Friday, January 29, 2010

Juking the Stats*

Shorter Thomas Garvey: The Year of Living Statistically

Statistics don't really mean anything and anyone who says differently is a dishonest hack, and just using them to support their agenda. Now, look at these statistics that totally support my agenda! See you next week, when (Spoiler Alert!) I call playwrights a bunch of untalented whiners! Tip your waiters!


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Things I Agree With

Ta-Nehisi Coates edition.

I had started a post about this this morning, but, honestly, it bummed me out so much, I just couldn't. I did post it to my facebook and a friend of mine chimed in about how he didn't think that Chris Matthews was a racist and that he was trying to say something positive (a point that Matthews made himself later). The part that bums me out is that's totally true. I don't think Chris Matthew is a racist, a bigot or anything like that. But it's also true that for Chris Matthews and a lot of other people, black man <> president. It really does not compute and it doesn't even compute how that could be offensive. The goal presented for black people is "transcend race" which, as Ta-Nehisi points out, really means, "transcend my ideas of race." Which apparently mean that the qualities of a good leader and a good president, things like intelligence, resolve, passion and courage, are not possibly black. They are "post-racial," they are "universal." They are anything but qualities you find in a black man. And no white president (or white man, for that matter) has to "transcend" anything to achieve them.

This is something I've personally heard all of my life, always framed as a compliment. It's something I'm particularly sensitive to, so the second I heard it, my anger rose up a bit. And then my heart broke a little bit. But then you move on.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spoilers Abound!

But still you have to watch this. Best. Show. Ever.

H/T Isaac. Thanks for basically making my day.

I Think Adam Thurman Is A Smart Guy

And this post shows why.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

Paul Mullin edition:
We are show people. We can claim to be anything we want to be. The more outrageous and untenable, the better, so long as we ultimately back it up through sheer creative brilliance. We are not obliged to subscribe to any preordained corporatized benchmark. The audience is our only arbiter. So long as we give them what they want, or better-- what they did not even realize they wanted until we made them want it in the first place-- we are doing our jobs superbly. We should stake our claim, without irony or arrogance, to becoming a world class theatre community, and when, and only when, we convince our audiences, then world class is what we will be. Because we say so.
Rumble, young man, rumble.

About The Benjamins

I honestly can't imagine that anyone reading my blog here isn't also reading James Comtois' most excellent series on self-producing. If somehow you aren't, then get to reading. Now. It is grand, as I've mentioned before, and only getting better. Seriously, check it out. I don't know James and haven't worked with him, but, after reading it, he sounds like my kind of guy.

That said, I do want to do a small smidge of pushback about one bit of his analysis. In this post, he says:
So when I read the lamentations that playwrights only make $30,000 a year off their playwriting, or that theatres with an audience base of 15,000 subscribers are unable to expand it to 20,000, I can't even comprehend how that's being revealed, or seen, as some sort of problem.
He also links to Sean Williams, who writes:
Everyone who's talking about the economic downside of theater, they aren't talking to me, and they aren't really talking to anyone who's producing alongside me. And yet, we're all, actually, pretty happy. And none of us is broke.
In a way, both are sentiments I agree with, obviously. What we do shouldn't be about the money, and, even if it was, there are far, far, FAR easier ways to make money than devoting your life to theatre. I knew that going in. I really did.

A lot of the criticism and pushback on the findings from Outrageous Fortune and the discussion that's been going on seems to come around to this idea that the chief complaint is that we're not making any money off of our art. I know I've fed into that. I want to make a couple of points:

- A clear picture of the economics of a life in theatre really doesn't do anyone any harm. If this is the life you're going to choose, you should know what's what. It also keeps us from feeling isolated. I struggle with money, struggle with living a poor theatre life in an incredibly expensive city. But it feels like it's just my struggle, that I'm just shit with a budget or drinking too much or whatever (which, let's be honest, I probably am.*). Seeing it in context of a community that's under financial stress puts in perspective and makes it actionable. It doesn't have to be this way. There's nothing integral to the life of a theatremaker that requires being broke all the time. The greater concern for me, from those stats on what playwrights make isn't that the playwrights are only making 15% of their income from playwriting; it's that playwrights are only making ~$30K a year, mostly from non-theatre sources. That puts people under a lot of financial stress in this day and age. The really scary thing is that this hasn't changed, significantly, in a decade or two. It's not a system built for longevity or depth of field.

- The much more real and much larger concern, at the end of the day, is the art. Like I said here, "The system we have is not producing great art or happy artists or satisfied audiences." And I do mean that as an indictment of the institutional theatre system; the indie system is producing some kick-ass art, happy artists and some pretty satisfied audiences. Unfortunately, the institutional system is what sucks up all the focus, a lot of the attention and most of the air. That's something that has to change. It's not going anywhere, not really, but we, as a field, have to reorient ourselves. Re-direct our energy. Before Outrageous Fortune and the other studies came out, it wasn't as clear that this system was mucking up the work. Some great plays were coming out, some exciting things were happening. It seemed like a few new names at the top, a few tweaks and it could be saved. I don't believe that anymore. I don't believe that truly great art will be developed in the institutional theatre system. It may pop up on their stages from time to time, but that's it.

This isn't borne out of bitterness with my meager earnings as a paycheck or anger at having to keep a day job. It's borne out of frustration that the work isn't better, the artists aren't happier and no one (or rather very few people) who are tasked with such things seem to care. When you're in the institutional theatre system, the very strong sense is that it's all a problem of money. If we just had more grants, more funding, bigger donors, all of our problems would drift away. Reading OF and reading the conversations has convinced me, solidly, that's not the truth. The rot runs deeper and is more pernicious than that.

I know, for the folks who checked out of the institutional system early on and have been making their way, this is like, I don't know, 1991 and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" just came out and now all the A&R guys are sniffing around the clubs in Seattle, looking for the next big thing. Or, you know, Garth Brooks is putting out a grunge record. Joel Schumacher doing a Dogma95 movie with Colin Farrell. We're a bunch of carpetbaggers who've just realized that you've got a good thing going. We're not. It's not a ploy for more cash, or a whine that we gave the system our all and all we got was a gold watch. It's saying, "This shit used to be fun. How do I make it fun again?"

