Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Isaac Poses A Question... super-commenter Jack Worthing:
One other question...a nd if you don't feel comfortable answering this because it might compromise your anonymity, i understand and respect that, even though we disagree a lot (unlike some people in this comments thread, i don't only disrespect desires for anonymity from people I disagree with).. do you teach? And if so, how does your understanding of the quality of new plays out there and the system producing them impact your teaching?
Jack asks for a clarification and Issac says:
What I think I was trying to get at was this... Jack I'm pretty sure is a playwright from some stuff he's said in other comments. Which would make him a living playwright, which would make his plays by definition new work... and I'm just wondering how his own work and (if he taught) teaching fits in to how underwhelmed by a lot of new work that's out there he feels. Does that make any sense?

I guess part of what I 'm asking is, and I know it's hard to do this an remain anonymous (That's why I came out as Isaac Butler 7 days after starting Parabasis) is there a way to make this conversation a little more human/personal on top of talking about the system. I just want to invite Jack to get a little more here's some of what my experience has been concretely and how it informs my viewpoint on the lack of originality in new work etc.
Consider this a new thread to discuss...


Jack Worthing said...

I'm a playwright, and I don't want to confuse anyone: I admire and respect many, many of my colleagues. I do think new work, as it stands -- at least what's getting attention -- is falling short of the masters, but that's not a necessarily a criticism. Craig Lucas and Roy Williams, for example, are fearless writers, and their plays create a vital dialogue with their forebears. I don't know if they'll stand up over time, but the reason that I rate them more highly over Ruhl, Rapp, etc. is that THERE'S AN ATTEMPT TO GO BEYOND THE PARENT. That's what Pinter did. He took Beckett's achievement, extended it, and bound it to the front room. He created structures that were more immediate and throat-grabbing than Beckett. Pinter re-invented Beckett's wheel. The ghost of someone else hovers behind all our work, but are we content to be haunted, or do we try to escape...?

When I teach, it's mostly older children and very young adults. They learn, as we all did, through models and imitation. Not all of them want to be playwrights. My primary responsibility is to help them make good choices: how to discover their vision for a piece, and how not to compromise it. Above all I firmly believe in teaching Artistotelian rules: if a student demonstrates a basic grasp of these, only then do I allow them to be broken. The biggest weakness I see in new plays is a fundamental lack of storytelling skill. So many young writers (like Sarah Ruhl!) dismiss old-fashioned storytelling as 'television'. Well, fine, but what else is there? Before you attempt your blank-verse epic about people in wetsuits on Mars in the fourth dimension, you'd better know how to keep an audience hooked. Pinter couldn't have written BETRAYAL if he hadn't mastered storytelling first. (Students are always thrilled when they notice that when it's played chronologically, BETRAYAL is a bore. Harold didn't write it that way just for a laugh.)

I can't set students up to storm the theatre. But I pick my battles. If a student is particularly talented or wants a future in this business, that's when I try to complicate things. 'Yes, Harold and Tenn and Caryl did A, B & C, but what if you did C, Y & D?' I try, where possible, to counsel patience and ambition. I can't teach them, but they're everything.

Scott Walters said...

While I suppose I could quibble with Jack (I actually think that Pinter extends more naturalistic playwrights, rather than absurdists -- but then, I don;t think Beckett is an absurdist in his later plays either), but overall I think Jack hits the nail on the head. In order to go beyond the parent, you have to know the parents, and I just don't think a lot of younger theatre people really have made the effort to read extensively. At least, that's my impression.

Harold Bloom wrote "The Anxiety of Influence," which showed how certain poets worked to escape from the gravitational pull of their major forebears. It is hard to see much of this in today's theatre.

And I totally agree about storytelling. One theme that keeps coming up in Outrageous Fortune is that playwrights are angry because ADs aren't interested in formal experimentation. Well, most audiences aren't either, at least not as an end in itself. They want to connect to the story, the content, the characters and ideas. So many of the plays don't have anything much to say, and don't have much depth to their understanding of life. Superficial, mostly. And whiny.

Anyway, so far I'm mostly with Jack on this.

joshcon80 said...

Yes, Jack! I'm with you too. But I also think that playwrights today don't have very many opportunities to do much of anything and it's difficult too, when theater isn't a part of the popular culture like it was then. Not that those are excuses.

