A fair question and an honest article and my honest, if not entirely fair, response…
Why are 22 of the 24 new Amtrak writing residents white?
This year, a majority of those selected members are white, and many creatives aren’t happy about it.
Amtrak writes that “the residents offer a diverse representation of the writing community and hail from across the country.” There certainly is some representation of different backgrounds—lots of women, some LGBT writers, and some disabled writers, too. However, 22 of the 24 selected are white, and there is not a single black writer…
PS – Here’s the full text of my response:
Hi Jaya, I can only speak for myself as an individual judge. Indeed when I saw the photos of the winners yesterday for the first time when they were announced my heart sank. As you’ve said it’s diverse in so many other ways but there are no black faces. Obviously this wasn’t done intentionally. As a judge I had no clue of an applicant’s ethnicity, appearance, or with which affinity group they identify, unless they state it in their bio, artistic statement, or any autobiographical pieces they may have included with their writing samples. Judges aren’t given specific guidelines. Speaking for myself, I was looking first and foremost at the artistic merit of the sample, then their publication history that might qualify them as a professional writer pursing a writing career in earnest and not just as a hobby, and their statement on why this residency would be beneficial to them. Should the application be modified for future applicants and judges instructed more specifically to weigh race in the application process? Maybe so. These are issues faced by every theatre organization with which I’ve been involved as a board member, every screenwriting contest I’ve ever judged, any college admission portfolio I’ve been asked to evaluate. I can’t speak for Amtrak but I would suspect they’d be wide open to suggestions for best practices for how to improve the diversity of the judges as well as the applicant pool. Feel free to shoot me any followups. Happy to talk more.
Now it can be told. This year I served as an Amtrak Writers Residency judge after being a recipient of a residency the previous year. The winners have just been announced. Last year I believe I was the only one of 24 writers who self-identified as a playwright or screenwriter. You’ll notice that this year there are several in the mix, not that I was the sole impetus for this but I was in there swinging. Some are recognizable heavy hitters and some are early career. Overall a good mix I think. If you’re a writer and haven’t entered this thing yet–why? I urge you to do so next year. It is unique and worthy and I’d love to see it continue to grow in scope and acceptance as an incubator for new work in all media.
Amtrak Residency Program Selects Writers
WASHINGTON, July 14, 2016 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — During the next year, selected members of the literary community will travel on Amtrak routes that crisscross the country and spend the time working on their writing projects, providing a unique journey and workspace as part of the #AmtrakResidency program.
This is the second group of writers selected for the program, which offers a travel experience with amazing scenery, an environment that fosters engaging connections, and the ability to explore and be inspired by the diversity of landscapes America has to offer.
“We are excited to build on the success of the residency program and offer a second group of writers a creative environment to focus on the work of their choice,” said Julia Quinn, Amtrak director of public relations. “Whether traveling for business or pleasure, passenger rail helps travelers avoid the frustrations and hurdles associated with other modes of transportation – continuously making Amtrak the smarter way to travel, which we are confident the writers will find inspiring.”
A diverse group of writers were selected for the residency program. About two writers per month will travel round trip on pre-selected (based on availability) trains, and cover all 15 of Amtrak’s long-distance routes. A complete list of selected residents and bios can be found on the Amtrak blog.
Applications were reviewed by a panel representing the literary community including published writers and former Amtrak Residents Lindsay Moran and Jeffrey Stanley, Amtrak Senior Vice President of Government Affairs & Corporate Communications Joe McHugh and writer and teacher Jessica Gross.
Gross, a Manhattan-based writer, traveled on the Lake Shore Limited as a trial run of the residency program and her support spurred the launch of the formal program in March 2014. Her piece, “Writing The Lake Shore Limited” was published by the Paris Review.
“My 2014 Amtrak residency from New York to Chicago and back was peaceful, contemplative, and so fruitful for my writing,” Gross said. “I’m delighted to have played a part in sending a new crop of writers on the rails this year.”
