Every day in his mind, Stuart Bousel holds a one man conference about gender parity in the Theater Community. Today, he offers you a glimpse inside.
On my way to work, I walk past a grade school playground where young boys and girls are running and playing, engaged in their physical education routine. Now and then I have helped them retrieve a ball that went over the fence, but rarely do I notice them beyond the general background noise and semi-suburban quaintness that characterizes that particular stretch of Castro. Today, however, my mind already muttering over the pieces of this essay as it formed in my head, I heard one of their instructors (a man) say to one of his students, “Your place is not to complain, young man, but to just do the best you can do!” and of course, that got under my skin as quickly as possible. Partly because I agree with the spirit of what the instructor is saying, and partly because I think that a person does have an obligation to complain, when a person really thinks there is something to complain about. The trick is knowing when to do it, and for how long, and how to recognize when it’s time to stop complaining and start doing something. And then, of course, just what exactly you should do so that you can solve the issue without becoming the issue yourself.
Today, on the other side of the Bay, the annual TBA conference is going on and one of this year’s focuses is Gender Parity. An important subject to be sure, but I prefer my important subjects argued over in living rooms with articulate people sipping cocktails, or on Facebook where I can somehow justify procrastination easier than in my actual life, so I skipped the conference. Also because I’m broke and need to go to work while I still have a day job. Still, it is a bit of a shame, because as a person in the Theater Community (see how I used the capitals there to emphasize Big Picture) who pays attention to what’s trending and what everyone is talking about, I’ve been very aware of the ongoing discussion about opportunities in the Theater Community, who gets them, and how gender plays a role in that, and I’m almost interested in hearing what official representatives of the Community are saying about it. I say “almost” because another part of me is also just truly bored by the whole thing.
Saying I’m bored by the discussion about gender parity doesn’t mean I believe we shouldn’t be having it: it just means that I, personally, am beginning to wonder if I really have anything valuable to either get from it or to contribute to it. From what I can tell, there are a lot of angry women out there and they have every right to be angry, but at the same time, I’m starting to feel like their effort to be heard is overwhelming their ability to listen, and that the protest, though necessary, would rather be resolved with immediate re-action over measured discussion and strategic action. And that if some of them can exact a little retribution in the process- even better.
Perhaps I feel this way because I find myself tempering my own desire to engage with a nagging doubt that I’m really welcome to do so. I find that, depending on who is doing the talking, I now have an earnest fear of being accused of sexism should I do anything aside from absolutely agree with whatever that woman is saying. The truth is, while I know that I am not sexist (or racist, or homophobic, or anything else I’ve been accused of for just not being of the same mind as everyone else), my desire not to spend hours defending myself (as opposed to defending my stance) can sometimes sorely outweigh my desire to engage, more so lately than in the past.
Perhaps my reluctance is also because a lot of the solutions I see many of my concerned peers propose or champion, seem to be the theatrical equivalent of a crash diet: i.e. let’s over-compensate for as much as we can for past imbalances, even if that won’t actually provide a long term solution to ensure a healthy future. Or in straight forward, non-allegorical terms: let’s minimize involvement of men in the theatrical process, if not take them out of the equation entirely. Which sounds ridiculous when I write it out (and probably more so when you read it) but it takes very little digging around to find that quite a lot of female exclusive groups, festivals and events seem to be cropping up lately. Which, personally, I find distressing, because if there is one thing nobody in the Theater Community needs, it’s less inclusivity- even if the motivation behind that is, ironically, to be more inclusive.
I understand, enormously, the impatience of people (regardless of how they identify) who feel they have not been treated fairly or given a chance, and I also understand the earnest desire (usually fueled by guilt) on the part of the people who have been given a chance, to “correct” the past by making the most earnest effort possible in the present. That said, as someone who firmly believes we only condemn the future to be the past when we continue the systems of the past under a different name, this mentality of “you had your turn, now it’s ours” doesn’t work for me. You can’t balance the scales with imbalance on the other side. And you can’t win a war without allies. The complications, of course, lay in how we define allies, how we win them over, and how we keep them on our side, whatever our cause is. Generally speaking, alienation is never the solution to any of these questions, and yet alienation is sort of where I see the current discussion heading.
