Monday, December 17, 2012

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Theater and the Playgoer - a Scene


Theater: “Can I start you off with a farce?”

Playgoer: “I’m not seeing your Neil Simon.”

Theater: “No Simon. We’ve got vintage Ayckbourn. Our British sex farces have aged nicely. Or perhaps a Feiffer, a Durang, or a -”

Playgoer: “What happened to the Simon?”

Theater: “Couldn’t sell it. Took it off the menu.”

Playgoer: “Crap. Well, what do you recommend?”

Theater: “I like a Durang, but most people order an Ayckbourn.”

Playgoer: “Oh, God, no. No Durang. Last time I had a Durang, you don’t wanna know. Uh… Okay, I’ll have an Ayckbourn.”

Theater: “Would you like to see the dance menu?”

Playgoer: “I always get the Twyla Tharp.”

Theater: “Tharp it is.”

Playgoer: “Can I go ahead and order? I’ve got to be in bed by ten.”

Theater: “Absolutely.”

Playgoer: “See that woman?”

Theater: “Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik?”

Playgoer: “Blahnik. What’s she having?”

Theater: “That’s a Martin McDonagh, but if you’re leaning in that direction today’s special is a brilliant twist on a McDonagh by a fresh face.”

Playgoer: “How’s it served?”

Theater: “On its own petard.  Brantley sees promise.”

Playgoer: “Nah. I had a thing by a fresh face years ago. It was rotten. I can still taste it. I guess I’ll do the Shakespeare.”

Theater: “That comes with Ibsen and Chekov or Shaw and O’Neill.”

Playgoer: “What was that thing you had, like, five or six seasons ago?”

Theater: “You mean the Albee and Miller?”

Playgoer: “Yeah, can I get that?”

Theater: “No problem. Dessert?”

Playgoer: “Do you do an improv?”

Theater: “Hemorrhoid Guy Mistakenly Sees Female Dentist. It’s great.”

Playgoer: “Sold.”

Theater: “Coffee?”

Playgoer: “Decaf.”


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Glacial play development, playing the odds

The gestation period of a play is most often a number of years. Playwrights tend to take their sweet time. Plays get workshopped ad nauseam. Theaters program their seasons a year or more in advance. When a new play finally opens, it plays for a few weeks, gets reviewed, then closes never to be seen or heard from again.

Does a lengthy, precious process produce better plays?

Plays might as well take years to hit the boards - no one's in a hurry. The demand for new plays is at an all time low. A glacial development process is filling the gap. Playwrighting these days means hitting the workshop circuit, being a re-writer in residence.

If today's long journey from idea to opening night is intended to be a way for theaters to reduce risk and consistently produce plays of value, it's a failure. Fewer plays means fewer good plays. Theater has always been a numbers game. Even the best playwrights miss now and then. We like to think we know a hit when we read one. The fact is, only an audience knows a hit when it sees one.

Most theaters are set up to produce four to six plays a season. Given the same resources, why not produce twelve or twenty-four plays or more? No sets, less rehearsal, an ensemble, more plays - it's been done and it worked out reasonably well (see: English Renaissance Theater). 14/48 proves that audiences love theater on the edge. Maybe high gloss is less appealing than high risk, rough hewn and flawed.

Theater has always been a numbers game.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Going the way of the Poet

A recent Theater Development Fund study, Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, found that theater in general and new plays in particular are in a long, relentless decline toward cultural oblivion.

The Playwright is going the way of the Poet, laboring for love, taking pride in token rewards, competing with the dead, and serving a shrinking, increasingly uniform audience.

People who work in industries facing oblivion often see the ax only as it falls. The only people surprised by the speed and scope of the newspaper industry slaughter were the people who worked for newspapers.

If you work in the theater, for love or profit, consider the ax.

What great plays have in common

The great plays of the Elizabethan theater have a few things in common:

Serious themes
Simple sets (a dressed stage)
Great costumes
Heightened language
Complicated plots
Big casts
Murder or marriage

The best of the Elizabethan plays were, in their time, popular and profitable. Even the unpopular plays were, most of the time, break even due to supper low overhead and savvy risk management practices.

Modern plays have in common:

Serious theses
Extravagant sets
Great costumes
Relatively simple plots
Small casts
Few murders or marriages

The best of the modern plays are not popular and are subsidized.

If I could change any one modern convention, it would be our use, or abuse, of language. Verse is the natural language of theater and plays to its strengths. Audiences love wordplay.

Take Eminem. Over eighty million albums sold.  More than Bob Dylan. I love Bob Dylan. I love Eminem.

Writing a good play is hard. Writing a good play in verse is only slightly harder, in the beginning, and then it's easier. You can learn how write verse. I can teach you how in one day. Getting good at it will take longer, but you can get good at it. Don't rule out writing in verse just because Shakespeare wrote in verse and everyone think he's so dreamy. If you're a playwright, he's your biggest competitor.

