Was I Born This Way?
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?
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.