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.