles

One thing or another
Your head is filled with questions
sights and sounds
Distractions always gets you down
Turn around
Trying to remember
Where you were the day before
North and south and east and west
Where to go
When it’s over, when it’s done
Let it go
Frightened by the numbers
All the possibilities
Changing minds you hope to find
one more dream to remind you
What is lost can always be regained
When it’s over, when it’s done
Let it go

 

33 Thoughts: A Birthday Meditation

In blog,personal,Uncategorized by MikeJack / January 27, 2014 / 0 Comments

Yesterday was my 33rd birthday and I’m really into it.

The biggest reason for that is because in the past couple of months, I’ve turned a corner and gotten to a place where I can really acknowledge and appreciate the things I do well without equivocation. And I’m learning how to acknowledge and appreciate the things I do well without getting too attached to the idea of a self. And that balance feels really important. So happy birthday to me!

And since one of the things I do really well is run my mouth, I’m kicking off my Jesus year minus a crucifixion and cutting straight to the ascension with 33 thoughts that represent where I am today.

1. Justin Bieber is such bullshit. When I think about the hotness of the spotlights we shine on that imitation crab, I could just fly into a Hulk rage.

2.  We throw around “ist”, “ism”, and “phobia” so much that they have been rendered virtually meaningless. The comfort we feel from our ability to identify and call others out allows us to ignore the pain of just how little we actually do to fight racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

3. I am a musical theater writer you should know. More on this in days to come.

4. I adore Kenya Moore even when she’s completely out of order.

5. It doesn’t matter how crazy someone is acting on the train; they always know which stop is theirs.

6. Black gay men need to step it up. Step one: stop reading and start writing.  #yaaaaassssssss

7. I smoked weed for the first time Friday night. And … it’s not for me.

8. By smoking weed for the first time, I believe crossed the divide of being the good little black boy that I always imagined my mother and father raised and I am still grappling with how fragile identity actually is.

9. I have finally accepted that my penis is the size that it is. That’s huge. My acceptance, not my penis.

10. I do not live for the applause plause as much as the royalty checks checks. Time to get a move on, I guess.

11. I have this new thing with my 8 year old niece where I try to make her “eat her vegetables”. She doesn’t like “New Attitude” but she does like “I Will Always Love You.” So we’re getting there.

12. I recently had a realization that because our lives are finite; bound by two points, there are times when you can feel change happening at a rapid and sometimes frightening pace. I am in the midst of one of those reality storms trying to keep balance on my surfboard with as much grace as I can muster.

13. I may never vote again.

14. The second wave feminist in me is at war with the dick sucking black gay man. But there may be peace talks soon.

15. So far I don’t have a problem with the show “Looking” but watching it does reinforce the fact that I have to write myself into existence. No one else is going to do it, which is pretty damn exciting.

16. As of this posting, Zsa Zsa Gabor is still hanging on. Let that be a lesson to all of us.

17. When I was growing up and I would casually refer to someone as a friend, in an almost accusing tone, my mother would ask “what’s a friend?” I used to think she was just being ridiculous and mean. Now I wonder.

18. Single camera documentary style sitcoms are what’s wrong with America.

19. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is not a feminist. It’s cool that she’s not but she’s really not. And if she tells you that she is, tell her that you’re pretty sure she really means that she is a CAPITALIST.

20. Molly Hager, Molly Hager, Molly Hager: muse.

21. I’ve lost almost 70 pounds this year and I’m still too fat for anonymous sex with most of the men on Grindr and Scruff. That rather puts it all in perspective I’d say. Equality does not extend to the bedroom.

22. I’m not mad about it though.

23. I still hold that Joni Mitchell is the mother, Liz Phair is the daughter, and Tori Amos is the holy spirit.

24. But where does that leave Stevie Nicks and Suzanne Vega? I may need to come up a different kind of ranking system.

25.  I’ve always wanted to start a club called FOR BLACK GAY MEN WHO FEEL WEIRD ABOUT THEMSELVES AND NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT OVER RED WINE (FBGMWFWATANTTAIORW). Not only am I the president, I’m also a member.

