Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Youth Without Youth

As often happens to me, I see something I wrote somewhere else and it hits my eye in a weird way. So when I saw yesterday's post quoted over at The Mirror Up to Nature, it made me think that the line about "not knowing what they're doing" needed some unraveling. Not walking back or anything, but explanation.

Back in the midst of the latest Rebeck flap, Matt Freeman posted this list of the last 10 years of Pulitzer Prize winners. (He also had some very good observations, so RTWT.) When I read it, it dinged in my head. It's a good point. We're not exactly in a dearth of traditionally structured plays, and it's not like they're being ignored, either. But there is...something. Then I thought about the list, and not just the plays, but the playwrights. On that list, with the exceptions of David Auburn and Margaret Edson, the playwrights were well into their professional careers, with a number of successful productions under their belts already. At least three of those writers, David Lindsay-Abaire, John Patrick Shanley and Suzan-Lori Parks, were known for "theatrical" work in their early career (I think an argument can be made for Donald Margulies, too, but not as strongly), but won their prizes for fairly straightforward, traditionally structured plays. What is this telling us about the career of playwrights? Nothing we don't already know.

Anyone who's studied playwriting, even superficially knows this. Playwrights, in general, get more structured with time. (Except for Richard Foreman, but he's almost something else. And maybe Len Jenkin and Erik Ehn.) The trajectory of a playwright's career seems to go like this: early experimentation -> blending experimentation with traditional structures -> more and more traditionally structured plays. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes it takes years. Sometimes it happens in a zig-zag. I'm not saying this is a rule, but it's a pattern.

One of the interesting things about playwriting is that it's a surprisingly long career path. When I first got out of college, like a lot of young playwrights, I was trying to be a wunderkind, get my big accolades before I turned 30. When that didn't happen, I relaxed a little because, appropriately enough, there are second acts in the American theatre. You can still be a "young" playwright at 40 (you'll probably still be emerging, even). But, I think, this is where we get into this weird dilemma about style and theatricality.

Our theatres crave youth. The thinking goes, "We need young audiences and young audiences will respond to young plays and young plays come from young playwrights." So we're on the hunt for the next "new" voice. When we find it, that voice gets touted, raised up and lauded because it is young, it is fresh and it is exciting. They just may not know how to write a play. They may not even know they want to write plays. Because they're young and just figuring out their voice. But the industry pounces and shoves residencies and commissions and productions at them because their voice is so theatrical. Are they learning to write better plays? I don't know. What happens to them when they do? I don't know. I wonder if the theatres will continue to support them. Or just keep looking for the next new thing.

I've had this conversation with a lot of playwrights of my generation. You (or really, they) break through on the strength of something wild and imaginative, lacking in a cohesive structure, but getting by on youthful ballsiness. Your early plays are all fuck yous to the old guard and old structures and the theatres eat it up. At least the literary managers and associate artistic directors eat it up. You get a production or two in their studio space and either you get the "great ideas, poor structure" review or you get torn apart. Still, the theatres love you, but now the artistic directors are a little wary. They want you to buckle down and write something "real" or "big" or whatever. Something other than what you've been working on. Now you need that structure that everyone loved you for jettisoning. But do you have it?

Or the other side: you try experimenting, you do your fuck you plays and find that it's not your style. It's not effective for the kind of stories you tell. You never break through. Literary managers like you (or tell you they like you), but you stay in the realm of readings and (if you're lucky) workshops. But you don't cross over. Then you grow up a little, leave the fuck you at the door and start writing something you connect to. But now you're not so young, not eligible for the development opportunities anymore. You're on your own, trying to figure out what the next step is. Maybe you get lucky and write a great big play that someone likes. Maybe you just slog away at your day job and lose all connection.

It can go both ways...I've seen it and I'm living it, too.

I do think it's hard, as a playwright, as you grow up as a writer, and your style changes, your focus changes, but the people you're trying to connect with are younger than you and looking for something fresh, but not necessarily something good. Especially if you don't have a name or track record that jumps you over the first rung of the ladder. Especially if you're working in a style that the hot, young development companies aren't interested in. The theatre can become a no man's land (so to speak) pretty quickly.

A lot of theatres focus on bringing in and nurturing young playwrights, but I wonder if that's really what they want. Do they just want the young audiences and think this is the kind of work that will bring them in? Doesn't that do a disservice to the young audiences? Young people want plays that speak to them, plays they can connect with, but that doesn't necessarily mean plays about video games and reality TV and socialites. It can mean well-crafted, smart stories, powerfully told. Like a lot of things, I think our udustry's desperation and fear overwhelms its good senses and leads us down blind alleys, harming everyone.


Art said...

Sorry, didn't mean to hit your eye!


What you are saying here reminds me an article Michael Feingold wrote about Adam Rapp while ago. He wrote that he sensed Rapp might be trapped into a style of play that might not be supporting what his strenghts or even his heart lies.

If I remember correctly, Feingold suggested that Rapp is a Romantic who needs to keep writing these relentless, punishingly nihilistic plays.

Another critic suggested that Adam Rapp "wants to be the Sam Shepard of the suburbs, but his talents lie elsewhere."

I don't mean to pick on Rapp by bringing up this example, but I sense that what you are suggesting is that Rapp, (if we take Feingold and company as truth,) needs to keep producing what at least he believes is expected of him at this point?

99 said...

Oh, Art! It's okay. Sometimes I need the hit in the eye.

That definitely makes sense to me about Adam Rapp. I guess the question is are we giving our young playwrights room to grow.

joshcon80 said...

I've been thinking about this post for a couple of days now, wanting to give it some thought before I commented.

I think you make a good point about the trajectory of playwrights' work. It certainly does seem that a lot of writers' work gets more traditionally structured the longer they write plays.

I guess I wonder if this is a matter of the writer getting better at their craft, or is it the mainstreaming of their work and their need to now reach a broader audience? Or is it both? I don't have an answer. I'm just begging the question because honestly, the playwrights' writings you mentioned all get less and less interesting to me the later you get into their body of work. This is a matter of personal taste, obviously. I've often thought that playwrights' work gets less interesting the older they get, which seems to be the opposite of what you're saying. Again, it might just be me.

And as far as theaters craving young writers, what do you consider young? As you mentioned, 40 can be emerging. Disclosure: I work as a marketer of television so my opinion might be slightly skewed, but I think one of the reasons that theater isn't more popular is the institution's flat out refusal to keep up with popular culture. Personally, I like plays by young people, even if they're a little rough around the edges or ray (and sometimes because they are.) At least they're fresh.