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Was I Born This Way?

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When I moved to Minnesota and started my Ph.D. in the early nineties, sexy to me was all about big brains. I was less specific about how those brains were gendered at the time; that is until all these girls started chasing me around campus, asking me out for coffee, buying me drinks at the CC Club on Lyndale Avenue. I like to say it was as close as I ever came to experiencing Thomas Hobbes’ “the state of nature.” For Hobbes “nature” is where we are most free—an entirely theoretical place before our bodies are restricted by the social contract of civic life that requires we accept certain rules and obligations in exchange for citizenship.

I felt untethered from the most binding of social contracts—the requirement of heterosexuality. It was a time in my life solely devoted to me, to my body, to my pleasure. The focus of the sexual orientation/gender identity conversations in the early nineties when I “came out” was nature versus nurture. The feminism of the previous two decades had been all about biology, how biology made women different from men and how these differences resulted in feminine perspectives. By the nineties, the biology argument was falling apart at the seams. Boyish types like me were having a hard time embracing our womanhood, with the whole blood and bra thing, and the word queer emerged as a way of subverting the dualisms of biology. The body as the location of difference was limiting, and nurture—the cultural nexus of experience—became more productive ground for conversations about difference. “Queer” allowed those of us in a movement for sexual freedom to define ourselves and build identities not delimited by biology. It was a real freedom that we sought and one we could shape rather than be shaped by.

These “culture wars” as they were called in the nineties were the focal point of upheaval around the academy and in the nation. These were conversations that shaped educational policy. For example, did intellectual truth reside in the Great Books or had our omission of everything that wasn’t Western and White proved problematic in creating a more honest view of history and knowledge? Was knowledge in other words shaped by dominant cultural narratives or an expression of the nature of truth itself? Though the nature/nurture conversation is well-covered terrain, I would argue we have yet to fully embrace its implications within the American theater. We conflate desire, a sense of avocation to making art, with birthright. We still haven’t managed truly meaningful dialogue about diversity as our conversations are still centered on identity (difference as embodied) instead of aesthetics (difference as practice). Nature defines who gets to call herself an artist, who gets to make creative decisions, and who gets to be visionary in a field of imagination and collaboration. Are we born creative or do we become creative? What part of “artist” can be taught and what part is truly encoded in our DNA?

I think we’re cultural conservatives in this respect. I think we hold onto a genetic version of creativity that perpetuates the idea that making theater is for the few who have been born into it. We embrace this biological version of theater making because it limits participation, and in a field of limited resources, this shrinks who has access to the pie. What follows is purely an essay of self-justification. I am going to consciously make a creative room for myself in the American theater. Right here. Right now.

It’s a room that has evolved over time, not one I was born into. I have two brothers and growing up we each had our particular identity. My older brother drew complicated and recognizable landscapes in kindergarten and the teacher identified him as standing out from his peers in this respect. He became the artist of our family. I excelled in school on its terms and became the smart one. By first grade my younger brother could whip a baseball across the plate and he became the athlete. We all dabbled in each other’s expertise but we also all knew our place and followed what felt like the natures we had been born to. I never thought of myself as an artist. And I went on my journey as the family intellectual in an effort to live up to expectations. In the same way I assumed my destiny would be connected to school success, I also assumed I would be heterosexual and marry and have children. I’ll also add as I’ve acknowledged in other writing, my family didn’t have money for music lessons, pottery classes, theater tickets, or specialized summer camps. Growing up in Elkhart, Indiana, I could hardly even say my family was homophobic because that would assume we acknowledged homosexuality and I never remember it being discussed. I never met a gay person (who identified as such) until college. Let’s just say certain dreams were never seeded at the nurture level. My grandmother didn’t take me to shows on Broadway when I was nine and then stroll through Greenwich Village with me after. The only clue I had that I might be headed into a creative field was the strange reality that I could only ever read fiction. However hard I tried to engage economics or psychology, history or political science, fiction—imagined stories—were my way of making sense of the world. I wished I liked textbooks and could have become an emergency room doctor. But I chose to read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde instead.

