Critics and stage artists will ever have a dysfunctional, back-stabbing, roller-coaster relationship. Unlike, say, movie critics, whose opinions can be reassessed throughout the foreseeable future with one trip to the video store, the words of theater pundits celebrate or sting a little more because they are often the only available record of the performance.
Still, I didn't expect to receive such a hostile letter from Teatro Dallas member and prolific playwright Valerie Brogan--especially since I'd lavished praise on her one-act Only Me at the Festival of Independent Theatres, and the source of her venom was my review of a lame Beth Henley script being produced at 11th Street Theatre Project. Henley, apparently, is an idol of Alabama native Brogan (and she accused me of being "at the end of your inspirational rope" in the missive!), and I had sullied the temple with complaints about the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's repetitiveness. But Brogan's invective (sharply phrased, by the way) spoke troublingly about her feelings toward not me, but a larger demographic to which I belong.
Brogan writes: "Growing up in Jacksonville, we were forced to learn to love people who in a larger place we never would have hung out with at all. Perhaps this is why as theater artists we can work in more varied voices than many of our peers who only ever hung out with leotard-wearing, Fireside-Theater-Book-Club subscribers like themselves and thus have a tendency to write like bored, gay, white New Yorkers." Bored, gay, white New Yorkers, "demographically speaking," Brogan goes on to harumph, "shouldn't be allowed to dominate an art form."
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Whew! I disclosed in last week's issue that, as a Texas teenager, I'd been a member of the Fireside Theater Book Club. And I am gay, and I am white (though not nearly a New Yorker). By implication, apparently, I languish in the ranks of ennui-stricken, tights-wearing homosexuals who have denied Brogan her rightful place in the theater. But Brogan should know that a fair number of gays and lesbians from small Southern towns would be shocked to discover that their hometown peers "were forced to learn to love people who in a larger place we never would have hung out with." Later on, she was rudely awakened when she came to Dallas to work at the Theater Center and discovered--horror of horrors!--that the place was lousy with homosexuals (she includes the flamboyant former DTC artistic director Adrian Hall's name in the letter alongside an annoyed reference to "the company I was keeping"). In other words, the theater was full of people different than her, and so she couldn't score easy points by being different--a woman, or an Irish American, or a Southerner, or any additional oppressed group she claims membership in. Individualism was the norm in bigger-budget, big-city stage work, and she no longer shone simply by being who she was. What's amusing about Valerie Brogan's homophobia is that, in conversation, she is so anxious to trumpet her own multiple victim-identities--and she must overcome that tendency as a playwright, if she is ever to write something that lasts beyond a Pulitzer citation (an honor she seems obsessed with in the letter). She's every bit as white as me and the rest of the legions who write like "bored, white, gay New Yorkers," but stumbles over herself to make sympathetic connections to Latinos, a P.R. bid, perhaps, due to her association with Teatro Dallas. Her assertion that small town life is artistically ennobling (especially in defense of a Beth Henley play) is as smugly provincial as the most obnoxious New Yorker's cosmopolitan prejudices. I suggest she widen her circle of friends--especially, to include more of us gays of every race. Then she'd discover we don't all wear leotards. Hell, I've never had the nerve to slip on a pair. They'd look about as flattering on me as they would...well, on Valerie Brogan.