Something about this HowlRound article about the theater of the future by Meiyin Wang continues to nag at me. Here’s the quote:
There will be no titles of playwrights, directors, actors, designers, managers, producers. There will be theater makers. That will be all that is allowed on a name card. “Theater maker.” People you meet will include a writer/designer. A director/electrician. A sculptor/actor. A film editor/musician. A cook/dramaturg. A plumber/poet.
Part of what bugs me about the quote is that it conjures, at least in my mind, this image of nondescript, generic “theater maker” drones, all of us interchangeable (and thus utterly replaceable). Part of the problem is also — I think I’m self-aware enough to realize this — that I’ve invested a great deal, psychologically, in the title “playwright,” and I don’t want to lose it. Part of me just doesn’t think speculating about the future is ever a very accurate endeavor, and I just want to dismiss the whole thing as (given the odds and the multiple future universes that might unfold) highly unlikely.
I also struggle with the simple fact that I’m not actually a “theater maker” by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve directed a few times, but only my own work, and I’m not particularly skilled in that regard. I’ll happily (if begrudgingly) do readings for friends, but I’m not a good actor, and I respect the talent of my friends well enough to know I never will be. It’s been years since I hung lights or ran a light board or built a set, and while I might be helpful as an assistant in those endeavors, I’d also be bored after a while. I’m a playwright and only a playwright… and honestly, I’m fine with that.
What bothers me more than anything, though, is that the prediction she makes seems to fly in the face of virtually every other trend we’ve seen across the entire world in the last hundred years or more. That just doesn’t seem smart. We artists are so doggedly interested in bucking the system, in resisting the tide, in fighting the good fight, and given how marginalized we are in America, that makes sense… but we do sometimes carry the rebellion a bit too far, don’t we? This may be one of those times.
Not long ago, my wife needed to find a doctor for an ailment arising from a metal plate she’d had implanted in her arm many years earlier. She started with a visit our general practitioner, but he was of little use. We had x-rays taken, and I sent those x-rays to a dear old friend who happens to be a gifted trauma surgeon, hoping he could direct us to someone who understood arms. My friend sent us not to an arm surgeon, but to THE surgeon in the entire region who specializes precisely in the unique section of the arm she was having trouble with. He was the kind of doctor who only performs a small number of surgeries, over and over again all year long, year after year, keeping up with new techniques for dealing a small handful of nerves and muscles and bones. There aren’t more than a small handful of medical professionals with his expertise. He’s exactly who we wanted to diagnose and treat her condition. (Which, thankfully, did not require surgery.)
I’m sure you can see where this is headed, but I’ll continue a bit longer. When I needed a lawyer a few years ago, to handle a very particular matter, I didn’t just Google the term “lawyer” and contact the first person who came up in the search results. I asked around, interviewed a few candidates, and found a lawyer with expertise in the issue with which I was struggling. (She did great work.) When my wife and I wanted help finding a home in Silver Spring, we didn’t just choose any Maryland-licensed realtor; we chose someone who knew our neighborhood and understood our unique needs.
Specialization is how we made all of those decisions. It’s how most of us make most of our decisions. We don’t just want any mustard: we want stone-ground or honey-mustard or horseradish, in a plastic squeeze jar or a glass jar, in bulk or in small gourmet-sized quantities — and there are companies that have specialized in each of those niches. There aren’t four television networks providing all of our entertainment and informational needs; there are hundreds and hundreds in multiple languages, accessible on a variety of different devices and in different packages. There aren’t generic “biologists” studying all of the world’s species and infectious diseases and evolutionary history; there are sub-categories of sub-categories of sub-categories of biological scientists, each researching very particular questions about very particular organisms. Whatever unique needs we have, a specialist or class of specialists emerges to respond to them.
Why should theater be any different? Why should we have playwright/lighting designer/actors, when every other industry is made up of, oh, ninth-inning pinch-hitting right fielders and organic Kenyan coffee importers? Are we really any different?
No, we aren’t. We might wish we were, but we just aren’t. We might even — as cultural leaders — advocate for things to be different in the world (though specialization seems to have brought us some pretty spectacular things, so I can’t see why we would), but we aren’t magically exempt from the grand tides that tug on the human species in the modern world.
Those tides would seem to suggest that we are in fact more likely to have, say, mystery playwrights and adaptation playwrights and even St. Louis playwrights and all other sorts of highly-specialized playwright varieties than “theater makers.” (You could write the same sort of sentence for, say, scenic designers or directors or costumers, but you get my point.) Although I’d like to think that I can write in any genre, the fact of the matter is that there are some — farce, for example — to which I’m not suited. I don’t write musicals, and I wouldn’t even know where to start. There are many subjects with which I’d find it very hard to engage, but a few I am called to again and again, engaging with them from different angles, but always with the same specific voice and intellectual intent and creative inquisition.
Yes, we are all generally “theater makers.” (Though I prefer the term “theater practitioner.” To me, it’s a practice, not a construction project; you do it over and over and over again, and it’s never done.) We may appreciate and understand each other’s tasks and skills, we may speak a shared language, and we may create and sweat and dance alongside each other, but we are not the same. We are a team of specialists, gathered together to perform a shared creative task, one that requires many diverse skills in which each of us has, I hope, deep expertise.
Even those of us, like Meiyin Wang, who seem to be interested in questioning this trend toward specialization are also, I would argue, specialists: they serve the unique purpose of questioning our categories and our limits, refreshing them and reinvigorating our sense of who we are and why we call ourselves what we call ourselves. For that they are essential to us.
Finally, let me close by saying that I am not suggesting we all need to remain in a single box. In fact, as I argued not long ago on 2amtheatre.com, I think most artists ought to develop a significant second (non-theatrical) career, for a variety of reasons. But even those jobs, if I’m reading trends correctly, are likely to be more and more specialized, especially as the world’s population continues to grow. Instead of playwright/lighting designers, we might have science playwright/pediatric dental surgeons. (To be fair, Wang did refer to “plumber/poet” as a possibility, which is at least closer to what I’m suggesting.) That strikes me as a far more likely (and desirable) future… though predicting what’s to come is still, I believe, generally a fool’s errand.