Beat him at his own game.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My Comfy Job

Before working at Microsoft I was a:
Bus boy
Unskilled labor guy
Surgical orderly
Salon Manager
High School Drama Teacher
Airport Limo Driver
King County Land Plat Office Word Perfect Wiz
Receptionist, Communications Assistant, Promotions Producer, video editor and Producer - all at KCTS.
And in-between all of the above were countless acting and directing jobs. I've been a singing and dancing salt shaker. For the love of God, I did MIME!!!!
KCTS was the first gig that became something like a career and the first that offered reasonably good health care. In Playwrights' Nurturing is the Focus of Study (New York Times, January 15, 2010), there's a quote about bad teeth that hit home. My teeth are something like 50% fillings. I learned a lot at KCTS, like the almost inevitable dysfunctions that come with being a not-for-profit organization.
My current job is not all that "comfy" (Mullin's word, not mine). I like it, but it can be brutal. I work with super smart people. Smart people can be fun, but they're also a constant reminder that I have a BFA in acting. I like that I make decent money. Growing up, we had no money. Poverty sucks. I like that I can support child development programs in my old neighborhood.
Ten years in a for-profit corporation has taught me that the world is full of smart, ambitious, creative, inventive people who dream up crazy things, make them a reality, sell them and make money. I swear, the only difference between entrepreneurs and most of the theater people I know is that the entrepreneurs have better imaginations.
We are living in a time when great stories are being told - stories that are thematically driven, explore universal themes, have broad appeal and exert an influence on our culture. The vast majority are being told in the vital forms of our time, TV and film. Our theater is a future footnote. That footnote will describe how the film industry extended the brand of their most successful properties by turning them into Broadway musicals.
If you want theater to be relevant, figure out a way to make it necessary to a large and diverse audience. If you want to ensure its continued decline, keep doing what you're doing.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Let the revolution begin

I'm going to toss out a little quote here and ask that you sit back and think about it, mull it over and consider its implications on the work we do and the times in which we live:

"Every great play we have ever been lucky enough to feast our eyes on has come out of a public [for profit] playhouse." ~ Walter Kerr, How Not to Write a Play.

As mission statements go,"Seattle as a world class theatre town," stirs me not at all. "Seattle is the epicenter of a theatre revolution," is a good start, and we have the motive, opportunity and means.

Mike Daisey's article in The Stranger, The Empty Spaces, motivates. He sums up the argument against the status quo reasonably well but overlooks the fundamental cause. A theatre on subsidized life support is incapable of innovating and competing against other forms of entertainment. So long as not-for-profit theater remains, in the words of Todd London, "The way theater gets done in America,"our theatre will live on unchanged.

The basic conventions of our theatre haven't changed since Ibsen's Pillars of Society opened in 1877. Social drama remains the dominant genre. Thesis driven chamber pieces requiring four actors and a couch are our stock in trade. Neither have produced a masterpiece on par with the greatest plays of the past, nor have they resulted in a popular, profitable and vital theatre. Our audience is getting smaller, new plays are a novelty, and only theater administrators are making a living, still season after season we keep raising the curtain hoping a miracle is waiting in the wings.

The thing I find most depressing about all of this is our lack of imagination. We can imagine a 48-hour play festival and make it a reality. We can imagine the plays of the dead back to life. We take great pride in the powers of our imaginations, but we can't imagine a theatre more popular, vital and relevant than basic cable.

Once upon a time, we were troubadours surviving on talent and wit, scoundrels smart enough to give audiences what they were willing to pay good money to see. These days, all but a very small number of plays and musicals lose money, and most Equity actors make more on unemployment than they do on stage.

We have plenty of opportunity. If most theater is being done for free anyway, why not spend our labor innovating, inventing new ways of working and a new product. We need to start taking enormous risks. We have nothing to lose but our day jobs.

As for means, any empty space will do.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Why 14/48 is the best show in town

Playwright and rabble-rouser Paul Mullin posted a note on Facebook that caused something of a shit-storm in Seattle's theatre community, especially among members and fans of 14/48. Paul took 14/48 producer Shawn Belyea to task for calling the short plays he produces "plays," and for having the temerity to call their debuts "World Premieres."

A play, according to Mullin, is longer and requires more labor to write than a six page 14/48 what-have-you. "To compare that effort to the plays staged at 14/48 and call them both "world premieres" is like comparing a late night jam session to composing a symphony. And to some degree, it's insulting to both composer and jammer."

Responses range from the predictably juvenile, "Don't shit where you eat," to the thoughtfully mature, "All of these posts embody the spirit of 14/48: risk... I hope you feel welcome to risk your thoughts here, too."

Belyea's response started out reasoned, turned testy and then slammed the door and stormed off. No one need defend 14/48. The festival's enduring success speaks for it in full.

Before venturing my thoughts, let's put this brouhaha into perspective: Plays, short or long, wrought in a flash of brilliance or by tedious labor, good or bad, are, to our culture at large, inconsequential. Theatre is not a vital form.

Now, to the point at hand.

The plays that have endured the test of time explore serious themes, entertain a broad audience and lead to catharsis. The tragedies and comedies of the Greeks, the Elizabethan plays, the plays of the Spanish and French golden ages - all have significantly more than six pages. Telling a story that summons complex, deep emotions, comic or tragic, takes longer than Prologue's hour-glass (Henry V).

