Thursday, March 4, 2010

Regarding Formal Exclusion

Scott (who is just leaving now for Lexington and may not be available to spot this) wrote a great post on Monday entitled Formal Exclusion that argued that formal experimentation keeps away older, blue-collar audiences:
I'm tired of inwardly blanching when one of the housekeeping staff in our building asks what the play is about and whether they would like it. I don't like seeing the expressions of bafflement and disappointment on the faces of so many who leave a performance. I don't like the way these plays seem to tacitly filter out all but the educated. I want to find ways to reach everybody, not just the educated, not just the wealthy, and not just the city dwellers. I seek a profound theatre that enriches everybody, not just people who have as much education as I have. Wallace's play took the working class experience seriously, the small town experience seriously, but she couldn't write for them -- she had to signal that, while she was on their side, she is still a member of the intelligentsia, the artist-specialist class. And this seems sad to me. With so few people who can write from experience of these issues, it seems a lost opportunity and a shame.
Matt Freeman responded by throwing down the gauntlet:
If you don't see something to enjoy in the plays being written today, that doesn't mean you are excluded. It just means that today's playwrights don't speak to you. There are lots and lots of plays that will, or have, I'm sure. Be patient, read the things you love, and stop prescribing your taste to other people.Plays aren't written to order. I read the frustration in posts like these, and I understand it. But there's only really one solution if you feel that a certain play that should exist that does not already. Write it.
Mac Rogers and Don Hall respond in similar vein, rounded up in an excellent and thoughtful post by Scott where he does something very hard -- he listens to his critics and hears the truth in what they're saying.

I do want to point out that what Scott originally said was not necessarily directed at playwrights (although responses such as 99 Seats' seem to have interpreted it as such). To the degree that Scott's post was directed at playwrights, yes, the response should be "just write." But I don't think that was the whole lesson. I think there was something to be said for the people who select work for production, more than for the people who write work.

Now, I don't know enough to generalize whole-sale, so let me just talk from my personal perspective for a moment.

Even at a very small, new company like mine, there is a flood of ideas coming along. They range from someone wanted to adapt Kipling's stories for children to a devised-work idea for dealing with the implications of Dick Cheney's authorization of torture. Ideas are competing for our time and resources.

If a play is written in a traditional structure, it often becomes compared to the works that precede it. A play I've written that features two men after the apocalypse of the world, one of whom is gay and in love with the other, inevitably draws comparison with Waiting for Godot (occasionally, it will earn Endgame or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead both of which are slightly less obvious but slightly more accurate). In a way, the play suffers some degree of disadvantage of seeming like a clone of a more popular work.

In other words, to some extent, there is a bias towards formal exclusion because it gives you a better handle on the originality of the work, which is something that is absolutely key both in marketing the production externally, and generating excitement for the production internally (which are, by the way, largely the same process).

I am still in the process of putting up Hamlet. (Tickets are still available, but we had a full house last night so it will get harder to get tickets at the door) In a different way, I had a sort of "inward blanch" like the one Scott talks about, only in this case it was when I tried to explain to theater people why we chose Hamlet. I still believe strongly in our production (which examines grief through the inability to express grief, features one of the most stunning performances by the girl who plays Hamlet and an Ophelia who solves the Ophelia Problem), but I could see skepticism on the faces I spoke to.

If you say "We're just going to do a good Hamlet," people are not going to give a shit (generally). If you say "We're going to do a good Hamlet with Patrick Stewart as Claudius and Robert Pattinson as Hamlet," you have their attention. But if you're a small company with a lack of star actors, then formal experimentation may be the hook you need.

This isn't to say that formal experimentation is just a marketing ploy. It is also about the excitement. It may be hard to rally a group of independent actors around a flag like "Let's do a play about two people who fall in love!" You may be able to if the script is genius enough, but it will be harder.

Also, plays that experiment formally have a tendency to pop off the page more when I read them -- this might be a personal thing, but I know that sometimes when it comes to dramatic realism, I can't tell if it is actually good until I see actors inhabit the scenes for weeks, and wear it like a good cloak. Is it two-dimensional, or obscuring a deeper sinister vibe? Is the dialogue stilted, or is it a unique voice? (The movie Serenity, for instance, has dialogue that feels really jerky and stilted for the first ten minutes and then suddenly becomes an irreplacable part of the movie).

This is almost certainly a personal preference, and reveals (avowedly), a weakness of mine, but it is this: as a director, I find it much easier to direct formally then to direct emotionally. I don't know if it is a function of my youth and inexperience, or if it is a function of my personal tastes for Brecht over Aristotle, but I find it easier to work visually and physically with actors than emotionally. That's part of the reason (listed above) that I'm drawn more to plays that have formal innovations over ones that have compelling emotional struggles. I may recognize that play is great on an emotional plane, but simply be uninterested in it.

