Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thinking small? Or big?

Jeffrey Sweet - a terrific playwright - linked to this article from the Guardian on facebook.

Though the writer is commenting on work in the UK specifically, as usual, her questions are worth raising on this side of the Atlantic, as well.

And there are a lot of issues this will bring up (or, at least, that have generally been brought up in the many conversations about this very topic that have popped up frequently in the blogosphere in the past): Are MFA's to blame for this (my opinion: If you're really familiar with MFA programs, that answer is: no)? Is realism in theatre really like television (my opinion: If you've actually watched television lately, the answer is: no)? What does theatricality really mean (who knows?)? Who's really to blame for the state of theatre today (my opinion: the decision makers - ie, Artistic Directors are responsible for what's on stage, no one else)? Is this really a trend (haven't 2 handers been a staple for at least 50 years)? And so forth.

However, what was interesting to me were some of the ideas in Sweet's facebook feed. I've cut and pasted some of them below. I think they all have something valuable to ponder. What do you think?

Having just read a few hundred plays for Seven Devils - it seems to me the situation is complicated here by the idea of what is producible (both in schools that teach playwrights to be more producible, and perhaps also really gear them to be able to make money in other media - and for those who don't have the magic MFA and think that a smaller, less expensive play is more likely to convince a theater to take a risk on them). I read some strong, big, ambious plays this year... but I don't think most of them will even get read by the people that need to read them, and they won't be seriously considered by theaters that don't know them. I'm not blaming the theaters either - it's like a vortex that we're all pulled into. I think everyone wants out of it. Maybe we're just more afraid of what awaits us beyond the vortex? - Jeni Mahoney

The choice isn't so much between big and small but between the dazzling counterfeit of the literal (movies with special effects can make you believe in the moment in almost anything that can be imagined) and the metaphoric. In the theatre, metaphor rules; the biggest special effects are those you conjure with the willing collaboration of the audience. Among the most theatrical pieces I've ever seen were directed by Paul Sills, who always worked with modest budgets. He would put an orange-billed baseball cap on Hamilton Camp and you would see a duck. - Jeffrey Sweet

The whole business of submitting manuscripts to theatres is self-defeating. The real way to get stuff on is to become part of the life of a company -- volunteering to do stuff that always needs to be done that nobody wants to do (grant-writing, PR, etc.) -- get to know the artists and to write for the people who are there. I once asked Paul Sills how he formed such good companies. He said, "They're the people who show up." Playwrights are too inclined to think that their work is off in separate rooms. No, you may do some of your writing elsewhere, but the point is to become a regular presence in the company's home and be part of that life. Lanford Wilson practically lived at Circle Rep in the golden years. - Jeffrey Sweet

Most people -- including a lot of people in the theatre -- can't read genuinely theatrical scripts. A lot of literary managers can read only the words and can't chart the behavior that gives the words their context. I've had stuff that was rejected in manuscript later produced by the same theatres that had turned them down once they saw productions by other companies. There's no easy solution to this, but universities could do a lot more to encourage the building of bigger stuff. They have the resources -- actors who don't have to be paid -- that the professional theatre doesn't. But, of course, one hopes to write plays that will have continued lives. - Jeffrey Sweet


  1. The link doesn't work - who wrote the Guardian article? Very interesting! Thanks!

  2. Lucia... I don't know why it doesn't work, but I've added it as you'll see. Just cut, paste and read....!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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