Tuesday, May 15, 2012

White male speaks out about bias

As an old, white, hetero male ("Four strikes and you're still not out, cracker?") I have no place taking part in any discussion about bias. But I will anyway, because, as history shows, the world needs old, white, hetero males to wander into problematic situations and quickly assemble solutions before toddling off to the club for a tot of gin.

The problematic topic is gender bias in the theatre. Yesterday I attended a breakout session on this topic at the Theatre Bay Area annual conference. The very engaging moderator, Valerie Weak, is an actor who has started keeping track of who has a penis and who has a vagina in various productions, from the author to all the production staff to the actors on stage. She does this tracking on her blog here, and while the stats don't paint a picture of complete insanity, it shines a light on some odd things that are going on. In general, women have less opportunity to take part in theatre than men, and that seems to apply at all levels, and it gets worse with the larger, more influential professional theatres in the country.

Most anybody would say that fits somewhere on the scale of wrong/bad/illogical/stupid/frustrating/crazy. Women are a heck-of-a-lot more likely to like, think about going to, and actually buy a ticket to see live theatre. So it makes sense that plays should be a heck-of-a-lot more likely to be written, directed and acted by women, right? That just makes business sense. And women are half the people in the world, right? So at least half the stories told on the stage ought to be written, directed and acted by women, right? That just makes every kind of sense.

What gets interesting is picking at that easily-cheered-for crust to see if there's some juicy bits of fruit underneath. For example, examine the question, "Why do women go to live theatre?" Do they go to see something that would be defined as "a woman's story?" (Some attendees in this breakout session seemed to have a clear idea of what this means but I don't.) Or do they go to see a human story? Or do they, like the two women next to me at a recent production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, go to the theatre to say oooh and aaaah at the bare chest of a particularly hot version of Brick. Broad classifications of people and their desires, motivations and natures, based on their ethnicity, sexual preference, age, or gender, always make me nervous. That's what happens when you're an old, white, hetero male that watches Glee. Pigeonholing feels uncomfortable.

Another juicy hunk of fruit there: one of the attendees in the session made a statement to the effect of "I have nothing against male writers - I love Tennessee Williams as much as the next person." This was said without irony, as far as I could detect. And yet Williams wrote some of the most compelling female roles in the American theatrical canon. In selecting plays, would a theatre be doing a disservice to women to choose a Williams play versus a play written by a woman? Granted, most of his plays have more male characters than female characters, but is that simple math the best calculation of value?

The same conference attendee spoke up on speaking out to theatre companies when they survey patrons for what they want to see. "Don't do Red!" she suggested as a survey response. "Don't do Art!" I'm keeping in mind that people don't always say what they mean in spontaneous conversations, but did she really think there's no place for a play like Red only because it's written by a man and has two male roles? Did she really believe Art should not be produced because it has three male roles, even though it is the kind of play about relationships that women allegedly come to the theatre to see? And would she want to diminish the achievement of the woman who wrote it?

Bottom line: I read and see plays because I want to feel something. I want to mainline a bit of distilled human condition. I want the joys and failures and pathos and agony and perfections of life to be played out for me with the kind of truth that's missing in "real life." I don't care if the play is written, directed and acted by women, men, women who identify as men, men who identify as women, hermaphrodites, trained fleas, or Catholics. I just want to feel something. If, along the way, I laugh, learn something, am compelled to raise my eyebrow or flare my nostrils in disgust, all the better. But at no point, whether the play moves me or not, will I be thinking about which people in the production chain have a penis and which have a vagina.


Valerie Weak said...

Barry - thanks so much for attending the panel on Monday and for your comments here!

Valerie Weak said...

I'm sorry though that you don't want to think about who has a penis and who has a vagina and is working on the plays you go and see.

I want all the 'joys and failures and pathos and agony' that you're looking for at the theater. But, I also want to see different perspectives and different versions of those things. I feel that if I were to stop paying attention to the male/female representation in theater and sharing that with others, the homogeny would continue and I don't want that.

I am afraid that as a culture, by allowing certain voices to be louder than others, to get more attention than others, we are, as a culture, missing something.

And I don't want that to happen.

Barry Martin said...

Valerie, I didn't say I "don't want to think about" gender. What I said, perhaps poorly, is I want to be moved by theatre and I don't care who makes that happen - meaning, bring me new viewpoints, other ways of thinking, that make up the human experience. That doesn't equate with not caring about fairness of opportunity.
I did not intend to minimize your effort to shine a light on disparity. What you're doing is eye-opening, and I'm glad you're leading the conversation.

It's also worthwhile to hear the back stories (such as with the Aurora.)In the small company I co-founded, we have been trying to get the rights to an Annie Baker piece for two years. She is our #1 must-do playwright. Sometimes you don't end up producing your first choice.

And BTW, our track record is good on most of your scales. We've done six productions in our history - 3 were co-directed male/female, 2 directed by a male, 1 by a female. The acting split is 14 males, 12 females.

Valerie Weak said...

Barry - thanks for the clarification on your post. As you and your company move forward, please share the stats on your productions with the Counting Actors project.