Thursday, March 18, 2010

Collaboration III: Stage Directions pt. 3

Isaac, apparently separately, starts thinking along the same lines as I was thinking:
Let me make what I'm going to assume is a somewhat controversial assertion about non-experimental theatre: The way we think about the plays we see and do is too writer/text focused.
And he doesn't use Derrida to back himself up. RVCBard has a good laugh at his expense, before stating:

Anyway, part of what I like about theatre (as opposed to film) is that it's more democratic than other art forms. There isn't (or rather, doesn't have to be) a central authority figure who makes all the "important" decisions about the play. I like not having complete control over the process. I like the unpredictability of it, how the story and characters in my head can be given a life I never imagined while still using the same base ingredients (my words on the page - whether dialogue or stage directions).


As a writer, I've never understood the "need" to create "actor-proof" or "director-immune" scripts. As far as I'm concerned, I'm just there to get the damn story on paper. My duties are pretty simple. Let my collaborators know who is doing what onstage. That's it. Whether that takes the form of a coherent narrative with more-or-less natural dialogue or is a shifting series of images and/or sounds is anybody's guess. But as far as I'm concerned, that's all I'm there to do.
I agree with RVCBard that there's something different here than what goes on in Film... after all, when I saw Alice in Wonderland, I was seeing Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and nobody seemed to care about poor ol' Linda Woolverton who only wrote the screenplay. It was her screenplay that bugged me -- I think they took a very beautiful story about a girl exploring a world of wordplay and logic puzzles and turned it into something between The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe and Shrek. But I don't think anyone particularly cared -- the whole movie was really just there to support Tim Burton's visual sensibility.

I'm getting carried away.

99 Seats says something similar in the comments section of Isaac's blog:
I never really understand why we need to parse it out so much, to what end. I was just talking to Matt Freeman about this the other day and he quoted the old saw about being a playwright and how, if everyone loves the play, they'll credit you, but if no one loves the play, they'll blame you. Every play changes in rehearsal, in performance, has limitations that are fixed by the actors or directors, sometimes in the actual words on the page, sometimes in the performing. We all know this, we've all gone through production, but the attitude is still it's all about the playwright. Which, I think, puts undue pressure on playwrights and adds to the frenzy for The Right Play.
If I understand right, RVCBard has her chuckle at Isaac's expense because this idea -- that the playwright isn't the star quarterback, he's just another team player -- isn't really so controversial as it may have once been.

Obviously, take anything I say about "before my time" with a grain of salt, but it seems to me that if this theater industry that we've not a part of used to work, then back when it was working playwrights would have probably been a lot more likely to get up in arms and scream and shout about directors trampling over "their vision." At the time, their agent would have been there to fight for precisely that thing. But in today's reality, I don't think a playwright can afford to be that controlling over a script.

When a playwright works with a small independent or local company, they're not just putting together one play -- they're building a relationship. They don't want to be a failure. They also don't want that company not to say "Screw that chump, let's not work with her/him anymore." David Mamet can say things like "Actors keep getting in the way of the play I've written," but if I tried to say that, I'd find myself without actors. That's the reality of it.

Small companies don't want to license a play that comes with hundreds of strings attached. Why do you think they love Shakespeare so much? It's the only thing that they have both wide latitude with but also established audience recognition -- although apparently you can get some mileage out of Jacobean drama, if you love it enough. If you want a company to work with you, you have to be willing to work with them.

So in the face of that, the shift in norm becomes apparent. Critics (that is to say, writers) still find the written word to be important, unduly, for a number of reasons; they can still appreciate a play in which the words are deliberately not the mode of communication. And big Broadway musical writers can still sue NYU students not to do an all-male production of Company because it wasn't their original vision. Sure. But I think, overwhelmingly, the idea is now that it's a playwright's decision to determine how much control they want to exert, and how they relate to the other parts of the pie.


RVCBard said...

Cgeye mentioned how copyright has a lot to do with this sort of tension in theatre, and I'm inclined to agree.

What would it be like if "credit" (such as it is) went to the ensemble who put on a show and not to a single artist? Not rhetorical, just wondering.

CultureFuture said...

The publishing wing of my theater company did just that when we published the script for our first devised work:

I mean, I don't know if it's a huge radical shift or anything, but I think it is probably fairer than Moises Kaufman taking "The Laramie Project" instead of billing it as a Tectonic Theater Project work.

That play, published above, is copyrighted in the name of the company (with myself as editor). If the company dissolves, that intellectual property will have to be donated somewhere -- none of us can lay claim to it.

If there's an originator, that originator will usually not want to give up that "property," but a devised work is (in my opinion) commissioned by employees.