My first dog was a beagle named Bootsie, who used to do a hilarious and fascinating thing. When she was given a bone to chew, she would gnaw on it until she was tired, and then she would take it to some part of the room and “bury” it. By which I mean, she would “cover” it with imaginary dirt moved from all parts of the room with her nose. When it was buried to her satisfaction, she would settle down. But if anyone in the family looked at the bone, she would jump up, grab it and with great annoyance bury it again somewhere else in the room. Everyone was supposed to pretend that we couldn’t see it.
That’s what we seem to have been doing for at least a decade in the American theatre — probably much longer than that.
We all know that the business model doesn’t work, that making a living wage is almost impossible, that the audience is shrinking, contributions are evaporating, tickets are getting more expensive, patrons are aging, and theatre has all the relevance of a horse-and-buggy race. But we bury these facts with the imaginary dirt of things like “place making” and “internet marketing” and just about anything else we can discover to distract us from looking at the problem head on.
This month’s edition of American Theatre Magazine calls our attention to one of the major issues that is regularly covered over with pixie dust: playwriting. A few years ago, Todd London published Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of a New American Play, which revealed in no uncertain terms how difficult it was to make a living writing plays; around the same time, Tony Kushner was quoted in Time Out! as saying, “I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.” All of this led to lots of discussion at the time, discussion that I myself participated in. Oh, it was something! Table banging! Passion! But after “submit” was clicked on the last blog post, nothing much changed. OK, we got the New Play Map, which isn’t small potatoes, but little changed as far as the commitment to new plays was concerned. We all just went back to dragging imaginary dirt across the carpet trying not to notice that yet another production of Death of a Salesman or The Glass Menagerie or Oklahoma! was being staged.
But American Theatre brought a ray of hope: Chicago’s Goodman Theatre announced that its 2015-2016 season will include four world premieres including plays by Jose Rivera, Thomas Bradshaw and Charise Castro Smith, as well as a collaboration between Robert Falls and Seth Bockley.
Is this significant? You’re damn right it is! Imagine if every regional theatre in the country devoted half of its mainstage productions to new works. Imagine if the NEA and the major arts foundations only gave money to theatres who had such a policy — and imagine that there was an extra pot of money for organizations that had a permanent, resident playwright. What would be the result? An American Renaissance in the theatre as our stages became once again to be relevant and vibrant.
Margo Jones, the storied pioneer of the regional theatre movement, knew this within the core of her being. Sixty-five years ago, she wrote in her brilliant book Theatre-in-the-Round:
I believe it is imperative in creating new resident professional companies to take a violent stand about the choice of plays. Personally I believe in the production of classics and new scripts, with emphasis on new scripts. Our theatre can never be stronger than the quality of its plays. We must, therefore, have a great number of good plays. The classics have proved their value throughout the history of the theatre, and I believe we should draw on them as great literature and great theatre. But if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well. The most excellent seasons in New York are those which bring forth exciting new play-writing talent. Too many people are saying, “I’ll do a new play if I can find a good one.” Certainly you must find a good one, but this attitude is not good enough. The plays can be found if you look hard enough. And if you take the violent stand I have spoken about, you will feel obligated to search and search and search until the scripts are discovered. I have a belief that there is great writing in America today and that much of it has not yet been unearthed.
Looking back at theatre history, Jones continues:
Great theatres have always had their playwrights. Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Moliere, Ibsen—all these were men around whom theatrical companies were functioning. The Moscow Art Theatre had Chekhov; the Abbey Theatre had Yeats, Synge and O’Casey; the Provincetown had O’Neill; the Group had Odets. We must have our new playwrights, and we will not have them unless we give them many outlets to see their plays produced. This is the best way in which they can learn to write better plays. The production of classics is healthy, but it is not step in the flowering we want to see in the American theatre. We need progress, and the seed of progress in theatre lies in the new plays.
But Jones’ attitude is long forgotten, destroyed by Tyrone Guthrie. Fifty years ago, in his book about the founding of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis entitled A New Theatre (the irony of that title still rankles), Guthrie wrote:
It seemed to us that the only way of knowing a good play from a bad was to apply the test of time. Our programme would be classical; only those plays would be chosen which had seemed, to discriminating people for several generations, to have serious merit, which had, in fact, withstood the test of time. This would still offer a very wide choice…..If it be granted that fifty years is the absolute minimum of time required before a new work of art can wisely be regarded as a classic, then it follows that the American theatre cannot as yet claim to have developed a classical dramatist.
Think about that for a moment: the only way to know a good play from a bad play is to just let our grandparents decide, because we sure can’t trust ourselves! This is the view of the regional theatre as a museum, not as a living, vibrant art form.
About 75 years ago, Antonin Artaud recognized the danger of this attitude when published in his book Theatre and Its Double an essay entitled “No More Masterpieces.” In it, he wrote:
One of the reasons for the asphyxiating atmosphere in which we live without possible escape or remedy—and in which we all share, even the most revolutionary among us—is our respect for what has been written, formulated, or painted, what has been given form, as if all expression were not at last exhausted, were not at a point where things must break apart if they are to start anew and begin fresh….
Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us. We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone.
I’m a theatre historian, so Artaud’s idea threatens my very livelihood, but I must admit that to a large extent he is right — or at least, that we would do well to heed his warning. And it starts in college theatre departments, where students rarely come into contact with a living, breathing playwright but instead learn about the classics of dead authors that are printed in the assigned anthologies. Can any of you think of a class you had in college that focused solely on new plays? There is little sense that a play is a created thing that can change when it comes into contact with certain actors, directors, designers, spaces and audiences. There is little sense of seeing theatre as an art form that reflects now, today, this culture, this place, this moment in time. Our curriculum would make Tyrone Guthrie proud.
What would it be like if the popular music scene consisted only of covers of songs of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s? What would it be like if the only films that were made were reworkings of movies of the 1930s? I can tell you with confidence what it would be like; it would be like the current world of theatre: conservative, irrelevant, unpopular, lacking in energy, lacking in diversity, and unable to attract a young audience. What makes the current renaissance in television writing possible? The demand for new ideas, new stories, new forms. Artists love that.
And so we in the theatre need a new mindset. We need more Jones and Artaud, and less Guthrie. We need to look to the experimentation of television dramas and ask ourselves what the theatrical version of that is. Harold Clurman, in the fabulous PBS documentary Harold Clurman: A Life of Theatre said:
You can’t have good plays unless you have a lot of bad ones. In other words, unless there’s activity, unless you’re producing. And anyone who sits around thinking that you’ll just have one masterpiece after another, and if it isn’t a masterpiece to hell with it… People have asked me why don’t we have more good plays; I say why don’t you ask me why we don’t have more bad plays, because if you have more bad plays, you’ll have more good plays, because that feeds the ground — that’s the manure that makes things grow.
This issue — the need for more manure — is a systemic problem that is going to require some actual leadership from someone with power — which usually, in the case of the theatre, means someone who distributes money or has a high public profile. So: Red Rover, Red Rover, let Tony Kushner, Todd London, Polly Carl and David Dower, Ben Cameron, and dammit somebody at the NEA who isn’t focused on place making come over. Create a powerhouse panel for the next TCG conference. Put some money behind it.
It’s time to stop burying this issue in plain sight, and do something to make it a priority.