When I finally made my way late in the game to theater, I had no idea what I would contribute. I never wanted to be an actor. (Am I the only person in the theater that can say I never thought about acting?) But I knew a lot about stories, and had this odd photographic memory that made my day-to-day world intensely visual. I started as the development director at the Playwrights’ Center but couldn’t stop myself from talking to playwrights about their plays. I’d been reading plays and thinking about stories and their context my entire life. I was also doing a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and I viewed stories as cultural artifacts—reflections of competing politics and world-views. I’m not sure of the exact trajectory but I hung around—winning at arm wrestling competitions and chair races—and pretty soon playwrights wanted me in their workshops. They found my notes to be unusual on the one hand and refreshing on the other. I didn’t talk so much about character arc and I wasn’t trained in dramaturgy speak, but I loved to discover the difference between what I read or heard in a play and what the writer intended. The result was some amazing conversations. When I became the producing artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center my initial focus, besides programming for playwrights, was creating an entire visual experience of the organization through a new website and a revitalized and consistent new look for all printed materials. After telling my board that our first pass at a strategic plan looked so boring on the page that I couldn’t read it, I became obsessed with creating a strategic plan in the form of a graphic novel. I couldn’t pull that off, but worked with some young artists from the local college of art and design to create a strategic plan in the form of tarot cards. I was dramaturging the organization much like one would dramaturg a play. Over the years, I’ve continued to build on these skills and for lack of a better term I call myself a producer/dramaturg. But inside the theater, my creative place after all of these years feels uncertain.

I am going to consciously make a creative room for myself in the American theater. Right here. Right now.

I’ll never forget the first time I worked on a new play in a producing theater as the dramaturg. Let me preface by saying that my dramaturgical role in a new play process is always particular to the process, sometimes I do very little, sometimes I do a lot. In this case, I worked night and day with the playwright and director under the pressures of a large theater and my contribution to that process was as critical as that of the director and playwright. It was a different contribution but I spent as much time and creative energy. When the poster went up for the show of course the obvious happened—play title, playwright, director. Hmmm. I knew my name wouldn’t be there but every minute the playwright and director had been working, so had I. The process continued for two years (actors and designers changed) but this core team stayed the same. This was the first time I began to wonder about my contribution and how it was valued in the field.

The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, Tynan being the first dramaturg of London’s National Theatre, are particularly helpful in sorting out some of the early seeds of the dramaturg’s strained relationship to the artistic process. In John Lahr’s opening to Tynan’s Diaries, he locates the problem: “The job [dramaturg] added both to Tynan’s prestige and to his private frustration. Once again, he was the middle man; his light hidden under a theatrical bureaucracy. Of the seventy-two plays mounted on his watch, according to Kathleen Tynan, ‘thirty-two of these were Ken’s ideas; twenty were chosen with his collaboration,’ This kind of defensive scorekeeping is typical of the dramaturg’s dilemma; the success or failures of the theatre may be of his choosing but not of his accomplishing.” Tynan is described as having “the soul of an artist with the descriptive skill of a journalist.” Was Tynan an artist? A journalist? Could he be both? If he was part of the making of theater at the National, does it matter? Was his contribution less defined simply because Laurence Olivier’s ego couldn’t make room for Tynan’s? Can theatrical institutions only make room for one definitive ego and is that ego the purest form of artistic DNA? Scorekeeping is the surest way to become a pariah in any field. But I find that usually what reduces someone to scorekeeping is feeling left out of the natural order of things. And isn’t that what’s happening in many of our artistic departments around the country? Aren’t we barring access to who gets labeled creative?

Nature defines who gets to call herself an artist, who gets to make creative decisions, and who gets to be visionary in a field of imagination and collaboration. Are we born creative or do we become creative? What part of “artist” can be taught and what part is truly encoded in our DNA?

A portrait of P. Carl.
P. Carl. Photo by Mike Ritter.

I think of the organizational charts of most theaters, divided in two between artistic and management. Management always has a lot more names on its side because why? Either we think fewer people are creative, or we need fewer creative people in an arts organization. My experience is that those on the management side usually resent not being considered creative (many started as artists in this field), just like the dramaturg struggles to understand just where she stands in relationship to the creative process, so our institutions are equally confused. And the problem of the theatrical collaboration isn’t just institutional. It also rests with how we’re trained to think about our part in making the work. Recently Alex Kilgore wrote a piece in The Brooklyn Rail, “The Shame of Theater” where he covers yet again the “developed to death” problem of creating new plays. In it he says something revealing that I hear a lot: “I’ve often thought of playwriting as the only part of theater that isn’t collaborative: it is a celebration of the singular voice and cannot be done by committee.” I very much appreciate when I hear playwrights complain about dramaturgy and new play development with the “we don’t need help” argument as Richard Nelson made famous in his address to ART/NY: “But perhaps the greatest threat to the playwright in today' s theater comes from not those greedy and ignorant, but rather from those who want 'to help.'”

