Saturday, August 29, 2009

More About Youth

In the comments to this post, the very astute joshcon80 writes:
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.

I wanted to respond that with more than just another comment.

To the first point, it's both. As a person gets older, they become concerned with different things, different parts of life. That shows up in their work. Also, if they're a "working" playwright, they have to worry less about making a splash. They can write more confidently, with more assurance. I think that evens out their work. A contemporary of mine and I had a pretty depressing conversation about how we needed to write that play that would make middle-aged audience happy, which meant flattening out what we were doing. Both things are at work, I think. I agree that sometimes the plays get worse, but sometimes they get so much better. It also depends on the playwright. For me, in general, I do think they get deeper and stronger. Even the ones who don't head towards more "traditional" landscape. I love Baltimore Waltz, but I like the Long Christmas Ride Home or How I Learned to Drive more. I love Balm in Gilead, but I like Burn This more. It's a sign of the maturity of a playwright that they can handle structure and style with equal ease, in my opinion. But it is a matter of taste.

As for the notion of what's young in theatre...that's a messy, messy point that definitely leads to fighting. I do consider 40 to still be young in the world of playwriting, partly in comparison to our main audiences, partly because it's a long lead-time field. If I read an interesting news story and I want to write a play about it, chances are it's going to be, at best, two to three years before that play sees the light of day. In that time, there will be a Law & Order episode, a CSI episode, an SNL skit, a 30 Rock reference, a novel, a YouTube video and a feature film all about the same thing. I'll also be three years older. I wrote a play inspired by my life in my late twenties when I was in my late twenties. When it was finally given a workshop production, I was well into my thirties and the concerns of that play were way behind me. Certainly there are playwrights who move more quickly and get things up more quickly, but it's rare.

I don't know how much of theatre's popular culture gap has to do with a willful avoidance (though there's some of that snobbery to go around) or the long lead-time or the fact that we're often playing for an aging audience so we have to pitch our work at a shallower knowledge. But there is a gap. Theatres try to fill that gap by hiring "young" writers or writers who write "young" and that means plays that are less accomplished, less well-structured and, not to put a fine point on it, that might just be bad. I don't fault them for that, or fault the young writers. My concern is when we start holding up these plays as what's good. Or, what's even worse, in my mind, we just decide, without discussing it, that these plays are what's good and what people should be emulating. A little consciouness about what we're producing and why is a good thing.

I do also think that you can have both. Just having a bunch of references to Lady Gaga or Lindsay Lohan doesn't make something "young," or even pop culture-y. In general, theatre sometimes acts like a high school principal trying to connect with the students by wearing his cap backwards and dropping references that are three years out of date. We should be aiming for both, good plays that appeal to younger audiences, but with structure and character and stories that matter. I think it can be done.

The Upside

So, a while back, I went off on theatres as banana republics as, generally a bad thing. But then, there's this. (I know it's a casting notice, but it has the key information.) Rattlestick is producing a play they produced eight years ago. It's not a remount, it's a new production. This is the upside of the banana republic model.

I'm not fully sure of the reasons for the re-production, but I'm sure it has something to do with the play, with the theatre liking the play and maybe feeling like it didn't get its due when it was first produced. Since that production, Thurber's first, she's gone on to some acclaim and some great productions. Maybe that first one was flawed in some way. I don't know. But for whatever reason, Rattlestick is remounting it.

I can believe that it's not a wise financial decision. There's no reasonable board member, producer or boss that would say, "So you want to remount a play that didn't do very well, eight years ago, and you're not even touting it as substantially rewritten or reconceived, or putting a big star in it? You're just doing it? Yay!" But when it's your banana republic, well, that's what you can do. Will it be a success? Who knows. I hope so.

But it's also a reminder of what an odd theatre world we live in, how badly premiere-itis affects this town. There's all of this talk about how great rep companies are and how hard they are to hold together, but I don't think there's enough talk or thinking about the way a rep company is supposed to work. You're supposed to have plays in your repertory, plays you revisit from time to time, re-mount and re-explore. We have this great storehouse of plays, good plays that got bad productions or bad receptions, plays that were important and are now forgotten. We have a theatre that's supposed to be dedicated to that, but really only schedules one a season. For a New York audience, it has to be new.

