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Of Course, Joshua Conkel’s Right – Theatre is Stratified by Class: The Clyde Fitch Report

March 22, 2011

The Brown Tweed Society is pleased to host contributing partner Leonard Jacobs, Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, who routinely weighs in with news from the New York theater scene and ongoing arts issues.

A big, steamy tempest in a gilded, pinky-raising teapot has been stirred up by playwright Joshua Conkel on the blog of the theater company Youngblood — big enough, apparently, to be anointed for selection by aggregator-influencer Thomas Cott, who, in his daily eblast of arts news he alone deems distribution-worthy, directed readers to some of the replies to Conkel’s post gathered by Chris Wilkinson on the blog of the Guardian in London.

Follow that?

First off: does no one see the irony of a British newspaper tackling the hot issue of class in the theater, beginning with the American theater?

That is, while we in the U.S., as usual, gaze lustily at our navels and try to pretend the economic stratification of the nation doesn’t include the arts? (The good citizens of Wisconsin are an exception to this ostrich-like rule.)

Conkel, in my view, decided to get all Rocco Landesman-esque and directly discuss one of the taboos of the stage: the fact that the theater — certainly many of its power players, certainly many of the playwrights who land sweet grants and score nifty commissions, certainly many of the people whose names you hear over and over, certainly many of the people who get their work insinuated ubiquitously here and there and everywhere — is dominated and simply overrun by individuals of privilege.

I didn’t say that there were no exceptions to the rule. There are. Tons of them. I can throw out a name and suggest that that artist benefits from class and you can throw out a name and talk about their underprivileged background and how they brought themselves up by their bootstraps and how they made something out of nothing and I’m sure that Mother Teresa would be proud. Still, like Conkel (and here I’m extrapolating, based on his post), I believe the theater is just not a place to try and work (forget about making a living) unless a fat (or a medium-sized or a thin) trust fund is shaking its booty in your face waiting to be taken home and plowed.

That’s right, I said it. I think people with trust funds often — again, not always — have questionable values.

Anyway, this is about what Conkel wrote, not about what I fully admit is envy of privileged people’s trust funds. Early in his post, he asks:

…How many members of Youngblood come from a family with a total income of, say, less than six figures? I’m guessing not many. But not all privilege is directly about money. How many people in Youngblood hold an MFA? How many people in Youngblood attended an Ivy League school for undergrad or grad school? A lot. How many writers in Youngblood grew up in rural America? The inner city? Not many, right?

Here’s the thing: Youngblood is pretty fucking inclusive for the theater world, and I don’t mean to call it out. Its fucking awesome. That’s why I use it as an example: except for that whole under thirty thing, it’s doing better than most theater organizations. Look at some of the other groups and you’ll see a much, much narrower pool of talent. So what you get is a whole lot of plays about privilege written by people from privilege. How did this happen?

Conkel answer is one word: “Gatekeepers.”

And I’ll let the torrent of responses on Youngblood’s blog — not to mention the roundup in the Guardian — illuminate you further as to the debate Conkel’s post inspired. I do have to say, however, that I love what he writes next:

These are the Artistic Directors and Literary Managers. These are the people who run writers’ groups and fellowships and prizes etc. These people really, really hate talking about class because they usually came from privilege, but also because it makes their job easier if they can just give X opportunity to a recent MFA instead of schlepping to the fringe theaters.

To me, this is not unlike the problem the American theater has with thinking everything is New York-centric — or the problem that people who have made it in the theater, I mean, really made it, have when they think that the American theater begins and ends with Broadway, that Broadway exclusively defines what’s important on the American stage.

Read more…

Visit Leonard Jacobs and The Clyde Fitch Report daily for for more posts on arts, theater and politics. Follow the Clyde Fitch Report on Twitter at @clydefitch.


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