Fire on the Horizon

Leave it to Robert Brustein to mix it up and take no prisoners in the ongoing new play development/prodution debate. This from the current edition of American Theatre:

It’s not that there are no playwrights in this country–I think there are more playwrights in this country of high quality than ever before in my memory. They just don’t have a place to have their plays produced. Broadway has turned away from them altogether, as has even the resident theatre movement, which is no longer supported by the National Endowment for the Arts or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation…. Therefore, [the resident theatres] have begun to turn themselves into commercial producing organizations. And they’re putting on things that have been successful elsewhere and ot taking chances on the new. As a result we have succeeded ourselves out of existence, I think.

Which is enough of a shot across the bow, but Brustein can’t help himeself; he goes on to say:

And if that playwright does write that play, he or she is told, “We’ll give you a reading, a workshop, another reading, another workshop.” They never get productions. Richard Nelson wrote a very inflammatory speech about this recently, in which he complained that the playwright is always being helped to write his play by dramaturgs and by artistic directors, but he or she is never allowed to put the play on.

Ahh. I can’t help it: I love the guy. Makes me feel better about the stack of rejections on my desk too.

7 thoughts on “Fire on the Horizon

  1. Hey, I heart Brustein as much as the next guy, but I’m getting pretty bored with people like him and Nelson going after the easy targets. To hear them talk, you would think that dramaturgs and artistic directors have conspired to withhold all those productions that playwrights would otherwise have had. It would be refreshing, for a change, to see them go after the causes of this situation, and let the symptoms continue to be self-evident.

  2. I’ve thought folks like Daisey and Nelson have rather banged up the literary managers and dramaturgs unnecesarily. I’m not privy to the situation with ADs; all the ones I’ve dealt with have been great. What do you feel are the causes, if you’re comfortable discussing that?

  3. I just mean that it’s always easier to regurgitate an ad hominem argument than it is to address an endemic situation. And there are always a few loudmouths around who seem to suppose that there are many readings and few productions because that’s somehow convenient for dramaturgs and ADs.I wish all the turgophobes would consider where playwriting would be in the United States without dramaturgs’ advocacy. Seriously. When the regional theater concept was developed 50 years ago, original writing was not part of the program; it was all about classics. Guess who was a major proponent of new work? Mr. B. And he kick-started things partly by importing dramaturgy as a profession from its European roots. People should wise up and use the resources available to them instead of inveighing against them. But OH WAIT, that wouldn’t engender any controversy….

  4. Oops. Steve, I just realized I didn’t address the question you actually axed. The cause of many readings and few productions is simply economics. Because American theaters have to survive with little or no government support, the box office dictates the programming as much as the artistic director. Every production in a season is a critical component of the balance sheet that a board of directors has to sign off on.Most of the time, a new and unheralded play is going to lose money. That can be okay if the theater believes it can make up the loss with a megahit elsewhere in the season. But it takes tremendous commitment from that theater to agree to take on debt for a play it believes must be seen. The seemingly endless readings a theater may produce go a long, long way toward convincing an artistic staff of a play’s value; they can also be great ways to get the buy-in, in advance, of a theater’s patrons. It’s a truckload of work AND it costs money. So anyone who thinks dramaturgs and ADs are going through that effort as…what, a pastime, a sop?–are Epsilon Semi-Morons with too much alcohol in their blood surrogates.

  5. I think it’s kind of human nature that, when faced with a huge structural problem, to deal with a human target that becomes the recipient of said slings and arrows. That is, unless you get into the whole reflexive “it’s the system” argument (which may well be true in this case), it’s hard for a playwright, much less the theatre community at large, to cope with a problem on that scale. Consequently, folks direct their ire at the “gatekeepers”–in this case the literary managers, dramaturgs, and ADs because they’re on a scale that allows them to become vessels for resentment. It’s not fair, but it’s not surprising. Book editors have faced this for years as the publishers consolidate and publish more that more easy money and less literature.I think where the arguments come together is on the question as to whether the readings and workshops required before a theatre finally makes the decision to program a new piece end up improving a piece or watering it down. If you write a good but ball-busting play and have to continually defend it from being denatured through the workshop process, then it begins to feel like it’s working against you (especially if the process really is an extended audition designed to make a play safer and more palatable to a board or sucscribers). On the other hand, sometimes a play needs lots of work because it has problems, and, because the writer gets burned out on the process or has a fragile ego, they end up blaming the dramaturg because they won’t own up to the play needing a rewrite. In the former case, I think the playwrights may have a valid argument that a play can get workshopped to death (one which dramaturgs would likely agree), and in the former case, I think the development process gets the blame when its actually there to help.Playwrights have some legitimate griping to do in some instances, but the ones regularly getting shafted are the lit managers and dramaturgs who are stuck in the middle and, in fact, are the champions of new plays being considered at all.Ironic. Everyone involved ultimately wants the best thing for the play. It’s just that producers (to use a global term) have to keep the theatre’s best interests in mind as well, and from that arises conflict.Does that make sense or am I just wandering in the wilderness here? You know, in my day job, I work for an energy consulting company, and a lot of our clients (actually for the sake of their bottom lines and for image-making purposes) are trying to take on a great big bear in trying move the public and, hence, the marketplace to accept green energy, building practices, and appliances as the norm–to shift the paradigm, so to speak, and change the culture. Maybe what need to do is find a way to shift the audience culture so taking on a new play, rather than being perceived as a risk, becomes expected from a theatre worth subscribing or donating to. I don’t know how you do that, but I’d love to hear it discussed. Probably be a lot more fruitful than arguments that pit authors versus the folks going to bat for them.

  6. Well, this returns us to Brustein’s original point. He’s absolutely correct when the says that regional theaters have mostly become commercial producing entities, and that’s too bad. Originally they were meant to be custodians of culture — to bring Hamlet to Omaha and all that. Things were never easy, but when the NEA was neutered, the writing was clearly on the wall, so to speak — theaters could make money like any other business, or they could simply cease to exist, like any other unprofitable endeavor. Survival of the savviest.I’m sure I don’t need to go into how convenient the laissez-faire system is for certain political interests. Let’s just say that nations where theater thrives exceptionally well, like the U.K., Ireland, Germany and the former Soviet Bloc nations, for god’s sake, get significant government support.Preaching to the choir, I know.

  7. You know, I found myself thinking about this whole ongoing dilemma about new plays and theatre’s continuing premature death notices, and it occurred to me that there are three things playwrights can do about the situation: 1. Lobby theatres they know to take a risk on new plays, even if those plays are written by someone else; 2. In public and private, recognize and praise theatres and theatre professionals willing to take those risks (Mead); and 3. Write the best plays they possibly can, no matter how many rewrites it takes. Rinse and repeat.

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