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March 01, 2010


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Scott Walters

Peasants and slaves did not attend the theatre, and there is a conflict over whether women were allowed to, either. It was a theatre of the elite -- free males.

It seems to me that if we are writing plays ABOUT a group, it should probably be written so that they can follow it.

All plays don't have to be written for all people. However, when the only plays being written to be understood by the working class are crassly commercial pandering, then something is wrong.


Good point on the Greek theatre. My theatre history is a bit rough at this point. Thanks.

Can we really separate the ABOUT from the TO or FOR? If I write a play ABOUT white people, but my intended audience is black, does it need to be written in a way that white people can follow it? I'm asking that honestly, not as a gotcha. I don't have an answer in mind. I just think they're intertwined.

And I absolutely hear you on the pandering point. If all of the plays written FOR a black audience were the Chitlin Circuit plays, we'd have a problem.



Of course there are some less derogatory terms in use now for the audience, subject matter, and aesthetic than "Chitlin Circuit."

How exactly is the working class audience for which Scott and Tom are despairing, different than the audience served by Urban Theatre? That’s not a gotcha either. I am genuinely interested in your take on that.

Josh James

I've written plays for older people and for working class folks ... I don't see the problem being as that there aren't plays being written but that it's hard to get anyone to produce a play ... especially if it has a large cast.


My take? I think it depends on the area. Scott's in North Carolina. That's a demographically different area than, say, the South Bronx. Different concerns, different voices, some overlap, to be sure, but a different place. I have always been for Scott's push for more locally grown theatre. I just want to make sure he thinks of underserved NYC communities, too.

As for my use of derogatory terms...I probably shouldn't use it, but it's the clearest term for what (I think) Scott is talking about. The funny thing is: I can't really think of an analog for working class theatre.



Hair-pulling Reality shows.

Tony n' Tina's Wedding, and all immersive events that include dinner. Yes, even the original Nicholas Nickleby.

Church pageants.

Sex clubs.

And, of course, amateur theatre.



Forget the obvious differences of race and geography in what you term Chitlin Theatre from Scott’s Cradle ideal .

But why would you label inspirational theatre or gospel theatre or Urban Theatre, as Scott also does other theatre currently serving the working class audiences, as pandering?

Sounds like an elitist position by both of you.


Elitist? To tag theatre that often trades in crowd-pleasing stereotypes and small-c conservative morals and easy messaging as pandering? It's not like this is the first time these criticisms have been made.


Well, I some thoughts... not attacks, but sincere issue with a bit of the tone of Scott's two posts.

I think I've read all of it so far here and at the other sites. Whereas I believe that blue collar or no collar folks can often feel as sense of alienation from any sort of 'ism', I think the whole of Scott's 2 posts projects too much about the intent of artists who are compelled toward experimentation. It feels heart felt, but in the end it also feels like more of the same gentle damning we have heard often. Substitute NYLACHI with academia and put on the sad puppy dog eyes as you watch an old couple pleading for understanding, and I dont see how this approach is really any different or less divisive.

If I were to use these same issues, troubles, and justifications to explain why certain musical forms were not appealing to certain subsections of the populace...

The folks who deserve to see a production about the depression that takes a realistic or naturalist approach from being to end (regardless of timeshifts in narrative), they are real people.

I dont value them any more or any less that folks who like to see work and make work that belongs to the traditional of 20th century avantgarde movements.

A gentle yet still damning call to self censorship. That is not the whole point of Scott's post on "formal exclusion", but it is part of it, most certainty part of it.

In regard to the age of a playwright, I see little profundity in the notion that folks who work their craft get better and more empathic as they reside while practicing their craft for longer periods of time.

I feel confident that all of us gain higher degrees of capability as we mature. But, being old is not enough, one has to work through one's youth and midlife in both the real world and on the stage. A 30 year old should not try to write as if he were 55.


I'll add that I can't project whether or not this 'gentle damning' is Scott's intent. I do believe it is eventually the end result.

Taking one's personal taste and preferences for modes of expression, and suggesting ineptitude and/or some sort of moral ambivalence on the part of those who dont share those same tastes.


