Friday, February 27, 2009

And Also, Art v. Commerce

I've been meaning to weigh on this, for a bit, but this damn day job keeps expecting me to do actual work so as to stay employed. But I do want to say some things on this front. (You can also see this, this and this for more background) This is, of course, at the risk of bringing the wrath of Messrs. Hall and Walters on myself. I know what I'm getting into.

Art may be a "way of life." But "artist" or "playwright" is a job. It's not always a good job, but it is a job, a vocation. Just like "law" is a way of life (or whatever) but "lawyer" is a job that people have, for various reasons, in various ways. And, honestly, I think that talk of art as "a way of life" actually does some harm to us out here doing the job of "artist." It's a big part of what I think of as the Talent Myth (which isn't exactly the talent myth here, but shares some aspects).

The Talent Myth goes that being a playwright (or a sculptor, or an actor) is something that is inherent in you, it's a manifestation of your true inner self and either you have "it" or you don't have "it." "It" can't really be taught or learned, only perfected. If you don't have "it," the best you can hope for is to be a decent craftsperson or a teacher. If you do have "it," whatever you do is "art." Unless you pervert it in the interest of making money. Then you're wasting it by falling from the true path. It's a solitary, all-consuming life, where everything must be sacrificed for your "art."

I call bullshit.

Now, before Don and Scott descend on me to say that's not what they're saying, I know that's not what they're saying. Exactly. But it's a big part of it. Let's take the law, for example. Let's say I'm a smart kid who likes to argue my point and has a great recall of facts, names and dates. This is my skill set. I get good grades, and finally decide that the area of expertise that fits my particular skill set is the law. But what kind of law? It's up to me. If I really, really care about the environment, I can practice environmental protection law. If I really, really care about the rights of corporations, I can practice corporate law (or become a Republican lawmaker). It's my call. Now, if I really, really care about the environment, or civil rights, or public law, well, those don't always pay as much as making sure corporations make loads of money (usually by trampling on the environment or civil rights). So I have to ask myself how much I care about the environment, and how much I can about having a big screen TV. Now here's the key thing: I make the choice. Now let's say the choice is between working long, long hours at a huge corporate law firm and spending more time with your family. Let's say that you're really, really good at corporate law and like it (believe it or not, there are people just like that. Honest. I swear.), but you want to be there for your kids. You make that choice. If you pick the big screen TV, we call it "selling out." If you pick your kids, we call it "sacrifice."

Only, in theatre, it seems like the only choices are "suffer" or "sell out." The mere whiff of money is enough to suddenly turn any endeavour into selling out. Usually, when someone says a play has "commercial potential," it's an insult. How is this a sane way of building a field?

I'm a huge proponent of the arts as a public good, along with national safety and education, things that in a just country would be free and available to all, everywhere. We don't live in that country. We can try to make changes, and eventually we will, maybe, but before we do, we have to live here and stop wishing we lived in England, or Sweden or wherever it is that the government shits money in your mouth. We don't. We live in a country that views artistic endeavours as frivolous and quite possibly sinful. Get used to it.

So while we're here, we have to get used to this idea: being a theatre artist in this country is, in general, a piss-poor job. The hours suck, the pay is ridiculous, the inequality of wages, opportunity and access is off the charts, and, for a lot of us, this noble calling isn't particularly satisfying. Still we do it, because we have a drive, and we do love it. And, for most of us, it fits our skill set the best.

But even within that, there are various levels, jobs, aspects, and just because it's a place that makes money, that doesn't mean it's automatically a corruption. I say this because, as an artist, I'm acutely aware of where my skills lie: in accessible, mainstream comedies. It's true. I like writing plays about people in rooms talking about things, occasionally doing funny things, they learn something, sometimes they cry a little. That's what I do. So if I write a play that comes from my heart and soul and it winds up on Broadway and making me money, have I sold out? Honestly, I feel far more dishonest when I think about ways to "quirk" up my plays, make them more "downtown," more "theatre-y." That's not what I do. But when I write the way I feel most comfortable, theatres aren't interested. This isn't just me shaking my fist at the fools who are turning away a surefire hit, a hit I tell you! Seriously, it's a sober assessment of my skills, my work and the market for them.

Fine, you don't want to label "art" a "job." Okay. But it is a craft. We make things for people. We make experiences for people. No one tells a cabinet maker he's "prostituting" himself for making something out of oak because that's what his customers like. If you're making things your customers want, good for you. The problem comes in when we think we know better than the customers and they reject it. That's the arrogance of "it's a way of life." Everything is a way of life, but you don't see everyone else going on about it. People come to us for an experience and we send them away with the experience we think they should have. Some people like that. Many others less so. And they vote with their feet, as they say.

The greatest tragedy of the last twenty years or so is the major contraction of the market, especially here in New York. We're left with fewer and fewer voices, fewer and fewer outlets and more frustration on everyone's part. I went to see The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic the other night with a friend from work. My friend is smart, kind of hip, with a whole downtown thing going. She's a journalist, and in her late twenties and she's never seen a play she liked. She has cool artsy friends and has gone to plays, maybe 8 times, and despite not seeing one she liked, she's still trying. She's kind of the ideal audience member, right? We walked into the Atlantic, she saw the set for the opening scene, a very realistic shop in 1930s Ireland, and she sighed an audible gasp. Of relief. She actually said to me, "Oh, yeah, a set." People do like that kind of thing. Maybe not everyone, but they do. And it's getting harder and harder to find. The night we went was on the big half price promotion going around. Ordinarily, the tickets were $75. For Off-Broadway. And because she's not a theatregoer, my friend didn't even know about the promotion.

By limiting ourselves, we're missing out on a lot. Art is a concept. Act accordingly.

