Monday, December 21, 2009

Meanwhile, over on the theatrical version of Second Life . . .

. . . the usual suspects are thinking up new, hypothetical ways to make the theatre more diverse (or else!). So far, we have the following modest proposals: a) sue the theatres who don't diversify, and b) pick the new plays we do by chance.

Both suggestions, needless to say, have been met with some dismay. Isaac Butler's recommendation is, of course, smugly insane - but for once, even he seems to realize this. Meanwhile Scott Walters's idea is amusing enough - and it does solve "the Paula Vogel problem" - but it's hard to imagine any artistic director agreeing to serve merely as the person who pulls the numbers out of a hat. And at any rate, such a system would only result in political jockeying over which plays got into the hat to begin with. (A harsh fact of life is that every system, however well-intended, is ultimately gamed.) Predictably, in the comments section of these blogs, the folks who use the arts as a means of political satisfaction, or who see diversity as a means of career promotion, are intrigued by both recommendations; meanwhile those who hope to gain success via the quality of their efforts are appalled.

It seems to me that both Walters and Butler are far more interesting when they write about class rather than identity politics, and to their credit, both have begun to. But I'm not sure either sees where such a discussion might lead - for if the effects of class and economic injustice were ameliorated in this country, it seems to me that diversity theory, at least in the theatre, would lose much of its legitimacy. And both bloggers, of course, are rather uncomfortably positioned in any discussion of class - Butler has a trust fund, and Walters is a tenured college professor; both are nestled deeply in systems of (white) privilege. You could argue that to them, the issue of winning success by one's talent is somewhat abstract, and they're happy to sacrifice that ideal in favor of a more randomized political distribution of resources (which, you get the feeling, people much like them would nevertheless control).

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. I mean, isn't it odd that Scott Walters should be proposing a way around Paula Vogel - who supposedly shares his politics?

To be fair, when "diversity" is the problem, maybe real diversity is the answer. But that doesn't mean chance is the answer. So count me unconvinced, although if Scott Walters can dream up more ways to undermine the system of privilege in this country, I'm all ears.

16 comments:

  1. I can think of four playwrights locally whose work is pretty much being ignored by the "powers that be" even though audiences and blogs love it: Matthew Freeman, Mac Rogers, Crystal Skillman, Johnna Adams. I could probably come up with more.

    Seems to me that Playwrights Horizons etc. should be headed downtown, not to Yale.

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  2. 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.

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  3. Ok, Josh - but aren't all those playwrights white? Yes, I think they are. Crystal Skillman and Johnna Adams are women, of course. Still . . . hmmm . . . they are all getting some productions, they're just struggling, that's all - and no, they haven't been picked up by Playwrights Horizons. So read their plays, Playwrights Horizons!

    And you, you mischievous Ian Thal - indeed the academy would not appreciate critics usurping what for some reason they imagine is now their turf.

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  4. Interestingly enough, I haven't seen any talk from Isaac Butler et alia about using new platforms like bushgreen.org to actively seek out those plays and playwrights that they could champion. But that's because social media doesn't yet have an academically approved gate-keeper.

    And of course, the only good usurption is academically approved usurption.

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  5. Yes, the revolution now comes with a syllabus.

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  6. And just so you know, I truly appreciate the epithet "you mischievous Ian Thal" (Even far more than "you talented Ian Thal.")

    However, I surmise that you've figured that one out already.

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  7. Here is a link to an interseting NYTimes mgazine article- see 'random promotions'

    http://www.nytimes.com/projects/magazine/ideas/2009/#r

    geoff

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  8. Newsflash: honest use of critical faculties is shameful, and should be apologized for immediately. No one can have a strong opinion on anything -- however well-supported -- because someone becomes a victim. And no one should ever ever ever be a victim unless they decide to play one for profit. Come out against someone's work? Vile bigotry. Haven't we moved past that? Etc. Etc &c...

    See Ruhl updates @ 99 Seats and Parabasis. I'm getting sick of this.

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  9. Oh, where would those two second-raters BE without sexism and racism? Not very far, I promise you. Hence their sympathy for Sarah Ruhl - if she could do it, so can they!!

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  10. I also wonder if they realize that however "diverse" they imagine themselves to be, they're all collegiate in outlook. Theirs is a lock-step, liberal-arts-college version of diversity.

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  11. If Thom is going to call me mischievous, well, I'm going to be mischievous!

    http://ianthal.blogspot.com/2009/12/modest-proposal.html

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  12. Isaac Butler wrote me on my blog to note that he's only worked with one playwright with an MFA, so I was out of line to implicate him as a defender of the MFA system.

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  13. Interesting! Then why does Butler seem so academic in his outlook? You certainly weren't wrong in picking up that vibe - I constantly feel when I'm reading Parabasis that I'm in some seminar at Vassar in which Isaac is expertly buttering up the lesbian-Jewish-Latina adjunct professor. The fact that he's hasn't worked that often with "official" MFA's may only reflect how pervasive the MFA culture has actually become.

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  14. Still, I should know better than assume vibe is fact.

    In addition, he also pointed out that he was one of the first American theatre bloggers to blog about bushgreen.org-- so I was in error on that count as well!

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  15. Okay, okay, two points for Isaac Butler (with much gnashing of teeth). And let this be a lesson to you, Ian Thal - mischievous boys sometimes get into trouble!! ;-)

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  16. IAN:
    [Shoves hands deep into pockets and looks at the floor while shifting weight from foot to foot.] Yes, Mister Garvey.

    [Shuffles towards exit, then pauses and turns around:]

    Still he did concede to my point that maybe he should be spending more time using his bully pulpit to talk up the under-appreciated non-MFA writers with whom he does work. So at least on that count, it has proven to be a constructive mischief!

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