For guys like Scott, it's also about the next generations. Hell, for guys like me, too. I love young playwrights and have worked with them over and over again. And they're running into a meat grinder. If we shrug our collective shoulders and say, "Well, that's just the price of the business we do," we don't help them. We don't let them know there are other paths, other ways. When I got out of college, I moved to New York because it seemed to be the thing to do. I interned at a small theatre because it seemed to be the thing to do. I went to grad school because other writers I knew and I liked went to grad school. I worked with small theatre companies, run by grad school and college friends. Always the sense was, this is just the first step, my apprenticeship, before moving onto a place where there was more work, more artistic challenges, and more support. Now I see that that place doesn't exist, despite the way it's sold. So I'm going where I'm loved, where I can do the work I want to do.

Yeah, I bought in. I paid for the ticket. I got on the ride. That's on me. But now that I want off, I don't want to just leave everyone else on the ride. I want to make sure they know there's an exit. That's why this conversation is important to me. That's why I've spent this much time on it. I'm making myself late for work right now to write this. Because this ride is going nowhere and I have a lot of friends on it. Let's get off together.

*If my folks are reading this, I kid! I kid! I exaggerate for comic effect. I've never touched a drop of the stuff in my life! I swear.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hey, Canada!

If you live in Toronto, or find yourself there this March, check this out. It's a lovely, terrific play. Go, Graeme!


What Scott said. Times Eleventy-one.

Today Sucks

It just does. But Freeman's got the right idea. So in that spirit, I offer you this:

The Future?

I read this article in the Times (get it free while you can!) over the weekend and was pretty excited about it (mostly because I missed The Shipment). One regular complaint I hear among younger theatre-makers is that the union agreements and rules make it too hard to capture a show on video, both for posterity and for marketing purposes. I'm not sure how all of that works with this.

But then I also read this from Next Stage, and thought Simon raised some good thoughts. It obviously isn't a simple issue and I'm still psyched by the idea, but some consideration about how it works is definitely warranted.

In Praise of Don Hall

I'm not the first one there, not by a long shot, but I also wanted to raise a glass to the irascible, irreplaceable Don Hall. His series of response to the reviews of his show, The (Edward) Hopper Project, should be an inspriration to us all and should be a model we follow.

Critics seem to want to be A) the final arbiter of worth and quality, based on some set of credentials and qualifications that no one really agreed to and B) consider themselves in conversation with the work itself, ignoring the creators. And sometimes the work, too, when it's inconvenient to the point they're trying to make. And we all, by silent acclamation, just let them. We, obviously, don't have to.

Isaac and I have had a couple of back-and-forths over e-mail about criticism and how it functions in theatre. I come down on the side that we have a weird relationship with critics and reviewers because of the hybrid commercial nature of our work. Reviews sell seats and the reviewers know it, so we can't be seen as either too combative or too deferential. We're expected to strike a pose of semi-indifference, only really disagreeing (in private, natch) when they give us a review that we don't like. Because that's when it seems unfair. I think it's juvenile. If a bad review is unfair and the product of the particular reviewer's biases, then so is a good review and they're equally useless (or equally important).

But we need to maintain the veneer of the passionate, impartial reviewer, so that we can tout his or her good reviews in our advertising safely. So we don't challenge them, push or prod them. They get to sit back, pass judgement, pay no price for it, have no skin in the game and we invite them in, over and over again. Sure, sometimes we work the ref, write a letter of complaint, or lobby to have one reviewer or another come and see our work. But once the review is out, that's it. Whatever that review says, good or bad, that's what our show is.

I like that Don Hall is saying "Fuck that" to that relationship. We should be having a conversation about the work. We, as artists, make choices. The reviewer and critics come and say what they think about those choices. We should be able to defend them, to push the conversation further. Apparently, this scares some folks. (And if you don't think that fear of dialogue motivated that letter, ask yourself this: ever get a cease and desist letter for publishing a good review?) Why? You have your opinion. Own it. Defend it. Be willing to listen to a challenge. We were. This should be a two-way street. Get on the road.

And Don Hall? Slainte! Carry on, my wayward son...

Brass Tacks

Shorter Chris Ashworth:

(While I'm at it, shorter Don Hall.)

And they're absolutely right. No one promised me a rose garden, steak for dinner and California king-sized feather bed stuffed with money. In fact, they very definitely promised me the absolute opposite. And I still bit down. Hard. Because making theatre is what I love to do. Because I think it's important. Because I think (and I hope) I can make a larger difference by doing it. None of that is dependent on playwriting being my sole or even a major source of income.

If theatre were outlawed, I'd still do it. If playwrights were taxed at a higher rate, I'd still do it. If being a playwright meant a lifetime of working soul-deadening jobs in order to pay the bills....hey, wait a minute! (If my boss is reading, I kid, I kid!) So the point is how to do it and be happier, how to make time and space for the other things that are important to me and still do this. It's been done before. It will be done again. know, just do it.

Another Response to the Black Playwrights Convening... here.

Meanwhile, back in the real world...

After, what, three solid weeks of navel-gazing and cloud-counting, I wandered over to my friend Zaida's site, Manhattan's Peak, and read this. And then read this follow-up.

Just a helpful reminder that there are bigger things than who's producing what and how to make our careers better. That second post is what I think about when I think community.

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.

While You're Reading...

Read this. Read this. Read this.


No, really. RTWT.

More Responses...

...from the Black Playwrights Convening from Adam and I here and here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Starting Gate

Last year, on my facebook profile, I wrote:
So, yeah, that’s four plays. It’s April now, which means I’ve got about eight months. A new play every two months. Plus I got a couple of one-acts brewing and one big rewrite of something else planned. It’s a bit crazy. But let’s also note that William Shakespeare wrote Titus, Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labours Lost and The Taming of the Shrew in about a year. Am I Shakespeare? Hell, no. But you gotta aspire to something.

At least I have an answer when someone asks me, “What are you up to?”
Pretty ambition, no? And when I wrote that, this whole blog was still anonymous, so I didn't even include it. And 2009 turned out to be a bit of a banner year in these parts. A lot of writing planned there, a lot of work. So, how did I do?

Well...not great. But not bad. I got about 50% there. I wrote two new full-length plays (one of which is being read in Chicago this weekend, plug, plug), a couple of short plays and did one major re-write on a full-length. Not to mention, between this blog and my other one, about 200 posts or so (leaving out a guest stint or two at Parabasis). But I didn't finish all of the ones I wanted to. Because, well, it was hard.

