New money for playwrights, with Josh Young

Phillip Christian Smith in Who Mourns for Bob the Goon? by Joshua Young, HERE Arts Center. 2016. Photo: Steven Pisano

Josh Young and the Playwriting Collective have come up with a daring new entry into the identity driven grant making arena. The Ball Grant is a $1,000 grant expressly designed for a writer who identifies as living in or emerging from a lower economic status.

 

Founded as “a playwright driven initiative to support voices from lower economic backgrounds,” the Playwriting Collective presents work that is by, or about, the American poor.

I’ve participated in their First Draft Reading Series as a writer, when my play White Out was given an excellent reading, and as an actor where I read the role of a super creepy mother and learned that the identifier ‘eskimo’ is offensive. (Turns out ‘eskimo’ is an Algonquin word meaning “eater of raw meat.)

I thoroughly relished my experience with the Collective in both cases, and am amazed that in addition to producing full length work, a reading series, and cultivating new writers, the company has created a funding source for playwrights, deadline October 1, The Ball Grant.

Libby

There are lots of play submission opportunities out there that specify identifiers to which the writer must identify. Most of what I see out there has to do with race, ethnicity, and gender, but the inaugural Ball Grant is different in that it focuses on economic identifiers. Why is an artist’s economic background so important?

Josh

I’d like to even the playing field a little so that we get more authentic stories that have emerged from America’s lower class.  I saw a small play semi-recently that was set in a poor, rural American town that was bathed in a fetishization of those types of poor people.  That’s a blight in my opinion on artistic truth and also a sad piece of evidence illustrating how few theater maker’s right now have come from anything other than an upper-middle class or higher background.  (And that’s especially true for contemporary white theater makers.)  Now I want to be clear, I really don’t want to throw too much shade at my theater making brothers and sisters who have had lives with a little more affluence.  But it’s a bit of a plague how it’s almost exclusively the playground of those folks.  Luckily, those same opportunities you mentioned -with other identifiers- have helped change the exclusivity of who gets access to theater making tools.  Along those lines I deeply believe class matters when we have a conversation about agency and privilege in this country and want to make sure I embolden that demographic to enter the theater world.

Representation of poor people – off all colors, genders, and orientations – matters.  And I don’t want to see poor people’s stories become morsels of dissection for folks from more affluent or privileged backgrounds.  I don’t want to see stories about coal miners in West Virginia written by someone who studied those people in Academia, or a play about kids in a post industrial town because someone maybe wrote a thesis about that subject.  Why should class be the last bastion where outliers are given preference to write those stories over the people who’ve actually lived poor lives?  I want to encourage people from lower economic backgrounds to tell their own stories… and maybe by giving them tools of self expression it might push back on trends of anti-intellectualism and systemic negligence of educational needs in poor communities…  Not to mention just old fashioned giving people stronger, more articulate voices so that they can be more competitive in any field they chose to make their profession.  It’s also my personal passion and belief that this endeavor will help unite poor white communities with communities of color.

And shouldn’t we -as a collective audience and a socially conscious body politic- want to raise up those poor voices so they tell their own stories?  And I fit into that category.  I’ve yet to write a story that doesn’t feature poor people as a centerpiece of narrative force.

Libby

I attended a panel several years ago that was helmed by Diane Weist and Olympia Dukakis, and it was mentioned that actors and writers used to come up through the theater, apprenticing, learning, hanging out backstage, and that now the industry discourages that by implementing the MFA as the gold standard for theater artists. Of course, grad schools are expensive, and when students emerge from that chrysalis they expect jobs in their fields, but they haven’t been out there making jobs in their fields, or creating that niche for themselves. Do you think that the current MFA structure is at fault for the discontinuation of access for the underprivileged into theater arts and its industry?

