From the Editor’s Perch

Our Monolithic Local Theater

As a playwright of 15 years experience, I’ve become conditioned to having my the hairs on the back of my brain stand up whenever I hear a theater worker gush about how much they respect playwrights.  I imagine it’s something in the realm of how an African-American reacts wherever someone remarks, “Oh, I just love Black people!”  They suspect that somewhere in this person’s experience there has been a great black maid… truly one of the family

Because my experience in the Theater has been that most theaters like their playwrights either dead or out of town.  Directors will declare it can’t “be done” that way.  Dramaturges will insist that ignoring their advice is tantamount to intentionally blemishing their career.  And the Producers will say that if they do not get their way, although they love the play so much!! the production will be cancelled; the play will be dropped.  If the playwright is not dead, or out of town – they may soon want to be.

 This is because most mid to high end theater nowadays is not creative.  They are production entities.  They are like the copyists of the old-time Louvre.  Known, established hits of the recent season are imported, and the theaters’ job is not to fuck them up.  The critics report on how well they have done this.  “Yes!  In this production they magically recreate the flair of Titian’s brushwork.”  It’s educational.

Copyists

 WELL, all that has changed!  according to a recent article in the Seattle Times by theater critic Misha Berson:  “Move over, coffee: It’s playwrights’ day in the sun in Seattle”.  The larger theaters all say so!  And, apparently, it’s all come upon us quite suddenly.   

 Three months ago in a meeting of the Dramatists Guild at the ACT Theater, representatives from the Rep, ACT, Issaquah’s Village Theatre, and the 5th Avenue, announced that they were now intent upon establishing playwriting entities within their theater’s organizations in order to foster the creation, work shopping and perhaps production of New Plays.  

I asked them a number of questions then.  First, why all of a sudden?  Local playwrights have been doing everything short of tossing bombs at their doors for the past 15 years of my experience in an effort to make just this sort of thing happen.  Their non-committal answer was just a general shrug and a few general statements to the effect that, the time seems to be right, or it seems to be what is currently in the air.

Well, who can really say?

 (This writer suspects that it is the money.  You want to understand any organization, you follow the money.  And major theater in this town has seen patrons and income steadily decrease in numbers over the past many years.  At the next Dramatists Guild meeting the Artistic Director of another major theater in the area said that she had had to let all of her assistants go.  If this is true throughout the industry, then the next jobs to be lost are going to be those of the very people who were  speaking to us.  This can be a motivator.

 

But why, suddenly, are they so chummy with Playwrights?  WE haven’t any money.  Trust me. 

 I suspect it’s either due to a major change in grant or funding priorities among the philanthropic entities, though your erstwhile reporter here has come up blank.  Perhaps they are just getting desperate and are casting about wildly in their death throes like large animals.  Or perhaps, when you take the money away, people become creative… or at least open themselves up to the idea.)

 Well, part of the answer is that they are not really chumming up.  They are allowing the playwrights into their theater.  When asked the benefits of this, the lone playwright of the group who was part of this newly hatched program said, “Well, I get to talk to other playwrights.”  He thought for a while.  “And I get to use the copy machine.”

Let’s see. “I get to use the copier machine.”

(Hallelujah!  I thought.  I have to say, this whole charade was getting me pissed.)

 They all made it very clear that they were not just opening the theater doors ala carte.  They planned to contact select writers with invitations.  These writers would then be allowed to work and talk with other writers somewhere on the theater grounds.  And out of all of this, if the powers that be deemed the product of sufficient quality –  some portion of this would at some point have scheduled readings – when they could be arranged, if the budget was there for them.  And hopefully from this might come some productions.  (Smiles all around.)

 (I was steaming.  ‘I could scratch something out today, have it read down at the Odd Duck tonight, and in a show there, or in the TPS Theater by the end of the next month!’  My ears were blowing smoke.   ‘And all without having budgeted a dime’.  A street person could DO this.)

 And in case they had qualms about the dubious quality of such work coming out of a rundown place such as the Odd Duck?  I would remind them that the two playwrights they so prized, and had produced upon their own stages, and had been just now passing congratulations back and forth about – had passed through just such a scenario at the Odd Duck, in years past, themselves.)

 So I asked them, “Why not just save your selves a lot of time and effort and money and just cut to the chase?  Go see the shows produced around here which have done well and give them a leg up?”

 (I didn’t add, “Because that’s what you do already!)

 It was not just a question of quality, was their answer.  It was also finding the show which was right for their theater.

 “But in ten years you haven’t yet found a show which was right for your theater?” I asked.

