For a theatre to commit to a playwright’s residency is a strong and clear declaration. It says not only that it believes in that particular writer, but that it believes in the importance of new work, and is determined to do whatever it can to foster the creation of new work and to shepherd that work to the living stage. It is a noble enterprise in which there are many winners: the writer, the theatre, the local theatre-going community, and-- if the work is as worthy as those involved hope and believe-- the regional, national, and even international theatre community.
I’m concerned to note that my work as Firehouse’s Playwright in Residence has hit a bit of a snag. It’s somewhat mysterious to me, and I’m writing this entry not only to bring the topic up but because I hope to link this blog to other community forums, to perhaps jump-start a conversation that might be helpful to not only my particular enterprise, but perhaps to the community at large.
If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that early in my residency, Joel Bassin and I created something called the “Working Group,” an open collective of theatre artists who have generously expressed their willingness to test-drive whatever scenes or pieces I might bring in.
It’s imperative to the spirit of the Working Group that it never feel itself imposed upon, that our work never feel like one more chore on this week’s list. Members need to know that they’re free to come to one meeting and miss another; that they can come late or leave early; that their participation is endlessly flexible and forgiving. Again and again I’ve made a sandlot softball game the image of what I want it to be-- play if you like for as long as you like.
We were pleased and excited when a great many people signed up, but those numbers now seem to have indicated only very light or fleeting interest. It’s tricky to know for sure, because I’ve been extremely vocal in my devotion to the philosophy “don’t let it be a hassle.” I’ve certainly made it easy to say “I’m so tired tonight, I need to just chill, I’ll try to catch the next one,” and indeed, I want that to be one of the governing principles. I don’t want anyone dragging themselves in as though it were a 6 a.m. calisthenics drill assigned by their parole officer. We only want folks who are happy and eager to be there.
That being said, it’s worth noting that we’ve had six meetings since our beginning, roughly twice a month. A couple of meetings have seen 12-15 members in attendance, but most meetings have been fewer than 10, with a core of about 8 women who seem to do their very best to be at every meeting. I am beyond grateful to those women-- they are hardworking, they are good natured, and they are generous with my work and with one another.
But I’m finding it difficult to properly shape some of the more marginalized voices I’m trying to create when the people giving them their first breath will almost certainly be white women.
At the moment, we’re working to create an evening of scenes which will hold a mostly affectionate (if sometimes stern) mirror up to Richmond, using headlines from the Times-Dispatch Metro section as our inspirations. It’s some percent “Living Newspaper” and some percent sketch revue; plenty of laughs, a few winces, maybe a tear or two. But here are some numbers to consider:
The Working Group has a total of 102 members.
Of those, 77 are women and 25 are men. (of those men, 3 have attended more than 1 meeting)
Of the total 102 members, 6 are men of color and 4 are women of color.
I won’t attempt to unpack all the things this might mean; I’ll simply stick to the math: It means that we’re trying to create an evening about a city in which well over half the population identifies as something other than white, but we’re doing it with a group in which non-whites make up less then 10% of our membership.
It means that if past trends continue, our effort to hold a mirror up to Richmond will show a white woman looking back.
Again: I couldn’t be more humbly grateful to the ladies who show up to every meeting to read my fumbling first efforts. There is nothing about their work that is anything but good and helpful.
But we need other voices. We need men and women of color (and in fact we need men of any color at all.) We need people who can help me understand when a particular scene curves in the wrong direction, people who know things that I might not. It isn’t hard to find essays and blogs and forums in which performers of color decry the lack of opportunity, the lack of roles written for them.
I am trying my very best to create relevant work which would, coincidentally, address this issue. There’s an internationally produced, internationally published, national-award-winning playwright at the Firehouse who is trying to create roles and stories specifically for actors of color.
It’s hard to do that when no actors of color show up.
It won’t stop me, of course. Before this residency, I wrote alone, creating all sorts of characters miles from my own experience. I’ve written women, blacks, transgenders, bi-polar murderers, old men, young girls, and all sorts of people I’ve never been. I’m used to calling upon my imagination, doing my best, and hoping that I can strike a note of truth.
But the Working Group’s help has kindled in me an enthusiasm for collaborating much earlier than has previously been my habit. It has taught me that help is good. It has made me hungry for the particular help I might get from a less homogenous room.