At theaters, opening doors to emerging artists sparks anger from the old guard

Patrick Healy, The New York Times, 11/21/12

When a storied theater undergoes a leadership change, often there are bruised feelings, but few recent turnovers have been as contentious as the one at Victory Gardens Theater. After 35 years with the same artistic director, Dennis Zacek, the board at Victory Gardens bypassed his handpicked successor last year in favor of Chay Yew, an admired playwright and director [who] proceeded to sideline the longtime Playwrights Ensemble of more than a dozen writers. Some of those writers are still furious, while others are split on whether Mr. Yew is ruining or renewing the 38-year-old theater, which won a Tony Award in 2001 for its body of work. Mr. Yew went to lengths to praise [these writers] for building Victory Gardens, but he also said that its founding mission -- to produce new plays by a diverse mix of writers -- invited the changes he is undertaking. "I need to open these doors for the writing voices of the next generation, because they were opened to me before." That bullishness for the new has clashed squarely, however, with the reverence that some Chicago theaters have for the old. The director Diane Paulus faced blowback similar to the criticism of Mr. Yew after she took over the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and began hiring fewer of the actors in favor under her predecessors. Two Seattle theaters, Intiman and Seattle Rep, and the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, all endured artistic and personnel turbulence during leadership transitions as well. And even after seven years as artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, Oskar Eustis is still sometimes the target of critical whispers by playwrights and talent agents who compare his decisions unfavorably to those of predecessors, including the Public's founder, Joseph Papp. Perhaps the best-known playwright Mr. Yew retired was John Logan, who won a Tony for Red and is a three-time Oscar nominee. Mr. Logan said he owed his success today to Victory Gardens for providing "a home where we could try out new material, workshop plays, have readings, learn the business, make mistakes." Mr. Logan said he supported Mr. Yew's shake-up of the ensemble to champion new voices as Mr. Zacek had once supported him. "It's obviously a complicated situation, but Chay has every right, and indeed a responsibility, to nurture new and emerging playwrights who can speak to Chicago audiences," Mr. Logan said. "That was always the point of Victory Gardens in the first place."


Commentary: The problem is how to retain, not recruit, diverse emerging artists

Rob Weinert-Kendt on his personal blog The Wicked Stage, 11/19/12

Katori Hall recently gave the keynote at TCG's recent Fall Forum, which I didn't get a chance to attend, so I'm glad to see that the speech is now up on the TCG blog. It's worth listening to in full, but a particular highlight comes around the 13:50 mark. Here are reasons, Hall recounts, that she was given for rejection of a play she sent around in 2009, from unnamed theaters:

1. "We don't know if we can find that many talented black actresses."
2. "We've already done an August Wilson piece this season."
3. "We don't know if our audience can relate."
4. "We've already done a play about a black lesbian."
5. "We've already done a play set in a barbershop."
6. "Our February slot has been filled."
7. "We've already done a black playwright this season who is not August Wilson."

As she bears down into the topic of diversity, she starts with excuse #1 to highlight one of the real challenges facing efforts to diversify American theaters, both onstage and behind the scenes: It's not so much a problem of recruitment but retention, not how to get artists and audience of color in the stage door, but how to keep them there. Retaining and rewarding talent strikes me as a trade-wide problem for theater, but it's clearly magnified in the case of artists and audiences of color. What's promising to me about this discussion, then, is that leadership on diversity, defined broadly along age as well as ethnic and other identity valences, might help rise the tide for all boats. One can hope, can't one? (The recent election's ratification of diversity, for example, points a way forward for all of us.)


Commentary: Are labels like 'young' and 'emerging' useful? And if so, for whom?

Eleanor Turney, The Guardian's Culture Professionals Network blog, 11/26/12

The clash between creative work and bureaucracy is always going to present problems, but it's easy to see why those handing out money need systems with transparent criteria. This is a perennial issue in the arts world, and more acute now as everyone scraps for less and less money. One recent focus had been schemes that support 'young' or 'emerging' talent. But are these criteria useful, and if so, for whom? And are labels that might be useful to funders and marketers also useful for the artists to whom they are applied? Age limits pose particular problems: when Arts Council England announced its Creative Employment Programme to support up to 6,500 new apprenticeships and paid internships, there were complaints it had an age cut-off (24 years old). For myriad reasons, many people don't get their first job in the arts until they're older. They are then ineligible for some streams of support and opportunities offered by another big supporter of young people in the arts, IdeasTap. Since those starting out can be of any age, maybe it makes sense to replace 'young' with 'emerging' - there are a number of schemes run by ACE alone that cater to emerging talent, including the Artists International Development Fund, Music Industry Talent Development Fund, and Grants for the Arts. Unfortunately, 'emerging' is even more nebulous a term than 'young', which can be confirmed by a date of birth on an application form. It means different things in different artforms and to different funding bodies. The labels 'young' and 'emerging' can also be problematic for artists themselves. 'Young' emphasises our fetishisation of youth and precocity. Calling someone 'emerging' suggests something unformed -- something in-process but not yet producing work to which we should be paying attention. It highlights inexperience. [Actor/director] John Garfield-Roberts agrees: "Tags and labels have always been dangerous. Perfect for box ticking and graphs but they provide very little actual life value."

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