What comes to mind when you hear the word “problematic?” Offensive? Non-PC? Upholding white supremacist/patriarchal value systems rather than interrogating or dismantling them? That’s certainly a common definition, and definitely something I’ve used a lot in the past.
However, when looking at the official definition, “problematic” means something a little different. It is defined as “difficult to solve or decide,” “not definite or settled,” and “open to question or debate.” This last definition is the one I find most compelling. I would wager that a lot of artistic directors and producers aim to produce work that is open to question or debate. Wouldn’t they then welcome “problematic” plays?
If we continue using this definition, we find that problematic art is subjective. It contains specific content presented in an ambiguous way. For example, perhaps a play features a character who espouses misogynistic rhetoric, and their ideas are neither endorsed or condemned by the playwright, leaving audiences to debate the play’s purpose, merits, and thesis: It’s a brilliant play! It’s an offensive play!
People who operate as gatekeepers (producers, literary managers, foundation officers) can make or break a problematic play’s fate. Rose Oser, the associate artistic director at Z Space and the co–artistic director of Fault Line Theater, both located in San Francisco, is a gatekeeper. Oser is a champion of provocative theatre—most recently of #bros, a new play by Jake Jeppson, which was denied foundational support due to “problematic” elements. Through conversations with Jeppson about the tension that exists in the American theatre around “problematic” work and how we individually define the term, Oser created Z Space’s inaugural Problematic Play Festival, which was held on 12-14 October 2018.
The festival aimed to investigate why certain plays caused gatekeepers to turn away from them in favor of other material. I was one of many readers for the scripts submitted to the festival; as a gatekeeper myself—I am the literary manager for the Bay Area Playwrights Festival—reading for this festival made me more aware of my personal biases against certain plays, like comedies whose light tone could be read as dismissive of the topics they engage in.
In the submissions, the playwrights were required to articulate what made their work “problematic to themselves or to others,” Oser said, and it was just as important for those who would be involved to be “open to having a transparent and generous dialogue with the audience.” While the submissions for the festival I work for do require cover letters that include developmental goals, what Z Space was asking for gave me access to the playwrights’ full intentions and allowed me to assess whether it succeeded.
With all that in mind, I was much more receptive to plays that might have made me hesitant or offended me in different circumstances. Of the 175 submissions, three were carefully chosen to be presented in staged readings: Phosphorescence by Cory Hinkle, Ripped by Rachel Bublitz, and Refuge by Rachel Lynett.
The three playwrights agreed that submitting their respective plays was a no-brainer. “It was one of those moments where I could say, ‘I have the perfect play,’” Hinkle said of Phosphorescence, which depicts the soldiers and torturers at Abu Ghraib. It was written ten years ago and has never been produced. Bublitz said she typically submits her work to as many places as possible, but sending Ripped, which is about gray areas in consent and sexual assault, to the Problematic Play Festival “felt like fate.” And while Lynett knew her play Refuge fit the festival’s criteria, she had some submission reservations related to the Bay Area audience: it would be a queerer one than she was used to, and the play addresses transphobia and polyphobia in the queer community. “I’m an emerging playwright,” she said, “and I didn’t necessarily want this play to be people’s first exposure to me.”
I would wager that a lot of artistic directors and producers aim to produce work that is open to question or debate. Wouldn’t they then welcome "problematic" plays?
Prior to the festival, I had asked Oser and Radhika Rao, a member of the steering committee who co-facilitated each post-show discussion, what audiences could expect of the entire experience. I heard things from both of them about trigger warning paddles and tomato throwing stations. I had no idea how they were going to work or feel.