Friday, November 14, 2014

In The Thick Of It (and how I learned to stop worrying about climbing)

Images from the plays I've been working on in this 18-month stretch.

There's a certain inherent dissatisfaction that can be part of having an artistic career, and playwriting is no different. There's never much money, there aren't many production slots, and there's always a hope for the next "bigger" thing. Maybe this reading will lead to a production, maybe this production will catch the attention of someone in New York, maybe an off off Broadway show will move to Off Broadway, maybe Broadway will come calling. Maybe the next reading will lead to a production at an NNPN theatre, or a LORT theatre. Maybe the show will get a positive review, in someplace important, maybe someone will notice my work, will notice me.

I confess to having these thoughts. They're not particularly productive. They haven't caused any of these things to happen. Thoughts like these are good at adding to a general sense of unease and anxiety. And though they generate pressure to perform, I'm not convinced they lead to the creation of better work. They do lead to a general far-sightedness, that lifts the eyes up to the horizon and removes focus from the people and work sitting right in front of me.

As much as I have ambitions of "bigger" things for me and my work, I haven't spent much time thinking about such things lately. My attention has been completely absorbed by the work at hand, and I feel like I'm the luckiest writer in the world. I'm in the midst of an 18-month stretch of working on seven different full-length plays and musicals, with more than a dozen readings, workshops, and productions of those seven plays. (A few of the scripts were written a while ago, but they're getting readings and productions now.)  Sometimes it feels like creative whiplash, trying to unlock the mental bin for Lost in Lexicon and then switch the next week/day to Lab Rats and then back to Distant Neighbors.

I don't know that any of these productions or readings are designed or likely to lead to something "bigger." They might not be impressive to people higher up the theatrical food chain. But I don't care. I love the sensation of being completely immersed in the warm (and sometimes turbulent) waters of theatre and creation. I love getting to work with collaborative artists from so many different companies. With the exception of Clockwise Theatre in Illinois and Liminal Space in London, all the companies I'm working with are here in Boston, so I'm getting to work with people who part of the community where I live. I'm engaging with an audience of theatre goers who surround me every day.

More and more, I'm realizing that the place where I want to be is exactly where I am, and the thing I want to do is what I'm doing right now. I'm working, I'm creating, I'm part of a creative community that gives me an electric jolt every day. I'm not spending so much time looking ahead for what's next, I'm just trying to make the most of where I am right now, and enjoy every minute of it.

I've found the whirlwind I've been looking for, and I wanted to say that I'm here and I'm grateful.


(Special thanks for that whirlwind need to go to: In Good Company, Clockwise Theatre, Tumblehome Learning, Argos Productions, Liminal Space, Fresh Ink, Theatre on Fire, and the Bostonian Society.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hey, kids, what color are your gatekeepers?

I've been putting off writing about this.  My motivation for blogging comes in spurts. This has been a busy time for my theatre work--with lots of workshops and readings and productions of plays coming up.

I write books, too, of course.  And both my books and my plays often deal with race, either directly or indirectly.  Actually, ALL of my books have race as an important element to the characters or the story.  I don't write books with an all white cast of characters (though if I did, race would still be playing a factor, let's not kid ourselves), because I'm interested in a multi-racial world and I live in a multi-racial family.

As a writer of novels, I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to find publishers for those books.  Sometimes with some success--my first book, Tornado Siren, found a small publisher and sometimes not--I self published my second novel, Moving [a life in boxes], and my third novel, Buried Treasure, about a young black girl and her white adoptive grandfather on a high stakes treasure hunt, remains unpublished.  I'm currently trying to figure out what happens next for a Civil War novel about the escaped slave and national hero (and eventual Congressman), Robert Smalls.

