Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Wouldn't It Be Easier?

Last week there was a bit of discussion around race and theatre on the Binge list. It happened just as my reading of Pieces of Whitey was about to happen, so it was already a topic very much on my mind. I want to look a bit more at this later this week (if my son kicks his cold and actually gets to camp so I have some writing/thinking time), in particular the rather interesting response to Pieces of Whitey's 2005 Boston production.

Here's one question that was put to the Binge list, and my response, which deals a bit with the racial state of theatre (only an entree). It's useful to know that this whole discussion arose when earlier someone protested a call for scripts that said it was especially looking for work written by people of color.

From the point of view of trying to get published or getting the work out, wouldn't it be easier if you were a left-handed gay disabled member of a visible minority? In other words, why do we have to be a member of a special-interests group in order to be heard? If only we lived in a world where merit was all that mattered.

My response:
Would it be easier? In a word, No. If you're a straight white male in America, especially if you're college educated, that's about as easy as it gets. Ever.

In terms of would it make it easier to advance your theatre career, with readings, prizes, productions, and publications, if you were the member of a visible minority, the answer is still No.

Theatre is the most social of art forms--new plays often get done by people who know the author. Directors and producers stage plays written by their playwright friends (except classics). People start theatre companies with their friends. Theatre is, after all, public play, and we play with our friends. For all of us marketing our work, networking is critical.

If you look around, you'll notice that as you move up the theatrical food chain, the population is whiter (and mostly male). And guess what? Most people socialize in fairly racially homogeneous groups. Our social circles are rarely very diverse (this is especially true of whites)--in a large part due to entrenched residential racial discrimination that affects our entire nation.

So, producers either produce scripts by their friends or social contacts, or they produce plays by writers unknown to them whose scripts speak to the producer's experience of the world. In other words, people tend to be drawn to material written about characters familiar to them, in an idiom that's accessible to them. If you're writing a play from a non-white perspective, with language and rhythm from your non-white upbringing, lots of producers aren't going to "get" your script.

And heaven forbid you decide to write characters into your play who are racial minorities. Again, owing to residential segregation, many small theatres in small towns won't have the actors to cast your play. If the theatre is located in part of primarily white suburbia, the producers may be unwilling to cast outside their comfort zone. (This happened to me at a community college in the suburbs of Kansas City. The white producers insisted they wouldn't be able to find any black actors to do the show. I assure you, Kansas City has plenty of black folks.)

Even if you manage to get a brave producer or director to mount your play, the media and critics are mostly white. Your work will probably not be publicly judged by people with any real interracial experience, other than what they've already seen on screen or stage.

Theatre, despite the liberal leanings of many of its practitioners, remains a segregated artform in most venues across America.


Dan S said...

Excellent response Pat. Was the response to it a reasoned perspective, or was it merely defensive and dismissing?

patrick said...

The discussion was remarkably cordial. I think people really value the group, and everyone was aware that this issue was one with the potential to destroy it completely, and thus went about it fairly cautiously.