Monday, January 25, 2010

Self-Producing: "Playwrights"

Okay, okay, sorry David Dower. I didn't RTWT with regards to Outrageous Fortune. In my defense, when I began to read posts on the report, I saw things like "Aristotle Said There's Supposed To Be Catharsis... but there isn't. Not in this book," and I just had no taste for it. It doesn't sound like I missed much -- much as, when I read the reviews of Bye Bye Birdie, I can decide I don't want to see it. (Adam Feldman: "Bye Bye Birdie; hello, turkey. The featherbrained revival of this 1960 musical is sure to be roasted in so many critical pans that it seems almost cruel to add to the fire...")

But I was fascinated by most of the writing in response, and obviously there are hat-tips all 'round. As the blogging wraps up, I did want to point out what Scott said about self-producing:
As the Outrageous Fortune - a-thon got underway, more and more people seemed to find themselves at a tipping point, with OF providing the fatal push. With the arrival of the new year, J. Holtham revealed his identity (gasp) and indicated "I'm going to be looking very seriously at self-producing, about starting a production company, probably under the name of 99 Seats. More about that as it comes. At any rate, it's a new year, a new decade. Time to turn the page." Josh expressed admiration, and then Matt Freeman and Travis Bedard issued a call for a guide to self-producing. James Comtois obliged, creating an ongoing series entitled "Little Jimmy's Guide to Self-Producing," which provides an excellent how-to for playwrights who want to take control of their own productions in NYC. And suddenly everybody was jumping ship and following Don Hall into self-producing.
To which Matthew Freeman rightly responds:
4. Self Production isn't a bandwagon people recently got on. I've been hearing "self-produce" since I got started writing. Everyone has. I just think people need to know how to do it.
I recently became a student member of the League of Independent Theatres, which is basically a group of folks who've been doing this for probably a decade on average per group. If you look at the number of theater groups in New York (which Robert Zimmerman of NYSCA estimated at about 1000 when I saw him in person -- btw, you were there, Matthew Freeman? I was there too!), you'll see that there are quite enough foolhardy individuals who have been on that bandwagon for years (one of the more recent of which is me).

And there are clearly models of success in this path in the industry, the clearest contemporary I can think of is Moises Kaufman on the big stage and 13P on the up-and-coming. Sure, we folks can't necessarily generate the amount of revenue that Kaufman has been able to generate, but hey -- that's the nature of the game!

But to reflect back on Moises Kaufman for a second, I think that the big change in realization that is coming -- and it hits each person individually -- is that the idea of "Playwright" may actually become an anachronism. "Playwriting" was a step along the path of division of labor in the arts, the creation of big centralized artistic machines. What originally was a group of theatermakers became an actor, director, designers, playwrights, dramaturgs, producers, stage managers, etc. ad nauseum. But look back to what Scott said about Shakespeare:
Shakespeare was a shareholder in the King's Men, and also a householder in the Globe. Meaning that he had a financial stake in the theatre's success. As one of the chief playwrights for the company, it was up to him to crank out new material that would bring in audiences hungry for new material. [...] And he not only wrote plays, but he acted, and helped run the theatre space -- hell, he probably swept up the pit after the groundlings spilled food all over it. And they also took in apprentices, for whom they were responsible to provide room and board in exchange for teaching them the theatre ropes and, possibly, integrating them into the company.
Scott was using it to point to self-producing as an injunction for playwrights to be invested in the companies which they work. But I think it points to something else -- Shakespeare wasn't just a playwright. He didn't see play-wrighting as the end of his responsibilities. Granted, he didn't do everything -- he wasn't Atlas, holding up the globe (which, by the way, is a misconception started by Mercator, who named his collection of maps after King Atlas the map-maker but also drew Atlas holding a globe on the cover despite the fact that Atlas held up the sky). But every part of the process was considered part of his purview.

It comes up a lot for me, in the realm of self-producing. People keep asking me if I'm "sad that I am not going to perform anymore." So far I have performed, in minor capacities, in both plays I directed and self-produced. And my goal with my company is to create a group of self-producers, meaning that sometimes I will be able to perform and let them carry the load of producing, and other times I will be there to support their projects.