Josh

Yes.  Unambiguously, aggressively 100% yes.  As the disparity between rich and poor in this country grows wider and wider, the American Academic Industrial Complex (I just made that up… I hope it’s original) has stopped being an institution for higher education and development and more a way to establish a new caste system of who is allowed to emerge as artists, politicians, developers, and businessmen.  And even then -as you well noted- many still get culled after getting MFAs by not finding work.  I think the new requisite of MFAs for anything artistic is a scourge on society…  and I think the cancerous infestation of necessity to get grad school education for many non scientific fields is contributing as much to anti-intellectualism as lack of quality education in poor communities.  The ability for people to feel and experience the freedom of independent and courageous thought is slowly being squelched by the oppression of over-education.  Academia creates a comfort blanket for the historically privileged, especially the wealthy, because life can now be experienced via a low stakes safety net called grad school.  Basically we live in a world where gobbledygook is given import in academically well educated but existentially imbecilic Americans.

Libby

I know you as a writer and producing artist. How did you get involved in actually providing funding opportunities for other writers?

Josh

By learning how to manage money for a non-profit and believing that short term sacrifice will yield a long term gain.  The short term sacrifice is that we’re a very fiscally modest company compared to virtually any of our peers, and we don’t have consistent or dedicated donors, so -honestly- we’re scraping this money together simply to push more people like us into the theater making field.

Pragmatically I believe this grant could change the life of a poor person and it might – hopefully – one day begin a trend where more people from lower economic backgrounds, from all kinds of diverse poor backgrounds, are making popular art.  I deeply believe we need more people from poor backgrounds, in all their shapes and sizes, making theater.  If they do I believe it will create a seismic shift, changing not only how and who makes theater but the actual aesthetics of theater itself.  Suddenly audiences will have their eyes opened to authentic stories that they probably would have never heard otherwise.

Libby

Are you telling me that the money being provided for the Ball Grant is money that the Playwrighting Collective generated through revenue streams and saved specifically for this purpose? This $1000 is not a donated sum from some granting organization in support of your efforts?

Josh

Exactly.  I hope we get more grant money and fiscal sponsorship the longer we stick around… but in the short term… this grant is pretty much money contributed by our main team and my own MoMA paycheck.  I really just want to give a poor person money.  My mother taught me the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at a young age…  If I am even comfortable then I’m in a place to help someone.  I’ll worry about saving money when I get around to that hypothetical family I hope to have once day.

Libby

How do you balance producing with the Playwrighting Collective with your own artistic pursuits?

Josh

Not to mention balancing it all with a full time job!  Honestly, I’ve excised virtually any part of my life that doesn’t service my work with The Playwriting Collective or my own artistic life.  I wish there was some self-help, esoteric axiom I possessed that would give me a leg up, but there isn’t.  I simply made a choice that I’d put all my other life priorities, such as (hopefully) one day having a family, on hold until I was satisfied with my progress in the theater world.  Of course that turned out to be a Sisyphean expectation.  It’s an extremely competitive business, in a varied and often overwhelming way, but I stay competitive by keeping all my life choices within concentric circles of my theatrical pursuits.

Libby

Me too. It’s a bitch. Before I embarked on motherhood, I had a full time job, produced Sticky and other shows with Blue Box World, worked on projects outside my producing work, and wrote, of course, something I’ve been doing since I became cogent. After my son was born, I cut back on producing, and this year I’m not producing at all. I have to work, I have to write, I have to mother. Producing? Love it, but it’s not here this year. Do you want to be a father?

Josh

Yes.  In fact I often find myself having very paternal instincts.  I did a show semi-recently where served as a TD… I was talking to the playwright outside the theater one day and we saw her intern roller blade up to us without a helmet and we both went into parent mode!  (We also realized we’re old folks now…)

You may not produce as much but I definitely look to you and David as a good model of how to have a family and still stay active in this world.  I have other friends who do it (my friends Reid and Sara Farrington for example.)  But in the short term it is going to take an act of fate for someone to come along who I could envision coupling up with.

Submit your work for The Ball Grant!

LaGina Hill in Who Mourns for Bob the Goon? by Joshua Young, HERE Arts Center. 2016. Photo: Steven Pisano

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