Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: The Privilege to Produce Art

Marissa Skudlarek… checking her privilege?

When we decided the theme for this month’s Theater Pub blog entries, we thought about St. Patrick’s Day and the Luck of the Irish, and decided on “luck and chance.” Those are ancient words and ancient concepts. In the olden days, people often saw a religious component to luck and chance: a god, or gods, had chosen to smile upon you, and therefore you had good fortune. Luck was synonymous with blessings, with fate, with grace.
These days, though, there’s a new synonym for “lucky,” one that is much in the news and the media. And that word is “privileged.”

The theory of privilege asks us to understand that no, we’re not merely lucky, we have benefited from systematic inequalities and prejudices that happened to work in our favor. Grandpa didn’t just pull himself up by his own bootstraps and buy that house in the suburbs; he benefited from racist housing policies that prevented other people, men just like him except for the color of their skin, from buying houses in the suburbs. We shouldn’t be asking people to “count their blessings”; that’s such an entitled, tone-deaf thing to say. Instead, we should ask them to “check their privilege.”

In a sense, privilege is blind luck, because none of us choose what circumstances we’re born into. But it has much more insidious connotations and ramifications than words like “luck” or “chance” usually possess. Therefore, asking someone to check their privilege can be a tricky thing. Take, for instance, this piece about how being a stay-at-home mom is a privilege, as not every mother has the luxury of being able to stop working and support a family on one income. One of my co-workers posted this article on Facebook recently and then got a lot of push-back from her friends who are stay-at-home moms. People can get incredibly defensive when asked to think about their own privilege.

Therefore, at the risk of stirring up the outrage and defensiveness of the people reading this column, I will now say: being able to make and attend theater is also a privilege. Even if we’re working our butts off at day jobs and then rushing to a six-hour tech rehearsal and surviving on five hours of sleep at night, we’re still privileged to have that kind of stress (stress mostly of our own choosing) in our lives. Even if we lament the fact that theater is becoming an upper-middle-class pastime, we are forced to admit that it isn’t always easy for less-privileged people to attend theater. Upper-middle-class people possess disposable income, leisure time, and status anxiety — but if someone lacks some or all of those things, it’s much harder to persuade them to come see a show.

It makes me uncomfortable at times to think about how what I do embodies my privilege, and how the majority of audience members are privileged, too. Many theater-makers look back to the Golden Age of English-Language Theater, Shakespeare’s era where peasants and nobility alike attended the same shows, and we dream of being able to re-create that in our own, 21st-century theaters. But I wonder how realistic that dream is, when we live in a nation, and a city, with rising inequality. I tend to believe that if we want to make theater less of an upper-class or elitist pursuit, it will take more than just making low-cost theater tickets available to low-income people, or of providing more art classes in inner-city schools. I believe it will instead require a radical restructuring of society, a re-thinking of Art and Class and Work and Entertainment, and much checking of privilege. It will take a wide and concerted effort that involves, and affects, more than just theater-makers.

In between our day jobs and our tech rehearsals and the challenges of making art in a late-capitalist society, we do spend time talking about the problems of inequality in the arts. But I don’t know if we necessarily have the time or power or resources that would make us the ideal people to find solutions to these matters. Sometimes I want to say, “I signed up to make theater; I didn’t sign up to solve all the inequalities of society!”

And then I realize how horribly privileged that sounds.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based theater-maker and arts writer. Find her online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.