I get that. I have no interest in “helping”—I would have gone into social service work if helping were my primary interest. I would prefer to be a creative collaborator in a collaborative art form because although playwriting might be singular in its early stages, in a production, it’s hard to maintain singularity. Some playwrights do it and that’s one approach. But my sense is that a lot of us love this business because, although singularity might make for a good play, it rarely results in a good production. In many cases, the sole vision doesn’t make for good theater or good institutions for that matter. And it’s most disastrous when this approach is taken in running governments. So why do we begrudge so many theater makers credit by holding onto this idea of the “one”—the genetically predisposed theater maker? Is it because we believe in this particular nature of theater? Or do we use genetics to mask other truths? Are we really worried about things like credit and ownership? Why do we fight over font size for names on the program? Isn’t it really about power and money and royalties? Are we really arguing about who is truly creative? Not unlike battles over sexuality, isn’t the argument that if we allow gays to be married what we’re really giving them access to is tax breaks and cultural power? I’m not arguing that everyone is an artist! Nor am I arguing that everyone is gay! I’m simply saying that as a creative field, we must believe in the idea that being an artist can be a becoming, and sexuality, too, can be a process of becoming. If nurture can be valued as much as nature, than we can nurture theatrical institutions into becoming more creative and we can fit more theater makers under our artist umbrella.

I think some people probably do have genetic dispositions when it comes to sexuality and creativity. When I watch those news reports of the child playing the violin at age two and conducting a symphony at age nine, I believe they are truly gifted. When I hear a gay person say they knew they were gay when they were two, I absolutely believe them, but I never kissed a girl in high school and I never acted in a school play. Yet, I’ve been passionately in love with the same woman for thirteen years and I have loved making theater for about that same amount of time. I wasn’t born this way, or I guess I don’t want to claim that even if it’s true. I desperately want to believe that love and creativity can evolve in unexpected ways and that the American theater has room for this evolutionary model for identifying and crediting creativity. Relying on nature feels singular. Hobbes’ state of nature—which in the moment can feel freeing—is a state of being. Nurture, in its reliance on community to make meaning, fosters a state of becoming. This sounds more like theater to me.


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As a queer playwright who has recently affirmed a commitment to playwrighting and who has discarded the term lesbian for the term ‘queer’–I loved this article for multiple reasons. The main reason, though, is that I live with a philosophy of living in the gray–as in, between the polarities, the black and white, the gay and straight, the creative and logistical, the label this and label that. The idea that artistry, identity, and sexuality can all be a becoming is something I agree with wholeheartedly, and I commend you. People can be very anxious around the idea that their homosexual sexuality is not strictly nature, because it is no longer easy. As artists and as individuals, whomever we love, I don’t think we have to look for things to be hard–but we certainly should never stop at easy.

Thank you again.

Thank you, thank you, thank you - from a queer playwright - two things I "became" along the surprise and adventure of my life. I believe that my movement from poetry to playwriting as a writer was to be connected to a community that collectively developed the stories I was writing. There is always more power and fulfillment in the body than the singular. I found that again producing my play this spring in Seattle. I had to continue participating as a producer and not for some ego-need to control the production. This part of the process is always the formation of a team, a family of creators. There is almost nothing more fun and inspiring.

One final thank you to The Playwrights' Center for being that community that seeded my love for playwriting. I am forever grateful.

I stumbled across the now-famous Strategic Plan a few years ago and it is the sole reason that I started to stalk you on Twitter. I have a lot of respect for someone who, when asked, can author the future with enough confidence to leave out all the minor how-to details. And didn't have to make it look like something written by Rubbermaid's corporate office.

As to whether we are born one way or live into it, I think it can be both. I know that each one of us plays multiple roles each day; each one to a different audience. The most challenging play is performed for our families, I think.

Should read (extra dash removed):

It doesn’t make a person less of a person if a person is not born to neatly fit any of the countless roles created by humankind which are but artifacts of culture—attempts, perhaps, to force human order on the natural chaos of Nature.

The extra dash is not in the item above, but in the sentence which should correctly read:

I am free and exuberant in my life, but I admit that defending my resume has me at times sad and bewildered, especially as an older man still eager to work, to learn new things—the “older man generalist” category appears closed to opportunities for now.

I often have trouble proofreading because I often see what I want to see.

I wish this site allowed editing posted comments, at least for a limited time.

Thanks, and once again,

Discovering—or creating—one’s identity as an artist is challenging because no one, in fact, is an artist. We are men and women. Polly, you infer the point that we are still more fundamentally simply human beings. The male-female distinction remains significant for me because I feel my maleness is inextricably bound with my personhood, but I agree that I am just another person at heart.

