Sunday, November 10, 2013

How new plays killed the new season; or, are we reaching a kind of development end-game?

It's hard to deny that in Boston, so far this has been the weakest theatrical season in memory. And it's not too hard to see why: in two words - new plays.  This fall I've sat through a series of premieres, all with strong casts, and all well produced and (more or less) well directed. But I'd argue none of these scripts were really ready for the stage; indeed one or two of them never should have come near the stage (and probably never should in future, either).

So I have a pile of Playbills on my desk, attesting to texts I haven't had the heart to critique. Some, like The Power of Duff at the Huntington, have been highly crafted, and superficially close to the mark, but proved ultimately forgettable. One, after a disastrous opening act, inched up hill, but only toward competent melodrama (Water by the Spoonful at the Lyric - and it won a Pulitzer!).  Another thrashed around interminably, and in the process buried all its good ideas (Rancho Mirage at the New Rep). And let's not forget the one that should have been left in its famous author's desk drawer, as he himself seems to have wanted (Kurt Vonnegut's Make Up Your Mind at SpeakEasy).  

In case you haven't noticed, there you have all our mid-sized Boston theatres, plus the Big Kahuna, the Huntington.  That amounts to a lot of cultural effort.  Which is clearly being misdirected.  No, no one expects any theatre (much less any season) to hit new plays out of the park with every swing.  Still . . . it's hard to sit through Rancho Mirage, which debuted across the country in a series of "rolling" regional productions, without thinking that there is something deeply wrong with our current development system.  

When I first warned that new-play standards were beginning to sink, and that we needed more old plays on the boards to maintain a perspective on quality, people called me all kinds of names.  I wonder what they're thinking now. Although maybe I don't; most of these types don't actually go to the theatre that much - they only see their own shows, or shows their friends are in (or have written). Theatre is produced more and more for its producers rather than its audience.  This makes the development issue particularly tricky - you're asking the theatrical community to be harder on itself, to turn its back on all the playwriting grads the academic farm system churns out, to focus on artistry rather than connections and networking and identity. And what's the reward for that? The audience has collapsed so far by now that you can't really count on a challenging artistic success to be embraced by the public. And the boomer generation is simply uneducated about art - particularly the ones with advanced degrees; they just want high art to recapitulate the pleasures of the pop art of their college days.  So you edge forward piecemeal, rewarding one audience segment after another - many of which are already part of your own network - with this or that chunk of liberal pop nostalgia.

Sigh.  It's no wonder criticism itself barely exists - it's superfluous in this closed loop.  (Sometimes quite literally a closed loop, btw, in which producers openly pay for a review - often from people linked to their home institution - as goes on at the Arts Fuse.)  

But I do hope to work through some sort of analysis of the recent pieces that I felt had some potential.  I agree that Rancho Mirage was a disaster, for instance - but I can't help but feel it had possibilities (its fatal flaw was that it was irritating, rather than blandly uplifting, as most successful bad plays are).  Stoneham's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde likewise struck me as half-baked, but interesting.  I suppose I can come up with a few things to say about The Power of Duff.  I'm less sure about Water by the Spoonful, though - and please, don't make me write about Make Up Your Mind (I might lose my own if I do).  Perhaps things will look up this week - Caryl Churchill is on the menu, and there's a puppet show not far off!  And what can I say? Things can only get better, right?


  1. I largely agree with regard to the failures of the new play industry-- in fact, I have been thinking of writing my own take on the manner in which pop-nostalgia and the networking inherent to the academic farm system trumps artistry. These trends disturb me greatly as well.

    However, Tom, but as a regular contributor to The Arts Fuse-- I will note that while I do receive a modest freelance rate for my reviews, and that this money comes from advertisers and underwriters, I have never soft-balled a review nor have I been asked to soft-ball a review. Whatever happens in the back-and-forth between Editor-in-Chief Bill Marx and myself as my first draft is tweaked before it ends up on the web does not blunt my judgements.

    Furthermore, The Arts Fuse has a conflict-of-interest policy, which was sent by email on July 29, 2013:

    ...there should be no relationship -- personal or financial -- between critic and the subject of his or her critique. If there is a connection (perhaps tangential), at the very least it should be mentioned in the piece, so the reader can evaluate the credibility of the reviewer's judgment.

  2. Ian, I'm not saying you've soft-balled a review. I like you and I respect your opinions; you're one of the few people I'd read on the Arts Fuse. But let's be honest - the "underwriters," as you call them, are largely producing organizations, are they not? (Some of whom have told me that your editor-in-chief is rather more direct with them than he is with his writers.) And surely you're aware that there's an intriguing space in which a careful editor can maneuver (given the process of assignment, placement, and eventual editing) without crossing any clear ethical lines at any particular moment with any particular journalist. And please - don't quote to me internal memoranda, okay? Every corporation on the planet, from Enron to Halliburton, has an internal policy on the books citing their adherence to the highest ethical standards. Although frankly - I don't even mind it that much any more. I mean Bill Marx had to get his money from somewhere, didn't he? Also, to be fair, other bloggers bend to other pressures - the threat of withholding tickets became almost routine at the ART, for example, and something like the same thing has gone down at Company One and elsewhere. People are silenced, or intimidated into silence, easily enough. Even at the few outlets with the clout to resist such tactics, other considerations come into play - at the city's most influential press organ, the lead critic's son has been essentially in the employ of a certain theatre, for instance - so said critic's second stringer is sent to their productions instead. Thank goodness, no ethical lines have been crossed! BUT . . . . who still has the clout, who still recommends the second stringers, who still is on the local awards committee? Hmmm . . . The upshot is that the reviewing process is now relentlessly controlled - and NOT for quality, of course.

  3. I certainly appreciate the fact that you feel my work has enough integrity that you mark me as an exception to your criticism of a website to which I contribute-- but my point is that if there is any pressure on me to play nicely, it's not not coming from The Arts Fuse. So rather than repeat innuendo, please demonstrate that the pattern exists.

    Of course this is a bit of a tangent to the main question-- why are the New American Plays not very good? In my case, I would have to ask, why is it that the vast majority of quality new plays I have seen in the last few years have been foreign plays presented in translation? I certainly have my ideas as to why that might be the case (and they are likely close to yours.) However, the proliferation of soft-ball reviews,which really only come after a new play has gone through all sorts of development and the author and producers have used their personal networks to bring it to the stage, is a separate issue.

  4. Ian - obviously the pattern exists at the Arts Fuse (and elsewhere). Honestly, I think you're being a bit willfully blind about this . . . but as I said, it's just the way the world wags these days. As for the parallel development of softball reviews with the development industry, I believe they're related. And frankly, independent reviewing is like the canary in the cultural coal mine. As it dies off, that means the culture is dying, too.

  5. You know, Ian, if you want to keep your own hands clean, you can always simply refuse to review producers who are (or have been approached to become) underwriters for the site. But I have to say, my innocent friend, I have a hunch that if every writer at the Arts Fuse insisted on the same thing, Marx's funding model would soon collapse.