Helen Shaw, theater critic and writer at Time Out New York, weighs in on the Mat Smart cross-posting flurry. (She uses the word "kerfuffle" - which should be put alongside the word "kabuki" as things we now say all the time that we didn't used to say all the time.)
From her post:
"But faster than you can say, "Mat, I think you might be blaming the victim a smidge," playwrights started to leap for Smart's throat. Some of it was quasihysterical, dismissive and emblematic of the kind of vanity Smart was attacking. Josh Conkel jumped to the conclusion that Smart is saying, "Minorities are poor because of LAZINESS," and he does this in a post titled "The Wisdom of Straight White Dudes." I have loved Conkel's work (like MilkMilkLemonade), but his posts on the Youngblood blog tend to elide real inequalities with the difficulties of getting a play produced. There's a mare's nest of interrelated injustice in theatrical production, but fairness is a slippery—sometimes aesthetically dangerous—concept in the arts."
I think Shaw's post is typical of her: clear-eyed, smart, formidable. I do think, though, that she sort of gives Smart a pass ("a smidge") for being provocative, but doesn't give those who he has actively provoked the same benefit of the doubt. They're no less outraged than Smart is, and, I would argue, for far more complex reasons.
I'm also skeptical of the idea that highlighting inequalities is the same thing as demanding fairness. I've never heard anyone seriously make a good case that people should ignore aesthetics in favor of some imaginary system of doling out productions by group or by quota. Does the fact that production opportunities will never be "fair" (whatever that means) mean that artists like Conkel should stifle their full-throated truth-telling about the importance of access? (I got all sorts of complicated feedback when I told a little truth about the wall between the un-Agented and the larger institutions, despite their public policies.) Is the answer, really, that everyone should shut up, get in line, and write better plays?
I think that saying "hey, it's more complicated than that" is not an argument that aesthetics don't matter. Acknowledging class is not an argument that fairness should trump talent. In fact, the people who care most about the quality of the work they see are often the same people who are decrying the challenges of the theatrical caste system. Conkel, himself, has loads of talent and works his ass off. If Smart is right...why does Conkel care so much?
It seems that all everyone wants is the best and hardest working artists to get opportunities. The question is: do we get to that goal by treating class and access as if they are just background noise, another part of the laundry list? Or by engaging with those issues with passion and intelligence?
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.