There may be exceptions, persons who are born to comfortably fit the roles society has created for us. I believe, for example, that there are persons who are musicians, even particularly suited to one instrument, or to composition, for whom their art is bound with their identity. But I think these are unusual persons, who rest neatly on the extremes of the bell curve of human possibility, that the rest of us can’t be pigeonholed. Nonetheless, most of us have a false idea that we must be something, wear some hat from the haberdashery of professional fashion—and wear that hat from cradle to grave. Some thing, however, is not who we are, but only an expression of an aspect of ourselves and society’s expectations of us.

I am a writer, actor, and musician. I am other things besides. Popular monikers for guys like me are “Renaissance Man” and “dilettante,” but neither terms fits. “Renaissance Man” implies high achievement, blinding expertise in many areas, whereas I am relatively unaccomplished by recognized standards, and sometimes think I’m a rather stupid genius. And though it’s not its original meaning, “dilettante” is irreparably associated with nonchalant dalliances in too many areas of interest, where the interest and effort is embarrassingly tepid and transitory.

If I care too much what others think of my interests and talents it demoralizes me. I am not anything but a man, and what I experience both in and outside of the creative arts is more aptly called “life.” I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the artificial categories time and tradition have created in our western culture—the culture I know, though it seems to be a universal phenomenon.

I told a Catholic cleric friend of mine once that I thought he was a good priest. I told him so because it was clear to me he still had a life beneath the surface of his chosen profession. He told me he wasn’t just a priest, and went on to describe a colleague he thought was a priest utterly and thoroughly. “He puts on his biretta when he walks to the bathroom.” A keen observation of how so many of us live. Someone asks who we are, we say “actor” as easily as another says “accountant.” Why does anyone aspire to be a thing, a role? It’s just not who we are.

It doesn’t make a person less of a person if a person is not born to neatly fit any of the countless roles created by humankind which are but artifacts of culture—attempts, perhaps, to force human order on the natural chaos of Nature.

I am free and exuberant in my life, but I admit that defending my resume has me at times sad and bewildered, especially as an older man still eager to work, to learn new things——the “older man generalist” category——appears closed to opportunities for now. No wonder you post about building a creative room for yourself. What other model is there for the individual but to invent a category of one, to insist “I am... something”?

I want to mention that, having made clear how I feel about society’s attempts to pigeonhole us all, I am aware that my wide-ranging interests, my desire to effectively be as many things as possible, fits the resume of a writer. Many writers find themselves casting about in many directions at once. And effectively living all those lives, I am an actor too. And music is a universal language that can’t be described, and thus frustrates the categorizers at least to some extent. So I don’t really mind being called names, it’s just important for me to remember who I am.

I would also like to suggest also that Polly’s chafing under society’s sexual identity expectations is perhaps an expression of her personhood resisting the imposition of a category from the outside.

We are all men (in the old sense, meaning human beings). We really aren’t anything more. Or less.

This is SUCH an important conversation, and I'm so glad to see it starting in such a public space. For many reasons, I feel like the U.S. theater community really privileges the nature narrative. The press privileges it because it sells more papers and gains more attention, and I feel like many artists themselves privilege it because it makes the public perceive artists as separate, "special," and "gifted."

I often think about my own discipline of playwriting and how people privilege "voice," which they define as a unique style one cannot learn, over "craft," which they often define as a set of skills and strategies you can learn and hone over time. People go so far as saying they've discovered a new "voice" when talking about encountering a new playwright.

Implied in this harping on the term "voice" is the idea that skills and people can acquire through discipline and hard work are somehow less significant and not true creativity. But I firmly believe that creativity is something you can learn, and that the only way to learn it to obsessively work at one's discipline for years (decades even) while studying the work of others. I can think of countless artists whom I greatly admire that fall into this mold.

But more often than not my arguments fall on deaf ears because it isn't exciting to talk about the person who became a great artist through diligently working at her discipline for 15 years. It's not a glamorous narrative. And it doesn't fit within our capitalist zeitgeist, which preaches that the people with true talent will succeed despite all the odds. As Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his essay on "late bloomers," the nurture narrative is deeply troubling to those in capitalist societies because it makes us truly reflect on all the wonderful artists we have been robbed of because capitalism doesn't nurture artists. Capitalism only makes room for prodigies. So maybe that's why we privilege the nature argument. Our society effectively stymies most artists who need nurturing in order to blossom.