Partly it's my scarcity of success that's made me reluctant to write about gatekeepers in the world of fiction, but I'm not the only one thinking about this stuff.  There's even a whole online campaign now called We Need Diverse Books.  And in the March 16 Sunday New York Times of this year, the late Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher, published a pair of essays under the title, "Where Are The People Of Color in Children's Books?" (The second is actually The Apartheid of Children's Literature.) They talk about the power of books and stories to shape our perception of the world and ourselves.  And why it's important, not just for kids of color to be able to read books that have characters of color in them, but also for white readers, in order to have a more complex view of people who aren't white and come from different backgrounds.

Myers writes:
Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?

The intro to the article points to a study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, with this killer stat:  "Of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people." You don't have to be a numbers guy like me to have a stat like this make you catch your breath.  This is not saying 93 were BY black writers.  It's saying there were only 93 ABOUT black people. 

There's lots more numbers on their site.  For 2013, only 68 children's books were BY black writers.  Books ABOUT Latinos: 57 (48 written by Latinos).

This doesn't say anything about how they're represented, just whether they're there.  Now, as an adoptive parent of two black children, I've spent a lot of time trying to find books with characters of color that might be of interest to my kids.  And just try finding a middle-grade novel with a black main character that is not about urban problems or violence. They're just not out there. (Well, that depends on how you look at it.  They exist.  Hell, I wrote one.  But they're not being published.)

Here's the crazy thing--when my daughter was born, in 1994, there were actually MORE children's books about African-Americans published, 166, than there were in 2013.  That's right--the number has declined by 43%.  The peak was actually in 1997, at 216.

Is it any wonder that we live in a society where there is so much racial misunderstanding and incomprehension?  (And violence as a result.)  Is it any wonder that the publishing industry flops around like a fish gasping for breath, when in a country where almost 40% of the population are people of color, less than 8% of children's books are about characters of color. 

Christopher Myers wonders at the cause--the "Market" is often blamed.
The closest I can get to the orchestrator of the plot — my villain with his ferret — is The Market. Which I think is what they all point to because The Market is so comfortably intangible that no one is worried I will go knocking down any doors. The Market, I am told, just doesn’t demand this kind of book, doesn’t want book covers to look this or that way, and so the representative from (insert major bookselling company here) has asked that we have only text on the book cover because white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.
 My experience has been that it's hard to even get close to The Market with a children's book about people of color, or even an adult book about black characters. To get a book contract with a major publisher, your manuscript has to pass through two important gates.  First you need an agent to fall in love with your book, and then you need an editor (with the help of your agent) to fall in love with your book.

Books that will be obvious hits sell for purely business reasons.  It seems clear that they're going to make gobs of money.  But the books that are on the margin--and guess were books about people of color fall?--require that love, that identification.  Because, even though there are zillion bad books and crappy writers out there, there are still thousands and thousands of good and interesting books out there, on all kinds of topics.

And that's where I see a gatekeeper problem.  Because the kinds of rejections I see most often are either Christopher Myers' "the market isn't right for it" or "it just didn't resonate with me."  "I didn't fall in love with it."  Well, from what I've seen, the people making the decisions are almost all white.  (And so are the writers--go to a SCWBI conference sometime.)  Not only are they predominantly white, they also have spent a whole lifetime reading children's books mostly about white people.  Despite being avid readers, and I promise you, editors and agents are voracious readers, they have limited experience with books about people of color.  It's not their fault, really, the books don't exist for them any more than they exist for my kids.

In one search tool that I use, QueryTracker, there are 179 agents listed who represent children's books. That means that in 2013, about half of them didn't sell ANY children's books about black people.  None.

The argument could theoretically be made by agents and editors--"it doesn't matter that I'm white, I'm interested in stories about people of all races and backgrounds."  But the numbers show that to be false.  Or maybe they're interested, but interest is not love, is not identification, is not passion.

Of course, increasing diversity in the workplace is never easy.  NPR had a story last month about the publishing business and its need for diversity.  In it, Dawn Davis (she's black), editor of 37 Ink, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster, says that a recent Pew study shows that college-educationed black women are the people in American most likely to read a book. The market is actually there, but the people with an interest in multi-racial and multi-cultural stories are not in a position to decide which books get published.

