Ever since the Guthrie Theater announced its 50th Anniversary season two weeks ago, many in the local arts community have been boiling with indignation over the fact that the overwhelming majority of plays being presented by the Guthrie in its 2012-13 season are written and directed by men, and address what Charles Barkley, in a recent Saturday Night Live skit, calls “white people’s problems.”
At this point, only one play in the Guthrie’s entire lineup has the imagination of a woman behind it: a one-actor interpretation of the Iliad co-written by Lisa Peterson and presented in the Guthrie’s smallest space, the Dowling Studio. Everything else, save for one play with a female co-director, is written and directed by men. Even its productions of Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew are all-male affairs—because, you know, that’s the way they did it in Shakespeare’s time, and because the company presenting them, Britain’s acclaimed Propellor theater, doesn’t employ women.
About three nanoseconds after the Guthrie’s announcement, theater director Leah Cooper, a member of the Minnesota Theatre Alliance and co-creator of the Minnesota Playlist website, lit the match on Facebook by calling the lineup “insulting and degrading” to women and people of color. The Star Tribune’s Graydon Royce poured gasoline on the fire with an article calling attention to the controversy. MPR’s Marianne Combs fanned the flames with even more in-depth reporting on the Guthrie’s oversights. (Yesterday she posted a full transcription, in real time, of Dowling’s unapologetic interview with Tom Crann on All Things Considered). And the ever-indignant voices of “social media” pretty much nuked Joe Dowling to smithereens over the issue.
If the Guthrie’s announcement itself didn’t rile people enough, Dowling’s unfortunate choice of words in defending his choices did. The Strib article closes with Dowling saying, “But one thing I want to be very clear about, tokenism is the worst thing you can do,” he said. “I employ people because of their talent, male or female. It is a very stern task to direct on a stage of our size, and I am responsible to the board for the shows we produce.”
That word, “tokenism,” probably did more damage than everything else combined. Because: 1) it implies that women and people of color don’t have the talent, skill, or experience to work at the Guthrie (which we know isn’t true), 2) it laid bare Joe Dowling’s somewhat antiquated attitude toward issues of race and gender, and 3) it suggests that women’s equality and civil rights are unimportant or secondary concerns in Dowling’s mind compared to artistic freedom and the need to keep the Guthrie’s board happy in a challenging economy.
Underlying it all is the question of how much responsibility the Guthrie has to reflect and serve the community that supports it, and what that should look like onstage? This is very different from asking what the Guthrie’s responsibilities are to its audience. The larger community of the Twin Cities may be getting increasingly diverse, but the Guthrie’s audience, however much one wishes it to be otherwise, is overwhelmingly white. Why? Because the number of people in the Twin Cities who can afford to pay $25-75 a pop for a Guthrie play is relatively small. And white. If you are in the lower 90% of wage earners in the Twin Cities, you really, really, really, really have to want to see a play to fork over that kind of dough. That’s a trip to Olive Garden and a movie, after all, or half-a-dozen Domino’s pizzas and an evening of Halo III. People have to make choices.
Which is why it’s great to have so many other theaters—Penumbra, Frank, Ten Thousand Things, Mixed Blood, Pillsbury House, Children’s Theatre, 20%, Illusion, Girl Friday, Heart of the Beast, Mu Performing Arts, History, Teatro del Pueblo, Urban Samurai, and a dozen others—that put gender and ethnicity issues at the heart of their mission. And if you want to go see a play like Learning to be Latina at Mixed Blood, you literally do not have to pay a dime. It’s free.
In a perfect world, all theater would be free, of course. But the Guthrie must operate in the cruel world of American art economics, and the even crueler world of institutional expectations, which demands that everyone who feels slighted by the big theater’s choices grumble and bitch to all their friends until everyone’s sense of moral superiority is sufficiently inflated. Back in the day, these discussions used to happen at the New French over wine and cheese, until about the fourth bottle of granache, when someone from Theatre de la Jeune Lune would stand on a table and declare the Guthrie “irrelevant,” or “beside the point,” because Garland Wright didn’t understand the first thing about commedia dell’arte or the vital dramatic importance of white face powder.
Which is to say that criticisms of the Guthrie’s programming have been a local parlor sport for a long time, and, far from being the artistic monolith it is often portrayed to be, the Guthrie has responded—slowly and often reluctantly, yes, but respond it has. In the days before Joe Dowling, when Garland Wright was the Guthrie’s artistic director, the “community” was exorcised by the fact that Wright didn’t like August Wilson’s work and wouldn’t mount any of his plays. Wright’s standard defense was that the Guthrie was a “house of classics,” and in his estimation none of Wilson’s plays could be considered classic. In those days, except on extremely rare occasions (such as Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother in 1986, or Joanne Akalaitis’s awesome staging of Jean Genet’s The Screens, in 1989) female directors were few and far between, and a playwright stood little chance of getting their work produced on the Guthrie thrust unless they were dead, male, British, or Arthur Miller. And before Wright, years often went by without a production written or directed by a woman or person of color. That’s the way it was, because the syllogism “we are a house of classics + most classics are written by men = most plays the Guthrie produces are de facto written by men” still kept the rabble at bay.
