Friday, January 22, 2010

Awww, looks like somebody's new play didn't get a production!

I confess I haven't ordered a copy of Outrageous Fortune, the new book from TDF that purports to outline what's gone wrong with the new play development process - and I don't think I'm going to. Everything I've read about it - and bloggers have been working overtime in this regard - makes it sound just too obnoxious for words.

Some chapters, it is said, bemoan how difficult it is to get a first production; others bemoan how hard it is to get a second production because theatres prefer to give first productions. The audience is aging, aging, aging, but none of the young playwrights are themselves willing to go to the theatre. From what I've read, the book sounds like one long chorus of complaint - when it's not a chorus of counter-complaint.

Except, of course, when it comes to the quality of new plays.

But here's the rub - and I haven't dared say this till now - I think that the new play development process may have become too easy, not too difficult.

Gasp! How can I say that? Because I've sat through the plays. And to be honest, most of the new plays I've seen in the past five years have not been ready for production. I'd say, in fact, at best only 1 in 5 have been good to go. And I'm not talking little shows in basements here. I'm talking about the A.R.T. and the Huntington and Trinity Rep. Plays that have been in development for months, or years.

Nevertheless, what I've experienced, sitting in theatres for something like 150 nights a year for the past five or so years, is that an immense amount of time and energy and money have been expended on a product that hasn't really been worth it.

And I have a sneaky suspicion that that may be what is killing theatre. And to me, that's what is broken about the development process - not that it doesn't generate enough new plays, but that it's rarely successful in actually "developing" them.

How to correct the situation is the question. But does Outrageous Fortune even hazard an answer? Is there a way to increase the number of new plays, but also improve their quality? Because that is something I'd like to read.


  1. Hi Thomas,

    You are probably right. But, also…and please don’t take this too personally, even though the shoe fits.

    People who see 150 nights of theatre a year are weird ducks. Often these people call themselves “reviewers.” These deviants are what is killing theatre. But luckily with the demise of print publication, these reviewers are dropping like flies. Hopefully soon no one will have the “job” of attending theatre just to suffer his/her opinion onto others.

  2. Oh, don't worry Nick I don't take that personally at all!

    It is a little odd, though, that you - and so many playwrights - seem to think it's the audience, not the plays, that is killing theatre. Indeed, to you, someone who loves theatre enough to go out to see it every weekend is a "deviant"!

    And I'm just wondering - do you think I'm paid to do this? No, honey - I make even less than the playwrights. So while the print reviewers may indeed be dropping like flies, I'm not going anywhere.

  3. And I do want to point out how in general the discussion of this issue has tilted toward a general solution of "more plays, less quality control."

    So far, I've read the following ideas from various bloggers -

    1) Critics should see fewer shows (Nick's suggestion)

    2) We should do less Shakespeare, particularly King Lear, which is overrated (Isaac's suggestion)

    3) We should ignore the audience (several voices)

    4) We should lower ticket prices, but still pay everybody more (a universal recommendation)

    I don't find this list very edifying. Indeed, it's rather obvious that without suggestions for greater quality control worked into the discussion, it's going to go nowhere.

  4. Great points, Thomas. I'm not buying or reading OF either. I'm a playwright and can't see where the material would be of any benefit to my creative process.

    Here's a couple quick thoughts: Stop treating degrees like licenses to be playwrights. A degree is something a parent buys. It does not confer actual status or accomplishment.

    Dump the "development process" entirely. Why? First, it lets lazy inexperienced writers off the hook so that producers and directors can have more of a say. Development is why movies are such dreck these days. Give plays and musicals a reading. If they don't fly, move on and find something well-crafted on the page before you put it on the stage.

    Work with writers who have a handle on their craft. When my first play, written while sitting in a jail cell for possession of marijuana, was accepted at McCarter Theater I was flabbergasted. I also decided to write for newspapers when I got out, because I somehow knew that my writing skills had to develop a lot further. (It was probably all those writers I read, and who I felt were the standard of good writing.) The tendency today is to work with young writers who are pushovers. Older writers know what they want and what they are doing, and this upsets our narcissistic directors and producers.