And I agree with you on Craig Lucas. True confession time, and I hope this doesn' annoy since I get the idea you're not m biggest fan... Craig was one of my earliest mentors and the entire reason I moved to New York. (I assisted him in Seattle and then moved here to assist him on a second project.) He is one of the most genuine and fearless artists I've ever met and a great role model for any writer who wants to "go their own way."

"There's an attempt to go beyond the parent..." Do you think young playwrights aren't reaching for that? I know I am. My parents in terms of style and structure are Nicky Silver, Charles Ludlam, Charles Busch, Chris Durang (and I'm starting to think Sarah Kane unintentionally in a weird round about way.) They may not be Pinter, but there it is.

Surely you must have theater forefathers that you're trying to go beyond as well, no?

Oh, and I agree that the TV comment is super annoying. I used to say that about plays in college. It was stupid.

macrogers said...

Jack, while I disagree with some of the comments you've posted in different places, I agree with your vision of what playwriting should be. (Other than your thoughts on Ruhl, whose work I've neither seen nor read - at this point, almost out of the desire to be spared the responsibility of having an opinion in it!).

For me, though, it has to be partially submerged. I read great works of playwriting and try to absorb their language and dramaturgical techniques, but I can't sit down to write a play thinking about going beyond the parent. I can't sit down and consciously think, "Now I shall write a great play!," or I'll drive myself crazy, and produce a script that has no reason to exist other than to convince others of my supposed greatness. I have to focus on telling a story that hooks me using theatrical techniques that exhilarate me, and trust that the influences I've absorbed will leak through.

Still, though, I respect ambition, and believe in the value of knowing the history of my chosen craft. Something old, something new, something borrowed, etc. You mix it up.

Jack Worthing said...

We disagree a lot, Josh, but it's never personal. Craig is a great writer and a lovely, generous man. Different as your writing might be, he's an example for all of us. And your 'parents' are wonderful writers themselves. No value judgment there. You find your family, then you try your best to out-do them. I certainly struggle to do it myself. They're geniuses, and I'm not; but it's the effort that counts. It becomes obvious to anyone who looks. In the end you carve out tiny patches of ground for yourself. A good writer has to balance a massive ego with profound humility, and I suppose that's what I find lacking in many young writers. It seems to me that Sarah Ruhl shamelessly squats in Paula Vogel's front room, whilst Adam Rapp hides under Sam Shepard's bed. It's like they discovered a sympathetic vision one day, embroidered on it a little, and now they won't have it sullied by anything, least of all history. It's related to the Gifted Child syndrome, which I have to combat in my teaching: 'I haven't read Ibsen, or Chekhov, but I've got a plan and by God I'm going to stick it up you.' Well, you might stick it up ME, but no one else will see it. I maintain that Ruhl, Rapp, McCraney, etc. are given passes because they're flashy-yet-conservative, when a subtler, more radical writer would be held to account for such big storytelling deficiencies.

Jack Worthing said...


Thanks. And yes, of course it has to be partially submerged. It all goes back to context. If I ran things, I'd do several new plays next to classics each season. This is how writers learn about their work, and this is how a new play shows off muscles you might not know it had. Plays and playwrights die without context. But some playwrights deny it to themselves.

Ian Thal said...

One thing I keep coming back to was just how educational my experience with commedia dell'arte because besides showing me the roots of popular theatre, like circus and vaudeville, it gave me great insight to how a great genius like Shakespeare got his ideas: He stole them!

Witnessing the theft gave me insight into how he would twist, subvert, and break the conventions set down by his influences.

Now, I can't even remotely claim to be a master of my craft given my early stage, but it certainly taught me not to approach my influences with too much reverence.

devilvet said...

Your parents dont always have to be playrights either. My parents are Fellini, Gilliam, Lynch, Maddin, Waters, but also Ehn, Wellman, Fornes, but also Bjork, Cash, and Ives, but also Wilson, Foreman, LeCompte, but also Wyeth, Kentridge, Bacon but also Frost, Neruda, and Rushdie, but for that matter why not Stewart, Whinfey, Olbermann... I think one of the reasons some folks view playwrighting as stagnant is not because folks arent attempting to go beyond the parent... it is because many are under the false impression that they cant pick their own parents because the canon has been arrived at for them. Literary Darwinism can seem as slow moving as actual marcoevolution. Part of that has something to do with the systems set up, you know the whole institutional thing, educational thing, play production thing.

99 said...

I don't have a whole lot to add here, honestly. Thank you all, guys, for some great reading.

joshcon80 said...

