Surreality Check: Why Are Most Current Plays Realistic?

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SIMH Festival
Coyote (Luke Couzens) seduces Cat (Arti Ishak) in Jose Rivera's References to Salvadore Dali Make Me Hot (photo: Anthony Aicardi)

Contemporary plays — at least the ones that receive the most attention — tend toward realism. This is less true of musicals, whose stories regularly rely on magic, fantasy and bizarrely impossible realities. It could be that musicals, by definition, have no pretense of realism (we don’t naturally burst into song), and this frees or even encourages writers to forgo hard reality in their storytelling. When musicals do attempt realism — Rent, Next to Normal — notice how some characters are invariably musicians or singers, as if to at least partially justify their musical worlds. Active choices must be made to push against the genre’s inherent lack of realism, not push toward it. Nonmusical writers, who seem limited only by their imaginations, share in these creative ambitions far less often.

This is unfortunate. I have nothing against realism, and I enjoy realistic stories as much as nonrealistic ones, but I think the current default to realism suggests a creative blind spot that is limiting the theater as a whole. By “nonrealistic,” I mean plays in which things happen that are physically impossible in real life, not merely plays in which characters behave theatrically or improbably. In my experience as a script reader for several theaters in Chicagoland, I’ve read or seen early readings of around 70 or so scripts in the past year. These plays are mostly by people with agents or competitive residencies who have earned the right to have larger theaters consider their work. If we don’t count the musicals, I’d estimate only six or seven of these scripts included anything in their narratives patently beyond the boundaries of metaphysical reality. And, in these cases, the fantastical element was usually either the ghost of a historical figure or some kind of expressionistic device that wasn’t actually taking place, but rather symbolically representing what the characters were experiencing, such as their imaginations brought to life or participating in dream sequences.

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This data isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is strange and disappointing to me. So many plays were about the same basic family struggles, the same couples arguing with each other in their apartments, the same historical dramas or the same straightforward, issue-driven plays. A few were great, most were so-so and some needed considerable work. Many of the nonrealistic ones fell into this latter category, for despite their welcome ambition, they could often get muddled or confusing, never quite able to establish the rules of their alternate worlds.

Emmi Hilger
Emmi Hilger

In Chicago, however, we have several prominent companies, large and small, willing to take risks on strong nonrealistic material once in a while — or even devote whole seasons to it. To get at the heart of what drives artists to produce work outside the boundaries of realism — and why it doesn’t happen more often — I spoke to Emmi Hilger, founder and artistic director of Chicago’s annual magical realism festival Something Incredibly Marvelous Happens. (I also spoke with David Catlin of Lookingglass Theatre, who adapted and directed their acclaimed current production of Lookingglass Alice, but that will come in Part II of this series.)

For the past two years, Something Incredibly Marvelous Happens has offered a season of magical realist productions and workshop opportunities throughout the summer across several prominent storefront venues. Last year’s season featured eight shows, headlined by a production of José Rivera’s References to Salvador Dalí Make Me Hot. Planning for the 2015 festival has just begun, so for any playwrights and designers interested in getting involved, now is the time to act. In our recent conversation, Hilger was open and enthusiastic about her genre of choice and the value of doing work that stretches the adult imagination.

SEAN DOUGLASS: Thank you for speaking with me today, Emmi, and for your support of nonrealistic theater. Why did you decide to start a festival dedicated to magical realism? How did Something Incredibly Marvelous Happens come to be?

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EMMI HILGER: Many years ago, José Rivera came to speak at Northwestern when I was a student in the audience. I found his love for writing work that was meant to be a piece of theater (as opposed to something written for film or another medium) absolutely fascinating. For years, I have been pondering what makes theater unique as an art form and how we can use those characteristics to help it survive in an age of so many other options for entertainment and types of stimuli. I was also super in love with The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl because it uses theater’s inherent capabilities to make magic happen onstage in front of a live audience, and by doing so tells a deeper story than it otherwise could. The potential for these deeper, imagination-inspiring stories in the theatrical genre is what led me to found Something Incredibly Marvelous Happens.

SD: Why magical realism? What does this genre offer that more realistic theater doesn’t?

EH: Magical realism uses the live quality of theater to the fullest extent of its power by realizing extraordinary events in the presence of an audience. It has the power to ignite imaginations and allow us to see the world with a sense of increased possibility. And the act of experiencing it all together in real time further connects the audience to the story.

SD: Why don’t we see original nonmusical plays with overtly fantastical, supernatural or nonrealistic elements more often? Movies and television abound with science fiction, fantasy, super heroes, fairy tales — why not theater?

EH: Great question. I’m wondering that too. I think we are still coming out of a hyper-realistic era where theater artists and theatergoers highly value naturalism. I think playwrights today don’t have a huge number of role models to look up to for non-realistic work. I also think playwrights are afraid of writing work that is difficult to produce. Adding snow, sand falling from the ceiling, animals that speak — it costs money in production, and playwrights understand the need to make their work marketable to theater companies. I sense a general lack of enthusiasm about the imagination from adults in general. Hopefully, I’m wrong about that. But it doesn’t seem like a common way of thinking today for either the creator or the viewer.

SD: It seems to me that nonrealistic plays, while of course not always, tend to be more about general life themes — love, good vs. evil, life and death — rather than specifically addressing social issues or commenting on contemporary society, as more realistic plays tend to do. Is that really the case? If so, why do you think that might be?

EH: I think plays with magic are usually also somewhat mythic and large in scale or dealing with big ideas — maybe because that is the avenue in which we are used to accepting magic, not as part of our everyday lives. Perhaps that’s why Something Incredibly Marvelous Happens is moving this year more towards creating the genre. We want to see more extraordinary events infiltrate everyday life onstage and inspire our daily worldview offstage.

SD: How do you decide which plays to put in your festival? What are you hoping more exposure to this genre might do for the community?

EH: My imagination has always been how I connect to the world and empathize with those around me — a trait that defines me and has always seemed to give my life purpose. As artistic director, I propose plays to produce, and I aim to choose plays that help you connect to characters and their journeys. I want the magical elements in a piece to bring the audience closer to understanding the characters’ experiences, struggles and choices, in order to better empathize with them. The better we empathize, perhaps the kinder we will be, and the better we will get at problem solving.

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Sean Douglass
Sean Douglass is the Managing Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, as well as an author, playwright and dramaturg. He is the Company Dramaturg for Something Marvelous, Chicago's annual magical realism festival, and has previously worked at Northlight Theatre and Chicago Dramatists. His plays have been produced or developed at UW-Madison, The Vermont College of Fine Arts, The Chicago Fringe Festival, Luminous Theatre of Milwaukee, Something Marvelous, Chicago Dramatists and Stagecloud. He also hosts the CFR's podcast The Scene.