What happens to you when somebody tells you a story?
I happen to believe (with conviction but not evidence) that stories work in two ways: they either deepen the pathways and associations we already have in our brains, reminding us of what we’ve already learned, or they create new pathways and associations, helping us explore new ideas and possibilities.
The best stories in the former mode are familiar, grounding, deeply true, eternal, and often comforting. The worst are cliché-ridden, nostalgic, stereotypical, oppressive, and dull.
The best stories in the latter mode are instructive, unsettling, disruptive, revelatory, and transgressive. (This is the mode in which I prefer to write.) The worst stories in this mode are obnoxious, silly, adolescent, and discordant.
All stories, of course, probably fall somewhere along a spectrum between those two modes.
This is what I’ve been thinking about ever since the recent national conversation about gender representation in the theater after the Guthrie’s announcement of its male-playwright-heavy 2012-13 season, as well as the local-to-DC conversation about playwright demographics.
I’ve been thinking that my real concern with a lack of diversity in the stories being told on our stages isn’t, ultimately, only demographic. It’s also that there might be far too little of the second mode: for the country, perhaps, and (definitely) for me.
I say that there “might” be too little of the second mode because… well… I honestly don’t know for sure. I have no idea how I would know without actually seeing all of the plays we produce.
(I know that I can’t make assumptions based on demographic information. Some, I fear, thought I was doing that very thing when I crunched the numbers for DC: equating the storyteller with the story itself. I didn’t intend to be making that false equivalence. The real truth is far more nuanced.)
Anyway, I might be completely wrong. It’s just a fear I have.
Theater, like every other art form, serves two purposes: transmitting existing ideas (the first mode) and creating new ideas (the second mode). I happen to believe that, for the health and future of our democracy and its citizens, we need more new ideas right now than old ones, or at least more new ideas than we currently have. You may disagree.
However we define diversity, I do think we need to address the lack thereof. Some have suggested creative solutions: sending plays written by women to theaters who haven’t produced any plays written by women, for instance. Some, on the other hand, have called for boycotts (or girlcotts). For the record, though I understand the impulse, I’m not in favor; I think it’d be a case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
I think we theater practitioners need to stand together to create change, not fight one another. I am inclined instead to find and share and support and emulate bright spots. I also happen to believe that simply calling attention to the imbalances we see, year after year, is eventually going to effect change. I’ve tried to do my part by digging up what data I have time to find, sharing it with the world, and cheering when others have done the same thing.
At the same time, I also need to make personal decisions about what stories I want to be told. I need to decide — and one ought to decide this very mindfully, I think — what I’m going to let other people do to my brain.
With that in mind, what I am going to try to do for myself in the coming 2012-13 theater season is to choose (as best I can) second-mode plays. This will be an impossible task, I admit up front; I’ll consider it an ideal, more than anything, and aspire to reach it. To be clear, this is a personal decision for me: it’s just because I think those plays will be good for my mind and my art.
I’m also going to make sure that my 2012-13 theater season is balanced: that I’m seeing a diverse array of plays written by a diverse array of playwrights, no matter who’s producing them. This is something that I wish more people would do as well. But…
I’m going to do those things for me; those are my decisions for myself. I don’t mean for them to be prescriptive, because… well, how could they be? You might be a Shakespeare-phile; if so, we’re probably (okay, definitely) going to see different plays during the upcoming season, but you aren’t wrong to see what you want to see. You might decide to see ONLY plays written by the members of a certain demographic segment, for a variety of reasons: more power to you, I say.
I would suggest that the most important thing we can all do — given that we can’t change the options we’ve been given — is select from among them mindfully. And I hope to be able to do that for myself.