I’m going to go ahead and make a long story extremely short: I saw Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park on Broadway quite a while ago (over a month), I freaking loved it, and I posted nothing. Because…uhm….I was busy. Really busy. I know, you guys – crazy thing that I am going through: I am often busy. Can you believe it?! I’m sure you can’t relate at all because I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who’s ever been busy in the history of everything.
Anyway, while my very reasonable and not-at-all-horseshit excuse of “busy” was a good one; nay, a great one, it wasn’t actually the reason I didn’t post about Clybourne Park. I did such a good job not thinking about the post that I didn’t realize what the real reason was until last night, when I had to confront it head on. It started as a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach which bloomed upwards into my tightening fists and clenching jaw. (Which might be a slight exaggeration of the physical effects, but bear with me). It was an ugly, stupid, pointless reason, one I think many artists can relate to, and one that I hate to experience because it shows me at my worst. It came on full force during last night’s broadcast of the Tony Awards, when Clybourne Park was announced as winner of Best Play. If you hadn’t already guessed it, my friends, my “reason” for not posting about Clybourne Park was jealousy.
I am so fucking jealous of Bruce Norris.
The truth of the matter is, Clybourne Park is a tremendously great play, and fully deserving of the Tony it won last night, as well as the Pulitzer Prize Mr. Norris won for it back in April 2011. But perhaps because the tone, style, topic, and consistency of it lingers close to the type of play I aspire to write, I have had a crazy, psycho person reaction to its success. The good news is I am possessed of no great power or authority, meaning I don’t have the means to drive to Bruce Norris’ house and go all Swimfan on him. (…bonus points if you got THAT reference). The bad news is, as a young theater artist who is simply. starting. out., I struggle constantly with fits of jealousy towards the many geniuses who are doing what I want to do, but doing it better and with more success.
It’s an interesting question, and one that I think about often – how do you “manage” the petty, personal reactions you have to demonstrations of others’ genius? Personally, I don’t believe anyone who tells me that they never get jealous of their peers. Having just completed the first year of an MFA program in dramatic writing, I can tell you that jealousy is par for the course when your day to day life is filled with dozens of people doing the same thing you’re doing, (and often doing it better). It’s unavoidable. Of course, I am thrilled for my classmates when they achieve success, but there’s always that small, stupid, evil voice inside that wonders why them and not me. (My voice, incidentally, is more whiny and obnoxious than downright evil; think: this).
It’s a pipe dream to expect to never get jealous, especially when pursuing a career as a writer or theater artist where public accolades are such an obvious benchmark of accomplishment, and such a common part of the experience. Knowing this, my goal has always been to manage my jealously, to acknowledge it, give it its due and then tell it to stop distracting me from the work at hand. At the end of the day, it is both upsetting and comforting that there is such a fine line between jealousy and motivation. I am just as often inspired by my peers (or, my heroes like Mr. Norris) as jealous of them. I want their success to embolden my own artistic risks, not paralyze me with envy. Because ultimately, I’d rather live in a world where there’s an abundance of crap for me to be jealous of. Think of the alternative.
As artists, we need to remember that we are not in competition with each other; rather, we are all part of a collaboration to create the fabric of culture around us. I believe this with utmost conviction, because I believe there is no quota on fantastic theater in the world, no x-number of Playwright Spots or Actor Spots or Director Spots that can be filled before the rest of us are shut out. The problem with fellowships and prizes and contests is that they can mislead us to believe the opposite — that there is only ONE play worthy of the $1000 prize, or the $100 prize, or even the $10 prize, and that the rest are somehow less significant or important. Guess what: they’re not. In fact, it’s that fixation on the nominal and outward trappings of “success” that helps foster the petty feelings of jealousy we all get. Every piece of art made with passion and thoughtfulness deserves to be celebrated as Clybourne Park was. Just because someone doesn’t win a subjective (!!) award doesn’t mean that their effort was objectively less worthwhile. This might not be a view that everyone shares with me, and that’s fine, but I would not make theater if I didn’t fundamentally believe it myself. What would be the point? The subjectiveness of art and art appreciation is so comfortingly welcoming. I would not want to be part of a community where value was so highly linked to a hierarchy. While I appreciate much about the celebratory spirit of awards shows such as the Tonys, while I am deeply grateful for all the prizes and fellowships out there that enable artists to make art, those things in themselves are not art, nor are they essential for the creation of art. I try not to let all that distract me from what I believe to be the true spirit of theater – the contract between artist and audience, that exchange of idea and emotion and offering that can happen whether or not statues are awarded or checks are given out.
So sincerely, congratulations to Clybourne Park on its Tony, and Mr. Norris on his Pulitzer prize. You should not go see Clybourne Park because it won a Tony. Rather, Clybourne Park won the Tony because it is an important play that you should go see. It’s a fine distinction, but a critically important one.
I will let Mr. Ben Brantley tell you about the play, because he did a far better job than I ever could, and most of my blogging energy seems to have gone towards my longish and preachy rant about competition. Suffice it to say that the content of this play (it imagines the previous and future tenants of the home purchased by the Younger family in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun), the structure (Act 1 takes place in the 50s, before the previous tenants of the Younger family house move out, and Act 2 double casts the same actors in thematically significant parts as characters related to the house in 2012), and the writing (the “unease”, to borrow from Mr. Brantley, that Norris captures so well in his dramaturgy is exquisitely painful to listen to) are fan-fucking-tastic. Not sure if you’ve all gotten the Theater Junkie metric, but “fan-fucking-tastic” is the highest praise I deliver to a play.
Thank you, Bruce Norris, for writing a play so good that it almost hurts me to praise it. One that, once I get over my 6th grade girl self, is an inspiration, rather than a detriment, to the rest of us. Thank you for unflinchingly achieving such success, and for widening, not narrowing, the field of theater. I can only hope, one day, to follow in your footsteps.