Writing a play is and is not like writing a story or a novel. You need plot, structure, premise. You need well-developed characters. But stories and novels play out in our heads. It’s a one on one conversation between writer and reader. Plays, on the other hand, are visual, aural, temporal things. Collaborative things involving a few or a lot of people. A play will (hopefully) be produced, directed and performed by other people. And, then watched by more people, all together at the same time and in the same place. (Which is an increasingly rare experience in our tech-driven world.) In that sense, it occured to me recently, a playwright is a potential job creator, for specific types of people.
That got me thinking. I’m between projects at the moment, casting around (no pun intended) for the next one. And I’m wondering: should I pick a project, at least in part, because it gives under-represented actors opportunity? How much of that, versus writing what comes, what sparks me, what lights me up? If those things happen to be separate? And, as a female playwright, am I obligated to write lots of female roles? How much can I do if the odds are stacked against me, too?
The old lament in the American Theatre, of course, is that it is by, for, and about mostly white men. Middle-aged and older white men. When I think of the towering playwrights of the twentieth century, it’s men that come immediately to mind: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard. After a while, Lillian Hellman shows up. And then Lorraine Hansberry. Because I went to drama school I then remember Caryl Churchill (British) and Beth Henley. Of these, only one is a person of color. Of course, this is one white woman’s thought experiment, based on who and what I was taught and experienced growing up in the latter half of the twentieth century. But…
It feels like the way most of the world works, still, in 2019. But maybe not. According to the New York Times, “[t]he list of most produced playwrights in the 2019-20 season features 12 women and 10 men, and is as racially diverse as it’s ever been. Six of the 22 writers are playwrights of color, including Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage and Quiara Alegría Hudes, not to mention August Wilson.” Which is excellent news for so many reasons, not least because I want the American Theatre to remain relevant. To remain a place that people want to come, that young people want to discover and make their own. A place where people get to see themselves, as well as getting exposed to things far outside their own knowledge and understanding of the world. To me, theatre is at its best when it has something to say, when it both entertains and enlightens.
U.S. regional theatres seem to be coming to the same idea. “In interviews with 12 incoming artistic directors around the country, a common theme emerged: Now is a moment full of great potential for change. As the nation’s demographics are shifting, can the American theatre start to look more like America? Relatedly, can it be made relevant to more Americans? Among the existential questions faced by the American theatre, this is a relatively new one. This new generation of leaders may have the answer.” (American Theatre Magazine)
It’s exciting news. But how much responsibility does each individual playwright bear to make sure that there are enough plays with diverse roles and diverse stories to go around? What do you think? Does who might say your words have a bearing on what you write? Is it right up there at the beginning, directing your search for material, or is it a happy accident when whatever sparks your interest happens to create a more diverse cast?
What do you think about when you think about what to write? Let me know in the comments below.