But it's nice to see someone who runs a playwrights theatre remember that supporting playwrights lasts longer than one play.

200-Pound Gorilla

I love me some Isaac Butler. I think that's more than apparent. He was one of my inspirations for starting this blog and, even when my output is slow, I make it a point to read his stuff and hang out at his place. He's written a doozy of a post on the strengths and weakness of the "indie" theatre scene. (I guess Off-Off-Broadway is old hat now?) It really is good stuff, thorough and well-thought-out as usual (despite some funky formatting problems - did you write it originally in Word 2007? I've had problems cutting-and-pasting from the new version of Word into Blogger...but I digress). You absolutely should RTWT.'s the thing for me: it's totally pointless. I'm sorry, Isaac. It's cathartic and everything, but it's all stuff that we all know. That out here in the blogosphere we've all talked about and talked about and talked about, fought about, broke up about, got back together about. I've only been kicking around here for a couple of years and I know I've written on this stuff, and so have you. Not enough money, not enough space, not enough noise, too many shows. Yep. All true. We need more collaboration, more connective tissue, more money. Yep. We do.

Maybe I'm feeling the same late summer bitterness and cynicism that's going around, but I don't think we're alone in this. I think that the folks who run the theatres know it, they read our blogs from time to time, they freaking live it. I know I lived it when I worked in theatres. The real question is how is it fixable? I don't know that it is. Because of one of the big, real insights in his post, the 200-pound gorilla in the middle of the entire theatre scene: some of the work is bad. Hell, let me give in to the cynicism all the way: a lot of the work sucks. Period. And there's nothing we can do about that. Because it's not really a bug. It's a feature.

We work in lightning, in alchemy. You put together a group of passionate, energized people of varying levels of talent, organization and sanity, shake vigorously and sometimes, you get brilliance. Sometimes you get a big, fat turd. And that's the life we've chosen. But because of that, you know what: no one with money is going to give it to us, willy-nilly. Whenever I talk to someone on the "inside" about the crappy funding practices and wack funding priorities, pretty soon we get to the real crux of the problem: no one wants to give money to something that sucks. That's why basically every theatre in town, at every level, is exactly one bad show away from failure. Once you stink, it's hard to get that stench out of the seats. We're all dependent on hand-outs to survive, whether they're handouts from rich people or rich foundations or handouts from the government. And none of them want to piss money away.

And the really great thing about this problem, well, the two really great things, are that it's a beautiful, double-bind, Catch-22 situation. One, you really can't tell. There was a show announced this spring, at a theatre that I rather like. It was a big, ambitious production of a neglected American classic. It was cast with slightly starry people, but interesting actors, many of whom had solid theatre credits under their belt. I was excited about it, thrilled. And I was stoked when I got a comp offer during previews. Sweet! Except it was the worst show I've ever seen and I walked out of it. And it was a huge, honking failure. On paper, it was awesome. But somehow, somewhere in the process, it went horribly wrong. You can't quality control that.

(Sidebar: I was trying to think of the opposite situation- something that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea, an awful, train-wreck of a show, but that turned out, in actuality, to be great. Can anyone think of something like that? Maybe Spring Awakening?)

The other part of the double-bind is that our community will resist it. We don't want quality control. You know what people call it when you start talking about quality control measures? Commercialism. The reason the city and the rich people are willing to invest significantly more money in stadiums and movie studios and even opera companies and museums than theatres is because they know that those entities are trying to please their fans, going out of their way, sometimes even to the detriment of what they're supposed to be doing (cf. the recent Yankees and Mets) in order to "put butts in the seats." Well, that and make money. If a theatre company announced its intention to have the biggest box office ever, as a goal, it would be shunned. Probably rightfully so, but that's a bigger issue, a bigger conflict for this community to deal with than "We can't get enough good press."

