Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nothing To See Here

Isaac notices something. His commenters, in particular Aaron Riccio, disagree, pooh-pooh it, say, in essence, there's nothing to see here, keep it moving. And I sigh and shake my head.

After the last dust-up around race and theatre, I've backed off. It gets too contentious, too quickly, people I like say things I disagree with and everyone winds up with a bad taste in their mouth. But...just because it's hard, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be talking about it.

Playwrights and the Public are the first of the major NYC institutions to announce for 2010-2011, at least their tent poles and both are pretty white. We'll see how the other ones come out. Who knows.

Aaron, in Isaac's comments, asks:
It just seems like there's always going to be something to complain about, though. I mean, if not this, it'd be that they weren't having any female playwrights. This is NOT to say that there isn't under-representation. However, I'd be curious (again, I'm a stat man, so if this study already exists, please direct me to it) if there's a demographic study of the current pool of playwrights.
Well. I don't know if he's heard about this book, Outrageous Fortune. Some folks have talked about it. You know, a little bit. Of the 250 playwrights surveyed, which I think would be "the current crop of playwrights" more or less, 76% were white and 24% were people of color, which, overall, hews fairly close to demographics of the nation (though that may change soon). So you would think that a quarter of the plays produced on our stages would be by writers of color. And, in New York City, which has a markedly different racial make-up from the rest of the country, you would expect something markedly different, particularly from our Off-Broadway theatres. (And if Aaron wants more demographics of the field, there's also this study. The findings are remarkably similar, which suggests it's a wider issue.)

I'm not trying to make a case for affirmative action or quotas here. They are something I believe in, that's for sure, and I support, but I do recognize that, given the nature of theatre, they're not necessarily optimal or even feasible. (Who would enforce them? How do you factor for quality? Other, far smarter people than I have some ideas and answers, but that's for another post.) But, to begin with, recognizing that there is a problem is the first step.

It's funny to me that we have no problem in other areas. Take this initiative. It seems like lots of folks are on board for that. Martin Denton's has a whole section devoted to keeping track. I don't recall seeing any pushback on that front, any questioning of whether or not that's necessary or if the demographics of the playwriting pool demand it. (For the record, the Outrageous Fortune pool was 48% women.) I'm not trying to compare oppressions or get into my lot is worse than yours. I'm simply talking about the field's response to stimulus. Emily Glassberg Sands did her thing and we got this. Maybe if we have a study of minority playwrights, we'll get a section on

Anyone who's been reading this blog lately has seen that I'm pretty aware of the state of racism in this country these days. Contra freeman, this is part of that conversation. How does theatre confront the "actual" racism if we can't attend to our own houses? If we're only hearing part of the conversation?

To go in the Way Back Machine, Adam Feldman had a pretty good list of plays by black playwrights last season here. And that's not even the work by Asian playwrights or Latino/a playwrights. And that's not to say there aren't bright spots coming up. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to talk about, to consider, to discuss.

Obviously, this should be the beginning of the conversation. But it's a conversation we need to be having.


Aaron Riccio said...

I actually skipped the discussion on Outrageous Fortune because it seemed to be written more about the anecdotal struggle within the system than a stat-based study of it, but I'll definitely get a copy now.

In any case, I'm not saying there's not racism. And in the quote of mine you used, I'm clearly not denying that under-representation can be a problem. However, I'm saying is that if it's 76-24, then out of the last 100 new plays done at major NYC institutions, roughly 24 of them should be by black playwrights. If you go by the OOB breakdown, it's actually 77 white and 5 black (3 hispanic, 5 multiracial).

To be fair, you need to poll more than 210 people, and you might want to let people self-report, so that a black playwright who can't get produced because he's black at least reflects the discrimination in the stats.

My larger point is that sometimes stats get wonky, ala Guildenstern's 86 heads in a row. So unless in the LONG run, theaters are consistently skewed from the average, it looks bad to jump down their throat--it makes them less able to worry about programming first, and more about fulfilling quotas (which I know you say you're not for).

Sure, start the conversation. But fill it with facts so that when we say discrimination, nobody can say we're crying wolf (which is what constant reports on the horrors of PH's current season will do).

RVCBard said...

I get the importance, but I have a sinking feeling that I've heard all this before, and the cost of engagement is too much for me considering what people usually take from it (as Racialicious explains).

99 said...

Yeah, stats are a big part of OF and one of the reasons it was really a hallmark achievement. Since so much of the conversation seemed to focus on the whinyness of playwrights, I can see why a lot of people checked out on it. But you really should take a look at it.

