Two years ago, at the end of 2009, I posted a brief essay about the TDF/New Dramatists study of new American plays and the development process leading to them, Outrageous Fortune. I repost it below just after news comes of a few adjustments to the American Voices New Play Institute hosted for the past few years at Arena Stage in Washington. Peter Marks has a story in the Washington Post about these changes here.
Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, traditionally a time to look back — and then Sunday is New Year’s Day 2012, a time to look ahead. In republishing the below review I offer a few questions, I suppose, as to the issues these contemplations raise. Ultimately the proof of the pudding of all these institutes and efforts, all this research, these blogs and Twitter accounts, are the new plays themselves that make their way to the stages. That’s what all the fuss is about, after all. One question which arises, and perhaps the central question, is: What is a “new play”? What is the focus of all this development, all these conversations? One needn’t offer a final definition, but without a provisional working definition, it’s exceedingly hard to know what we’re talking about — and perhaps this is where critics come in. And as someone who is writing a new play myself, I wonder where my latest effort fits into these conversations and working definitions, however provisional. The two plays which have received full stagings at Arena Stage through the institute’s residency initiative over the past two-and-a-half years of its existence — Karen Zacarias’ The Book Club Play and Amy Freed’s You, Nero — are not enough, of course, to serve as the basis for this definition, and it would be unfair to burden these plays with that responsibility. But because they are associated with the American Voices New Play Institute as initial offerings of the organization, they may be considered examples of the “new plays” that this institute, at least, is advocating for.
It’s not a critic’s job to tell the AVNPI how to define the term for the institute’s purposes — that’s up to David Dower, Polly Carl, and others in the leadership — but a critic can consider what a “new play” is for his own purposes and kickstart a dialogue. Earlier this year, Aleks Sierz attempted to define “new writing” in the British theatre in his book Rewriting the Nation, and in the book he discusses his struggle to define the term in any meaningful way. Finally he comes up with this:
New writing is not about history plays, adaptations of novels or films, or old-fashioned genre pieces (like courtroom dramas), or devised work produced by a group of writers, or verbatim theatre, or musicals. … No, what makes new writing special is that it is written in a distinctive and original voice that speaks of the here and how. And that it does hold a mirror up to the nation.
Broad enough for a critic’s definition, but perhaps too broad for a mission statement of an institute or initiative. Which begs the even more important question of what, according to these institutes and initiatives, a “new play” is not — an exclusionary question, but necessary and certainly practical. Is a new play by Edward Albee a “new play”? Certainly Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which still awaits an American premiere two years after its London opening, is a new play, and it certainly fits Sierz’ definition, but is it a “new play” according to the AVNPI? If a given organization is established with the intent to be a leader (and this is a loaded term too) in advocacy, discussion, and resources for the production of “new plays,” the most important part of the transparency of such an organization would be to define exactly what a “new play” is by their lights. If this implicit definition is too exclusionary, the effort may not be directed towards new plays at all, but only a small subset of them. It also goes straight to other questions relating to this advocacy. Is the effort also focused on attracting larger audiences to new plays? If so, how is a new play that might be important but attractive to only a smaller audience going to be treated by that institution? Here the many goals of such an organization — and certainly the AVNPI has many goals — could be in direct contradiction with each other.
And ultimately this may boil down to an aesthetic philosophy. What is still grating to me, anyway, is the honest comment from one anonymous artistic director cited in the below review: “It would be easier for me to do a play like Quills [a play by American playwright Doug Wright about the Marquis de Sade] in which Jesus comes out of the grave with three erect penises and fucks Mary on the floor than it would to do No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter,” the artistic director said in Outrageous Fortune. “A play that is abstract in the storytelling — I’d do it, but that would be more controversial than content.” This disheartening admission, and the continuing absence of a U.S. production of the Wallace Shawn play mentioned above (and perhaps other plays like it; that’s impossible to tell), have direct effects on decisions as to what new American plays are developed and selected for production on American stages — and, more importantly, the new American plays that are not, and which may be the very plays now necessary to the development and health of the art form of the drama and theatre in 21st-century America.
