Old Dead White Guys

I’m a White guy.

To be more precise: I’m a Helleno-Hibernian-Ukrainian-American. It’s a mix of European. Also known as: White.

I live in America, too, and America, while not European, was largely founded by Europeans. This is a fact of history, for better or worse. It’s also a fact of our cultural heritage and artistic landscape.

I only tell you this to give a sense of where I’m standing.

My most recent blog post was a late-night musing about how we define ‘Classics’. That is, how we define them in general, and how I’d like to define them for the company I’m building, The Kingfisher Theater.

I tried to have fun with it. It was some thoughts on what is means when something is called ‘Classic.’ The general consensus of my one person was that it means ‘old’ and ‘good’ and ‘stands the test of time.’

There was a thing I didn’t really notice though when I wrote it… that it was mostly a list of plays by ‘old dead white guys’. Recently, a colleague posted this article (not this one) from the Atlantic on Facebook in a thread about the need for other voices in literature and drama. I read it, and mulled it over for a few minutes, and then realized that in my last post, I had neglected to mention playwrights from cultures not tied to that particular continent.

I thought this a disservice to my vision for the theater, and wanted to address that.

‘White people doing white art,’ is a common particular of the American artistic landscape, and from what I see, most theater. It’s not a nefarious thing mostly, just kind of a thing. Sure, part of that is the economics, (old white people buy theater tickets), but it’s also a false reflection of our society (as ’twere the mirror and such). Also: it can be quite boring.

In writing the first mission statement for our theater, I made a point to say we’ll be working towards developing world classics for the stage. I most definitely want to include plays that aren’t from the Western Cannon. ‘The Western Cannon’ is just the most convenient (and economical) place to start. (ever try starting a theater? ouf. Donate here. *cough*)

Why is that? Well, partly, my education. As a white guy living in the West, European theater history has contributed to most of what I know of as ‘classics.’ Is that wrong? Maybe. Still, it’s true, and I try to work with what the good lord gave me.

As a colleague of mine would say, often over beers and in an attempt to rile me up, I see the world as ‘European’ and ‘Other.’ That ‘European’ is the baseline. I confess, that on a knee-jerk level, that is true. I also see the world as ‘Rochestarian’ and ‘Other’, ‘New Yorkers’ and ‘Others’, ‘Americans’ and ‘Others’.

These are, for better or worse, my default perspectives. It’s how my consciousness was formed at an early age, and despite a lot of thinking, learning, and training, it still remains the default. The go-to. The habit.

I’m pretty sure everyone else is the same way, which is why this is even a discussion in the first place. (Btw, I’m pretty sure this discussion happens more in American than anywhere else, which I think is a very healthy sign for the future of humanity). But I also live in today’s world, am educated, have travelled, and learned that there is a lot more out there than old dead white guys.

And we all live in America, which, despite what some people may want to believe, is not fundamentally ‘European.’ Sure, the Europeans gave us English and The Enlightenment thinking that lead to the Constitution, but I believe strongly that America is a great experiment in Humanism.

In my view, humanism is a kind of philosophical defiance of the human condition, and theater is about examining the human condition. Neither of these things are directly related to race or ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are important realities of the human condition, but by no means the only one.

Obviously, there are a lot of great non-European dramatists out there and we’ll do them. I may be a white guy starting a theater, but I don’t plan to be the only one running it. God, that would be boring!

But I’m also not an encyclopedia. I have a weakness in that I only know what I know. This leads us to: collaboration. The mission of this theater, aside from the notion of ‘World Classics’, revolves around the notion of theatre as an actors’ medium, and so the choosing of seasons should be driven by roles actors want to dig in to.

Each actor will bring his or her own unique perspective to our stage. Just as I might choose, for example, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros as a jumping of point for a production, someone else might choose August Wilson, and another might choose a Japanese Kabuki piece. There is no limitation here.

By the way, The Kingfisher Theater does ‘Classic Plays in New Ways.’ So I dunno, why not have a African-Chinese American Woman play Shylock? Could happen. (Whether that’s justified by the text is another thing…)

Either way, there’s not much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and people buy tickets to shows written by old dead white guys. You know why? Because they’re good.

So, in short, yes we’ll do plays by old dead white guys (and living white women) but we’ll also do plays by Valdez, Parks, Hwang, and Wilson. We’ll do pieces by any human being who writes a ‘classic’ piece of work. We just need actors who want to do them, too.

Let’s get to work.