Anarchists was the hardest one. I had high hopes (and still do) and a real connection to the material, but the damn thing just didn't materialize for me. My "open source playwriting" plan had some flaws, I admit. Mainly, it's hard to get good folks together in the summer. Maybe I'll take another whack at it this spring.

So...a .500 batting average. Not shabby...actually, for a baseball player, it would be amazing. But this isn't baseball, is it? That was my 2009. What's 2010 got in store? Another whack at it, that's what.

We're nearly through January. I've got about 11 months left in the year. That's a lot of time. And I have a lot of ideas still rattling around in my brain. And I like a good challenge. So back at it. But, as always, with a twist: you get to decide which plays I work on.

Over the next week or so, I'm going to write the first scene or 5-10 pages of some plays I have kicking around in my skull, and I'll post them here, here and even here. You read 'em and let me know what you like, what you want to hear more of, what excites you. And then I write 'em. Then you come and see 'em. Pretty simple, no? Could be fun...could be a total trainwreck. Hopefully, it will be interesting either way.

Time to get climbing up that hill...

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Sorry for the light posting of late. After the Arena Stage trip, I was pretty wiped out. I'm just now feeling like I've got my legs under me. I'll have some thoughts about various matters soon.

Matters like this, this, this and this. Not to mention this, this, this, but not this, never, never NEVER that. (I can't even finish watching it. I see it coming and I click away. It's like that other, unmentionable video. You know the one. As Josh says, NSFL! NSFL!)

As you can tell, I'm tinkering as well with the look of the site. It seems like other folks are making changes, and I don't want to be left out! Slow the hell down, bandwagon! I wanna get on!

Speaking of getting on (and getting down), have I mentioned this here? I don't think I have. As you know, I really, really dug Rob Askins' Princes of Waco. And I did indeed mention the dance parties. So there's one coming this weekend. If you can, swing on by the Ensemble Studio Theatre (549 W.52nd St.) for a really terrific show and a helluva dance party. You'll be glad you did.

I'll be back with some more playwriting-related things shortly. I've got some ideas rattling around this old skull of mine.

Black Playwright Convening Responses

The first two are up. Adam's is here. Mine is here. There's also a couple of great pictures of the participants here. I posted the pics to my Facebook and got it tagged, in case you're wondering who's who here.

January 2nd on January 25th

My play January 2nd is having a reading in Chicago. Woo hoo! This is actually my first reading in Chicago, so I'm psyched. I was hoping to make it out there for the reading, but, alas, I can't. But if you're in Chicago, you can and report back. Here are the details:

A play by: J. Holtham
Directed by: Kyle Land
Featuring Acting by: Janeane Bowlware, Courtney Boxwell, Sara Jo Buffington, Mike Musselman, Kevin O'Brien, and Tamara Todres

Monday, January 25, 2010
8:00pm - 10:30pm
Black Rock Pub & Kitchen
3614 N. Damen
Chicago, IL

January 2nd tells the story of Jake and Kate, two college seniors who are seconds away from ringing in 1993 with a night of drunk friend sex. And all is going well until Kate's closet begins to glow and a mysterious stranger emerges, hellbent on stopping them.

$1.50 Pabst Pints
$3.00 Jameson Shots
$0.50 Mini Burgers

To help support future readings, $1 suggested donation.

Since it is at a bar, this is a 21+ reading, so if you are under 21, make sure you come with a parent.
Hello, Chicago!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Outrageous Fortune, Chapter 4: Return on Investment

The great blog-thru continues!

We got a little bit off-track due to the Arena Stage Black Playwrights' Convening this past weekend (more on that soon). But we're back, with one of the more frustrating, complicated and hard to sum up chapters in Outrageous Fortune. "Chapter Four: New Plays Onstage" covers a ton of ground, not all of which I'll get to in this post. If Chapter Two is the ribcage, as Isaac says here, this chapter is the large intestine: twisted, switchbacking, coiled up, dark, messy and kind of full of shit.

But let's get a couple of things out of the way first:

The 93 theatres represented in this study report that a little under 50% of their total offerings for the last three years have been new plays.

That's probably the most significant finding here. Of course, defining new play is a bit of a slippery slope. Through all of the statistical backs-and-forths of the last couple of weeks about the world of play production, that's become exceedingly clear. Is a play written three years ago still a new play? Is a play that's been produced five times last year a new play? Is a play that hasn't played in your area a new play?

What muddies the water is that the theatres have a pretty strong incentive to put fat fingers on the scales: funders fund premieres and first-productions of new plays a lot more. It's in their best interest to call as many plays as possible a "new play" or "premiere."

(A sort of a sidebar: as Isaac points out here, there are a lot of indications that the artistic directors and theatre staff members are being...well, somewhat less than straightforward in their answers. And this is another one of those places.)

So...really, who knows? As I said here, the fight for more new play production may have been "won." And it's easy to see why: money. There is funding available for works that qualify as new that there isn't for second or third productions. If there's anything that we all know, it's that money changes everything. And it seems to have changed the field. But at what price?

For me, the money quote for this chapter is this:

"In other words, subsidy for process and production, experiment and attempt, has become investment. And investment seeks specific, quantifiable returns."

That's the crux of what's happened to our theatres, to our playwrights, to our community. We've entered into a space where everything is for sale at a price and investment is measured in concrete results. This goes for all kinds of relationships. One of the most dispiriting stories in this chapter is the one about the director who asks a "leading playwright" what he should ask in exchange for putting together an informal reading of a new play for a playwright. Not $50 for chips, but what piece of the future of the play.

Plays are a commodity to be leveraged. Their future earnings are encumbered and theatres are less interested when it becomes clear that they won't make any money off a second production. The newness is the key ingredient. It's what the funders want, what the audiences want, and, in a weird way, what the playwrights want. I don't mean this as an indictment of the theatres alone.

Since the first production is likely the only one, we hold off, hoping to put our chips down right when the wheel turns to our number. We invest time and energy in theatres, but as soon as the investment doesn't pay off, we're off to the next theatre. We are complicit in the system that Mike Daisey called the importing of freeze-dried talent. We don't want to be tied down to some funky regional theatre or little upstart, so we can cash in. We're all looking for a proper return on our investment. And that return is, apparently, not counted in satisfying work or relationships. And the more's the pity for all of us...

