Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Modest Proposal

More often than not, this blog has focussed on my own activities as an artist, only on occasion discussing larger issues or participating in a larger conversation. This is one of those occasions.

There has been an on-going conversation in the theatrical blogosphere about diversity in theatre. I don't intend to do a full survey, but I'll list off a few items of interest:

There was, of course, Emily Glassberg Sands' "Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater" which while identifying a real problem also had some real flaws that Thomas Garvey suggests were introduced when others tried to co-opted her work to fit their professional and ideological agenda.

Somewhat facetiously, Isaac Butler suggests suing theatres that don't diversify. Of course, Butler's suggestion is so absurdly impractical that it comes across more as an Ayn Randian nightmare caricature of political correctness than anything a serious liberal or progressive would contribute to the discussion, but I link to it because Butler is supposed to be an important theatre-blogger, and I'm apparently banned from posting to his comments section for reasons that are unclear to me (I'm sure it's all a misunderstanding.)

The pseudonymous 99seats has addressed the issue of diversity frequently, noting the class issue of access to theatre programs, notably the MFA, if one happens to be a playwright, as well as the institutionalized racism that prevents minorities from having similar opportunities. Of course, the troublesome statistic from the Theatre Development Fund's report Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of thew New American Play that "seven schools account for almost nine out of ten of the study playwrights with advanced professional training" only raises more questions about the role the academic gatekeepers are having on our culture-- especially when we ask how many of our great living American playwrights actually attended one of these programs? (This is particularly disturbing considering the charges leveled earlier this fall at The O'Neill Theatre regarding their "open" submission policies.)

Now this gets to an important point, brought up by Garvey in his "Meanwhile, over on the theatrical version of Second Life..." that:

To me, of course, art is more important than politics, so what Butler calls "the quality problem" (!) matters a lot, as I think it should to any critic worth his or her salt. And let me say up front that if Butler and Walters had any particular playwright they were promoting, of any gender of race or ethnicity, whose work they claimed had been disadvantaged by the system, I would happily see that writer's work, and be an advocate for them if the quality was there. (As for the insulting idea that people in each ethnic group cannot perceive the excellence of works from other ethnic groups - please, tell it to Alvin Ailey.)

But the diversity partisans never seem to be able to point to any actual work that they feel is being ignored. Add to that issue the troubling fact that the "quality problem" we have is often due to playwrights promoted by the academic-diversity crowd, and you have a situation that - well, does not actually inspire critical confidence.
Essentially, as I often heard growing up in a left-wing household: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" or as I wrote in the comments section:
Critics should champion the work of artists that they regard as underappreciated or even deliberately seek out new work? I'm not sure the academy would approve of such a radical notion, Thom.
Garvey flattered me as "you mischievous Ian Thal" which, of course, only incites me to greater mischief.

The successful playwright pool is artificially limited largely to those graduates of elite MFA playwriting programs, who reflect certain class interests and address "diversity issues" primarily in academically fashionable ways. Indeed, if I am granted the opportunity to propose a hypothesis (which I freely admit is but a hunch): the current manner in which "diversity" is treated by the "diversity advocates" (and please note, I am speaking only about plays and playwrights) might actually be creating obstacles that prevent playwrights of diverse backgrounds from emerging.

Despite his frequent self-deprecation, my friend, Chris Rich, who writes about jazz on his blog, Brilliant Corners, has developed something of a reputation for discovering artists and being the first to write about them. Part of that comes from his hanging about Outpost 186, where so many great and oft ignored jazz musicians play. However he has another method as well: He surfs for musicians on MySpace Music where musicians without labels and without buzz post their music. He then uses his own knowledge of the music to sort out the good from the bad. It's that simple. He doesn't wait for a major label to tell him that this musician is important.

So now for my mischief: I challenge you critics, producers, and artistic directors who should be advocating for great theatre. Find an underappreciated, underproduced, perhaps unknown playwright who should be appreciated, produced and known. Better yet: find six, eight, ten, and advocate for them. You need only go to bushgreen.org, a social media platform supported by London's Bush Theatre, where hundreds, if not thousands, of playwrights have already posted their plays, irrespective of whether or not they have the MFA. I'm already there. If you see it as your mission to serve a specific community or constellation of communities, most of the playwrights have already tagged their plays with labels to help you narrow down your search. I'm sure you will find something worthy of your advocacy.

On the other hand, maybe that amounts to usurption of the academic gatekeepers, and we can't have that, can we?

[N.B.12/26/2009: I seem to have overestimated the number of playwrights and plays currently posted to bushgreen.org-- perhaps because I had to search around for that information. There appear to be ~120 playwrights and around 400+ plays.]

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