Thrilled that Bidisha Dasgupta will be performing newly choreographed Indian Classical Dance (bharatanatyam) pieces in the Dance Diversity Tour on Saturday, April 16th in Philly. Two shows. Tix are $10 until April 2nd and $15 afterwards. You haven’t bought yours yet?
My Posthumous Friendship With a Civil Rights Hero
Back to School
I met Lawrence Gibson at a turning point in my life. After landing my first literary agent and riding the high of a hit play I had abandoned a relationship and a lucrative day job to devote myself full-time to being a starving playwright. I crashed temporarily on the couch of my generous Uncle Joey and, despite an MFA, sought out only part-time office jobs. I soon found myself with a receptionist gig at one of New York City’s many prominent private schools.
At first the administers was baffled by my application; surely, they thought, I was using the job opening as an entrée into teaching there, but I assured them I had no interest. I just wanted to leave at noon every day. They gave me the job on a trial basis. On my third day I met someone who seemed all but invisible to me, and who would, due to my own self-absorption, stop seeming that way to me only after he died. Then his spirit reached across from the netherworld, grabbed my collar and shook me into noticing him. He also enlisted my help. CONT’D AT MEDIUM.COM>>
Well, you aren’t mentioned in the book but I knew from the New York Times obit that he had a sibling named Valerie. Nice to meet you. I’m surprised not to have heard from you sooner as this isn’t the first time I’ve talked openly of my hope to adapt Get Off My Ship. Please see my previous blog posts athttp://brain-on-fire.com/jefeblog/tag/copy-berg (sadly I never got to talk about it on Coast to Coast AM as I had hoped to do). I trust we’re on the same team in wanting Gibson and Berg’s Navy story told, remembered, and restored to its rightful place in history. I consider them civil rights heroes.
I recently also received an email from someone at the Brooklyn Historical Society asking if I knew Copy’s exact address on Dean Street. They really just wanted to know if he lived on the Brooklyn Heights section of Dean for an upcoming exhibit about gay rights activists in Brooklyn Heights. I’ve told them that as far as I know he lived a few blocks away from Lawrence in Boerum Hill, not the Heights. Steve is also looking through Lawrence’s stacks and stacks and stacks of papers to see if he can find anything but so far has had no luck on a specific Dean Street address for Copy. Is this something you might know? If so I’m happy to put you in touch with them.
As for your posting and your three terse emails via my personal blog, I’ll work my way through them in the order received… CONT’D AT MEDIUM.COM>>
I was flattered to hear that my play Tesla’s Letters , which world premiered Off Broadway to rave reviews in 1999, is in production at Eastern Kentucky University, directed by Jeffery Boord-Dill. Break a leg, y’all.
I’m thrilled by the success of this grass roots effort and to the Woods Players for rethinking their play submission policy.
“Driscoll told Playbill.com Aug. 5 that he responded to Wright seeking his advice on how to re-draft the submission guidelines ‘to make clear that we do, in fact, ask for author permission to make changes.’”
Otherwise the section on Boneyards and me in this National Journal article by Simon Van Zuylen-Wood is accurate except where otherwise noted, which is everywhere. Ever feel icky and used by a fellow writer?
…LAST YEAR, AMTRAK LAUNCHED an odd initiative called the Amtrak Writer’s Residency. The idea was to send 24 writers wherever they wanted, on a long-distance train, where they would basically stare out the window and type on their computers. The program was bashed by conservatives and lightly mocked on the Internet; yet an astonishing 16,000 people wound up applying. Among the eventual winners were several high-profile media figures, including the writer Jennifer Finney Boylan and the public-radio host Marco Werman.
