i'm a white writer. in new york. original, no? i've been blogging since october 2002. this blog picks up in october 2008, when i moved from DC to NY...(and then I moved to Maine in 2012)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Cup of Ocean

This post is a branch from a blog post I'm writing for NPR that will be published later today about the Wasserstein Prize controversy. The larger issue of women playwrights is so sprawling and personal for me, that I thought it would be simpler to place this tangential chunklet over here.

I have never thought I would be able to support myself solely through my writing, and in that sense, I suppose I'm lucky because I'm less regularly disappointed. Like many theater artists, I've had my share of financial and health issues (most of my artist friends don't have health insurance, or if they do, it's through a job that takes time away from their creative work). While not every writer struggles to the same degree, I believe that many writers who've been through such struggles observe society from an outsider's perspective and then try to transmute their challenges into work that resonates with a larger audience (or at least "an" audience).

I don't look at grants or prizes as things I'm entitled to, but I know that the decision to withhold $25,000 from a young female playwright triggered such a large outcry precisely because each and every one of us who bargains away our art for security or our security for our art knows how much a prize like that would mean to a struggling young artist. It's not just the money, it's the idea that someone values your art. That's enough. That's more than enough.

Below are some thoughts that relate to last year's study on women playwrights. I had a few issues with the study at the time, but wasn't sure how to present them.


When the Primary Stages all-female season caused a hullaballoo in May 2009, I tried to stifle my gut response and blogged statistics instead.  It left me feeling exposed, foolish, and just plain weirded out by the sheer impossibility of ever thoroughly addressing the issues. When the dust settled, my takeaway was that I could never write objectively about anything to do with women playwrights, and therefore I shouldn't even try, because emotion nearly always decimates even the most solid of arguments. I can only write of my own experience, which is anecdotal but feels viscerally connected to a larger, unvoiced experience.

It's been almost two years since then, and I wish every day that I could find words to cover everything I think and feel about being a woman playwright. It's overwhelming. 

As I said in the NPR post, it's like trying to write an ocean.

All I can do is scoop out a cup and go.

So when the results of Emily Sands's survey of literary managers and artistic directors came out in June of that same year, I kept quiet, even though I had taken the survey, and had struggled particularly with this question in it:  "On a scale of 1 to 7, what is the likelihood of Mary winning a prize/award for this script?" I noticed the question wasn't "On a scale of 1 to 7, what is the likelihood of you recommending Mary's script for a prize/award?" This question seems especially relevant today, with the Wasserstein Prize hanging in the balance.

To answer that question, I first had to acknowledge my own prejudices so that I might set them aside--the script samples weren't much to my taste, and the names on the scripts suggested white playwrights. Then, I had to ask myself what Mary's chances of winning a prize were; where the first adjustments were positive, this adjustment had to be negative, because I knew full well that a script written by a woman would be less likely to win a prize. 

I was working three jobs and didn't have time to do battle with the way Sands's results were presented in the media, which was something along the lines of, "Women are holding back women in the theatre." Other people took up the fight and outlined their issues with the survey and its interpretation. 

(One of the questions was "On a scale of 1 to 7, to what extent is Mary's script an example of artistic exceptionalism?" My understanding of the word "exceptionalism," which I had to look up to confirm, had to do with something not being subject to certain norms [see "American Exceptionalism"]. In retrospect, I suspect Sands meant to ask whether we thought the play was exceptionally good, not just different.)

(Also problematic was the fact that the theater I was working for at the time only produced classical plays, so I had to answer questions like, "On a scale of 1 to 7, how eager would your potential audience members be to see Mary's play?" negatively.)

Anyway, there just isn't enough room in one 500-word piece for NPR (which currently stands at 1300 words) to say everything I feel about this subject. I dream of someday having the time to be able to just write, to try to write eloquently, but at the moment, it's 4am and I have four meetings at work tomorrow, and I haven't finished my homework for class tomorrow night, and then I have fourteen more script pages to write for Wednesday night's playwriting class. 

The reality of my life as a playwright, female or otherwise, is that I have to just keep going, and not be afraid to be untidy. 

In my post for NPR, I mention the rippling impact that my MacDowell Fellowship had on me. The gifts from my time at MacDowell were many--the career boost, the material support, the friends I made, even the room to face my darker demons. The biggest gift was simply knowing that such an esteemed organization chose me, believed in me. I was so grateful for the opportunity that since then I've done everything I can to honor their choice through my work, and to pay it forward.  I recently wrote a letter of recommendation for MacDowell on behalf of Kate Tarker, a young playwright I met three years ago and who I greatly admire. She emailed me the other day to let me know that she was accepted.


1 comment:

Alexis said...

According the TDF, there are only 19 female playwrights under the age of 32 who are eligible and worthy of consideration for the Wasserstein Prize. I have a hunch that they are very wrong and that their nomination system is the real problem. Please help me prove it.

I'm gathering a list of women who are eligible for the prize and will send it over to TDF in an open letter.


-Alexis Clements