The Year of Living Statistically, Part III: The Quality Question


By Thomas Garvey
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

In earlier posts in this series, the statistical techniques often used to ferret out evidence of prejudice in other industries were shown to be inappropriate to the theater — because theatrical production was, in essence, not a broad-based enterprise churning out streams of product and data, but was instead something like a complex, inbred system of guilds (with a labyrinthine, partially-subsidized method of product development).

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But as many observers have asked, even if the theater industry defies methods of statistical analysis, so what? Couldn’t the system still be sexist?

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Certainly many people, both men and women, believe that’s the case; and certainly the “guild” model is prone to old-boy networks, unspoken understandings and all manner of collusion. So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the professional theater is, indeed, sexist, and that the deck is stacked against female playwrights. We may not be able to tease out the statistics to prove that thesis, but there’s certainly enough evidence (the small number of plays by women on Broadway being the most obvious example) to justify what might be called “probable cause.” In other words, we can probably indict, even if we can’t convict, the Broadway stage of sexism.

Remember that “probably,” by the way — but in the meantime, the question at hand becomes: what is to be done? How can a disenfranchised minority crack a system of guilds that’s rigged against it?

The historical answer has always been — start your own guild. Go into business with your cousins. Corner an available market. Define a neighborhood. If Harvard won’t let you in, found Brandeis. Or just buy every Dunkin’ Donuts in town. With an economic base comes a political base — and, eventually, an artistic base.

That system was (and is) both cruel and unjust, but it had one great advantage: as a minority cracked the cultural hegemony, it did so with the best weapon to hand — that is, with the best artists and art as judged from within that minority’s audience. There was no “educated” faction pushing a self-consciously politicized option; it was understood that a minority simply had to lead with its best. That’s how great talents from Duke Ellington to Sinatra broke into the mainstream.

But this is where things get tricky — the usual model for “minority” politics is hopelessly scrambled in the case of women and theater. Because, ironically enough, most everyone agrees that women are actually already in the majority when it comes to attending theater. They buy most of the tickets — in effect they own the guild! And yet they don’t seem to strongly prefer women playwrights; indeed, many recent plays by women that got Broadway runs — by the likes of Theresa Rebeck, Sarah Ruhl, and Caryl Churchill — under-performed at the box office (Yasmina Reza is the great exception to this general rule). On Off-Broadway, there have been overtly feminist plays that have been successes — The Vagina Monologues immediately comes to mind — but these have often been driven by star power as much as by politics. There’s little evidence of a large audience clamoring for female playwrights — indeed, even more troublingly, theaters devoted to women dramatists have in fact been founded, yet none has developed a large, sustainable following. And our old friend Emily Glassberg Sands discovered that female artistic directors tend to side against female playwrights, too (and a similar trend has been found in the television industry). It’s as if the Mafia had decided not to back Frank Sinatra.

Why should this be? Probably only women themselves know the answer, but it’s clearly problematic, to go back to our assumption of sexism on Broadway, to claim prejudice on the part of producers when they don’t seem to be denying the clear demands of their audience. Particularly when the political mode of most theater (David Mamet excepted) has obviously tilted toward feminism, and the left in general (or at least “the left” as understood by mainstream America). Indeed, the stage leans further left than any other aspect of show business, which is in general notoriously liberal. Sexism is considered embarrassing (or is treated in ironic air-quotes); racism is all but unthinkable; capitalism is seen as a sham; even inorganic produce is a little suspect. Apparently to the many women buying tickets to Broadway, that’s enough.

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Meanwhile, outside the Great White Way, in regional and smaller theaters across America, female playwrights are doing quite well — Sarah Ruhl’s latest, In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play, did boffo box office in Berkeley; it just wilted on Broadway. Even Sands had to admit that the largest databases revealed that, outside New York, female playwrights were actually just as likely to find productions as male playwrights.

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That’s not enough for the academy, however, or the annual waves of MFAs emerging from it. Among this elite, there seems to be a palpable yearning for an artistic and political watershed that continues to elude Broadway, even though opportunity and audience have essentially been in alignment for decades. Therefore, it is reasoned, there must be some sort of secret oppressor in the mix. Producers must be denying themselves profits, as Sands hypothesized.

