Friday, February 19, 2010

Agreeing With The Critics

Not my normal bag, I know, but these are both very perceptive statements about the same problem:

Perhaps this season of Brits invading off Broadway is a fluke, and a year from now our non-profit companies will go back to American plays of the dysfunctional-family and identity-politics variety. Then we'll all sigh and say that English drama is sharper and more relevant, and hope we can afford to fly to London to see what's on at the National or the Royal Court. And after that, we'll trudge over to the Park Avenue Armory and see Shakespeare "done right" – thanks to generous American donors.
- David Cote, in the Guardian Theatre Blog
We do seem to consume a lot of instant topical satire these days, something that used to be fodder for revues and even for full-length Gershwin musicals. And I think the theatrical machinery works today more slowly than it did in the 1930s, when the theater was a more bustling and robust industry. By the time a “topical” play has been developed and workshopped and tried out in a regional theater, say, the point it addresses may have gone stale. This may be why there are not a whole lot of prominent American playwrights writing dramas about, for example, the insane political stagnation in Washington these days. (Any takers?)
- Charles Isherwood in the New York Times
H/T on that last link to Rob W-K.

In the talk about why there seem to be so many fewer Great Plays, we talk about limited access and about the quality of playwrights. Some insinuate that today's playwrights just ain't no damn good. Some whine that the theatres are too old, too stuffy for challenging work, that audiences aren't there with them. The studies show that there may be truth in all of that. But one factor that isn't given its due is the lead time.

I remember reading once about the news business, how radio and TV and, now the internet, are great for breaking news and constant updates, while the newspapers give you a little more distance and perspective and then finally, the news magazines give you the fullest view of the story, since they're the last to hit the street. In terms of entertainment, the same model seems to hold true. I can record a quick, YouTube video responding to the stories of the day, or write a blog post, or even write a quick ten-minute play and post it on this blog. If I want to write a ten-minute play about, say, Tiger and Elin Woods, talking before he makes his big apology speech, I can write that and have it out on the world on the internet in minutes. (Not a bad idea...except I'm pretty busy today.) But, if I submit that play to a theatre, I'll have to wait months to get a response, even longer to get a production. We're the magazines of the entertainment world.

In some ways, this works towards Great Plays and enduring works. A play about Tiger Woods' marital difficulties is going to have a pretty short shelf life, no matter what. We can't spend our time running after whatever is on the scrawl at the bottom of CNN or on TMZ right this second. It may be an important story. It may be Jon & Kate Plus 8. We can only really tell what's important with time and distance. Plays shouldn't be SNL sketches. Hell, most SNL sketches shouldn't be SNL sketches.

But, like everything, there's a flip side to waiting to see what's important: we lose a bit of relevance. And that bit can be important. We can miss out on stories, miss out on moments when the iron is hot to strike. By the time theatre gets around to a story, everybody's heard it, decided what they thought and moved on. We cede ground to Law & Order.

Part of what gave All My Sons its resonance, originally, was that it was about the current day, about the things that the country had just lived through. If Miller was writing All My Sons now, especially as a second play, coming right on the heels of a failure, chances are it wouldn't get produced right away. It would work its way through the bowels of play development hell, get tweaked, rewrite, get more notes, have reading upon reading and then finally emerge. Would All My Sons have the same resonance in 1950? Or 1955? Would, at some point, he have to consider "updating" it to the Korean War or even the Vietnam War? It's a terrific play, so it probably would have withstood that...but maybe not.

The long development and planning periods of institutional theatres and their risk-averse nature are both factors in the lack of topical plays. To be completely honest, playwrights are, too. I think too many of us live in an airy world of thinking about theatre and art as separate from the concerns of everyday life. In some ways, we're reaching for the universal, the Big Idea, but when we do that, we miss the small details that can make the Big Idea happen. Arthur Miller's mother-in-law shows him an article from an Ohio newspaper and he spins a classic out of that. I can't tell you the number of times I've talked to playwrights who profess to not reading the newspaper at all, to not following the stories of the day. I want to shake them vigorously.

We're not developing topical plays here in this country the way I think we should, and the blame for that goes around. But let's also remember that it's a trade-off. You want more topical plays about the issues of the day? You're going to get more bad plays, plays that are less polished and tested, plays that might be divisive and dangerous. You want polished, already Great Play material? You lose on the topical front. But if we can find that sweet spot, that place where the time and the play meet, hoo boy, we're in business. The question is how to get there. Isn't that always the question?


cgeye said...

This happened with DUSTY AND THE BIG BAD WORLD, a spot-on play about the PBS "two mommies" controversy that would have done better before the 2008 elections. Just due to the necessity of scheduling a subscription season in advance, it premiered at Denver Center after the election, and I believe the audience engaged with it differently because the White House had changed hands.