And sure, maybe I just feel that way because I am a man. A white man. Because I am currently in a romantic relationship with another man I am a homosexual, and because I was raised by a Jewish father whose family had a stronger influence on me than my Christian mother’s did, I tend to identify as a secular Jew, but the truth is, the only religion I’ve ever really loved are the cults of Helios, Selene and Apollo, and my personal mantra is better expressed by the myth of Eros and Psyche than, say, The Joy of Gay Sex, so essentially I’m a white man and many people in my life, particularly many people in my artistic life, feel a need to constantly remind me of that. Sometimes they are right too, and sometimes they are annoying and pretentious, and sometimes they really hurt my feelings because they make me feel like the part where I was born lucky enough to be part of the dominant culture means I somehow have limitless possibilities, no hurdles of my own to overcome, and perhaps most outrageous, am not as inclined to need and desire the love, respect and good will of my peers as they are.
“I really hope, out of everyone we know, Nicholas Greene makes it big some day,” my friend, the writer Alexander Pope, says to me as we’re talking about all our fellow writers.
“I hope we all make it,” I respond.
“Yes,” she says, “But I hope she makes it more. I mean, I love you and everything, but she’s a woman and the world needs more women playwrights.”
Yes, that’s definitely true… but I guess I don’t see why the world needs more women playwrights any more or less than it needs me. Which is not, I think, how Mr. Pope means me to take her comment. In fact, I know it’s not. But it still hurt because it sent me the message that by virtue of being a man, I was less valuable and most certainly not unique. An entirely selfish perspective on my part, I realize, but in an industry where all but a chosen few are constantly being told how un-valued they are (and even those people get rejected), forgive me for clinging to the belief that I am just as deserving of recognition and reward as Nicholas Greene- a playwright who I absolutely also believe should get everything their heart desires. But because she is a great writer, a visionary artist, a good person, hard-working and dedicated to her craft and much better at putting herself out there than I am. Not because she is a woman. That means absolutely nothing to me except that, so long as current personal trends continue, I probably won’t ever be sleeping with her. Naked time is really the only time I ever concern myself over who has a penis and who doesn’t.
I also allow that this particular issue might be particularly poignant for me because I was dedicating myself to making the Theater Community a better place for women- and men- long before it became fashionable to do so. As long as I have been attending theater and making theater I have been attracted to work that featured interesting female characters. I have never given much thought as to who wrote or directed something, but as a guy who has numbered the Broadway musical of The Secret Garden and the play ‘Night Mother as amongst his top ten favorite shows since he was 12, let’s suffice it to say I’ve got gender blind taste (I was once informed by an obnoxious writing colleague, who we shall call Archduke Henry, that I had “women’s taste”- unpack that shit, if you will) when it comes to whether a man or woman wrote it, directed it, or stars in it.
As a theater maker, I have done my best to uphold a value system based on this premise. As a producer I have produced a number of plays by women, and I have hired a number of female directors over the years. As a director, I choose work where the women play important roles and which will allow me to work with actresses whose skills and strengths I admire. When I have chosen to do classic plays where the women’s roles are fewer or less interesting I have found ways to rectify that: I made a number of characters in The Frogs, for instance, female, and I directed a production of Hamlet with women, as women, in the roles of Claudius, Rosencrantz, Horatio, Polonius, Marcellus and Hamlet himself. As a writer I pride myself on creating interesting, complex women’s roles in all my plays, and with the exception of three plays (out of forty) that I have written, if there are more than four roles, at least three of them have been women, and my only single-sex full-length show is an entirely female cast. And I know I’m not the only male theater maker who can make claims like these, all I’m saying is, it’s really sort of a slap in the face when somehow I get lumped into “the problem” side of the problem. Which I sometimes do, usually when I’m asserting that as much as I value the contribution of women, I don’t value the contribution of men any less, and while we’re at it, yes, I am offended, producer, when you tell me, “I love your play but sadly, I only produce the work of women writers.”