Jack, when I took playwriting in undergrad we started first by writing "well made plays." The professor was very strict about that: no gimmicks, no tricks, no anything but story. It annoyed me SO much at the time, but now I see how valuable that was. I wonder how common that is in teaching craft. I only had the one class.

Also, why do you say you aren't a genius? I mean, I see your point about humility, and I respect that a lot. In person I'm a very humble, sweet, and even soft spoken guy. That said, I can be pretty ferocious in promoting (or defending) my work. I feel that I have to be, resources being what they are.

Of course I'm actually really critical of my work. I always tear my plays to bits and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I can be really cruel to myself, even. By the time somebody sees the play it's strong enough that I can defend it.

Another full disclosure: I don't think I'm a genius either. But it bothered me to hear you say that about yourself. If you can't stand by your work, how can you expect anybody else to?

Ian, I heart commedia too.

Tony Adams said...

I've long thought that no writer has had a greater influence on the American theatre than Maria Irene Fornes, with the exception of Eugene O'Neill. (Starting when when off-off consisted of 4 theatres.)

In many ways she is akin to Mario Bauza. Most of 20th century music is directly influenced by him. Most folks have never heard of him.

Kushner, Churchill, Chaikin, Wellman, Oskar Eustis, Lucas, Harrower, McNally and many more all have said how much they were influenced by her. Wellman has said American playwriting would be unimaginable without her.

But few know her body of work. Hell, only a eight of her plays have been performed in Chicago over the last forty years.

When looking at an attempt to go beyond the parent, are we looking at the wrong parents?

joshcon80 said...

Tony, I don't know. What you say about Fornes is undeniably true, but I don't think playwrights necessarily have to look to her as a parent. Anyway, she's there whether those writers see it or not. All work is derivative, so there are likely lots of forefathers that aren't being credited.

They used to say something about The Velvet Underground. They only made 1,000 records but every one who bought one went on to become a rock star. Fornes is kind of like that.

By the way, have you seen any of the documentary about Fornes that is in the works? It looks stunning.

Tony Adams said...

Josh, I agree and somewhat disagree.

I think it depends on if your looking at it as a playwright talking about your own writing, or as an artist talking about the field--if that makes sense.

I think we could learn a lot form looking at her work more as she intersects and transcends most of the issues that are currently going around.

She could be the theses statement for arguements on: Style vs. Substance, Self-Producing vs. Institutions, Diversity vs. "Mainstream" and on and on. Often we think it has to be one or the other; however, without both we get pretty bland work.

(For me, it's interesting to see how Ibsen and Beckett both deeply influenced her work.)

Have only seen tiny bits of that doc (mostly what's on the website). It looks really cool.

Ken said...

My parents: Pinter, Albee, Mamet, Rabe, Guare, and anyone who wrote something that involved me, thrilled me, irritated me, shocked me, if only for the two short hours I was sitting there. I've stolen shamelessly from all of you, believe me. I can only hope that I have a powerful enough blender to make the various raw ingredients congeal into something new.

99 said...

I did a post on this a while back, but I'd say my parents are Lanford Wilson, August Wilson and Constance Congdon. I'm constantly trying to find ways to honor them and, at the same time, grow past them. I know the grandparents stack up behind them, but I really don't think too much about them. Those are the writers who make me want to write and write better.

devilvet said...

I have more questions...

I really hope to continue this discussion

Scott Walters said...

While we're at it, maybe we ought to choose our grandparents, too -- and create a family tree.

My parents include Robert Gard, Frederich Koch, Wendell Berry, E. M. Schumacher, and Lionel Trilling. My older cousins include Dudley Cocke, LaMoine McLaughlin, Patrick Overton, and Lyle Estill. My grandparents include Matthew Arnold, and G. B. Shaw.

Ken said...

I love it when I see a play that I thoroughly enjoy but feel I couldn't write myself. A play that has some admirable virtues that my work just doesn't seem to have. It makes me jealous at first, and then fires my resolve to try and match it, which usually doesn't lead anywhere, as I go back to my old habits. "Circle. Mirror. Transformation." is the latest play to do that to me.

Tony Adams said...

I think mine would go something like:

Ovid/Chaucer ->

Shakespeare/Calderon ->

Ibsen/Strindberg ->

Lorca/O'Neil/Brecht --> (okay that's three but there are some pretty f-ed up families in there so it's probably fitting.)