DV- I absolutely hear your concerns on self-censorship. For me, personally, I take Scott's admonitions as more a plea for more writers, more perspectives, more voices. I don't think that Naomi Wallace shouldn't have written Trestle or should have thought, I should make this more accessible (unless she was aiming for accessibility, which, knowing a fair amount of her work, I don't think she ever is). I take Scott at meaning, "We need more representation than this."

As a playwright, the thought of the audience and the experience I'm setting out for them is high in my mind, if not forefront.


How about elitist in terms of deciding what is "good" and appropriate theatre for people to watch? How about elitist in thinking about "these people" as "these people," as in "These people deserve better of me." Which I know you didn't write, but every time I read that in Scott's and Tom's post it just lights my wick. I really find it offensive.


"As a playwright, the thought of the audience and the experience I'm setting out for them is high in my mind, if not forefront."

Fortuitously you have a clear line between that noble ambition and pandering, something you feel successful playwrights lack.

Of course Broadway, the Chitlin Circuit, burlesque, melodrama, and many other popular expressions of the art form have always been charged with pandering to their audience. I am not saying that charge is anything new. I am simply stating that it’s an elitist position.

Scott is suggesting that many playwrights are also pandering to a certain elite audience, as opposed to a popular audience, with their experimentation in form. Perhaps this is at least partially true. If the elite TCG market for plays support such experimentation, no doubt many playwrights are pursuing it for that reason alone.

However, it’s an obvious contradiction for “the populist” to dismiss all popular art that the working class now enjoy.


Exactly, Elizabeth.

Also as J claims to know better than “these people” with their conservative morals who are entertained by theatre with broad stereotypes.

Scott Walters

This is rich. It is "elitist" to be concerned about a working class audience if you refer to them with the word "those." Note: until I got educated out of my class, I WAS one of "those" people. So was Tom. We both have great respect and understanding for those who work hard for a living doing things that are poorly paid. I worked in a gun factory for two years when I should have been going to college, so please don't use pretzel logic to twist a populist concern into an elitist one over a simple pronoun.

When I referred to "pandering," I was not thinking of the "Chitlin' Circuit" or "Urban Theatre" or "Gospel theatre," all of which seem to me to be legitimate theatre pieces with a clear connection to a specific audience. What I was thinking about were many Broadway extravaganzas that provide the promise of spectacle and ease of understanding without any sense of purpose or respect for the experiences of a non-elite audience. Processed theatre churned out by corporations.

As far as devilvet's assumption that I am valuing the working class or the elder couple MORE than others, this is not the case. But I DO value them, which is more than many artists can say. When you don't consider the experience of such people when you put on a play, when you think it is irrelevant, when you think that it is tough beans if people don't understand what you are saying -- now, THAT is truly elitist. To then complain that you have a homogeneous audience is hypocritical.

If you want to call "self-censorship" anything that asks you to be concerned for the experiences of others, then I guess I am a censor. I happen to think that theatre is about communication, and if the audience can't get beyond the foundational level of plot, then no communication is happening. I'd like to see some effort made to broaden the class- and education-orientation of our theatre.

Do I think Naomi Wallace shouldn't have written "Trestle." No. But I also don't think she should be under the impression that she wrote a "working class play." She wrote a play ABOUT the working class using the words, structures, and tropes of the upper class. And yes, Brecht could be accused of the same thing.

The problem with discussions about diversity -- race, class, geography -- is that everyone is in favor of it in the abstract, but everyone also gets totally freaked out when they are asked to actually change anything that they are doing. And that, in fact, is an excellent definition of conservatism.



I don't think anyone is actually passing judgment on what's good for people to watch. But there is some room for concern when people see entertainment that reinforces and reflects back stereotypes, particularly if that's the only time they see themselves or people like them on stage.

I don't think simply using the words "these people" implies condescension. I think we can all agree that the stories of the working class and the working poor are getting short shrift on stage. But the question that I was riffing on, and where I think Scott muddies the water is terms of what's the intention of the piece of work.