One thing topical theatre does? It bonds an audience to the actors and writers, not by preaching to the choir, but by preaching so much *better* than the Daily Show and SNL. (But not better than the Colbert Report -- those guys are sharp....) When I can't wait to see what that late-night theatre show does with the latest scandal, that gives writers the chance to flex their muscles in preparation for larger topics and targets.

That means we missed the great play about Jack Abramoff, the casinos and the Native Americans as front men -- someone's already made the decision that the story was too old by the time Abramoff fell off the front page. Isn't that the time when the story gets juicier -- when the people hiding behind him become more bold, and the connections become more clear?

And isn't the constant shift of cash from crime to inheritance to philanthropy still a compelling story? Maybe I answered my own question -- if we Follow the Money, there's surely an interest associated with theatre development who won't look kindly on it. Maybe that's why they urged the creation of Poor Theatres, back in the day: No confusion about who was owed loyalty, and silence.

99 said...

That's definitely the case with some of the financial shenanigans, certainly here in New York. It's hard to court Wall St. bigwigs for cash and then turn around and call them a bunch of blood-sucking vampires.

But I think part of that falls on the heads of playwrights. I don't know how much interest there was about those stories from playwrights. In part because they're generally terribly reported, so it can be hard to wrap your brain around them. But there's also the general attitude of "I'm a playwright! I don't know nothing about business!" Which is sad.

A couple of years back, a board member at the theatre I was working at wanted to create a grant to encourage playwrights to write about the world of finance. It never came together, but I wonder what would have come out if it did...

joshcon80 said...

Wait. Didn't "Waiting for Lefty" receive a couple of staged readings and then a bare bones workshop production before The Group put it up?

99 said...

I can be corrected on this point, but, as I remember it the readings and workshop production (which basically became the full production) all happened in pretty rapid succession and it was produced within a year or so of being written. I think the taxi strike that inspired it was even still going, but I may be wrong on that point.

I'm not against readings as a developmental tool, obviously. But, as they're currently used, the whole circuit of reading-reading-workshop mostly adds time to a play's life, since each new theatre starts it at the bottom again.

joshcon80 said...

I was joking.

If I remember correctly, Odets wrote Lefty in about a week before it was pretty much immediately staged.

99 said...

Who the hell let Buzz Killington post under my ID? That guy's got no sense of humor at all.

Scott Walters said...

Shakespeare: "I've talked to playwrights who profess to not reading Holinshed at all, to not following the stories of Plutach. I want to shake them vigorously."

Scott Walters said...

Your main point, 99, is very well taken -- theatre is not in the least bit nimble. Another reason for companies with house playwrights.

99 said...

I think that might be a Holtham's Law violation! Flag on the play. 15 yards. Automatic 1st down.

Scott Walters said...

*LOL* I'm throwing the challenge flag, because the underlying point is important: past masters didn't write about current events, at least not directly. OK, Moliere did sometimes. And Aristophanes. But the difference, which I know is your point, is that they could get stuff onstage quickly. Me? I'd prefer that we followed Shakespeare's model (tweet tweet!!!!) -- a -playwright who is a shareholder in the company who is expect to crank out a couple plays a year. Playwrights need to write faster and see their work more. If we could get Kushner to write two plays a year, instead of two plays a decade, we'd have something to crow about!

99 said...

Upon further review, the call on the field is reversed. Mostly because I agree. Who needs intellectual honesty?

Scott Walters said...

And the crowd goes wild!

Esther said...

It's not only the problem with being topical. One of the most riveting experiences I've had at the theater in the past few years was seeing "Black Watch." It's the first and only play I've seen about Iraq although I know there have been others written. But I wonder if any of them approached the subject in way that was nearly imaginative.

cgeye said...

Frankly I think American playwriting has suffered due to the L&O formula: Hint at a corporate-level corruption, but bring it down in the second act to flunkies chasing a personal payday. We mistake the personal story for the resonant one, so we don't try for the big goal.

We can feel for lots of people at once, but since HUAC we've been discouraged from writing about that.

ukejackson said...

J., I agree with a lot of what you said -- except I think 10 minute plays are generally a bad idea.

cgeye said: "We mistake the personal story for the resonant one, so we don't try for the big goal."

Too true too often -- but not always; and I believe there are a combination of elements beyond the "L&O formula" -- the education track for playwrights, and grants as hush money from corporations, foundations and government being foremost.

HUAC is more likely to have had an impact on the thinking of toadying artistic directors and their choices of what to stage than an impact on playwrights' thinking.

The revival of "Hair" is a perfect example of gutlessness posing as relevance. Remember, Claude goes into th Army at the end, rather than resisting.

There are other shows being written and developed independently of the clogged institutional theater colon / route. I'm certainly not the only American playwright actively avoiding family as a topic and choosing to tackle themes dramatically.

As to Iraq, what I've seen so far -- admittedly very little -- is pathetic and uninformed. We need those plays to0 come from veterans, not grad school dinks.