Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Enemies of Good

While Paul Mullin's last word here is pretty much all right by me, I did have a little more to say. There's a reason why I think this discussion is important and it connects to some of the things that Scott is talking about here. I want to throw some quotes at you:
It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations, to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time.
- Tyrone Guthrie

Writers should not be sending their first drafts...to theatres to evaluate, and then boohoo when they don't get produced."
- Anonymous artistic director, Outrageous Fortune, pg. 27

"Playwrights grow and get better and write the next better play because the other one was produced with all its flaws."
- Anonymous artistic leader, Outrageous Fortune, pg. 95

"In other words, production is development. It is the playwright's crucible, the play's forge. In the past fifty years of American playwriting, production has moved from the single means of new-play development to its last call."
- Outrageous Fortune, pg. 95 (emphasis in the original)

"Writers, as one playwright advocate point out, often find solutions to a play's questions in their next play. Theatrically, this kind of growth calls for continuity and the full realization that only production can offer."
- Outrageous Fortune, pg. 96

"I don't think we develop plays. [...] We're looking for properties, as opposed to developing relationships - which is much more difficult and much more time-consuming. It's much more effective, but it's much more inefficient, and exasperating."
- Anonymous artistic director, Outrageous Fortune, pg. 141 (with slight edit)

"Thanks, Jack, for saying part of what I'm trying to put over to these people. But the other part is an even tougher sell - they all seem to think that they're being silenced and judged, but actually, playwrights today seem to me to get more praise right out of the gate than they did in the recent past. These kids' hair would curl if they got a load of what John Simon used to dish out in the 60's and 70's. And as for Mullin's and Baker's posts about theatres that do new plays - in Boston, almost every company does more new work than anything else. I can only think of one group - the Actors' Shakespeare Project - that concentrates on classics, because, well . . . check out that name . . .

The real trouble with you guys' situation is that in the end, the audience won't risk seeing your work. It's not the critics, or the theatre management. It's the audience itself."
- Thomas Garvey, in the comments, just this minute

"My productions in my little basement theater may be small, but I'm proud of them. And because I self-produce in my own space all of my plays have been produced. Every single one of them.

Why should I wait for Rattlestick or Soho Rep or Playwrights Horizons or whoever to come around to my work? I know my work is good now, and writers don't ever get better by NOT producing."
- joshcon80, in the comments, yesterday
Plays are finished in production. Period. I think just about everyone can agree with that. That's why this discussion matters. It's part of the Pursuit of the Hit Play, the perfect, unit set, small cast play about large themes and big issues that will run forever and provide subsidies for the original theatre in perpetuity. So much of our industry is oriented in this direction, it's like a black hole, pulling everything that has worked in the past to create just those kinds of plays and better ones out of whack. This is the insurmountable problem that I was talking about.

In these quotes, you can see the full effect of this thinking. According to Guthrie, we can only tell if a play is great if it stands the test of time. Throughout Outrageous Fortune, several artistic leaders bemoan the poor state of plays today, the messy, bad plays they get, the mad crush for just a few plays and playwrights who are deemed as being "important." Yet they all acknowledge that a play needs a production to be completed and that a playwright needs commitment to do their best work. These things, in our institutional theatres, are beyond luxuries. They're fantasies.

One thing that's only tangentially dealt with is the role of the critic in all of this. In his various comments here and other places, Thomas Garvey has typified the attitude that comes from a lot of the critical pages: it's not the theatres, but the plays that got small. If a play isn't worthy of instant addition to the pantheon of great plays, it's to be dimissed. He's caught in the same hunt for the Hit, but of a slightly different kind: the Perfect Play. Not in terms of structure or writing, but an instant Classic. Anything that's not has been weighed and found wanting.

A play that could be good, that could be made better by production never gets there. Playwrights get stuck in "development hell," desperately trying to fix things that would be best fixed in a rehearsal hall and in previews in front of a living breathing audience. But they can't. And the theatres sigh and go after whatever got the Good Review, thinking that's the Perfect Play, the play that will satisfy the audience and the critics. Critics like Thomas, who ignore all of the structural issues and difficulties facing a working playwright today, and expect that when a play hits the stage, it should be a Great Play.