 Believe us, we’ve looked, was their answer.

 (This kind of shit just makes your jaw drop.)

 “But Joe Boling, an independent fellow who had tried to see how much theater he could attend within the Seattle area within a year, by attending every day… (They all nodded their heads and smiled.  They all knew the guy.)  …found he couldn’t see all of the productions, within a year, there were so many!  You couldn’t find one success out of all of those produced scripts, over the past 10 years which was suitable?”  I asked again.

??????

Believe us, we’ve looked, was their answer. 

They didn’t blink.  They didn’t break ranks.  You’ve got to hand it to them, when it comes to p0litical playbook, these folks know their way around.  They appear when they are invited, and then they come bearing gifts – to mute any criticism which might rear its ugly head.  That would be unseemly.  And it had muted me.  What I should have continued on to ask was this:

(“Let me phrase this question another way – since it seems you have to be hit on the head with a big stick!   If local theater producing new, local plays has created audience with a series of hits – while your theaters have been steadily losing audience…  Wouldn’t it be more logical to say that perhaps your theatre is not ‘right’ for this town?”)

 But they propped their sagging tits of an argument up this time with a few anecdotes about how time consuming and taxing watching new theater could be.  Which led to the condolences passed amongst themselves, (they were all on good relations), regarding sacrifices that a person makes for the theater… 

 So I figured that was enough questions from me for a while.  Since no other playwrights attending followed up on my queries, I just sat and simmered. 

 The other playwrights asked questions about how one became picked by a theater; how one should best submit their work to the theater, and on and on; just dogs, basically, who were sitting on their hind legs asking politely what the protocol was to be for chasing the bone.  And one thing the panelists agreed upon was that there was no equation to give!  They were looking for quality, and then something which tugged at their heart.  But one thing we could do was to research the theater we were sending our scripts to.

 (A little background here:  The Dramatists Guild recently supported a study of the state of live theater in this country, which caused somewhat of a sensation when it came out around a year ago.  Not only was it shocking how little even quite ‘successful’ playwrights made from their theatrical productions (not even close to a livable income).  What struck closest to many of us (especially me!) was the finding that there were no scripts produced in major theaters around the country from mailings.  The playwrights in all cases that were produced had a personal relationship with that theater.)

 For example, said the fellow from the largest theater.  If I receive a script and it has blah, blah, blahs name on it.  I know that that person hasn’t researched our theater at all, because they haven’t been the literary manager here in several years.  So into the round file it goes…

“You’re kidding me. The guy thinks HE’s still the Literary Manager?”

 (The arrogance of these people just twists me in knots.  At ten cents a sheet, the playwright may have spent $12.00 for the copy, another several dollars for the binder, maybe $3.00-$6.00 for the postage, and then double that amount for the return envelope and postage.  This is not to mention the year (or years) and turmoil spent to write it.)

 So I had to ask:  “So, after you have produced a new play, how do you go about selling it to the other major theaters.  Do you just make sure you get the names correct and mail it to them?” 

 (And even though a person would need be an idiot not to suspect the answer, they were either too blindsided, arrogant or stupid not to suspect I was being arch.  Because they said…)

 Oh no, no.  We try in every way we can to get them here to see it!!! 

 About this they all agreed.

 And then it was pretty much over.  I left without speaking.  If I did start talking, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stop.  And also, it was pretty clear that neither the panelists nor the other playwrights were much interested in what I might have to say, might be.

 But to finish up, I think I’ll just say what I have to say right here:

 I agree with Jon Jory (founder of the Humana Festival) that the future of live theater is probably at the amateur, semi-professional level of production.  What I see happening here are the deaths throes of a large, monolithic creation which is currently stumbling under its own weight, and fighting to retain what employment there is.  Large theater as we know it is going down… It’s getting re-sized, re-packaged.  Who knows, maybe even chopped up for its parts…

 (An administrator’s head… maybe an arm?   Here’s a thumb.  Maybe get it bronzed?  Ha, ha.)

 But theater as it’s about to be will be coming to your block.  And who knows?  Maybe soon.

And more about that, later. 

Photos by Carl Nelson of Person and Actors whose sentiments may very well not be mine.

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3 Responses to “From the Editor’s Perch”

  1. Gary and Alice Nelson Says:

    Believe it or not much of this is the same if you are bidding on government contracts. Really! In bidding on the F-35 the spec and all briefings told us “price is king! It must be cheap!”, but they actually chose superior performance at runaway price.

  2. Donn Trenton Says:

    I fear that theatre is being gradually replaced by reality shows. But not by reality.

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