    Thanks for all you do!

  5. I'd like to add that, while writing for newspapers and magazines, I did write for the stage again after about 5 years "apprenticeship" as a reporter, and continue to do so. None of my plays "made it big". One did get adapted for TV as a GM Mark of Excellence production. I actually believe that I'm at the height of my powers, writing-wise, now. Why wouldn't I be? I've been doing it every day for over 3 decades.

    Also, in all the coverage of OF, there's a lot of talk about playwrights "making a living". I'd like to quote Arthur Miller: "A playwright can't make a living but he might make a killing."

    If that attitude was good enough for Artie, it's good enough for me. I'll just keep trying.

  6. Personally, as both a playwright and an audience member, what I see as a problem is that very few of the new plays I see have the qualities that attract me to theatre as an art form.

    I find a lot of new plays that are limited in ambition, in scope, and in basic theatricality, under-estimate me as an audience member, or they're simply too overly self-conscious about their message.

    Whether I succeed or not (not really my call to say if I did) I at least try to throw in the things I love about theatre, especially if I don't feel I'm getting enough of it in the shows I see.

    So, I for one, value the feedback from the "odd ducks" as much as from any collaborator.

    Even when I see a mediocre production of a classic, at least I see something of the qualities I seek.

  7. "Critics should see fewer shows (Nick's suggestion)"

    I never said that. I just wanted the recognition that its a weird duck playgoer thrusting its opinion on the rest of us. Most Americans (74% according to the recent NEA study) don’t even attend theatre once a year. So, yes, watching 150 nights of theatre each and every year deviates from that norm. However, the real deviance I’m citing is the notion that going to theatre is a job. Whether you are paid or unpaid, crafting a written opinion after experiencing theatre is a very specialized job.

    The blogosphere has now opened the field to armchair reviewers who talk/spout their opinions without any craft or critical facility. But all this new blah blah merely underlines how worthless, if not detrimental, the reviewer has become as audience mediator or representative of the theatre experience. Theatre has been reduced in large part to its product value, subject to consumer reports and “quality control.” I certainly have no obligation as artist or critic to serve the culture that creates that condition. I might even have an obligation to resist such a culture with my art form.

    Whining about the condition, as you suggest, is not much of a resistance. (But of course,negative reviews are also a species of whining.) Producing and writing critically about the theatre you believe serves the art form is the only valid action.

  8. Ian, as valid as they likely are (not seeing thru your eyes but agreeing on most points), is it possible that most of your criticisms stem from playwrights' adhering to the impecunious approach to theater these days -- small casts, no money for sets, absence of stage magic? Just asking.

    There's no mistaking people overstating their message, though.

  9. None of the budgetary issues you bring up are the problems I cite, Uke. My background as a performer includes mime and puppetry, so small casts (in both number and stature) and small budgets don't bother me.

    The lack of theatricality I cite are examples of scripts that could just as well been television or film (and might have been better as television or film.) An example would be a play whose narrative so hinges on a plot twist near the end that there's little point in attending if you've been spoiled-- and thus, there's no point in ever staging a second production in the same metropolitan area.

    For me, the "theatricality" of a performance is quantified in my desire to either a.) see another production (different interpretation) of the same script; b.) desire to see more work by the author; or c.) desire to see more performances by this particular troupe.

  10. "Producing and writing critically about the theatre you believe [in] serves the art form [and] is the only valid action." Perhaps so, Nic - but then again, that's what I do. If only more playwrights did the same!

  11. Thinking of many of the new plays I have seen in the year since Tom started this discussion I do think quality control is a major issue that few in the new play development field want to talk about. I have seen several pieces that, were I not a "theatre person" and instead someone who had been dragged to the show by a friend or relative, I might have come to the erroneous conclusion that the only good playwright is a dead playwright.

    Thankfully, I've also seen several works that contradict this thesis.