When your top strength, that anything can happen, in the rehearsal hall, in rewrites, on stage at any given time, is your biggest weakness, you're screwed. And maybe there is a level of just accepting that we're kind of screwed. Until theatre companies can find a way to make money of their own without being pilloried as turning commercial or sacrificing their core values, we're kind of screwed.

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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Was Only Half-Kidding

...When I left this comment at Isaac's place. Only half. But cue an epic bout of writer's malaise and the general state of the theatre blogging world of late and...well, it turned out to be more than halfway true.

One thing I'll say about the whole "craft vs. creativity" dust-up and its many incarnations is this: it is an important conversation to have. I know that a lot of practitioners get bored of it and think it's inside baseball or non-productive or whatever. But I think both the conversation and the resistance to it are key to what's going on in our field and with our art. And it ties into some of the things I've been reading lately (while I haven't been writing a stitch, I still read what you all are saying. When my boss isn't looking.). There's this from George Hunka, in particular.

Where are our critical faculties? Where is the sense of our work as art, as something to discuss, to consider, something that's created with forethought and precision and consciousness? Something that is as much about what is in the mind of the artist as what happens in the audience? There are times when I think that the Method, as it's become popularly understood and misunderstood, has been the worst thing that's happened to theatre. The Method and its corollary, neo-Romanticism: emotion is all, art springs from some magical, internal fountain and we, the artist, are just the vessel it passes through, the "voices speak to us and we just write down what they say." I'm not a fan of the totally cerebral in art, but some understanding of the act of making art as a mental effort is, I think, necessary. I think that the strong, anti-intellectual current that runs through our society, in general, has strongly affected our theatre, both in terms of the work that's put up and the infrastructures we build.

I didn't mean to go on about this at length, but that's never stopped me before. This isn't a fully-formed thought, so I might not make any actual sense. Feel free to mock, disagree, have at as need be. But I think that, as a an artform, theatre has, in a way, fallen back to where we were in the early 1800s, back to the place where Stansislavski thought, "We need a method here." Especially in playwriting. Sure, everyone talks "structure" and we're all "taught" it and whatever, but the entire goal is to make plays that feel a certain way, that evoke emotions and sensations, not that do something. A play with an intellectual argument in it is somehow weird, or out of place. A play that springs from an intellectual interest is deemed cold. Even though some of the great plays of the world were created that way.

I remember, back when I was in grad school, one of our great, imminent Important Playwrights came to speak. I avoid his name, because, well, he's super-Important, and I am not. He also has a reputation for cruelty and, sooner or later, someone's going to find out who I am. So...I'd rather not be on the receiving end. Anyway. This Important Eminence came to us and told us that, in the program he runs, he looks at his students and knows, just knows in his bones, which ones are playwrights. The others might be writers, novelists, poets, but only a few are playwrights. This is exactly what's wrong with what we're doing, why theatre is becoming more and more of an artistic backwater, falling behind television as the great dramatic writing of our time. Because we're building up this priesthood of people who are somehow chosen to do it, with skills and abilities that are, not just rare, but irreproducible. There was a time when a great novelist or poet could be encouraged to write a play and it was just part of what they did. Sure, they wrote verse plays or novelistic play or whatever, but they wrote plays and had them performed. I mentioned J.B. by Archibald MacLeish before, but T.S. Eliot wrote plays. When I was young, I wanted to be John Sayles because he wrote and directed movies, but he wrote novels, too. I think, in the last fifteen years, especially with the rise of the grad program as the sine qua non for playwriting, we've cut ourselves off. It's part of a rising, creeping tide of credentialism.

But it's credentialism with a twist. What we prize are playwrights who don't know what they're doing. The whole push toward "theatricalism" and "inventiveness" (usually for inventiveness' sake) is moving us away from a playwright saying, "How do I want to attack this story?" We're venerating the unconsicous parts of being a playwright and downplaying the conscious acts of an artist. And we don't even want to talk about it. Talk about what that means, and how it affects our theatres, the audiences, the work.

From an institutional standpoint, it's making our theatre narrower and narrower, because as the audiences move away to more engaging forms of art (not necessarily more challenging, but more engaging), the main audience becomes the funders. The rich fat cats and the non-profit staffs and boards who are going to be affected by what they hear about in the Times than what is actually happening on the stage.