It takes a good deal of time to see Hamlet through carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, accidental judgments, casual slaughters and deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, all the while coming to know him as a courtier, soldier, scholar, grieving and vengeful son, lover, murderer, philosopher, theatre aficionado and friend. Four thousand twenty lines of verse are required to give the 4,021st line, Horatio's "Now cracks a noble heart, " the power to break our hearts. It takes Tennessee Williams two hours to set up one of the great soul-rending payoffs in modern drama, Blanche's unforgettable exit line, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Six page plays can never achieve the depth and dramatic power their longer cousins have achieved, which is not to say short plays can be dismissed. Short plays shove a playwright's shortcomings back in his face. The skills needed to construct a sound short play apply to longer forms and vice-versa. Same with short stories and novels, sketches and portraits, operettas and operas and go-karts and Formula 1 (karting is F1's farm league).

14/48 is made up of short plays, but the event itself is bigger than the sum of its parts. Players and playgoers come together in a heightened state of awareness because the stakes are alarmingly high. Most of the time, 14/48 achieves what every evening of theatre should and too few do - it wildly exceeds expectations. Fourteen plays in forty-eight hours? That's crazy. But when it all comes together, as it does more often than chance would have, 14/48 is Theatre, equal to or greater than what's playing in any theatre anywhere.

If only what's playing mattered...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Texarkana Waltz @ University of Oklahoma

Recently I posted photos of OU's production of Texarkana and they got me thinking. I loved that production. I loved the process, the staff, the cast, everything about it. My one regret is not being there for closing night. Opening was great, but based on first hand reports, the show matured and by closing night was a wonder.

The set, lighting and costume design were fantastic and the photos do a good job of capturing it.

Texarkana got a lot of great reviews, but the best and maybe the most meaningful came from someone who saw the OU production. What I get from it is that I told a good story and that the way I chose to tell the story, the conventions and structure of the script, were theatrical and performable. It's the performable part that concerns me most now. My direct input, and that input put into action, seem to be a requirements for success. My input having no impact had much to do with Texarkana's failure in NY.

If you're not me, it's a tricky show to make work. I do a lot with language, and performing styles and conventions make the language, and therefore the characters and story, come alive. The cowboys speak verse. Most actors and directors have a reference for the size and energy required to make those scenes come alive. People have a much harder time wrapping their heads around what's required for Eddie's storyline. The Dallas/Morgan plot is the most straight forward, but somehow the most difficult to get right.

For A Trick or Treat, I'm keeping it straightforward. No special knowledge of theatre history or theory is required. Living, breathing, competent actors and a love of Pop Culture will suffice. The goal being that any theatre can make the script a success, that the story and the dialogue will compensate for the theatre's lost skills, that my participation is optional.

Here's the letter:

From: Thomas Long
Sent: Tuesday, September 27, 2005 1:09 PM
To: Cook, Rena R.
Subject: Waltz
April 12, 2005

To the Texarkana Waltz company:

During my years working in theatre and observing new works, I have never seen a performance of a new play so well integrated and mesmerizing as Louis Broome's Texarkana Waltz.

At Friday night's performance it was only a few minutes into the play that I completely forgot the cast were students. You must know by now that you have something very extraordinary, and a precious and personal journey to remember far into the future.

It has been four days since I saw your remarkable work, and I still think about it, relish it, and turn it over in my mind again and again. I have always believed that this is the ultimate test of an important play.

Louis Broome has created a work so unique it defies labeling. It is one of a kind. Even Polonius could not categorize it. The play touches on contemporary issues without specificity. This is no small achievement. As audience we think of same-sex relationships, our own spirituality, the right to live and the right to die, capital punishment, law and order, and our own existential moment on earth. All of this is accomplished without judgment.

It is an extremely difficult play to direct and act. The story moves cinematically in time and space, but you are consistently clear in telling a compelling tale while allowing us look deep into the psyche of each character. The performance becomes Pinteresque for the characters are separated from the common culture as they struggle to live in their own.

The combined talents of Tom Huston Orr and Rena Cook blend so well, they are indistinguishable from each other. The two directors serve the play and the players splendidly. We are never consciously aware of their crafts of staging and coaching, creating a quality every director strives to achieve. Directors Orr and Cook allow layer upon layer of compelling content to surface and the voice of Louis Broome to speak to us. Importantly, the text of the play is never didactic.

Texarkana Waltz is a triumph as entertainment. The audience is asked to recognize the lighter side of the characters, and then to submit suddenly, and without the slightest hint of the tragedy to come, to visceral shock and surprise. These moments are exceedingly rare in drama, requiring enormous leaps of faith in the unfolding play and performance. In Texarkana Waltz this is so well executed, we consent to its frankness and integrity.

Thank you, company, for sharing your unforgettable odyssey.

Thomas Long (Ph.D.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

How to Kill a Play: The Life and Death of Texarkana Waltz

In the beginning, there was Red Meat Substitutes. Me, Ron Owens, Laura McCord, Henry Mark, Richard Davis, and Victoria Safriet filled the vacuum that was Tulsa's theatre avaunt guarde with inspired lunacy. Texarkana Waltz begain life as a Red Meat play. Red Meat's past is a future blog, but our impact can be summed up with a story.

