To discuss what American drama has become in the years after 9/11, one must examine how American theatres are run in the years after 9/11 — it goes straight to the question of what kinds of new plays end up on American stages, and why and how they got there. The postwar American theatre has had to operate in a changing landscape economically, artistically, culturally, and organizationally. And if Marx is right — that the process that leads to production somehow affects the objects that are produced and our relationship to them — then the process is a central concern to the culture and is open for debate.
Where are we now, and how did we get here, in the way these new plays are written and selected for production? This is the question at the core of In the Intersection: Partnerships in the New Play Sector, a report by Diane Ragsdale on a November 2011 gathering of artistic directors, commercial producers, artists and others in Washington, DC. (Though long, it is a great read; Ms. Ragsdale’s wit, as well as that of other participants, is much in abundance.) The subtitle of the report is “Partnerships in the New Play Sector,” which is somewhat misleading: most of the projects discussed in terms of not-for-profit and commercial collaboration are musicals, not plays; and the sub-subtitle, “A Report on a Meeting of US Nonprofit and Commercial Theater Producers,” also sets the participation of artists and agency representatives like Rocco Landesman aside. But on the whole, the report, like Outrageous Fortune, is rewarding and thought-provoking reading, and it will take some time to get through it.
It’s intriguing to approach the two-day conference as if it were a two-act play. In the first act, characters are introduced; issues are also introduced and tensions mount as the plot slowly emerges from the relationships and dialogue among the characters. This was obviously an ensemble work, but lead and supporting characters become clear early on. If this were Ibsen, the primary conflict would be between NEA chairman Rocco Landesman, a commercial producer turned civic representative, an Obama-era appointee to the agency, and critic and director Robert Brustein, formerly the artistic director of large resident theatres based at Ivy-League schools (and — an Ibsenite twist if ever there was one — a former teacher of Landesman at university). But there are significant off-stage figures as well, most notably Zelda Fichandler, the co-founder and former artistic director of Arena Stage (where the discussion occurred, and where the play is set); and Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, whose sudden embroilment in a funding controversy most relevant to the issues of the gathering itself prevents his attendance. (Also offstage, silent, powerful, and inscrutable, are the board members of non-profit theatres, who, with the ability to hire and fire artistic directors and oversee the management of these organizations, and therefore like the gods of ancient Greek tragedy, may be the most significant characters of all, though they themselves are discussed in a major section of the report.)
And what is spoken at the conference is, as a Danish prince once had it, “Words, words, words.” The controversy of the play centers by and large in the definitions of these words, both as ideals and legalities. Long dialogues of the report/play center on what words mean. “Nonprofit” or “not-for-profit”? “Partnership” or “collaboration”? And especially the name of the bitchgoddess “success.” But there is a subtext too; there are words that occur the definitions of which elude discussion somehow. “Excellence” is one; is it only a production with high production values, or is it something else besides? “Community” is another; if, as so many participants suggest, a theatre should serve a community, what is that community, and what constitutes service to it?
And perhaps the most pressing issues surround that word “education,” a particularly thorny word in this case with not only cultural but also legal and regulatory ramifications. Most non-profit theatres are products of the creation of the 501(c)(3) non-profit status, established by the IRS under the Revenue Act of 1954, which covers institutions defined as “Religious, Educational, Charitable, Scientific, Literary, Testing for Public Safety, to Foster National or International Amateur Sports Competition, or Prevention of Cruelty to Children or Animals Organizations” — but not, notably, artistic organizations, though the 501(c)(3) status was amended to permit this as well, primarily if the theatres established under this status could define themselves as somehow “educational.”
All these words, whose definition eluded discussion at the conference, are the disturbing subtext of the conversation, not least because they go straight to the heart of the role of the theatre and the drama as artistic endeavors. These words are inevitably bound up with those that were discussed. Education is not an entirely non-commercial endeavor, as any textbook publisher can tell you; and the for-profit sector serves a variety of community purposes as well. Which is why a first reading of the report disappoints so much: the discussion goes so much to the how, rather than the why, of the pursuit of the dramatic or theatrical art.
Finally, as I mentioned at the outset, most of the collaborations discussed here are towards the production of musicals, not plays, which are different in essence. The play is the product of an individual vision; the musical, by its nature, is a collaborative and collective endeavor (with perhaps the exception of those of Stephen Sondheim) and much much more expensive. It could be argued that it is so central to the American theatre because it is often defined as an American-born form, but this isn’t entirely true: there’s little in the American theatre musical that wasn’t there in Gilbert & Sullivan’s operettas of the Victorian age, and before that, in John Gay’s “ballad-opera” The Beggars’ Opera of 1728.
So new plays, oddly, get rather short shrift in the drama (though August Wilson’s career is often cited as an exception that proves any given rule). Playwrights only enter the stage as minor characters at the end of the first act, and then disappear from the plot; our purported Ibsen stacks the deck here, too, since all three are resident playwrights in the generous Arena Stage program, which provides them with considerable financial support and theoretical production opportunities, not to mention the opportunity to contribute to conferences like this one.
These are grave reservations to be sure, but I don’t mean by mentioning them to detract from the value of the conversation and the report in providing a picture of the management and artistic decisions that go into planning and producing the plays that are mounted on non-profit stages, and how they have changed over the past 50 years. In future posts on this report, I’ll highlight some salient and relevant points that were made at the conference that go to just this question.
It is a very talky play; as a few participants pointed out, there were very few chairs thrown, as had happened at earlier conferences on the subject. And it has an open ending, as most good discussion plays do. But it also lays one kind of groundwork too for my own American drama after 9/11 project, aside from contextualizing these plays in larger cultural landscapes.