For so long I’ve wanted the Theatre Industry machine to behave a certain way and suddenly I realized I want to take that machine apart and build a new one instead.
It’s been brewing in the back of my mind for awhile, but it really came to a head last week in a Facebook discussion about Charles Isherwood’s condescending language when writing about plays by people of color. Isherwood has enormous power to make or break the success of a play and/or playwright, and he’s not the only one using that kind of language, but he has extraordinary power because of his position with the New York Times.
But I think the problem isn’t just Isherwood personally, since we could fire him into the sun and there’d be another one right behind him to take his place. We should start thinking in terms of dismantling the power we accrue to that position rather than just calling out the person in it, and while we’re at it, let’s also start thinking in terms of dismantling the way we conflate “important” with “in New York” or “well-funded.” This last idea, which I’ve fielded a few times, has been met with a ton of resistance. And I’m not surprised– it really is a big, frightening dream to imagine that we can successfully disrupt the class-based divides in the theatre community that make New York theatre seem so much more important than theatre elsewhere (which accrues an inordinate and wholly undeserved amount of power to the tiny handful of individuals who review theatre for the New York Times) and that make well-funded theatre seem more important than everything else. But I feel like the time has come for us to try. This may not be my work to finish, but it sure as hell is mine to begin.
I think we have two challenges to face. The first is the mythology of the importance of New York, a class-based mythology that places New York above everywhere else. A large amount of wealthy and influential people have enormous personal stakes in the perpetuation of the myth that New York is the pinnacle of theatrical achievement and success, and there are even more people who have pinned all their aspirational hopes (and childhood dreams) on that as well. But as in any discussion of privilege, it’s painful for the privileged minority to allow those without privilege to rise to equality, and it’s perhaps even more painful for those who are in the middle of struggling to achieve that privilege, or who believe that privilege is potentially achieveable for them. We accord New York theatre an enormous amount of privilege that we’re denying theatre elsewhere for no reason other than that we DO, and that there are people who believe that myth with all their hearts, have sacrificed for it or profited from it, and therefore are loathe to give it up.
There’s no question that New York has a LOT of well-funded theatre that employs more theatremakers than any other single location in the country. But we accrue an inordinate amount of prestige to a show in New York for no other reason than that it’s New York, the historical heart of theatre in the US. Our language reflects that: There’s “New York” theatre and there’s “Regional” theatre– everywhere else. This is an incredibly outdated point of view. Why, in 2014, are we still perpetuating the mythology that a show in New York with a (for example) $100K budget has somehow achieved something that a show in (also for example) Minneapolis with a $100K budget has not? It massively undervalues the theatre happening all over the country. A show that starts in Chicago and then transfers to Off-Off Broadway is held up as having achieved something significant.
The second is the mythology of importance = money. The importance we accord theatres and productions is directly related to the size of the budget. This class divide impacts every single thing we’re trying to achieve, because it doesn’t just marginalize theatre below a certain level, it renders it completely invisible. When we’re discussing problems or strategizing solutions in the theatre community, we’re almost always discussing LORT and/or Broadway and/or companies with an annual budget over a certain amount. The eligibility requirements to become a TCG member theatre (a first step in “counting” as a nonprofit theatre) are primarily FINANCIAL. Out of eight eligibility requirements, just three are related to the actual theatremaking (“commitment to the rehearsal process,” “minimum of one year’s prior existence,” and “community vitality,” which, to be fair, mentions funding sources, but allows for other evidence like “awards” and “media coverage.”) There’s no such thing as a study of diversity in “theatre,” or gender parity in “theatre.” We have studies of those things in wealthy theatres, but not in “theatre” as a whole. When we talk about diversity in theatre, what we’re almost always really talking about is a glass ceiling that prevents a more diverse distribution of money and resources, not actual diversity across all types of theatre.
It’s foolish to pretend that money doesn’t matter at all. Of course it does, and the conversations around who gets hired and which playwrights get the higher-paid commissions or production slots and WTF glass ceiling are valuable ones to have, but we need to stop pretending that this is a conversation about whose voice is “important.” It’s a conversation about unfair income, resources, and jobs distribution. But by refusing to call it that, and instead talking about which voices are “important,” we’re reinforcing the cultural idea that the only marker of importance is money.
When The Kilroys list came out (full disclosure: I contributed to it and I would again in a heartbeat), I saw a number of playwrights flipping out for not being included. I saw people saying they were, and I quote, “pissed” for not being chosen. The Kilroys had asked contributors to name the five best plays they’d read that year that fit the criteria (written by a self-identified woman, no more than one full production). The final list included a number of luminaries along with rising stars. Artistic Directors of smaller companies started posting on social media immediately about how they’d do readings of every play on the list, or how they were going to stage this or that play. And I had to just take a deep breath, because they would all eventually find out: Most of the 46 “winning” plays, if not ALL 46, would be denied to them. I had already asked for the production rights to two plays on the list and been shut down. And that’s FINE. The list isn’t about getting those plays produced AT ALL. It was about going Hulk Smash on the glass ceiling. I think the list’s rollout suffered for its lack of clarity on that issue– this list wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, and it wasn’t meant for the likes of me. It was for big money theatres, in direct response to Ryan Rilette’s comment that there were not enough plays by women “in the pipeline.” The Kilroys built a new pipeline of LORT-ready and Broadway-ready plays as determined by a ton of existing gatekeepers, and shoved it right in everyone’s face, an act of bravery and enormously successful activism. But it was about the distribution of money and resources, not about getting women’s work done at all. I’m willing to bet most of the 46 would have had more productions, and therefore been ineligible, if the rights had been released to the small companies who had asked. I’m not critiquing that decision in the least, and I think activism that works to dismantle the glass ceiling and create equity in the distribution of money, jobs, and resources is incredibly important. But we need to stop reinforcing the idea that money and/or location are the only kind of “important.” It’s time to build a new machine.