I also love the parallels you draw between gender and creativity. I think it's wonderful because it allows us to see how the privileging of nature over nurture has much larger ramifications beyond just the field of theater. And also how interconnected a lot of our problems in theater are with much larger (and more pressing) social concerns.

Thanks for this illuminating and provocative probe into creativity. It'll keep me awake for a while, and no mistake.

Dr. Carl's analysis of the dramaturg's dilemma -- " defensive scorekeeping"-- is a brilliant insight. As a professional journalist for 50 years, I can tell you that that concept translates directly into my field. I referred to myself as a "journalist," but in fact more than 30 years of that tenure was as an editor, and like Dr. Carl's dramaturg experience, I know my influence as an editor from strategizing an article, through reporting, writing and re-writing is what produced award-winning articles for the reporters. They got the by-lines and the Pulitzers and pats on the back. The editors? Not so much.

But, hey, who's keeping score?

Long ago, I faced the situation Dr. Carl refers to: "Scorekeeping is the surest way to become a pariah in any field." I saw that inevitability early on, though without Dr. Carl's precision of phrasing.

I accepted the fact that my creativity and the satisfaction I derived from it stemmed from my editing abilities. So I put down the scorecard soon enough, and concentrated on helping reporters.

Like Dr. Carl, I have no desire to be a professional helper or social worker. In fact, I view selfishness as a virtue, and my decision to make editing my creative expression was made purely for selfish reasons. Editing is my creative achievement.

So, the answer to Dr. Carl's question is yes -- you WERE born this way. All human kind has a need to create, and whether it's nurtured or natural is beside the point. A creative individual is one who recognizes one's creative drive, embraces it, and makes it a calling -- because one can't resist it.

“My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight”

Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud Time"

There are examples of dramatury, barely recognized in American theater. (I get annoyed that the word gets underlined with a red mark on American computers.)
Joseph Chaikin and Mira Rafalowicz were central to the work of The Open Theater. That stellar relationship and practice is noted by Ronnie Gilbert, folk-singer activist, actress and playwright, in her online essay, "When Is Art Research?" Contemporary theater is barely known and studied in this country. It may be too early. Most of its artists including Jean Claude Van Italie, author of the Open Theater's signature collaborative play, THE SERPENT, learned and taught by practice, as does Polly Carl, in this savvy piece of personal discovery, opening boundaries, and making theater.

What I find compelling here is how in your close you return, if only modestly, to nature vs. nurture, acknowledging that that genetics plays a role. I myself believe (having read a fair bit of genetics) that both nature and nurture are co-responsible for creativity. We have genes that hard-wire us with certain gifts, but experiences are necessary to activate those genes: to make those gifts or traits express themselves.

The problem is that we understand neither which genes are involved nor which life experiences will activate them. We do, however, have the rudiments of a similar understanding with regard to certain criminal behaviors: genes that are associated closely with perpetrators of certain crimes, but that only get expressed when those perpetrators have experienced certain influencing acts themselves.

In other words, we know the genes that cause certain people to commit certain crimes... if they've also been traumatized in very specific ways. (Our knowledge is still a bit speculative, but it's 30 or more years old and gaining steam.) People who have the requisite genes but lived through happy childhoods don't commit offenses. Those who don't have the gene, but who do live through traumatic childhoods, also don't commit the crimes. Put them both together, though, and... BAM.

What if we knew the same about creativity? That there were certain genes that predisposed us toward creative endeavors? And what if we knew what childhood experiences would activate those genes? How would we engineer things differently?

Let's even think about it at a more granular level. What if we knew there were genes for fluency with words and genes for collaboration, and we knew how to activate them both? Would that be the recipe for a playwright? For a dramaturg? For a director? For all of the above?

What if we were to assume, right now, that both nature and nurture were required collaborators for our artistic development? That we're all born gifted -- all of us -- and simply require certain experiences to help us make those gifts manifest?

Shouldn't we be working really hard to try to figure out what those experiences might be? Because if an arts-deprived childhood in Elkhart, Indiana can still result in someone as gifted as Polly Carl -- while upper-middle class parents meanwhile devote huge resources to sending their children to arts camps -- we clearly don't know the first thing about how to make an artist.

"...we must believe in the idea that being an artist can be a becoming, and sexuality, too, can be a process of becoming."

That's a medicine sentence. It gives strength to the people who believe it. And it's an idea that recognizes its believers.

Labels work whether they're accurate or not. This guy says he's an artist. This guy says he's straight. This guy says his plays are great.

But signing up for an on-going becoming is expansive and can be as accurate as our own fidelity to the process. I want to become an artist and man like that.