Songs for the Struggling Artist

Is There, Was There, a Gen X Theatre?

While watching a much lauded play by a Millennial playwright, I found myself thinking I was watching a very Millennial play. I’ve had that feeling in theatres a lot lately and it made me wonder where all the Gen X plays were. What is – what was – the Gen X Theatre? Do we have one? Or did the theatre world just sort of skip us?

I know a lot of Gen X playwrights and several of them found some success on prestigious stages but I’m not sure they left any kind of generational mark behind. Some of them feel like writers of an earlier era – like their plays could have been written by older generations. They’re the sorts of plays the older well-heeled folks at Manhattan Theatre Club like. Are these the plays of my generation?

I can’t help feeling like we got skipped again. When I hear press raving about Hamilton being the first hip hop musical, I wonder how the Gen X guys who made Bombitty of Errors feel. They were out here rapping stories with hip hop ensemble staging on American stages for ages. They’re probably still at it. Or Danny Hoch’s Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop – an incredible one man intersection of theatre and hip hop culture. But we’ll never hear about these guys, not even as possible inspiration for what’s on now. Instead it’s as if Xennial Lin Manuel Miranda gave birth to an entire genre all on his own, like Venus rising from the foam.

I have been wracking my brain, trying to find a time where Gen X had a theatrical moment and I’m largely coming up short. The only thing that came immediately to mind was De la Guarda. A group of Argentine performers blew the roof off New York Theatre in the late 90s (technically, they busted through the ceiling) but they’re literally the only Gen X theatrical experience I can think of that feels Gen X-ish. And they were from Argentina. If I’m going to start going to other countries, well, then, I might find some more Gen X theatrical influence. Emma Rice of Kneehigh Theatre in the UK is a quintessential Gen X theatre maker. I might, if I did a survey, find more Gen X theatre around the world.

But back here in NYC, I feel like the bulk of Gen X theatre was made on the edges, left of center, in the fringes, in a lot of the spaces that are now lost to all of us. I wonder when we lost Collective: Unconscious, Manhattan Theatre Source, Todo Con Nada, The Present Company Theatorium, Surf Reality, Galapagos and so many more, if we were also actively losing any chance of a Gen X impact on Theatre.

Have we lost it? Did we miss it? Maybe I’m forgetting some significant Gen X moment. Maybe there was a whole scene that I missed? John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch feels very Gen X-ish but he’s Generation Jones. I’m inclined to give this show a Gen X pass, though and just go ahead and call it the most Gen X play I can think of.

It may be significant that funding for the arts was gutted around the time we came of age. Gen X may have never really had the chance to flourish after the culture wars killed the NEA. Arts funding shifted to institutions, making the institutions more powerful with less space for newcomers or individualistic Gen X-ers. Arts programs in schools were eliminated as we went through them and the stop-gap arts programs that came in to replace them (basically, the sorts of programs I worked for for years) weren’t yet up to their full strength. Certainly, I benefitted from a strong theatre program in my public high school and orchestra in elementary and middle. I know a lot of my peers in other places were not so lucky. While we grew, arts transformed from the necessity they are, to a luxury.

There was no artistic net to catch us when we emerged and no net has grown, either. I don’t how subsequent generations have gotten so much farther than we did. Maybe it’s just that, never having seen what a non-commercial theatre scene might be, they’re built to rock those institutional/commercial hybrids – which are sort of all we have now.

Also, theatre can be a popularity contest. Because Millennials are better at banding together and because there are more of them, getting them to show up for a show is maybe easier? I don’t know.

I’ve begun to think about some shows I saw by a young Millennial company about ten years ago. Their productions were always packed – even sold out- but the work was terrible. I could not figure out how they managed to sell out such terrible plays when I couldn’t get twenty people to show up for me. In thinking about generational theatre, I wonder if it’s just that that company had more peers, had more of a pool of people their age and so they drew a bigger crowd. And then, because they had big crowds, they did well with granting organizations and such because granting organizations always want to know how many people you’re serving and they generally want that answer to be more than twenty. I don’t know. It’s just a theory but I wonder if it’s been a factor in my Gen X theatre life.

I know a lot of Gen X Theatre makers who are killing it. They are making better and better work all the time so I’m not saying it’s all over and we missed our shot or whatever. But I wonder. I’m wondering. Shout out your Gen X theatre folk and help me remember who might have been forgotten. What is the Gen X theatre? And where?


