The Intersection of Culture and Narrative

07.12.11 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, community, dramaturgy, new plays, non-profit theatre, playwrights, rabble rousing, the future, the process, theatrical ecosystem

It’s been a month since the first Dramatists Guild National Conference. In that month, three things have stayed with me: Mame Hunt’s declaration to playwrights to stop writing realism, Julia Jordan’s keynote speech on gender parity, and Marsha Norman’s comment that we need to hear everyone’s stories at the gender parity panel discussion. All three have been wrapping themselves around in my mind as a part of larger conversation about theatre and dominant culture.

While I was earning my BFA in playwriting at DePaul University, we had a class that was guest taught by Robert O’Hara. Sometime during that class, I said that I wished that I was a part of ethnic community. I wanted to feel a connection to some cultural heritage. O’Hara eviscerated me. He told me that I WAS a part of a cultural heritage: that I had Shakespeare and Wilde and Shaw. And he was right. I had assumed that since my culture was the dominant culture, it wasn’t mine at all.

And that’s the issue with dominant culture; because it is dominant, we often forget its context and assume that it is the voice of everyone.

Realism is a part of dominant culture.

The majority of those who post at 2amt are also a part of dominant culture. We’re a rabble rousing, invested part of dominant culture, but we are mostly a part of dominant culture.

When we support a specific style of storytelling, realism or non-realism, we need to realize that it comes from a specific context and be aware of our own biases as artists, particularly those in positions of power, such as artistic directors.

At the gender parity panel, Marsha Norman said that everyone’s stories need to be told. This was tweeted and re-tweeted liberally – but I wonder, as theatre artists, how willing are we to uphold that as our ideal? Are we really prepared to tell everyone’s stories? More importantly, are we really prepared to LISTEN to everyone’s stories?

Because if we really prepared to listen to everyone’s stories; then we need to let go of our personal preferences for storytelling. It means that we see realism as one specific style of storytelling that is rooted in a specific cultural tradition and that it might not resonate with people from different cultural traditions. It means being open to theatre that doesn’t speak to you. It means not engaging in cultural misappropriation, something that I see dominant culture theatre artists do again and again. It means letting go of idea of being able to speak to everyone or for everyone.

It would require a radical shift.

It would require self-awareness. It would require learning how to read plays in new ways. One of the things that resonated with me from Outrageous Fortune was the comment that many artistic directors don’t know how to read Sarah Ruhl’s stage directions. It would require us checking in with our assumptions of audience. It means that when we use phrases such as voice of the people; we consider which people we’re talking about. It would require us to acknowledge our own biases.

I have plenty of personal storytelling biases. I write realism about half the time and I always write for female protagonists. I have no personal desire to tell a male story, but that doesn’t mean I am not moved by male stories. If I looked at it from a limited perspective, I would start writing realistic stories with male protagonists so that I could become a part of the 17% of female playwrights who get produced. Or we could collectively work to embrace a paradigm shift and see everyone’s stories, as they want to tell them.  Think how many stories that are out there waiting to be experienced. There could be a style of theatre or specific story that thrills me that I have no conception of yet.

We’ve already challenging assumptions about dominant culture when it comes to discussions about younger audiences.  Why can’t we broaden this conversation from there to explore the intersection of culture and narrative? Or race and narrative? Or gender and narrative? Or class and narrative? What can we do to make sure that everyone’s stories are told?

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Andie Arthur

Andie Arthur is a playwright and theatre administrator in Miami. She is the executive director of the South Florida Theatre League, the co-founder of Lost Girls Theatre, and the Florida Regional Rep of the Dramatists Guild.

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  • Joshua Conkel

    I love Mame Hunt. She was my playwriting teacher at Cornish and the first person who ever told me I had talent. I was sort of a teacher’s pet (which may or may not have been helped because I don’t write realism.)

    I wasn’t at the conference, but it seems to me Mame’s comment was really a hyperbolic way of saying the same thing Marsha Norman said- that is, a push for different kinds of storytelling. The Mame I remember was a woman with sophisticated and varied tastes.

    But, yeah. Let’s see everybody’s stories. I’m for it.

    What surprises me is that you consider yourself part of the dominant culture. Am I crazy for not seeing myself that way?

  • So very much to think about here.

    I cannot easily articulate my concerns, but I find myself struggling mightily against what you’ve argued. I am quite aware of my own position within the dominant culture, so it occurs to me that my difficulties might stem from feeling as if my privileged status is being challenged… but I can only note that caveat and try to remain aware of it as I flesh out my thoughts.