This can't change until the big publishers get serious and work harder at recruiting and retaining editors of color, and literary agencies do the same. There has been a lot written about white privilege and race in America over the past few weeks. The publishing business is one of the few places with the power to influence our entire culture and way of thinking, for the better. But to do so, they've got to take some difficult steps and look hard in the mirror.

(By the way, don't think the gatekeeper situation in the theatre world is a whole lot better.  But that's a blog post for another day.)

(And one more P.S.--if you're looking for YA books that have black male characters, I came across this post online that has a nice list of some. 


Friday, July 11, 2014

Mad Dash, year two

maddash-idea-99-15-edited 

I'm taking part in the Fresh Ink/Interim Writers 24-hour hour play festival and fundraiser, The Mad Dash, for the second year in a row.  Tonight, 16 playwrights will meet up at Doyle's Pub in Jamaica Plain and be paired into 8 writing teams.  We will go find someplace to write and magically churn out a brand new ten-minute play (based on prompts we'll receive tonight) by 7 a.m. tomorrow morning.  We'll meet with directors, start rehearsing with the casts, and plays will be fully staged by 8 p.m. tomorrow night, at the Central Square YMCA in Cambridge.

Tickets are $15 in advance, or $20 at the door.  This fundraiser is all the more important this year, because we just found out the the Factory Theatre, where Fresh Ink normally performs (and where my play, Distant Neighbors was scheduled to open in November) will close on October 31 (see the story in WBUR's ARTery site).  So they're going to need all the resources they can get to find a new space.

I already took two naps today, trying to get ready for tonight. It's always a little nervewracking, knowing that you must come up with a new play by morning.  Last year, we had a blast and turned out some pretty fun work. (I'm hoping my partner will want to write at IHOP again--I could go for a serious sugar rush.)

I can't wait to see what we come up with this year.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Boston Theater Marathon 16, round up

As many of you know, the Boston Theater Marathon is one of my very favorite theater events of every year.  With 53 short plays by 53 New England playwrights, staged by 53 different companies, it's an ideal opportunity to see a cross section of the local talent pool and to be inspired by the voices of dozens of playwrights.  And it helps benefit the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund.

As I have done for the past fours years, I dragged my daughter Kira to the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, on a gorgeous Mother's Day (with my apologies to my wife, Tracy, whose Mother's Day has been interrupted by a long string of BTMs). This year, I missed just one of the 53 plays, in a day that began at noon and ran straight until 10pm.

There was, as always, a lot to admire about the day.  Here are some of my favorite moments:
  • Kevin LaVelle always seems the perfect actor for Bill Donnelly's plays, and he was on the mark again on Sunday in Grass Hog, the first play of the day, as a neighbor who's had more than his share of ups and downs.  Produced by Battleground State.
  • Rick Park gave us a very touching car play, The Doppler of My Heart, with terrific performances by Greg Maraio and Becca Lewis. Produced by Company One.
  • Steve Barkhimer totally rocked Richard Dresser's ultimate cringe-worthy wedding toast in Love, Dad. I laughed awfully hard (and took notes in case I ever have to make such a toast for my daughter someday).  Produced by the ART.
  • 16 Gigs by Maggie Kearnon, an awkward explosion/exploration of eager-unrequited longing and love was one of my favorite scripts and got a terrific performance from Stanis Johnson. Produced by Marblehead Little Theatre.
  • Film Appreciation by David Susman got a whole bucketful of well-deserved laughs, about a woman who dates the ultimate film buff (and some other types). Produced by Mill 6.
  • Webbed Hands, by Cecilia Raker, directed by Matthew Woods and produced by Imaginary Beasts, was a theatrical delight, with its use of mask and movement.  It was a real standout for me (and made me miss Rough & Tumble).  I'd love to see more Marathon plays with more adventurous or unusual staging.
  • Obehi Janice rocked the role of a math teacher having a very, very bad birthday, in MJ Halberstadt's Peggy's Properties, directed by Jeff Mosser and produced by Project: Project. I'm a sucker for any play about math, but this one was about so much more, all in a very small package.
  • Fracking With Walt Whitman, by Greg Hirschak, with Chris Webb in the role of a poet laureate who might become president in a very strange and dangerous world, made me laugh so hard I cried.  Produced by Off the Grid Theatre Company.
  • And The Maltese Walter by John Minigan, produced by Argos and directed by Ariana Gett, might have been my very favorite of the evening, with Paul Melendy starring as a man with a strange superpower (and paired with Charles Linshaw and Liza Hayes). 
Overall, I also felt like this Marathon had stronger lighting and sound design that past years, which was a treat.  (I have to give a shout out to Cassie Seinuk, the stage manager, and all the BTM folk who make the show run so smoothly.)

