Not all people who call themselves playwrights are good writers.
Not all good playwrights write the kind of plays that most theaters want to do.
Not everyone who fails to get regularly produced is untalented. Or writes bad plays.
Not everyone who gets produced is talented. Or writes good plays.
Not every solution can target all problems at once. Similarly, no single diversity or inclusion effort can really afford to be all-inclusive. The more generalized and vague a solution is, the more likely it is to fail.
With very few exceptions, the goal of inclusion efforts is not that every single person is definitely included, but rather that every single person has a fair shot at being included.
Confusion over this word “inclusion” might mean that it isn’t a very good replacement jargon term for “diversity,” which, to be honest, is how it is generally used. The fact that there seems to be no word for "diversity" that white people (and in particular white men) won’t find threatening is a problem I don’t know how to solve. Although I really, truly wish I did.
The hope is that multiple co-existing efforts will work simultaneously (and with any luck, collaboratively) to attack a problem from multiple angles.
No single diversity effort has any moral obligation to be intersectional in nature. Intersectionality can be present both within individual efforts/orgs or across multiple efforts/orgs. What's most important is that various diversity efforts not compete with one another.
Trial and error are important. Actually taking action instead of just talking about and critiquing all potential action is important.
Doing something different from other people is not a judgment of their choices. Just as my being married is no judgment on unmarried couples, the fact that there are multiple organizations and individuals trying to attack the gender parity issue through different means, lenses, frames and efforts does not mean that they are competing with one another.
This is because each effort is going to have its own versions of (a) an understanding of what the problem is, (b) a target audience and (c) a theory of change. Just because one organization’s theory of change is different from another’s does not mean they are competing. For example, a structural critique of racism does not invalidate an intersectional one, or vice versa.
The goal of diversity and inclusion efforts cannot be making each individual artist feel better, particularly about themselves or their work.
The fact that (a) not everyone who calls him or herself a writer is good and (b) not every good playwright writes the “right” kind of play is often used as an excuse for dismissing diversity efforts. They are seen as vanity projects that people embark on to get themselves and their friends produced. Or they are seen as a request to abandon all standards of quality. “We just can’t find the right plays by [X]” is a sentence most of us have heard at some point or another.
What is so great about The Kilroys is that they seem to recognize all of the above. The Kilroys are a group of playwrights and producers in LA formed around taking action to address gender disparities in theatre. Their answer to this particular knot of problems is The List, a new annual survey modeled on The Blacklist in the film world. This survey asks 127 “influential new play leaders” to identify new plays by women that are of high quality and are ready to be produced (you can read about that process here). The List advocates for diversity without abandoning questions of quality. It sends a message to the field that there is a treasure trove of available work to consider for programming in the future.
The List is so startling because its problem statement, target demographic and theory of change are so clear, and they guide everything about it. The problem? According to Artistic Directors, they are not reading/seeing enough good plays by women that fit the needs of their theaters. The target demographic? Gatekeepers (artistic directors, producers and literary managers in particular). The theory of change? Use awareness raising to call the industry’s bluff. Lift up the important work being done by overlooked female playwrights.
This isn't going to make everyone happy. In particular, if your theory of change involves burning the current system down and replacing it with a better one, any effort that works within the current system is going to feel inadequate, no matter how challenging it is. It's worth keeping in mind as well that The List isn’t trying to solve every problem in gender inequality in the American Theater. It is trying to appeal to one specific audience to try to change things for the better. This means that the plays that make The List are likely ones that are somewhere on the institutional radar to begin with. This is by design. Part of the point is to present ADs and other gatekeepers with work that is both well suited to what they already do and overlooked.
This is not to say The List is perfect. This is a first attempt. Several members of the Kilroys have said on twitter that they would like to widen the field of people surveyed—although I hope they will not heed the suggestion to broaden it to more presenter venues— and many believe that women of color are currently underrepresented. But as anyone who has worked in theater can tell you, you have to try something, learn from it, and improve it. That’s how we build everything that we build; demanding perfection from The List is simply a way of derailing and dismissing it. As is “asking,” as one particular trollish reaction did, that the Kilroys spend time, money and effort trying to correct gender inequities outside of theatre in order to be taken seriously.
This is also not to say that The List (or The Kilroys) are the only game in town, or that their work makes all the other good work that people are doing to work on gender parity unnecessary. There’s 50/50 in 2020. There's The Lilly awards. There's plenty of other efforts currently existing or brewing. Rob Weinert-Kendt and I are working on devising a way to look at the last five years of season data to produce something akin to what VIDA does with publishing.