Addendum, written later:

While sitting on this question, for weeks really – I thought of two shows that felt to me like possible Gen X representatives in theatre history. Stomp and Blue Man Group. They both began on the fringes. They’re both still running decades after they began. They aren’t conventional theatre. Their challenges to the dominant culture felt right for Gen X. I thought I really had something here. But – I looked them up and Stomp was created in the UK by a Baby Boomer and Generation Jones guy and the original Blue Men are all Generation Jones.

Then the other day, I was in a bookstore and they were playing the soundtrack from Rent and I thought, oh, Rent! Yeah! Maybe Rent is it! It’s a world where everybody’s trying to do their own thing, they’re horrified by the idea of selling out and, like, they’re cool! Rent! The Gen X musical! Nope. Jonathan Larson was Generation Jones. He misses Gen X by at least five years. (I’m using the 1965 – 1980 Gen X measure.)

Finally, as I was typing up this blog, I was thinking of some of the old theatres we used to do stuff in and when I thought of the Theatorium, I thought of Urinetown and I thought, yeah! Hey – Urinetown! It’s ironic. Full of “Whatever” energy. A little postmodern, very Gen X. I have it! Urinetown is the answer! And this is as close as I’ve managed to get. One of the guys (Greg Kotis) is actually Gen X. He’s the very first year of Gen X but he does actually qualify. His writing partner is Gen Jones, though.

But then, as I was typing this, I realized there was another show I hadn’t thought of yet. Avenue Q has three writers and they are all firmly in the Gen X camp. Gary Coleman’s presence in the musical really should have called it to mind earlier but there it is. There’s our Gen X representative, y’all. It was just sitting there waiting for me to remember it. I’m not sure it’s quite Gen X enough in style though it manages it in cultural references and ironic distance. Fine, Avenue Q it is.

But seriously. What else did I forget?

And by the way, don’t think I haven’t noticed that every single thing I’ve even considered as a possibility or a Gen X influence was made by dudes. EVERY SINGLE ONE.

*In case you missed it, I got obsessed with Gen X stuff a little while ago and wrote an 8 part series. Start here if you feel like reading it.

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Generation X Part 7 – Born at the Right Time

This brings me to this supposed rivalry I’ve been reading about around the web. According to the AV Club, Gen X and Millennials are in a battle. There are articles like What Are Millennials Killing Today? and Why Gen X is So Pissed at Millennials. This “blood feud” seems unlikely to me. I recognize that there’s a lot of anti-millennial talk out there and maybe Gen X is to blame. If so – on behalf of Gen X, I would like to apologize to you, Millennials. That’s shitty behavior and we will try to do better in the future. But…I think it’s kind of hard to be in a rivalry with a group of people when you are outnumbered by them so dramatically. I suspect it’s hard to be in a rivalry if the other side doesn’t even know who you are. A Gen X friend of mine recently described having to explain what Gen X was after being mistaken for a Baby Boomer by a young bartender. The bartender didn’t even know Gen X existed.

I have seen some resentments bubble up, of course. Gen X is outnumbered and that’s never an easy position to be in. It’s like, a few locusts are cool, they make cool sounds and they have cool legs but when there are more of them, they can be a little overwhelming, especially if they get into your trees. So sometimes it’s just a numbers game, a situation of feeling alone in a room, like no one understands where you’re coming from. And sometimes it’s a sense of having waited years for your work to pay off to be promoted or signed or published or produced or whatever and then while you were waiting patiently in line, someone came up with an app that eliminated the line completely and they leaped into rewards that you’d been waiting for for decades. Articles about Gen X at work point to a kind of skipping over us that seems to happen to a lot of Gen X-ers. So if some Gen X-ers resent you, Millennials, it’s not personal – it’s just a bit like watching one’s parents change all the rules for your younger siblings and also not giving you the present they promised you.

And my fellow Gen X-ers, it’d probably be best if you toned the resentment of Millennials down, otherwise we all end up like the Grumpy Old Man from the SNL sketch of the 90s.

“In my day, we didn’t have smart phones, no, we had dumb ones, ones you had to dial with your finger in a little plastic or metal prison that you raked across the surface below the razor sharp end point over and over again until your fingers bled. And when you finally finished dialing the number, if they happened to be on the phone with someone else when you dialed, you’d have to hang up and go through the whole process again until you got your bloody-fingered call through. And we liked it! We loved it! We were bloody-fingered, exhausted, desperate dumb phone callers without a hope in the world of reaching anyone and we liked it. We loved it!” (*Not an actual Grumpy Old Man sketch)

Also, it wouldn’t do to get our future overlords angry. (JK, Millennials, we know it’s actually the robots and sentient smartphones who will be our overlords.)