As in any year, there are always a few types of plays that appear more than others.  This year, we had two ghost plays, and another meta play (Peter Floyd's clever Too, Too Solid Flesh) that featured characters that not everyone on stage could see. There was the usual collection of plays in cars, the T plays, and a whole bunch of plays where people in relationships were leaving each other (often for members of the same sex).

If I had a wish list, it would be for us to make a car jig, so the various car plays could dispense with mimed steering wheels. And more plays that are more physically theatrical and/or musical (we did have one ten-minute musical, The House of All Alone, with book and byrics by Richard Schotter and music by Phil Schroeder, which was a lot of fun).

My other big wish would be to make an online directory with pictures and resumes for all the actors in the Marathon.  I am certainly not the only theater maker in the house at the BTM furiously scribbling notes on programs, as I'm looking for possible actors for upcoming readings and productions. 

Once again, congratulations to everyone on a fantastic day of theater.  I can't wait 'til next year!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

New Play Ecology 2014, part 3, New England



So a week or so ago, I took a look at this season's outlook for new plays and Boston playwrights, for large-medium theaters and the fringe (and overall).  But what about the rest of New England?

Boston writers are close enough to most theaters in the rest of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to take part in the development and production of their work, if their plays were being produced.  Are they?  How are New England playwrights faring at home, generally?

I wrote a similar post in 2010, but this time I'm also collecting some demographics.

Let's take a look at how many world premieres we have, state by state.  (I'm using 2013-2014 seasons, or 2014 seasons if they've been announced.)

Massachusetts:

Acme Theater:  World Premieres: 1. New Works Festival. Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.

Barrington Stage Company:  World Premieres: 1. The Golem of Havana, book by Michel Hausmann, music by Salomon Lerner, Lyrics by Ken Schiff. Total plays:  9.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 4; directed by people of color: 0.

Berkshire Theatre Festival:   World Premieres: 1.  Cedars by Erik Tarloff. Total plays:  10.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 2; directed by people of color: 1.

Firehouse Center for the Arts:World Premieres: 1. New Works Festival. Total plays:  3.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.

Gloucester Stage Company: World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  4.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 1; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.

Harbor Stage:  World Premieres: 1. The Billingsgate Project by Brenda Withers.  Total plays:  3.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.

Image Theater:  World Premieres: 1. FemNoire 2014, Festival of Women Playwrights. Total plays:  1.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre: World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  7.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.

New Century Theatre:  World Premieres: 0. Total plays:  4.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.

North Shore Music Theater:  World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.

Salem Theatre Company:  World Premieres: 1. Moments of Play Festival. Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.

Wellesley Summer Theatre Company:   World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  2.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 2; directed by people of color: 0.


Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater:  World Premieres: 1. The Trials of Gertrude Moody by Kimberly Burke.  Total plays:  4.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0. 

Williamstown Theatre Festival:   World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  6.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 2; directed by people of color: 0.