26. Because I have other things to say than #yaaaaassssssss

27. I still lie to my parents about my writing. I’m still afraid they wouldn’t understand.

28. Even though I recognize it as self-defense mechanism, I still look at it as a personal failing.

29. I finally bought a pair of those sexy brightly colored briefs that white gay boy model types wear and it wasn’t nearly as humiliating as I thought it would be.

30. I am not Trayvon.

31. Even though Golden Girls was far superior, I’m Team Designing Women all the way.

32. When the night has come / and the land is dark / and the moon / is the only light we see / no I won’t be afraid / oh I won’t be afraid / just as long / as you stand / stand by me

33. There’s a lot more where this came from. Stay tuned.

A Strange Loop

sm03This morning I woke up to starting writing. As is my habit, I first checked my email. There were two new emails; both from a singer/performer I admire and have been friendly with and worked with once in the past under a rather difficult set of circumstances. The subject line of the first one read “favor.” The subject line of the second read “re: favor.” I thought, “oh, how nice! I haven’t seen [redacted] for like 2 years and now [pronoun redacted] is reaching out to me for something!” Well, actually that was my second thought. My first thought was “I haven’t heard from [redacted] in such a long time so this is probably one of those ‘I’m-in-a-foreign-country-and-need-money” spam scams. Either way, I clicked on it and read this:

Can you please take my name off [song title redacted] video?

I bristled. This is not the first time this has happened.

2 years ago, I put on a concert at the Beechman Theater called Good Clean Music: A Michael R. Jackson Song Thing. It was an evening I put up in response to a certain amount of backlash I encountered as I prepared for a concert I put up 3 years ago at Joe’s Pub called So Fucking Gay: Another Michael R. Jackson Song Thing. In the program for Good Clean Music I explained in a note entitled Why Good Clean Music?:

In terms of why “Good Clean Music” specifically, one would need to understand the number of times I’ve been told that a.) I use so/too much profanity, b.) I write about sex so/too much, c.) my lyrics have no emotional core, or to a lesser extent that d.) I write too much pointedly gay themed material. To that last point, I will say that about a year ago, I presented “So Fucking Gay: A Michael R. Jackson Song Thing” on National Coming Out Day at Joe’s Pub and it was the toughest concert I have ever together. Not because of the administrative difficulty, which I have come to expect, but because it was the first time I encountered actors telling me that their agents didn’t want them to sing my material. Or that even though they had happily sung for me before, their agents wanted me to take their names off a youtube clip of them singing a particular song so they could reposition their brand or that they would sing one “gay” song but not another. And I get it. The ensemble of a non-Equity regional tour of Hairspray is calling. Ooh, burn.

Part of the context for that is that while I was preparing for So Fucking Gay, among the many calamitous things that happened, another singer who I had worked with on Dirty Laundry, my first public New York City concert at Ars Nova in 2008, called me out of the blue, and again, when this happened—and to be fair, this singer couldn’t have known—I was in an extremely emotional fragile state and seeing [possessive pronoun redacted] on the caller ID of my then flip phone filled me with boundles delight. We hadn’t spoken in a number of years and I thought that it was the universe’s way of letting me know that the adversity I was facing with So Fucking Gay was not for naught. Imagine my surprise when it was the singer asking me to please take down a youtube video of a song [pronoun redacted] had sung for me 4 (FOUR) years prior because [possessive pronoun redacted] agents were trying to re-brand [possessive pronoun redacted] for I dunno, superstardom—who the fuck knows? I was devastated and angry but I sweetly agreed over the phone and made the video private and then promptly unfriended this person on Facebook. Up until then, I had operated from the position that I needed to give everyone the benefit of the doubt—that I needed to stand aside and not take these kinds of things so personally because well, you know, it is commercial theater and who am I to ruin the careers of these burgeoning superstars with my confrontational material? But I decided in 2010 to take a stand. I vowed from there forward that I was drawing a line in the sand with performers who do my work. I decided: “I’m gonna be a pimp walkin’ musical theater asshole too!” You cannot have it both ways with me. Either you’re cool with my work or you’re not. And in the end, it’s like Emily Dickinson wrote:

“I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too?”

