Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Modest Proposal 2

I issued a challenge (admittedly, somewhat inspired by Thomas Garvey's provocations) to those critics talking about the lack of diversity in the theatre (especially with regards to the playwrights) to find under-appreciated, and relatively unknown plays and playwrights they deem worthy of production and advocating for them whether their advocacy appears in print, on the blogosphere, or even on the stage. In the ensuing discussion both here and elsewhere, (such as on Guy Yedwab's blog, CultureFuture) I elaborated by noting how common it is for music writers to publish lists of bands, musicians, or recordings, "you probably never heard, but should" and suggested that theatre writers should consider a similar format.

Isaac Butler, whom I concede that I unfairly criticized on several points, did acknowledge in the comments section to my proposal, that while he primarily directs the works of new playwrights who are not part of the MFA system, he hasn't done much to promote those writers much on his own blog-- though in the essentials, we are largely in agreement.

Yedwab (who has since coined the term, "the Ian Thal method of diversity") notes, of course, that this proposal is not enough:

[I]f my friend the playwright isn't being performed, I may not know the right people to pull connections with to get them performed -- and if they don't get performed, I can't send anyone to go see them.
Part of the equation is precisely where a social media platform like BushGreen comes in as a place where new scripts can be posted and read. However, there's also what playwrights can do themselves.

One thing I have done over the course of this past year is realize that Total War was going to be in limbo for a long time if I waited for other parties come in to help develop it, and decided to take a proactive stance, and do it myself: recruiting actors, and presenting readings, and then writing a new draft (in fact, I just booked my next reading for March 28th, so watch this blog for more details.) Any writer can do this.

But I should point out that while I am agitating working around an institutional theatre industry that many seem to believe is not working to produce great new plays, there are some who haven't waited for my call to arms. As August Schulenburg of the Flux Theatre Ensemble pointed out in comments section at CultureFuture, he had already compiled his list of Plays that Need Doing in NYC and noted that
...blogs like Clyde Fitch, Visible Soul, CultureBot, Just Shows To Go You, and Adam Szymkowicz are doing yeoman's work championing lesser known artists through great interview series.
Of course, Szymkowicz' 100 playwrights include a few well-known names, and he does pose the same interview questions to each playwright. I haven't been a regular reader of the other blogs.

In my own community, Whistler in the Dark, a member of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, initiated their Whistler Wednesdays which are specifically for presenting staged readings to new plays and playwrights, where I recently attended a reading of Vladimir Zelevinsky's A Brief History of the Soviet Union

I also have to state my appreciation to Thomas Garvey, who not only showed up at the first staged reading of Total War, offered an extensive critique during the talk-back, encouraged me to rewrite the play, but then promoted the second staged reading on Hub Review. That's precisely the sort of advocacy I'm advocating.

Interestingly enough, as I reflect on these efforts, both my own and those of other cultural workers, I realize that this is a theme central to Total War: if the dominant culture is not providing you with a venue; you have to create your own.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Response to my Modest Proposal

It took a few days before there was much of a response, probably owing to the fact that I posted my "Modest Proposal" on the Jewish-American Festival of Chinese Food and Movie Night (food was excellent, but the restaurant was understaffed, the service was ridiculously slow, and one of my fellow celebrants did not receive her entrée!) But not only was there an active discussion (in which I discovered that Isaac Butler and I agree on possibly the most salient points) but Guy Yedwab over at Culture Future began to take up some of my ideas into his own thinking about diversity in theatre.

He even named a method after me:

That's the Ian Thal method of diversity: making the work we're passionate[about*] be diverse work, and championing it.

*My addition

I think I need to listen to this "Ian Thal" more. Thanks. Guy.

My proposal is a work-in-progress, and there are certainly other aspects on which I will elaborate in another post.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Modest Proposal

More often than not, this blog has focussed on my own activities as an artist, only on occasion discussing larger issues or participating in a larger conversation. This is one of those occasions.

There has been an on-going conversation in the theatrical blogosphere about diversity in theatre. I don't intend to do a full survey, but I'll list off a few items of interest:

There was, of course, Emily Glassberg Sands' "Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater" which while identifying a real problem also had some real flaws that Thomas Garvey suggests were introduced when others tried to co-opted her work to fit their professional and ideological agenda.

Somewhat facetiously, Isaac Butler suggests suing theatres that don't diversify. Of course, Butler's suggestion is so absurdly impractical that it comes across more as an Ayn Randian nightmare caricature of political correctness than anything a serious liberal or progressive would contribute to the discussion, but I link to it because Butler is supposed to be an important theatre-blogger, and I'm apparently banned from posting to his comments section for reasons that are unclear to me (I'm sure it's all a misunderstanding.)

