Of Course, Joshua Conkel’s Right: Theatre Is Stratified by Class

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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?

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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.)

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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.

In all the comments, what I find amusing is how offended people some are that Conkel dares to call a spade a spade. For anyone to take umbrage at his argument that people of privilege unduly saturate the theater confirms their arrogance, their not-always-earned sense of entitlement. Just because you come from more money than 90 percent of the nation doesn’t entitle you to crap.

And where, pray tell, were these outraged, offended, umbrage-taking people last year when Todd London’s Outrageous Fortune, the Life and Times of the New American Play basically stated, all rather bluntly, that our system of new-play development in the U.S. is rigged and cliquey, petty and dominated by people of privilege, by folks who attended the “right” MFA program, who land those sweet grants and who score those nifty commissions?

Oh, I didn’t notice anybody’s dudgeon quite so high then.

Now, to be absolutely clear, Conkel’s post was a direct response to Michael Kaiser’s essay in the Huffington Post called “What Is Wrong with the Arts?”, which talked about the dearth (or perceived dearth) of great talent, which really was a poor choice of argument. In his post, Conkel declared that his rant was no t…

…against the Ivy league or MFAs. Nor is it a rant against people with money. It is also not meant as an opportunity for playwrights to discuss their own backgrounds in the comments section. That’s not helpful. I know that this class problem runs across many industries, but I love the theater and I expect more from it than I do the banking industry. This is merely a shout out to the gatekeepers running institutions, awards, grants, writing groups etc.

But he also said that if Kaiser thinks there’s a dearth of great art out there…

…then look in new directions. Discover new channels. LOOK. FUCKING. HARDER.

Conkel’s right on all counts.

If you’re a creature of privilege in the theater — no, no, let me define that for a moment the way I would like to.

Do you work for a living or do you make your living from your work? If you have to work an actual job because you’re not gobbling up one of those sweet grants or coasting on one of those fine commissions, please do the rest of humanity a favor and, for once, be grateful for your financial and social and class advantages and zip it, or at least acknowledge that because you went to the “right” school, you were helped along. At least admit, as London’s book details with great accuracy, that there is such a class system in place. All this wide-eyed “I got produced purely and solely on my merits” stuff sometimes strains credulity.
Of course, the privileged often do excellent work. After all, it’s easier to do excellent work when you’re not working to pay your bills.

My rant is over.

You may now haul out your exceptions to the rule and your “How dare yous” and bitch and whine and moan and make yourself feel better about benefiting from the American class system. Privileged people must protect what they have, right?

And Josh, you go. I hope the truth sets you artistically — and financially — free.

  • Oh my gosh, that’s me!

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful response. I’ll have more to say on the subject when my deep depression over the discussion lifts and my whiskey buzz wears off.

    xoxo

  • (Full disclosure: I’m currently one of the privileged few to make my living from my work. I’m also a grad of one the anointed MFA programs. I’m the recipient of several commissions — although as a point of fact I’d point out that it’s difficult to “coast” on the amount of money paid by commissions. And I did come from a family where the combined annual income was in the six figures — the low six figures, not terrible high for a dual-income family, I’d imagine, but six figures nonetheless.)

    My question doesn’t really have to do with any of that, especially since I’m a big believer in the idea that we don’t discuss class and privilege enough in this country, and I’m glad that this discussion is finally happening in the mainstream (we can also discuss places where this conversation has been happening for years, starting with hip-hop theater circles and theaters of color, as well as in many of the Outrageous Fortune and New Play Summit discussions of the last year or so). I’m curious about this thought:

    “Do you work for a living or do you make your living from your work? If you have to work an actual job because you’re not gobbling up one of those sweet grants or coasting on one of those fine commissions, please do the rest of humanity a favor and, for once, be grateful for your financial and social and class advantages and zip it, or at least acknowledge that because you went to the “right” school, you were helped along.”

    It seems to me that here we’re privileging “real” work (teaching, waiting tables, any of the other day jobs artist may hold) over the creative work of writing plays and being compensated for doing so. I just want to clarify if that’s the argument. In my opinion, the artistic work I do is just as much an actual job as the teaching, grant writing, or office work I’ve done in the past. Again, just a question for clarification.

    There’s a lot more to discuss, of course, and I’m more than happy to keep the conversation going. Glad you’re helping to bring attention to the discussion.

    –K

    • I don’t think I said “real” work was (or should be) valued more highly by the industry, audiences or society as a whole than “creative” work, and I’ll certainly go back and look over my post and make sure I didn’t say that. What I know I did say, though, is that it’s a lot easier to do “creative” work when you’re not busy doing “real” work in order to pay your bills, which is something that I’m sticking to because I know it’s true and it’s absolutely a symptom and an outgrowth of the class issue.