I see all of this happening without a robust critical life happening. The print critics are basically doing marketing copy. A few do have a sense of "I'm looking at the field" but they're really just saying, "If you like X, you should see Y." Field guides for tourists, not criticism. I see it in myself. Way back when, I used to read all of TimeOut's reviews (even though they were brief). Now...yeah, I mostly just look at the star count. I read the first paragraph of the Times' review. It's not really about what's going on in the work.

I absolutely agree with Isaac that health care reform is the single most important thing for our culture as a whole and that it would transform the arts in this country as we know it (if we got real progressive reform), but I also think that we can multi-task. Asking what are we doing, what are we actually doing, from time to time, is important part of any endeavour. It scares me when so many people seem to not want to ask.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Good Thoughts

Here and here. Especially check out the comments at Parabasis.

What Are You Going To Call It? (Or The Art of the Title)

An old friend of mine used to say that a good title should have at least three different resonances. It's a high standard to live up to. This makes it much easier.


One Final Word

Sara Comeny, in the comments to Isaac's post, gets it, I think, wholly right here. I'll quote her at length:
I do feel like I'm seeing a lot of new plays of late (as in, the last 5 years) that get out of the gate at the beginning of Act I with an exciting idea and compelling characters. Then, either shortly before or shortly after intermission, the excitement of the play drains away with a handful of awkward new-character introductions and confused incorporation of new facts in the world of the play, sometimes too much repetition and sometimes not enough explication. The play loses muscular tone -- it seems that the playwright is failing to overcome her own boredom with the scenario she's introduced. At this point, our playwright often throws in an absurdist, Chris Durang-ish or Mac Wellman-ish scene -- a wryly ironic tapdance with the main character's dead mother, say, or a mock-courtroom-meets-Newlywed-Game scene moderated by the previously minor shopkeeper character. Or a mysterious apocalyptic disease that may or may not be a commentary on modern life, or a medieval-European ghost fascinated by the water dispenser on the refrigerator. Are these incursions what we're deeming "experimental"? If so...

Go read the rest.

Now, back to the optimism...


I've said it before: this anonymous thing kind of messes with your head. Basically, there are ways it brings out the worst in me. I can be as sharp-tongued as I want, since I'm protected, but it's hard to share good news or positive developments since I'm trying to protect my identity. After the last week of posts, I feel a bit like I'm turning into a crotchety bitter old guy, shaking my fist on my porch at anyone who comes too close. And, well, ugh. I'm actually not all that bitter, or angry. It's hard to be anonymously positive.

The second half of this summer has lacked a bit of focus for me. I was working on a new project that ran into delay after delay and now it looks like it will be put off for a while. The aforementioned day job is asking more from me. I've had some romantic misadventures. Add to that the general weird summer weather we've been having in New York and I've been a bit out of sorts. I think I've been taking it out on the theatre world.

So I'm calling a truce. This week, I'm only going to post positive things, positive ideas or observations, or, failing all of that, take a page from Matt Freeman's book, and post something funny. It may be theatre-related. It may not. We'll see. It's the dog days of summer. It's as good a time as any for a little vacation from the person I normally am.

So, internet, let's turn that frown upside down!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

In Other News...

And on a much lighter note, surplus is back! After a few quiet weeks, Jaime is posting up a storm with some very, very cool stuff, as always. It's a one-stop shop for all your alt-comix, indie music and good theatre news. So go there.

There's also this cool contest going at Isaac's place. Check that out also.

There's also this.

Enough seriousness for a lovely Saturday. Go have fun somewhere.

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?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

In or Out

Tony Adams weighed right in here and I wanted to respond quickly, because I did leave out part of my point on that post. He connects it to the post about banana republics and asks a good question: why would anyone work there. Because it often totally sucks and leaves you burned out. One of the reasons I left the theatre I was working at was that I looked around at my co-workers and saw that the people who had been involved for ten years or more were largely emotionally warped and probably not fit for life outside of there. I didn't want to be those people, so I left. (Well, some other stuff happened, too, but that's beside the point.)