The pseudonymous 99seats has addressed the issue of diversity frequently, noting the class issue of access to theatre programs, notably the MFA, if one happens to be a playwright, as well as the institutionalized racism that prevents minorities from having similar opportunities. Of course, the troublesome statistic from the Theatre Development Fund's report Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of thew New American Play that "seven schools account for almost nine out of ten of the study playwrights with advanced professional training" only raises more questions about the role the academic gatekeepers are having on our culture-- especially when we ask how many of our great living American playwrights actually attended one of these programs? (This is particularly disturbing considering the charges leveled earlier this fall at The O'Neill Theatre regarding their "open" submission policies.)

Now this gets to an important point, brought up by Garvey in his "Meanwhile, over on the theatrical version of Second Life..." that:

To me, of course, art is more important than politics, so what Butler calls "the quality problem" (!) matters a lot, as I think it should to any critic worth his or her salt. And let me say up front that if Butler and Walters had any particular playwright they were promoting, of any gender of race or ethnicity, whose work they claimed had been disadvantaged by the system, I would happily see that writer's work, and be an advocate for them if the quality was there. (As for the insulting idea that people in each ethnic group cannot perceive the excellence of works from other ethnic groups - please, tell it to Alvin Ailey.)

But the diversity partisans never seem to be able to point to any actual work that they feel is being ignored. Add to that issue the troubling fact that the "quality problem" we have is often due to playwrights promoted by the academic-diversity crowd, and you have a situation that - well, does not actually inspire critical confidence.
Essentially, as I often heard growing up in a left-wing household: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem" or as I wrote in the comments section:
Critics should champion the work of artists that they regard as underappreciated or even deliberately seek out new work? I'm not sure the academy would approve of such a radical notion, Thom.
Garvey flattered me as "you mischievous Ian Thal" which, of course, only incites me to greater mischief.

The successful playwright pool is artificially limited largely to those graduates of elite MFA playwriting programs, who reflect certain class interests and address "diversity issues" primarily in academically fashionable ways. Indeed, if I am granted the opportunity to propose a hypothesis (which I freely admit is but a hunch): the current manner in which "diversity" is treated by the "diversity advocates" (and please note, I am speaking only about plays and playwrights) might actually be creating obstacles that prevent playwrights of diverse backgrounds from emerging.

Despite his frequent self-deprecation, my friend, Chris Rich, who writes about jazz on his blog, Brilliant Corners, has developed something of a reputation for discovering artists and being the first to write about them. Part of that comes from his hanging about Outpost 186, where so many great and oft ignored jazz musicians play. However he has another method as well: He surfs for musicians on MySpace Music where musicians without labels and without buzz post their music. He then uses his own knowledge of the music to sort out the good from the bad. It's that simple. He doesn't wait for a major label to tell him that this musician is important.

So now for my mischief: I challenge you critics, producers, and artistic directors who should be advocating for great theatre. Find an underappreciated, underproduced, perhaps unknown playwright who should be appreciated, produced and known. Better yet: find six, eight, ten, and advocate for them. You need only go to, a social media platform supported by London's Bush Theatre, where hundreds, if not thousands, of playwrights have already posted their plays, irrespective of whether or not they have the MFA. I'm already there. If you see it as your mission to serve a specific community or constellation of communities, most of the playwrights have already tagged their plays with labels to help you narrow down your search. I'm sure you will find something worthy of your advocacy.

On the other hand, maybe that amounts to usurption of the academic gatekeepers, and we can't have that, can we?

[N.B.12/26/2009: I seem to have overestimated the number of playwrights and plays currently posted to perhaps because I had to search around for that information. There appear to be ~120 playwrights and around 400+ plays.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Total War on bushgreen

Despite what I now consider to have been an over-reaction to the suggestion that my plays might be made available online, the much deserved ribbing for said over-reaction by fellow blogger 99seats, I still had concerns as to how playwrights could be expected to make their work available online in such a manner that benefits them as well as the potential audience.

Though it may have appeared as if I had taken an ideological hardline with regards to sharing my work; I have decided to try out bushgreen, a new social networking platform for playwrights set up by London's Bush Theatre.

It's an experiment for me, but interested parties can find me here and perhaps read the latest draft of Total War here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Copley Square Farmers' Market, 2003

This is an excerpt from Spaces/Places: Voiced Reflections a program presented by Somerville Community Access Television in 2003 to coincide with The Windows Art Project. Lisa Smith produced and Doug Holder was the host.

My piece, Copley Square Farmers' Market, which was originally published in Poesy Magazine, comes in at about 1:30. Because there was a long line of presenters who were mostly reading from the page, the studio was set up in such a manner that I had to modify what was then my performance style to be done from a seated position (yes, that's a green screen in the background.)

Thanks to Chad Parenteau for uploading this. Chad gives a strong reading in this clip.