Thursday, October 06, 2005

No More Covers

Playwright Joshua James makes an impassioned plea that we stop spending so much theatrical capital on "covers" -- i.e., productions of the classics -- and instead focus on developing our contemporary dramatic voices. (

Artaud said a similar thing in No More Masterpieces. ""Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us. We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone."

It is an argument that, despite the fact that I teach theatre history, has a certain persuasiveness. To me, the lack of full productions of new plays is indicative of several things:

1) Artistic cowardice on the part of theatre people. We know that Shakespeare is good; how do we know that Joshua James' play is? Plus, we can count on potential spectators to recognize the title of a classic, so they might be inclined to attend. Gotta sell tickets, right?

2) Cowardice on the part of the public. After forty years of new plays written to attack them and make them squirm, audiences have finally gotten wise to this game and are refusing to play. You reap what you sow. Did we really think audiences would stand still indefinitely while we blew raspberries at them and then charged them big bucks for the opportunity?

3) Me-firstism on the part of theatre artists. Instead of seeing ourselves as part of a theatre community, and being concerned about the development of that community toward robustness, we focus on our own needs. Directors see classics as an opportunity to strut their directorial stuff, and actors know a good role when they see one. Who cares if it doesn't really speak to what is going on in our crazy world, or if it speaks in a language virtually incomprehensible to all but the most theatrically knowledgable, we can put on our resume that we directed Hamlet or played Lady Macbeth, and that's what matters most. Who cares if young playwrights are abandoning the theatre because they never see their work on a stage? We'll let Ibsen/Shaw/Shakespeare do our talking for us!

4) The ridiculous price of tickets. The higher the ticket prices soar, the more careful the public is about buying them. Have tickets topped the $100 mark on Broadway? Well, let's go see Fiddler on the Roof -- I know that that's a good show, I've already seen it a couple of other times. Even at the regional level, ticket prices are steep compared to other forms of entertainment. I might take a chance on a film at $8, but if it is gonna cost me $20 I want assurances. A recognizable name is an assurance.

The management guru Peter Drucker wrote in the Harvard Business Review, "Every organization has to prepare for the abandonment of everything it does." Pretty radical. Drucker isn't an artist, he's a business leader. If a business kept trying to sell products that were invented fifty years ago, it would go bankrupt. What about theatre? Why do we think we can live on the accomplishments of the past?

Look around at the art forms that are failing. Classical music? Audiences are diminishing at an alarming rate. Classical ballet? While audiences for dance seem to be going up, not for classical ballet. What's healthy? Film. While plagued by commercialism, the indie-film movement is doing well thanks to Sundance -- heck, there's even a Sundance Channel on cable. Do you see any indie filmmakers remaking Singin' in the Rain? Visual arts. New artists create new excitement (or at least new controversies), and I don't see any new artists doing reproductions of old classics. Literature. More people are reading, and they're not reading the classics.

In the 1960s, the regional theatre movement was just being born, and American artists like Margo Jones and Zelda Fichlander were finding and producing new plays by American playwrights. But then, displaying our typical American inferiority when it comes to things cultural, we allowed Tyrone Guthrie to hijack the movement. The Guthrie theatre opened to great fanfare with a production of -- you guessed it -- Hamlet, and soon followed it with Moliere's The Miser, and an adaptation of Aeschylus called The House of Atreus and on and on. Soon, other regional theatres followed suit, and pretty soon the regional theatre became more museum than alternative to Broadway.

At the same time, these theatre started complaining that American actors were unprepared to act in these classic plays, and so academia stepped up and said "We'll train them." And now look around at the curricula of theatre departments across the country: they all look the same, and they are all centered on classics.

Can this really be healthy for the theatre? I'm not saying no classics, but shouldn't we at least seek balance? And I'm not talking about regional theatres producing the latest Pulitzer Prize winner from last year, or last year's Tony award-winner for best play; that's just me-tooism. What I mean are legitimate world premieres written by living playwrights who might actually become attached to a theatre -- much like Shakespeare was the house playwright for the Globe -- and join a conversation with the community.

We're back to stability again. The creation of a stable community, instead of the theatrical version of a bus terminal. Figuring out how to accomplish this would require some imagination. It would require that we "prepare for the abandonment of everything that [we do]." But we're artists, right? Imagination is what we do!


Freeman said...

Hey there,

Chimed in on Joshua's blog, and thought I'd chime in here. I appreciate that you've got somewhere intended to discuss theatrical ideas.

The idea of balance always sound, intentionally, fair. The problem is audience. There is a reason that the Guthrie (as an example of a top regional theater) returns to classic plays over and over. The audience knows them and know what to they are seeing. Films have broad marketing campaigns that create familiarity with new products. Our closest version to such marketing happens in the world of academia.

The question becomes... how to market a product that has so little budget and therefore, so little broad appeal? It isn't successfully marketed in the internet, doesn't provide downloads, doesn't pay hundreds of people millions of dollars to intentionally create a "buzz" on new works and playwrights.

It's the rare new play (Angels in America, Proof) that finds its way into mainstream conversation.

How is this remedied? Perhaps, in the absence of National Funding, theatre artists should look at the marketing of new work as one of the essential walls between the audience and the product.

Anonymous said...

You want the rewards from a classic training and classic upbringing (theatrically) just want to take the classics part out. Shakespeare's good because he studied the classics then innovated. The reason new plays aren't succeeding is because; playwrights aren’t writing universal themed, well-structured and educated plays. Audiences aren't stupid. They want good plays. Most new plays aren't good. Yeah, Margo Jones was doing new plays...Tennessee Williams. New plays used to be the big draw on Broadway...yeah Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neil etc. All took classic themes and innovated. Don't blame bad writer woes on the need to be safe. Producers produce Classics, because they can’t afford to invest in a bad play and be noble for giving it a chance.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...