Connecticut:

Connecticut Repertory Theatre:  World Premieres: 1.  The Goblin Market by Penny Benson. Total plays:  6.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 1.

Goodspeed Musicals:   World Premieres: 2. The Circus in Winter, music and lyrics by Ben Clark, book by Hunter Foster and Beth Turcotte; Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn, music and lyrics by Ivring Berlin, book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge.  Total plays:  4.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.

Hartford Stage:   World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.

Long Wharf Theatre:   World Premieres: 2. The Consultant by Heidi Schreck, The Shadow of the Hummingbird by Athol Fugard. Total plays:  6.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 1; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 2.

Seven Angels Theatre (Waterbury):   World Premieres: 1. Romance Language by Joe Godfrey.  Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 4; directed by people of color: 0.

Yale Repertory:   World Premieres: 1.  The House That Will Not Stand by Marcus Gardley. Total plays:  6.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 1; directed by women: 4; directed by people of color: 1.


Maine:

Mad Horse Theatre Company (Portland):  World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  4.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.

Penobscot Theatre.   World Premieres: 1. One Blue Tarp by Travis Baker. Total plays:  7.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 4; directed by people of color: 0.

Portland Stage Company:   World Premieres: 1. Veils by Tom Coash.  Total plays:  8.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 1; directed by women: 3; directed by people of color: 1.

The Public Theatre (Lewiston/Auburn):  World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  4.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.


New Hampshire:

Peterborough Players:  World Premieres: 1. The Granite State by Charles Morey. Total plays:  10.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 1; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0. (I'm still waiting to find out who their directors are.)

Seacoast Repertory Theatre:   World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  7.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.


Rhode Island:

Trinity Repertory Company:    World Premieres: 1.  Veronica Meadows by Stephen Thorne. Total plays:  4.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.

The Gamm Theatre:  World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 2; directed by people of color: 0.

Wilbury Theatre Group:  World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 3; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 1; directed by people of color: 0.



Vermont:

Dorset Theatre Festival:  World Premieres: 1. Out of the City by Leslie Ayvazian (this is premiering at other places this summer, too.) Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 3; directed by people of color: 0.

Lost Nation Theater:  World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  6.  Written by women: 0; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.  (I'm still waiting to find out who their directors are.)

Northern Stage:  World Premieres: 0.  Total plays:  6.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 5; directed by people of color: 0.

Vermont Stage Company:  World Premieres: 1.  The Quarry by Greg Pierce.  Total plays:  5.  Written by women: 1; by people of color: 0; directed by women: 4; directed by people of color: 0.

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company:  World Premieres: 1.  Analog and Vinyl, book, music, and Lyrics by Paul Gordon.  Total plays:  7.  Written by women: 2; by people of color: 1; directed by women: 0; directed by people of color: 0.  (I'm still waiting to find out who their directors are.)


Okay, that's 34 theaters.  Here's how it breaks down for New England (not including Boston):
22 world premieres
12 were by New England writers (55%)
11  were written by women (50%)  (This is counting festivals of short plays.)
1 was written by a person of color  (5%)

Total plays produced by 34 theatres:  183
Percentage that were world premieres:  12%

37 Total plays written by women:    (20%)
5 Total written by people of color:  (3%)
53 Total directed by women:  (29%)  
6 Total directed by people of color:  (3%)
(I'm still waiting for some director info, so these aren't final numbers)


So.  The numbers highly discouraging.  There aren't many new plays being produced in New England outside the Boston Metro Area. The number of new plays written by women is close to parity, but the number of new plays by people of color is dismal.

If you look at the demographic numbers for all productions, the numbers for women and people of color are very low, whether you're looking at authorship or direction.  (And the numbers get even worse if you take Yasmina Reza out of the equation--she accounted for many of the plays written by women.)



