I’ve been thinking more and more about my responsibility as an artist. And just typing that feels a little weird—the idea that artists have responsibilities other than to their art. But our work does more than just sit there in our heads. It wanders out of our skulls and into the heads of other people, influencing them in ways that we can’t predict, but should at least be mindful of.
Recently, Forum Theater hosted a Female Voices symposium to talk about the question of whether there is a female dramaturgy and voice and about the general dearth of female artists working in theatre today. One of the main topics was whether we as a society have a predilection for stories told in a male voice and the traditional dramatic structure—something that may or may not have been learned through a few millennia of living in a patriarchy. (You want some smart thoughts on this, check out playwright Rebecca Gingrich-Jones’ blog)
One interesting question that arose from this was whose responsibility is it to address this disparity? Is it the artistic director who’s picking the season; the theatre’s board who’s helping shape the mission of the theatre; the audience members who vote with their ticket money what stories are told on stage?
And is it theatre’s job to do this at all. If it is indeed a big-picture problem—something that permeates all of society—should solutions be looked for elsewhere (by voting Democrat in Virginia, for example)? That was one point of view offered up: that what we see in our art is a reflection of the larger society and that art cannot always solve society’s problems.
What wasn’t said—at least not clearly—is that maybe it’s all our responsibility. Everyone working in the arts. And not just for reasons of altruism or gender politics, but because it’s our job.
Art’s responsibility is to challenge our current values and ways of thinking. If we as an audience and as artists value male stories or male voices more than women’s, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves why that is and present art that confronts those values.
And that responsibility extends to male playwrights, as well.
My career as a playwright has led me to spend more and more time telling stories with women at the center. And admittedly I’m hypersensitive to the issue (which is neither boasting nor an apology, it just is), but I see so many plays where the female characters are obviously there only to serve the arc of a male lead.
One reaction I’ve heard from playwrights is: This is the story that I need to tell; this is my voice. Do I need to bow to these cultural factors or compromise my story for the sake of equality?
Do you need to bow to it? No. Do you need to recognize it? Yes.
Because if you’re writing a world where women are flat, overshadowed by men, and subservient to men’s stories, your audience is going to see and internalize that. Your ideas are going to crawl into their heads and influence them.
They’re going to see that you’ve created a world where women don’t really matter to the story and, whether or not the play is about gender, they’re going to walk away with that world in their heads.
And with some plays, I have no idea how to fix this. I recently worked on a show where every line and action of the female characters in the play revolved around the male protagonist. But because the play is very good and very solid, I don’t know what could be done to address the problem, except hope the playwright is aware of it and made his choices consciously.
I think that kind of awareness in storytelling is important. At least I hope to have it when it comes to mine. To be aware of my limitations, aware of my prejudices, and aware of the lenses I see the world through. And if I’m writing characters outside my own experience, I hope to do the due diligence it takes not to f@#k them up.
Self-awareness followed by mindfulness. It’s certainly not a complete answer to how we address disparity on stage, but it’s a start. At least for me.
And it’s not the be-all and end-all of my responsibility as an artist, but I think it’s one important part of it.