Monday, April 18, 2011

Ephemeral Theater and the Historical Canon

Another part of this post by 99 Seats raises an interesting issue:
Suzan-Lori Parks, Kia Corthron, Kara Corthron, going all the way back to Adrienne Kennedy and Douglas Turner Ward and Ed Bullins. And let's not forget writers like OyamO, Not all black plays were written by August Wilson or in his style. But these works are rarely revived, rarely canonized, rarely taught to anyone who isn't studying Black theatre. In fact, probably the only people who do read this work these days are young Black playwrights. It's lost history. And it's lost because of the segregation of our theatres. And because of the brain drain.
Firstly, I don't think it's the segregation of our theaters that make us lose many of these plays. I think it's the segregation of our educational institution. A large part of the reason Americans consider Tennessee Williams, Aristotle, Bertold Brecht, or Samuel Beckett to be seminal works of theater is because we are told that they are.

We're taught a canon, and that canon is built around a historical narrative. And if African American writers are left out of that narrative, the theatermakers they create will be ignorant of the names on that list (as I admit that I am).

I had never heard of Sarah Kane until I took a class with a professor who taught Sarah Kane. Oh, and he did not just teach Sarah Kane, he taught the history of contemporary European theater through the lens of Sarah Kane. In fact, when he taught Waiting for Godot, he ended it by saying, "Which all relates back to Sarah Kane, you see?"

For him, there were four great writers of the 20th Century: Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Mark Ravenhill. I'm not exaggerating. And Sarah Kane was apparently the key to understanding all four of these writers.

And no, he did not introduce the class to any African-American (or African-anything-else) writers.

Secondly, a lot of what determines what goes into the theatrical canon is actually the theatrical publishing industry. Qui Nguyen's Agent G may be one of the best plays out there, but given it's strange mishmash of genres, its specificity of time and place, and other things, the odds that it would be published seem to me low. I don't think I'm going to walk into the Drama Bookstore and see his book in that curious staged version they have.

This is why, attached to my theater company, I founded a small publishing company. To archive and preserve works that might not get published otherwise, so that we don't lose them. I doubt that's going to get any of those works preserved into the canon, but at least it increases the odds that they might be staged again.

Thirdly, when wondering why non-traditional plays don't enter the canon, part of that has to do with the fact that the current playwrighting style is built to create those kinds of artifacts. Dialogue-driven performances in realistic forms are easy to read on the page, and it preserves the best parts of the play.

Writers like Tennessee Williams or August Wilson are good because of the words they crafted. That makes for a good script to publish, because you read it and you can imagine those monologues. But if you pick up a play that's mostly visual, or a play that relies on the personality of a great performer, how does that translate through a script?

Devised work, non-traditional work, work that looks for beautiful stage pictures or music or personalities, are hard to publish. And because they're hard to publish, they're hard to teach, hard to preserve, and hard to enter the canon.

They are, as most theater is, ephemeral. And part of what the word "ephemeral" means is that it doesn't enter "history." You can find ephemeral works by the accounts they leave behind, but the way our academia currently approaches theater, if it ain't a printed play, it ain't a worthy point of academic study.

No comments: