Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Wasserstein mess

Are Wendy Wasserstein's daughters honoring her legacy?

It has been sad, and troubling, watching the imbroglio over the Theatre Development Fund's Wendy Wasserstein Prize (dedicated to emerging female playwrights) slowly unfold. First came the news that the prize would not be awarded this year to any of the nineteen scripts that had been considered for it. That was disappointing, of course, but the blogosphere reacted to the news with a bizarre wave of outraged entitlement that was even more dispiriting. Within days, "open letters" had been written and petitions had been launched, with a kind of nexus forming around playwright Michael Lew, who posted on the blog "The Youngblog" a screed which ran, in part:

"As a member of Youngblood and Ma-Yi and the Old Vic network I see truly outstanding plays by emerging female writers on a pretty much daily basis [emphasis added], so as you can imagine I'm outraged by this decision (not to mention the slap in the face it lands on our many talented peers who were nominated),"

Wow - Michael Lew sees a "truly outstanding" new play almost every day? I think I've only seen one or two "truly outstanding" new plays this year - despite seeing, well, dozens. And speaking generally, just based on, you know, history and stuff, it would be quite unusual for more than two or three outstanding new plays to appear in a season, by either gender or any race. Yet Michael Lew, amazingly enough, sees roughly 250 a year (I'm assuming he takes weekends off from this unending stream of excellence - it must get so tiring, like squinting into the sun!).

Okay, so Lew (at left) tends to hyperventilate (and he's clearly not a critic).  But he also tends to imagine things: "This decision can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work," he claims, "and is insulting not only to the finalists but also to the many theatre professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy. This decision perpetuates the pattern of gender bias outlined in Julia Jordan and Emily Glassberg Sands' study on women in theatre, and the message it sends to the theatre community generally is that there aren't any young female playwrights worth investigating."

Okay, this is pretty weird. The panel reviewed 19 scripts (which were submitted by invitation, from writers under 32 years of age); there may be valid criticisms to be made of this selection process, it's true - but it makes no sense whatsoever to say that rejecting those 19 scripts "can only be interpreted as a blanket indictment on the quality of female emerging writers and their work." (Lew elsewhere went further, claiming those 19 scripts represented "a generation of talented writers.")

But I'm afraid the opposite is actually true - it's patently obvious that deciding against 19 submissions cannot be interpreted as a blanket indictment of emerging female writers and their work.

Why? Because (equally obviously) the folks who administered the Wasserstein Prize are devoted to emerging female writers. How could they not be? There are scenarios in which Lew's flame could make sense - in a situation in which the judges of a prize only gave the honors to male authors, for example. But this is not such a case. What's more, Lew clearly was ignorant of the prize's methodology: he writes that the judges' decision was "insulting . . . to the many theatre professionals who nominated these writers and deemed their plays prize worthy." But those theatre professionals only nominated the writers, not the specific plays that were submitted; they had no idea whether or not the plays were prize worthy. (But I forgot - to Lew, emerging writers never have a bad day - after all, he's one himself.)

Which brings me to the only appropriate interpretation of Lew's letter - which is that the process by which careerism has disguised itself as opposition to sexism (or racism) is now pretty much complete in the "development" community. Lew practically states this explicitly:

If the selection panel can't engage with [the emerging female writer] community under the current guidelines, then blow up the guidelines. If you can't find a script worth celebrating, then celebrate a production . . . If you can't find a production, then celebrate a body of work . . . if you still can't find an emerging writer at any age whose body of work is worth celebrating, then celebrate a vision. Celebrate a promising voice. Celebrate a writer of startling potential. But above all, you must celebrate and not condemn -- you must summon the same generosity of spirit that Wendy herself showed young artists.

In other words: Listen up, Wasserstein Prize! Blow up the rules, forget the guidelines, deep-six the critical standards! GIVE US THE MONEY, BITCH  or we're coming with the torches and the pitchforks!!  Get the message?

Well, they got the message (TDF quickly caved).  After all, how could they miss it? Lew all but spells out the rationale for their impending pariah-hood:

If this were the Pulitzer Prize, then it might (or might not) [emphasis added] make sense to set a bar that compares the most prominent plays in recent American history, and in certain years decide that no play reaches that bar. But this is an advocacy tool - not just a prize - and in an industry that is hostile to providing equal resources for all voices, there can be no bar to advocacy.

It's almost painful to read this silly Savonarola's tacit admission - which contradicts what he wrote just sentences before - that truly outstanding plays aren't crossing his desk every day. That maybe nothing the Wasserstein committee saw "compares to the most prominent plays in recent American history." In short, that the quality could well not be there this year.

But to Lew, that means nothing. In his addled brain, the "quality question" (as I think Parabasis once memorably put it) is just "a bar to advocacy."  The quality just has to be there - it HAS to!  JUST BECAUSE, OKAY???

But by now we're reached a point where people who have dedicated themselves to discovering that quality - who are all about supporting that quality - can't find it.  They say it's not there, at least not this year.  And for that they've had their heads handed back to them on a platter.

Why?  Because let's face it - emerging playwrights don't give a damn about quality.  They only want to be produced.  This is an understandable human impulse, of course - even if this time around it's a little more dishonest than usual, because it cloaks itself in political rectitude.

What's worse, Lew's call to arms only validates a suspicion many people already have of the development community - that it's a sausage factory coughing up second-rate product from favored groups.  Many people - myself included - welcomed the Wasserstein committee's stand for quality precisely because it fought that impression.  But Lew actually wants that impression - indeed, he states it baldly as precisely the proper rationale for a playwriting prize for women!  To Lew, women shouldn't be held to the same bar as men; accommodations have to be made for them - I guess because they're the weaker sex, or something like that?  (Who knows?) I disagree with all that, of course - to me, women are just as capable as men, if not more so - indeed, if the White Guy Prize didn't make an award this year, I wouldn't be surprised (I haven't seen very many good plays by white guys, either).  It's obvious, after any thought at all, that Lew's desire to turn the Wasserstein Prize into a kind of Special Olympics for female writers is crazy - but then he's addled about a lot of things (he's not really sure that even the Pulitzer should be dedicated to quality, and he seems to believe that Emily Glassberg Sands's study holds up under scrutiny - it doesn't - and that it was written by Sands and Julia Jordan - well, okay maybe that part is kinda true).

So, as the situation stands now, the Wasserstein Prize is going back to the drawing board to award the money to someone whose play, we all know, didn't really pass muster.  Frankly, I'm not sure how that's a win/win.  And it's worth noting that this is the last year the prize is funded, so it's going out with a whimper instead of a bang.  But then none of the Wasserstein winners have made much of a theatrical splash, anyhow.  Online I could only find mention of a single production of Linda Ramsey's The Feather House, the 2007 winner (it was in Austin, where the playwright lives). Meanwhile 2008 winner Laura Jacqmin had a success with Dental Society Midwinter Meeting, but other plays have been greeted with more mixed reviews, and Marisa Wegrzyn's 2009 champ, Hickorydickory, has yet to find a producer (her earlier plays garnered mixed to "extremely negative" reviews, according to Wikipedia). So can anyone really claim that the Wasserstein Prize's standards were too high, much less ever at par with "the most prominent plays of recent American history"? No, obviously not.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for critical standards, however - the Wasserstein money is running out; in fact, this is the last year the prize is funded.  Whiners like Lew will have to go elsewhere next year, unless somebody decides to invest another fortune in an artistically-compromised prize.  Of course that could always happen (quick, somebody call the MacArthurs!).  No doubt some means will be found of keeping the whole development racket afloat.

But what's becoming more and more apparent is that flacks like Lew can't actually effect the commercial theatre that much.  Still the only successful female writer on Broadway is Yasmine Reza, whose ongoing  career you'd think might give the P.C. police some pause, but which they basically simply turn a blind eye to; after all, Reza only writes entertainingly tight little plays, she's not involved in "the Struggle." Meanwhile development faves like Sarah Ruhl and Theresa Rebeck have foundered on or near the Great White Way. And something tells me that gap isn't going to change.  What we'll end up with is a regional axis dominated by the development crowd, and a commercial axis which couldn't care less. Something tells me there's nothing either Wendy Wasserstein or Michael Lew can or could do to change that.  What's sad is that so many of the people screaming over the eponymous playwright's prize don't realize they've devoted themselves to thwarting Wasserstein's own aims in establishing the award, which were (and I quote):

“To insure the integrity of the prize and provide selection panels the freedom they need free of outside pressures.”