I’m a big fan of Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco, the only Filipino American theatre company in the nation. I’ve been to a number of their shows, and a few days ago I went to see The Guerrillas of Powell Street. Guerrillas is a play about the Filipino WW2 vets who were promised military benefits by the US and later denied. They were made to wait 70 years for any kind of compensation, and to this day some are still being denied due to poor recordkeeping during the war. The play is also a beautiful, at times heartbreaking, examination of the meaning, strength, and limits of friendship and family, as well as a celebration of Filipino culture. Guerrillas was fantastic in every way. Every show I’ve ever seen there has been packed to the rafters with eager audience members, with more on the waiting list, almost all Filipino Americans, almost all under 40– an audience we’re told repeatedly does not exist. Bindlestiff is a small theatre you’ve probably never heard of. It’s all volunteer-run, non-AEA, with tiny production budgets. This play, this theatre, this audience will never make it into a national study about “diversity in theatre.” Their productions, audience, playwrights, existence are not considered important enough to include because of the size of their budget. Their work, like the work of indie theatres all over the country, is invisible. But those audiences are having an intense, emotional, moving, unique, life-changing theatre experience. It’s not in New York, nor is it a 20 million dollar a year LORT, but the audiences and the work at Bindlestiff, and at indie theatres everywhere, are every bit as an important. The tiny, very elderly woman sitting next to us at Bindlestiff Friday night, who sang along to every song, laughed at every joke, and made comments in both English and Tagalog, completely enraptured by the show, is somehow in a less important or culturally valuable experience than a wealthy white woman who saw a Broadway show the same night unless we refuse to continue validating that point of view and conflating “importance” with money and location.
When we talk about what work is “important” in theatre, invariably we’re talking about a category that has a pricey entrance fee. You don’t get on the board unless you have the right budget and/or the right location. We ignore this class division each and every time we talk about problems in “theatre.” The majority of companies are waiting at the rope line outside while the well-heeled are inside talking about themselves. And again, I think it’s VERY valuable to discuss who gets in that door, and why we’re not seeing more women, people of color, people with disabilities, and trans* people let through the rope line. But we’re ALL, even those of us in the rope line, always in the process of either ignoring the rope line or talking about it as a lesser state a being– a place you come from, not a place worth belonging to.
I’m tired of trying to convince the bouncer that he needs to let more of us, and more types of us, into that club. I want to tear down that building and build a new one that includes us ALL, a building that recognizes that money is important, but that importance isn’t money.
And yes, fuck yes, I want to see more diversity on big money stages, and I think a lot will change when that finally happens, when more diverse artists and arts administrators are able to quit those day jobs and just be artists and arts administrators. (Don’t even bother telling me that arts adminstrators don’t belong in that sentence until you’ve spent a decade running a small theatre on 50K or less a year, paying everyone but yourself.) But I want us to be clear about the terms of these discussions. When we’re talking about money, let’s talk about money, where it goes and why there’s not enough diversity there. But when we’re talking about diversity of plays, theatremakers, and audience, let’s talk about diversity as such and stop requiring outdated entrance fees to that discussion. Why isn’t Bindlestiff at that table? THEY’RE THE ONLY FILIPINO THEATRE IN THE COUNTRY. And it’s like they just don’t exist. There’s nonstop talk in the club about how “theatre” needs to diversify or die, while everyone inside pretends there aren’t hundreds of diverse theatres they stopped at the rope line.
I want to make sure we continue to talk about money, but I also want to dismantle the language and the thought processes that accord “importance” only to theatres with the right location and/or the right budget. The undeserved, massive power of someone like Charles Isherwood can’t be dismantled by disrupting his personal power– it can only be dismantled by disrupting the power of the position. And I think we all benefit from doing that. Not only do we have more honest discussions about both money and diversity, but we also start according importance to work that is ACTUALLY important rather than just well-funded, using better, more realistic and inclusive criteria. Money is a KIND of importance, but it can’t be the ONLY kind of importance, especially in the nonprofit world where the entire point of our 501c3 status is supposed to be rising above the concerns of commerce, using grants and donations to make up the ticket income shortfall because nonprofit theatres are supposed to be doing risky work that furthers the art rather than sells scads of tickets.
So examine your language. Examine why you think the way you do, and why you think this company or production is more important, or worthy of your attention, than that company or production. When you talk about money, or its gendered and/or privileged allocation, be honest, because it’s an important conversation to be had. When you talk about diversity, stop shutting people out because of location or budget. Recognize that, while money is important, importance cannot be money. Otherwise, who are we?