In 1997, when Joe Dowling handed the thrust stage over to Penumbra Theater Co. for a production of Fences, the event was hailed as a watershed moment in race relations between the Guthrie and the local African-American community. Now, however, it seems as though the Guthrie hosts either an August Wilson play or Penumbra production every season. Penumbra’s production of The Amen Corner, by James Baldwin, starts previews next week, and so does Carlyle Brown’s Langston Hughes bio-play, Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . ., which is being directed by a woman, Noel Raymond. And there is nothing remarkable about it because plays by and about African-Americans now get produced at the Guthrie all the time. And the reason they get produced, lest we forget, is that Joe Dowling built a huge monument to theater on the river that has three stages: a big one to do all the audience-pleasing, coffer-filling fare that the majority of the Guthrie’s theater-goers seem to want; a medium-sized stage to do plays that won’t work on the thrust and are edgy enough to alienate a few people; and the Dowling Studio, where anything goes, and local theater companies get to produce their work, with the Guthrie’s resources and marketing support behind them.
All of this was Joe Dowling’s intention from the start, and it happened that way because he listened intently to criticisms of the Guthrie before he arrived, and he’s done more than anyone ever has to address them. So it is ironic, and a bit unfair, that he is now being pilloried for failing to fulfill some sort of unofficial gender/race quota. Interestingly, what’s at the heart of the vitriol this time is, I think, a sense of betrayal. Dowling has been such a conscientious steward that we’ve come to expect a certain level of creative diversity at Big Blue—a generous sense of noblesse oblige that simply did not exist before Dowling arrived. But now that it does exist, a lineup of plays that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow twenty years ago has suddenly ruffled a lot of feathers, because expectations about what the Guthrie represents and how it serves the community have evolved to the point where, yes, it does seem like a glaring oversight to have so many white Y chromosomes in the mix. What steams a lot of people too is that race and gender issues don’t appear to be a priority to Dowling when he is programming a season, only one consideration among many—or, in this case, hardly a consideration at all.
Somewhat more symbolic weight is attached to this season as well because it is the Guthrie’s 50th anniversary. Anniversaries are occasions to acknowledge how far you’ve come, and to plan where you’re going. Ignoring women and minorities on such an occasion, intentional or not, sends a dispiriting signal that the Guthrie has not come very far at all, and is headed backward, not forward. I don’t think that’s true, but such glaring, obvious omissions do beg the question, and to those for whom race and gender issues are paramount, even having to ask the question is irritating. It’s like suddenly having to remind people why smoking in a plane is a bad idea, or why women’s sports should be included in the Olympics. In 2012, on the most important stage in the country, it should go without saying that at least a few of the season’s offering be written and/or directed by women. Having to say it—yet again, for the millionth time—is the galling part.
Also unfortunate is that the Guthrie’s track record when it comes to hiring women and minorities or producing their work isn’t exactly stellar. Fewer than one in six plays presented on the Guthrie’s two largest stages in the past four years have been written by women or minorities, and fewer still have been directed by them—and most of those have been directed (beautifully) by one woman, assistant director Marcela Lorca.
So the idea that the Guthrie has reached some sort of ideal social balance of gender/race representation is ridiculous. Dowling himself hates the idea that race or gender should play a role in his decision-making at all, and defends his choices from an artistic standpoint. But it’s not too long before that stance starts looking like Stephen Colbert’s facetious claim that he does not “see race”—he only knows he’s white because that’s what people tell him. Likewise, Joe Dowling is a white Irishman with a generous heart, noble intentions, and an open mind, but he still occasionally needs people to tell him when he has strayed or misspoken. Personally, I admire the fact that he’s unwilling to back down or apologize for his artistic decisions, but one can only argue an indefensible position for so long.
It’s been a strange year for the male/female meme, though. First there was the Atlantic article, The End of Men, which pretty much declared women the new rulers of the world, by virtue of the fact that there are now more women in the workplace than men, more women managers than men, more women in college now than men, and the majority of graduate degrees awarded in the U.S. now go to women. Then there was the dust-up at this year’s Masters golf tournament over the fact that the Augusta National Golf Club, one of the last no-girls-allowed men’s clubs in the country, refused to award IBM CEO Virginia Rommety an honorary green jacket, as it customarily does for male CEO’s of the tournament’s major sponsors. (Rommety fought back not by complaining, but by wearing pink.) Then there was the kerfuffle over how hard Ann Romney did or didn’t work as the stay-at-home mother of five boys, and the uproar over whether the health-insurance policies of religious organizations should be required to provide women with birth control, all of which has ballooned into the so-called “War on Women”—the very same women who are supposedly taking over the world. Now this.
Unfortunately, this is not an issue that’s going to be resolved anytime soon. Those who view the world exclusively through the lens of gender and race often have different ideas about what constitutes the correct “balance” of work by dead white men and work by women, minorities, and the disenfranchised. Some might think that a fair balance would be a perfect 50-50 split; others would say no, dead white men have controlled the dialogue of Western civilization for the past 500 years, so the only way to truly balance the scales of cultural equity would be to produce nothing at the Guthrie but work by women, minorities, and other marginalized voices for, say, the next 500 years or so. Then, in the year 2512, we could see whose work has stood the test of time.
Because of the uproar so far, I think it’s a fair bet that many of the remaining holes in the season (and there are still quite a few) will be filled by— ta da!—work done by women and minorities. And it will happen because, as intransigent as Dowling may seem at the moment, he is listening—and, if the past is any indication, he will respond. Maybe not as quickly or as definitively as many people would like, but he will almost certainly respond. He’s practically a Minnesotan by now, after all, and he knows the state creed:
We can do better.