Monday, April 25, 2011

Playwright Wars 2011: This is the way things work when they are broken

The thing is, art doesn't exist in an empty, airless space. And merit is as merit does, but things - paintings, novels, plays, whatnot - become a part of our larger culture, not in a self-replicating, Tribble-like way, but through familiarity. Also, people are freaking lazy and the same stuff gets cited and produced and then people will have heard of whatever the artistic thingy is and then it will be seen and mentioned and Presto! it's a part of the culture.

Which brings me to what I've dubbed "The Playwright Wars of 2011".

In theater there is simply not enough pie for anybody. Playwrights can't make any money, the big not-for-profits have the producing style (by and large) of frightened, penny-pinching industrialists, and if you don't have an MFA from a fancy-pants school you're in big time trouble. And if you're not a boy: watch out! And if you're not white: oh no! and if you're not rich: Sorry, you don't have a chance! But even if you are all those things: Still - not enough pie.

For those who haven't been paying attention:

Julia Jordan's Introduction to Opening The Curtain of Playwright Gender (FYI - I was at the meeting at New Dramatists she mentions, along with nearly every woman playwright I know, or have ever heard of for that matter, barring the ones who are dead or not in NYC)

My blog posts on the Wendy Wasserstein Award debacle (and here is the complete text of Michael Lew's letter to the prize committee)

So. Yeah. It's broken. All of it. There's lots of lovely work, but nobody is making a living hardly. There's not enough pie. Lord knows, I have no answers: except this. People don't go to theater much because most of it is really boring and it's expensive. And when things are broken people respond with conservatism rather than bravery. The first casualty are the new, the untried and the un-obvious. One of the great addictions of modern times is the listening to of people one agrees with. Olberman, Maddow, Beck, O'Reilly, all of them. There was a study published that demonstrated how people get a little endorphin rush when they listen to television talking heads say things with which they agree. It's fascinating, and I think people on all points of the political spectrum are addicted to the feeling. And I can't help but think that people of course want to feel that feeling all the time, that people have lost any sort of tolerance for unease (if they ever had it).

Easy choices are called that for a reason and the easiest choice of all is to pick work by white, straight guys, as they are, you know, neutral. I've so many times read or heard the phrase "voice of his generation" referring to some white guy, and by that they mean the voice of everyone. And then the phrase "voice of her generation of women" or "or voice of African-Americans today" or some such, as if women only speak to (and for) other women and African-Americans only speak to each other. That might not be what the person means, but there it is in the language, plain as can be. And hardly anyone ever means anything by it (except maybe Mat Smart. I think he meant every word), but the thing is, language is all we have. Culture is all we have. Otherwise, what separates us from chimps? So, of course it matters

I think in some ways if it was intentional, it would almost be easier. Because then one could just shun the jerks. But in this situation it's perfectly nice people who just don't think. Because, mostly, they don't have to. Because they ARE the default. It's not even a question of like being drawn to like. It's not a question of critics and artistic directors and writers championing their own. I think it's deeper than one's personal associations. It's cultural. That's why when women make lists they include plenty of men and often exclude women. White guys are considered the default, neutral. Everyone else is like an added flavor kind of. Like a topping. Like they are the only ones who get to just be playwrights. Everyone else is a "woman playwright" or a "gay playwright" or a "black playwright" or an "Asian playwright" or a "lesbian playwright" or what have you.

I'm not placated by "special" posts on Women in Theater or festivals of "Women Playwrights". It's not good enough. No more exceptionalism. No more of that bullshit.

But it's so hard, as I said, as there are so many permutations of all sorts. There's stuff like "talent". Merit plays a factor in getting pie, but the best pie, the Christmas pie with a gold sovereign in it, seems to be given to the same people again and again, and we all know that other people are better. And if we're talking about privilege, what people with it don't understand, is it's mainly the privilege of not having to worry about shit. So many times the issue of privilege can seem like an endlessly complicated game of rock-paper-scissors in which the rules are always changing. Like, I have boatloads of it being a white, thin, straight, conventionally attractive person.

Though everything has its flipside. Just talk to the person who was my boyfriend for most of my twenties. Being with me essentially changed his world-view forever, as he watched for years as people assumed, before meeting or speaking to me, that I was stupid, and behaved accordingly. I am many things, but one of my particular bits of privilege is that I'm smart as all get out. But still: people assumed I was stupid because of a certain physical presentation.

The other day, a downtown playwright, in a quickly written blog post, listed a bunch of playwrights he admires that have been published by the New York Theater Experience to introduce a podcast interview he did with Martin Denton. And they were all a bunch of white guys. Look. I know there wasn't any intent to slight. But I think it's a very useful example of what happens sometimes in a world with very little pie. As I've mentioned many times here before, Martin has done a really terrific job of featuring theater artists of all stripes in his yearly anthologies (even someone as prickly and unprolific as myself). We have so little, you know, all of us. So it seemed like such a shame, really, that the default system runs so deep. Something needs to break.

What would that list looked like if the editor of this particular series was a woman? Maybe the same? Possibly. We don't know. What if the editor of the theater section at Time Out was a woman? Or at the Times? Or at the Voice? See? The thing is we just don't know. Because none of them are, so we have no idea how the conversation would change, if at all, if that were the case. I'm not saying David Cote or Brian Parks are biased (I don't particularly think they are, though possibly the people who hired them are), I'm just vaguely curious to see if anything would be different if suddenly the percentages were flipped, everywhere, all at once, in terms of who was running things: editors, artistic directors, all of it. Wouldn't it be interesting, just to see?

What always gets to me, and what I spend a lot of time doing on this blog, is focusing on lots of writers and artists I find interesting. They're not all women, but lots of them are. Because their work just tends to interest me more. There's, again, not a great deal of intentionality there. But if the whole world was like me, men would be getting the short end of the stick, no doubt. That is exactly what the world is like for women. So many times it's pointed out "Look! I [wrote a feature on, produced, gave money to, curated] some woman [this one time!]", and I'm supposed to respond as if that person is Martin Luther King or something. Like they want even more pie for featuring some woman that one time. Yeah. I'm over it.

I realize I'm talking about too many things at once here, and none of them are easily solvable. Theater is a mess mostly because of the afore-mentioned pie issue. But c'mon. Really. Every mention in every publication ever in every blog post in every article adds to the sum total cultural currency of whoever is being mentioned. So everything matters. Just think, maybe about the aggregate factor of mentions in public places. It all just compounds and snowballs and just one tiny slight doesn't seem like a big deal, but when it's on and on and again and again it does, because it's not just this one small thing, it's a part of a much larger whole.