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Vision

The Vom: A monthly diatribe, rant, provocation against the conventional wisdom

When picking your season, don’t choose to do the play that reads perfectly on the page. Don’t do the play where you can just feel the full impact of every word leavened by just the right amount of precious humor and pathos. Don’t do the play that tracks perfectly in your head. Go ahead and bind it in book form and sell it as-is in the theater gift shop or from behind the bar, but don’t waste actors on it. It won’t work on stage.

Don’t do plays that are “relevant.” Relevant to who? When? About what? Is it relevant when its in the headlines of the newspaper? Because they’ve clearly shown that they have their fingers on the pulse of America right now, haven’t they? Plays feel relevant when they’re good – regardless of whether they’re about the genocide in Rwanda or the relationship of those three sisters down the street. Do good plays, and they will be relevant. Don’t do “relevant” plays.

Don’t do plays to “raise awareness” or “inform” or “put a human face on a problem.” Do telethons to put a face on a problem. Write articles to raise awareness. Go door to door to inform. So, sure, yes, a play has been known, occasionally, to raise awareness, inform, and put a human face on a problem, they just aren’t usually very good when that’s what they’re built to do. Do plays that people care about, not plays that are intended to make them care about something that they don’t currently care about. You think that the theater is the first place they’re going to hear about it? Don’t do those plays. Let Ken Burns do the documentary instead.

And I don’t want to hear talk about bringing in a younger audience unless you’re willing to acknowledge that your audience’s age isn’t just a marketing issue. Why is theater the only business on the planet that expects to get a new audience with the same product? Do the same plays you’ve always done with the same dramaturgical rules if you want and market the shit out of them to an audience of twittering, facebookheads but none of them will come. They know what your theater does – it’s not a marketing problem – they don’t want to see it. (As Baby Boomer Bowie said, “They’re immune to your consultation. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.”)

So, for god’s sake, don’t find young playwrights you like and workshop them until they're just like an old playwright you like (only young, and quietly judging you).

Don’t reinterpret a play because you think the play has gotten stale. If the play has gotten stale, little you can do will freshen it up. Reinterpret a play because you think the play needs only a little translation to work. You don’t need to teach the audience to see the play in a new way. Odds are good they never saw it the old way.

And, don’t give me that line about the need to do a familiar title or author. Unless you’re doing Hello, Dolly, the people who are most likely to recognize the title or author are also the ones most likely to come no matter who the author or what the title. Don’t pretend that you need to produce last year’s Pulitzer prize semi-finalist — regardless of whether you’ve read it or not and its yet another play about people who live in New York, usually on the Upper West Side. To the general public, there is little difference in fame between John Patrick Shanley, Václav Havel, and me.

Finally, for god’s sake – ah, who am I kidding, for my sake – don’t make me sit through another play where some character happens to be reading a book about science, or technology, or mathematics, or nature, or animal husbandry, that is – coincidentally – a perfect metaphor for the deepest truths of the human heart. Seriously? You’re going to read to me on the stage and then act it out? I’d rather hang out on Facebook, watch a Ken Burns documentary, and listen to the soundtrack of Hello, Dolly.

Comments

a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not a square

I think the problem is that everyone thinks what they're doing *is* good. Everyone will read this and nod their heads, convinced you're talking about someone else.

Too many think that all you have to do is make a piece MEAN SOMETHING and that's enough, but the mission should not be pursued at the expense of the art. It's not enough just to address or explore something. If you're working on a pre-existing script, there's a difference between shoe-horning your own masturbatory stuff into it and actually serving the piece. There's a difference between SAYING SOMETHING "DEEP" or "IMPORTANT" and actually making good art. Unfortunately, many artists don't make such a distinction.

We're doing Brecht's "Galileo" right now, which, because it's Brechtian epic theatre, could easily fall prey to the traps you described. We've been extremely sensitive to the notion that the clarity and artistry of the piece is the end goal, and most importantly, the choices must be informed BY the piece, not wedged into it to satisfy our egos.

The irrelevance of relevance

I second Alan's decrying of the mania for relevance in the theatre. The idea that plays have nothing to say to us unless they ham-fistedly address some topical issue of the moment. Have we really become so shallow that we can't absorb and process a play's ideas and situations unless the actors are dressed like and speak like ourselves? Alan is also spot-on to complain of plays with a mission to enlighten us to a problem or issue in the world. Theatre is a terrible medium to do this. Often I attend a play (or more likely, a staged reading) and the question which, for me at least, hangs over the proceedings is "Why is this a play?" It's a fascinating topic but I think I'd much rather read a good book about it.

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n Roll is a great example. The play is juxtaposes the Prague Spring uprising in Czechoslovakia, breast cancer and theory vs. practice in Communist doctrine but the play isn't about any of those things, It's about how the particular characters in the play are affected by them. What holds our attention is tracking how Jan's perspective on where his loyalties lie, Max's growing despair at seeing the two underpinnings of his life, his steadfast commitment to Communism and his love for his dying wife Eleanor begin to crumble, and Eleanor's valiant battle against her cancer, to hold onto her identity apart from her failing body and her love for Max. It's the characters, the people and their relationships that matter, not the issues.