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To be blunt, any such self-denial seems unlikely — but it’s not impossible; indeed, free-market purists have been proven wrong when claiming that African Americans, for instance, simply couldn’t be being discriminated against when it came to loan applications, because other lenders would step in to fill the gap. In-depth analysis revealed that wasn’t the case; unspoken prejudice was, indeed, setting the bounds of market activity. Still, the idea of such collusion in the theater is undercut by the fact that, throughout show business, minority writers, directors and entertainers have found widespread success. And as mentioned, in regional theaters, several female playwrights have proved highly popular. Even on Broadway, producers have risked good money on recent plays by women, and sometimes hit paydirt (as in the case of Reza and her two Tonys). For bigoted collusion to work as a business policy, it has to be nearly universal, and for that to happen it has to operate in accordance with its community’s politics. Neither condition would seem to hold true in the case of showbiz.

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And that’s not the only wrench in the academic-political worldview. Indeed, the biggest problem with the cries against Broadway is the fact that while women have steadily attained more power and status in the real world, there’s been a far slower parallel rise in the field of playwriting. This seems to throw the conventional academic wisdom about theater and society on its ear. The heroes of the theater are supposed to lead society, not trail after it. And it’s obvious that women have the economic power to support female playwrights, even to demand female playwrights. They seem to be choosing not to. Why?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the theater’s uneasy relationship with its own politics. To be blunt, Broadway may lean left, but it’s a soft, edgeless left — and there are so many identities to be served by that leftishness! There are few female playwrights on Broadway, yes, but there are also few black playwrights, and fewer Latino playwrights, and fewer Asian or Native-American playwrights. Where to begin in the grievance sweepstakes?

Then there’s the simple fact that Broadway has only occasionally supported any real political salience, and as production costs continue to rise, and Broadway becomes more and more reliant on the tourist trade, it seems less and less likely that political content will find a home there. It’s striking, in fact, that many female playwrights are quite popular in crunchy theatergoing towns like Berkeley and Cambridge, but hit a wall on Broadway; is the problem their gender or their politics? It’s hard to say, but is anyone surprised that the tourist crowd didn’t go for a script with the subtitle “The Vibrator Play”?

And looming behind these issues is a particularly loaded question, a debate that one vapid blogger has sneered at as “the quality conversation,” a discussion that’s inherently “condescending.” Ah, yes — the question of “quality.” It’s rather a pregnant term, isn’t it — because in a situation in which highly-touted plays by women have underperformed commercially (even when most ticket-buyers are women), the question of quality suddenly looms as a kind of political problem, doesn’t it? If the academy pushes forward a playwright — say, Sarah Ruhl — who then flops on Broadway, what then? Better not have that conversation, particularly given that there are prominent male playwrights of undisputed talent (Albee, Kushner, etc.) who have trouble getting onto Broadway, too. (Hell, even Sondheim has trouble arriving on Broadway these days — Sondheim on Sondheim certainly took time to get there.)

Bloggers have been buzzing around that issue — who gets to push aside whom? — without managing to alight on a real answer. They’ve come up with a few suggestions, but they’re usually democratically-inclined demands freighted with the assumption that financial risks should be taken, but by somebody else. One creative blogger even suggested producers should dodge the “quality question” entirely, by choosing scripts at random.(Not sure how the marketing department would handle that one.) Such schemes, unrealistic as they may be, nevertheless throw into high relief an unspoken belief of many of those most vocal in these debates: they’re in it for the politics, not the art. The blogger who dissed “the quality conversation” routinely mentions that he “doesn’t get” various plays by Shakespeare, and there’s agreement among several bloggers that the theater is actually producing too much Shakespeare (and other classic authors) and not enough mediocre new work. That’s one way to get around the quality question, of course — just shave off the top tier!

Meanwhile, of course, the theater does inch forward — often thanks to, yes, that thorny issue of “quality.” In Boston right now, one female (and black!) playwright, Lydia R. Diamond, is the toast of the town for her new play, Stick Fly, at the Huntington Theatre. The show isn’t just sold out — people are lining up most nights for a chance to get on its waiting list. And why? Mostly because it’s a highly crafted and entertaining piece of traditional theater — and a huge step up for Diamond, who until now has worked mostly within the lines of the consensus on identity politics so popular in Cambridge and Berkeley. The rumors are that a New York transfer could be a possibility. Of course there are always such rumors in the case of a regional hit; but if that transfer comes to pass, one wonders if the bloggers will insist that quality had nothing to do with it.