Thursday, August 6, 2009

She's Baa-ack!

It's been a while since Theresa Rebeck surfaced. I've been checking her blog for months now and nothing. But thanks to the Lark Play Development Center's blog, she's back and, well, talking about the same stuff. Which is all good. Seriously. I totally get what she's talking about and, frankly, I agree. But it goes both ways.

When I was in grad school, my writing program was run by a venerable playwright. One of my classmates was working on a broad, over-the-top, satirical farce about the art world. It clearly befuddled the venerable playwright, who was used to writing lyrical dramas. He spent the better part of a year trying to wrestle this play into a nice, contemplative lyrical drama. His notes on craft were good and sensible, but he completely missed the entire heart of the play.

In the comments at Upstaged, that's what I was alluding to, and what I think the real problem is. I don't think it's a matter of experimental theater or different approaches to storytelling. There is a style that is currently the standard. A certain kind of play is "in fashion." I actually don't think Theresa or Rajiv are talking about "experimental" theatre. When I look at the plays that are touted most, they often fit into a certain style: a bit lyrical, something magical-ish, not a lot of plot or forward action, full of "theatrical" moments that, often, ape movies or television, but all with a patina of irony. When you're writing some other kind of play, your play is old-fashioned, stodgy, "talky" or (ironically) "too much like television."

Again, it's hard to talk about this without naming names, and I don't want to leave people with the impression that I don't like some of these plays and playwrights. Because I do. But they're becoming like kudzu: they're choking out the oaks, maples and cypress trees, at least here in New York. The grad schools are churning out more and more of these writers and not all of them are as good as the good writers. But they're the ones getting the productions.

Rebeck hits a more sensitive note when she basically calls us all out on our classicism (and K Lin in the comments follows up beautifully). Because, yeah, basically, there are a lot of young, highly educated artists (whether they come from the upper middle classes or not originally) looking down their noses at the "low-class" tastes of the aging audiences. It's a hard thing to hear, but it's true. I watch these plays and it feels like the authors haven't even met a person from a different socio-economic class, much less a minority, in their lives.

It's a frustrating situation. And it certainly isn't changing any time soon. Even when plays with rock-solid structures do well, it doesn't change the whole scene. Because for every one of those, there are ten of the other kind coming down the pike. Maybe the pendulum will swing back, maybe it won't. But it shouldn't be about trends and what's hot and who's teaching where. Ideally, our theatres should be full gardens of all kinds of plays: lyrical, poetical dramas, earthy, gritty kitchen sink plays, comic farces. But they're not. And that should make us all sad.


Art said...

Seriously. I totally get what she's talking about and, frankly, I agree. But it goes both ways

Really? What is she talking about?

I'm half kidding. Actually, my point is that you are faaaar more specific than she is being. You are pinning down what you see as the problem.

Which is, I suspect, what she wants other people to do. Plausible deniability that way.

But, 99, you also stop short. You claim these bad plays are getting the productions.

Which ones are you talking about?

RLewis said...

"Ideally, our theatres should be full gardens of all kinds of plays"

Now, I only see a couple of shows a week, and usually at my fav' local haunts (Here, Ohio, PS122, 59E59, St. Marks, CSV and a half-dozen theaters on E.4th St.), so maybe I’m missing something, but I definitely find nyc theaters to be “full gardens”. What’s this “our theatres” that I’m supposed to be sad about? I love nyc theater – best to worst and any kind you can possibly imagine. Y such a downer? U sure you get out enough?

99 said...

You know...I didn't even want to engage with you on this, RLewis, but since this seems to be the only thing you have to say, I'll say it again: criticism doesn't mean I don't "love" NY theatre or see good shows or like anything. Feeling like most plays exist in a pretty narrow bandwidth, particularly at the larger institutions, doesn't mean I'm knocking anything. And relentless boosterism and pollyanna-ish faux optimism about the scene doesn't really do anyone any good.

Tony Adams said...

For me, what often is lost in framing the form/style vs. story/content argument is that I can't think of many great plays that don't have both.

All the great playwrights from Shakespeare to Fornes broke formal/structural conventions of their time. Even Our Town, was breaking conventions of it's time.

If you have form without function or a story that's not well told, the play itself will rarely be very good.

I think you need both solid structure and craf, and be gifted at telling a good story that is strong enough to move people (whether to tears or laughs, or better yet both).

There's as many different ways to tell a story as there are stories to tell, but if they don't meet up the work usually falls flat.

RLewis said...

I'm sorry 99, but saying that we should all be sad is not criticism. It's just not. It's self-centered pity. You don't need it and neither do the rest of us. Maybe its just bad writing at the end of a long rant, but that's your issue. Anyway, I see you've already flipped back to the other you since this post, so we'll see how long that lasts.