There is good conversation and bad conversation.
We’ve all been party to both. We’ve all had those talks that go late into the night and feel like you’re solving the world. Additive conversations where active listening provides the fuel for synthesis of new ideas better than the preconceived notions of either party. It is the ideal of collaboration we ‘re all referring to when we hold “community” up as a goal. We have all also been on the other side of that communication chasm – the black hole of no listening, of ideological bullies monologuing over each other to the annoyance of everyone within earshot. This is what people accuse all social media of being. (They’re wrong but I’ll be an ideological bully about that another time.)
A few years ago more theatremakers moved onto social media platforms and the conversation that I’d been having about leveraging this platform for small company and entrepreneurial theatre production moved toward social justice and diversification of content. I took a seat. I have little to add to that conversation given my experience so I used what little standing I had to amplify what I considered good content and listened and learned.
But first I had to admit to myself that there was something to learn. I was having trouble listening to the hundreds of new voices in my ear teaching me about privilege and misogyny and the litany of -isms that infect every institution and theatre not least of all. No (non-sociopathic) person believes their personal beliefs are wrong or hurtful or they would change them. I have yet to prove myself a sociopath, so having my personal and artistic beliefs challenged so relentlessly required serious buy-in to listening and to self-examination.
The first and most important step was to stop believing that any of it was personal. It can be difficult when your name is tagged right there in a message to not feel like a barb is personal, but usually it isn’t. It can also require a dampening of your emotional gag reflex to not feel that the loud voice across the table saying something challenging about something you love is attacking you personally. They may be asking you to open up your consideration of that thing, but that’s not an attack, that’s an invitation to synthesis, to new thought.
This week Howlround published a post by Matthew Clinton Sekellick entitled “No More Mamets” that stirred the pot pretty successfully. Sekellick holds that Mamet’s plays put poison out into the world so they shouldn’t be programmed by responsible directors. For this thought exercise he is being pilloried as a censorious fascist. Very little listening or processing is going on around the idea that artistic directors who claim to care about social justice need to program in a way that reflects that claim. You don’t by any stretch need to be an artistic director who cares about social justice. The idea is that if you are that you shouldn’t be programming work that is antithetical to that idea and that (according to the author of the post) that’s what Mamet and Labute are. Why would an AD deserve a cookie for checking the social justice boxes if they aren’t programming that way?
In this vein, Jack Viertel, artistic director of Encores, responded to a positive Laura Collins-Hughes review of Big River in the Times with a scathing open letter that missed the point entirely (and ignored similar concerns from Jesse Green at Vulture). Collins-Hughes and Green each question what value producing Big River has in this moment and whether or not producing the show damages recent purported gains in our view of race in the community. Viertel doesn’t indicate that he took even a moment to question if Collins-Hughes and Green were right, he simply lashed out. He appeals to authority, his own (“I’ve done so many shows I know what I’m doing”) and Mark Twain’s (“Twain is Twain and we did Twain the Twainiest”) and doesn’t ask the questions we ask about Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice. They are very much of their time and should we still do them in a culture that is very different than they were created in? Do they matter? Are there works we could be doing instead that are their equivalent artistically and don’t come with the dated baggage that they do? No one is questioning Viertel’s abilities or Twain’s. They are asking foundational questions we should all be asking about all of our well-made art all the time.
Once one achieves a point of sufficient quality we ought to be open, truly open, to conversation about what a piece of art does and its place in our broader community. The tearing down of those who are questioning whether pieces like Oleanna and Big River take up unnecessary space in our artistic universe is a radical overreaction to a pretty basic probing point or criticism. Much like suggesting a very good, well respected athlete might not be a Hall of Famer, positing that a 30 year old text might not be the best use of resources and talent isn’t an attack. We have to have the patience and self-confidence to accept that or we can never have the good conversations.