(I was supposed to wrap up this today, but I have a bit more to say. So...tomorrow!)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Things I Agree With

Sadly, No! edition.

Just a quick hit as I'm still at the Black Playwrights Convening in D.C. You can follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #newplay. Check it out! Very good stuff!

Friday, January 15, 2010

W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N, Baby, D.C.!

Tomorrow I head off to Washington, D.C. to blog for the Arena Stage's Convening on Black Playwrights. It should be a grand time. Look for my updates here and at the New Play Blog.

David Brooks Is A Huge, Giant Tool

Because only a tool of epic proportions would ever, ever write this:
The American model allows for disruptive change because it is easier for firms to hire new people when they start and shed people if they fail. That makes places like Silicon Valley possible, where you have highly flexible workforces chasing radical new ideas. The European model protects producers more and has greater social trust within companies. That makes steady, gradual innovation more likely — the kind you find at German metallurgic firms. I’m glad the world has both models, but I’d prefer to live in the more dynamic one.
Or this, especially these days:
I knew people in Brussels who went to work at an organization at 25 sitting in one desk, and they could tell you exactly what desk they will be sitting in and what job they will be doing when they retire at 60 or 65. Yawn.
These are the words of a dick, who speeds past homeless people in his chauffer-driven car on his way to another boring dinner at another four-star restaurant and thinks, You know, those guys? They have the life!

This man is seriously suggesting that the advantage American business has over European business is that we're willing to throw our mothers over for a goddamn percentage and they're not. They're boring and solid and like things like having reliable health care and an effective social safety net, but we're cooler because...fuck all that! Let's uproot our families because the guy at the top wants to make a few more bucks. Let me sacrifice my weekends because I'm the last guy in my department, so the guy at the top can make a few bucks. That's a goddamn feature?!? That's an upside. Yeah, David Brooks? Fuck you. Get fired and see how exciting you think it is then. No, really, Pinch, fire this asshole, make him experience some excitement. Apparently going to the same job is boring poor little David.

This is everything that's wrong with American punditry today. Scratch that - it's what's wrong with America, period. With all the talk of money, job security, longevity prospects in the arts, I started to think that a lot of what we run up against is this particular strain of American thought: the rat race, the buck chase, the whatever you want to call it that values results, "innovation", buildings and expansion over people, social trust and connection. Maybe Kushner's angel was right; rootless has to stop if this country is to survive.

But mostly...David Brooks? You're a tool. And New York Times? You're a bigger bunch of asshats for paying him for this.

(H/T Sadly, No!)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Countries for Old Men (and Women)

This has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle of Outrageous Fortune and the lists of productions bouncing around. The Innovative Theatre Foundation has released this survey of the demographics of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre community. Not the audience, but the participants. There's a lot of good info in here, a lot of things that sync up with the various conversations going on.

Here's a bit about the methodology:
A total of 4136 surveys were collected. Of those, 41 surveys were discarded (17 respondents indicated that they were not actually theatre artists but simply audience members; 12 respondents did not provide enough information to be statistically acceptable and 13 surveys were duplicates) and not included in the results of this report. The remaining 4094 surveys were viable.
Not a bad sampling, I'd think. The key findings?
Statistics of interest include:
- 85% of the OOB population holds a college degree. This is 58% higher than the national average
- 86% voted in the 2004 presidential election. This is 22% higher than the national average of 64%
- 68% of respondents are age 21-40
- 53% of respondents are female
- Income level of Off-Off-Broadway artists is near the national average, and slightly below the NY state average
- 91% of respondents live in New York City
Emphasis added. Because this is kind of what jumps out at me, especially after reading Gus and Matt's responses to Outrageous Fortune. Here are some key grafs from Matt:
I have been working with a single theater company (more or less) in New York City since about 2004. Just over six years of productions. Do we produce on the scale of Manhattan Theater Club? No. Have I gotten reviews and publications and all that other nice stuff? Yes. Do I still work, and work hard, in an unrelated field to make ends meet? Yes, yes I do. Still, when I read chapters about the nomadic lives of playwrights now, I felt a bit happy to know that's not my position.

In fact, lots of playwright driven theaters exists Off-Off Broadway. Electric Pear (Ashlin Halfnight); The Brick (all artist driven); Nosedive (James Comtois); InVerse (Kirk Wood Bromley); Blue Coyote (me, David Johnston, David Foley and others); Gideon (Mac Rogers), Flux (Gus produces his own plays, certainly). I could go on. This is common in Off-Off Broadway.
And now Gus' conclusion:
Flux Theatre Ensemble functions under this artist/producer, long term collaborative model. I believe that artists can and should be responsible for the consequences of their plays in a community; and I believe a producer should have their hands dirty with the theatre they're making. The silos of our specialist corporate culture may no longer be the ideal for making theatre. But whether you are a traditionally structured company or one of Travis Bedard's bands, all roads to recovery lead one way: to the audience.
(You should definitely check out his life cycle/equation for the fate of new plays. It's really spot-on.)

And again from the demographics from the NYIT survey:
Age Range
The highest concentration of respondents (24%) fall into the 26-30 age range (see graph 1). The average age of OOB participants is 36 years old, and the median age is 33 years old. The national average age is 36 years old, and the median age of New Yorkers is 38 years old.
In the graph referenced above, 56% of the OOB participants are under the age of 35, 31% over the age of 40. Other nuggets include:

- 50% single or divorced vs. 23% married (with another 18% living with a partner). This is roughly the opposite of the country's population (51% married, 30% single).

- 91% childless.

- 67% earn less than 50K a year.

Also: "Only 10% of the respondents reported that their sole source of income was from their work in the theatre. 40% of respondents noted having full-time employment outside of the theatre. 28% noted holding a parttime job (see graph 14)."

They helpfully break the respondents down by role in the theatre. For the playwrights, much the same things are true.

- 62% under 40.

- 42% single.

- 91% childless (or at least without children living with them).

- 61% making under 50K/year.

According to the data, a third of the people who identified themselves as playwrights earned between 30K and 50K a year (see graph 91). The average income for this group was $41,802 which is higher than both the national average and the average for the overall OOB sample group. This averages an hourly wage of $20. 8% of respondents from this category reported that their sole source of income was from their work in the theatre. 70% of respondents noted having full-time or part-time employment outside of the theatre.
All of this is incredibly present to me, at 36 years old, single, childless, falling right in the income levels here, working full-time outside of theatre. In terms of finances, there isn't much difference between what happens in the OOB scene and what's described in the lives of "successful" playwrights in Outrageous Fortune. Which is scary, in general.

