Playwrights finally had their say at the end of the first day of the In the Intersection conference. Charles Randolph-Wright, Amy Freed, and Karen Zacarías, all current residents at the Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute, expressed their gratitude for the AVNPI’s generosity — but some also expressed a certain sense of having been disengaged from discussions that took place earlier in the day. Diane Ragsdale reported Zacarias’ comment:
[Zacarias] said that at no point in the conversation earlier had she heard the word “playwright” and that there was no sense of “one person in a room who was alone writing.” She continued, “Maybe that’s why I feel shut out from that big musical world. … I actually think we might all have something artistic to contribute, but I have no idea how to get into that business conversation.”
It didn’t seem that the big musical world was going to go away for the rest of the conference, either. Responding to Zacarias, Rocco Landesman said, “A play is, essentially, a playwright, an idea, a play. … It’s a very intimate thing. A musical is exactly the opposite. It’s a huge collaboration. There’s a book writer, but it’s not about an individual sitting in a room with a play. … They’re both called theater — or one’s called musical theater — but they don’t have that much in common, at least from a producer’s perspective. … I, as a producer, I only love doing musicals because that’s where a producer really has an effect — has impact.” Emphasis mine, but only just. As I mentioned in this earlier post on the conference, the kinds of partnerships between non-profit and commercial producers that were at the center of the discussion pertained, by and large, to musicals both new and revived, very different, as Landesman said, from straight American plays.
Not that any potential partnership to produce these new American plays wasn’t already fraught with dangers. In a subsection of the report called “Has Artistic Freedom in the Regions Decreased?” Ragsdale points to the small-cast/small-set constraints that American dramatists have always thought limited production potential of their new plays. But there’s disturbingly more, too. The most disturbing meditation came buried at the end of a lengthy comment by playwright Amy Freed:
I was finally in the gladiatorial relationship with a big house … and my playwriting had to change. … To me it was a playwright and audience shift, rather than playwright and institutional structure. Having said that I know — I think we all understand — that there are certain desires on the part of a regional theater or a nonprofit theater in terms of the palatability of the work for a wider mass. … To me that’s as much a question of art as it is of structure. [Again, emphasis mine, if not Freed's.]
If any more proof were needed that more challenging work was in danger of disappearing from non-profit stages, it came from Kevin Moore, managing director of the service organization Theatre Communications Group (TCG), who said that “anytime you start to mass market anything it changes the nature of what it is” — and this is as true of theatre itself as any individual production. As Ragsdale writes, “Moore suggested that many theaters have felt increasing pressure to get more people through the doors and that this has had an inevitable impact on programming. Based on his experiences as a managing director, he expressed concerns that programming in regional theaters was becoming more homogenous, or commercial, and less relevant to the local communities or regions in which theaters are based.”
This is a very different question indeed from whether playwrights should receive staff salaries at non-profit theatres or concentrate on small-cast/small-set plays. It speaks precisely to the kinds of plays that are presented, in terms of form, style, and content, on these stages at all — perhaps the most important question. Is the current American non-profit theatre system putting dramatists and playwrights into strait-jackets in terms of what they can and can’t create, if they’re to have any reasonable expectation of production at these non-profit theatres? Even if these playwrights were to get health insurance and living wages, if they were permitted to dream of casts of 10 or more performers, what kinds of plays would be perceived — by artistic directors and management teams both — as having some kind of potential return on investment? “More homogenous and commercial,” says Moore; to consider “the palatability of the work for a wider mass,” in Freed’s words: if there are to be innovative American dramatists equal in aesthetic ambition as Howard Barker, Sarah Kane, and Mark Ravenhill, what chance would they have for a slot in the Arena Stage season, or indeed, in the season of any medium- or large-sized non-profit theatre, in New York or elsewhere in the United States? Especially at this anxious moment in American history, these theatres should continue to broaden the scope of the kinds of work presented, rather that limiting it to get “more people through the doors,” as Moore describes it. But Freed’s “question of art” never arose during the conference. Theatre is both art and business, for both commercial and non-profit venues — but these qualities must be discussed together, not separately, for the real consequences for the art form to become clear.
As I close today this series on the In the Intersection conference and report and return next week to writing more specifically about American drama after 9/11, I want to point out that the conference itself was a reminder of the growing ties between corporate and commercial entities and the private and cultural life of citizens in contemporary America. The arts emerge from and are influenced by the same cultural landscape as other social endeavors — business, government, politics, the social fabric itself. While the American drama may make no special claim to exemption from this situation, the unique qualities of the form permit specialized imagination and expression. Some of the opinions expressed during the conference, including a seeming surrender to the realities of 21st-century capitalism, underscore the tensions of the culture. In this case, a review of the landscape (and some trends I mentioned in this post, as well as those in the Outrageous Fortune study) suggests a sobering realization: that if the art of American drama is dying, it may be the American theatre that is killing it.