Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Look Harder.

Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, has written a very provocative blog entitled, What Is Wrong With The Arts? on The Huffington Post. In it, he asserts that there aren't as many great artists in the "classical arts" as there were when he was a young man in the 50's and 60's.

It is really good.

Despite having a problem with the separation of "classical" and "popular" arts, and not really gelling with some of his examples of "great" artists, I think he's dead on. The arts are run by people who are overly cautious, myopic, and obsessed with the past. I'm also glad to see somebody of his status say out loud that a new generation of artists should be given a chance. Obviously, I agree.

Here's the thing. I think he doesn't go far enough. I'm glad that people have been discussing the dearth of opportunity for women artists and artists of color. It's an important conversation to have. In doing so, however, we've managed to ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the room.


I can feel the collective eyes of some of my Youngblood brethren rolling. I know, I know... I bring it up a lot, but only because it warrants discussion. And, yes, I know people don't want to discuss it. It makes people uncomfortable to discuss privilege, especially when they benefit from it.

I'm going to use playwriting as an example, because this is the world I know. In fact, let's look at Youngblood. How many members of Youngblood come from a family with a total income of, say, less than six figures? I'm guessing not many. But not all privilege is directly about money. How many people in Youngblood hold an MFA? How many people in Youngblood attended an Ivy League school for undergrad or grad school? A lot. How many writers in Youngblood grew up in rural America? The inner city? Not many, right?

Here's the thing: Youngblood is pretty fucking inclusive for the theater world, and I don't mean to call it out. Its fucking awesome. That's why I use it as an example: except for that whole under thirty thing, it's doing better than most theater organizations. Look at some of the other groups and you'll see a much, much narrower pool of talent. So what you get is a whole lot of plays about privilege written by people from privilege. How did this happen?


These are the Artistic Directors and Literary Managers. These are the people who run writers' groups and fellowships and prizes etc. These people really, really hate talking about class because they usually came from privilege, but also because it makes their job easier if they can just give X opportunity to a recent MFA instead of schlepping to the fringe theaters.

The reason that Kaiser doesn't see any great artists is that he's looking at it from the top down. If he could see the situation from the bottom up it would be obvious to him. Admit it: we all see the writers that are winning these opportunities and it's always the same people from the same narrow pool of croney-ism and credential-ism. There are no great theater artists because the gatekeepers either aren't finding them, or worse (and I hope this isn't the case, I really do) aren't even looking for them.

The next great playwrights aren't necessarily in Yale's MFA program right now. Sure, they might be. But you know what else? They're just as likely to be self-producing a play at The Brick. Or at Dixon Place. Or not even in New York at all.

I know this is a bit of a rant, and I'm sorry. Let me clarify: this is not a rant against the Ivy league or MFAs. Nor is it a rant against people with money. It is also not meant as an opportunity for playwrights to discuss their own backgrounds in the comments section. That's not helpful. I know that this class problem runs across many industries, but I love the theater and I expect more from it than I do the banking industry. This is merely a shout out to the gatekeepers running institutions, awards, grants, writing groups etc.

Dear gatekeepers. If you think there are no great artists working today, then look in new directions. Discover new channels. LOOK. FUCKING. HARDER.

Rant over.


ckaiserca said...

Outstanding. Thank you.

Scott Walters said...

Perfect. Kudos.

travsd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lucia said...

bravo, bravissimo

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I needed that.

Anonymous said...


Monica Byrne said...

Thank you. So. Much.

For those of us playwrights who are (1) not in New York or (2) not in an MFA program, there are very good reasons we're not. To wit:

(1) Living in New York is financial suicide for an emerging artist. Or at least, it has been, for many; and would be, for me.

(2) An MFA program would require me to attend class, deconstruct that which I do instinctively, and stay in one place for years. None of which I'm interested in doing.

Look harder. I'm right here.

RVCBard said...

They're just as likely to be self-producing a play at The Brick. Or at Dixon Place. Or not even in New York at all.


Look harder. I'm right here.


So what you get is a whole lot of plays about privilege written by people from privilege. How did this happen?


I came up with a useful exercise for examining who is truly reflected in a particular organization. It was made as a power analysis for race dynamics, but it's very apt for class dynamics as well, particularly since race and class have always been closely intertwined here in the US.