Does it makes sense to completely break Boston out of the regional demographics?  I'm not exactly sure.  Since Boston is, in fact, part of New England, let's take a look at the combined numbers:

69 world premieres in New England, including Boston, this past season from 82 theaters
50 by local writers  (72%)
31 world premieres written by women  (45%)
11 world premieres written by people of color  (16%)

Overall: 334 plays produced.
97 written by women  (29%)
21  written by people of color  (6%)
113 directed by women   (34%)
21 directed by people of color (6%)
(I'm still waiting for some director info, so these aren't final numbers)


Again, not particularly encouraging. You can see the effects of the white male dominated "pipeline" that supplies material to the regional and smaller theatres, when theaters are choosing their seasons.

Though solving these numbers problems seems daunting, consider this: if each of the 82 theaters in New England produced just one more play by a woman in the next season, we would be at gender parity.  That's right, just one.  We're not talking an earthquake of change.  Just one play, per season. (For clarity: I'm talking about replacing a play by a man by a play by a woman, assuming that the number of plays/season/theater is somewhat fixed.)

And as for racial imbalance, if even half of the companies produced just one play more by a person of color next season, we would jump from 6% to 18%.  So, again, if each theatre in New England committed to producing one more play by a person of color, just every other season, the landscape would shift in a major way.

My hope is that these numbers will continue to spur conversations about what we want our theater to look like, whose voices we want to hear, and how to enact the changes we might want.  With a continued consciousness that the demographics of theater are a result of actual choices, by actual people. Those people choosing plays can elect to make different choices.

(Speaking of discussion, Ilana Brownstein has an excellent post rounding up the discussion on and around The Summit that took place in DC a few weeks ago.  Read it here.)

As I've said with previous posts, I'm sure I've missed some theaters, or might have miscounted people, and if I have, please just let me know and I'll update the info as quickly as I can.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Another Goodreads giveaway for signed copies of Moving (a life in boxes)

I'm doing another giveaway of signed copies of Moving (a life in boxes) over on Goodreads. It's completely free, so if you're a Goodreads members, just click to sign up.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Moving by Patrick Gabridge

Moving

by Patrick Gabridge

Giveaway ends March 11, 2014.
See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Creating a Diverse World--choices, opportunity, and trade offs for playwrights and theaters

There is no shortage of talk these days about racial diversity and gender parity in theater, film, and other media. In the theater-verse, the talk has been swirling around The Summit, a series of discussions with theater leaders in Washington, DC, including one meeting featuring artistic directors, where, in response to a question about lack of plays being produced by female writers, one artistic director said that there weren't enough plays by women in the "pipeline" from NYC and London, that feeds the regional theater scene.  (See Elissa Goetschius's excellent report on 2AMt for more details.)

One of the key things that Elissa points out is that despite the claims about lack of supply, the leaders at those theaters are making choices about what and who to produce. The claim of not enough material in the "pipeline" seems to be intended to let the companies off the hook--the implication is--"if there was enough material that was good enough and commercial enough, we would obviously produce it." The explosive response on Twitter was electric--posts and comments full of names of talented female writers built a huge list of active women playwrights that companies could potentially consider. But most of all, the anger was, I think, due to the apparent abrogation of responsibility by the people in charge of making choices.  Making choices is their job. And the results of those choices, which are public for us all to see, can not be pawned off on circumstance.

In the playwriting world, there are plenty of white, liberal playwrights expressing their anger against the people in charge of choosing seasons and the apparent exclusionary results.  And part of that anger, I'd suggest, comes from a frustration and powerlessness many writers feel about how plays are picked.

Which is fine.  However, I'd like to see (white) playwrights think about taking a close look at themselves when it comes to the subject of racial diversity. The cool part about being a playwright is that we each get to make our own worlds. We don't control the outside universe and what plays get produced, but we do completely control the plays we write and who is in them. As a result, we get to pick, to some extent, the racial make up of the people with whom we work on developing our plays.