Well, I’ll likely complete The Elf King early in the new year, and as I write those final pages I’ll be thinking about the future of the play, and realizing that its future life may be dependent on a few of the questions I note above and below. In the end, all this talk about “new plays” may be most important to those who are actually trying to write them. I’ll raise a glass of prosecco tomorrow night anyway, and see you in 2012.
Santa, in the form of New Dramatists artistic director Todd London and the Theatre Development Fund, left a copy of Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play under my tree on Christmas morning, though I don’t know why they didn’t just slip it into my stocking with the other lumps of hard black coal. Written by London with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss, the book is the culmination of a six year study of the current status of the American playwright. (Full disclosure: I participated in the study myself.) The word “grim” occurs with alarming frequency, attached to the findings of the study, both statistical and anecdotal; I was among over 200 playwrights who were asked about their financial and economic status, the frequency of play production, our relationships with artistic directors and so on. It’s said that suicidal feelings rise to their highest point of the year during the yuletide holidays. Outrageous Fortune may have you reaching for the nearest rope.
The book is a gift to the blogosphere too, which will I’m sure parcel out selected chapters of the book for further discussion in the coming weeks. There are chapters on diversity (check), New York centrism and the use of theatre in “community building,” whatever that is (check), and new play development programs (check). Among the findings are that a profound conceptual disconnect between artistic directors and playwrights about new work exists; that it’s impossible to make a living as a playwright in America; that boards, funding agencies and audiences are all primarily responsible for what the study calls “premieritis,” in which first productions of new plays are frequent and second productions almost non-existent; that most new play development programs lead only to more development rather than full productions; that audiences for new work are shrinking; that theatre, in the world of mass communication, is becoming a more and more marginal cultural activity. And there’s more, of course. Much of it has been suspected for years, but in collecting broad statistical and anecdotal evidence, there is now some kind of substantiation for these suspicions.
Anecdotes prove nothing, and you can prove anything you want with statistics, but it’s hard to quibble with the conclusions of the report when accompanied by the best that can pass for hard evidence. Its purpose was to provide as objective as possible a “snapshot” of the current professional status of the living dramatist in America, and dim it is; TDF hopes to promote conversation about this picture and the ways in which it might be changed for the better of not only playwrights but the art of theatre as well. In this I have no doubt it will succeed.
“One of the clearest messages I’ve received throughout the course of this study,” writes TDF’s executive director Victoria Bailey in the introduction to the book, “is that language is failing us” — harsh words, so to speak, for a profession that prides itself on the use of language. One of the places in which language is failing us, clearly, is in the use of the word “risk,” not to mention “community” and “audience” (the definition and participation of which in the process of theatremaking receives a chapter all its own).
It is not the fault of the book that it fails to define “risk” (risk of aesthetic form or content, risk of financial health, risk of losing audiences — these are harder to quantify); the study’s authors examined attitudes to the word, not its definition. But it’s difficult to see how any future conversation based on this study will be able to avoid it. And the issue does arise, here and there, in various comments from both playwrights and artistic directors. Some address it specifically. One artistic director (all of the study’s participants quoted in the book remain anonymous — no risk there) says:
It would be easier for me to do a play like Quills [a play by American playwright Doug Wright about the Marquis de Sade] in which Jesus comes out of the grave with three erect penises and fucks Mary on the floor than it would to do No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter. A play that is abstract in the storytelling — I’d do it, but that would be more controversial than content.
And No Man’s Land is one of those four-character one-set plays that come in for serious drubbing as a formal example of the shrunken ambitions of American dramatists.