One of the things that Saul Alinksy talks about a lot in his book and, in his way, Isaac advocates, in terms of theatre, is joining the system to change it from within. Which is a noble goal, and, I do believe, in politics, possible. Hard, but possible. I think, in theatre, it's nearly impossible. Because the system is a series of contiguous nation-states run by despots who demand absolute loyalty. So, you choose one you want to work at, and you become a part of the system and try to make change, but, at the end of the day, only the people at the top make decisions. Malachy's story in the comments here is one we all know. It takes so long to get into those positions of real power in an organization, by then, your tastes and practices have calcified. You're not the firebrand you were when you came in as a literary manager. The system drains it out of you. There's a lot more of the system changing the person than the person changing the system.

But! I don't mean that it's all futile. There is starting your own theatre. I think the conversations we have out here in the blogosphere are key to that, because, in a lot of ways, we're wrestling with how to build better theatres. I just think we'd do even better to just forget about the "big guys," their weak seasons and poor decision-making and focus on building better mousetraps. I don't think it's useless to blog, or vent your spleen or share stories and ideas. I just think it's useless to think of it in terms of effecting change on any institution. It may be my own delusion I'm ridding myself of. My own fantasy that Oskar will finally call and put me in charge of artistic development. It ain't going to happen. And, in fact, if he found out I was writing this blog, it would be even less likely to happen. So...I should be looking at alternatives. We all should. But being quiet isn't one of them.

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.

Another Fabulous Invalid

Well...*sigh* I do actually like Thomas Garvey, in general. It's true. I like his reviews, I like his attitude, I like his blog. But...*sigh* This whole thing is just ridiculous. I'm not even linking to it here. I did before, so you can find it. Despite my own tendency to frag or whatever, I really don't want to keep flame wars going. They're pointless, annoying and just make everyone unhappy. Not to mention they reward bad behavior and poor manners. links. But, in the spirit of the times, I think there's something of a teachable moment here.

This argument, about how the blogging was once a great, open marketplace of ideas and conversation and now it pales in comparison, has been going on in a lot of fields for a long time, most obviously in the realm of print journalism versus (in particular) political blogging. And the arguments are always the same: bloggers are free rangers, unbound by ethics, standards or even basic human decency, fragging willy-nilly and crowding out actual journalists, who have ethics, standard and are paragons of human decency.


Obviously, all of that is bullshit, in so many ways. I will give Matt Freeman a link because his post is succinct and makes all the right points: blogging is not journalism. Writing about current events, sharing your thoughts and opinions is not, by default, journalism, no matter how public it is. And, yes, that means the rules are different and the expectations are different. Also, not saying everything that's on your mind is a different thing than saying something that you don't think is true, or not disclosing a conflict that could impeach your integrity. Yes, it is a kind of self-censorship, but if you're honest about self-censoring, it's not a failing of integrity. Okay? Can we just agree that this is so, even if it pisses us off sometimes?

But, to the teachable part: bloggers, this is what the institutions think of you. Pure and simple. You are untrustworthy, self-interested, probably damaging to the art, petty, and generally uninteresting. We may not want to think it's true, but it's true. We're the great uncredentialed and we don't fit into any assigned slot. Basically, you're not supposed to have strong, passionate opinions about the state of the art unless you're a "critic." If you're an artist, you do your art and that's it. If you're an administrator, you work for a theatre or funder and let the work you do speak for you. Maybe you write a piece for American Theatre or something, but that's the extent of the opinion you're supposed to have. If not, you're just trying to make a name for yourself (even if you're anonymous, natch) and no one wants to support a self-aggrandizing loudmouth. But then if you focus on your work, you're boring.

So. Yeah. Stay used to it. And thank Thomas for showing us behind the curtain.

Banana Republics (with an automatic update)

I spent a number of years working at an Off-Broadway theatre that was fabled for its turmoil, nutty characters and general dysfunction. Those of us who worked there and survived have all found that, when we go into the outside theatre community, people treated us with the same mix of respect, wariness, admiration and fear that people treat Vietnam Vets with. "You worked at X? Were you in the shit?" "Yeah. I was in the shit."