And the system goes around and around. Unless, like Josh or Qui, you hop off the merry-go-round, write your plays and produce them. Spots, problems, mistakes and all. And learn. That's the way I'm going this year.


Walt said...

Amen. I think a lot of people also forget that many of our "modern masters" (Mamet, Albee, etc.) were cutting their teeth in the earlier phases of regional theatre, before there was a real American canon to bump them out of consideration, and before regional houses became more about staying in business than creating new work. And yet the closest modern proxy to that idea: playwrights producing their own work or forming small companies of like-minded artists, get pooh-poohed a lot because they're not churning out "instant classics."

George Hunka said...

Judging from what I read in Outrageous Fortune, I don't think that artistic directors are looking for either a Perfect Play or an Instant Classic -- only a good one, a play which resonates with them, that contains within it the potential for a worthwhile production or the promise of better plays ahead (hence one AD's emphasis on "building relationships").

It's the job of the ADs (as well as the Literary Managers) of institutional theatres to determine which plays are appropriate for their stages, and it's not simply a matter of whether it's a good play or not. "Not appropriate for us at this time" may, for all its fudging, be quite true given such things as economics, the theatre's perceived mission, etc. -- it's far from a thumbs-up, thumbs-down decision process.

It isn't just that a given play is, as you put it, "messy" or "bad." All plays are imperfect, even the great classics of the past. The AD or the Literary Manager is looking for more than competence, but with their (educated) eye, whether a play is stageworthy even in its earliest incarnation and whether the writer is worth paying attention to. And they've got years of experience behind them to help them decide. Given the grants and funds now available for new play production rather than development (this is one of the aspects of the situation that seems to be improving), institutional theatres have a vested interest in putting new plays on their mainstages now.

That said, the institutional theatre is always going to be a little behind the cutting-edge advances of the form. They're behemoths with bureaucracies to be negotiated, a variety of shareholders and seasons which must be planned three or four years in advance (which Outrageous Fortune discusses at length). But sometimes, if a play is "messy" and "bad," it also lacks the qualities of potential and ambition that these theatres are looking for. Sometimes they're messy and bad, period. Ultimately, it's not possible for the playwrights (to whom all their own plays are stageworthy, relevant, good and producible) to tell the theatres what plays to produce and what not. So there's self-production, as I've mentioned. But even many of 13P's plays and playwrights, after their premieres, found their way into the institutional theatres. Some, of course, did not. Which may have been the point. As I said here, for all this American tradition of self-production, one does need to go on from there. Otherwise the problem of no-second-productions-of-new-plays (which the book also considers) will live on.

joshcon80 said...


"...for all this American tradition of self-production, one does need to go on from there."

I think a lot of people are starting to question the idea that self-production is a means to the institutions though. Seems to me like more and more artists don't ever want to be a part of the institutions. Why jump onto a sinking ship, etc?

99 said...

My read on the comments in OF are a little bit different. I see a lot of contradiction within the field. Some ADs and leaders are trying to focus on relationships and just good plays, but a lot of them see a dearth of great plays and a very few playwrights capable of writing them, hence the flurry around a small number of writers. I saw a lot of tension between the economic realities, which most of the ADs and leaders acknowledge as the main obstacle to producing plays, the desire to produce plays they love.

I'm not sold on the need to go on from self-production or indie theatre at this point, simply because I see the economic pressures as only growing and making real courage in institutional theatre more rare. But that may be my own native pessimism...

George Hunka said...

It's hard to see how self-production as the sole means of getting a new play out there wouldn't eventually turn into solipsism. As I mentioned, this might only lead to a situation in which these plays (and playwrights) would have no future except for what they can afford; and some playwrights can't afford self-production. They need to go somewhere; the institutional theatres won't go away.