Honestly, Scott, to my reading, is looking for two different kinds of work that he sees lacking: work that tells the stories of the working poor AND work that speaks to them directly. I don't think those are necessarily the same thing, meant for the same audience, with the same rules.

I'm still not convinced that being able to say a piece of work is pandering to an audience is necessarily elitist, even if the audience enjoys it. I'm not (and I don't think Scott is) wagging a finger and saying "Don't do that! Don't you know better?" But, just to grab an example out of thin air, to sit in a movie theater and watch an audience that's very "urban" (in our safe PC terms) laugh uproariously at the jive-talkin' Transformers, you have to wonder: what's the source of humor here? And what's it actually saying? The same goes for neck-snapping spectacles of Tyler Perry. What is the work espousing? What is it in continuance of? Can't we question that, and at the same time, acknowledge that, yes, it is giving voice to people who don't normally get a chance to be heard? Is that so really so hard?

I don't mean to write a second post here, but one thing that also muddies the water, I find, is when we argue terms and semantics, rather than actually discussing the things themselves.


"As far as devilvet's assumption that I am valuing the working class or the elder couple MORE than others, this is not the case. But I DO value them, which is more than many artists can say. When you don't consider the experience of such people when you put on a play, when you think it is irrelevant, when you think that it is tough beans if people don't understand what you are saying -- now, THAT is truly elitist. To then complain that you have a homogeneous audience is hypocritical. "

First off let me say that I was trying not to be damning towards you in away Scott (although I have to admit I find some of your words damnable).

The way in which you set up this paragraph I quote above, I cant disagree with it. However, I do not find the above paragraph to be synonymus with the combined premise of the two posts quoted.

Maybe it is improper to lump them together as one thesis, but I do sort of feel that is how they were framed in this post (a combined post, you didnt write I know).

I know you dont like it when I say this, but I can not take each of these posted thoughts in isolation. They are totally contextualized by the body of your work online at theatreideas.

"If you want to call "self-censorship" anything that asks you to be concerned for the experiences of others, then I guess I am a censor."

I think you are inevitably asking for much more than for folks to be concerned for the experience of others. I think that rather than focusing your negativity at a geogrpahic region, you are targeting a certain type that perhaps aims itself towards those regions.

I just happen to disagree with your conclusions and stereotypes regarding folks who like to dabble in experimentation. There is no doubt that you can name or point to examples that fit your bill (to your perception. I can probably point to as many that illuminate my perceptions.

If the sole concern of considering the audience's experience equates never challenging or presenting them with something novel (as the very least to their experience) that is equally as deadening as providing them narrative that they have no way of entering.

If we are both saying there is room for both, but disagree about the current distribution of "academic" work versus work done in the "venacular of the people"... well I guess I can abide that.

I just cant help but find these sort of statements to have a dangerous social/cultural arbitrative pose that I think is dangerous to expression and creativity as well as ultimately condesending to the people like those two folks you mention in your post.

apologies for typos... no time to proof during the work day.

George Hunka

It is at the very least presumptuous (if not elitist itself) to claim to know the limitations and abilities of certain classes of people, especially when it comes to the interpretation and readiness for the experience of any individual work of art. It speaks to a stereotype of that class itself -- that they can't "get" something, as a whole, due to education or experience or what-have-you. The can of tough beans is spilled when one makes reference to any audience's ability to "understand."

Another assumption is that of the artist's intent. You can't make claims that any given artist is deliberately not considering "the experience of such people when you put on a play, when you think it is irrelevant, when you think that it is tough beans if people don't understand what you are saying." Who, specifically, says that? Naomi Wallace (who, to my knowledge, never once suggested that she wrote a "working class play")? This is just a projection of the fear of the artist, but more, of the fear of the audience. Who are those "people" who don't understand?

Prisoners, perhaps? Martin Esslin in the introduction to his book "The Theatre of the Absurd" (a book written for the general, not the academic, reader) describes a 1957 production at San Quentin of "Waiting for Godot" -- a work by one of those high modernists that dismay Scott so -- who appeared to "get" the play far more readily than the upper-middle-class audiences of the Florida and New York debuts.