But it's a choice. And I'm not sure a lot of white playwrights realize how much influence they have on the racial composition of our artform.  If you want to work in a racially diverse atmosphere, and you're a white writer, you're going to need to write plays with multi-racial casts.

For me, I'm a white father with two black kids, so race is a part of my everyday life. Working with a racially diverse group of actors is really important to me. It's important to my family--my son, who is 14, lights up when he sees a black actor on stage (or on film or reads a black character in a book)--he's always looking for a chance to see a reflection of himself. I don't always write plays about race, but I try hard not to have all-white casts. I write novels, too, and I always write books that are not exclusively populated by white people.


You might say, "Well, I don't specify race in my cast list, so that means the roles can be played by actors of any race."  That might happen.  In some of my historical plays, I've actually written a note as part of the cast list, saying something: "though these people were historically European, they can be played by actors of any racial background."  This can kind of work.

But you know what's really going to happen. The roles will very likely be cast white. The only way to guarantee that you have people of color acting in your plays is to be racially specific. (And to say No, when a producer asks if the role can be played by a white person.)

Which comes with trade offs. It means your play is less likely to be produced. I know this and accept this, because I have a compelling personal interest in a racially diverse theater. But it's still sometimes hard to accept that my latest script is going to have a much harder time getting on stage, and that I could make it a lot easier by making the characters all white.

Why does this happen? It has to do with how many theatre companies form. I submit a lot of scripts, and often burgeoning ensembles in New York and Chicago come to my attention. Time and time again, I check out their web sites, and see all these young faces, many fresh out of college, eager to work together and change the world of theater through innovative takes on classics and exciting new plays. And often, in the About Us section, they have photos and bios of all the company members. Time and after time, every member is white. I don't bother submitting my work to them.

We, in theater, need to understand that in our profession, the issues we face around racial diversity and gender parity are the results of choices. And those choices send messages.  It's not just small companies. Even though large institutional theaters might program work by diverse artists (in my recent survey of Boston theaters, the largest companies programmed much more racial diversity), they often make very different choices about whom they hire for their leadership and administrative staff. It's great to have a mission statement that talks about diversity, but if your staff is all white, that sends a message that's a thousand times louder than any carefully crafted prose.

And people notice. Some of us notice if we only see white people at your theater, some of us notice if we go to a conference and it is filled with white faces (who might be talking a lot about diversity). I'm a numbers guy and the father of black children--you can bet that I never enter a room and don't take a quick racial survey. Never.  And I'm a white man--I carry a big sack of privilege with me into that room (see Peggy McIntosh's famous essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack). The message is only incidentally being received by me, but it's being sent loud and clear to the people of color in that room--we do not take racial diversity as seriously as we say we do.

If you're a white playwright, this might not matter to you. If you're a white theater-maker, it might not matter to you. But if you say that it is important, understand that you have the power to do something about it. You don't get to blame the "pipeline."  Geena Davis has a great essay, Two Easy Steps to Make Hollywood Less Sexist.  The basic answer is that writers can add more women to the films that they write.

The same can work for racial diversity in theater. Ask yourself if your characters must be white. Right now, the vast majority of work being premiered on stage is written by white writers. If those white writers diversify their characters, they will diversify the acting pool, which will ultimately help diversify the leadership pool, all of which will diversify audiences.

I'm not saying that you need to write "about race."  I'm saying you might want to consider changing some characters from white to people of color and see what happens.  There are scary parts about this--you will get fewer productions, you might be challenged on how you choose to write those characters, you might find out things about yourself that are uncomfortable. You might change.

And you might change the world of theater in which we work. 

But no matter how you proceed, understand that you have made a choice. And the results of that choice are a lot more visible than you might realize.




(In case you're interested, I wrote another post a while back called, A White Guy Writing about Race, about my play Pieces of Whitey, about well-meaning white people. Which actually did have an all-white cast, but for very specific reasons.  Which did not entirely pan out.)