I've been sort of stewing on this for a couple of days. It actually synced up in my brain with some thoughts I'd been having about this post of Isaac's from a while back. In the comments to Nick's post and in the other conversations that have popped up, the focus is on the O'Neill and their open submissions practice and open submissions in general and not the actual point of the post: theatre runs on gossip. It's a pretty basic truth, so, you know, duh. To paraphrase Jesus, wherever two or three theatre people are gathered, you can bet your ass they're talking about someone else. (Hey, be careful with that gag...it's an antique!) Most shows, especially the small ones, depend on word of mouth to generate an audience and word of mouth is just gossip that benefits you. It's built into the DNA of what we do. But it comes with a pretty bad dark side and something that, I think, is one of the things that keeps us as a bit of an artistic backwater.
In an e-mail exchange a while back, Isaac posed the whole "why don't playwrights review plays" question and my response was that it had a lot to do with profit motive: a review from a playwright couldn't be trusted because either they were trying to curry favor with the theatre or they were trying to drag down a rival. Since most reviews are primarily a tool for generating sales (as you can see, I may not have the best feelings about the state of criticism in this country right now), who would want a rival doing the reviewing?
That sense of mistrust is at the heart of some of my frustration with blogging and theatre in general. It's hard to avoid, even for me. When Theresa Rebeck writes about the lack of solid structure she sees in young playwrights, the conversation revolves around how it's really about why her plays aren't being well-received or something. When Roland Tec(o) accuses the O'Neill of being a rigged game, it's really about jealousy and sour grapes. When the O'Neill responds, it's really about covering their ass. When I write about the representation of black playwrights, it's really just a plea for more attention. Everyone's motives are questionable and we basically believe the absolute worst of each other. I'd say it's just out here in the blogosphere, but we all know how it is when we meet in the lobby, at the bar after the show, three blocks away from the theatre. (And that's even more gossip, isn't it?) The default is to not take anyone at face value. How do we build communities like that?
We talk about the external pressures that we face, but there are the internal things that we do to ourselves. The vicious cycle of secrecy, gossip and mistrust is one of them. It stunts our work and our communities, in no small part, because it perpetuates the zero-sum game we play. In order for me to win, you have to lose. So I have to hold my cards close to my vest, make sure you don't know who I'm talking to or dealing with, what opportunities I have coming my way. I can neither confirm nor deny anything. It all stays in the realm of gossip and rumor.
I know this is probably pretty ironic coming from an anonymous blogger. Funny that. But there it is. It affects other fields, too, I know, and even things that aren't in the arts, but somehow it seems more pernicious in theatre. Gossip, rumor and innuendo pass for information and not just about projects or who's sleeping with who, but artistic intentions and career motivations. Everything is suspect and everything is fair game. Sometimes working in this field feels like one long, unending circular firing squad.