I know you're not denying under-representation is a problem. (And let's also be clear: that's what we're talking about, not really racism, institutional or otherwise, but representation.) I'm not just relying on the OOB study, which is indeed small and doesn't really track, on its own, to places like Playwrights or the Public. But taken with the stats in OF and in other studies, like the recent NEA demographics study, it does paint an overall picture of a fairly white field.

There is a place for the long view and the historical perspective, sure. But I don't see pointing out a lack of people of color as jumping down anyone's throat. I'm not calling for a boycott or picketing or even wagging a finger or speculating about how it happened. Neither is Isaac. It's an observation and a conversation starter.

In the long view, yes, the Public and Playwrights have been pretty supportive to writers of color. Next season, though, they're not. Do they get a pass? Or should we expect more? For the record, I am for quotas; I just don't think they're necessarily practical. I'm not advocating for them here.

Aaron Riccio said...

Sorry, I misread your thing about quotas. Do you have any posts about that? I'd be curious to learn why you think they'd be a good thing (assuming that they could be enforced).

Anyway, would you jump at the chance to criticize a theater for having *more* than 25% black playwrights, i.e., a point at which it would then be under-representing white playwrights? No. That's why things like the census are important: you need to know if there's actually under-representation going on. Here's an example:

Boil stats down to their most basic. Say that there are (by the national average) 76 white playwrights and 12 black ones. If those 12 black playwrights are having their new plays produced (assuming they all wrote a new one this year, and that all 12 are actually WORTH producing), and then assuming the same stuff for the 76 white playwrights, you are going to wind up with some major institutions that have an all-white slate of plays. This is why I think it's not worth yelling at PH or the Public--perhaps Vineyard, Signature, Soho, and Second Stage optioned all the plays that PH and the Public were interested in.

That's why quotas are interesting. If there are 13 major institutions, and each one is mandated to produce a new play by a black playwright, then the unlucky 13th winds up having to put on a bad play. That's not much of an achievement for anyone.

Scott Walters said...

MLK wrote powerfully about this lets-go-slow mentality in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." This isn't about stats, it is about what is right.

Aaron Riccio said...

So, Scott, that's the real discussion then, no? What is right?

Scott Walters said...

I think so, Aaron. Stats are important to provide evidence, but they are not the argument itself. In the case, the argument is: Are our theatres diverse enough? If the answer is no, then we have to take some action. And given the narrowness of the educational pool, which disseminates general ideology concerning what constitutes "quality," I don't think that the "quality" argument is fruitful -- unless we can really decide on some criteria instead of relying simply on personal taste.

99 said...

Aaron, the flaw in your experiments is that it assumes that ALL of the white plays are of equal quality. They're not. And they're not being chosen SOLELY on the basis of quality. There are a ton of needs, expectations, relationships and assumptions that go into the selection of a season. Adding one more, that if your theatre has a mission statement of inclusion, you should be aiming for more equal representation. If the Public announced its season and it was five plays by black people, would I complain? You're right. I wouldn't. And the historical perspective is part of it; it's had plenty of seasons of all-white plays. It can balance it out. And it might balance this out.

It's not a criticism to point out the fact that a season is all white. So far, no one is accusing anyone of racism or of selecting these plays BECAUSE they're white. It does none of the plays selected a disservice. It's simply noting that this is the reality here and asking the question: what does that mean?

Aaron Riccio said...

But this is where I'm tangled up in stats. You're saying that our theaters are not diverse enough. But if there are 77 white playwrights to every 12 black playwrights, then if there are 77 "white" shows and 12 "black" shows, then that *is* diverse "enough." To have this discussion, then, we all need to be on the same page about what "diverse enough" means.

99 said...

But that's nationally. We're also talking about NYC, which has a different racial make-up.

I completely agree with you that we have to be able to agree what's diverse enough, and that's a difficult thing to settle on. Is the NBA diverse? Is MLB? Can simply being colorblind solve it?

It's a very, very tangled issue. And stats are a part of it, the jumping off point. Do we settle for the stats we have, in which case 77 to 12 (black) is fine. Or the stats of the nation? Or the city?

This will sound like a criticism or an accusation, but the larger question is this: these two institutions couldn't find a single playwright of color to produce next season? Not one? Does that sound right?

Scott Walters said...

There is active racism and passive racism. Active racism would choose white plays because they are white; passive racism would choose white plays because of "other considerations;" and active anti-racism would commit to a more diverse season.

Using the current stats regarding African-American and White playwrights ignores the effects of past discrimination, which likely led to there being fewer African-American playwrights overall.