For a while, I have raged about restoring the ecosystem of the theatre, that the real estate cycle of boom and crash, the squeezing out of the middle and lower classes from Manhattan, the economic pressures we all felt over the last ten years had decimated the middle of our theatrical landscape. Without large Off-Broadway commercial houses and with less and less medium-sized theatres, we were left with the small, upstart companies and the big institutions. But, looking over this study, and listening to the conversations, I'm starting to see more and more that we do have an ecosystem. It's just not a very healthy one.

At the bottom, we have a fairly fertile world of indie theatre, lots of energy, lots of passion, lots of innovation. I've played that game a bit (though with a safety net; the company I was a part of and then helped run was safely ensconced in a larger theatre company), stayed up all night painting sets, ran around town getting props, ran more than my fair share of light boards and sound equipment. It is awesome and it is real theatre. And I do want to get back there. But I'm careening into my late thirties and thinking, Do I want to settle down? Do I want to have kids? How am I going to pay for that? How am I going to hold on to my day job when all I want to do is write and produce? I've seen some folks doing it, so I know it's possible. But it is hard.

Looking at that age graph and seeing the drop-off from 35 to 50 is breathtaking. The number of playwrights drops by half in those fifteen years. Some are moving up into higher ranks, larger theatres. Some are, I'm sure, simply leaving the business, giving up because making $35,000 a year at 40 is kind of humiliating, not to mention hard to do.

It's part of the system, the draw of writing plays that will get produced, that will move you into the institutional circuit. They dangle a big golden ring in front of your eyes and it's hard not to want to reach for it. To think, when you pull on it, a door opens into a room of luxury. The sad thing is, it doesn't. You get paid roughly the same and surrender so much more control, so much more connection to other artists, to your audience, to your work.

Is theatre really supposed to be a young person's game? We play until we have to walk out in a barrel. Or is there a way for it to be sustaining, supportive, and ongoing?

Things I Like

CultureFuture edition.

A Bit of A Clarification

Scott, in the comments here:
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.
I wanted to pull this out because, in my late night blogging frenzy, I left out a couple of key points.

1) I don't think this is a useless endeavor or that stats don't matter. I'm sure some folks read my post and thought, "Well, now that his side is losing, he doesn't care about stats!" Not true. Very much not true. In fact, after all of the backs and forths, and continuing explorations, I've come around to Gus' point of view: we very much need a full and clear database of productions, something comprehensive and searchable. Data does matter and very much so. If we're going to have any clarity on the situation, we need hard numbers.

2) What I've found a bit frustrating about the tallying of new works that's going around is that it is anything but hard numbers. Lists are generated, but some things are held out. Leave out the Shakespeare festivals because that skews the numbers, folks like Terry Teachout say. Leave out the specialists, because that skews the numbers, Thomas Garvey says. But we leave in the theatres that only produce new plays? Or if we take them out, what do we have left? How much of the field are we actually looking at? That's the subjectivity of filters I was talking about. I think this is a three-dimensional issue, but we keep looking at it in two-dimensional slivers. I would rather we look at it in full, all things on the table and then try to figure out what it means.

3) And the figuring out what it means is another kettle of fish entirely. That's really where everyone's biases kick in, right? The more I think about it, the more it starts feeling like the old Woody Allen split screen gag from Annie Hall, where Annie and Alvy are each at the therapist and each therapist asks them how often they have sex. "Constantly," Annie says, "3 or 4 times a week." "Never," Alvy says, "Only 3 or 4 times a week." Let's say that the stat from Outrageous Fortune is right and new play production accounts for roughly 45% of play production in the country. There are definitely some who would say, "See? Nearly half! Whiny playwrights, STFU! You're good! More classics, please!" Others would say, "WTF?!? Less than half?!? More commissions, please! More productions!" Facts are indeed stubborn things and numbers are good, hard things, but they're all only tools. The question is what are you building with them?

But again, I don't think the Numbers project should be abandoned or that it's not useful. It's been exceedingly useful and productive. But I would rather we start talking about what to do about it. I guess it always comes back to the old commie question for me: what is to be done?

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?

Outrage and Fortune, Part 1: The Price of Everything

The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
- Oscar Wilde
Another favorite quote of mine, and one I've long wanted to use as a title or epigram. This post is as good as anything else.

Re-reading the first chapter of Outrageous Fortune this morning on the subway to work, I realized how sad it made me. There is a pervasive sense of cynicism throughout it that dragged at my spirit. Maybe I'm an old softie underneath my gruff exterior, but it kind of hurts to read about the depth of distrust and the lack of communication between playwrights and theatre leaders.

To back things up a little bit, a lot of things have been flying around the interwebs about this book and the study and some of the conclusions. I too have been flying them and mixing it up. As I embark on the Great Blog-Thru, I think it's worth it to revisit some things. First of all, it's not all about playwrights. The lives and fortunes of playwrights take a fair amount of it, but it paints a bigger picture of how plays are being developed and produced. And that's where a bit more focus should go.

I can't find it right now, but in a comment I posted somewhere today, I noted that the failure the book outlines (and, even from the first chapter, it's clear that it's outlining a failure) is a failure of play development and not so much play production. Some of the numbers that have been bandied about tell part of that story, too (more on all of that shortly). Plays are being produced, and, though play production has shrunk dramatically, new plays are being produced. So why is everyone so unhappy?

In the first chapter, we hear from playwrights, artistic directors, producers and others and no one is feeling satisfied with the state of affairs. We all know the reasons: money, money, and then more money. There isn't enough, too much has been spent on buildings (The most heartbreaking line from the chapter? "Houses for the art, bigger and more beautiful than ever before, but few homes for artists."), too much focus on the bottom line. It distorts the entire nature of the conversation. (The other heartbreaking line? Not even from this book; it's a quote from Theresa Rebeck's book, Free Fire Zone: "When a theatre tells you that you have a home, what they really just mean is that they want the right of first refusal on all your plays and they don't want to have to pay you for it.")

