Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Thoughts on Theatre
I was looking through my e-mail to see if I had a copy of UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL by Glen Berger (p.s. If you do have a copy could you send it to me.), and found this NY Times article from October 1999. My gmail search picked up the word underneath. (Trust me it's in there, google highlighted it for me).
It's an excerpt from a conversation between influential playwrights moderated by the lovely Steven Drukman. I really think it's worth a read: (and it also gives me the opportunity to tell you about my followspot interview.)
Earlier this month, nine American playwrights gathered in Provincetown, Mass., to discuss the future of American theater. The meeting, organized by the Provincetown Repertory Theater, was recorded before an audience in the town hall. The moderator, Steven Drukman, who is writing a history of American avant-garde theater, began by asking whether there are two separate theater cultures in the United States: nonprofit and commercial Broadway. Here are edited excerpts from the session.
JOHN GUARE. Broadway has always been the marketplace. It was where Death of a Salesman was done, where ONeill worked, where The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire came. And then suddenly there was an Off Broadway, which became a much more viable place for serious plays. Broadway is the place where tourists come. When I was a kid at Yale Drama School back in the 60s, you dreamed about having a play on Broadway. I dont think anybody dreams that today. You dream of having a play at the Seattle Rep, or Louisville, or the Goodman or Trinity Rep. Thats where the theater is, and thats healthy. The only dangerous thing about it is that so much of the for-profit theater is learning to use the not-for-profit theater as a way of developing for-profit pieces. Another major problem is that so many producers are becoming fearful. The question is not where are the new playwrights? Or where are the new actors? Its where are the new producers who know how to produce a play, understand the writers intention and protect that?
TERRENCE McNALLY. I do dream of having a play on Broadway, John. It doesnt mean my dream is going to come true. But its a valid dream. Broadway theaters are still the best real estate in Manhattan in which to have our plays performed. Its easy to bash Broadway. I dont think we have two theaters. What has happened is that the plays that used to be done on Broadway, by writers of my generation, weve taken over Off Broadway. There was room for us when I began writing. Now, the younger generation finds it very hard to get established even Off Broadway. The Off Broadway movement was a significant change in our theater. But something has to be done about the economics of all theater, where they are less and less willing to take chances on the Terrence McNallys.
LANFORD WILSON. I have a play that could possibly come to Broadway from the Hartford Stage and it terrifies me that theater people seem to know more about West Ireland than they know about the Midwest.
PAULA VOGEL. When we talk about the future of the American theater we have to talk about the future of our economic structure. There is none supporting the theater. And that is becoming an increasing concern. Not only is it exorbitant to produce in New York, its exorbitant everywhere. And the funding is tied up with the attitude of government officials, who can do a kind of benign censorship. So I think the whole economic infrastructure is at risk.
JON ROBIN BAITZ. I was having breakfast recently with someone whos a rock star and hes a friend. And he was sort of stoned. He looked at me real queer and said, Why would a young person become a playwright? He just didnt understand it. It had no context. People are making little movies now for very little money. When you can make a smart, sexy movie for under $100,000 on digital video, it becomes what the theater might have been. It is evidence that the culture might have moved past the theater for now, to some extent. And maybe it will come back to the theater.
CHRISTOPHER DURANG. As long as Ive been around the theater, which is 25 years, everyone is always saying the theater is dying, blah-blah-blah. And yes it is. On the other hand, will it really end? If somebody wants to make a movie, maybe theyre not meant to be a playwright.
BAITZ. Im not saying its over. Im saying that this priesthood of being a playwright is sort of straining to survive.
DRUKMAN. But are you making a smart, sexy little comedy for under $100,000?
BAITZ. I cant write about sex. I would if I could. Theres just a white noise in here.
WENDY KESSELMAN. But Robbie, if you have to write about something, you have to write about it. For many people, the theater is the only way to really write that. It can be put into a film but its never quite the same. And I agree with Terrence about the dream -- now, having been on Broadway [as the adapter of The Diary of Anne Frank, revived in 1997], I cant wait to go back.
AUGUST WILSON. Having had six plays on Broadway, I would hate to see playwrights abandon it. I think its vital, primarily because the American people see it as the mecca and because the straight play, or the honest, serious playwright, should be represented there. However, when you talk about the future of the American theater, the question that comes to my mind is what is American about the American theater? We have, in American theater, an art form that is based on European dramatic values, an age-old dramaturgy that is handed down from the Greeks. That is the art form that I work in and one that I embrace. America is a society that is multiracial and multicultural. Yet the values of the American theater are based on European-American values. Values of other cultures are not seen as valid. As an example, the theaters that seek to preserve and promote the values of African-Americans do not have relationships to the funding sources because they do not meet the sociological criteria of being European-American. If were going to have something that is called an American theater, then we have to allow room for the esthetic values of Hispanics, for Asians, African-Americans, for all the racial and cultural groups that make up this society, as well as for the age-old tried-and-true values of the European-American. The theater is a tool by which one makes a speech, if you will. And you can look at it in terms of the First Amendment right to free speech and the Constitutional guarantee of that. But the lack of access to funding that will allow you to make that speech can be considered a prior restraint.
DRUKMAN. That point is indisputable. But I think what Robbie was getting at is that this new, disaffected youthful artist will get together a group of people, a camera and a sound person. There isnt a comparably active, new avant-garde theater culture that is getting into the theater, which is reflected in Robbies friends comment, Why would you ever be a playwright? Im not sure thats only a question of access.
VOGEL. Playwriting isnt a calling as much as it is a hazing process, in which one is actively discouraged by lack of funding, by poverty, by lack of access. Off Broadway is an impossible goal for playwrights who do not fit the mold of, yes, European dramaturgy.