There are other words that are problematic as well, and have to do with the aesthetic form and content discussion that is beyond the purview of this study. Chief among them is “relevance.” The same example may serve: Quills may have a better chance of reaching this artistic director’s stage than No Man’s Land, but which is more relevant? Few audience members practice any of de Sade’s formal sexual innovations, no doubt, but more may be titillated by them; Pinter’s play, about the vagaries of memory and power as well as their dissipation in the face of mortality, could be said to be relevant for any living man or woman. The study’s authors are fond of lists of questions, so I’ll offer my own on this topic: What does it mean to call a play “relevant” or “risky”? In whose eyes and by what standards? When one writes for an audience (any audience, really, but specificially a young audience, the demographic which according to the study seems to be disappearing from institutional theatres), is there a line between “writing for” that audience and pandering to its interests and experience, both aesthetic and personal? How thin is that line, and where does it lie? Should playwrights cater to that ideal or to Sarah Kane’s: “I’ve only ever written for myself” — a sentiment which led to one of the most innovative and influential bodies of work of the 1990s, but almost entirely absent from this study?
In a recent online imbroglio about Edward Albee’s dedication to the written play as central to the health of the theatre, Albee was castigated for his aesthetic egocentrism and stubbornness, but he might have had a point. A second theme to emerge from the study was the contemporary playwright’s belief that the text is no longer at the center of the production process, but remains to be fulfilled by the work of others: there is some evidence presented in the first chapter of the book that some playwrights deliberately leave their plays in an “unfinished” state, to make them more palatable and attractive to development programs and directors. Said another participant, in regard to sharing out the future profits of an untried play:
A [director] a number of years ago said, “A friend called me. He’s got a new play and he asked me if I could get a bunch of actors together in my living room so he could just hear it. What should I ask for?” He didn’t mean 50 dollars to pay for the chips. It was like what piece of the play do you think would be fair for me to get as a result of this? I said, “Zero would be fair.” It’s out there, and it’s hard to tell how much of it has to do with anybody’s actual financial interests, and how much of it has to do with some seismic shift away from the idea that the theatre is about the voice of the playwright.
If, in the opinion of directors, artistic directors and even many playwrights themselves, the theatre is no longer about the voice of the playwright, it’s very difficult to make an argument that the playwrights’ (and the study’s) call for an equitable financial return on a written play has much validity to begin with. Playwrights who see themselves as little more than a necessary evil have little ground to stand on when pressing for greater economic return for their work; for ultimately, who then needs them?
Finally, one weakness of the book is its lack of reference to self-production, an avenue which many experimental and non-traditional playwrights have taken: if the system is as sick as it is painted here, then perhaps the system should be abandoned in its entirety. Of all the playwrights surveyed, two outstanding absences from the list of participants in the back of the book are Young Jean Lee and Richard Maxwell, both of whom formed their own companies; lacking bricks-and-mortar theatres, they produce their work where they can, without the overhead that an institutional theatre requires. It’s true that many self-producers may work out of a sense of their own vanity. It’s also true that many believe that self-production, in the face of the challenges that working within institutional theatres represent, is the best way of developing their work: where they’re least likely to give in to the temptation of compromise, and most likely to see it bodied on stage, where it belongs. It may cost more, in the end: but given the thin scraps offered to playwrights now, as this study attests, the reward is not in dollars but in seeing one’s work performed as first envisioned: and this is most likely where the theatrical advances in America will be made.
All that said, other bloggers will no doubt take it from here. (Mind you, there’s little sympathy for what we might write. One commenter is quoted as calling Internet critics “anonymous fools,” and one literary agent says: “The playwrights read [online reviews and blogs], and it affects them. A play’s in previews and you call your clients and hear it in their voices. The playwrights don’t listen to the subscribers, yet they’ll listen to some little fifteen-year-old queen who doesn’t know anything.” See page 234. Neither anonymous nor fifteen years old — it’s been quite a while since I saw that age — I am amused.) But in its valued objectivity, broad scope and thoughtful and fair analysis, Outrageous Fortune will spark the conversation, I’m sure, that TDF wishes.