The disconnect between playwrights and artistic leaders is, I think, one of the outcomes of this distortion. We simply don't trust each other enough to speak the truth. Or at least the theatre leaders don't really trust the playwrights (and to a clear extent, the authors of the study) to tell us, or even themselves, the truth. They talk about loving plays to produce them, and making homes for artists, but they also don't want messy first drafts. They want plays that wrestle with the issues of the day, big, ambitious plays, but they can't afford to produce them. It must be as frustrating for them as it is for the playwrights.

On the other side of the gulf are the playwrights. While I don't agree that their complaints rise to the level of whines, a sense of naivete, bitterness and frustration comes off the pages like heat. They bemoan the lack of leadership, the lack of vision, the influence of boards. All of which is real. But, in the end, there's a lot of throwing up of hands and hoping for someone else to fix it all. Even worse, there's a lot of acquiescence. We go along with a system we all know is broken and then complain when it cuts our feet.

It's worth reiterating, as Gus does here, this study covers a small, small section of theatre, and it's a bit circular in its selection: the authors approached people who work in new play development and they pointed them the way to other people and so on. It's a tiny sampling of artists and theatres. But if this is what people at the heart of new play development much better could it get?

As a community, we've become so obsessed with the price of things, the things we have to give up, compromise on and sacrifice. We tally the lists of things we're willing to give away: rights, control, vision, money. And in exchange...what? What value? How much do we focus on value, worth? How much do we value each other? How do we break the hold our cynicism has on us?

Outrageous Fortune asks a lot of questions. Here's to hoping we find some answers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hows, Not Whys (Sort of)

At Freeman's suggestion, James Comtois weighs in with a series worth following (unlike some).

Things I Like

I didn't do a "top ten of 2009" or anything because that's just not my thing. I didn't see as much theatre as I'd have liked to in 2009 (though I read more new plays than I had in a while) and, honestly, most of it was a blur. Very, very few things stuck out, so I didn't really bother.

One thing, though, stuck with me: Princes of Waco by Rob Askins. I saw a workshop of it last spring and was just blown away by it. Since folks are always asking about work you like or champion or whatnot, and since it's in production right now, I figured I'd use my little bully pulpit and do some testifying.

In the thread above at Isaac's place, he asked me what I liked about Rob's work. I saw the full production yesterday and thought, "What is it that I like so much about this play?" First of all, it's funny as hell. Rob's got a keen ear for dialogue and turn of phrase. The play is set in Waco, Texas and, even though I've never been there, I feel like I have a little bit. It doesn't feel like a play written with any distance from its characters or material; his writing, whether it's a line of noir-ish tough guy talk or a aria of heartbreak and desperation, is immediate and present and painfully honest. The story is simple and straightforward, but, surprisingly, doesn't reach for "mythic" or "iconic." It just is. Given the semi-southern gothic of the setting (it mostly takes place in a seedy bar), it could easily over-reach to make more of itself. It doesn't. And I like that.

Plus the production itself is top notch. This company of actors has worked on this play, fairly intensely over the last year, year and a half and it shows. It's breathtaking to see parts that fit so well, actors rise to the challenge of good writing and then take the writing to a higher place. Rob's still a young writer and there are certainly some flaws and whatnot. But there's something about this play that I simply love and want to hug and hold. And will certainly go and see again.

Not to mention, E.S.T. throws a hell of a dance party. Seriously, folks. Great music, great dancers, a good time is had by all. As a sort of promotional gimmick, they'll be throwing dance parties after every Saturday evening performance. Since the show's at 7 p.m., you can see the show, get your groove on and still make it home before the end of SNL. Not bad for a Saturday night.

And, yeah, yadda, yadda, full disclosure, blah blah blah, I'm a member of the theatre and an alum of Youngblood, which developed the piece and is presenting it under EST's umbrella, but it's not like I'm a producer or directly involved. I just really like this play. And I think you should see it.

What If We ARE All Wrong?

After a day of thinking and stewing (and some dancing, but more on that later)...what if those of us who advocate for new plays and new voices and diversity are all wrong? What if we have fought a battle and won? What if, as some suggest, the field is crowded with too many new plays of little merit or strength? So what if the picture is far more complicated than it first appears?

In Outrageous Fortune, the authors post this finding:
While an average season at [theatres participating in the study] includes seven productions of all kinds, they report producing, on average, approximately nine new plays over the past three seasons-45.6 percent of their total offerings. Of these nine new plays, produced over three year, theatres identify slightly more than five (or 30.7 percent of theatres' total productions) as world premieres. Fewer than two of these new works (less than one per season) are second productions of new plays.
Emphasis in the original.

While there is some disagreement about this statistic, if the essence of it is true, what does that mean? Does it mean the new play system is healthy and producing good results? Does it mean that all us playwrights are indeed a bunch of whiners?

I don't have answers to all of these questions. Do you have any?

Monday, January 11, 2010

In Other News...

I agree with Don Hall. Shortly thereafter, a man was bitten by a dog. Also, did you know that the sky is actually blue?

(H/T The Prof...also a shocker, I know.)


I really like these andouille chicken sausages. They're tasty as hell. Trust me, get a package and enjoy. The little bodega-on-steroids near my house carries them. (It's a pretty amazing place, that bodega, nearly an entire grocery store crammed into one tiny spot. Awesome.) The larger supermarket does not. They carry chicken sausages from these guys, who don't have andouille sausages. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, who said, "Well. Get your sausage at the super-bodega." I said, "It's a little out of my way and I want to go to the big supermarket." My friend said, "Well, then, ask them to get the sausage you like. Order it special." I said, "No, I'm going to write a letter to the guy who makes the sausage, the actual guy and tell him, I want an andouille sausages." So I write an open letter to the guy who makes the sausage and say, "Dude. Your sausage is so weak. I don't like it at all. I want an andouille sausage. You should make it." He writes me back and says, "Um. Dude. That's not what I'm making here. If you don't like it, get it from someone else." I say, "Well, there is someone else who makes it. But my supermarket doesn't carry it." "Then," he says, "buddy, ask your supermarket to get those sausages." And I say to him, "Hey, man, let me remind you that I am a consumer. I don't buy things for supermarkets." At which point, he kind of wants to stab me in the neck with sausage-making implements.