      Mind you, not everyone who is privileged is a self-indulgent, self-entitled brat. I know I said as much on that account, too. But I still continue to believe that there is no paucity of privileged brats out there, and the American theater’s system of privilege is a side symptom of the horrid economic stratification of the nation.

      It’s kind of like legacies who get into certain schools. Oh really, I think to myself, you got in all on merit? Even though Mums, or was it Daddums, went there? Ugh. Blow me. (Not you. I’m being working class colloquial. I like your work, by the way.)

  • Diana Glazer

    Hi All

    Thank you for your provocative and frank opinions. You share many of my own concerns about theater and our collective need to engage in dialogue about shaping the future of our community and industry.

    I’m a member of the theater team at a large agency and I strive to immerse myself in theater that is created by artists of diverse backgrounds.

    But actions speak larger than words. That said, I would be happy to read any plays fellow readers, friends of readers, etc would like to send over. Please email me at [email protected].

    Thanks
    Diana

  • Yeah, I’m with you in general on this. I’m completely aware and thankful for the privilege of getting to do what I do for a living — it helps the work for sure.

    I think my big hesitation is with the term “real” work as distinct from “creative” work. Our artistic work, when we’re doing it right, requires as much time and effort as non-creative work, and (again, when we’re doing it right) adds just as much to the national discourse, the national economy, and just about any other aspect of society. More a semantics question than anything.

    • I don’t disagree with this at all. But making a living off of your work is not the same thing as needing a day job in order to support yourself enough to do your work.

  • Diana Glazer

    Hi Leonard,

    No, it’s not an ad, it’s an honest offer to read and have a conversation. I hope it can be received that way.

    Best,
    Diana

    • FYI everyone:
      Diana was kind enough to reach to me directly because she really does want to read new material.

      It was a lovely email and I think it’s a great opportunity for everyone who has been engaged by Josh’s post and point.

      Here’s the quote:

      “I’m specifically excited to read work that reflects the level of engagement with big ideas that can be expected from Clyde Fitch readers.”

      I blush! Now start submitting!

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  • i don’t really know why i took so long to read this article. my bad.

    first off, the interesting and productive Edward Einhorn of Untitled Theater Company #61 recently did a series of FB notes on the economics of Indie Theatre and making a living in the Arts. if you’re associated with him, i highly recommend checking out his very intelligent thoughts on the matter.

    but to address this exchange directly, i unhumbly admit that i am a self-made theatre artist. i do theatre for a living and do approximately 15 commercial and educational shows a year to be able to afford to do the two or three i’m aesthetically interested in, either with Edward or with my own company, (re:)Directions. i have almost no formal training in what i do for a living (i’ve never taken a directing or acting or dance class, despite making half my living as a director/choreographer, never had a piano lesson, despite making the other half as a music director and arranger, never had a course in business or nonprofits, despite running a relatively successful Indie company, and :gasp!: didn’t go to college, Ivy League or otherwise). however, i am more than willing to work with high school students, colleges, small regional groups and occasionally cheesy commercial shows, because it beats working at Starbucks or mopping bathrooms. i sheepishly admit that part of this is because i have absolutely no non-theatre skills and temp agencies laugh me out of the room, despite the fact that i type 90 words per minute and i’m clear and articulate on the phone. i’ve just not done enough “legit” work to merit being hired to run someone’s front desk.

    i suppose my point is that many theatre artists in NYC seem to have a bug up their ass about educational or commercial gigs if it’s not immediately relevant to what they really want to do. i would argue that if directing Rent with teenagers in Westchester allows me to direct a four hundred-year-old play no one’s ever heard of but i’m over the moon about, i call that a fair swap. that said, as my wife (another talented director) often points out, some douchebag like me has been sitting in that chair for a while at most of those gigs. still, they’re out there.

    i’ve often longed to be one of those trust fund babies (i spent a recent viewing of a certain web-slinging musical fantasizing about what i’d do with the cost of ONE of their set pieces). for the record, i’m also married, the father of a small child and live in Manhattan. yet, we manage to make ends meet, mostly by working nonstop and not tsking at work in the Arts that’s “beneath” us. in Edward’s most recent economic ruminations, he admits that i’m one of the most successful directors he knows, financially. it’s a miracle if i break $25k a year. that’s depressing.

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  • When I consider that the worst theatrical presentations I have seen in the twelve months came to be staged due to people exerting their personal connections as a way to trump a lack of quality control, then yes, it’s quite obvious that not only do we have class stratification, but that the notion that class stratification within the theatre is purely meritocratic is a fantasy. In one instance, a director was not only able to get the backing of a major university, but had enough draw to bring in consuls from three different foreign governments. The other, far less ostentatious, was a staged reading where during the talkback, it became obvious that the playwright, director, and the artistic director of the theatre company were all BFFs from college! The point being that in a genuine meritocracy neither piece would have likely seen light of day– or at least been workshopped and extensively rewritten before the first public presentations.

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