Something useful I got out of attending the workshops with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond was the idea that everyone is a gatekeeper in some fashion - even other theatre artists themselves. While it's easy to point at artistic directors and literary managers and boards of directors, how often do we ignore the people who do the everyday work that keeps the institution going? The interns, the development assistants, the artists, technicians, etc. who are also part of the institution?

(Aside: You'd probably like the "Why are people poor?" section of the workshop. It really exposes the way we look at poverty as a condition versus the way we look at individuals who are poor.)

The classism of contemporary theatre is pretty ironic to me since I'm inclined to believe that it will be new models of making theatre rooted in poor and working-class values and experiences that will save theatre from the "crisis" it's in. Unfortunately, the people buying into the current institutional models are incapable of envisioning new ways of doing things - even if they themselves come from backgrounds that give them strategies and tactics for doing just that.

I can talk a lot about this, but I have to go somewhere now. It'd be great for you to post a follow-up. Thanks for the invigorating topic.

joshcon80 said...

Thanks, RVC. I was actually working on a paragraph about the cross sectionality between race and class, but then got scared I would find myself out of my depth or get off topic.

"The classism of contemporary theatre is pretty ironic to me since I'm inclined to believe that it will be new models of making theatre rooted in poor and working-class values and experiences that will save theatre from the "crisis" it's in."

You're dead right, sister. Dead right. Also, remember our little tiff a year or so ago? I can see where you were coming from now. Somebody on my facebook dropped the, "But you don't over any solutions" line and I immediately thought, "How is that my responsibility?"

So... um... yeah. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

For quite a long time the gatekeeper at Columbia was a gay Cuban immigrant.

And Yale has helped such privileged young men like Marcus Gardley and, uh, McCraney... Oh, nevermind.

We should all look a little harder. And past easy assumptions about how it works. And why it doesn't. And how "everything was better back when I was a kid."

joshcon80 said...

Last anonymous,

I see your point. But ALSO, there are all types of privilege, and what's most painful about this croney-ism/credential-ism in the theater is that a lot of the gatekeepers would never be in their positions had they come up in the system they now run.

Please, for the love of God, do not try and tell me that the Ivys aren't elitist. That's preposterous.

RVCBard said...


Thanks, RVC. I was actually working on a paragraph about the cross sectionality between race and class, but then got scared I would find myself out of my depth or get off topic.

I can understand that, but I think it's definitely worth a follow-up post. These types of discussions always seem to be pushed aside long before we arrive at some new strategies for solving the problem.

Jack Worthing said...

I went to an Ivy and I got in on the strength of my work. My family doesn't have money, I didn't have special friends, and I didn't sleep with anybody to do it. McCraney is from a background far worse than me. I had a colleague who lived in his car for awhile, another from one of the tiniest schools in the South, several who never went to college. By all means gatekeepers should look elsewhere, but I'm pretty sick of the intimation that I'm a lazy legacy baby. I've worked hard for what I've got.

joshcon80 said...

I'm glad you've been able to achieve, Jack, but for each case like yours there are hundreds of people who never had a chance. Not a snowball's chance in hell.

It is astounding to me how much people protect these institutions that don't need it. I guess I'm just making up all this income disparity and this shrinking middle class.

joshcon80 said...

Not to beat a dead horse, Jack, but this is also why I said it's not useful for people to share their own stories in this debate. It's because there are always exceptions of people who slipped through the cracks, but that doesn't mean that these institutions aren't class-ist, myopic and damaging to our art form.

Jack Worthing said...

I commend your original post for not engaging in the classism which comes so naturally to you, Josh, but it turned right back on in the comments. I actually agree with every single thing you say in the post itself, but I've had it up to my neck with people intimating that Yale (for example) is the smoky well-appointed room of the theatre. You didn't go that far originally; but then you did, so I have to say something. I don't know who you think hangs out up there, but myself and the colleagues you mentioned are not exceptions. Of course there are a number of pampered middle-class bores, but that's an issue of who's able to indulge in theatre practice long before they get there. It's not the institution's problem. I'm choking with debt, along with everyone else I know, and I have little prospect of repaying it. For good or ill that's a risk I chose to take. You're quite right about the laziness of certain gatekeepers, and you should be talking about theatre's availability to young people. Lack of it is what hurts the art form, not people who work hard. I can practically hear the sneer in your voice when you make such sweeping general statements, Josh. It's beneath you.

joshcon80 said...

