Power In The Theater

A lot of playwrights seem to be obsessed with power. They believe the theaters have all the power. I suspect this attitude is partially based on the bad social theories being taught in universities. Critical Theory teaches students to think in terms of systems of oppression and gives students a victim mentality. Many contemporary playwrights have a victim mentality and consider themselves to be oppressed by the entrenched culture.

The problem with the victim mentality is that it can discourage you and undermine your efforts. The victim mentality causes you to attribute your failure to a single factor, usually a factor you have no control over, and causes you to overlook other possible factors. For example, a black creative writer who can’t get anything published might assume it is due to his being black. But it is also possible that his writing needs improvement. If he assumes he cannot get published because the publishing industry is racist then he will never make any effort to improve his writing. On the other hand, if the chances of a writer making a decent living is less than 1% then the problem is the publishing industry. Striving to improve your writing so that you are so exceptional that you become the outlier is a waste of time. Your time is better spent pressing for change when the system seems rigged against the vast majority. What is important is clear, objective thinking about what is holding you back.

Lets do some clear, objective thinking about who holds power in the theater community. In society power is related to what people value. Gold is a rare commodity and has become a measure of wealth. People who possess a lot of gold have a lot of power. In theater, talent is a rare quality and is a measure of a person’s worth. People who possess talent have a lot of power in theater. This is why we have talent agencies, talent scouts, and professionals who manage talent. A cultural institution only has cultural authority to the extent that it can attract people with talent. Think about this. If you build a grand theater out in the middle of nowhere where will your audience come from? You will be unable to entice any actors, directors, designers or playwrights to work there. You will have nothing but an empty stage.  So although you can construct the facilities for a cultural institution, it is worthless if nobody brings any talent to your stage. In fact, without theater artists you won’t have any productions. A person would just have a bare stage to stare at.

Every cultural institution which appears well-established and a permanent part of the cultural landscape is in danger of decline if it neglects talent persistently and consistently. I fear this is the fate of many venerable theaters as they adopt toxic notions that everybody should get their turn and merit is just a justification for the oppression of the under-represented and marginalized. Any cultural institution that lets its standards slip will see its reputation gradually decline to the point where it will have to close.

Some playwrights bolster their confidence with the idea that theaters need them more than they need theater. This might seem like naive bravado but there is some truth in the notion. The idea that the arts nourish the soul might also seem idealistic. But valuing art for art’s sake is clearly nonsense. Art has no intrinsic value in the abstract. Art requires appreciation or it is not art. Great art needs to fulfill some need and have some relation to what is essential to the human spirit. When you lose sight of this fact you are in danger of creating crap that nobody can appreciate or value. For example, placing a blank canvas in one the world’s major art museums might seem to be enough to establish a major piece of art based on pure cultural authority. But ultimately there is nothing to see here and nobody really cares. Nobody appreciates a blank canvas. Nobody appreciates being given nothing. Ultimately the worth of great art lies in our appreciation for what it gives us. The power of the creative artist lies in the ability to create something out of nothing, to give a definite form to vague imagination, to bring something into being. It is this process of supplying something that we would not otherwise have that is valued and appreciated. In this sense the playwright as a creative writer has the great power to bring a play and its story into being and thereby create literary wealth for himself.

The problem with many contemporary playwrights is that they think having dramatic works of great worth is entirely up to the theaters. They think only the theater has the power to confer worth upon dramatic writing. They think even a blank slate on stage in a great theater constitutes great art. This is not the case. The quality and worth of dramatic writing depends entirely upon the playwright’s ability to draw something of value out of himself and manifest it in a script. In other words, the playwright must take the initiative to produce something, even if it is only a script. It is not as though the theater can produce a great script out of thin air and drop it into your lap and say, “Here, this is yours. It is your turn now”.  That is not how things are done and you are an idiot if you are waiting for that to happen. Yet expecting theater to take all the initiative in giving you recognition regardless of what you drop onto their lap is the equivalent of believing the placement of a blank canvas is everything, as if content and talent were immaterial. This is the attitude we get when we think cultural authority is all and we have nothing to do but go begging for favor. We are also in danger of having art museums full of blank canvases as the exercise of cultural authority, i.e. the curation process, replaces all other criteria and the arts become a mere scramble for high favor.

In conclusion, this is the “blank slate” hypothesis applied to the arts. It disregards human nature and considers cultural cachet to be nothing more than a social construct. It would reduce artists to nothing more than beggars pleading for consideration. Now that is disempowering!

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