The Best Plays
No artistic director wants his or her hands tied by quotas. No artistic director wants to be told what to program. Often you'll hear a producer say, "I
don't want to produce plays by women; I want to produce the best plays
." Forgoing the infuriating nature of that construction, what does "the best
play" even mean, when aesthetics are variant and taste is subjective? In my mind the "best plays" of the year were Tanya Barfield's The Call
Andrea Thome's Pinkolandia
, but neither of those are the splashiest award-winning plays of the season.
The "best plays" system allows you to choose based on gut decisions, without any metrics for measuring success, without any accountability for the larger
effects that your decisions have on the ecosystem of theater. I have written previously about vastly
expanding production volume
so as to seek out new audiences, which would help counteract the inequities. I've also written about having the humility to hire a diversity officer
But honestly we'd be going a long way in the theater if we could just recognize that taste is subjective, and get this "best play" notion out of our
If the "best plays" system were truly a meritocratic process, you would expect to see aberrations in the trends from season to season: a season where
nearly all the plays are by women, a season where there are multiple writers of color produced in a single year. But that season rarely happens. One of the
great initiatives that followed Julia Jordan's study was "50/50 in 2020," a grassroots effort to establish gender parity in the theater by the year 2020.
Which sounds like a good idea initially, but then I'm like, "F*ck that. 50/50 NOW." No feasibility studies, no development labs, no special foundation for
the advancement of women. The work is out there. Produce the work.
Most ethnic minorities (or women) have heard the old adage, "You have to work twice as hard as other people just to get by." I used to relish that -- relish
that challenge. But now I wonder: what happens to a vast swath of talented people when their work is under-celebrated and under-sung for reasons that just might be
other than merit? What happens to their creativity, their sense of innovation and adventure, when their work gets passed up again
and again, or relegated to the small space in the basement?
Does going through all that adversity make you tougher, make your work sharper, make your voice that much harder to ignore? Maybe. If the people who were
at the Lilly Awards are any indication, then yes, the crucible of working twice as hard seems to have birthed some astounding artists. But then again,
after doing all of that X-ray work, Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer at age 37. Martha Chanse fell into dementia and died in obscurity. Denise
Scott Brown still doesn't have a Pritzker. I see history repeating itself, and I am powerless to do anything about it.
In fact, the pattern of bias in our industry just might be worse
than in other industries, because in fields like science the outcomes are
objective whereas in our field the outcomes are judged entirely based on subjective criteria. Reviews and awards are subjective, audience attendance is but
a partial measure of success, nobody wants to tie art to commerce by using revenue as a metric, and as a seasoned grant writer I'm here to tell you that
any outcome can be made to look good on a grant report. The disparities are considered, and accepted. Women will just have to wait longer
Every year they give out a "Miss Lilly" award to a man, and in that crowd of fantastic women artists, somebody joked to me, "Oh don't worry -- some year
they'll give one to you!" And I thought to myself, "Wouldn't that be something. What if I won a Lilly Award
before my wife?"
Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza are New York-based playwrights.
Republished with permission.