And while it should go without saying, let's be clear: if you're a female playwright and your work isn't on The List, this doesn't mean you're a bad writer. Or that your work isn’t the kind of work a theater is likely to do.
That said, as a field I think we need to start considering disambiguation. Basically, studies show that people have a habit of assuming that their identity categories (White, male, Black, female, gay, trans etc.) are responsible for how they are being treated. The funny version of this phenomenon is Alvie Singer in Annie Hall, who is constantly attributing everything that happens to him to anti-Semitism (“Jew eat?! Jew eat?!”). This happens when the reasons for our treatment remain ambiguous and in particular in situations where we already feel alienated.
This is not only true of people of color or women. Think about white male applicants to college who blame “quotas” for not getting into the school of their choice. They are, essentially, blaming the end result of a process from which they are alienated that is full of ambiguities on race and gender discrimination.
When causes and motives are ambiguous, we tend to gravitate towards our identities. Hence, the need for disambiguation. (Side note: one reason why diverse working groups can often be more effective is they can help each other disambiguate.)
Biases are a problem. Biases are real. Biases lead to and/or reinforce all sorts of disparities and structural inequities in every area of American life. That we would presume theatre is better on this score is absurd and naïve. In a system where things can be rejected out of hand with a form response, it is also far more likely that biases actually will prevail, as one of the things that helps control bias is actively considering your choices.
At the same time, bias is not responsible for every single individual play’s rejection, and we all know this.
Outrageous Fortune made very clear that one of the chief problems facing the new play sector was the lack of authentic contact between playwrights and gatekeepers, leading to all sorts of bad blood and mistrust all around. This is a situation that is totally ripe for misattributing why work is getting rejected, and also ripe for the kind of hastily thought through decision making that helps bias flourish.
There is every incentive in the world for theaters to avoid authentic exchanges with artists. There is the possibility that they could forever damage a relationship that might be valuable down the road. Artists have a lot more public outlets to complain about how they’ve been treated. Historically, theater artists aren’t great at taking negative feedback. And obviously, there’s the practical problem: you cannot take the time to respond to everything that comes over the transom in a considered, careful, authentic way. You just can’t. And expecting theaters to do so is expecting the impossible.
But an increase in authentic contact between theaters and playwrights would be good for everyone involved and the industry as a whole.
Since graduating from graduate school, I have had a whole rainbow coalition of feedback experiences, thanks to my efforts to sign with an agent for my first book. These efforts were eventually successful, but before that happened, I queried and sent manuscripts to many, many agents. In the lit world, there’s a lot of different kinds of rejection. There’s the form letter (so brutal yet so necessary). There’s the carefully worded and specific letter of feedback that makes it clear the person does not want to represent you but offers you notes anyway. There’s the same letter but with a nice note saying if you made these changes they’d look at another draft. There’s an in person meeting where they give you feedback and ask for changes. Etc. I got all of these responses, including a two hour long in-person meeting with an agent who liked me as a writer but clearly wanted a different book than the one I was writing. Heck, the agent I eventually signed with told me upfront she thought the book’s final sixty pages needed to be heavily rewritten, if not replaced. (She was right, by the way, which is one of the reasons I happily signed with her).
I want to stress this: Almost none of this feedback was fun to hear. Feedback is rarely fun to hear from people with whom you have no real relationship. Particularly when, as a director, you’re used to giving it instead of receiving it. But it did leave me with the distinct impression that I was being rejected for reasons having to do with specific issues germane to my manuscript. These were things I could either change or not, depending on how I felt about them. Some notes I took, some I rejected. Some were easy to dismiss out of hand because my manuscript is nonfiction and taking the note would necessitate fabrication.
As difficult as receiving feedback can be, the Blank Wall of Rejection is far, far more maddening, and far more likely to result in assumptions of bad faith all around. As a director without an MFA, I felt time and again that I was being discriminated against in applications because of my lack of Yale/UCSD/whatever pedigree. And perhaps sometimes I was. But I was probably also being rejected at times because I wrote shitty applications.
All of this leads me to believe that finding ways to increase authentic, good-faith contact between theaters and playwrights is a good thing. But this kind of contact might not look like what anyone expects it to.
I have to imagine that, to female playwrights who have more often than not faced the Blank Wall Of Rejection, to also be excluded from THE LIST feels doubly painful. It’s like rejection from a club you never knew existed. This pain is real, and shouldn’t be discounted. But it’s also an unfortunate reality that the strength of THE LIST lies in the fact that not everyone can be on it.