Inadvertent Deep Facebook Debate Between NYC Theatre Artists

I recently re-posted playwright/director/actor  Joshua Conkel’s post for the Youngblood Blog titled “Look Harder” on my Facebook page–which spawned a pretty epic  conversation about class between some amazing theater artists living and working here in NYC.  Check it out below and gain some insights from artists including  playwrights Tommy Smith, Young Jean Lee and actress Juliana Francais- Kelley.

( Conversation last updated 2/25/11)

Leah Winkler via Jessica Chayes

omg thank you Joshua Conkel for representing. Teddy NicholasTommy Smith Nick Nanna Mwaluko Andrew Unconstitutional Kramer sweet article calling out privilege and class among playwrights-you CAN make theater and not come from a rich family!

  • You, Jen Kwok, James Carter and 2 others like this.

      Tommy Smith 

      There’s a lot that’s true in this article (esp. “the arts are run by people who are overly cautious, myopic, and obsessed with the past”) but it sorely lacks a solution. ADs don’t need to look harder, because they will not – they have sala…ries to protect. Artists need to shout louder. The only reason Young Jean or Mike Daisey or Nature Theatre or Reggie Watts or Neil LaBute or Cynthia Hopkins or get booked is because they convinced the ADs through the refinement and self-mastery of their art that the theater would be stupid NOT to present the work. If you’re a playwright, you should be asking yourself how to get in the same situation, silver spoon or not. A degree from Juilliard or Yale or NYU is worthless precisely 2.5 seconds after graduation if you don’t know how to make your art resonate. This is why terrible plays get produced — if you know how to make friends and don’t mind relying on nepotism, you’ve already got a slot booked at MTC. Beat the fuckers at their own game, instead of throwing up your hands and blaming class.
      February 16 at 5:35pm · · 1 personLoading…

      Leah Winkler dayuuuuum. zing. i agree. but it’s still nice to hear someone discuss class! especially on on the youngblood blog! 

      February 16 at 5:38pm ·

      Leah Winkler anyway- i didn’t really see it as a ‘throwing up hands and blaming class’…saw it more as a sign of encouragement—like–anyone can do this- rich or poor-go ahead-it can be good. but now i see what you are saying about a solution or lackthereof. i guess ive basically stopped thinking in terms of solution at this point. just make work. learn. i may be doomed. 

      February 16 at 5:47pm ·

      Joshua Conkel 

      Hi, Tommy. We don’t know each other but we have a lot of mutual friends from Seattle. I know that I probably can’t get you to agree with me, and that’s okay, but let me expand on what I was saying.First of all, I’d bet that most playwrights… would say that they are “shouting louder.” I know I would. But ultimately I feel the onus is on the people with power, not on me. 

      Your argument rings as very conservative to me. We live in a country that likes to pretend its a meritocracy, that the cream rises to the top. We do not live in that country and our theater is not exempt from this fantasy. It’s like when conservatives tell poor people to “just work harder” as if being poor was a result of laziness or a lack of talent. They ignore that there’s a system in place that promotes one set of people over another and that it;s really, really hard to overcome.

      Of course I know you’re right in a sense. The world is an unfair place and artists without privilege will just have to break down walls as Mike Daisey and Reggie Watts and others have done. Believe me, I’m working on it- as are others. But don’t forget that there are hundreds if not thousands of artists who don’t make the crossover, and it’s not from a lack of trying.

      Writers will probably always have to kick down that ugly wall of class-ism, but on the other side they should try to open a few doors. The theater institutions need a change, and I for one think the middle and lower class could be their salvation if they’d only listen.

      I’m not throwing up hands anytime soon. That’s not my style.

      P.S. Even though I don’t think it’s my responsibility to offer solutions, I do have some ideas. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up. Thanks for the robust conversation, folks.

      February 16 at 6:29pm ·

      Tommy Smith 

      I need to stop drinking coffee in the afternoon.My argument is not conservative, just pragmatic. The bear hangs out near the stream with the most fish. If you’re an artist sitting in your room spending time thinking about the *potential* …barriers caused by other people, you will die hungry in the streamless forest. 

      If our art isn’t working — if there’s a gap between our intention and an audience absorbing the content — we’re the only ones to blame. It’s quite literally our *job* to find our audience — using any ruthless, blatant, underhanded, aggressive, poverty-causing means necessary. The only person responsible for solving our problems is us.

      This, of course, if just a conversation, and if we hung out in person I would probably seem very nice.See More

      February 16 at 6:46pm ·

      Andrew Unconstitutional Kramer I ♥ Joshua Conkel and Leah Winkler. And Teddy, too. 

