Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Why New Plays

Happy New Year! I apologize for the long silence. First, it was my production of Thousand Kites, which kept me very busy arranging reading groups, contacting organizations active in prison issues, coordinating filmmakers who were documenting the rehearsal process, and handling visiting guests including the playwright. But the truth is that the play ended November 20th, and now it is January 2nd. And while there is a certain amount of catch-up involved post-show, such as grading papers, and then the bustle of the Christmas season, the fact is that I needed a little time to start regenerating ideas.

So now I'm back, and it is my hope to post every weekday -- weekends may be hit-or-miss. So for those of you who have been checking in to see whether I have had anything to say, thanks, and I hope you can check in regularly from now on.

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When you don't write for so long, you miss a lot of great conversations. Off and on, I may weave back through past posts of my fellow bloggers and add my voice to the bygone chorus. Back nearly a month ago, Isaac raised "The New Play Question(s)," the center of which was as follows:

Why new plays? Why do new plays have intrinsic value? Or what value do they have? Why should we bother doing new plays? Or dedicating theaters to the artistic mission of bringing them to life? What is different (and differently valuable and important) about new plays as opposed to revisitng or reinterpreting or whatever existing texts?

Quite a few people had things to say, and I'm not certain I have a whole lot new to add, but I'd like to throw in my two cents worth. I'm not certain that I can say it any better than Margo Jones did in her inspiring 1951 book Theatre-in-the-Round, which I also quoted here:

I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value through­out the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we ( produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent.


Too many people are saying, "I'll do a new play if I can find a good one." Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the vio­lent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are dis­covered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been un­earthed.


Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O'Casey; the Provincetown had O'Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new play­wrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays.


The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theatre lies in the new plays.

I think Jones' agricultural metaphor of the "seed of progress" is a good one. Every time a theatre does a classic, it is dipping into the storehouse where the harvest of the past has been saved. But unless we plant seeds, we will deplete our reserves and will have nothing with which to replace it.

How is it possible to "deplete our reserves"? Aren't the classics the theatrical gifts that keep on giving? Can't we keep on reinterpreting the classics forever? Playwright Noah Smith, consciously playing the role of the devil's advocate in Isaac's comments, says perhaps we can:

[I]t would not be the end of the world if new play production decreased. It would be sad, and theatre would become less relevant. But it wouldn't be the death knell for the art form. Believe me, I support new plays and new playwrights, but if almost all we did were revivals ... it would be kinda sorta okay.

Opera is essentially in a situation where 99 percent of it is revivals from a large canon. New operas are written, but rarely do they take off and become part of the regular repertoire. Opera is doing just fine ... yes, it's for a niche audience, but that niche is well filled.

Drawing a parallel between theatre and opera and, I would argue, classical music in general, is a good one, because all three are in danger of starving to death artistically. This is part of what I meant when I spoke about the Schiavo-ization of the theatre -- there is no new activity, no interaction with the now. Those who visit, do so only to remember the past, as there is no future that can be forged. It is nostalgic rather than alive. And that is, in fact, the death knell for the art form. Sure, there will likely still be actors speaking words on a stage, but the performance will take on the atmosphere of a historic town where re-enactors don the costumes of a bygone era and demonstrate the "olde ways." You visit to look back, not forward.

When you strike a note on a piano, the strings an octave above and below vibrate sympathetically. Likewise, when a play is first produced, it strikes a primary note within the culture; thereafter, with each succeeding production as time passes, the audience hears less of the original note and more of the sympathetic vibrations, which are never as strong nor as clear. We must strike our own chords.

The vigor of the theatre is rooted in the audience's curiosity of what will happen next, not its memory of what already has.

How we came to this situation will be the subject of tomorrow's post.

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