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On Being Right

08.06.15 | 4 Comments


CATEGORIES #2amt, activism, advocacy, community

There is a mental habit formed early in the development of the modern American psyche: the immediate and perpetual recentering of yourself as the underdog. Our prevailing American narrative is one of rising above great (or more usually impossible) odds to achieve our heart’s one true desire. In the narrative the underdog is always right, always righteous, and inherently worthy, due to their status as underdog, of their heart’s desire. It’s problematic enough in our films, teevee programs, and songs but when folks begin  doing it in real life it really is a disaster. The dissonance of the intensified discussion of privilege and failed intersectionality of civil rights of the last few years is exemplified in the pivot to underdog and gestalt worthiness; If one believes that they are the oppressed in every situation (regardless of circumstances) how can one ever be an oppressor? Or even simply a negligent ally (centering yourself is the short road to Bad Ally Bayou)?

That narrative is even more prevalent in the arts. The language of the arts of one of holiness and righteousness. The words “God” or “Jesus” are well-nigh interchangable for “art” or “theatre” on most t-shirts. The asks for support are almost identical. Both American mainstream cultural religionists and artists have persecution complexes too deep to ever reliably confront. I have watched various theatre disciplines snipe at one another (unironically) about who was the least respected.

All of which seems like a lot of words to say that as the One True Underdog in any given situation we believe that our rightness is paramount, our cause is just, and any level of pushback at the perceived oppression is appropriate. There is no way that as the perpetually aggrieved, the perpetually unprivileged, the little guy that we could be being unfair. That we could be punching down.

That we could be the bully.

This is a lesson that has taken me all of my forty years (and a lot of patience on the part of those around me) to begin to unpack. My backpack of privilege, a moderately sized platform and a strident voice meant that I was bruising a lot of people unintentionally. Speaking truth to power to Rocco Landesman is one thing, throwing elbows in the paint with random Twitter denizen #4 is another. I treated them all the same. It was a mistake. Mostly I’m better about that now (we all have our bad days).

But this isn’t a lesson everyone has learned and the Great Internet Outrage Engine is no respecter of persons.

Being right isn’t a license to kill.

(on the internet)

The Northland Words Theatre put out a disastrous call for submissions for their 2015 Original Short Play Festival and the horde descended.

To be clear: the call for submissions is a lesson in worst practices for an open call for submissions. I myself amplified the original attention shining post from Donna Hoke and the follow-up overview from Howard Sherman.  It was a worst practices moment that deserved to be highlighted, the issues explicated and the conversation had. I felt like both of the posts I amplified were pretty reasonable. Most of the rest of the response I’ve seen hasn’t been. In the post-Bush “with us or against us” formulation, a company that could put out a disastrous call for submission like that is simply the enemy. No nuance or additional thought necessary. Northland Words becomes an analog for every group, or company, or theatre that has ever called our work a hobby or compared it to a third grader’s class project. They get the full blast of vitriol we want to give the nameless other that oppresses us.

We other them to make ourselves feel better.

Our being right doesn’t make our every action right.

Northland Words being wrong doesn’t revoke their humanity.

They’ve explained.
They’ve apologized.
A parent of some of the Northland Words kids have engaged respectfully about the issues.
The Outrage Machine rolls on because [GENERALIZATION] no one reads everything and no one follows up on comments and conversation.

And because the adrenaline feels good.

Fight the fights where we need to.
And #playwrightrespect is definitely a fight worth fighting for all conscientious theatremakers
But we need to learn the value of proportional response and we need to rehumanize other.

Northland Words Theatre isn’t the enemy, they are us.
They are a scrappy theatre trying to make stuff they love on a wing and a prayer.
They got something wrong. So we help them fix it and help them to understand why we’re so shocked at the call.

We go ahead and believe them when they explain why and how it happened and we move on together.

We’re on the same team.

Travis Bedard

Travis Bedard

A long time theatre blogger, Travis is the Artistic Director of Cambiare Productions and a contributing writer to 2amTheatre.com. Travis holds a degree in Theatre (Secondary Education) from the University of New Hampshire and is currently posted in scenic St. Paul Minnesota..
Travis Bedard

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  • ughughughugh

    Very well said. Two days after this craziness started (and before the apology; I’ve amended the post to include that), I posted this follow-up for exactly these reasons: http://blog.donnahoke.com/are-we-afraid-to-demand-playwrightrespect/ #playwrightrespect always. Sadly, for Northland Words, they hit the center of a perfect storm.

  • Jill Pearson

    My eyes are stinging with tears right now at the truth of your words and at the painfulness of this experience. We ARE on the same team. We need to extend patience and mercy to each other. I am the parent who has tried to engage respectfully at Howard Sherman’s blog and am thankful a few playwrights were beacons of graciousness and encouragement.
    At first I was fascinated by the feedback. I told my kids, “Listen, these people are uniting to teach us something and we need to pay attention!” Then I became disheartened and told my kids, “This is the unfortunate result of misappropriated baggage. Move on, kiddos. Don’t respond anymore. Respect others. Respect copywright. Go make your art.”

    • I really appreciated your attempts for this moment to be constructive, it mattered. I’m sorry it wasn’t rewarded.

    • Indeed.

      Part of the reaction elsewhere is simply that playwrights are used to being taken advantage of, and in just that fashion–changing words, meanings, intent, then broadcasting that to the word as “our” work. Asking for new, unpublished work and then claiming any kind of ownership over that script is a red flag for most playwrights–but, of course, asking for new work avoids any of the licensing agreements which specify producing the script as written.

      As a playwright and producer (and occasional teacher), my suggestion would be to continue to call for plays, but not “new, original, unproduced, unpublished” ones. Directing a new play is not the same skill as simply directing a play–you have to be attuned to what works, what doesn’t, what needs to change, and in directing new work, you must work hand in hand with the playwright in order to improve that work. New play direction is not a beginner skill, but it’s a useful one to learn once you take off the training wheels.

      By producing existing work, you’re getting a script that has gone through the new play process. It’s been worked over & tinkered with & improved to where the playwright and the original producers & directors are satisfied that it works, that it’s what the playwright was trying to say. That’s what you need to teach beginning skills: a machine that already works, a machine you don’t have to worry about building or rebuilding, so you can focus on the actual directing of the work.

      Having directed as well, it’s important to learn how to rethink or restage a play within the constraints of the words on the page without changing them. How do you take words you can’t change and present your vision of how they should look and sound on a stage? Does that make more work and thought for the director? Sure. But not every directing issue can be solved by telling the playwright to change the words (or changing them without asking).

      Goodness knows playwrights are reasonable, and licensing scripts is surprisingly cheap. Most playwrights I know would prefer presenting their work as they wrote it to the compensation of having compromised work produced without their input. But we’re usually willing to listen if there’s a question or a reason to consider a change, even a one-time thing in an existing script.

      Doing new plays–whether participants write their own or you solicit new work from professionals–could and should be an advanced program. Thanks to the internet, you can Skype with playwrights for table readings, rehearsals, conferences, and all for free–no need to fly a playwright out to take part. Again, most playwrights I know are happy to do this. I’ve done it on multiple occasions, both with existing theatre companies and college theatre students.

      Because Travis is right–we are all on the same team, and if we want to encourage children to think about a life in the theatre, we need to work with them, not shut them down. But we should give them the tools to do it right and do it well.


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