Saturday, 25 January 2014

Creativity, Privilege, Ethics

That young woman was not a happy puppy.

At a reading of my play Cats in a Pipe, a young female actor in the audience asked why the characters were all male.  While I explained my creative decisions, her expression said I was another Man With Tits.  As soon as I stopped talking, she challenged me again.  The director jumped in and supported the gender choice.  The actor let it go, but the expression on her face didn’t change. 

I don’t find fault with her.  She wants the right to creative expression in a field where each minute that passes makes her less employable.  Dehumanising, to say the least, but I don’t back down from my creative choices for that play.  This is an And-Both situation.  A female actor should develop her craft through all age brackets and a female writer should write male characters.  But the former is not the case, so if I do the latter, do I stop another creative’s work?  If I don’t do the latter, do I stop mine?

Years ago, Paul Simon made an album in South Africa during apartheid.  What’s your initial reaction to that?  Did he exploit black South Africans, steal their music, make money from them?  Or did he give black South Africans an international stage?  Should art sidestep politics?  Can it?  At the time, Simon said that if Stevie Wonder had made the album, everyone would’ve cheered.  Now what’s your reaction? 

Last month in this blog, I wrote that we should metaphorically give the Rosa Parks of today a seat on the bus.  One of my good friends privately called this into question: in terms of using privilege to help, we may deny individuals the right to perform their own personal revolution.  Which isn’t to say privilege should never intervene but that we assess that intervention.  In the real world, a Rosa Park is more in need of support and protection for her revolution, than she is of being offered a seat. 

But in the creative world, are our decisions the same?  Am I responsible for female actors having more opportunities when my creativity develops in another direction?  Should Paul Simon have bankrolled a black musician to do what he wanted to creatively explore himself?  Do we have the right to censure other creatives for their choices? 

I don’t think we have the right to censure the creative choices of others, unless they move into illegal areas.  I do think it helps everyone to discuss these choices. 

I listened to both the actor and to my friend when they disagreed with me.  I thought about their perspectives but I thought about my friend’s perspective longer.  Certainly, because there was more at stake in a friendship than in an audience Q&A, but also because the actor didn’t appear to want to have a discussion. 

Maybe that's because I didn’t let her know that I heard her point of view.  Or maybe I actually didn't hear her point of view.

Her question was, as a female playwright, should I have written an all male cast.  When I didn't answer that question, what could she do, but challenge me again?  In effect, I silenced her. 

If instead of explaining myself, I’d asked her, 'Do you think a female writer should never write a male lead?' she may have entered into discussion with me.  She may have understood my creative decisions and I may have considered ways to develop creatively AND respect her need to create as well.

I missed my chance with her but today I’m saying to you, let’s have this discussion. What do you think about how creative development and social responsibility interact?  Even if we feel we're being silenced, let's not give up.  Let's discuss.


  1. I think we are socially responsible. Although I've been told my writing at times makes a social commentary. *shrugging* My thought is we should at least try to leave the world a better place. If that means having the tough conversations and asking ourselves the tough questions. Would your play have had less impact with female characters? These are good questions you've raised. I don't have easy answers, but you've given me things to think about as I write. :)

  2. I'm glad this made you think. For me, it's also an ongoing dialogue, but a tough dialogue that's only going to work by all participants listening. As to my play, it would've been a different play, not one expressing what I wanted to express, nor one developing my skills in a direction I wanted to go.

  3. These are very important and interesting issues you raise, and it's difficult to come to one right answer, or even one answer to all the questions. The issue of male/female characters and the opportunity for acting roles is an interesting one; but I think that your story must be told the way you want it told, not for another's purpose or it loses its authenticity.
    The superficiality of my answer is that when I was growing up there were few stories with strong female characters. In addition to growing up in a very male-dominated society, I grew up in a very male dominated household. Until my daughter was born (twelve years after my son) I had a male-dominated family. I had not realised the impact this had upon my thinking until my two-year old daughter insisted I change all the characters in stories I was reading to her to female. She was shouting out to me to take notice that she was a girl. Of course, I knew she was a girl but it took me a while to think "girl". I realised then that all the stories I had written up until then had male characters. Social conditioning or what?

  4. I agree, there isn't a single answer, but a need to discuss this issue, no matter how uncomfortable it feels, even for women. The first step to that is listening. I'm certain part of the reason I didn't properly listen to that actor was because I'm of a generation that fought for things she will never have to (hopefully). When we stop listening to the next generation, we should go home and drink our cocoa.

    This question, however, has to include, as you say, more than gender (or any other equality) so a writer can tell her story authentically. Up to my 'Cats' characters, no young woman would have questioned that I wrote for women. With these characters, however, I talk about the mother-son relationship from the perspective of the son. It's a story I haven't often encountered w/o the mother being an archetype, & it's an important story -women are important to their adult sons. Beyond that, it stretches my creative wings. That's why I say in the blog that I wouldn't change my mind.

    However, in a rewrite, I've included women. I finally heard that woman's question.

  5. Hmm. Lots of interesting ideas and issues here again, and I have just realized that in my haste to comment earlier I didn't congratulate you on being such a successful playwright. How exciting it must be to see your work performed! But perhaps it may also be a little like the mother-son relationship: the interpretation is not always exactly as you'd imagined!
    It will be interesting to hear the thoughts of those who read and view your play regarding the inclusion of female characters.
    I thought about this for the first time after posting my comment last night: Although I grew up in such a male-dominated environment, I actually went to an all-girls school! However we girls were still ruled (thought taught by nuns) by an all-powerful male figurehead. I can see I will have to do a bit more thinking myself on this issue.
    Thank you for getting me thinking!

  6. Thanks for your comments. Long may they continue! You've also made me think more about this issue. And as to 'successful', I think the word is 'emerging'. ;-)