I've always believed the three most important components of an enduring play are character, relationship and dimension. These are certainly what keep actors and directors coming back to the bosom of Shakespeare. The plays are so deep, so layered and so compelling that definitive productions are impossible. Tyrone Guthrie used to say that, as he aged, he began to approach productions, whether classical or contemporary, with few preconceptions other than the play spoke to him. "We'll figure out what the play means to us as we explore it." The "we" in his quotation is suggestive: Guthrie felt strongly that each group of collaborators imprinted their own unique interpretation to the text. This, Guthrie felt, was what allowed multi-dimensional plays to be revisited over and over again. The end result would always be different because the interpretive elements (actors, designers, etc.) would be different. Even if you took the same cast you did Hamlet with 5 years ago and staged it again- as long as you explored it honestly you would come up with a different experience because the ensemble had changed- they were older, sadder, wiser, happier, healthier, frailer then they had been 5 years earlier and that couldn't help but influence how the play was refracted through their interpretive prisms. I digress, but thanks Alan for raising the subject!

Errata

Gary Peterson, http://minnesotamist.blogspot.com

Alan -

(1) A hearty yes: "good = relevant" and "relevant does-not-necessarily = good."

(2) Much of your article could apply to all of the performing arts, particularly this: "Don’t do plays to 'raise awareness' or 'inform' or 'put a human face on a problem.'” I would only add, "Don't do work that 'explores' this, that, or the other."

(3) You ask: "Why is theater the only business on the planet that expects to get a new audience with the same product?" Again, you could include all disciplines, but I don't think it is that simple or easy, and this subject could receive its own month-long focus on your site.

(4) As strong as my opinions may be about every artistic director, music director, or season-assembler, I am able to summon a fair amount of sympathy for the Dowlings, Cooks, Reulers, Houltons, Vanskas, (Dale) Johnsons, and all others who have to be in the arena and get the job done. It is true that they signed-up for their jobs, but in an age when no one seems to be satisfied about anything, the scathing frequency and volume of the Paul Krugmans of the arts world wears thin. Also true: a certain amount of criticism is a healthy sign that people still care.

(5) As for the pace of change, cited by one of your commenters, we ain't seen nuthin' yet! Anyone who has not seen this (increasingly out-of-date) video about the shift (http://www.flixxy.com/technology-and-education-2008-alt.htm) taking place could contribute to the collective pondering about the meaning and significance of anything we do.

Technology and Education

Gary, I was somewhat tracking with the video until it said, "We are living in exponential times" which is a myth debunked in Bob Seidensticker's FUTURE HYPE. What also struck me about the video is how the past four months have already thrown many of its assurances into question. I'm not debating the pace of change one bit, but I'm no longer quite so sure the future is going to be what we were predicting even six months ago.

Even more fodder for the What Is Relevant? and What Kinds of Performance Do People Wish to See? debates.

The Age Issue

This is coming up a lot lately. We heard it about in Casey's article here, our lovely friends at Fringe Famous responded to it here, and there's a lively discussion about seasons, the Guthrie's in particular, at Callboard.

I went to a training program that focused nearly exclusively on classical theater, and yet, I don't find myself getting as excited for classical theater the way I used to, or the way that I do for many new work I get involved with. I still enjoy them, and they can be treats to work on for their richness of language and complexity. But I think Alan's right, things are shifting.

Doing Great Plays seems to be doing plays written by (often) Old (mostly) White (almost exclusively) Men filled with casts that are (mostly) White for the edification of audiences that are (often) Old and (mostly) White. Now, you can say, well, dickbag, we speak English, which, historically, has been a (mostly) White language. And there are a whole lot of great plays that are written by (often) Old/Dead (mostly) White (almost exclusively) Men. And I would say yes, this is true. But not anymore. America as a country and English as a language is certainly not (mostly) White anymore. And newsflash, if your audience is (often) Old, they're soon going to be (mostly) Dead.

Live performance has been around for thousands of years, and I don't think that need for us to see real people doing fake stuff in person has or will go away. But to say that the same format Euripedes was writing for thousands of years ago - us up there on the stage, you over there in neat rows watching - is still the only way of doing things (I know there are exceptions, go with me here) is naive and foolish.

Change is accelerating. We're inventing and reinventing new forms of communication like every week now it seems. The difference in knowledge and experience between 60-year-olds and teenagers now is unimaginable. We're using crap in our daily lives that didn't exist five or ten years ago, and the time from "crap not existing" to "crap lives in my pocket" is getting shorter and shorter all the time. Am I saying that we need to get our plays in 140 characters, with links and metadata and SuperPoke the audience? Sweet balzac, no. Plays that include chat sequences make me want to dry hump a belt sander. But that's because they're shoe-horning new technologies into really really old formats. I think it's worth not just rethinking play selection, but the entire medium.

The Digital Age has burned the conventional music business to the ground. It's decimating advertising, television and print news, and starting to redefine the movie business, too. Why should theater be exempt?

I have no idea what these new forms will look like. But I think we have to stop looking at it as merely a marketing or even a play selection issue. We need a straight-up re-evaluation of the medium itself.

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