As an educator in Theatre, specifically Playwriting, I am developing a journaling exercise for my students that investigates and challenges the stumbling blocks that they have encountered in their educational and artistic journey. Some of the stumbling blocks among the students may be the same, but their personal narrative and experiences with them will be unique. The goal of the exercise will be to allow them to see these challenges as opportunities for personal growth and enrichment. As an educator, I would never ask my students to go through an exercise without first doing it myself. I will approach this exercise now as a working Playwright with the goal that it will not only help fine tune the exercise for my students, but also allow for my own personal growth and enrichment. I am inviting an audience to read this exercise in a series of posts, as I wish to share my creative process openly with my friends, family, colleagues, and fellow artists.
Exercise: List 10 Reasons why you SHOULD NOT write plays and provide an example from either your life or artistic journey that explains how this reason has affected your creative process.
1. PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS CRITICIZE WHAT YOU WRITE.
In 2005, I was in my second year of the Master of Fine Arts Playwriting Program at the University of Arkansas Department of Theatre. I was mentored by the late great Theatre legend and Professor, Dr. Roger Gross. I would like to first say that I continue to appreciate his mentorship and teaching style. I miss him dearly and will always respect his influence on my career as a Professor and Playwright. With all that being said, I was damn mad at him on this occasion. But, what I loved most about Roger is that he appreciated and allowed my anger. He was the first to say to me, “this is a growth opportunity for you that you will someday use to fuel your writing.”
I developed the play, “Psychic Pizza”, during that year and it was given a workshop production in the studio theatre. I will be discussing the play again in another “Reason”, so I won’t go into too much detail about the production itself. The play (with that comical name) was inspired by four things: my hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas; the communities of Northwest Arkansas; the silly notion of a psychic pizza delivery driver; and dum dum dum….Gentrification. Ouch! That term is uncomfortable to many I have learned. If that is an unfamiliar term, please do some research, you will be able to quickly identify what it is and have probably experienced it in your own community at some point. It is a tricky little devil. From my perspective, gentrification can look really good for a community and have a lot of seemingly positive effects for growth and prosperity on the surface; however, it also has a lot of adverse effects that should not be ignored. I will be providing a copy of the statement that was written as a “Playwright’s Note” in the program for this play below. The reason I will be providing this is because that “Playwright’s Note” was the sole focus and subject of criticism from my professors after the play was produced. I received pretty good feedback about the play otherwise. It was charming, had some funny moments, and had great characters. It certainly had its structural flaws, but as a second-year playwright, it was promising. However, that “Playwright’s Note” seemed to ruffle the feathers of all my professors and made them “uncomfortable”. I was shocked and upset that my mentor and advocate was scolding me about “ruffling feathers” of the other theatre faculty. I was under the impression that was what I was supposed to do in college and in my profession – get people out of their comfort zones. As a writer, I was supposed to and employed to challenge the status quo. During this long discussion with Dr. Gross, he told me, “everyone really liked the play, but the ‘Playwright’s Note’ that was included in the program should not have been printed. It pushes too many envelopes and makes people uncomfortable.” I took Dr. Gross to task. I was also extremely interested in Dramaturgy at the time and thought it was very appropriate and necessary as a companion piece to the play. We didn’t have dramaturgs in our program, so I attempted to do it myself. It was an experiment for me in my creative process and something I wanted to try. Dr. Gross communicated to me that the faculty felt that it negated the play and showed “my own personal beliefs too much”. Wow. How was I to keep myself from “showing my personal beliefs in my work?” I see now that he was trying to instruct me to solely use the script to embody this conflicting issue, not a “Playwright’s Note”. Currently as a professor, I would probably encourage my own students to do the same. I always say, “if you have an issue with something, put it in your writing because it will be more effectively communicated that way.” People do not like to be preached to and will turn off immediately if they feel they are being challenged by the artist personally. When you can embody a conflict, whether its societal or psychological, in a character or a story, an audience can see the conflict better. They can see it play out on stage and see the results more clearly. Playwrights shouldn’t need a “statement or rant” to accompany their work in order address a problem they feel is important for people to understand. In that light, I might currently agree with him. Yes, Dr. Gross, I am now admitting you were probably right!
But, enlightenment aside, I was mortified by the fact that an entire faculty disapproved of something that I had written. I have always been a people pleaser. Even in this exercise, I am constantly evaluating whether or not someone will like it or be offended, or criticize me. It is simply my nature. With that being said, I DO NOT regret including the “Playwright’s Note” in the program. Not only do I think it was important for me to learn how to be an effective theatre artist, but it also taught me just how powerful my words could be. They do effect people. I am responsible for what I put into the world and on the stage. I had to figure out as a playwright how to artfully utilize my perspective on these conflicting issues in society within the play itself. It’s often easier to digest. Not always easy but easier. A personal note to the audience can be bold when it starts speaking out negatively against something that not everyone sees as negative. So I had to be prepared to be challenged personally if I were to personally challenge them. I’ve always been good at being a rebel and argumentative (as my mother will say) but I had not quite honed my skill on how to get people to actually listen to what I was saying. I began to see that the underlying issue here was that the statement directly called out my own community and its participation in what I saw were the negative effects of gentrification. Maybe that was a little close to home for them and directly attacked where they have called home for many years. I was new in Northwest Arkansas. I hadn’t developed the love yet. So, maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to do since I could possibly in the future be asking this same community to support me as a playwright by continuing to produce my work. It’s the whole adage of “not biting the hand that feeds you.” Was I embarrassed? Ego bruised? Was I sad that I didn’t please them entirely because they could all essentially make or break me in the program? None of those. I was angry because I was being challenged.