That's kind of what's happened in the comments thread here. Thomas Garvey raised a completely logical and valid point in a nicely-written piece: why are most plays about Africa about apartheid? There are other things happening in Africa than apartheid and its lingering effects. There are other stories about race relations to be told. It's a point that I, obviously, agree with. So I linked. A pretty good conversation ensued, in which a few other plays about Africa were mentioned. And I said:
I do honestly think that you raise good points, but the answer is, you know, go out and find those plays. They're out there, they're being written. Or commission them. I don't think it's a failure in the imagination of playwrights as much as it's a failure in the imagination of producers. I find it a bit ironic that, after all of the diversity talk, you've hit on a problem could be solved by...a focus on diversity.
Thomas replied:
Once again, just for the record, I am not a producer, I am a critic.
And I, for one, kind of want to stab him with sausage-making tools. Let me, again, quote the key graf of his review of Groundswell:
So why does our theatre remain stuck in an almost-nostalgic obsession with South Africa? Perhaps because we use Africa as a proxy for our own genuine, but milder, set of social ills - Boston may have great strides against its racism, but it's still organized in the style of apartheid, with a vast shantytown in Roxbury. (Yes, I know there's an integrated "collegetown" elsewhere.) But why doesn't anyone write a play about that? Why has there never been a play about Boston apartheid? Instead we engage with it at one remove via South Africa. Which frankly is a form of virtual cultural colonialism, and of course distances us from the harsh necessity of grappling with our own issues (while assuaging our guilt for not doing so). I'd like to think the theatre can do better than that, but so far I've been proven wrong - and I don't expect the situation to change any time soon. And it's worth noting that bizarrely enough, South Africa is the only place in Africa today where gays and lesbians enjoy legal protections, and where gay marriage is legal (unlike in most of the U.S.!). Yet we never hear about that.
Absolutely a legitimate question. One answer to which is produce plays that aren't about apartheid. But that is apparently not Thomas' criticism. His criticism is that he's not seeing those plays, so they're not being written. Even when he's told that those plays exist and is indeed aware of them (see his comment on In The Continuum et al.).

Here's the part where I trash my career. Ah, well.

This is what I think is generally wrong with theatre criticism in this country. Everything is put on the backs of the playwrights. Playwrights aren't writing the big plays. Playwrights aren't engaging with current events. Playwrights lack ambition and scope. Where are the Shakespeares and Chekhovs and masterpieces? But their connection with the work comes at the tail end, in the theatre. Our theatre criticism is focused on the playwright's voice, which is great and grand, and the playwright's vision, but the flip side is that the critics see with blinders on: the playwright is all.

These back-and-forths, these arguments with Thomas or Chris or Terry, feel like they come down to this: the playwrights are supposed to save theatre. But the fact is, it doesn't happen alone or in a vacuum. We write the plays, but over the two or three or five or ten years it takes to get it to the stage, thousands of hands touch it, millions of tiny decisions are made and then, finally, one big decision that is totally out of our hands is made: to produce this particular play at this particular theatre at this particular time. But when the reviews come out, we're treated as though we held the A.D. at gunpoint and said, "Produce this play! Now!"

Of course there needs to be a gap and distance and the critic shouldn't be overly sympathetic to the playwright. I'm not looking for mollycoddling or handholding here. I'm not even advocating for a change in the nature of criticism. Just an awareness that there are other players, other actors in this drama. And saying "I'm just a critic"...well, that actually gives up a whole raft of powers and influences. You can't always talk to the monkey. Sometimes you have to talk to the hurdy-gurdy man. But if you think that little monkey is always dancing to his own, you have bigger problems.

And now...I will never eat lunch in this town again.

Outrage to Come

As Isaac announced, there will be some in depth reactions to Outrageous Fortune coming along and I'll be doing some of them. I'm really looking forward to it. This book is a tough, tough read, but it's really invaluable and worth checking out. I think the group of us tackling it will have some interesting perspectives and make for engaging reading. At least I'll aim for that.

One thing, though, I think is important to note. Well, two things. These things have gotten a bit obscured in the prior discussions and, as we embark on more serious thinking about it all, it's worth reiterating.

- There are more than playwrights quoted and discussed in this book. The authors talked to playwrights and surveyed them, but they also surveyed artistic directors, theatre staff members, what they call "new play mavens," agents, producers, a whole cross-section of the theatre world. To characterize this book as the state of American playwriting does it a disservice. The subtitle they have is really pretty accurate: the life and times of the new American play. It's a much, much wider lens than has been portrayed so far.

- The playwrights interviewed and surveyed are considered "working" playwrights. It's easy to hear the kind of things that come up in these discussions and think, "Well, it's just the sour grapes griping of the backbenchers and nobodies, trying to tear down the system." The list of playwrights interviewed and surveyed for this book is pretty impressive (if I do say so myself) and includes award-winners, masterpiece-writers, and people who are regularly produced and produce themselves at all levels. And, yes, there are less accomplished writers (like yours truly), but, by and large, it's a group of people who are active in the field, and successful. That makes the financial section of the book all the more depressing and shocking. But it should inform the whole discussion.

More soon...

Why Bother?

Since I'm talking about critics, I suppose I should mention this from Chris Jones. I guess. To be honest...sigh. When I read it on Friday, I got really hot under the collar and started one of those obscenity-laced rants, overloaded with sarcasm and bitchiness. Halfway through, though, I kind of lost steam. A friend suggested a more thorough fisking (get your head out of the gutter) and I started one, but realized that there just isn't too much more to it than "STFU, Playwrights!" and really, how do you fisk that? What's the point? I'm not going to make Chris Jones see the light or realize the error of his ways. Anyone who agrees that the current generation are a bunch of whining, talent-less jerks who are depending on bogus affirmative action claims to get their subpar work performed will continue apace, unabated. Those of us who believe that the current generation (and possibly future generations) of playwrights are being irreparably harmed by an inherently unfair system and that the American theatre is suffering for it will carry on the good fight. In a way, it just becomes so much posturing and chest-thumping, aggressive displays to defend small bits of territories. We're turning into rival clans of mountain gorillas in a dwindling preserve, fighting over who gets to pee in which creek while poachers skin us alive.

I just want to say this about that: If your problem, ultimately, isn't that the complaints and concerns of playwrights aren't legitimate (which Chris readily concedes they are), just that you don't want to hear them...there's not much that anyone can do about that.