In mid-March, I met up in D.C. with Jeff Stanley, a 47-year-old Amtrak resident writer who would be taking the Capitol Limited to Chicago, before heading to San Francisco on the California Zephyr. Stanley, who wore an Ed Hardy–style Western shirt, is a playwright, performer, and adjunct professor both at New York University and Drexel University. A fan of all things occult, he staged his latest production in the basement of a South Philadelphia synagogue, where he used a Ouija board and a martini shaker, among other instruments, in an attempt to connect with the dead [see Boneyards].
“Now, supposedly, the old station at Harpers Ferry is haunted,” Stanley tells me, as we approach West Virginia, sitting in his sleeper car. He goes on for a while about a ghost called Screaming Jenny, [Um, no. I spent about 30 minutes between DC and Harpers Ferry explaining to this writer that I had visited Harpers Ferry many times due to my love of history. I told him that the Capitol Limited runs the route of the former B&O Railroad, and that many times I’ve stood outside the small building that was the Federal arsenal which was seized in 1859 by radical abolitionist John Brown and a group of 20 followers including his son and five African-Americans. They holed up in the arsenal and were thwarted by a detachment of US Marines under the command of a young Robert E. Lee. In 1865 as the Civil War ended, Storer College opened in Harpers Ferry to educate recently freed slaves. Years before John Brown’s raid and Storer College, Meriwether Lewis came to Harpers Ferry and waited while a local iron worker created a collapsible canoe according to his specifications. Lewis started out from here in 1803 in a Conestoga wagon following almost the exact same route that is now the very train line we were following. Lewis met up with Clark near Pittsburgh to continue their journey West. Talking about the Lewis & Clark expedition got me thinking about Thomas Jefferson who funded it, and I mentioned to the writer that one of the many reasons I admire Jefferson is that whenever a slave in Virginia sued for his freedom Jefferson would represent them pro bono. All of the above got boiled down by the writer to “but, anyways.” See below. (continue reading…)
The Saturday 6/27 show concluded with yet another simultaneous Ouija board-EVP session that gave us all plenty to talk about. Audience volunteers JOY and JOE (not the same Joe who sat at the board in the previous show) personed the board while the audience and I gathered round to watch. Joy and Joe contacted someone named V I V (short for Vivian, or perhaps it’s 3 initials) who was 7 8 years old and standing to my R I G H T. What did she think of the show? S U B T L E. (That was a first, and a particularly eloquent response that made me blush underneath my sadhu ocher, ash and dirt). Did she know anyone in the audience? YES. J O E. How did she know Joe? H O M E. Joe and I didn’t like where this was headed so I quickly changed the subject: would Viv like to speak with us electrically? YES.
I took a few steps away and fired up my trusty P-SB7 “spirit box” and connected it to a loudspeaker as usual. Somewhere between the hiss of the spirit box and my ad libbed one-liners Viv’s seemingly jovial mood changed and she suddenly got annoyed with us. When I asked if she could say my name, a voice (continue reading…)
We had an enthusiastic crowd Friday night for my first show and first concluding seance at the Art Church of West Philadelphia. The Ouija board was personed by audience volunteers JOE and JOHN and the planchette was zooming about urgently. We spoke to a M A N who was 5 0 and A R M E N I A N who told us he did not speak or write English well. His name was L A M E K (Lamech? A Hebrew surname; were we talking to an Armenian Jew?).
Kolkata’s Armenian Ghat, a former loading dock along the banks of the Hooghly built long ago by Armenian merchants, is mentioned in the show, and after the Ouija board spelled the word Armenian an audience member, someone who was not touching the board, spoke up and self-identified as Armenian).
I asked Mr. Lamek if he knew anyone in the audience and he spelled J O E. When asked if he had a message for Joe it spelled out L A L A L A L A over and over. This oblique response has happened to me twice before (in 2011 during my previous show Beautiful Zion: A Book of the Dead and in 2012 during a midnight seance on the stage of Philadelphia’s historic Plays & Players Theatre) and my belief is that it means the spirit doesn’t want to answer the question, or (continue reading…)