Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The playwright gap
Local playwright Patrick Gabridge (of whom I'm a fan) has been bemoaning the lack of world premieres by our local theatre companies - particularly world premieres of local playwrights. Particularly local playwrights whose last names begin with "G" and end with "-abridge." (Naw, just kidding about that last part.)
Gabridge doesn't really crunch many numbers, but he does list quite a few; he discovers that locally, we can expect about a dozen world premieres this season (depending on how you count new translations and operas), showcasing six local playwrights (John Kuntz and Jon Lipsky get two premieres apiece).
To Patrick, this seems like small potatoes. To me - well, not necessarily. Gabridge doesn't note that most of the theatres on his lists, though perhaps not doing many world premieres, are still doing plenty of regional premieres - indeed, some of these seasons are devoted entirely to the latest from people like Annie Baker, Neil Labute and Alan Ayckbourn. I wish Gabridge had explained why we should hear from Boston playwrights over these people, but he doesn't really go into that. Instead he laments the fact that we aren't hearing anything from "Kirsten Greenidge, Lydia Diamond, Ronan Noone, Ken Urban, or Melinda Lopez." But actually, we just heard from Lopez and Diamond (twice) last spring, and we heard from Noone last fall. And I saw a one-act by Kirsten Greenidge in August. The only one of those playwrights I haven't seen recently is Ken Urban. True, as Gabridge says, many more local playwrights have been ignored over the last year or two by the large- and medium-sized houses - but actually, several of the ones in that list I've heard from recently on the fringe.
So as I look at it, we're hearing quite a bit from Boston playwrights. And of course we're hearing a LOT from living playwrights in general. As I've noted before, it's the classics that are in short supply these days, not new plays. Indeed, many of our local theatres (SpeakEasy, Zeitgeist, Merrimack) aren't doing any classics at all, while others (Huntington, New Rep, Lyric) are only doing "light" classics, or new adaptations.
And, of course, most of these new plays turn out to be - well, somewhat mediocre. Indeed, my perspective on the scene - of which I perforce see far more than Gabridge - tells me that the "new normal" in Boston is a fine production of a play that's not quite up to the level of its presentation. In other words, our actors and designers, and some of our directors, are top-notch; the gap in the local scene lies at the playwrights' door. [Note: the great exception to this general rule was Diamond's Stickfly - and maybe one great play a year is all the city's scene can hope for!]
Gabridge seems to believe that more productions of the locals could change all that. But I'm not so sure; it might make things slightly worse instead. I have to note (harsh as it may sound) that the handful of local playwrights who have seen major productions in Boston (and elsewhere) haven't exactly blown through some sort of artistic ceiling as a result. In fact, all of them are writing at precisely the level at which they wrote before.
Indeed, one gets the impression the theatre industry is almost riding new playwrights for more work these days - and once a talent sends off a few sparks, and develops a few relationships, he or she is quickly over-exposed. Writers like Noah Haidle get pulled into the development network and wind up churning out a play or more a year, sometimes teasing out one-acts or short-story ideas to full-length status just to meet the demand - with an almost inevitable decline in quality. Gabridge seems confident that with more productions comes better plays, but I have to contradict him based on the evidence. Trust me, it doesn't always work out that way - so should we continue to throw resources at scripts that aren't really ready?
And in the meantime, there are great plays - and even whole bodies of work - with which we're still unfamiliar in Boston. I frankly would rather see Blasted by Sarah Kane, or almost anything by Caryl Churchill, before a new play by anyone on Gabridge's list. And I'm not sure how one "develops" those kinds of plays. But something tells me they're not developed - they're discovered instead.
Still, we need new playwrights, of course. So how can a new playwright get discovered? Well, while the fringe is doing a wonderful job with various festivals and readings, we don't yet have a high-profile series of new play readings that is well known to the public. That's always seemed like a big gap to me in the Huntington's Breaking Ground program - why isn't Rehearsal Room A at the Calderwood devoted every Sunday night to a play reading - one listed on the company's website? Or why doesn't Gabridge's "Rhombus" group, or the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, organize such an event themselves? I think such an effort would be even more helpful to local writers if the "development" community were not involved - because I think, in a way, our literary managers and consultants are helping to homogenize new play production in a way that's, well, not optimal. Just leave it to the playwrights and the audiences, I say. And I think, sooner or later, a new Sarah Kane or Caryl Churchill just might emerge.