Thursday, January 14, 2010

Numbers Game

See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Among others, I'm sure. And it's all fascinating reading. I was pretty busy today at my day job and dropped in whenever I could, but, by and large, I'm with David Cote's comment here:
As a critic who believes that supporting good new playwrights, directors and companies is one of his duties, I find this hand-wringing over our neglected heritage dispiriting (if not insulting to artists who have taken a virtual oath of poverty for an art form they love).

Living playwrights are being produced around the country in large numbers; how is this not a good thing? (Yes, I know one problem addressed in Outrageous Fortune is the fact that too many theaters draw from a limited pool--Ruhl, Auburn, Nottage, Mamet, etc.)

But we will always have Chekhov, Williams and Shakespeare—which is to say, we will always have mediocre productions of the same 12 classics. Could we perhaps discuss why the same classics are done over and over and not more obscure works by the same authors?

To start with, there's a reason why Mark Twain said this. Numbers are slippery slippery things, especially when you start down the road of parsing what constitutes a classic, a contemporary classic, a new play that's five years old or seven years old or a world premiere, regional premiere, whatever. It really edges into counting angels jitterbugging on the head of a pin. Depending on the filter, I'm sure I could show that no theatre east of the Mississippi, west of the Monongahela, with a "p" in its name has produced a new play in the past 78 weeks. Or I could prove that no theatre at an elevation more than 1,000 feet above sea level has produced a play of a Shakespearean contemporary in the round since 1978. The goalposts move and move and we all kind of chase our tails (tales?) to prove our points. But, like I said yesterday (was it yesterday?) the big question remains, if you're right, so what?

Let's say you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that classic plays have fallen out of favor? Is the remedy to shunt aside new voices? Really? That's what two critics and a playwright and actor (sorry, Art, if I'm leaving anything out) are eager to prove? We've had enough new voices, thank you very much! No more need apply? I don't think that's what they're saying or arguing, but what's the endgame?

Or you prove definitively that our stages are clogged to death with old white guys. Then...what? Consign them all to the dust bin? Lump Shakespeare, Beckett and Miller in with Wycherly, Elmer Rice (remember him?) and Inge and chuck them all and their boring, conventional plays? Nah. That's not it, either, obviously. (Though Isaac has some interesting thoughts in that line.)

It's all no-win, isn't it? Shouldn't we have new voices and classics sharing our stages? I look at the list that Isaac compiled and, yeah, it could use a bit more diversity, in a lot of ways, but, man, it ain't bad. Really. For ten years worth of plays, there's a lot of ground covered there. Maybe it's not quite as bad as it feels.

There's also this: we haven't even talked about distribution. Art and Thomas Garvey contend that Boston is becoming over-run with new plays. A not ridiculous concept. I'm sure if I did an informal survey of New York theatres, I'd come up with similar conclusions. Those 1,000 Shakespeare productions aren't all happening in the cities. But what about Rochester? St. Louis? Albuquerque? Little Rock? (And, yeah, I know, there's not a lot of Shakespeare in those seasons. Work with me.) I know I'm verging into Scott's turf, but all of our cities are outliers when it comes to new play production.

All of our pictures are incomplete and subjective. It's all a Rorschach test. What do you see?


Scott Walters said...

Your comments on statistics are problematic, IMO. Data is data, and it is what we are woefully lacking in all of our discussions, so we end up relying solely on our own limited experience. Yes, the way you make your definitions influences the results, so make sure your definitions actually reflect what is central. But don't throw data out the window, consigning it to the subjective dustbin, just because the data can be examined through different filters.

Michael Malone said...

You're right. Or at least I think you are.

But then, follow the money. If our local community troop puts on Arsenic and Old Lace, we make lots of money. If we put on something new, we don't. What are we more likely to do?

Yes, it's community theater and not professional theater. But I bet there is some cash pressure in the professional world too. Romeo and Juliet makes money, and obscure play, Willy Shakes or not, doesn't. So what gets put on?

In the end, its about the money. Because money means people came to see it. And even if you got some grant or another to cover the cost, most actors would rather play to a full house than an empty one.

In fact, I've yet to see a cast put on a show when no one was in the audience. And I've seen an empty house. Sad night, that. And guess what... it was a newer play.