I opened the second email:

In fact, I would rather you take it down and repost without my name in the credits. I respect your work and I was happy to participate in the performance but don’t want my name attached to this video online. BTW not singling you out– I make the same request whenever someone posts vids of me doing their work without my permission

Okay, fair. I didn’t ask for permission when I put up this video three years ago. And I haven’t been in the regular practice of doing so because all of the singers I have worked with have been friends who have been happy to be associated with my music. So I guess at this point, I know in a very real way, that that isn’t as universally true as I’d like it to be and I will make it a point to start asking more regularly.

In some ways this specific person asking me to take down the youtube video is random but not totally surprising—[pronoun redacted] had initially balked at [possessive pronoun redacted] name being in any press materials for So Fucking Gay because being associated with something so flagrant and uncompromisingly homosexual might ruin mainstream performance opportunities this performer, (who is, in fact publicly homosexual or more publicly homosexual than not from where I sit) might have in the future. That email came less than 24 hours before the phone call from my other redacted friend. But it worked out. The singer changed [possessive pronoun redacted] mind and agreed to be in the show with [possessive pronoun redacted] name in press materials. The performance happened and the youtube video went up.

I’m currently working on a musical theater piece entitled A Strange Loop. A Strange Loop is about a black gay man who trusts people so little that he’s created an inner world of disappointment that ultimately he controls. He has only himself as a reference for the pain and suffering of life and love and beyond. Like a cactus, he retreats inward for his emotional sustenance. He does not reach out his hand to you assholes for validation. He already knows you won’t give it and even if you do, you’ll just take it back somehow and knowing that fills him with a strange sense of power.

The other night I was with my White Woman and we stumbled back across this aspect of myself. With tears welling in my eyes, I told her about how I rarely acknowledge that I need nurturing beyond myself.

I am tough and I am resilient but I need nurturing beyond myself. I am not a cactus.

Welcome to thelivingmichaeljackson.com take two

In personal by MikeJack / October 29, 2012 / 0 Comments

Somehow I knew this was going to happen.

About 2 months ago I left Facebook because I started to consider it one of the many ruts I’d fallen into in the last 31 years 6 months for a number of reasons, some of which were artistic, some of which were personal (as if there’s any difference!). I got it into my head that if I left the site, my internal paradigm would shift and I would suddenly become more prolific and creative than ever, generating musical after musical, song after song, blog post after blog post, and thus shift into the true adult phase of my life where I was making the bold artistic contributions I was born to make.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. Nature abhors a vacuum. Without the microphone and instant audience response of Facebook, I didn’t so much write musical after musical (or update this site) as much as I watched hours and hours of barebacking porn, which of course I had already been doing along while religiously updating my Facebook status over and over again. Le sigh.

I had an epiphany recently that while I can now identify where I stand artistically, I have only become less clear about what kind of career is available to me. I love music and I love theater but the industry just depresses the fuck out of me. Given the kind of art I want to make, it often seems futile to try to storm the gates due to how well guarded they are by those who endlessly, endlessly champion and/or produce musicals that may stir all of two emotions in you, (happy or sad) and rarely attempt to capture a single brain cell.

And it’s so funny because you could go to fandango.com and find such diversity in movies you might want to see that your head would spin clear off its shoulders. You could walk through the Met and see everything from Native American clay pots to Salvador Dali surrealist paintings and beyond. Meanwhile, google “heartfelt” + “new musical” and see what you find. For shits and giggles, add the word “fun” and see what that turns up.

And just to be clear, I take no exception with a musical being “heartfelt” (though what a broad and all encompassing word!) but I do find it puzzling the extent to which it seems to be essential to advertise it as such as if to do otherwise is to suggest to audiences that the shows they will be seeing are going to rape and murder them in the middle of the night.

I don’t know why I find this so infuriating depressing. Especially since I know that it’s all motivated by money.

But by hook or by crook, I’m back at it. The down side is that I’m sure to alienate scads of people with my art making (which includes this space as well so visitors to this site be forewarned: I do not censor and I do not mince words).  The up side is that I will excite at least one person with the boundaries and envelopes I plan to push musically, lyrically, and artistically overall: myself.

Oh, and for good or for ill, one of the places I push envelopes the best is Facebook, to which I have gleefully and crackheadedly returned today. Find me if you dare.