Bret Masterson, a later day Red Meater, threw parties that were minor miracles. In Tulsa, of all God-forbidden, east of Eden places, one could count on a Masterson fete being interesting, often dramatic, and fueled by booze of a quality and quantity that even now brings tears to my eyes. A few years after moving to Seattle I went back to Tulsa, happy to be the excuse Bret needed to host a soiree. That evening I met a newcomer.

I can't remember his name, so let's call him Lucky. Lucky and I struck up a conversation. He was home from school where he studied acting. Acting? No shit. Why the fuck study acting? Once upon a time, he told me, his eyes growing misty, when he was in high school there was a theatre company called Red Meat Substitutes. He told me how remarkable they were, daring, dangerous even, how he's an actor because of Red Meat Substitutes.

Red Meat Substitutes? Never heard of them. Tell me more.

At first I was honored and proud, what I imagined Bob Dylan, confronted by a disciple, might feel were he human and not the Poet-Deity of our age. Then I realized our true impact. If our little theatre troupe inspired this young man to pursue a life in the theatre, how many other lives had we ruined?

Such is the power of unbridled passion and youth.

For one of our last Red Meat shows, Back from the Dead, 1988, Ron wrote a beautiful little play, Madam Palma's House of Psychic Head Readings, about Madam Palma, her niece, Angel, and an injured stranger, David - think Glass Menagerie meets Twilight Zone. Laura McCord's Madam Palma was brilliant, and I loved her relationship with Angel. For our next and second to last Read Meat show, True Love, 1989, I borrowed Ron's characters for my contribution, The Sad Lament of Eddie Wickett on the Night of His Execution (props to Sam Shepard).

Eddie, the electric chair and one of Texarkana's key riffs, "De doi de doi de doi, de hun dee dud!" I borrowed from Henry Mark's Head Trip, one of the funniest, nastiest short plays ever written. The electric chair also references Sam Shepard's Killer's Head. Clearly, I had a Sam thing.

In Sad Lament, Madam Palma's niece, Angel, is Eddie's penitentiary pen-pal wife. On the night of Eddie's execution, at the moment of his death, Madam Palma attempts to join Angel and Eddie's souls in eternity. She fails, and Angel ends the play crying out repeatedly for Eddie, lost forever in nothingness, fade to black.

Flash forward three years to Seattle, 1992. As a result of gainful underemployment and the recent death of my mother, I was moved to take up writing again. Sad Lament was my best work to date (after a performance I'd overheard the woman behind me describe it as perfect, so I was inclined to think it perfect but short), so I decided to turn it into a full length play.

Six years later, Madam Palma and Angel are gone, cowboys have joined the cast, and Texarkana Waltz opens in L. A to the kind of reviews you'd give ten years of your life to get (see Playwright on my Web site). It sold. Audiences laughed and cried. It was nominated for four Ovation Awards, one for writing. It was a hit.

In 2000, it was a hit in Seattle.

In New York, 2002, it bombed. Before I get to why, a few words about the script.

Texarkana Waltz is not the greatest play ever written, it has its flaws, but it is a moving, compelling, engaging and magical two hours of entertainment. My primary goal is to entertain - all else follows. I've seen a lot of plays in my day, most unbearably boring, entertainment clearly not a priority. Most plays are academic, a thesis that can be neatly summed up in a short paragraph, the better for grant applications.  I'm an entertainer of the old school - Wow 'em! I set out to write a revolutionary, popular entertainment, to strike the balance between art and commerce, and I succeeded in two out of three productions.

The L. A. and Seattle productions were very similar. Same director, Alison Narver, same designer, Gary Smoot, and most of the same cast. For both, everything came together - the script, direction, design, music and cast were transcendent. The wheel was tweaked, not reinvented.

The New York production was radically different. It was bad. It deserved a good beating. The critics blamed me, the writer. Critics are poor, ignorant bastards deserving of our pity. They should all be put down. They never get the fact that a play isn't the script, it's the sum of its parts.

Texarkana Waltz died in New York because the producers, smart, successful, lovely women I love for taking a chance on an unknown first timer, among other qualities and virtues, never had a prayer. Texarkana's only chance for success would've been to remount the L.A. production. That was never an option because the theatre's business model is broken (read my blog, and Mike Daisey's article in The Stranger).

When it comes time to produce my next play, A Trick or Treat, the goal won't be great reviews - I'll never get better reviews than the reviews I got for Texarkana - and New York is worthwhile only as a means. The goal is to pay off my house. Trick or Treat is being developed as a property that will gladly sell its soul to the highest bidder.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Kill the Envious Moon


ROMEO appears from the shadows. JULIET appears on a balcony; backlit, her translucent nightgown reveals the silhouette of perfect breasts.

But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!
Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.

Good stuff. When performed midday, outdoors, as it was originally, the given circumstance, day, informs the moment. Evoking night can be more powerful, more purely theatrical, than showing night.

"...for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and begat a temperance that may give it smoothness," says Hamlet.

Same idea.

"...On your imaginary forces work," says Prologue. It's an old saw, this idea of getting the audience to do your work. A play is not an event to be witnessed. A play is the deliberate and artful manipulation of the audience's imagination. When I see a play, I'm paying the performers to move me rather than be moved. If their being moved moves me, so be it. If it doesn't, they're guilty of an odd kind of public masturbation and shame on them.

