Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"When We Last Flew": Epic Fail

I just received an email from Sam Morris, Publicist who says he is a fan of my blog. However, the greeting on the email was"Dear Walt," so I guess he's one of those fans who, you know, doesn't actually read the blogs he's a fan of, or notice that at the end of each post there is a line that says "Posted by Scott Walters." (Note to other publicists who have been influenced by the drumbeat of social media marketing: you really piss bloggers off when you lie to them.)

Anyway, what Sam Morris wants to make me aware of is a production (or future production) called When Last We Flew, which is raising money online to do the show. Now, this is where not actually being a fan of this blog really leads to a lot of crap, because if Sam had read my blog he'd know that I am vocal proponent of rural and small town America, and that I get really annoyed by the condescending urban BS that passes for commentary. So Sam wouldn't know that the following description of the play would really piss me off:
After stealing his library's only copy of Angels in America, misfit teenager Paul begins reading and finds that his dull Midwestern life is about to take flight. Developed at Lincoln Center, New York Theatre Workshop, and the Sundance Theater Institute, when last we flew is a moving and humorous look at life in small town America.
So let's do a close reading of this two-sentence insult.
"After stealing his library's only copy of Angels in America..."
All you hip urban folks, I want you to get on the subway or the el or whatever city-type form of transportation you use and go down to a branch of your local library. And then I want you to come home and report to me exactly how many DOZEN copies of Angels in America you find there. Let's get serious: libraries are experiencing enormous budget cuts in our society, but even in the best of times very few libraries buy multiple copies of anything, much less a play. The implication is that only a rural a library would have only one copy of Angels in America. Nonsense. It's the norm. I love Angels in America -- I think it is the most important and best play of the past quarter century -- but libraries only need one copy of it. In the video on the website, Rivers, who apparently is from a small town (Manhattan KS, from additional research) and himself spent much time in the library where his grandmother was the librarian, speaks slightingly of the "small" theatre section. Well, welcome to the world. There is only one Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, but for the rest of the US, well, people don't much read plays. And not just rural people -- ALL people. Even people who like to go to theatre don't read plays. Hell, from what I can gather, people who make a living in the theatre don't read plays. And so libraries don't have massive theatre sections.
"misfit teenager Paul begins reading and finds that his dull Midwestern life is about to take flight."
I know that "misfit" is supposed to make me identify with Paul -- all us people who went into theatre were misfits, weren't we? Being interested in an irrelevant art form?  I mean, all we have to do is listen to A Chorus Line to know that's true. But any sympathy I have (which was minimal, since I can see that this is another whiny "nobody understood me when I was young wah wah wah" play) evaporated when I encounter the insultingly cliched "his dull Midwestern life." This is just more Nylachi propaganda that paints everything without a 100-zip code as dull. Dullness is more about the individual than the place. It is a sign of lack of imagination and an inability to actually see and appreciate all of the diverse magic within any place. It is, in short, a sign of teenage-itis. Teenagers think New York is dull, too. Give me a break.
"Developed at Lincoln Center, New York Theatre Workshop, and the Sundance Theater Institute..."
Pedigree. New York pedigree. Lets look at this further. Playwright Harrison David Rivers (named after Harrison Ford) is an African-American from Manhattan KS, a town of around 50,000, so he is writing from experience (as we see in the video). He then attended the private liberal arts Kenyon College (the oldest college in Ohio), and then got his graduate degree from -- you guessed it -- Columbia University. In other words, he seems to be a carbon copy of every playwright making a living in NYC. His bio continues: "His work has been developed and produced at Lincoln Center, Atlantic Theater, Atlantic Stage 2, Second Stage, New York Theatre Workshop, Joe’s Pub, Ars Nova, HERE Arts Center, the 45th Street Theater, South Oxford Space, Dixon Place, 3LD Art & Technology Center, Manhattan Theatre Source and The American Airlines Theater (The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway and The Komen Foundation’s Pink Campaign on Broadway)." In other words, New York New York New York. And this production is being produced...in New York. But for some reason, the play needs to be set in a "small Midwestern town."
when last we flew is a moving and humorous look at life in small town America.
Or a settling of scores. In case you think I am being ungenerous (and I am somewhat), here is a quotation from Mr. Rivers' blog about his play Fell: "Second semester of my first year of graduate school my Playwriting II professor refused to comment on the first act of FELL, citing its copious stage directions as impenetrable and distracting from the story (which he had apparently missed both the first and second times he read through the play). He tossed the then fifty page script onto the table and said, "Call me when it's being produced and then I'll give you feedback." I emailed him the other day: "FELL is being produced. I want my critique." This man can hold a grudge, that's for sure. And for all of you dreaming of getting into the Columbia playwriting MFA program: you might want to consider this particular story. As well as this: "I finished writing FELL two weeks after this same professor insinuated that I was incapable of writing a play which featured African American characters." Sounds like a great education.

Suffice to say, I will not be contributing to getting Mr. Rivers' play on the boards. I don't know who wrote this blurb -- probably not Mr. Rivers -- and to his credit, Mr. Rivers does not slight his past in the video (although one of this producers does). I would like to see more plays about rural and small town America get attention, but I'd like them to be written by people who actually live in small towns, not "misfits" who used to live in a small town when they were teenagers and who now reside in NYC where "misfits" are tolerated and who have an ax to grind. It would be fine if these sorts of plays balanced out other more generous ones, but these portrayals of "small town life" are the only images that make it to the world. And I'm tired of it.


Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

wow, good post.

i never even thought about-- or cared about-- rural theatre in the States,, but your blog has brought great attention and I can see how urgent and dire it is.

trestleboy said...


How articulate! I've been "lurking" on your blog for a couple of months, but I often don't read it throughout. As an out-of-work Ph.D. in theatre, recently relocated to Denver, I'm constantly looking for work. I'll say that this post made me a HUGE fan. HUGE. Anyway, thanks for posting - and for making me smile today.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sir.

I found your "blog" when looking for information about my play online. You know, one has to have a thick skin to deal with the arrogance of the pathetic human minds that work in this business. You know the ones I'm talking about? The ones that can insult your work, maintain their anonymity and act like an authority on good theatre? Yeah... I am an actor in the When Last We Flew play, and I started working on it in it's earliest stages because it reflected my experience coming from a small town, which I still visit often, even though I live in NYC. And it's brilliant. You make broadm personal, unexamined brushstrokes about a very intelligent writer, who is courageous enough to reveal a story about his life, his upbringing that is beautiful and real. You know, it's highly possible that one can come from a small town, leave it, and be grateful to it, because of what it has taught them about life. It takes a true artist to convert it onto paper, into a form of art that inspires other artists to work on it, and then transforms people in a positive way. Many of us can sit around and criticize someone like Harrison, because we don't have the balls to do what he does. You might take a lesson from this young man. Clearly, you need to learn a thing or two about writing.

Karen Pittman
Marian - When Last We Flew