Can Michael Lew really claim that he is advocating "what Wendy would do"? Somehow I don't think so.


  1. "What we'll end up with is a regional axis dominated by the development crowd"

    Is this the problem with Boston? And not just in theater. There is an illusion of public and philanthropic money. But somehow it gets diverted from making things that people want and offering them at a price they will pay. Or am I just getting more Republican all the time?

  2. I think it's ONE of the issues in the Boston theatre scene, particularly among the major players. As we're an academic town, the trends in the current MFA feeder system make themselves clear on our stages - we're awash in mediocre new works sponsored by (or written by!) various university types, hardly see a classic anymore, and of course are expected to support minority writers, and attack dead white men, whenever possible. We're also an avatar of a troubling new trend - the heads of our largest non-profit theatres are pretty much openly using them as launching pads for commercial vehicles in New York. Harvard's the worst offender in this regard - they're putting up their second Broadway tryout in six months this December. (And I wouldn't be at all surprised if Harvard itself gets a cut of these shows should they prove successful.) The idea of an academic regional theatre as a caretaker of our artistic inheritance is of course long dead (Brustein and Sellars killed that), but now the idea of a non-profit theatrical sector that retains some essential distance from Broadway is dead, too.

    Still, I don't see any of this as an argument for Republicanism. Far from it! I mean, since when were Republicans genuine advocates of meritocracy? After Bush and Palin, any such illusions are ridiculous. Stick with the Democrats.

  3. Tom, do you see the Wasserstein mess, which is clearly symptomatic of the larger trends hurting theatre (and art), to be more a factor of an inability of the "millennials" to create art any depth, or due to the politically correct amongst the cultural gate keepers (many of whom are probably gen-Xers or boomers)? After all, the Wasserstein judges only saw four plays. I find it quite credible that it was all the nomination and winnowing of the pool that eliminated any plays that had the depth, ambiguity, and irony that both makes for good art yet also troubles people who subordinate art to their political agendas.

    Oh yes, you're absolutely right about Lew.

  4. I don't want to draw any conclusions about the death of art from the Wasserstein mess - although, as I'm sure you realize, I pretty much agree that both the trends you mention are having an unfortunate effect on our theatre! But we just don't know how good any of these scripts actually were, so I don't want to speculate about errors in the process. At any rate, if people want to argue for the reform of the process, they're free to do so; that's just different from insisting that the prize simply be given every year, no matter what. To be blunt, if the intent of your award is something like "to support deserving playwrights who are being overlooked by a prejudiced market," but then you turn around and say, "Well, we couldn't find anyone deserving this year, but we're giving the prize anyway!" then you have completely undone your supposed mission.

  5. I prefer not to believe that an entire generation is incapable of writing great plays-- but I confess that that's merely what I prefer not to believe.

    That said, I am definitely seeing evidence of institutional failure. Not to long ago staged reading. The play had been part of the playwright's creative writing thesis project from college, the director had apparently been a classmate of the writer, and the company hosting the reading frequently works with the director. Now, as a writer, I try to attend as many staged readings as I can out of professional courtesy and always attempt to say something helpful and encouraging, and I can say for certain that this was the worst script I had ever encountered-- there was no room even for constructive criticism.

    I can't help but wonder if much of the nomination process for the Wasserstein prize was plagued by this degree of nepotism.

  6. I know the feeling - you don't really want to believe it of the millennials, but you suspect in your bones that it's true. We're way overdue for a major new playwright, and instead we just keep getting more and more "promising" ones.

  7. Well, leaving aside that I needed to give my last comment one more read through before I clicked "publish your comment" I'm still not sure we yet have a consensus on who the major Gen-X playwrights might be the same way we have a consensus on the Boomer playwrights.