One Hundred and Twenty Seconds

04.26.12 | 13 Comments

CATEGORIES advocacy, classical theatre, community, conversation starter, ideas, major regional theatre, mission, rabble rousing, social profit, theatrical ecosystem

A lot has been said about the Guthrie’s season announcement, and probably a lot more will be. I want to focus on one part of it. But first, I want to say that while I don’t disagree with most of the criticism the Guthrie has worked hard over the last decade or so to foster –I’ve yet to hear anyone I’ve known from Minnesota stand up for Dowling—it should be clearly stated that the Guthrie is not alone.

That was on my mind as I read the transcript from this All Things Considered interview with Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling.

There’s a lot in Dowling’s interview that can be dissected but this paragraph in particular, struck me as patently absurd.

“But I think diversity is a very big issue and I’m not certain that we’re all addressing it in a sort of responsible way. The question that’s risen specifically in regards to our season has been about women directors (Tom Crann: and playwrights). Let me address the playwrights first. We’re largely a classics theater – that’s what we do and I may be reading the wrong books but I find it difficult to see – because of social history in the 17th, 18th, 19th and indeed early 20th century – which are termed ‘classic plays’ – women playwrights emerged who would be able to fill large theaters.

“Now that’s changing and it’s changed quite dramatically in the last couple of years and there are now a lot more valuable women playwrights…”

It’s telling that Dowling responds to questions of diversity by primarily focusing on women, or that he doesn’t mention, the name of the “second of the Tarell Alvin pieces.” Or the playwright’s last name. (The Brothers Size and McCraney, respectively.) Even so, his argument about lacking plays, the idea that he can’t find any classic plays by women is ludicrous; there are centuries worth of great plays by men and women from across the globe.

There is no way any argument could be made that a classical theatre can’t find plays to broaden their season beyond exclusively white men–other than he didn’t bother to try.

I stopped and thought about it for a couple minutes. Two. I set a timer for one-hundred twenty seconds. I was curious to see if I could come up with a possible twelve play season, without consulting google or my bookshelf. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Of Śakuntalā… Kālidāsa
2. Dog in the Manger – Lope de Vega
3. Autumn in Han Palace – Ma Zhiyuan
4. De Monfort – Johanna Baillie
5. Las Hijas de Las Flores – Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda
6. Georgia Douglas Johnson’s one-act cycle
7. A Bold Stroke for a Wife – Susanna Centlivre
8. Rachel- Angela W. Grimke
9. A Solid Home – Elena Garro
10. Wine in the Wilderness – Alice Childress
11. Sacrifice – Rabindranath Tagore
12. Emperor of the Moon – Aphra Behn

Now, upon greater reflection, I very well might change some of these plays in a hypothetical season. I don’t expect everyone to know the plays I do. In addition to curating our annual Alcyone Festival, I admittedly have a very different reading list than most. However, I do expect anyone who runs a theatre to have a broad knowledge of classic works. And while salaries are often irrelevant to these types of conversation, I can’t help but mention that Joe Dowling is extraordinarily well compensated for running the Guthrie. At that level of stature and compensation, I do expect a broader knowledge than a general audience, or even most of the field. But that’s not the point.

The point is, I spent one-hundred twenty seconds and came up with twelve plays, none of which are by white dudes. (Okay, maybe one, depending on how you view de Vega.) Surely over the course of season planning Dowling could find one, if he tried. And if he’s not trying, why is he running a classical theatre?

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Tony Adams

Tony Adams is a Chicago based theatre artist, husband and father, and artistic director of Halcyon Theatre. He's been lucky enough to amass hundreds of credits over the past fifteen years as (in alphabetical order) an actor, designer, director, producer and writer. He also staged managed twice. He is a horrible stage manager.Find him on twitter at @halcyontony.

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  • Right now, I picture you dropping the mic at the end of this.

  • Naw, I’d feel bad for the sound engineers who’d have to fix the mix without any budget for parts (let alone a new mic.)

    Might go double birds to the world though 🙂

    • Bah, that should have gone from my account. Didn’t realize browser was signed into the other. 

  • I’d be curious to know what your Marketing Director might have to say about such a season.

    • Well, that’s not really the point, is it? 

      But (with a nod to Slings and Arrows), marketers sell bottles of water for $2. Something people can get for free. If a marketing director can’t rise to a challenge, than I’d bet someone can be found who could. It’s not like Born Yesterday is going to pack them in like JayZ at the garden. 

    • Whereismikeyfl

      Getting back to the Guthrie, few of the plays selected are boffo box office. They are doing three Christopher Hampton plays–a decent writer but not one to make Minnesotan’s run to the box office and get the East and West Coast crowd to fly in. So marketing is a red herring. If marketing were really the issue would the Guthrie be slotting in Embers, The Primrose Path, Youth Without God….these are not exactly commercial sizzlers.

  • And this is their mission: “The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is an
    American center for theater performance, production , education , and
    professional training.  By presenting both classical literature and new
    work from diverse cultures,_ the Guthrie illuminates the common humanity
    connecting Minnesota to
    the peoples of the world.”

  • Here’s their mission: “The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is an
    American center for theater performance, production, education, and professional training.  By presenting both classical literature and new
    work from diverse cultures, the Guthrie illuminates the common humanity connecting Minnesota to
    the peoples of the world.”

  • dylan m

    marketing new plays and marketing “forgotten” ones are two vastly different things. (and the plays listed above ARE largely “forgotten” works. Sorry.)

    if one wants to start a theatre with the mission of producing the 12 plays listed above – one should feel free.  That theater would not survive to produce all 12 however, and by season two you’d probably find you need to throw some dead white dudes in there for diversity and then the snake can eat itself all over again.

    that’s not to say a theater with the resources that the Guthrie has can’t make a brave choice and do one of those plays per season as a way of enlightening/educating their audience (even on a “second stage” style season) but the expectation that a theater can go from 0-60 on this is irresponsible leadership.

    You have to do some plays that people have heard of.  It’s hard enough selling tickets for the plays people know, harder still when I say “Come buy tickets to the Georgia Douglas Johnson’s one-act cycle.”  You’d be playing to empty seats.

    This is not purely an academic issue (yes – plays by women/minorities pre-1960 DO exist) or a marketing one (if you can market a $2 bottle of water you can market an Elena Garro play).  Oh and by the way – it takes billions of dollars to market $2 bottles of water.  Which Regional theatre has that?

    Has the Guthrie handled this well?  Not particularly but the “solutions” are not light switches clicked on by academics and marketers.

    • Again, you are missing the point. 

      The gulf between marketing new plays and forgotten ones is only vast if you’re not very good at marketing plays. If  “Come by tickets to X writer” is how you’re trying to entice potential audiences, you’ve already lost them.

      • Seems to me, most theatres I’ve been to in recent years have been able to sell $2 and $3 bottles of lesser-brand bottled water by putting out a sign that says “Water.  $2.”  Seems to work for them.

  • Alexis Greene

    And, to get back on track, if Mr. Dowling doesn’t know about the classical plays by women or non-white folks, he does have a dramaturg who can present him with a list of such plays — if Mr. Dowling is interested.

  • Judith

    I just looked at the Guthrie lineup again. Donald Margulies, Neil Simon, James Baldwin are classic writers. Theresa Rebeck, Wendy Wasserstein, and Lorraine Hansberry are not. Right.