And I know Scott doesn't like to discuss individual plays (except when they're Naomi Wallace's, apparently), but I'd like to know which Brecht plays he's referring to. "Saint Joan of the Stockyards"? "Mother Courage"? "The Measures Taken"? "The Mother"? Granted that Brecht was the product of the bourgeois upper-class, but with the exception of "The Measures Taken" none of these plays are really any more formally inventive than "Death of a Salesman," which itself was informed by Expressionism, another high Modernist body of thought.


An example I can think of recent to our Chicago stages is a production of Under Milk Wood. Now one person watches this piece and hears the music of Wales (I think it takes place in Wales, regardless they hear the music of that specific region), they revel in sights sounds and nostaglia of these working class people working, living, drinking, and loving for a full day.

Someone else can just as easily listen to this piece and find the ornate verbosity to be alienating, actually distancing, penned by an elitist, academic wordsmith who actually has contempt for the meagerness of the experience that is the lives of his characters.

One person hears music, the other person finds "a lost opportunity" (at best)

Theories can then abound about why those words, that approach, etc, etc,... All of them don't serve to enlighten an audience member who didnt get the fast flow of poesy or to discourage the word lovers who delight in the hearing.

If you think that remove between that sort of language and the experimentation that distances audience members is too large to be relevant to this dialogue... I think you are wrong. The truth is that one damns or doesnt based on their personal engagement with the piece. Next one dmans or doesnt based upon the projection of what an audience other than themself based upon a antecdote, next one makes wide generalized statements that are couched to sound inclusive, but really only sort of.

Josh James

"Do I think Naomi Wallace shouldn't have written "Trestle." No. But I also don't think she should be under the impression that she wrote a "working class play." She wrote a play ABOUT the working class using the words, structures, and tropes of the upper class. And yes, Brecht could be accused of the same thing."

Listen, Naomi is a good friend of mine, I've known her for 20 years ... I've been in her plays well before she became famous, and I was actually at the first run of Trestle in 1999 starring a then unknown Micheal Pitt.

I will tell you this about my Kentucky born friend ... she's a hell of a lot more dedicated to bring voice in the arts to those who don't have them than you are or pretend to be, and very much about highlighting the problems of class. Not just in that play but in every work she's ever done ... but I don't know what the hell you're knocking her for, except that you think maybe she (an award winning poet) used too fancy a language?

Or that her work is structured too clean and proper?

What do you mean, tropes of the upper class? Are you fucking kidding me? You mean poor folks can't understand fancy poetic words?

This is ridiculous ... so if a person writes a play about working class people, it's gotta be sloppy and full of "ain't," and "nope!"

Kiss my Iowa-born-beanfield-walking-corn-tassling-raised-in-second-hand-clothes ASS Scott.

In other words, Scott, with regard to Naomi you don't know what the fuck you're talking about. Period.

I continue to be amazed that anyone takes this guy seriously, really I am ...

George Hunka

Well, the NEA did give him a few of our tax dollars to spend ...

Josh James

... spend on WHAT, exactly?

Is he going to produce theatre?

If not than it's a waste, in my opinion.



I like it better when we talk about the issues and not Scott. The issues are so much interesting than dumping on one man.



George Hunka

Josh's commentary aside, I hope we are talking about the issues. I have no desire to draw a pair of devil's horns on Scott's photograph, and I've been a dumpee often enough to know that it's unpleasant and unproductive. If I suggest that a certain conception of populism has an elitist or presumptuous tinge, it's the populism at fault, not Scott -- the idea, not the man. And he's demonstrated and admitted hostility towards a certain kind of artist as well. But dump on him? No, I don't care for that, either.

And I point out the NEA grant not to be pissy but to show that his project has been able to garner a certain amount of government support, and in a democracy, I hope we can discuss the foundations that underlie this project as well. That is what a democracy is there for.

Josh James

Well, certainly I view the comment I highlighted regarding my friend Naomi as a personal attack upon her and I defended in kind.

I refrained until then.

But it leads me to wonder ...

If a person's idea is ridiculous, is it an attack to point out the obvious?

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