Film, at its best, preserves for all time a composition of pure emotion. I don't know what Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are thinking or feeling when they kiss for the first time, but it sure as hell looks like desperation, loss, longing, joy, sorrow, passion, love and a lifetime compressed into a few strokes of genius. I see it in their eyes and feel it in my heart and that's what I'm paying for when I buy a ticket to a movie. That's the experience I'm after. Whatever it is those two are doing, that exact same moment would never work on stage.

The exact same emotional response might be evoked in an audience from the stage, but the getting there and the moment itself would have to be something entirely different and uniquely theatrical; we can't put on a different lens and do a close up.

Magic - illusions, slight of hand, rabbits from hats - doesn't really work on film. We don't buy it. We know the cinematic tricks in our hearts if not in our heads. Magic works when its right before our eyes. That's the test of true theatricality.

Magic is the theatre's kissing cousin.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Great Plays (Cont.)

A list of great plays:
Medea, Euripides [Six Broadway productions, 1920 – 2003]
Oedipus, Sophocles [Eight Broadway productions, 1907 – 1984]
Hamlet, Shakespeare [Sixty-seven Broadway productions, 1761 - 1995]
King Lear, [Eighteen Broadway productions, 1754 – 2004]
Tartuffe, Moliere [Five Broadway productions, 1965 – 2003; 36 productions of Moliere plays, 1879 - 2003]
Life is a Dream (La Vida es Sueno 1636), Calderon [One Broadway Production, 1953; a notable production at BAM a few years back]

What modern plays rest comfortably on the shelf beside any of these masterpieces? A Streetcar Named Desire? Death of a Salesman? Our Town?
Hamlet is funny. Marrying your mother is funny. Life is a Dream has some good stuff in it. Not straight out funny, but fun. Lear, Gloucester, Edgar, Goneril, Regan - these are funny people. Cordelia and the Fool: not funny. You know how when someone you know really well, say, your mother, gets so over the top mad you start laughing? That's Media. She's actually pretty funny. Tartuffe, being a comedy, is supposed to be funny and it is. But it is remarkable for how narrowly it avoides being tragedy.
Media, Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Segismundo - these are smart, strong, opinionated, grappling-with-the-Gods-type people, the kind you invite to cocktails.
Our Town aint my kinda town. I admire the craftsmanship, but it doesn't resonate with me. A Streetcar Named Desire is a masterclass in story structure, and Stella, Stanley, Blanch and the rest are expertly drawn characters, but these days, Streetcar is competing against reality TV. It's easier to stay home and watch Honey Boo Boo or the Kardashians. For most people, made up characters can't hold a candle to real characters.
Buried Child. Jesus. Imagine sharing a bottle of sour mash with Tilden.
The truly great tragedies cut it so close to comedy it isn't funny.
Visa versa for comedies.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Great Plays

Whatever the period, Western Civilization's greatest plays have the following in common:

Serious themes
Simple sets
Great costumes
Heightened language
Complicated plots
Death (Drama) or Marriage (Comedy)
Popular appeal

The great plays have survived the test of time. They survive because they are loved. Hamlet has endured not because it is true, but because it's true and entertaining.

Greatness requires both.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Brief History of Theatre

Western Civilization has enjoyed three (maybe four) major dramatic periods.

Greek - 78 years, 484 - 406BC
Aeschylus 525 - 456 BC, Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound, Oresteia
Sophocles 495 - 405 BC, Oedipus, Antigone, Electra
Euripides 480 - 406 BC, Hippolytus, The Bacchae, Medea
Aristophanes 448 - 385 BC, The Wasps, The Frogs, Lysistrata

Elizabethan - 40 years, 1587 - 1625
Marlowe 1564-1593, Tamburlaine 1587
Kyd 1558-1589, Spanish Tragedy 1589
Shakespeare 1564-1616, HV 1589 - HVIII 1612-13
Fletcher 1584-1625, Rule and Have a Wife 1624

French - 40 years, 1637 - 1677
Corneille 1606-1684 - Le Cid 1637, Polyeucte 1642
Moliere 1622-1673 - Precious Maidens Ridicules 1659, Imaginary Invalid 1673
Racine 1639-1699 - Andormaque 1667, Phedre 1677

The Golden Age of Spanish Theatre probably belongs in here somewhere, and someday I’ll get around to it, but right now I know almost nothing about it save Calderon's Life is a Dream.

The Age of Social Drama began in 1877, with Ibsen's Pillars of Society, and remains the standard.

The Age of Social Drama – 101 years, 1877 - present
Ibsen- Pillars of Society 1877
Arthur Miller - All My Sons 1947, Death of a Salesman 1949
Tennessee Williams - A Streetcar Named Desire 1947
Edward Albee - Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? 1962
Angels in America - 1990

Social Drama has produced good, possibly great dramatic plays, but none qualifies as a masterpiece on par with Oedipus or Hamlet. The past century enjoyed a golden age of comedy, but my focus is on drama, and the drama of the past 100 or so years pales in comparison to the major dramatic periods of the past.