You might be right, Jack. I do have certain feelings about the Ivy League which may or may not be fair. I went to a public school where, I swear to God- only one single person in its hundred year history has ever been admitted to an Ivy. I'm a socialist and an activist for the working class and I'm willing to admit that I may have gotten off track. I have tons and tons of friends (include at least half of Youngblood) who've attended Ivy League schools and however I might feel about the institutions themselves, I didn't mean to insult the people who attend them necessarily.

We know from Outrageous Fortune that all of the playwrights at the top of the field come from a small handful of MFA programs. The real problem is not the schools, necessarily, but the gatekeepers in theater who see Yale or wherever on a resume and let that person straight to the front of the line at the opportunity buffet ahead of somebody who may deserve it more.

This is specifically why I asked people not to share their personal stories in the blog comments. I knew it would distract. The nature and purpose of the Ivy League is a discussion for another post.

Aaron Andersen said...

Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Class, yes. Absolutely. But also age. Not every aspiring playwright over 40, 50, 60 is an out-of- touch geezer. Young playwrights compete with Mamet, Pinter, Shakespeare. Why not also with new unknowns whose work, if their age was not pressed to be an issue, would be indistinguishable in quality and relevance from someone pounding out new and fantastic work outside of class or academic distinctions?

Rebecca Nesvet said...

Many, many literary managers and ADs are classist and-or NYC-centered, I agree, but not all.

In the past, as a playwright, I've been told that I will not have a career if I don't live in New York, and I've been bored and baffled when two different MFA-written plays I encountered in the same semester showed their characters getting professional manicures and realizing that the manicurists are human beings.

However, I also know that we can all name New York theatres that look outside the box, city, and/or upper class for their plays. To name a few random personal faves, INTAR, Irish Rep (yes, they do original work), Radiotheatre, the Lark (with all its international development programs), Vital (where to go for great plays from Georgia) and Origin Theatre Company (disclosure: I'm their literary manager) which produces exclusively new plays by writers from overseas.

Origin's writers have ranged from well-established and not conventionally educated to MAs, MFAs, actor-writers, etc., and represent a wide variety socioeconomic experiences within their national cultures.

Lastly, regarding Kaiser's comment that "We in responsible arts positions must give" young artists "something to talk about," that's way too much hand-holding. The truly great artists are those who have independent, original insights about reality because they LOOK BEYOND THE OBVIOUS. They are also mature enough not to ask to be spoon-fed their material.

Rebecca Nesvet

morgan j said...

Thank you. Can we talk about a plan of action?

John Hudson said...

Firstly this debate needs to be correctly framed. Playwrights who come from poor rural or inner city backgrounds, or are of color, or women, may still create deeply conservative work that reproduces the existing assumptions and power structures. It is not the case that such a background necessarily means they are writing from a new or interesting perspective.

Secondly to invigorate the theater industry we need theater institutions that are willing to create radically new work regardless of the ethnic or class origins of the playwright.

Thirdly those institutions also need to be able to secure paying audiences to cover the cost of the production. So I suggest reframing the issue as one of working across multiple institutions to develop a common audience that those theaters can supply.

Fourthly I was working last night with a young emerging woman playwright from rural America without an MFA (who was turned down by Youngblood) who in the next four months has four small productions in NYC—each of them entirely different. But because each of the theaters is self-centered and focused on their own genres there is no mechanism for them to collaborate to create a common audience for her work. How about grant not to theaters but to a different kind of institution such as marketing companies that will build audiences for playwrights across theaters?

Unknown said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Hello Youngblood and god bless all of you! HOWEVER... I'm so so tired of being accused of being a gatekeeper. I have been a literary manager, dramaturg, all the way up to an Artistic Director. The gatekeeping has always worked both ways: we have fought fiercely for the playwrights we believe in, to the point of losing our jobs (yep -- it happens), and we try to protect you from administrators who really do not speak a language you want to understand. Writers are words and images. Administrators are numbers. Dramaturgs can translate between the two.
So that's enough ranting about the stupid fucking gatekeepers. It cracks us all up that writers can even DREAM that we've ever had that much power.