Wednesday, August 27, 2008

You Can't Be Done There From There

Adam Szymkowicz publishes a portion of Gary Garrison's article about playwriting in Dramatist magazine that took me back to the discussions about bringing in out of town actor to perform at so-called regional theatres. Apparently, it isn't just actors, but playwrights, too (gee, what a surprise):

A dinner with the Seattle Rep Dennis Schebetta combined with a Town Hall meeting with local artists/administrators and passionate Guild members quickly articulated a common concern among a lot of our members: dramatists can’t get produced in their own backyards. I’ve heard this serious concern announced in Atlanta, Houston, Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and San Diego. Let me be clear: it’s not about just getting produced in your own backyard, it’s about getting produced by one of the named theatres that’s in your own metropolitan neighborhood. What was extraordinary and different (and incredibly positive) about members talking about this issue in Seattle was the almost instant call – by representatives of the three large theatres: The Intiman, A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) and Seattle Rep – for playwrights to stop focusing on something that’s probably not going to happen for a variety of predominantly economic reasons, and instead to channel that passion and energy in to either co-producing (like 13 P in New York or Playwrights 6 in Los Angeles) or self-producing. To hear representatives of the three big theatres in town say in a straight-forward, no-nonsense but kind way: “Look, we love new writers. But we have twelve-hundred seats that we have to fill or we’ll go under. And base-line economics suggest big commercial names of plays and playwrights are going to sell those seats.”

They said it. Out loud, even. They said what other theatres won’t or can’t or don’t want to say in a public way for a variety of reasons (that have to do with mission statements and grant writing, I’m sure). There was something liberating, for everyone in the room, in the truth being spoken out loud. More importantly, there was something very empowering in dramatists realizing that if they want their stories told to a local audience, they’d most likely have to figure out for themselves how best to do that. And they should. They should figure it out because every voice should be heard, and every story desperately needs to be told.

You'll excuse me, I'm sure, if I don't share Garrison's sense of glee that this was actually said out loud. Not that it should have been kept secret (after all, there's nothing all that surprising in what they said -- we've all known it forever), but that they should say such things without a shred of embarrassment, even a faint hint that they have totally betrayed the foundational purpose of the regional theatre movement: to decentralize and localize the theatre -- well, frankly, is this really something to applaud?

Isn't it time for us to actually consider whether the homogenization of our theatre literature, where we create plays that have no tie to a specific place or community, has been good for the drama? Historically, this so-called "universal" art was not the norm. Moliere wrote his plays about the court of Louis XIV and performed them for the court of Louis XIV; no matter what time Shakespeare set his plays, they all were really plays about Elizabethan England; the Greek plays were about Athens, and the Bible stories that make up the various mystery cycles had a whole lot more Yorkshire than Jerusalem in them. So what have we lost by alienating the artist from a community? What have we lost by not producing the plays of playwrights who live in the community where a theatre is located? A student of mine today in class mentioned seeing a production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Guthrie Theatre in which they inserted a single line reference to a local sculpture, and the audience went nuts. Suddenly, there was a connection that was informed by a shared reality. Moliere's skewering of the "precieuse" in The Precious Damsels was probably a helluva lot funnier in 17th-century Paris where the people in the audience knew exactly who was being ridiculed.

Don't get me wrong: I am all for playwrights taking situations into their own hands and doing productions of their own plays. In fact, I'd like to see all theatre artists do the same, so that those big regional theatres suddenly found themselves boycotted until they came to their senses. But this brazen abandonment of responsibility to the local community? Not acceptable.

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Director said...

Agreed. One of my friends (let's call him Joe) always greets people by asking if they remember a certain event, and then finishing the thought with "Wasn't that fun?" in a silly tone of voice. Well, to him, it's not silly. But to us, it's very silly.

One of my professors wrote a children's play/musical and took it on tour around the Southeast. When they finally came back to the town that I lived in, I went to see it, if only because some of my buddies were performing in it and one of my favorite professors had written it.

Halfway through the play, one of the characters (played by a different friend) says, "Say, Emperor.. you remember that time when we went to the park? Wasn't that fuuun?"

As you can imagine, everyone who knew Joe was rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically. We got this "inside joke" that nobody else in the entire Southeast side of the country would get. The kids enjoyed it, because he was saying it in a funny way, but nobody really got the joke unless they knew Joe.

That's along the same lines as your examples, I think. Good stuff.

JBranch said...

This seems like a pretty complex set of issues, and something can get lost when you simplify them for the sake of clarity. What? The regional theater next door to me shouldn't do Shakespeare (because this isn't Elizabethan England anymore)? It shouldn't do Molière (because this isn't 17th-century France)? It should do plays that are of, by, for, and about my neighborhood? That sounds pretty insular.

I don't really think the "homogenization of our theatre literature" has gone very far (or if it has, it's not in the direction talked about here), and I don't think the regional theater movement ever got together and said "these are the rules; we must follow them."