I think everyone is valuable. I include myself in “everyone.” If we’re going to have to rank people and prioritize who should be successful and who shouldn’t be, I would want someone to do it based on talent, ability, hard work, dedication, good will and vision (not necessarily in that order), with gender (or race, for that matter) not factoring into the equation at all. I also understand that this can be hard for some people to do, and that on some level, as a white man, it’s easier for me to cry “Hey, let’s all win the war this way!” because for centuries, I have been winning the war without really having to try. For me, it’s a choice to get involved rather than just continue to reap the rewards of my birth (though for the record, the ability of the average white man to benefit purely from being a white man is greatly exaggerated) and I recognize that. But while I don’t expect to get a medal for throwing myself on the side of the side that should win (Gender Parity, in case you were confused), I also don’t expect to be punished for doing that, particularly by the side I’ve been fighting on! And lately I’m starting to feel kind of punished. For having a penis.
Not that I think people mean to punish me when they uphold as progressive theater companies that prioritize works by female writers or plays with all female casts, or when they champion certain productions because the director is female, or the lead, etc. Though I think it’s a bit patronizing to emphasize those aspects of a work over whether or not it’s actually good, I would be lying if I said I had never done the same thing, and I think we do that kind of thing, as people, out of well-meaning intentions that should be applauded for their sincerity, even if they are somewhat lacking in a sophistication of thought that fails to see the greater implications. I am 100% behind subject-based festivals, showcases and groups putting out work in an effort to gain more awareness for those female theater artists or female-centric art they believe are under-represented so long as no effort has been made to exclude men who might be able and/or interested in contributing to that conversation. It’s only when I find myself being belittled or shut out for being a man that I get angry and then sad. Angry because I hate being shut out just for being who I am, and sad when I recognize that many women have probably felt this too, but apparently some gleaned a desire to be the one barring the gates due to that experience, rather than being the one throwing them open.
“People don’t become better people if we don’t sometimes tell them they have hurt us or done something wrong,” my therapist, let’s call him Queen Elizabeth, once said to me. “Morality is not inherit, neither are ethics. We have to work at them. We have to help each other work at them. The joy comes from the moments of victory we achieve in our struggle to be good. The struggle is because no one can master it, we are all just trying to do the best we can do, fighting against both the world and our own natures at the same time. One of the ways we support the people we love is to tell them what they’re doing wrong, or could do better.” In context, he is telling me this because I have been having intensely negative feelings towards an ex-lover of mine (let’s call him Princess Sasha), and struggling with the part of me that wants to scream at him, versus the part of me that wants to rise above it and move on. “What do you think you will get out of it if you scream at him?” Elizabeth asks me. “Will it help you feel better? Will it help you focus on moving on?” Excellent questions, really, especially as I was mad over a past I really couldn’t change and probably was keeping alive via all the anger I was carrying. But figuring out what to actually do about something is much harder than complaining about it, and finding a path towards internal balance that didn’t involve hurting other men like I had been hurt turned out to be even more challenging. For a while there, I had to build a walled garden that only a selected few were let into because I was suspicious of everyone, including myself, and you really had to be like me to not be put on immediate watch. But the truth is, nothing there really bloomed until I was open to a variety of gardeners and I came to understand that there was room for everyone and anyone who had the common goal of creating a beautiful garden. Maybe we’re not there yet as a community. Maybe we’re in a stage of needing to complain, or of putting walls up around the garden. I get that. But boy is it starting to feel like I’m being shut out of a lot of walled gardens.
My friend Shelmerdine, who in some ways is the love of my life (sans penis), and certainly a muse of mine, struggles with her own version of this. She has so much anger and fear that is sourced in years of being dismissed, ignored, undervalued, objectified and generally treated badly because she is not just a woman, but a physically attractive one, smart and sensitive and talented and in other words, a threat to everyone, including other women. She frequently submits her writing under a male pseudonym and when I confronted her about it she admitted that it was partly because she felt she had to in order to be to taken seriously, but also because “I’d rather be a man, anyway. I rarely find women interesting.” And I laughed and tried to come up with all the examples I could think of strong, interesting women, real and created by artists, only so she could nod and shrug and say, “Sure, but it comes down to this: I don’t relate to any of them. Not really. And it’s not because they’re strong or not strong, but because they’re still fundamentally defined as women. And I don’t want to be a strong woman. I want to be a strong person.” And I understood what she meant. Personally, I can’t stress enough how much I love being a man. But I don’t want that to define me, in the eyes of other men, or women, any more than I want to be defined as white or gay. And I definitely don’t want it to define my work, or be the basis on which my work is judged, funded or performed.
