It would be hypocritical of me to speak out against precisely how people have expressed their feelings about, and to, Words Players Theatre in Rochester, Minnesota, because I spend so much of my time now speaking on behalf of the rights of artists to express themselves as they see fit. So as one of the first people to raise the issue of the play submission guidelines proffered by Words Players, I can only say that I’m disappointed in myself, for not engendering a more constructive dialogue.
I’m not reneging on any of the points I raised with the blog post I put up last Saturday – I still see the guidelines as written as very problematic, and I want to see Words Players bring their short play festival’s selection and production model into line with widely accepted practice. I want to know that the young people who participate in this program are learning about the ethics of art as well as the practice of it, because even if Words Players turns out to be their only foray on stage, they can carry appreciation and respect for the work of creative artists through their lives, and maybe even stand and defend such work at some point in the future. I want other programs and producers to learn from this example.
Since Monday, I have been in touch by phone, by e-mail, by Facebook messenger and by text both with playwrights as well as with staff and parents at Words Players. I have seen numerous public communications and had private ones shared with me, as well as some that were intended to be public but were excised from public forums. I am extremely dismayed by the extraordinary level of invective, attack and profanity that has been hurled in the direction of Minnesota, just as I was deeply troubled by the seeming intent and implications of the original submission request. But I‘m not calling anyone out, or even quoting anyone, because I’d like us all to move forward together.
I won’t share any specifics from my assorted personal conversations because none of them were on the record. While I am an advocate, not a journalist, I believe I can only advocate for change if people can trust that when they speak to me, they are not immediately speaking to anyone who follows me on social media or reads my blog. But just as I worried about the lessons that Words Players was teaching to the young people who participate in their program, I’m now worried about the lessons the creative community and its allies (in which I certainly include myself) have inadvertently taught them as well, even in service of a position I strongly support.
When I first began writing about incidents of censorship, which in those early days was solely in the academic sphere, I admit I allowed my outrage to boil over at times in print. It made for good reading, I suppose, and there’s something cathartic about writing that way. But I think if you were to read all that I’ve written on the subject of artists’ rights and censorship since 2011, you’ll find that I’ve tempered my tone, even in some of the most egregious cases – at least I hope I have. Mind you, my anger at certain people who tried to silence or shut down, or manipulate the text of, certain plays and musicals is ever-present.
Of course, I am not a teacher who has been overruled, reprimanded or fired for choosing to produce a play. I am not a playwright who has seen their work trivialized or vandalized by a theatre (or theatres) over the course of pursuing my career. I have not been invited into some of these debates, but rather inserted myself. I recognize that all too readily. But I have made my life in the theatre and I hope it’s apparent to anyone who knows or reads me that it’s my goal to perhaps in some way leave it a little better, a little stronger, than it was when I came into the field.
So I’m not about to tell anyone exactly what they should think or say, seven days into the contretemps over Words Players. But I hope that can I ask everyone involved that they consider the true goals here, which are – I believe – to insure that the words of playwrights, novice or veteran, are treated as central, essential and the absolute domain of each playwright, as well as to see the young people at Words Players and beyond have the best possible experience with theatre and the arts.
To quote Travis Bedard’s 2amtheater blog post from yesterday, “Northland Words Theatre isn’t the enemy, they are us. They are a scrappy theatre trying to make stuff they love on a wing and a prayer. They got something wrong. So we help them fix it and help them to understand why we’re so shocked at the call.”
I wish I’d said that when I first wrote about issue. I’m genuinely sorry that I didn’t. I didn’t realize that perhaps I had to. I’ll try to do better in the future.
So here’s what I believe: a script is not a mere starting point – it is the point. It provokes dialogue between creative artists as they build a production in service of that script, it creates dialogue between those artists and audiences.
There’s still more conversation to be had on this subject, with Words Players and with other companies too. I’ll have that conversation for as long as people are willing to talk about it with me. I’ll welcome every voice that wants to participate, in the hope of persuading people to share my perspective, which is consistent with that of the vast majority of the creative community.
Ultimately, everyone has the right to express themselves as they see fit. But I’d like to suggest that perhaps we can all have a better conversation.
Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at the New School for Drama.