But we're trained, from fairly early on in our experience of theater, that there's a specific heirarchy in the world of making theater. Each of these roles, we are told, is distinct, and performed by different people. Well, maybe that worked for the regional theaters. It doesn't work for me. I like having actors collaborate on the script, and I like it when they help design the sound. I like them being involved in their costume design. Some things take technical craft that nobody else has, and so sometimes you need a specialist, but even those specialists I'd prefer if they saw themselves as being part of the project, not just someone who points the lights.

It reminds me of how, early in my training, we were told that when we direct we should never tell actors what result we're looking for, rather, we should employ a careful Socratic method to ask the right questions to lead the actor to the right emotional response. Hogwash. If you have talented, intelligent actors, you can speak to them like partners. You can say, "Here's what we're trying to do right now." You do often have to help them get there, but there's no need to pretend that as a director you're some kind of mystical shaman. You partner with them, communicate with them, and then on day 1 of tech week when you realize that there's a problem in your play that you don't know how to solve, you can turn to your cast with upturned palms and say, "Okay, what do you guys think?" So long as you've shown leadership along the way, they can help you when you're lost.

Because rather than being some militarized hierarchy with a ranking system and a chain of command, the self-producing world is a group of people with a task in front of them. Practices that make that task easier will be repeated. Practices that don't make the task easier will be cut down.

The term "playwright" means, essentially, exactly the same as "theatermaker." And hey, look at this, "theater producer" means "theatermaker" too. In our current tradition, we have equated "playwright" with "writer." There's another wave today of playwrights realizing that wrighting a play may not just mean writing a play.


Scott Walters said...

That was EXACTLY what I was trying to say -- thanks for saying it so well. Specialization is one of the things making theatre system dysfunctional these days. In fact, I'd say it is THE MAJOR thing.

(Also, thank you for the great attitude about directing actors. I think we could cut rehearsal time in half if directors would quit playing "20 questions" and just SAY what they want. It is part of the mystification of theatre that Stanislavky introduced.)

Ian Thal said...

One thing I learned from punk rock was that even if one had a specialty, one should learn how to do everything because most likely no one was going to do it for you.

When I became more involved with the performing arts I saw that puppeteers embodied this ethos as well since they were often not just a performer but a performer/director/writer/designer/builder et cetera.

So when I decided to be a playwright and saw that after a few months no one was beating a path to my door to produce my play, I just decided to start producing my own staged readings-- maybe I'll get more ambitious as time goes on.

CultureFuture said...

Scott: I've come to have the same feeling about working in the theater as I have come to have in relationships in general; if you can't just say what you have to say, you've got a problem. I think the mystification of the director comes from the fact that the director is, comparatively, one of the newest additions to the theater as a discrete role. The only reason an actor would be prepared to give up their own free will to place their talents in the hands of another person is trust. There are two ways to build trust: through mysticism, or through a good working relationship. One of those two seems healthier than the other.

Ian: Yeah, the "because most likely no one was going to do it for you" is how I learned this too. Punk rock, puppetry, and experimental theater (where I am getting my background) have one thing in common, which is that there aren't huge pop-culture roads to success (well maybe Punk Rock has it a little more now). There are very few nationally recognized puppeteers who companies run after and beat their doors down to produce, and most punk rock bands have to do a lot of work for themselves before they can contemplate a record label coming in to town and giving them all their hopes and dreams.

Playwrights, on the other hand, have the example of Tennessee Williams, who Isaac noted was very well supported long before he was a success. Which isn't to say that playwrights have it easy, so much as playwrights had a clear model for a road to success that involved getting other people to put on their shows.

Now, of course, it seems that model is outdated, and playwrights are joining punkers, performance artists, puppeteers, and many others in being assertive about starting their own careers.

Ian Thal said...

Right Guy, and for me, punk's DIY ethos directly informed how my cohorts and I approached other performance arts the moment we wanted to expand our horizons: it started to be normal to have spoken word artists and such between bands-- and so when I started as a mime (so I suppose I was doing "experimental theatre" as well), I understood how alternative "art spaces" operated, but hadn't a clue on how to work with a theatre as an institution-- and that's how I had to approach my mime troupe's gigs, as if we were a punk band.

Being a playwright and actually trying to deal with "proper" theatres is a new experience for me.

RVCBard said...

So far I have performed, in minor capacities, in both plays I directed and self-produced. And my goal with my company is to create a group of self-producers

Funny you should say that.