Maybe we should all just pile on to Generation Z, who are growing up with Smartphones and are clearly the worse the wear for it. By the way, while growing up with Smartphones is a legitimate concern, one of the things that Sherry Turkle has often pointed out in her work is that it is often not the child’s use of the Smartphone that is the problem, it is the parents’ use of the Smartphone (and tablet and so on.) That is, the thing we blame younger generations for may in fact be our problem. We’re the ones who can’t put our phones down and talk to each other. We’re the one who get anxious, living in a constantly plugged in world and we project that onto kids. Or in the words of an often mocked Gen X ad, “I learned it from you, Dad. I learned it from watching you!” So I don’t think piling onto Gen Z is the answer.

We need to find ways to work together. Generationally, Millennials and Boomers are better at coming together within their own generations than Gen X. That’s something for Gen X to explore doing more of. Simultaneously, what we all need to look at is including a diversity of age and generations in our structures. If you’re not Gen X, you might not notice when Gen X is missing but it’s worth paying attention to, I think, because we do have quite a lot to contribute. If nothing else, we can provide missing Gen X. If ping pong games at the office are always Millennial vs Baby Boomer, you’re missing someone. It could be Gen X or it could be Generation Jones AKA OG-Xers AKA Shadow Boomers AKA The Following Edge – or as I like to call them, the heroic generation. Because damn, Gen Jones! You got Barack Obama, Rebecca Solnit, Sally Yates, Jaron Lanier, Billy Bragg, Angela Merkel and so on. I mean – Gen Jones is badass and even less often discussed than Gen X. Probably because they didn’t get a trendy nickname at an opportune time. I think Gen Jones is so cool, you guys.

Which makes me think about generations a bit like a family. See, I tend to idolize Gen Jones, like a really cool big sister or brother and I see Millennials and Z as spunky younger siblings. And Gen X starts to get resentful when our younger siblings start to behave as if they are Only Children – when all we ever wanted was for our little sisters to know how cool we are and we were. If there is a rivalry (again, I’m not sure there is) this is what it’s about.

This familial feeling is a huge aspect of the “rivalry” conversation and age-ism is another. Often, the generational shots fired are age-ism in disguise. Ageism is usually thought of as an issue of the old but it goes both ways – ageism can impact all ages. Our culture fetishizes the young and dismisses the old, particularly old women. This TEDtalk by Ashton Applewhite makes a great case for why ageism is everyone’s issue. I imagine we can all do a better job of listening to and learning from each other.

I heard some Millennials on the younger side of the Millennial spectrum chatting in a coffee shop recently. They were sure that they’d have their lives completely figured out by the time they were 30 – that they’d stop caring what anyone thought by then. This made me laugh. Because the gift of not giving a fuck anymore is probably much further away than that, if my generation’s experience is anything to go by. Most of us just entered this stage in the last few years and we’re long past thirty.

See, this is why it’s worth it to talk to each other about this sort of stuff – to know how other generations made it through the same things that are coming down the pike for you. To find inspiration and courage from the heroes ahead of us and the heroes behind us and the ones we’re standing right next to. The more we talk to each other, get to know each other, have some of those valuable conversations Sherry Turkle talks about in her newest book – the better off we’ll all be.

In diving deep into my generation with this series, I’ve not only learned a ton about my cohort but also about the rest of you. It helps to get together. It helps to learn about ourselves and it helps to learn about each other. Even things as seemingly small as what songs meant something to you in your youth or what TV shows shaped your world can help us understand one another. A generation is a way of understanding waves of experience, of understanding the formative landscape for each group of people. I want to read your generational analysis, too. I want to know what it was like to grow up Millennial, to know what it was like to grow up Xennial (yep – that’s a thing) or to grow up Generation Jones or Baby Boomer. Generational Thinking may be bullshit. It may be a marketing ploy. But it is still meaningful bullshit.

I think I was born at the right time. I belong here in Generation X. But I also think you were born at the right time. We were all born at the right time to teach each other what we missed or what we still need to learn.

This was Part 7 of a 7 part series. Then I wrote a Part 8! It’s a coda. Read it here.

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here  Part 3 here

Part 4 here

Part 5 here

Part 6 here

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