      February 16 at 7:51pm ·

      Joshua Conkel 

      Ha! I’ve no doubt you’re nice, Tommy. You wouldn’t keep such excellent company if you weren’t.I actually think we agree on the state of the theater, though we might disagree on the implications. What you’re describing still seems conservati…ve to me. It seems like an “every man for himself” philosophy, which is like free market capitalism. Look at what that got us: a few people have everything and everybody else has nothing. What’s true of the country is also true of the theater. 

      I understand what you’re saying on a purely pragmatic level. Sure, that’s the way things are. That’s a given. A writer has to do everything he or she can to connect with an audience no matter what.

      What I’m talking about is the way theater SHOULD be, which is different. It should be bolder, more accessible, more diverse. Am I naive for thinking that with hard work and ingenuity we can shape it into something better? I hope note. It seems like a cop out to just sit by and say nothing about a gross and unequal playing field. Never in the history of the world has that done any good.

      I’m not advocating sitting in your room and bemoaning all the barriers. Like you I’m talking about fucking knocking them down, but hopefully also eliminating them for the person behind you.See More

      February 16 at 10:41pm ·

      Tommy Smith 

      I think you’re really pushing a “conservative” label on my point-of-view in order to dismiss it. I’m merely assessing the landscape that we are *in*. You even admit in your argument that the arts are run like free market capitalism, so wh…y not call a spade a spade and start from there? Life isn’t fair, and it’s less fair in the realm of the arts, and I think it’s a waste of energy to try changing that. You win poker by playing it well, not by trying to convince the dealer to augment the rules to suit players who aren’t as savvy.Also, the ONLY conversation you can have about changing the face of art is by doing art. Joy Division never talked endlessly about changing the face of music. They just played their songs in the venues that were available to them. 

      I guess the solution that I propose for this argument (since my original objection was the lack of solution) is that writers should do everything they can to get their work done, while acknowledging the very practical limitations and hurdles that are in front of them. Be realistic — this world will never be as you *want* it to be, so you must be satisfied with how it is, and play by its rules until you’re in a position to change it. You don’t defeat Troy by blatantly attacking its walls; you offer a gift. Write plays that are like Trojan Horses — only when you’re inside the castle walls can you release your soldiers. If we’re talking essentially about murdering the entrenched view of theatre-making, this seems to be the only way to do it.

      Now I will go swim in the ocean.See More

      February 17 at 11:35am · · 1 person

      Leah Winkler epic. 

      February 17 at 1:11pm ·

      Leah Winkler 

      the awesome artists that were mentioned here are not necessarily from the lower class-but I agree with Josh that it’s really hard and unfair to start a career as a writer coming from a poor background -but on the upside I think it keeps t…hings interesting in your own mind and if you work- you persevere and get peoples respect. Therefore I agree with Tommy that really- the only thing you can do is work. However, THIS IS WHY it’s important to keep art accessible to EVERYONE including low income families. Theater shouldn’t just be at private schools and expensive art camps–it should be everywhere – so that every kid, no matter the circumstance- could find solace in it and gain the drive to keep working. that is all. i’m glad this epic conversation happened on my wall. podcast anyone?See More
      February 17 at 1:35pm ·

      Joshua Conkel Yeah! Go jump in the ocean!Seriously, I’m not trying to dismiss you. Look, we totally agree on the state of the world and the state of theater within it. We just have different view on tactics, that’s all. 

      February 17 at 5:00pm ·

      Teddy Nicholas 

      You know what drives me crazy? This has nothing to do with playwriting.I hate when rich producers constantly demand stage managers/tech people to contribute hours upon hours of work and pay them less than a minimum wage job would pay, and …then when you tell them that you can’t possibly work that many hours for such a low pay, they treat you as if you were a traitor to the art of theatre. 

      Sorry, but I don’t ask you to produce/direct my plays for less than nothing/free, now do I? And I can always tell it’s from some rich asshole too who thinks it shouldn’t be about the money. Well, sorry, but some of us weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouths and can just work for less than nothing.

