Saturday, August 8, 2009

What We Say, What We Don't, How We Write And Who's Not Talking

The conversation I was talking about here has continued apace in various locales: here, here and here. Good thoughts and reflections all, especially in the comments. In my comments here, Art asks a couple of $24,000 questions: what and who are talking about? Why aren't we naming names and calling out these "bad" playwrights and plays and the theatres producing them? Of course that brings us back to this. But I think there's also a kind of assumption going on here. Well, a few assumptions going on, partly because of the desire to not to offend or hurt anyone's feelings.

Before I launch in, I want to say I'm speaking for myself. I've never met or chatted with Theresa Rebeck, don't know her at all. I've read her pieces on this and I think we have some agreement on it. So I'm speaking for myself. I don't want to put my argument in her mouth.

One assumption is that I think these plays are "bad plays." I don't think anyone is saying the plays we're talking about are bad plays. I'm not lumping them all together and saying that theatres are only producing bad plays now and I wish they would produce good ones. I'm talking about a certain style of play that certainly has some things to recommend it and can be done quite well, but that can also be done poorly. They're not bad inherently. The problem isn't the quality of the plays; it's that they're more and more becoming the only game in town.

One of the reasons I don't want to call them out is because some of the folks who work in this style are quite good, some are friends or colleagues. Some theatres that produce these plays do quite well and, yeah, even anonymously, I don't want to piss in the pool. But Art is right; this conversation is pointless without specifics. So I'll call out the schools, because, I feel that's a bigger issue, honestly. There's a network of highly connected, highly regarded grad schools whose graduates are generally given a quick path to the front of the playwriting world. Everyone in the industry is paying attention to what they write and they're setting the tone. In my experience, the style of play I'm talking about is pretty predominant at these schools. They take writers who work in this style and send them out working in the same style three years later. The playwrights who teach at these schools work in this style, largely. I don't know if this counts as libel or slander or whatever, but here we go: I'm talking about the Houses of Yale/Brown/Juilliard/UCSD. I know they're "competitors" or whatever, but they form a network of the theatre "elites," especially among the younger generation. And their playwrights work this "genre" pretty hard.

Two, it's not about experimental playwriting. These threads always devolve into a discussion of the intense and rigorous craft that goes into experimental playwriting and then accusations of "attacking" experimentation or risk. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be experimental playwriting or that it's bad or anything like that. That's not the point. Of course I think risk and experimentation are important things for playwrights and for the theatre and there need to be more experimental plays produced at all levels. That's not the issue here. The issue is that the Y/B/J/UCSD house style has become some kind of standard and is pushing other styles of playwriting out of the scene. Because...

Three, it's not an attack on playwrights. Whenever this conversation crops up, it goes nowhere because, immediately, every experimental playwright dives in and starts huffing about how what they do has merit. There is an important craft discussion to have about the skills necessary to do experimental playwriting well, but this really isn't it. It's not about the plays or the playwrights. It's about the attention and resources and, more importantly, responses these plays get. The people we don't hear from in this conversation and we should are the literary managers and artistic directors. This is a conversation about how a certain kind of play becomes the kind of play everyone wants to produce and everyone is writing.

It goes both ways. I talked about my Venerable Playwriting Professor at grad school. He was of another generation and another kind of playwriting: earthy, character-driven dramas. That's what he knew and what he taught. Back in the '70s, playwrights like Lanford Wilson, Albert Innaurato, David Rabe were all the rage. Now they're old hat, not taught to students, not given as models to emulate. Our playwriting schools have a dark underbelly that we don't talk about: they're full of cookie cutters, working to make playwrights fit into a house style. And that changes the way the conversation goes, especially after grad school.

I think, to bring it back to our delusions, we shy away from confronting that. We shy away from confronting its corrollary: artistic directors are looking for product, not plays. They're looking for something with a stamp of approval. If that's a Y/B/J/UCSD stamp, great. If it's the even better London stamp, awesome. Like the old joke about Hollywood actors, they say, "Get me a new Sarah Ruhl play. She's too busy? Okay, get me something like a Sarah Ruhl play." If you don't write like that, you're lucky to get a spot in a reading festival. And who cares if the audience likes it, it's not what's "cool," "new," or "fresh."

This has always been the case, I'm sure. Styles of playwriting come and go. I think that's something else we like to pretend doesn't happen; we tell ourselves that good playwriting will rise to the top no matter what. Yeah, right. Ask Edward Albee about that. We like to forget that there was about ten years where he couldn't get arrested in New York. Ask writers like David Rabe and Howard Korder. Certain kinds of writing are in fashion and sought after. It comes and goes in waves.

And that's what I meant when I talked about New York theatres as "full gardens." I've been in the grip of some serious Chicago envy lately. I read Don and Rob and various other Chicago blogs, and, at least from a distance, it feels like such a vibrant, varied theatre scene. I read Rob's 2010 season previews and, yeah, certain Shakespeares or Miller plays made a few too many appearances, but I was really struck by the variety of the kinds of plays in one theatre's season. You can get a variety of plays here in New York, for sure, but by running around to a dozen different venues, and even then, the same names pop up quite a bit. Our scene seems to driven by what's popular. I think it sells our audiences short. We're only giving them orchids when, maybe, some of them would like roses or morning glories or even plain old daisies.

