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QUESTIONS FROM THE SUMMIT: Experience vs. Youth

Written By Melvin Tunstall III

Q: It’s been mentioned a lot concerning “young” writers, however, what are your thoughts concerning older writers and opportunities for the more life experienced writer?

Hello fellow “experienced” writers! Isn’t it nice to be referred to as “experienced” instead of “older?” 

This question hit close to home, because even though I am older (and hopefully wiser) in years, I am still relatively considered a “new” writer. I was fortunate that one of my first major projects was a collaboration with a “young” composing team, so I was able to get in on the wave of searching for the “next generation” of writers. That being said, I am aware of and have experienced the stigma that comes with being ahem…experienced.

In the valiant effort to create a more equitable community, all eyes have been on the new generation of writers to bring to the forefront stories of the next generation and appeal to their peers, ultimately leading to the cultivation of audiences for years to come. My worry and I feel this week’s questioner may share the same fears, is that the very audiences currently keeping Broadway alive and well are predominantly from the “experienced” generation who still want to hear stories they can relate to. 

So how can “experienced” writers find the same opportunities with their new work?

The simple answer is to look for producers who are looking for stories geared towards your generation. They may not be the current “marquee” names above the title, but they’ve been there before and may be looking for the right piece to get them back on the boards. Immediately Garth Drabinsky comes to mind, considering his slate of shows (Ragtime, Show Boat, and now Paradise Square- pictured below) all are similar thematically. I’d bet if a show like Be More Chill came across his desk, it wouldn’t get to the top of the pile.

Next, I suggest answering these two questions:

Why does this story need to be told NOW? 

and

Am I the right person to tell this story NOW?

Theaters and Producers seem to be gravitating towards stories of inclusion, because the truth of the matter is, these stories have been marginalized for so long that the pendulum has to swing quite far to begin to level the playing field. The new generation of writers- because that is the world they know- tend to be writing these stories. 

If you are an experienced writer, my advice is to take note of the current trends being produced. Does your show measure up to this new awareness of stories being told and what characters are at the center of the story? Listen to the new generation and how they interpret your storytelling and explore the possibility of switching the focus of your story to be more inclusive or set a marginalized character in the center. 

For example, I recently had dinner with a writer whose story was about a Caucasian character who travels to India. Because the story is based on an actual person- the writer’s dear friend- it is very important to the writer to honor his life through the show. The concern is that the story may be leaning into “White Savior” territory, which has always been problematic but is glaring through today’s lens. 

In our conversation, I noticed a lot of pushback in changing the story, out of a deep desire to honor a personal friend. This is where I think the “experienced” writer is not doing themselves any favors. If we aren’t willing to learn and listen to the new generation and apply their sensibility to our stories, we will only find ourselves getting frustrated or worse- unproduced. 

So listen and learn, but still, continue to lead with the wisdom that comes from age. Your life experience is valuable- whether the next generation realizes that or not- and should not be ignored because we may not be as “woke” in some areas as the Zoomers.

That being said, it’s time for experienced writers to “wake up” to the areas we do need to improve in and create works that will continue to strengthen our world through setting more marginalized stories at the forefront of offering more opportunities for innovative casting in our new works. 

When you are focused more on giving opportunities, I think you will find more opportunities may present themselves. 

Have a great weekend, TheaterMakers!


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