      February 17 at 5:41pm

      Young Jean Lee 

      I didn’t grow up in a six-figure-income household and never went to a private school. BUT my parents both have advanced degrees and when I was earning $12,000/year and my laptop broke, they bought me a new one, so as far as I’m concerned th…at means I’m privileged. As much as I’d love for it to be true, I don’t believe that talent and hard work are the only reasons why I’ve been able to get my work produced. There are a lot of other factors that have nothing to do with art, including affirmative-actioney-type things where I’m always like, “Yeah! I’ll take it!”. It’s true that members of marginalized groups have always managed to struggle their way to the top, but why not give them a hand? I think it would be great if we all started thinking more about class when it comes to supporting artists. Because it’s kind of a myth that we can reward people “solely based on merit”. We all tend to prefer people who think and talk the way we do, and it’s good to put pressure on everyone to go outside their comfort zones when it comes to curating, funding, casting, choosing collaborators, etc.See More
      February 17 at 10:57pm · · 3 people

      Joshua Conkel Yay! Thanks, Young! 

      February 18 at 9:30am · · 1 personLoading…

      Leah Winkler ‎@YJ- thats why yous my favorite 

      February 18 at 10:24am ·

      Morgan Gould 

      My parents (though not in the six figures) have bought me several new laptops over the years and yet I can honestly say that I think it shows a lack of compassion if one can’t realize that an artist born in a low income household doesn’t ha…ve MILES AND MILES more work to do to than someone who was able to get higher education and who was financially supported by their family. Simply suggesting they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps is woefully simplistic. Not to be a jerk, but to say “The only person responsible for solving our problems is us.” Makes me really sad. I like to believe that we are a community of artists. Writers, directors, producers, artistic directors, actors, audiences, designers, dramaturgs… I know it doesn’t always function that way, but that’s the goal. We’re on the same team. Is it not everyone’s responsibility to make sure our community is just that–a community–a not a merely a playground for white straight men born into the upper class? Now, I get it. I’m just as ruthless, blatant, underhanded, aggressive, and poverty-stricken as the next freelance artist, and it’s not like I’m giving away my opportunities to make work to those who are less fortunate (nor do I expect that white straight guys will start doing that, either) but I don’t think it’s too much to ask to make this issue a priority for leaders of producing/ development institutions around the country. In fact, there are many places that ARE doing that. The Lark, About Face, many of the NNPN theaters, Golden Thread, Silk Road, Working Theater, and many more. Individual artists shouldn’t be shouldering the battle on their own. Because we should all care, not just those writers/ artists who are effected by the statistics. It’s up to ALL of us to engage this conversation and it’s up to all of us to truly ask ourselves (even in the face of our own desire for success) “is it okay with me that only a fraction of American perspectives appear on America stages?” And do what little things we can to try tip the scales. After all, my ruthless/ selfish/ competitive self wants to know I’m up against the best work out there, not just the best work from the people who have had opportunities that have made it possible for them to be artists (MFAs, financially healthy households, privileged upbringings etc).
      February 18 at 2:32pm ·

      Leah Winkler 

      this is all very refreshing. However, i dont think thats what tommy is saying. i think he’s just saying that the best you can do is keep making work and hopefully that will transcend the huge odds. and of course, what YJ says is very insp…iring and has a point also. i mean, i honestly had no idea that people who weren’t poor were aware of this situation. as a person of color who looks white and grew up in low income family who does not give me support of any kind- i feel that i am a huge minority in the world of theater and admittedly, often get bitter when those who have scrilla get ahead- or get funding on top of everything. but i know that i have to make good work first to even “compete” –and of course that’s fair. Even if it’s not a talent, those who have had resources are going to have a huge leg up to have fostered their talent ( not having to work day jobs to pursue their dreams- is a huge example I see amongst my peers) and if they are good on top of that- the odds are huge against people who are doing it without support. Doing art is sort of a and all of it makes it seem like doing art is a priveledge in itself. poor people have a huge disadvantage for everything. and you have to be really awesome to get out. i’m not sure what the leaders can do about that. how do we ask besides griping about it on facebook? i feel like the only thing I can honestly do, speaking for myself, is just keep making work because thats the only thing i know how to do.See
      February 18 at 2:53pm ·

      Leah Winkler and i’m honestly asking that question b/c i dunno. 

