Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Was Only Half-Kidding

...When I left this comment at Isaac's place. Only half. But cue an epic bout of writer's malaise and the general state of the theatre blogging world of late and...well, it turned out to be more than halfway true.

One thing I'll say about the whole "craft vs. creativity" dust-up and its many incarnations is this: it is an important conversation to have. I know that a lot of practitioners get bored of it and think it's inside baseball or non-productive or whatever. But I think both the conversation and the resistance to it are key to what's going on in our field and with our art. And it ties into some of the things I've been reading lately (while I haven't been writing a stitch, I still read what you all are saying. When my boss isn't looking.). There's this from George Hunka, in particular.

Where are our critical faculties? Where is the sense of our work as art, as something to discuss, to consider, something that's created with forethought and precision and consciousness? Something that is as much about what is in the mind of the artist as what happens in the audience? There are times when I think that the Method, as it's become popularly understood and misunderstood, has been the worst thing that's happened to theatre. The Method and its corollary, neo-Romanticism: emotion is all, art springs from some magical, internal fountain and we, the artist, are just the vessel it passes through, the "voices speak to us and we just write down what they say." I'm not a fan of the totally cerebral in art, but some understanding of the act of making art as a mental effort is, I think, necessary. I think that the strong, anti-intellectual current that runs through our society, in general, has strongly affected our theatre, both in terms of the work that's put up and the infrastructures we build.

I didn't mean to go on about this at length, but that's never stopped me before. This isn't a fully-formed thought, so I might not make any actual sense. Feel free to mock, disagree, have at as need be. But I think that, as a an artform, theatre has, in a way, fallen back to where we were in the early 1800s, back to the place where Stansislavski thought, "We need a method here." Especially in playwriting. Sure, everyone talks "structure" and we're all "taught" it and whatever, but the entire goal is to make plays that feel a certain way, that evoke emotions and sensations, not that do something. A play with an intellectual argument in it is somehow weird, or out of place. A play that springs from an intellectual interest is deemed cold. Even though some of the great plays of the world were created that way.

I remember, back when I was in grad school, one of our great, imminent Important Playwrights came to speak. I avoid his name, because, well, he's super-Important, and I am not. He also has a reputation for cruelty and, sooner or later, someone's going to find out who I am. So...I'd rather not be on the receiving end. Anyway. This Important Eminence came to us and told us that, in the program he runs, he looks at his students and knows, just knows in his bones, which ones are playwrights. The others might be writers, novelists, poets, but only a few are playwrights. This is exactly what's wrong with what we're doing, why theatre is becoming more and more of an artistic backwater, falling behind television as the great dramatic writing of our time. Because we're building up this priesthood of people who are somehow chosen to do it, with skills and abilities that are, not just rare, but irreproducible. There was a time when a great novelist or poet could be encouraged to write a play and it was just part of what they did. Sure, they wrote verse plays or novelistic play or whatever, but they wrote plays and had them performed. I mentioned J.B. by Archibald MacLeish before, but T.S. Eliot wrote plays. When I was young, I wanted to be John Sayles because he wrote and directed movies, but he wrote novels, too. I think, in the last fifteen years, especially with the rise of the grad program as the sine qua non for playwriting, we've cut ourselves off. It's part of a rising, creeping tide of credentialism.

But it's credentialism with a twist. What we prize are playwrights who don't know what they're doing. The whole push toward "theatricalism" and "inventiveness" (usually for inventiveness' sake) is moving us away from a playwright saying, "How do I want to attack this story?" We're venerating the unconsicous parts of being a playwright and downplaying the conscious acts of an artist. And we don't even want to talk about it. Talk about what that means, and how it affects our theatres, the audiences, the work.

From an institutional standpoint, it's making our theatre narrower and narrower, because as the audiences move away to more engaging forms of art (not necessarily more challenging, but more engaging), the main audience becomes the funders. The rich fat cats and the non-profit staffs and boards who are going to be affected by what they hear about in the Times than what is actually happening on the stage.

I see all of this happening without a robust critical life happening. The print critics are basically doing marketing copy. A few do have a sense of "I'm looking at the field" but they're really just saying, "If you like X, you should see Y." Field guides for tourists, not criticism. I see it in myself. Way back when, I used to read all of TimeOut's reviews (even though they were brief). Now...yeah, I mostly just look at the star count. I read the first paragraph of the Times' review. It's not really about what's going on in the work.

I absolutely agree with Isaac that health care reform is the single most important thing for our culture as a whole and that it would transform the arts in this country as we know it (if we got real progressive reform), but I also think that we can multi-task. Asking what are we doing, what are we actually doing, from time to time, is important part of any endeavour. It scares me when so many people seem to not want to ask.


joshcon80 said...

Great post!

I'm somewhat new to commenting on theater blogs, though not new to theater or blogs. I'm a playwright who blogs about obscure pop culture. I was always the exact kind of person you describe. I didn't want to talk about it. I left a comment to Isaac on the same post that he should only do "hair blogging" and I was only half kidding too. I think it just seems exhausting sometimes and seemingly serves no purpose to constantly be yapping about this stuff.

I'm I naive to think that there should be room for all kinds of forms in the theater? Can't we have Ibsen and The Wooster Group (both of which bore me to tears, btw)and everything in between? It seems to me that in the end, there's good plays and bad plays in every pastiche. I mean, you're not suggesting that plays that are "theatrical" or "inventive" are bad, are you?

I do see your point about grad school though, but I think it's indicative of the institutional theater at large. It's hideously elitist which has made it utterly boring.

The more I think about it the more I agree with Scott Walters that theater should be a local, community oriented art. In my case the "community" is East Village homos, drunks, commies, and people under 30, but whatever. I like them. I have a home in the theater, niche as it might be, which a lot of great artists never find thanks to the boring old institution.

Lucas Krech said...

I know it can be tacky to link to your own blog in comments, but you might be interested in this series I wrote a while back. While dealing with production generally, rather than writing specifically, it does address some of the issues you are discussing.

The first piece is here:

And the rest of the series here:

Anonymous said...

Great post.

While I know it's only a starting point for your essay, one thing to remember about TR's comments is that she was responding not to a question from the Pulitzer Committee members, but a guy who runs the Lark. And a lot of the work at the Lark is nothing like that list of Pulitzer plays. Certainly that's true because of some of the things you discuss (career trajectory) but, it's worth noting since it puts TR's comments into what is a more accurate context.

Ian Thal said...

Have these graduate programs in writing created great poets, novelists, or playwrights?

There's a real need for arts conservatories to train students in technique and history of various forms, and this certainly has great values when it comes to painters, illustrators, filmmakers, dancers, actors, and techies-- artists who need practical training. But most of the poets who list these MFA credentials prominently in their bio create work that are at best mediocre, pedestrian, or superficial-- and I have seen much the same with some of the recent theatre written by owners of MFAs.

These credentials don't signify anything other than that one has credentials, they don't represent a degree of skill one has come to expect from a graduate of an acting program. So until these programs are rethought and start producing great writers, we need to explore alternative routes for writers to emerge.