Monday, October 10, 2005

New Plays / Old Plays

There is a disturbance in the 'sphere, Luke! A wonderful mini-discussion about the staging of classics and the staging of new plays. It began with playwright Joshua James' October 5th posts "No More Covers." The next day, I chimed in (see below) with an post un-originally entitled "No More Covers." Playwright George Hunka also joined the fray on his Superfluities blog, with a post called "Mad as Hell." This caused Isaac to post "What the Hell Are We Going to Do About It?" on his Parabasis blog, with a request for comments -- several followed. On October 7th, Joshua spoke again with "No More Covers, Part Deux." Which led Rob Grace on October 10th to contribute "Tales from the Other Coast -- Response to Whining" on the Parabasis blog. (If I am missing any other contributions, please let me know and I'll add them.)

I love the blogging world!

In the interest of keeping things going, I would like to contribute the following thought: I teach theatre history. (No, that isn't the thought.) Looking back through the 2500+ years of Western theatre, I have a hard time finding another society where the restaging of old plays took precedence over the staging of new plays. In fact, in most societies, there was nothing deader than an old play. This was also the case in America up until the 1960s. Does this seem weird to you? It does to me.

But it leads me to ask another question, perhaps a bit different those being asked by my fellow bloggers: what is it about modern plays that makes theatres (and theatregoers) reluctant to attend them? Why does an audience that regularly floods to see brand new movies avoid new plays? Doesn't this seem counter-intuitive?

Following my usual preference, I encourage self-examination rather than accusation. How have we (and the generation that preceded us) created this situation? How are we reinforcing it? And is there any way to remedy it?

4 comments:

Freeman said...

Take a look at poetry to see how something once considered culturally relevant and even vital can be slowly pushed into the sidebar and reserved for academics.

As long as the market is the be-all-end-all of cultural significance, anything that is not easily sold, marketed, and resold has little chance of being picked up by the mainstream. I don't think new playwrights or producers of new work are intentionally causing themselves to be marginalized (although some don't help their cause.) I believe that we have a system that doesn't reward risk; especially when the fundamental economics are already tenuous.

We need both to adopt a modern approach to marketing and make a continued appeal for stronger support for the arts on a Federal level.

Joshua said...

I agree with much of what Matt says, and add this (which I put on my blog) in that many of the actors and directors in today's colleges never meet or work with living playwrights - I attended three colleges and didn't meet one until the third.

What's this mean? Well, the students of today are the directors, producers and programmers of tomorrow. They're conditioned and comfortable working with dead texts so that's what they stay with.

And they're also not taught how to work with live playwrights as a result, so that when they do it's often a negative experience for them (and for the playwright, boy, can I tell you stories - that's coming up in the series), they get burned by it and so they retreat to the safety of what they know.

And third - it's control. They work with a dead text, it's theirs.

Even if it's not dead, if it's Neal Simon, he ain't coming down to Kentucky to check it out so you have complete control and that's a drug, as we all know.

So the folks that are developing theatre oftentimes have no idea what a great and wonderful experience it can be to work with a live playwright on a work that has, before that day, never been seen ever. They have no idea, so it's Uncle Vanya because they always loved that play.

It's also economics and everything else that people spoke about, but really, if enough people knew how great it could be to put up a new play (and knew how to work the experience so it was a great time) more folks would be doing it.

Right now new writers are primarily paid and respected in film and television - there's a union there and we're protected - no such thing in theatre. Jonathan Larson did lots of workshop productions of RENT in the months before opening it where all the actors, musicians and stagehands got paid for every rehearsal and performance - and he didn't.

He didn't get paid till it moved, and the big check didn't happen until after he died. A few days afterwards.

But I've digressed.

Poetry hasn't really died - it's evolving into rap and spoken works -theatre has the same potential, we just have to figure out a way to get it to the audience.

Just my opinion.

George Hunka said...

On the other hand, there are many actors and actresses in NYC, fresh out of school many of them, who seem to have been cast in nothing but new plays since their arrival in the city. One actress once, in my presence and heaving a sigh, said, "I never want to do any new plays again!" (this following her participation in several). There seems to be some disconnect between your experience and mine, Joshua, so we should probably just leave it at that.

(BTW, the aforesaid actress will be creating a role in my own new play in two weeks, so I guess she's best described as ambivalent about it.)

There is something else going on, too. Freeman brings up the issue of poetry being marginalized, and I think that's quite true (though the several shelves of poetry at my local B&N testify to the opposite), but it's the kinds of poetry being marginalized that's more at issue. Garrison Keillor's pushing his own anthology of great poems; so is public intellectual Camille Paglia.

I think this is because both poetry and drama (as well as challenging film, music and television) are regarded as leisure-time activities, and for us today, leisure means escapism. The arts have been conflated with this concept of facile pleasures, which indicates a disregard for the place of arts in an individual's life (see, for example, the very name of the New York Times' "Arts & Leisure" section, as if the two pursuits were the same thing).

We don't mind new things so long as they reach out to us to entertain, to amuse; those that challenge certainly don't, or at least the entertainment or amusement factor takes a back seat to others. Playwrights today, fearing failure, all too readily cater to this impulse to entertain, to make jokes, instead of reaching further into the form--to be more ambitious. Audiences may wish us to be more ambitious, more complex, to take ourselves more seriously--like Chekhov, like Shaw.

Joshua said...

But it also reenforces my argument, George, your comment about actresses who have done nothing but new plays since getting here -

I'd be willing to bet that she did almost no new plays in college, prior to arriving here, and as a result was not prepared for that process, which is really different than the approach one takes to a cover. As a result she's not prepared for that and it's been a somewhat negative experience thus far (except for you, of course) for her and now she wants nothing more to do with it.

Which also does her a disservice as an actor, because if she doesn't know yet how to handle new material, she will have difficulty working in film and television (if that's what she wants to do at some point, which most actors do) where a lot, if not most of the material is new and fluid and they are finding the story rather than deconstructing it. It's a different process.

I'm going to talk about it at length in my next post in the series, Actors and the Living playwrights. I'll let you know when it comes up.

That's another of my points - in college we are all taught to desconstruct texts - but in writing a new play we are not doing that, we are constructing a text - it's a subtle difference, but an important one (remember my Pinter Betrayal story?) especially when at that delicate stage of bringing a text alive onstage when it has never been heard before.