Sunday, January 24, 2010

Takeaways: Outrageous Fortune

I honestly don't have much to add to Mead and Isaac's takes. This has been an incredible conversation in a lot of ways and it has really shown how complicated, delicate, frustrating and difficult these issues are.

Having spent the better part of this month thinking about all of this stuff, I'm a bit full-up, to be honest. I see Scott's points in this post, and disagree with some, agree with others. Isaac's post covers a lot of the ground I would cover, so read that.

As for me, Mead sums where I'm at pretty well:
Ironically, therefore, the book in general and the last chapter in particular both inadvertently reinforce a conclusion that many of us have already come to. Which is that the only way to win is not to play. Let the regional system dodder on if it wants to; we don’t have to ape its shopworn antics.
Emphasis mine. (I don't know how inadvertent that reinforcement is, actually.) Or, alternatively, to quote what I firmly believe to be the greatest piece of dramatic writing of the last 25 years, you can not lose if you do not play. The system we have is not producing great art or happy artists or satisfied audiences. As a playwright, when you enter it, it's a long trek of small compromises and sacrifices. The institutional theatres ask you to leave behind the collaborators you've worked closely with, the styles and subjects you hold dear and have committed to, the communities that you connect with, in return for a shot at greatness. And no one notes that you're leaving behind exactly the tools you need to write great plays.

In our conversations, I think we (and I'm definitely including myself in this) elided the question of quality. Outrageous Fortune does not, and so we've done the book a bit of a disservice. At every turn, the authors are asking about the quality, about the plays that are being developed and produced. They don't make any definitive statements, offer no personal opinions; it's more a work of reportage, not advocacy. (Well, not exactly. I'll get to that in a minute.) But they ask the question: what kind of plays are we producing?

As I've already noted, this book is not about playwrights or playwriting. It's simply not. All of the coverage, and, frankly, most of these responses, have focused on the lives of playwrights, but it covers a lot more ground. As a playwright, I've focused on our issues, but al lot of the issues are shared by other artists, by artistic directors and managers. This book is about how plays are made in the institutional theatres. Lots of people seem to like calling playwrights "whiny" or that it's just about a lot of unproduced people bitching. To them, I say, RTWT. Again. If you want to criticize the folks who are writing about it, stand up and do that. We can take it just fine. But don't reject the book out of hand without reading it.

So...what kind of plays are we producing? Honestly? Meh. I think that's the best way to describe it. Meh. I get snarky, snippy, spiky, even downright contrarian here. I talk a bit of smack about the Old Dead White Guys and all. But here's the thing: I agree with this.

I honestly do. I believe in Great Plays, truly amazing, surprising, passionate plays. A couple of weeks ago, Scott had a great, smart post that touches on what makes a play a Great Play. His post talks about the marga, "the 'elemental ideas,'" the big, "universal" stuff and the desi, "the folk ideas," the local language that expresses those ideas. Here's a key graf:
Neither the marga nor the desi can exist independently -- they must interact, like the electrons and protons of a molecule. The argument Byrne is making, and that Todd London's Outrageous Fortune is making, and that I would make as well, is that we have not, over the years, achieved a healthy and dynamic interaction between the polarities of past and present, marga and desi, collective unconscious and Volkergedanken, educated and uneducated, rich and poor. It isn't about balance -- balance is static; it is about a dynamic flow between polarities, getting the best of both while avoiding the limits of each.
A Great Play lives in that place between the big, universal truths and the specific language of a specific time and place. The language of Hamlet is specific to Shakespeare's world and times, but the story soars above it. The same holds for Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Or Death of A Saleman. We need them. We need great masterworks that elevate the heart and soul, that capture the human spirit in amber and hold it up to the light.

We're not getting them. Not from American playwrights. It hurts to say it, but I think it's true. We've got some good plays and some great playwrights who are more than capable of Great Plays, but we're not getting the Great Plays of our times. Outrageous Fortune, whether it was intended to or not, tries to figure out why. (As does David Dower's study, The Gates of Opportunity, next on Isaac's hit list and discussed here. I might need a vacation...soon.) And a lot of blame can be passed around: playwrights aiming low, the gates are only open to a small number of artists, the theatres are terrified of taking any losses at all and aim for the middle road. The funny thing about it all is that this system is set up to find the Great Plays. It's just lost the way to it.

Isaac touched on it in this post. But to take a longer look, let's look at Tennesse Williams' bibliography, focusing on his first twenty years as a playwright:
He wrote 8 full-length plays, almost all of them produced, on Broadway before getting to The Glass Menagerie. Also, at least one of them was a rewrite of an earlier work. That's a full decade of major productions to work on his craft, to figure out how to tell the stories that were important to him. Some of those early plays have a lot to recommend them, but they're also flawed, damaged and many are only rarely revisited. But that's the path to a Great Play: it runs through less than great plays.

The world of institutional theatres just doesn't have time for that. The financial margins are too tight, the internal and external pressures are too great, the egos, both institutional and personal, are both oversized and too fragile to confront actual failure. And so they jump on a writer who's written Spring Storm as though it were A Streetcar Named Desire and then are disappointed that the next play isn't Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; it's Not About Nightingales. The critics pan it, call the writer overrated, the audiences are confused and disappointed because they were told they were seeing a new American classic, the writer feels burned and frustrated and letdown. That's the place we are now.

How do we get out of this place? For artists, the choice is simple: Do. Not. Play. You can not win. On the outside of the system, there is indie work, small bands of artists, alternative spaces to explore. If the field can do anything to help itself, it's do more to support artists doing for themselves. I'm collaborating on a webseries with some friends. We were lucky enough to get a small piece written about us by a Columbia University J-School student. The next thing we knew, someone from the Writers Guild had reached out to us because they're actively recruiting new member working in digital media. They see it's the future and want in. If the Dramatists Guild isn't holding workshops on self-producing, they're not really helping their members. The future is coming, and it's outside of the institutional system.

If there's anything that Outrageous Fortune leaves us with, it's the sense that there is a new world out there. It's time to explore.

1 comment:

rebecca longworth said...

Hey J, fantastic blog. Thank you so much for the comments in this post about Tennessee Williams, and about artists doing it for themselves. As a producer of my own work and that of others, you get a resounding SECOND from me on that one. I'll be following you whenever I dive into the bloggy sea.