(This reminds me of accounts of Bertold Brecht, rehearsing Galileo, cutting viciously from his own monologues shouting, "Who the hell is this incompetent, long-winded playwright?" much to the amusement of his cast.)

If other directors feel this way, it explains the ever-presence of the "Director's Interpretation." Sometimes the "Director's Interpretation" is a smash-hit, and other times it is roundly panned. I myself was in a Romeo and Juliet when I was in high school that was set in Kashmir, so that the Montagues where Muslim and the Capulets were Hindi. Friar Lawrence was still Catholic, which had an unintended subtext that wherever Westerners attempt to bring peace, they only bring death. The full extent of this interpretation was Indian costumes, and a Bollywood-style dance sequence at the party scene.

I guess what I'm saying is in the last two sections is that it is very possible that playwrights are writing plenty of non-formally-exclusive works (even young playwrights), and are not getting produced. And I know this because, well, I write non-formally-experimental works sometimes. And it doesn't get produced. Not even by me.

It is weird to talk about, but my tastes as a playwright and my tastes as a director/producer are now so far diverged that I will quite often write a play that I will not want to direct. Part of this has to do with the ol' "artist judging their own work" curmudgeon, but sometimes it simply is this: sometimes my work as a playwright stimulates a muscle that doesn't interest my directing brain. Which is fine. Maybe other people want to take them on.

But there's another facet from my experience as a playwright, which actually goes back to something that came up during the Outrageous Fortune debate. Isaac Butler talked about how we need to produce Playwrights' okay-to-good plays if we want to see more masterpieces. In a way, what he's talking about is being okay with the playwright as they develop from young artists to old established hands.

The example that got tossed around a lot was Tennessee Williams. And I think in this context he works pretty well. After all, the stuff we know him for is very powerful, but often it is very much mid-Twentieth Century realism. Not so for his younger plays. They are often quite odd, quite disturbing in a way that many of his later plays don't quite feel. Ditto for Sam Shepard, who wrote much weirder stuff than Fool for Love and True West.

If I look back on my history as a writer -- look back to the very beginning, it looks much like this:

At the age of 12, I began writing, and the first thing I tried to write was a novel, because that's what I was reading. The novels were set in video-games, and were basically my attempts to dramatize the hero I imagined that I was when I played video games. That's the story that was in my head.

At the age of 16, I first wrote a one-act play for our school's one-act festival. It was, for some perverse reason, a Commedia dell'Arte (which we had just learned about in class the week before) piece, set in an Office. It reads like a set of Dilbert strips, since that is basically my familiarity with offices at the time, being a huge Dilbert fan.

My next full length play was completed when I was 18. It was a realist piece set in the South, and beyond that I refuse to say another word because it was bad. Miserably bad. Miserably, miserably bad. "I hope copies never resurface in the inevitable anthologies of my life's work but secretly I know independent companies in Chicago will try to put it on in sixty years time and the reviews will all say 'Now we knew why Guy wanted it burned'" bad.

I stopped writing for a time. Then I went to a Beirut concert, and suddenly it made sense to me that you could create something beautiful without any words. I gave myself the formal experiment of trying to use absolutely no words. I failed in that experiment, but the failure of that experiment became the point of the piece. (This, by the way, is one of the few things I've ever written that I was excited to direct myself)

Since then, I have continued writing, lurching between plays that are classical naturalism and strangely broken experiments in form, or somewhere (either comfortably or uncomfortably) living in the middle.

I have no illusions that I am a great playwright. But I have a feeling that there's something about the development of a playwright that starts with imitation, then suddenly lurches to "How-do-I-prove-myself-different-from-everyone" experimentation.

Yet here may be the problem that Scott is noting. Because we right now have a system that burns out playwrights quickly. We produce a lot of young playwrights, but we often don't continue the support and development as maturity sets in over the length of a life-time. Even Bertold Brecht, right at the end of his life, conceded that the Epic Theater was youthful and one-sided, and began trying to work out what a dialectical theater that united so-called "Brechtian" methods with so-called "Aristotilian" methods.

So, my response to Scott's original post is basically that, indeed, telling playwrights not to exclude audiences by experimenting formally may be a lost cause. But there is some grain of truth to be extracted that there may be an over-emphasis on formal experimentation in programming of independent companies (almost over-compensating for the lack of experimentation in traditional venues).

And of course, let's not forget that what is considered "Formal experimentation" for one generation's blue-collar diverse audience may be the main-stream entertainment for the next generation. I believe you can draw a straight line from Theater of the Absurd to Monty Python to The Hangover.