Monday, April 28, 2008

Age Matters

The March/April issue of the Dramatist (publication of the Dramatists Guild) begins with letters that refer back to a column that argues that older playwrights, and not just young ones, might write worthwhile plays. That column said: "Look, no one likes to age, especially the artistic child within you. But with that glorious aging comes more wisdom, more experience with craft, more experience with relationships" etc. Letters responding to it came from people in their forties and even seventies who don't have established playwriting careers but who are writing plays and trying to get them produced anyway.

The editors called the response "overwhelming," which generally means it is responding to a point of view unheard of before. The idea has apparently become gospel that at least among the non-famous (but possibly extending to the formerly famous as well), only the young can write plays. Anyone not young is illegitimate, foolish and should be ashamed of themselves, which probably they are. So a bunch of people wrote in to say, not so fast.

I come at this issue from an older perspective, but also from my own youth in an apparently different time. While I had terrible panics and despair over the possibility that I wouldn't "make it" as a writer until, could it be possible, my 30s, and I believed that my youth gave me a particular perspective on my times, I would still have easily accepted the idea that older writers were legitimate, and could have greater perspective based on experience as people and as writers. It stands to reason.

But apparently it is now a minority argument, because doors are largely closed to older playwrights--meaning 40 and up. There are contests, fellowships, opportunties for young writers. Even if it isn't made explicit by rule, new means under 30 or maybe 35. It's not just in the theatre--I remember a San Francisco Chronicle book critic who shocked the literary world by countering the many annual"best writers under 35" lists with his "best new writers over 50." But he only did it once.

There are reasons why the new stage is dominated by young playwrights. University students are virtually the only subsidized playwrights in America, although they are often subsidizing themselves by means of student loans. They are instructed, coached, mentored and produced. In a community like this one, they are pretty much the only new original plays anyone sees. This happens because the university has turned the arts (and related fields, like journalism) into profit centers, and the university has become the chief employer of writers, including those playwrights who aren't writing movies or TV shows.

Once out of their undergrad and graduate programs, young playwrights have a certain amount of time to devote to the theatre, during which years they either get produced and noticed and become part of the theatre-Hollywood-university system, or they don't, and get on with not being poor anymore.

These days, with many in the huge baby boomer generation retiring on possibly the last dependable pensions there will be for awhile, there are likely to be more writers and playwrights in their 50s, 60s, etc. who can subsidize themselves. Presumably institutions will respond to that, although so far they aren't. The only allowable topic for older writers is being old. As long as they make fun of it.

There is the additional question of audience for theatre, which is generally older, and whether a predominantly young perspective serves them all that well.

But what is really shocking about this debate is that there is a question involved as to the legitimacy of the non-young playwright's perspective. All you have to do is go to student plays and however charming and even insightful they are, it's clear the writers don't have very much to write about, or much perspective on it. The argument for craft is more complicated, but it seems obvious that while young writers can excel by instinct, talent, originality and enthusiasm--as well as the "first thought, best thought" phenomenon--there is something to be said for craft gained by experience crafting.

Of course the theatre needs youth to replenish itself (and to move the sets.) Still, there's institutional prejudice against the not-young in the theatre as well as most everywhere else. But you know, the theatre--and most everything else--is missing something, something important, something it needs.

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