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


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:

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…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…

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…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.

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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?

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