Presently, we are in a theatrical dark age, by no means the first. The theatre has gone dark if not dead for long periods throughout history. One thing is certain: the most influential and dominant theatrical form of the past one hundred and twenty-eight years, Social Drama, worn out due to over use and abuse, intellectually and financially bankrupt, bored, boring and decrepit, is in a big sleep. The theatrical cycles we’ve seen since the ‘70s indicate a rudderless showboat:

Dramas – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Glengarry Glen Ross, “Master Harold” …and the boys
Musicals – A Chorus Line, Chicago, Sweeny Todd
Musical spectacles – Les Miz, Cats, Starlight Express, Phantom
Musical revivals – A Chorus Line (Sept. 2006), Chicago, Sweeny Todd
Jukebox musicals –All Shook Up, Good Vibrations, Movin’ Out, Lennon [And many, many more]
Dramatic revivals – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Glengarry Glen Ross, “Master Harold” …and the boys [To name a few. There have been over sixty dramatic revivals on Broadway since 1990]
Movies as musicals – Urban Cowboy, King of Hearts, My Favorite Year, Sunset Boulevard, The Lion King, Beauty & the Beast, The Color Purple, Two Rotten Scoundrels, Monty Python [To name a very few]

Occasionally, panning for gems pays off – August Wilson’s great cycle comes to mind. And there are others – we all have our personal favorites. But I’m hard pressed to name one that has had the popular impact of, say, Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Sadly, we do not live in a time when theatre is a vital form. Film, TV, pop music, games, the internet – these are vital. The fact that theatre now turns to Hollywood for its ideas says it all. Tragically, we do not live in an age that can accommodate tragedy. Tragedies are the product of optimistic societies; optimism can cope with tragedy. Pessimistic societies require comedies; when you think you're living a tragedy, a little laughter goes a long way.

What the hell happened? Where did the theatre go wrong?

We theatre folk are always blabbing on about how, when it achieves its potential, nothing holds a candle to the impact of live theatre. Why then must we subsidize our audience? Why do so few commercial theatrical ventures fail to recoup their investment? Why get ideas from Hollywood? Simple - the theatre is not living up to its potential.

To ruin an art form all you have to do is give it a grant.

The theatre went horribly wrong in the ‘60s, when, instead of competing with film and TV for audience share, it turned non-profit and began subsidizing a new, smaller, but better audience - an audience of intellectuals, almost exclusively white, who like to consume stories that reflect the homogenized, suburban mall quality of their lives.

Great stories are made to be told to the largest, most diverse audience possible. They are forged in the furnace of competition. They give their audience what it wants. That’s why most of the great storytellers of our time work in film and TV. Great artists are drawn to the most vital forms available.

Something must be going right, right? Well, yes. The top and bottom of the theatre are alive and well. At the top, Cirque du Soliel produces shows costing hundreds of millions of dollars that earn billions; at the bottom, Greater Tuna has been running continuously since 1982, with seventeen productions in North America last year. Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding, Late Night Catechism and others with one or two in the cast, no set and good New York reviews thrive. The only person thriving in the middle is my personal hero, Tyler Perry, who writes for a tight knit, theatre-starved community, sells out almost every show and has earned more than $60 million since 1998 producing plays. Think about it. A writer-performer who found a niche, built a community, sells out, makes a huge profit and has never been reviewed in the New York Times. Put another way, Mr. Perry is earning millions while Broadway is losing millions. Mr. Perry's theatre has all of the hallmarks of a vital theatre - it is popular and, within his community, vital. Most importantly, it pays its way and then some.

I believe that the theatre can once again be a vital form, that what is broken is its business model, and that once you know what’s broken you can set out to fix it. Looking at Tyler Perry's success is a good place to start.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Walter Kerr (Cont.)

We have inherited not the drama of action, of character, of kinetic intimacy with the human condition, but the drama of ideas.

For purposes of illustration, I guess we can safely reduce these to three: the problem play, the thesis play and the propaganda play. Pg 51

You can always clarify a thesis by over-simplifying what is human. But the moment you begin to give humanity its due you are bound to destroy the patness of your proposition. Pg 56

What is intrinsically wrong with the thesis play is that it puts the drawing board before the drama. It begins at the wrong end of the creative scale. It begins with a firm, fast premise, achieved in the intellectual solitude of the study, and thereafter proceeds to make all life dance to a quite debatable tune. Pg 66

Though the terms "theme" and "thesis" are now used interchangeably, there is an enormous difference between them. In the one, the playwright - uncommitted to any a-priori view - is forced to go out and observe; he must look to life for his materials. He may know, in general, that he wishes to write about jealousy; but he must first see what jealousy looks like.
In the other, the dramatic mansion is prefabricated. The playwright comes equipped with an agreeable syllogism, complete in all its parts. He clothes his major premise, and his minor premise, in a semblance of human flesh; but they are only premises after all, pointing to a planned conclusion. What we callt he drama of ideas is just that: a drama in which the people are digits, adding up to the correct ideological sum. Pg 67

So far as I know no genuine masterpiece has ever been rejected by the common audience before which it was first performed. (I'm skipping some politically rigged opening-night demonstrations here; in spite of extraordinary pressures, good plays have always been quickly recognized.)
Pg 71