      February 18 at 3:10pm ·

      Morgan Gould 

      Totally–I think making work is a huge, huge part of it. And for my money, I just work for cool people like Young Jean and I feel like that tips the balance in my small way. And I get what Tommy is saying (I do Tommy!)…and I don’t think h…e’s actually suggesting that it’s okay with him that white men/ privileged people are produced more or anything, of course not, no person with a soul would ever think that. I just think remembering that we are for each other as artists is a critical thing to keep in mind, even though it feels like we work in a vacuum a lot. This shit is hard and I respect ANYONE who is trying to do it, especially if they had to really go it alone. As a relatively privileged person (and I especially like your point that it is privilege to be making art at all) I DO try and remember that there are many paths, and that there are some of my colleagues who have had to really struggle in ways that my petty angst can’t imagine. And then there are other people who’ve had an easier time because they have a lot of support. But mostly, I want to applaud people in positions of power who are trying to actively search for artists in communities that are low income (and there are theaters that do that–more and more). I do think leaders can do that and they can just be conscious when choosing their seasons. And if I’m ever an artistic director, I’ll have to go back and read my gripes on facebook and walk the walk! :)See More
      February 18 at 3:11pm · · 1 personLoading…

      Young Jean Lee If I had to choose between having a privileged upbringing and having a cockroach-like tenacity, I would choose the latter. The former doesn’t always get you anywhere, whereas the latter usually does. 

      Saturday at 10:18am · · 3 peopleLoading…

      Juliana Kelly 

      Okay, I’ve had to kinda skim this compelling thread, because I can’t let my kid watch too much TV… I hafta say that while I wholeheartedly believe that EVERYONE – from silver spoon to battered spoon – has to do their utmost, I have proble…ms with the just work hard, “your advanced degree doesn’t mean anything for long” line of thinking, Poverty and the toxic stress that frequently attends it literally changes the shape of children’s brains. Lousy education sucks more than an advanced degree losing its gleam too quickly. Of course, people can overcome astonishingly horrible shite – but why is this our system? Why is it acceptable to lose bright minds to this nightmare? We all lose when art is silenced, snuffed out, or rendered imcomplete because of poverty and classism.See More
      Saturday at 5:46pm · · 1 personLoading…

      Tommy Smith I guess David Lindsay-Abaire cracked that one right open. 

      Saturday at 7:41pm · · 1 personLoading…

      Leah Winkler can i put this on my website? i think it’s a really interesting convo. if you dont want me to just send me a message and i’ll omit your comment or hide your name. whatever you want. xoxo ♥ ♥ ♥ 

      23 hours ago · · 1 personTommy Smith likes this.

      Juliana Kelly i love the word “convo!” sounds like trucks.


      February 21 at 5:29pm · ·

      Kevin Doyle 

      With all due respect, I think time would be better spent off Facebook doing some hard research about the history of arts funding in the United States, instead of tossing back and forth straw man arguments — or just venting. 

      My apologies for… sounding all Grandpa.

      But there are clear, concrete and identifiable reasons why we are all crammed into this horrible arts system in America — all of us — trust fund kids and blue collar kids — the Managers/Admins and the artists themselves — the successful and the struggling. And those reasons are completely inter-connected with the horrible systems at play in say . . . labor, health care, higher education or mass transportation.

      The best progressive political minds America produced in the early-to-mid 20th Century made successful arguments for arts funding and audience development for the arts. They were so successful that they defeated weaker Conservative/Republican positions — that led to the creation of the NEA (and other organizations) in the first place. It’s all there in the Congressional record waiting for you to re-discover them.

      A great deal — if not all — of these successful arguments have been lost from our collective memory during the culture war brushfires of the last 30 years.

      – – – – –

      There does exist an alternate solution to the pragmatic, Trojan Horse solution made above.

      It’s just not a pleasant or easy one.

      – – – – –

      The generous arts funding systems that exist in Belgium, France, Germany — and even in a magical land a six hour drive north of NYC — did not magically appear out of nowhere. While some were rooted in centuries of patronage traditions, a surprising number are new developments — as recent as the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s. Many institutions in Belgium, The Netherlands and others — did not even exist 30 years ago.

      They emerged out of hard work, lots of sacrifice and sustained, direct political action by artists from all disciplines. They emerged because artists either stopped making new work outright — occupied buildings — and went on strike — recognizing the importance of establishing permanent reform over their own individual pursuits. Or understood clearly the connection between their creative work and engaged political action — achieving a balance between the two.

      With all due respect, we’ve had 30 years of Reaganomics running amok in America — 30 years of retreating from weak arguments — 30 years of being practical and just trying hard and focusing on our own work — and we’re all still stuck in the same horrible system — even the poor bastards at the top that we might want to rail against.

      At this point, I prefer a direct frontal assault.

      Life is short, kids — it only comes around once.

      I’ll take an old-fashioned street fight as opposed to a poker game.

      – – – – –

      “So what ya gonna do when the novelty has gone?” — Ian CurtisSee More

      Wednesday at 8:49pm ·


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