Years ago, I took a class on communication and linguistics and one of the things that stuck with me from that was that, when someone writes a letter to you, the third thing in the letter is what they REALLY wanted to talk about; everything else is polite preamble. Someone wants you to pick up their dry cleaning, they send a note that says "Hi! How are you? Hope you're well. Hey, can you pick up my dry cleaning?" or some such thing. Looking at Chris' article, I suspect what he really wanted to talk about was this:
And while interviewees were afforded the kind of anonymity (if you know the players, thinly veiled) that would not pass editorial muster here at Tribune Tower, I recognize some less-than-admiring comments on a critic I suspect is myself (it's the one with all that pompous unsolicited advice). Keep that disclosure in mind.
It's worth noting that the reference he's talking about wasn't made by a playwright, but someone listed only as a "head" of a theatre (the authors of the study take great pains to highlight when the person they're quoting is both a playwright and an artistic director). But the focus of his piece is about how whiny and thin-skinned playwrights are.

All those words, Chris, to call a whole bunch of other people whiny? Really, you could have done it four letters.


Stubborn Things

That's what facts are, says Terry Teachout. Here are some stubborn facts:

- Over the last ten years, no one read or bought very much Shakespeare.

- For the last ten years, the most important writing was for pre-teen and teen audiences.

- No one should be worried about the reach of female writers or minority writers because the top sellers for the last ten years were mostly women and minorities.

That's what I learned here. And the rejoinder is right underneath it. Go ahead. Scroll down.

Not all of those things there are false, obviously. But they don't present a clear picture. Nothing that Teachout wrote is false, but it isn't the full picture. Rob Weinert-Kendt is on the case, though and makes the same basic case. Only better. So go over there and read him.

*Title edited due to a dumb typo. Stupid sausage fingers!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

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...

Well...Just Because...

I could use a laugh. Couldn't you? So I give you...this...this...and best of all, this.

You're welcome. I aim to please.

Another Edition...

...of what Isaac said. Very, very awesome and make sure to check out the comments for further discussion.

Okay, I'll Be Honest...

...I just read this and I pooped my pants a little bit. Holy f'cking God! What a great bunch of people to get to hang with for a couple of days. I'm psyched, scared, freaked out, stoked and revved up. In short, as they say, FIRED UP! READY TO GO!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Enemies of Good

While Paul Mullin's last word here is pretty much all right by me, I did have a little more to say. There's a reason why I think this discussion is important and it connects to some of the things that Scott is talking about here. I want to throw some quotes at you:
It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations, to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time.
- Tyrone Guthrie

Writers should not be sending their first theatres to evaluate, and then boohoo when they don't get produced."
- Anonymous artistic director, Outrageous Fortune, pg. 27

"Playwrights grow and get better and write the next better play because the other one was produced with all its flaws."
- Anonymous artistic leader, Outrageous Fortune, pg. 95

"In other words, production is development. It is the playwright's crucible, the play's forge. In the past fifty years of American playwriting, production has moved from the single means of new-play development to its last call."
- Outrageous Fortune, pg. 95 (emphasis in the original)

"Writers, as one playwright advocate point out, often find solutions to a play's questions in their next play. Theatrically, this kind of growth calls for continuity and the full realization that only production can offer."
- Outrageous Fortune, pg. 96

"I don't think we develop plays. [...] We're looking for properties, as opposed to developing relationships - which is much more difficult and much more time-consuming. It's much more effective, but it's much more inefficient, and exasperating."
- Anonymous artistic director, Outrageous Fortune, pg. 141 (with slight edit)

"Thanks, Jack, for saying part of what I'm trying to put over to these people. But the other part is an even tougher sell - they all seem to think that they're being silenced and judged, but actually, playwrights today seem to me to get more praise right out of the gate than they did in the recent past. These kids' hair would curl if they got a load of what John Simon used to dish out in the 60's and 70's. And as for Mullin's and Baker's posts about theatres that do new plays - in Boston, almost every company does more new work than anything else. I can only think of one group - the Actors' Shakespeare Project - that concentrates on classics, because, well . . . check out that name . . .

The real trouble with you guys' situation is that in the end, the audience won't risk seeing your work. It's not the critics, or the theatre management. It's the audience itself."
- Thomas Garvey, in the comments, just this minute

"My productions in my little basement theater may be small, but I'm proud of them. And because I self-produce in my own space all of my plays have been produced. Every single one of them.

Why should I wait for Rattlestick or Soho Rep or Playwrights Horizons or whoever to come around to my work? I know my work is good now, and writers don't ever get better by NOT producing."
- joshcon80, in the comments, yesterday
Plays are finished in production. Period. I think just about everyone can agree with that. That's why this discussion matters. It's part of the Pursuit of the Hit Play, the perfect, unit set, small cast play about large themes and big issues that will run forever and provide subsidies for the original theatre in perpetuity. So much of our industry is oriented in this direction, it's like a black hole, pulling everything that has worked in the past to create just those kinds of plays and better ones out of whack. This is the insurmountable problem that I was talking about.

In these quotes, you can see the full effect of this thinking. According to Guthrie, we can only tell if a play is great if it stands the test of time. Throughout Outrageous Fortune, several artistic leaders bemoan the poor state of plays today, the messy, bad plays they get, the mad crush for just a few plays and playwrights who are deemed as being "important." Yet they all acknowledge that a play needs a production to be completed and that a playwright needs commitment to do their best work. These things, in our institutional theatres, are beyond luxuries. They're fantasies.

One thing that's only tangentially dealt with is the role of the critic in all of this. In his various comments here and other places, Thomas Garvey has typified the attitude that comes from a lot of the critical pages: it's not the theatres, but the plays that got small. If a play isn't worthy of instant addition to the pantheon of great plays, it's to be dimissed. He's caught in the same hunt for the Hit, but of a slightly different kind: the Perfect Play. Not in terms of structure or writing, but an instant Classic. Anything that's not has been weighed and found wanting.

A play that could be good, that could be made better by production never gets there. Playwrights get stuck in "development hell," desperately trying to fix things that would be best fixed in a rehearsal hall and in previews in front of a living breathing audience. But they can't. And the theatres sigh and go after whatever got the Good Review, thinking that's the Perfect Play, the play that will satisfy the audience and the critics. Critics like Thomas, who ignore all of the structural issues and difficulties facing a working playwright today, and expect that when a play hits the stage, it should be a Great Play.

And the system goes around and around. Unless, like Josh or Qui, you hop off the merry-go-round, write your plays and produce them. Spots, problems, mistakes and all. And learn. That's the way I'm going this year.