99 said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "solipsism." Creating a company and doing your own work is rapidly becoming a very good alternative and garnering people like Young Jean Lee a lot of press, notices and continued booking. I think Travis Bedard said it right: treat the institutions like record labels and create your own band. I have no interest in supplanting "the system" but really in the best way for me to do what I think (and hope and feel) will be the best work possible.

George Hunka said...

And just to add a note from my personal experience: I self-produced In Public a few years ago to the tune of about $10,000: Isaac Butler, the actors, the designers, the production costs, and the rent were all paid for out of my own pocket. I'm self-producing What She Knew later this year, and though it's a one-person show, it may well cost more. This is already prohibitive for most playwrights.

So the first was a five-performer show, the second a solo show; but what if my imagination next takes me to a place where I'll require fifteen performers, a larger stage, more demanding technical requirements? Self-producing (in the absence of a wealthy patron, of whom there are few) then becomes not difficult but well-nigh impossible. So there'll always be a place for these larger theatres to do demanding work with little hope of commercial success.

Walt said...

I think there's a definite middle ground between real, honest-to-God self-production and going pure institutional, and it's, as 99 calls it, "forming your own band." Get a bunch of artists you work well with together, cobble together some pooled resources, and just start doing stuff. This kind of example might be best represented in Chicago: there's a constant turnover of young, new companies that still get almost as much press as the big dogs.

A lot of them fade out, a lot of them get bigger and become part of the institution, and a lot just scrape together enough for a tiny storefront space and keep plugging away at the same level. In the meantime, they're great platforms for the artists involved, and most stay loyal even if they go big-time. It's kind of neat to see.

99 said...

The pay for it all fully out of your own pocket way is one model. YJLTC is a 501(c)(3) company, so it can take donations, so that's another model.

There are also ways of making big theatre without a big budget, depending on the style you want to work in.

I'm not saying there aren't costs and that it may not be the solution for everyone. In a way, that's the point: find the solution that fits for you. You have to figure out what you value, what the priorities are and follow them where they take you. Right now, my priority is getting the work out there.

devilvet said...

Self producing will always seem unpalatable to some. It isnt a failing it is preference. But there are many out there that after a few years of self-promotion begin to believe that getting into institutional production is really just like winning the lottery. That allusion will seem incredibly unpalatable to those in institutional paradigm already (it may even read to them as insulting)... but whether or not it is true... one thing is true for certain... there are always going to be too many playwrights out there (regardless of quality) so that there is no way they can all or even 10% get a single production in an institutional venue.

To this folks, self production is viable. And after a while self production becomes synonymus with self reliance

Scott Walters said...

Imagine how people today would have responded to "Titus Andronicus" -- thank you for the knock-off of Marlowe, get back to me when you write "Hamlet," OK?

99 said...

Honestly, given some of the comments, it would have been more like "This Shakespeare guy is so overrated. I have no interest in his Hamlet or whatever. Just more recycled revenge tragedies with a little bit of family stuff thrown in. Who cares?"

Scott Walters said...

Re; self-production
Yeah, all those solipsistic plays self-produced by the Globe and by Moliere. Sets a bad example.

Ken said...

My interest in a production at some institutional theater is not based on the imprimatur of quality it may provide in the eyes of some, but the financial and promotional apparatus that they have at the ready (however modest), that I just can't duplicate on my own. And I'm not talking about a lavish production in any way. Bare bones is just fine with me. But even a bare bones staging is financially beyond my ability to handle all alone.

99 said...

I used to think much the same way, but after reading OF, it strikes me that there isn't much more money to be found going the institutional theatre route. In this day and age, a lot of what an institutional theatre can and is doing, you can really do on your own without much more work. I'm talking about the things that actually bring audiences out, not just press releases.

But the biggest thing is NOT thinking, "Okay, I need to come up with $25,000 on my own, in three weeks." That's the whole point of forming a band and working the network you already have. And all of this stuff has been done (and some of it done to death), but that doesn't change that small fundraising drives, "rent parties" and other gimmicks can work to raise money. I've worked mainly in the almost-fringe scene and often I've found that theatres are basically asking you to help raise money for your show anyway, in one way or another. I say, cut out the middleman.