    I both resented Mame Hunt’s exhortation and, more intellectually, found it a useless piece of advice. As a writer who works largely (though not at all entirely) in realism, I thought to myself: “I’ll write whatever I think should be written, thank you.” I may have been responding to what I heard as a “scolding” tone. After some simmering down, though, I found myself puzzled. I choose the styles in which I work very consciously; realism when the subject demands it, surrealism if it’s warranted, etc. How can I be expected to actively favor one style over another? The idea seems ludicrous to me.

    As a fan of the “new naturalism” embodied by Annie Baker’s work, furthermore, I thought: how can anyone argue that what Baker is doing is in any way not to be preferred? Her work shows us as we really are, which is for me the highest calling of realistic writing. (Yes, I’m blurring the lines between naturalism and realism; I don’t mean to ignore the differences — I just think they aren’t relevant.) I think we need more and more and more of that, not less.

    Finally, as an artist who believes that the word “realism” has been thoroughly co-opted and made meaningless by dominant culture (think “reality TV” and fundamentalist megachurches), I think we need to defend and re-invigorate it, not abandon it. We live in a world in which people cling to (particularly poltical and religious) unrealities as if their lives depended on them. I would argue that we are in desperate need of evidence-based reasoning… that we need to be more in touch with reality, not less. So when I write realism, I do so (at least in my own mind) not as a member of the dominant culture but as someone trying very hard to overthrow it.

    On this last point in particular I want to say that I understand others write non-realistic work as a way to call into question for audience members their attachments to certain fictions that SEEM like reality… and that’s why I use non-realistic modes myself from time to time. Still, though: I think both modes (all modes) of writing are useful in their own ways.

    And with that… one last admission that I’m aware I may be arguing from privilege here before I sign off…

  • Interesting ideas, Andie, and very much in line with questions I have been thinking a lot about as an American expat in another country. Though it never occurred to me that there would be a lot of aesthetic difference between the U.S. and Australia (both stemming from the British tradition), I have found that there actually is a distinct difference. The Autralian theatre tradition is quite young, but also stems out of a conscious desire to break away from the old British way of doing things and forge a unique cultural voice. 

    Much of what is on the stages here is still British or American, but what I see as uniquely Australian stems more from a physical/image-based aesthetic – much more metaphor and much less concern with straight well-made narrative.

    I realize that it is my job to open up my notions of narrative to welcome embrace these styles that I am less familiar and comfortable with. It is harder for me to recognize excellence in the plays whose grandparents are not necessarily Ibsen, Chekhov, or The Bard, and that is certainly because of the cultural baggage I carry with me. After a year here, I know that it was terribly naive of me to think that I could waltz in, what with my American training and inherent penchant for ‘well-made’ (as much as I think I’m forward thinking and ‘down’ with different forms), and say that I know what-is-what. 

    It is humbling to not just pay lip service to the idea of embracing new forms, but to find myself in the midst of it, and having to do a great deal of work to truly get inside it in a meaningful way. I think you have to get inside the culture to get inside the aesthetic. I’m just scratching the surface.

  • Michael Yawney

    I am so torn apart by Andie Arthur’s post. I want to agree. I think I agree. And yet…

    Yes, we want people talking about their own experience in their own voices…but the nature of theater is that we speak in voices that are not our own. So I suppose I am OK with cultural appropriations when I like the writing, but not OK when I do not like the writing or feel the writing lacks insight. But truthfully, I think some acclaimed gay and black writers are superficial in their treatment of their own experience. So is the issue really misappropriation or just the quality of the writing?

    Yes, I want to see stories about women and ethnic minorities and people not from the dominant culture played out onstage…but the moment I start defining these people as women, Latinos, gay, etc. I strip away some of their humanity.

    Does writing style correlate to one’s relationship to the dominant culture? I am not so sure. I have sat through some poorly written plays to hear the shapelessness and confusion justified as a reflection of the writer’s experience as an outsider in our culture. (Couldn’t outsider status bring things into sharper focus?) Are we really looking at cultural issues here?

    I believe that there really is a bias against women and minority writers. But I do not think it is because how they write does not fit some schema of the dominant culture. I think it is simply because they are women and minorities.

    Now I do agree that most theater artists are tone deaf about some type of writing–but that is another rant.

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