Of course, there's a measure of self-interest here and a measure of self-control. Here's my story: I started writing plays in college. When I was younger, I wrote poetry and fiction. I did write one play in high school, a terrible, terrible verse play inspired by Archibald MacLeish's J.B. When I started writing plays, I wrote short, sketch-like pieces, mostly inspired by David Ives. Then I read Constance Congdon's Tales of the Lost Formicans and my head exploded. I didn't have an actual playwriting program at my school, so I was self-taught, learning from reading and writing. I moved to New York, joined a playwright's group that was full of young writers like myself, though most had grad school training. We were all working in this similar experimental vein and I felt myself hitting the wall. I didn't have a lot of craft underpinning what I was doing. So I went to grad school. But I wound up at a grad school that taught naturalism. Through a combination of professors and the general aesthetic of the school (it was tied a Venerable Institution of Naturalism), that was the house style. While I was there, I studied Lanford Wilson and Alan Ayckbourn and learned my lessons from that, for good or ill. Here's a funny story: around the end of grad school, I fell in love with Phillip Barry's work. Holiday and The Philadelphia Story were the kind of play I was struck by. At a BBQ, I met someone else in theatre by chance. While trying to chat this person up, I mentioned my newfound love for Phillip Barry. The person blanched, as though I'd pissed in the punch, and beat a hasty retreat. Phillip Barry was "out," and therefore so was I.

I don't mean this to sound bitter or whatever. I'm actually not. I think there's a strong kind of experimentalism that takes old forms and tells new stories with them. I'm pretty comfortable in the style I've chosen. But it's hard to feel like my plays don't get a fair shake because they're in a style that literary managers think is dull. It's funny that, although we're supposed to be open to anything and the whole point of experimenting and taking risk is try anything, only certain things are deemed experiemental or risky. Isn't that the way they become safe?


Lindsay Price said...

Yeah, it sucks to write in a way that nobody wants. And hard to stand up for it when you know it's good writing, but no one will support you. Been there!

I never went to school for playwriting. There are times when I think I should go to grad school and then I do some reading about people's experiences and take a million steps back. I don't want to write the right way, or be changed. I just want to be the best I can be at my craft. Is that wrong?

I know I don't write the right way. Thankfully, and luckily, I stumbled into the high school niche where no one gives a crap about whether or not the genre is 'in' they just want a lot of parts for girls (which I happily write).

But I'd be lying if I didn't sometimes feel isolated in my niche. If I didn't sometimes look at the 'Rep' world and want to be there as well. If I didn't know I had a drawer stuffed full of plays no one wants to read or produce.

But those sometimes pass pretty quickly. The only thing that's important to me, myself, and I is that I get to make a living as a playwright. And I love the writing I do. Everything else is smoke.

Tony Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Adams said...

I wonder if the debate could be framed with a short hand of Ruhl on one side and Rebeck on the other? (And they're both getting produced all over the place.)

Granted that's a pretty simplistic frame, but I think that's what a lot of folks point to.

For me, I find them both wanting. Even though they have completely different styles, I think what's missing from both is there tends to be very little under the surface. Or to use an analogy from Rocky Balboa, they've got nothing in the basement.

But that is something not many want to discuss.

btw-I'd love to hear this debate framed with O'Neill vs. . . O'Neill.

Anonymous said...

Imagine a certain Very Famous Yale Playwright, who you grew up adoring, sneering at you across the table. Imagine him/her calling your simple, quiet, ripples-in-the-pond drama "lazy" and "boring" and "television" just because it doesn't have dance/drag/African spirituals/gay sex on stage. Imagine going to school with a lot of "Theatre Must Be THEATRICAL" blowhards who can't define that statement when asked. People who'd rather see actors impersonate chickens than wrestle with real life.

I learned a lot at Yale. I eventually found the right teachers for me, and it's been very good for my career. I met many talented, generous, open-minded colleagues. But this reverse philistinism is encouraged. It's growing.

joshcon80 said...

I had a difficult time trying to decipher what Rebeck was trying to say. It seemed to me that she was tap dancing around saying that one kind of writing was inherently better than another, favoring the "well made" play over the "experimental" play. Your post is a lot more specific so kudos.

Okay, so this might be a little bit of rant. I hope it's not too off topic...

I'm a playwright who falls somewhere between these two schools. I'm also gay and from a blue collar, rural family and thank you for writing about class ism in theater. The schools you mentioned probably aren't an option for me, though I don't think any of those writers are more talented than me per se.

I think the cookie cutter operations of these schools are a real problem too and not just because I'm jealous of MFA playwrights (although I TOTALLY am.)

From the outside, it seems like there is no real working class/gay/black/Asian/whatever voices in theater at all because only these MFAs are getting produced... and all of the working class/gay/black/Asian/whatever who go through these programs lose what is interesting about their respective voices by virtue of their educations.

It seems there should be a way to get these voices directly from their communities and onto the stage, without the Ivy League, no? For most of us, the Ivy League isn't an option.

Knowing a thing or two about Paula Vogel's background, for instance, I find it sort of ironic that, were she a young playwright today with the same background, she would probably never rise up the ranks in the system she currently takes part in creating.

@Anonymous- I'm not sure what you're saying. Can you clarify?

Anonymous said...

I mean that Yale isn't a completely awful place. I'm an old-style Chekhov/Williams/Wilson storyteller, and I learned a lot there. But it took work to find what I needed, because the whole absolutist 'If It Doesn't Have An Umbrella Dance, It Must Be Television' crowd is influential and growing.