Using the population of NYC overall would be much better, but that would require theatre artists to actually consider themselves as part of a localized theatre scene, not a globalized one. That's the right way to think about it, but it definitely is not the current orientation.

Aaron Riccio said...

@99, in my experiment, it's actually assumed that *all* plays are of equal quality, white and black, but I understand what you're saying. However, going simply for the QUALITY of a play is wholly against the QUOTA system that you're for--it's actually like letting Ayn Rand be your Artistic Director: she will only ever select the BEST play, regardless of anything else.

Also--and this is why I cling to stats (surprisingly, since I'm a critic)--this brings us to a too-too subjective place. Which is that to some people (and this is the racism we won't but need to talk about), a black play will NEVER be as good as a white play. And that's what leads to under-representation. It's also what leads to stuff like Looped or All About Me making it to Broadway. Or Holocaust agitprop like The Singing Forest and The Retributionists being produced (to cite PH and Public).

I'm actually sort of for quotas, in the sense that (as Scott as on Isaac's site), they'll at least force a company to explore other themes, and that may surprise them (and their audience). I just think that statistics are critical to that, and that in this case, we're letting our qualitative emotions overrule what may be quantitative facts that we simply dislike. (Again, I haven't actually looked at the last 100 shows produced, and I'm still unclear as to what "diverse enough" would mean or look like.)

Sorry if I'm monopolizing the conversation--I rarely jump into the non-review forums, but I'm genuinely curious about all this, especially since I started reviewing shows as a way of helping to even out the under-representation of off-off-Broadway.

Tony Adams said...

If you're using census data as a measuring stick, NYC is vastly different than the rest of the country (as is Chicago), and much less white. Though you'd never know that from most of our stages.

Outrageous Fortune had some breakdown of how white writers fare vs. writers of color and how men fare vs. women, but none on women of color.

From what I was told there wasn't a large enough sample size. (When I talked to Victoria about it at the Chicago gathering they were going to look back and see if they could find more info.)

A big problem with surveys like Outrageous Fortune and the OOB survey is they only include writers who are already being produced, so they're self-reinforcing.

Aaron Riccio said...

It seems like we're actually more in agreement than it seems. Sorry if I put words in your mouths here, but 99 and Scott, you both seem to be for stats: you just want them to reflect NYC. Tony's on that page, too, and as I said earlier, I'm well aware of the vicious circle that current census measures create, especially with a limited sample size.

The only spot where I outright disagree is that we ought to use the overall population ( The breakdown of race in NYC may be 2:1:1 (white:black:Hispanic), but even if you applied that metric only to theaters that produced work developed in NYC, it wouldn't do you much good if the breakdown of playwrights was 77:12:5, and I do maintain you'd have a quality issue, one that would become its own vicious circle, with audiences being turned off to "black" theater because the odds of seeing a bad "black" show (1/12) would be much higher than those of seeing a bad "white" show (2/77), as you'd have a--irony alert--more diverse selection from the pool of "white" shows.

But this is why I'm all for increased arts education--so that playwrights more resemble the breakdown of the population. This is why I'm all for companies that want to focus on all-black productions or seasons of revivals of only black plays. (I've only been talking about new work.)

And this is why I'm not going to point at PH (even though the Bock play is the only one that sounds even remotely "new" and interesting); maybe they were finding playwrights of color, but they're choosing to produce those plays next season (which would still fit the stats) because those shows weren't ready for this season. Like I said, unless it's a more noticeable trend with these theaters--specifically these two--it's crying wolf.

RVCBard said...


I find your assumption about the inferiority of Black theatre a bit unsettling.

Scott Walters said...

Given the low quality of most theatre in general, Aaron, I'd say that the likelihood of seeing a "bad show," no matter the race of the playwright, is so high as to make this argument a non-starter.

As a historian, I'd say, rather than rely on number crunching, we would do better to look at history. In England the 1950s, the English theatre was dominated by a very narrow demographic based on class and geography and exemplified by the Oxbridge accents and social orientation of its artists. The "Look Back in Anger" arrived at the Royal Court, and the Court committed to the production of working class and regional plays (Pinter, Storey, Arden, Wesket, et al) and working class and regional actors (Alan Bates, Peter Finch, et al). The result: a the famed british First Wave and Second Wave of plays and a general renaissance of the theatre overall. The commitment of the Royal Court served as the catalyst for an influx of previously ignored playwrights and actors and previously rejected subject matter. This is about normative issues.

Aaron Riccio said...

@RCV -- I'm sorry, if I wrote something that implied I though black theater was inferior, that's a rushed mistake phrasing on my part. What were you referring to? (What I meant is that statistically, the more you have to choose from, the better.)

