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?