“Your place is not to complain, Young Man,” is an accidental statement that to me implies some of us have the right to bitch about feeling like the deck is stacked against us and some of us do not. The truth is, we all feel that way sometimes, and we all have the right to complain. “Just do the best you can do!” is also an accidental statement, and to me, it’s solid advice, because really, that’s all we can expect of anybody, in a world where everything is unfair and probably most things always will be, because fair isn’t really something ingrained into human nature and it takes work to be good. And that struggle to be good and to be fair, is neither male nor female, and being one or the other makes you no more naturally inclined to be part of the solution or part of the problem. Each individual soul is on its own journey, and that is why each voice is valuable, and should be individually evaluated when it speaks through its art or otherwise.
A project I have just begun is adapting Kristin Hersh’s memoir Rat Girl into a stage play and I’ve already made the sincere but ridiculous proposition that it should be adapted, in part, because it’s a great story about young women and would provide excellent roles for young women to play with the added bonus of being based on real women they could admire and look to as role models. While I do believe all that, the truth is, what interested me the most in the project was that, as a long time fan of Hersh’s, I bought her book expecting a celebrity autobiography with a hipster twist and instead I got a book about a young person struggling with her art and her life and her own insanity and it reminded me so much of myself I knew I had to work with the material somehow. The fact that she is a woman and I am a man didn’t really occur to me at any point, but when I read this particular passage I felt oddly vindicated for all the years I had maintained that none of that should ever really matter anyway:
“…writer after writer points out that we’re teenagers and three of us are female. We never have answers to these non questions. “Teenager” just means stupid. And is there a difference between male and female people? Is there? Seriously. I have yet to identify a single character trait I would attribute solely to one gender or the other.
Tonight one of the sexist journalists is a woman who’s angry that Dave is a man. “Why didn’t you hire a woman to play drums?” she asks me accusingly.
I’m at a loss. “Because Dave’s not a woman,” I answer, “I didn’t ‘hire’ him anyway; he doesn’t get paid.”
“I’m a volunteer!” Dave chirps happily.
She gives him a blank look and then turns back to me. “Surely you would agree that you play female music.”
“Sometimes we play female music,” I say. “But not any more often than men do.”
Which is really what I’m getting at here: there is no such thing as Men’s art or Women’s art. There is just Art. Sometimes that Art is about women, and sometimes it is about men, and sometimes it is about both, but the idea that the nature of the Art (and the audience it is intended for) is inherently decided by the gender of the creator is implying that its value is also based on that. And the fact is, I value this memoir because it’s amazing and insightful and beautifully written and that’s really what I should be talking about when I talk about why I want to adapt it, and why someone should produce it, and why it needs to be in the world, reaching as many people as it can, for all those young women who can look on Hersh as a role model. And all those young men too.
Ask me who my influences are and I will rattle off a dozen names and still feel like I haven’t named everybody (I’m big into inter-textuality) but certain names always come up quickly: Peter S. Beagle, Hal Hartley, Stephen Sondheim, John Guare, Marsha Norman, E. M. Forster, Bret Easton Ellis, Sally Potter, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Tolkien, The Bronte Sisters, HP Lovecraft, Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Chopin, Berlioz, Racine and All The Greeks. Yes, it’s a very white list, and it’s a lot of men. But if you were to dig deeper and ask which characters in fiction, plays, movies most influenced me, you might be surprised to find out how many of them are women. And if I had to pick one figure, above all others, that really solidified my sense of self it’s probably Orlando, from Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same name and Sally Potter’s film adaptation of it.
From the first time I saw the film I immediately identified with this strange, lost, erudite but horribly naive soul who feels like a complete freak regardless of its sex. The love affair Orlando begins, both with a woman and with poetry, strikes a deep chord with me, and it’s true she experiences this as a man. But a deeper chord is struck with me when he is in the body of a woman, and running from the garden where she has lost himself, trips and whispers to the ground, “Nature take me- I am your bride.” To me, that moment is all about how we finally start to accept and love ourselves once we recognize that feeling like you’re left out and unwanted and there’s no opportunities is kind of the human condition.
With or without a penis.
Stuart Bousel is one of the Founding Artistic Directors of the San Francisco Theater Pub and a prolific Bay Area writer, director, producer and occasional actor. You can find out more about him here, at http://www.horrorunspeakable.com.