Okay, Don, Scott, have at...

Plays v. Playwrights

Isaac, as per usual, has a good thing going: list the 9 most influential plays of the 20th Century. As usual, I've chimed in, but it brought up an interesting question for me. Rather than hijack his thread, I'd figure I'd bring it over here. It is my blog, after all.

In his update, he makes a terrific point about Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson. It does indeed owe a lot to Chekhov, as Wilson does as a writer. Does that make it less influential, though? It's not a derivative work, precisely. (Full -and, I imagine somewhat obvious- disclosue: I'm a HUGE Wilson fan.) And I think Wilson's work in the '70s and '80s are definitely key, as part of the second wave of "naturalism" that includes Rabe and McNally and Mamet.

What I found interesting, approaching the question as a writer, is this: is it the playwright who's influential or the play? There are certainly plays, individual plays that are undeniably influential. Jack Gelber's The Connection is one. Waiting for Lefty is another. But, in looking at my own 9 and the others on their, it strikes me that most of us are looking at playwrights who were influential and trying to pick their "best" play.

O'Neill is probably the single most influential American playwright of the 20th Century. Hands down. But is The Iceman Cometh MORE influential than The Hairy Ape? Remember O'Neill won the Nobel Prize BEFORE The Iceman Cometh or Long Day's Journey Into Night were even written.

I think the same can be said for Miller, Williams, Albee, A. Wilson, even Shepherd. Their bodies of work are influential, and full of good plays, but maybe not all of the individual plays could be called influential.

On the other hand, Waiting for Lefty isn't necessarily a great play by a great playwright, but, I think you can argue, it's an influential play. That kind of political activism, at that moment in history, the Group Theater aesthetic, the whole kit and caboodle. Same goes for Gelber's play or The Mystery of Irma Vep. These are plays that opened avenues for playwrights that hadn't been open before. Without Charles Ludlam, do we have Tony Kushner?

Not to get too pointy-headed here, is there a possibility that a less than great or perfect play can be more influential? A personal anecdote: My affection for Wilson's work really began in grad school. One of my professors showed us the American Playhouse version of his play Lemon Sky with Kevin Bacon. It's really great. I highly recommend it. It's also pretty revolutionary, moving back and forth through time, in and out of various characters' thoughts and recollections, a true memory play. There's one great scene where all of the characters are gathered around a table in a bar, drinking, and re-hashing the past, even though at least one of them is dead. It's not a ghost thing, but memory made flesh. When it was done, my professor said he liked to show that to students because it was good, but it was also achievable. You read The Glass Menagerie, the granddaddy of memory plays, and it's nearly flawless and you think, "I can't even live a life good enough to be written about like this." But you watch Lemon Sky and think, "I can tell my story like, too."

In some ways, it reminds me of the old saw about the Velvet Underground's first album. They always say that only 500 people bought it, but every one of them formed a band.

In some ways, I guess a good follow-up question is: great, we've got the most influential plays of the 20th century. Now which one made you want to write a play?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

And Another...

Same story, different theatre...


I find this story almost unbearably sad. In part because, well, I love all of the parts. This Is Our Youth is honestly a favorite play of mine. I saw the production and had a great time. I'm still a big fan of Ruffalo and I would watch Josh Hamilton read just about anything. But...ugh. I know it's a short run and being taped for radio. And I'd be okay with it as a one-off benefit reading. But calling it a production? These guys playing teenagers? Again? It's like a Menudo reunion tour or this, only sans kitsch.

Really? LATW couldn't have gotten some kids from Gossip Girl or something? Some of the High School Musical kids, eager to burnish up that cred with some drug use and sex? Somebody somewhere even close to the actual ages?


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lazy Blogging Is My Middle Name

Posting has been light-to-sporadic lately for the usual reasons. But I did want to point you in the direction of some internet goodness. Some of this you might have seen, some maybe not, all worth your time and energy...

- Via Matt, here's John Clancy's perspective on the big town hall meeting the other night...

- And straight from the horse's mouth, here's Matt with some good ideas...

- The Playgoer is tearing it up with this piece on Caryl Churchill's new work and its possible NYC homes and this on Mike Daisey and MFA.

- Isaac, as per usual, is kicking ass. In particular, this, but it's all good stuff. Just look around.

- Scott's a bit...combative these days, but I really like this discussion and totally mean to write something substantive about of these days...

- And after you're all spent with that reading and thinking and being engaged, unwind here. If this was cocaine, this is crack cooked in meth and rocket fuel. And it makes you smarter! (Via)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Maybe It's Me, At The End of A Long Day...

...but, I swear to God, this article makes no sense to me. Or, rather, the takeaways are totally and completely contradictory and a few, key, salient points are totally glossed over.

So, from the Larry Eilenberg quote at the end, we're supposed to think that the way to revitalize the theatre is to focus on new, exciting and presumably untested playwrights.

But the board president said that doing new, untested plays didn't work and lead to a shrinking subscription base. And what Loretta Greco did, in planning a season that wasn't reliant on world premieres, helped revitalize the theatre.

Also, the artistic directors seem to be wholly responsible for the theatres going into debt, with massive overages and bloated budgets, but the board and the financial members of the staff are not. In fact, the phrase "managing director" doesn't even appear.

Not even to mention that a theatre is proud of the fact that actors donated to save it. Not members of the community who didn't want the theatre to close, but friends of the artistic director she hasn't spoken to in years.

These are good things? These is a laudable outcome? A mission to produce new plays is not a mission to produce world premieres?

It's times like these when I hit my most bitter and, in a way, most hopeless about all of this and think of the classic Heminway quote: "gradually and then suddenly."