And Scott, you're right about low quality, but isn't that part of the problem with eroding audiences, especially among my generation? If you're limiting your pool to fill a slot, it seems as if you're making it even harder to mount a good show. For example, say my college mandates that, in order to get funding, my company must produce one NEW play a year, and that the play must be written by a student, and that the student must be in the current playwriting class. I may find a good play this way, but might've found a better one if ALL students who had taken playwriting were eligible, or all students were eligible, or all plays were eligible, &c.

I don't know the history, so how is it that "Look Back in Anger" came to the Court? How do you do that here?

Scott Walters said...

All pools are limited, Aaron. Nobody is reading every play available. Consequently, what plays get produced is less contingent on the so-called quality of the play than on who the playwright knows. This brings us back to the issue of the small number of MFA playwriting programs whose faculty are able to pull strings to get their students' plays read. It is called privilege, and it bears a greater resemblance to your example than most would be comfortable admitting. So we already have a situation with a limited pool. What I am suggesting is that the pool be limited in some other way than socio-economic privilege.

F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote something to the effect that one should never marry for money, but instead hang out with rich people and marry for love. This is the same basic concept as I am proposing. Commit to certain values (e.g., African-American playwrights), read those plays (or better yet, get to know those playwrights and commit to them), and then "marry for love" -- choose the plays that you love.

Aaron Riccio said...

Well-said, Scott. I can't argue with that. But how do we decide on the values that ought to be met? Part of the reason I disliked PH getting called out is that their mission is to support "Contemporary American Playwrights"--they have committed to those values, they do read those plays (as far as I know), and they do marry for love. Harsh of us to disapprove of their weddings.

August Schulenburg said...

J, does have an RSS Feed for Playwrights of Color as one of their PlaywrightALERTS here:

I'm not sure how up to date the feed is, as it was created in early January of this year. It seems it functions on a similar feed as the gender breakdown page, so I think it should be possible to provide a similar breakdown for playwrights of color. I would love for us to have access to that real time information, though it is important to remember the sheer scope of excellent services is already providing the field with such a small staff.

Also, though I'm not certain, I think the gender breakdown page was inspired by the 50/50 in 2020 group and less by the Sands report itself - the breakdown is labeled as such. Part of the power of that group is in the clarity of their goal; and part comes from using their Facebook fanpage as a meet-up group to support theatres who are producing women playwrights by actually attending their shows.

So yes, a Sands report on playwrights (and directors) of color would be valuable, but a realtime study of our local community may be possible now; and I think a group dedicated to supporting companies producing playwrights of color like 50/50 w/similarly articulated mission and goals could likewise be a catalyst for change.

Scott Walters said...

Indeed, Aaron. But perhaps it is time for theatre artists to take responsibility for their contribution to society, and not just the furtherance of the art form. America would be a better place with more diverse stories being told. And those stories should be integrated into the populace at large, not (or not only) confined like an RSS feed within race-specific institutions.

99 said...

First, I want to thank all of y'all for a good thread with good discussion and conversation. It's interesting and thought-provoking.

@Aaron- I do think we're mostly in agreement on this stuff. But one thing to note is that there is a matter of perspective to think about. You seem to be looking at the NYC theatre scene as a whole, where there are 100 slots available. PH has 6 slots. It decides on those slots separate from how the Public decides. Each theatre is an individual actor. And, left to their own devices, when you factor in the lack of black administrators, it becomes that much more likely to wind up with all-white seasons.

That's why just giving a theatre a pass and saying, "Well, maybe get 'em in next year" is inadequate. Each theatre is its own community and world.

And I agree with Scott on the RSS feed. I think that's excellent that they do that. But the Plays By Women is a link on the main page which takes you to a special page and a running count of not just plays produced, but reviewed by It's a terrific effort and appreciated. But it's only serving one aspect of diversity. For me to hunt and find the RSS feed requires me to be the main actor in that.

RVCBard said...

And there's also the problem of intersectionality, which is often ignored in talks about diversity. But what this model ignores are what I call the crossroads of identity, effectively erasing the people who live in them.

Just focusing on race and gender alone, too often, there is an assumed default (cisgender) Whiteness when it comes to womanhood and a default (cisgender) maleness when it comes to Blackness. So, Black (trans) women, in effect, simply don't exist. When you also include class, religion, and sexuality, the dynamic compounds itself. So eventually, instead of reflecting what's really out there, the stories we see start to look and sound alike, all coming from this narrow band of experience deemed "normal" - pretty much excluding everyone else.

99 said...

Very good points. This is one narrow slice of a big thorny problem and one that extends well past theatre.