by 99 Seats
Cheeky posts aside, I've been pretty hesitant to wade into the Guthrie 2012-13 season mess. I think that Polly Carl summed up most of my general feelings on the matter pretty well (so she gets a double link).
The thing that makes me hesistant about engaging in this conversation can be seen in various Twitter feeds and comment threads (you know where to look). After more than four years of fighting this fight, since I started blogging at 99 Seats, well...I'm pretty tired of it. It always seems to go the same way: there's an inciting incident, there are complaints, some outrage, some Serious Questions asked by Serious People, there is pushback, there's follow-up, then it all dies down. All of the sme sides are taken by all the same people with little variation every time. And ultimately nothing changes. The bright spots happen, the work is done, they're noted, they're admired and then the bright spots are ignored, by both "sides." The bright spots keep churning until they burn out and then new bright spots, isolated, solitary, flare up. Lather, rinse, repeat.
One of the thing that's frustrating is that, superficially, we're all in agreement. The American theatre has an audience problem. The numbers are dwindling, even if the box office isn't. The cultural impact has lessened. The question that we really have to face is this: what is to be done? I came across this dialogue yesterday. It's a back-and-forth between a progressive and a conservative about income inequality. As intellectuals, the conversation hovers around the same question: what is to be done about income inequality. Both sides see that it's a problem and it's a problem with multiple solutions. How do you pick one? What do you advocate for?
I feel like there's something similar in theatre right now, but also something markedly different. I think we can all agree on the problem: an aging, increasingly homogeneous audience base that is resistant to change. How do we serve that audience base and still attract new audiences. When it comes to that part of the conversation, though, I feel like it breaks down. On one side, I think there is a vocal, engaged, committed community, advocating for increased diversity in the work and in the staffs of theatre, a greater sense of community engagement and communal obligation. On the other...well, it's harder to say, since, superficially, the "other side" gives a lot of lip service to all of those things, while resisting any actual effort to make them happen and responding with sarcasm, condescencion, suspicion and outright mockery to those who advocate for change. Joe Dowling's response to the Guthrie flap perfectly embodies that: people agitating for change are from small theatres (i.e., bitter and marginal), self-serving (i.e. careerist climbers), engaged in social media (i.e. flighty, unserious youths tapping away on smartphones). So while saying that women and people of color have a place in his theatre, he offers the smallest possible spots and seems upset that we're not all grateful. This attitude is pretty constant among artistic directors and theatre "leaders."
On the outside, there are voices that crop up on Twitter and various blogs, making the same accusations, but with more vitriol, more nastiness. But never going at the actual question: what is to be done? While I find the conservative position on income inequality to be unpersuasive, it's at least a stance. The conversative forces in the American theatre rarely seem to advocate a stance, at least anything more than a combination of "Who cares what you think?" and "STFU. You'll get nothing and be happy." If we were going to have a real Grand Debate on diversity in the theatre, I can think of a dozen people, off the top of my head to take the "pro"-diversity side. On the other? Who would really stand up and be counted? They would rather simply say, "Well, the A.D. selected the best plays possible. If they happened to be 80% by white males...well, then, you do the math."
The question of race and diversity has been a loud undercurrent in the American conversation for the last few months. Between the dog whistle (and sometimes outright whistle) racism of the GOP primaries, the Trayvon Martin shooting, the recent flap about HBO's Girls, there's been a lot of talk about how race functions in America at this juncture. As I've read piece after piece, followed discussion after discussion, something has become really apparent to me. Ta-Nahesi Coates nailed it perfectly well here:
The conservative movement doesn't understand anti-racism as a value, only as a rhetorical pose. This is how you end up tarring the oldest integrationist group in the country (the NAACP) as racist. The slur has no real moral content to them. It's all a game of who can embarrass who. If you don't think racism is an actual force in the country, then you can only understand it's invocation as a tactic.
This is larger than the movement conservatives in the political realm. There is a wide swath of this country that looks on discussions of diversity as a tactic to an end, not an actual concern for actual people, but just another kind of rhetorical dodge, a way to make a "name" for yourself or grind some personal ax. Diversity is an academic pursuit as far as they're concerned. The idea that it is a legitimate desire for justice, for fairness, born out of a deep need, that concept is alien to them. And so they go after everyone else's personal life, or career standing, or whatever else they think this push is emanating from.
I'm surprised at how well this works, how quickly the conversation becomes derailed into each perons' personal issue or background. I guess we wouldn't still be having the same conversation if the dodges and undercutting didn't work. But we do. Every few months, we go around the same maypole, holding onto the same strings, running faster and faster in a circle and getting nowhere.
I don't mean to be bitter or cynical, but I'm largely over it. Change is coming, it must come, it always comes. But it won't come from words. Just actions. This conversation may spur some change, spur some action, and that's its use. That's good enough. For me, though, I'll keep focusing on what is to be done. And try to do that.