What history suggests to us is that the audience can rise to any heights of which the playwright is capable, that it can go anywhere he can take it. The working phrase here, thought is "take it." Pg 72

It is never enough to say "I have written honestly, by my own lights." It is necessary to say "I have written accurately, by everyone's lights." Pg 73

The audience does not reject an unpleasant truth because it seems unpleasant, but because it seems untrue. Pg 74

The larger the event, the more likely are we to lose hold of it in life; and the more necessary does it become for the theatre to seize and to shape it for us. If the greatest plays of the past are plays in which characters tear out their own or one another's eyes, in which characters kill or are killed, in which sons turn violently upon their mothers or husbands upon their wives, it is not because audiences once asked for cheap stimuli but because audiences did ask to havie their experience, their clear knowledge of life, enlarged. Pg 93

The dramatist is, if he but knew it, a fortunate man. The audience tells him very clearly what it expects of him. If he pays some sort of attention to his audience, he is likely to become quite popular.

In the contemporary theatre we are extremely honest about trivia, and extremely indifferent to any activity more pronounced than the rustling of a leaf, a dress, or a newspaper over coffee. Indeed we are hostile to the idea of activity. Pg 94 [A theatre that limits the possibilities to four actors on one set is hostile to activity - Tracy Letts' Killer Joe (more than four actors but the one set), the Angels in America propoganda plays, and a smattering of early Sam Shepard plays, among a very few others, being anemic exceptions.]

The bustling, complicated, and sometimes absurd plotting of the past does not seem ever to have inhibited character. It would almost seem that there is some correlation between the range of a play's activity and the size of its characterization. Pg 120

It does require the genius of a Sophocles to make so staggering an array of improbable situations at all tenable. But what part have the situations played in drawing out the genius of Sophocles? Pg 122

The screen makes its principal images by picturing them. The stage makes its principal images by speaking them. Each has an alternate method - the stage may have visual appeal, the screen a measure of literacy; but the alternate method is a subordinate method and the health of either medium will depend on its keeping its proportions in order. Pg 211

Kenneth Tynan...points out that even Moliere, nurtured on prose, turned to verse for his best work.

...We cannot escape the fact that Moliere, turning to verse, did then write his best plays. The fact is that every major serious play - and the lion's share of the comedies - that we cling to out of the past are verse plays. Three hundred years of prose have done well enough by the novel, beautifully by history and biography; they have left the theatre grunting like an underprivileged child.
Verse is simply more pliable than prose, and for a form as swift and compact as the theatre extreme pliability is wanted. Pg 212

We often think of verse as a rather roundabout way of saying something. It isn't. It is the fastest way of saying something provided that the thing to be said is difficult to say, provided that it is not a plain and literal statement of fact. Pg 214

I am further convinced that our commercial failure - our unpopularity - is directly due to our constricted aesthetic, to the very arbitrariness which which we have held to it, insisted on it. The audience has not deserted us because we were too good for it, but because we were not good enough. Pg 235 ["In the 2002-03 season, only one commercially produced play, "Life x 3," broke even, its producers say; last season, only two even came close - "Golda's Balcony," which will close a lengthy run at the Helen Hayes Theater next month, and "I Am My Own Wife," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play and according to its producers still didn't earn its money back. productions - inexpensive, one-person shows where costs were kept to a minimum - will have to rely on national tours before their investors see any profit. - NYT December 7, 2004]

That's it. A few thoughts:

The theatre's masterpieces were created in competitive, for-profit environments.

Our commercial theatre can't even break even. No non-profit theatre survives on ticket sales alone. A begging-based industry has no choice but to suck up to the hand that feeds it. The only theatre audience out there getting exactly what it wants are the wealthy few who keep the theatre afloat, and what they want are good seats, public thanks and a guarantee that their money is buying them the best the theatre has to offer. That means a rave NYT review or a dead playwright. I love dead playwrights; I love living playwrights more. The NYT critics can't be taken seriously when they have never reviewed America's most successful playwright, Tyler Perry. NY theatre, a theatre of revivals, musical reviews and film on stage, is not vital, profitable or, for the most part, good. What passes for criticism these days is even worse. Walter Kerr was a great critic. Frank Rich was a critic, but only just. Ben Brantley and the current stable at the NYT are reviewers, consumer guides, and even then of little value. Yet, all the motivation a regional theatre patron needs to put pen to check is a good NYT review or the promise of one. (The NYT is also blatently Oxfordian, the Intelligent Design of liturature.)

New York's commercial theatre is becoming a marketing vehicle for the film industry.

A large number of NY commercial producers are hobbyist who started out with more money than they can lose on a lifetime of betting on theatre.

Film, TV, music, online gaming and other forms of entertainment are not responsible for the theatre's sad state of affairs; their success is not the cause of the theatre's failures. Businesses win market share by delivering what consumers determine is the most desirable product. It does not necessarily follow that consumers choose the best product. Products win market share for a multitude of reasons, among them cost - PCs are cheaper than Macs, and easy access - a free mp3 download is cheaper and easier to get than a CD. For the most part the theatre isn't even in the game. The majority of theatres take as a given that popularity and profit are beyond scope.

