Thursday, September 11, 2008

Response from Joshua Conkel

After asking permission from Mr. Conkel, the author of The Chalk Boy that was reviewed by Rachel Saltz in the New York Times, and that I commented on below in my post "On Ruralism," I am posting Conkel's response. I do so not only to provide balance, but also because I think Mr. Conkel's response illustrates the kind of willingness to thoughtfully reflect and engage in the examination of an issue. Mr Conkel writes as follows:

A friend sent me a link to your blog and I must admit I was a little surprised by what was being written about me and my show. I had seen the New York Times review only a couple of hours before and was still really sensitive, so in a way it's probably better that my comment didn't publish.

While I don't fail to see the irony in a New York Times theater critic accusing me of having contempt, it was still a painful experience to read, particularly because up until that point the show had received mostly glowing reviews. As one of your comments on your original post pointed out, my show is really small and I was amazed that they came in the first place.

That said, I'm wise enough to know that not everybody will like my work. I'm also still an emerging writer and I'm trying to take critiques to heart and hopefully learn from them. This is why I'm still struggling with Ms. Saltz's comment that I have contempt for small town America. See, I'm from small town America. I was born in rural Kentucky and grew up in rural Washington, where the fictional town of Clear Creek lies.

Clear Creek, like my hometown, was once an ideal and beautiful small town that has progressively been taken over by chains and strip malls. My intent was to satirize the grotesque corporate chains that are destroying the character of small communities, not the small communities themselves. As for portraying rural characters as ignorant or boorish, I tried to make the four teenage girls in my play as deeply sensitive and wise beyond their years as possible and not the opposite, thank you very much. Many, many reviews praised me for doing just that.

Since the review came out yesterday I've really been doing some soul searching. Do I have contempt for small town America? I don't think I do. I can say that growing up poor and gay in a rural setting wasn't always pain free so I'm sure a lot of that hurt seeps into the fabric of the play. But contempt? No sir. I simply wanted to portray the type of community I was raised in as honestly as possible, with both its admirable and not-so-admirable qualities represented. A lack of respect for blue collar workers? This son of a sailor and a secretary will thank you to apply that label to somebody else.

Of course these are all quibbles since, as I stated already, I can't make people respond to the play in the manner of my choosing. People's opinions will be what they will be. A quick google search of "The Chalk Boy" will send you to other reviews from people who loved the play and were moved by it. I wish that you'd seen or read the play before you so readily agreed with the critic from The Times who, some valid criticism aside, mostly reviewed the play based on her own attitudes and not the work itself. It seems highly unfair.

Please don't think I'm attacking here. I just wanted to put in my two cents.

Joshua Conkel

We have exchanged a couple emails, and I have enjoyed the exchange. I responded:

Are you sure you don't want this posted to my site? I think it is a good defense.

To some extent, you got caught in a cross-current. My response was less to your play (obviously, having not read it or seen it, I can't really respond to your play) than to a combination of the Saltz interview and Matt Freeman's toss-off comment about contempt. The key here, from my perspective, is not whether YOU have contempt for small town America, but whether your PLAY has contempt for small town America -- even small town America that has been taken over by strip malls.

As far as being from small town America, my experience has been that people who have migrated from a small town to a big city often bear a lot of anger at their treatment -- after all, often they left for a reason. My concern -- and this goes WAY beyond your own production -- is that we have a society that regularly portrays small town America negatively, with very few counter-examples. The effect this has is to make people, especially young people, feel compelled to leave their towns for the city. I think this "rural brain drain" is having a horrible effect on our society, our economy, and our mythology. So I am particularly tuned in to plays, TV shows, and films that propagate that attitude. If you say it isn't present in your play, I'll take your word for it -- obviously, somebody else thinks otherwise, which is what I was responding to.

I don't know Saltz, so I don't know what her values are that you feel are getting in the way.

I don't think you are attacking at all, and in fact I value any discussion of issues of substance, whether I come out "on top" or "on the bottom." Which is why I am suggesting that you allow me to post your email as a post on my site. I think it would lead to discussion.

Finally, Joshua writes:

In terms of small towns, I get what you mean and I hear the same frustration a lot from my family and ESPECIALLY from my Southern family, which is partially why the play takes place in Washington instead of Kentucky. I'm sensitive to your point of view in this regard to be certain. In my case the decision to leave (the gay thing aside) was largely economic. There are NO jobs where I come from.

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CultureFuture said...

Gosh darn... I wish I had with me my copy of a collection of Irish plays which I recently read. In it is Synge's play "Playboy of the Western World", and (more pertinently) Synge's response to attacks that he his play displayed contempt for the rural Irish.

Not having the quotation handy, I'll have to limit myself to a very poor paraphrase, but suffice it to say his response went along the lines of 'I did not mean to treat the Irish with contempt. I attempted to depict them with the full colorful range they display; this colorful range is not an insult, but rather one of their strongest suits.'

It's true that there is a lot of depiction of the negative aspect of rural life. I recall that my parents were very much a fan of BBC rural television shows: most of them were somewhat satirical and somewhat idyllic (Ballykissangel set in Ireland, or Northern Exposure set in Alaska, or Midsomer Murders set in Britain, etc. etc.). This tradition of the rural ideal is not quite so prevalent. Frankly, when it comes to the South, most of the biggest critics of Southern culture come from Southerners (Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, etc.). But I don't think that criticism necessarily means contempt.

For instance, The Laramie Project (which places a fairly harsh lens of criticism on the town of Laramie, WY) doesn't seem to me to be full of contempt: indeed, it just goes to show the full range of Laramie: from the friendly, welcoming, liberal end of it to the racist and homophobic fringe that attracted their attention in the first place.

In other words, I don't think the answer to the negative depiction of rural living would be productions of rural positive propaganda (not that I think that either of you are advocating that; others, on the other hand, might). Instead, it's simply important for us to examine what goes right in a rural community, and what goes wrong in a rural community, and depict both of them as much as possible.

In the same way that we try to treat each individual human.

Scott Walters said...

I would urge you to read Jill Dolan's chapter in "Utopia in Performance" about "The Laramie Project," and the way that the New York actors who put it together create an "other." It is quite insightful.

I've been in "Playboy," and also directed it. It is really funny and delightful. But it is pretty contemptuous of the Irish. It really is.