When I was working there, though, I felt differently about it. I did love it and I certainly loved the people I worked with, but there was another metaphor that came to mind: banana republic. It's decidedly non-p.c., but, boy, it was accurate. The A.D. was committed to running the theatre by strict democratic principles...when it suited him. When it didn't, he ruled by fiat and declaration, enforced by fear of exile. He was a master of engineering the vote he wanted (it's a member company, so there were a lot of votes). He stayed in power very much because there were people around him who believed in the mission, stayed true to the ideals of the revolution. And he took advantage of every last one of them. A pure, absolute dictatorship.

When it was finally time for me to leave, I thought, outside of here, it will be different. Sure, lots of theatres are poorly run, but they can't all be like this. I managed to find one place that ran like a true commune, a hippie-paradise. But that was the only place.

Isaac's talked about Saul Alinsky's classic Rules for Radicals quite a bit in the past, so I finally got it from the library and started reading. It's good, very good and very interesting, especially in the context of current events. But as I was reading it, a thought popped into my head, "Well, this is neat, but it has nothing to do with theatre." It was kind of jarring. It's a book about passionate change and ways of connecting with your community and making a better world. These are things that have nothing to do with theatre? In a way, no. Not at all.

They have everything to do with theatre-making, the act of creating theatre, the kind of theatre you may want to do. Everything to do with creating a theatre company from scratch. All of that is good. But it doesn't have much to do with making existing theatres better. Because they're all banana republics.

This may not be the most relevatory concept. But when I'm thinking about our delusions about theatre, this is high on my list. Thinking about some of the things that Isaac says here (which set off a whole other thing) about trying to make an argument and the fine line we out here in the theatre blogosphere tread between making our points forcefully and pissing off the powers that be just to piss them off, I realized that, in a way, it doesn't matter. Our good arguments about doing things differently, our passionate discussions about new concepts and approaches, none of that matters. Because, unlike a political discussion or movement, the folks on the inside are not going to change. Period. They're under no pressure to change. Seriously, we could send every single playwright in New York to protest outside of the Manhattan Theatre Club and there's no way Lynne Meadow is going to change her tune. She doesn't answer to us. In fact, she doesn't really answer to anyone. I suppose, at the end of the day, she does answer to the board, but not necessarily.

That's the reality. What makes it all delusional is that everything we do is couched in the language of democracy. Theatre are service organizations, responding to a urgent need in the community. In all of the language, both the institutional language and the personal language, they're building homes for artists, or serving the craft. Always humble servants, doing what the best they can for the people. We treat them as such, as responsive, public service organizations. If we bloggers, or journalists or enough artists make enough noise, we'll get them to change their ways. I don't think we can, or we will. They don't work in a democracy. The sooner we can let that go, the better theatres we can make. If we're honest with ourselves about how it works, we can be honest with our audiences and our funders and our artists. But muddying the water by pretending to be open to suggestion and ideas just confuses everyone involved.


So. The update that comes right with the original piece. I had that whole post rattling around in my head for a couple of days and just didn't get a chance to write it down. I felt really good about it, really good about my points. Yeah, this really nails it, I thought. And then, today, I read this. (In case you missed it, here's some background.) And my whole thesis comes crashing down. Because right there is a case of concentrated, public agitation causing changes at a theatre. Maybe it's the exception to the rule. Maybe it's a portent of things to come. We'll see...

Meanwhile, back on the internet...

I step away from the keyboard for a couple of days and all sorts of things happen. Who says the blogosphere is boring? Did I say that? I meant thrilling, exciting and all kinds of fun. Yeah, that's totally what I meant.

I'm not even sure where to start with all of this. Honestly. My mind, which likes to tie things together into one overarching set of problems and questions is straining to bring these disparate strands into one argument. But I don't think it's going to happen. And I don't want to write one long blathering post (I know, weird) hitting all of it. I had a post cooking the other day, so maybe I'll start there. I don't really need to sleep tonight anyway.