The one notable exception is Cirque du Soleil, shows designed to run forever in purpose-built, multi-million dollar facilities that seat thousands.

What does a popular, profitable theatre look like? How does it work?

The business model is over 400 years old.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Walter Kerr: My Hero

How Not to Write a Play by Walter Kerr is among the best books ever written on playwrighting. It also happens to be a remarkable overview of theatre history. Kerr's grasp of theatre is comprehensive and in all of his books and reviews he holds theatre, an art form he clearly deeply loves, to the highest possible standard: not a contrived aesthetic unique to Kerr, but the theatre's own history, the moments when it achieved its greatest vitality and produced its masterpieces.

Years ago, Paul Stetler, Ron Owens, Jenny, me and who knows who else were in The Lion's Den on Aurora. This was Paul's big idea. In addition to swill, beer and filth, The Lion's Den serves as a book exchange of sorts, a "take a book/leave a book" library. Being relatively literate and amenable to anything free, I took a gander at the selection. Behind me I found How Not to Write a Play. I didn't know Kerr from Adam, but I'd been dabbling in playwrighting so I took it.

I still owe The Lion's Den a book.

That copy of How Not to Write a Play is next to me on my desk. Almost every page features a highlighted passage and many, several passages. Small yellow post it notes mark my favorites. Here they are, in order:

"Our own cycle is now seventy-five years old. It dates from the appearance, in 1877, of Ibsen's Pillars of Society." Pg 18. [Kerr wrote that in 1955. It's still true. Social Drama has enjoyed a 125-year run.

Don't believe me?

“And we—we have a long earnest day of work ahead of us; I most of all. But let it come; only keep close round me, you true, loyal women. I have learnt this, too, in these last few days; it is you women that are the pillars of society.”
“You have learnt a poor sort of wisdom, then brother-in-law. No, my friend. The spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom—they are the pillars of society.”
-Ibsen, Pillars of Society, 1877

“There isn’t a man in medicine who hasn’t said what you’ve said and meant it for a minute—all of us, George. And you’re right. We are groping. We are guessing. But, at least our guesses today are closer than they were twenty years ago. And twenty years from now, they’ll be still closer… That’s what we’re here for. Mm… there’s so much to be done. And so little time in which to do it.”
- Kingsley, Men in White, 1933

“The fountain’s not flowing now, they turn it off in the winter, ice in the pipes. But in the summer it’s a sight to see. I want to be around to see it. I plan to be. I hope to be.This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
- Kushner, Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika, 1994

Almost all Social Drama features some version of this sentiment.]

Kerr, continued:

"I don't think he will find it there, any more than he has found it in the antipopular theatre of the last sixty years or so. Minority theatres never have produced important work. Every great play we have ever been lucky enough to feast our eyes on has come out of a popular playhouse."
Pg 39. [Kerr is referring to Eric Bentley, a critic who championed what Kerr calls, "...a serious theatre that always meant to play to a limited audience, a theatre for the enlightened few." Sound familiar?]

"It is perfectly true, by the way, that a craftily popular theatre sometimes produces Bertha, the Sewing-Machine Girl and nothing more. It is also true that the same kind of theatre, consciously catering to the same kind of audience, has at other times produced Macbeth, Oedipus, and Tartuffe." Pg 40.

"The plays of Shakespeare came out of a theatre dedicated to the proposition that the illiterate was not only welcome but had to be wooed uninterruptedly throughout the performance, at whatever sacrifice in taste." Pg 41

"Because the conventions of Greek drama seem so remote to us now, we hazily imagine Greek performance to have been a sober and high-minded affair. Actually, the performance was garish, musicalized, and shatteringlhy robust; the audiencce was a noisy, basket-lunch crowd on a holiday, never above stoning a playwright whose work was not up to par." Pg 41

"No great play has ever come from what might be called a minority theatre. " Pg 41

"The contest between the majority-minority ideals existed in Shakespeare's time. John Lyly, for instance, was a man of undisputed talent. He preferred, however, not to soil himself in the public playhouse, choosing to write and stage his work in the purer air of the minority theatres of the court. While his lowbrow friends went on to greatness, Lyly shriveled into the literary-precious. By the time Lyly, aged about forty, wrote his last play, Shakespeare had completed Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice." Pg 42

"...these men found greatness because of their communion with the universal audience; the presence of the uncultivated mass in the theatre is an indispensable prerequisite for drama of genuine stature; greatness grows out of the very challenge." Pg 44

"A "great" theatre comes into existence by first attending to the most primitive passions of its most primitive patrons. By satisfying the race's admittedly childlike - thought not necessarily childish - yearning for violence, spectacle, and the broadest of broad comedy strokes, roots are sunk deep into the universal consciousness." Pg 44-45

"At worst, a popular theatre holds the fort; at best, it finds its way to Hamlet." Pg 46

I'm up to page 46 of 244. This is a book I love. I'll continue on soon. If you've read this far, you should read the whole book. Buy it now.

What is "great" theatre? Think about it. List 5 great plays. The 5 GREATEST plays of all time. The 5 plays that shaped Western Civilization; the 5 plays posterity can't live without. List them.

If you want to read ahead, get a copy of What is a Masterpiece? by historian Kenneth Clark.