Friday, June 15, 2018

Playwrights are to be seen, not heard

Like many playwrights, I was dismayed when Jack Thorne, after winning the Tony Award for Best Play this year, was not allowed to give an acceptance speech.

Thorne scripted Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but you wouldn't know it given the way the hit show's writer has been treated. Two producers were allowed to make speeches for the Tonys, but the awards ceremony decided to cut off the writer before he could say anything.

I was very pleased that the Dramatists Guild this week decided to write an open letter to the president of CBS--which broadcasts the awards--addressing the issue. Guild President Doug Wright (who famously wrote about the silencing of authors in his play Quills) did a remarkable job expressing the hurt and anger many dramatists feel.

This isn't just about Thorne being snubbed, either. Songwriter David Yazbek, who composed the scores for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, received a Tony this year for The Band's Visit, but CBS didn't air his speech, because apparently they think American's don't care about songwriters. Wright made it clear just how ridiculous this notion is, saying:

Many of the songwriters of the year's hit musicals are already bold-faced names, beloved all across the country. Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, and cohost Sara Bareilles are just some of the composers responsible for SpongeBob SquarePants. The songwriters for Disney’s adaptation of Frozen, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, won an Oscar for the chart-topping anthem "Let It Go."

And yet the average American is supposed to know the names of supporting actors in Broadway shows? Really? I remember watching the Tonys while growing up in Florida. I was excited to hear about not just the dramatists, but also the directors, choreographers, and designers, since theirs was the work I might actually see. By the time I got up to New York to see a show or (more likely) a touring production came to town, no one in the original cast would be there. These were the artists who made a difference to me, not actors I would probably never get to see perform.

Wright also pointed out that other than Thorne, the writers of the nominated best plays were not even mentioned during the telecast! Maybe viewers might have wanted to know that Junk was written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar, that The Children is by Lucy Kirkwood, that Claire van Kampen wrote Farinelli and the King, and that Latin History for Morons is by some obscure guy named John Leguizamo. Oh wait, he's also an actor. Quick, put him on camera!

What is most baffling is that the Tonys are basically unique in their disrespect for authors. As Wright pointed out:

Every year, the Academy Awards faithfully includes screenwriters in not one but two categories. And it's not just the Oscars; the Grammys, Emmys, and Golden Globes all award the writers in their respective industries on the air. And yet it's the theater that most esteems writers; we are generally recognized as the principal artistic force behind new work, and we even retain ownership and control over the material we create. Yet on the very awards show intended to celebrate our craft, we are effectively negated.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can agree with Wright that the theater most esteems writers. The theater pays lip service to writers, but while actors, directors, designers, and stage managers can all make livings in the theater (not to mention the legions of stage hands), essentially all U.S.-based dramatists have to work outside of the theater to support their habit of writing plays. Some teach, some write for television and film, some (like Leguizamo) also act or direct. A couple of dramatists make money off musicals, but I can't think of a single playwright who is able to make a living just off of writing straight plays.

If we as a society really respect dramatists, perhaps we ought to start paying some of them a living wage. If we can't do that, the least we can do is not silence them at the Tonys.