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On Asking The Difficult Questions

August 28, 2008

Most reporters save the hard questions for the end of an interview. The reason for doing so is simple: It's much easier to get an interview subject to open up to an interviewer on a touchy, difficult or otherwise challenging subject once you've gotten to know them a bit and they feel slightly warm towards you, than if you blurt out a question that might potentially cause offense right at the start. If you get off on the wrong foot at the beginning of an interview, you may cause the subject to clam up entirely and be forced to chat about the weather or exchange gardening tips for the remainder of the session.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the new artistic director of a theatre company for a profile story. The conversation went pretty well. The director, whom I shall call Gina, was friendly and helpful and gave me lots of interesting information about herself.

I didn't think I had anything potentially difficult to ask her, so I felt relaxed throughout. But right at the end of the interview when the topic of Gina's age came up -- a routine journalist's question, or so I've always thought -- I suddenly felt like I'd asked the director to admit to an adulterous affair or reveal secrets about her mother's boudoir.

"Why do reporters always ask women that question?" Gina asked me in a ticked-off voice. "They never ask men." I told her that this was simply not true: Asking the age of an interview subject is a normal thing. Reporters -- at least the good ones -- don't discriminate between the sexes. And yet Gina was not happy. She kept going on about how much she hates to state her age and couldn't understand why readers would possibly interested in knowing such a detail.

Gina isn't the first person I've heard complain about being asked their age in an interview, though most people are pretty good-natured about it and generally give you the information after being momentarily coy.

But Gina is definitely the first person I've come across who gave the following as a reason for not wanting to reveal her date of birth: "I don't think it would be so easy to get funding if people knew my age," Gina said. "Funders generally prefer giving money to younger people." I find this incredibly hard to believe. And if it were true, I doubt very much that Gina has ever run into this problem herself: the woman looks about 15 years younger than she actually is. (Though she didn't want me to print her age in my story, I found it out from another source.)

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who feels that they've been discriminated against as an artist by funders as a result of them knowing their age. Similarly, feel free to share your views and stories about the issues inherent in revealing one's age to the media as an artist.


  • I don't think anyone would go on record as admitting that they discriminate against age, and many might not even realize it when they do it, but we all know America has a decidedly Youth-obsessed culture, and the theater community is not at all beyond this. Funders do tend to emphasize "new work" and "new collaborations" and other things "new," and though age isn't literally specified in all that, one can see the link. Of course, many middle-aged or older artists receive grants all the time, because of the resumes and reputations they have accrued after gathering years of experience under their belts. Even so, it's very evident that theater producers and funders are always on the look out for the exciting new "kid" on the block. If a theater or artist is perceived as being older, they might also be perceived as old-hat. (And then of course the question is, are they really or aren't they?) I think this Artistic Director you've called Gina may very well have a chip on her shoulder and a bone to pick, but she does also have a point that can indeed be found in undocumented experience if not in the fine print of grant applications or on the lips of Funders. It might be interesting to do a study of grant recipients in terms of age, and see exactly what the breakdown is.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 28, 2008 at 12:40 PM  

  • thanks for your thoughts, Mark
    i think age is definitely an issue in American culture in particular. what was particularly weird was the way in which this director started off getting defensive about being asked her age as a woman, and then moved to framing the issue in terms of grant-getting. it's definitely a sensitive issue for women. and it's seemingly a sensitive issue for artists. perhaps being a female artist exacerbates the problem.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At August 28, 2008 at 12:47 PM  

  • Well, I've long railed about how older audience members are treated by the philanthropic community and arts critics as if they're a dread disease for arts organizations, rather than major sources of support. "Blue hairs" is usually code for "silly old conservative out-of-touch females." Which is of course infuriating -- I don't understand the logic of trying to grow your audience by being sneering and dismissive of the most loyal constituency (but then, I didn't understand the Clinton campaign's strategy of trying to cement victory by pissing off African-Americans, dismissing caucus states as "unimportant," etc. Ooopsie Daisy!)

    We know that many arts funders want to know how the nonprofits they are funding plant to bring "new faces" to the seats to grow for the future, so it probably makes some twisted sense for them to believe that older artistic directors (especially female ones) will tend to be conservative and timid in their programming choices. Because our dominant cultural narrative is that "old women" are fusty, ridiculous, mentally challenged, and just not worth the damn trouble.

    Men, of course, can be "mavericks" at any age? Right, John McSame?

    By Blogger Kerry, At August 28, 2008 at 5:03 PM  

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