I revisited that “Playwright’s Note” recently in my scrapbook of past productions. While I could have been less accusatory of our specific community, and been more universal about how I approached the subject of gentrification, I still stand behind what I wrote. While it is clear that I should have focused more how to address this conflict within the script itself, instead of in the program notes, I was not only learning how to become a playwright, I was also learning how to become a contributing and thinking member of society. My opposing viewpoints were no longer being challenged by just my safe and unconditionally loving parents (like when I was a teen), they were being challenged by people I respected and revered – scholars in my discipline who knew way more than me. But in the end, they were safe too. They were actively participating in my education as I was developing my craft as a playwright and as I was developing my personal philosophy as an adult. I was no longer accepting the status quo, but I was learning how to challenge it in a way that could be effective, and entertaining. For myself, I am happy to have a record of that statement and personal growth. I am happy that I was challenged.
What I am not happy about is that the issue I had with gentrification still feels valid. It still feels unresolved and bothers me not because I like arguing against what is popular or status quo, but because I still see the conflict. Gentrification seems so wonderful and prosperous on the surface. But, what happens to the people who are not privileged and fortunate enough to participate in the growth? What happens to the people who are pushed out of their communities because gentrification has made housing and living less affordable? Sometimes when we gentrify, we standardize. When we standardize, we have conformity. Where we have conformity, we lack true diversity. When we lack diversity is where it gets messy and things like equality and civil rights come into question. So maybe that ugly little house doesn’t match the Starbucks on the corner; but in that ugly little house, there might be actual humans that live there. Furthermore, that ugly little house that doesn’t quite match might have humans that have stories and personal investments there as well. Maybe that ugly little house that doesn’t look like the new ones might be the only house that those humans can afford. Lastly, maybe “ugly” is debatable and the house suits those humans just fine. What if all this rebuilding makes it impossible for those humans to afford living anywhere near where they are used to living because it’s not affordable for them anymore? So you have a beautiful redeveloped neighborhood now with expensive restuarants and expensive homes. That’s great for people who can pay that expense. Thats great for people that can have the privilege and proxemity to enjoy that lifestyle. Without going too much into this rant (because this is an exercise not a rant), I’ll just insert the term “ghettoization” here. It has a lot of historical baggage and has not proven to have any positive results. That’s not a perspective, that is a fact. Do I like new restaurants? Absolutely! If they are good. Do I like improving civic amenities? Absolutely! Do I like proper upkeep of land and real estate? Absolutely! Do I like safe neighborhoods for my children? Absolutely! Do I think that gentrification will make my urban dreams come true? No. Am I so naieve that I think gentrification will erase crime? Absolutely not! Do I think crime only happens in lower-income communities? Absolutely not! That’s called prejudice. Or better yet, that’s called pure ignorance. When there is divide in the socio-economics of a community, there will be tension and some people will feel oppressed and pushed out. Whether it’s a racial issue or a socio-economic issue (or both), when there is oppression, ….well, fill in the blanks. I haven’t changed my mind about any of this since 2005. I’ve only had more experience with it, so I probably feel more strongly about it currently than I did twelve years ago.
So why should I not be a playwright? Because I don’t always agree with the status quo or what is popular. When those things are discovered, they may be challenged. I might even be wrong in my thinking, but it is on display and can be found in my writing. So, this “Playwright’s Note” might not have been the best artistic choice, but it does serve as a reminder for me that as a playwright, I will be remembered by what I create (what I write). If I’m going to write it, I better be able to stand behind it. I will be challenged. When I look back at the challenge that I faced by my professors, it feels very minor and insignificant. They were all pretty supportive of my work throughout. In the end, I got the freaking “A” on the play and the program was soon to be forgotten. I never received any criticism from the audiences who attended that play other than the faculty. But, I’m sure there were those who agreed, those who didn’t, and those who didn’t even read it or care. Criticism will take place regardless. It’s not all negative. There is also a big difference in “criticizing” and “criticism”. Sometimes, the negative criticism will be accurate. Sometimes it will not be. People criticize the musical, Hamilton and it’s wildly popular and has won a ton of awards. To end this entry and restate it again as a mantra of courage instead of a reason not to be a playwright, I say this –
PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS HAVE CRITICISM FOR WHAT YOU WRITE, SO ADEQUATELY PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE CHALLENGE. IT IS PART OF THE JOB DESCRIPTION.
(And maybe hire a dramaturg to do the program notes if needed. They are excellent advocates and educators.)