DRUKMAN. How experimental are we allowing ourselves to be? And are plays getting edgier, or are they becoming more homogenized?
A. R. GURNEY. All really good theater has an element of anarchy underneath it, of chaos, of real darkness. I think thats why we go to the theater, to see people put on masks and try to put shape on that darkness. And that can be frightening not only to the standard bourgeois audiences that go to plays, but to the people who fund plays. And thats a serious thing. When a play becomes too dangerous, too tricky, then the odds are it might not be produced.
AUGUST WILSON. We are all contemporary playwrights and the plays we write are much different from plays that were written in, say, 1930 and 1949. That is because we have built on the tradition of American theater, which was at one time experimental. So the experiment proves the value of the tradition: the playwright sits down and uses or discards at will that which he is given by his predecessors. If you look at American society in the last 30 years, we have made tremendous changes from the time when I was a young man until now, when I am in my middle age. I dont think there is a theater that has kept up with that change. One of the things that playwrights wrestle with, to my mind, is the influence of television. We cannot go backward. Television is here. I think that playwrights are in the process of trying to figure out how to absorb that influence and to make dramatic art out of an influence that wasnt there in the 1920s.
GUARE. I was teaching at a university a few years ago and there were two people in the class who were remarkably talented, where you just say, Ah, there is a future for the theater. They had gone so far into debt to take this writing program that when their two years were up, both of them went out to California just to get work in episodic television to pay off the enormous debt they had incurred. And they are lost because they are both now very successful. They have learned to work in a corporate voice and feel that the theater is elite because its the voice of one playwright. They like the comfort of working on a half-hour comedy that goes into 50 million homes. Those two people will never come back to the theater. Now the amount of money that it costs just to go to Yale or N.Y.U. makes your future impossible, because you incur an extraordinary debt that then paralyzes your life paying that off.
AUGUST WILSON. There is something disturbing about what youre saying.
GUARE. Which is?
AUGUST WILSON. I never took a course, for instance, or went to school. I think there is something called an artist and either you want to be an artist or you dont.
GUARE. But what Im saying is I dont think we live in a society that gives people the confidence to be an artist. I think that youre very, very, very rare.
AUGUST WILSON. Its something that you have to claim though. And you pay your dues or you do whatever is necessary. Im sure that Picasso could have made more money in graphic art, but he was an artist.
VOGEL. Its still a matter of access. I dont think that film is necessarily the enemy. A while ago I had probably the most extraordinary teaching opportunity Ill ever get. I did a playwriting workshop for women in maximum security at an adult correctional institution. Those women did much better than my graduate playwrights. They had to. They wanted to. But they had never seen a play. They had never gone to the theater. We could only approach what theater was by talking about television and film, which was storytelling they know. So a lot of this to me is access. Theater is unmediated between a living and breathing audience and a living and breathing actor on the stage. There are no lenses in between us. There is no directors cut. Its really about a community dialogue and that is why I think that access is made difficult in this society. Those women in maximum security dont become playwrights because they would tell us a thing or two about realism.
GURNEY. I think it has again to do with funding, but a different kind of funding, namely funding for our schools. Just the way the symphony orchestra is having a great deal of trouble now, because the high schools are not able to fund school orchestras and kids dont get a chance to pick up an instrument and learn what it is to be a part of an orchestra. Its the same thing with school drama programs. Somehow the schools have got to introduce the arts.
DRUKMAN. Are there ultimate taboos in American playwriting? Are there things you feel you shouldnt or mustnt----
DURANG. No elephant dung.
AUGUST WILSON. I cant think of a taboo I would impose upon myself. If I did, Id write a play about it.
BAITZ. I think race is still a taboo. Even though people do write about it, its very, very difficult, because there is so much rage and guilt. Its the great subject in this country, this race rage on all sides.
KESSELMAN. There is another interesting taboo Ive come up against and thats children. If you portray children as having deep, serious emotions, you are absolutely lambasted.
LANFORD WILSON. Children know that they are lying and performing for their parents. But we cant write that.
KESSELMAN. The play Im talking about involved a brother tormenting his little sister. When we had discussions with children in the audience -- Have you ever done such a thing? -- they were just thrilled to tell how they put their sisters in trunks and everything else.
AUGUST WILSON. I want to get back to something that Jon Robin Baitz said. I agree with you. I think race is a great subject and an important subject because it deals so much with the history of this country and the aftermath of that history, which we are all a living part of. Obviously I dont find it a taboo.
BAITZ. For me, I guess, the question is, Am I qualified to know whats in my heart? Am I qualified to speak for myself, even?
AUGUST WILSON. When you say race, you are not just talking about African-Americans. You are a member of a race also.
VOGEL. When we talk about writing about race, I keep going back to when Anna Deavere Smith told me that strangers are much more likely to talk to each other about sex than race. Its absolutely true. In another conversation she said white writers have to do the race work. It cant just be writers of color, in terms of reading and thinking it through. And that is when I started thinking about this. Its not a matter of research. Its a matter of thinking it through carefully so that you can stand on the ground from where you write in terms of race. I think that white writers -- whether its guilt or not wanting to go through that journey -- were in the state of denial.
BAITZ. To me, I feel that black people and white people in this country are still terrified of one another on a basic, almost a -- to steal a David Hare phrase -- mineral level. I want to write about that. I think we understand one another even less as the century ends. And the divide becomes even bigger. So, as a taboo, the longer youre silent, the harder it is to grasp.
LANFORD WILSON. Well, art is born out of, among other things, necessity. Writing a play for me is like walking down this landscape of the self. Many things that you confront sometimes are not the best parts of yourself. But you have to be willing to deal with them so that you emerge at the end with a brighter and stronger spirit, ready to go through the next journey.