Me (I think . . . might be a different list tomorrow.)

Ian Thal said...

Mine in alphabetical order:

Bertold Brecht, Mikhail Bulgakov, Charlie Chaplin, The Firesign Theatre, Dario Fo, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Søren Kierkegaard, Marcel Marceau, The Marx Brothers, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Peter Schumann (despite being known in some circles as a vocal critic), W.S., Sophocles, Tom Stoppard, and Thornton Wilder.

That's just off the top of my head.

Mark said...

"So many of the plays don't have anything much to say, and don't have much depth to their understanding of life. Superficial, mostly. And whiny."

Are we going to have another thread where we demand that Scott list actual examples of the contemporary plays he's read and seen? Because last time he actually mentioned Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which I still find hilarious.

Scott Walters said...

Maybe Mark should list plays that aren't.

Mark said...

Sure. How many would you like?

devilvet said...

Well, I dont have a copy of "outrageous 4tune"... But, I'd like a scientific an approach to the notion that playwrights aren't interested in connecting and story and what not.

Personally, anything that doesnt resonate with me ends up getting a summation in my mind very similar to what Scott said.

But, the conversation lies in specifics... so 3 plays written (and is it fair to say published?) within the last decade that typify the "whininess" would help.

Mark said...

I wasn't offering to list superficial and whiny contemporary plays -- that was the challenge I posed to Scott. He demurred and asked me to list contemporary plays that weren't, so I asked how many he'd like so I can complete my mission. I hope he suggests a higher number than three, to make this at least a bit dramatic.

devilvet said...


I'll take any three from any one as examples of either/or

Mark said...

I'm going to wait to hear from Scott on this. My main point here is that Scott belittles contemporary playwriting, but doesn't evince even a passing familiarity with it. Since he's asked me to list contemporary plays that aren't superficial and whiny, I'm happy to comply. Just waiting to hear how many he'd like me to list.

devilvet said...


I wish we could talk more about theatre, and less about Scott. I'm sure he isnt the only person to have made such a claim.


Scott Walters said...

I agree totally, devilvet. Red herring. (I think I just said I'm a red herring.) Mark, this conversation was going in a pretty interesting direction. Let's let it continue to do so.

macrogers said...

Don't worry about Scott, Mark. We know the truth.

isaac butler said...

(I should just say that there's a comment thread with a list of playwrights at my place if anyone wants to start learning names of people to check out to see if they're superficial and whiny)

It's interesting for me as a director to talk about influence, because while I think I have a definite sensibility, much of my time is spent thinking more about process, because i really am dedicated to designer processes that will create a really great work, rather than an eventual product that looks x or y way.

So, in a weird way, my therapist from the ages of 23-29 is a formative influence on my work because it was a group practice and i learned a lot about how people interact.

but in terms of sensibility, Daniel Aukin and Les Waters are probably the largest and most obvious influences on my work. Simon McBurney too. And Joy Zinoman, the first professional director I ever worked with. And Howard Shalwitz. And a bunch of movies that changed my idea of how narrative could work.

Jack Worthing said...

Pinter, Chekhov, Churchill, Tennessee, Lanford Wilson, Tom Murphy, Harry Kondoleon, Joe Orton, Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, and Chekhov.

Fornes has been an incredible influence on how writing/directing is taught and practically approached. I don't know her plays well but I'd go as far as to say she's influenced us all, whether we know it or not.


It's kind of you to propose that I might be a genius, or that we might all be; I suppose no one really knows 'til they're dead anyway. I know what you mean about being a fierce critic/defender of your work, though. You did write the damn thing, and while others can give you perspective on it, you still understand it better than anyone. Kerouac said 'You're a genius all the time' and I get his point, but I suppose I just don't like the word. I think of it in practical terms. I hope this doesn't sound like false modesty, but my job is to make things. They have a practical function. People have to use them. However much I play around with the blueprint, I'm stuck with the same essentials and I have to apply them to their best effect. I don't think Chippendale was any more a genius than (for example) Sarah Ruhl is; the difference is that Chippendale knew, better than anyone, how the pieces fit. To get back to playwrights, Caryl Churchill knows this so well that she can, to the rest of us, appear like she's throwing the pieces in the air, but she still still arranges them in a strong, satisfying, functional way. That's difficult enough, and that challenge is fine with me. If I happen to make something brand-new, it'll be entirely by accident.