Wednesday, December 26, 2007

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

Dredging through some archives that I managed to catch up on over the holiday, and here's a little gem from American Theater (October 2007), from an interview with writer/director Craig Lucas. Says Lucas:
There's this whole play-development thing in America that assumes somehow all new plays are broken and need fixing. But what does that mean? Every single one of Shakespeare's plays has a bad fourth act in my view -- every one of them! And your job as a director is to find a way to make it play on stage, to sustain it. I keep asking dramaturgs: "What would you do if Chekhov's Three Sisters came across the transom tomorrow?" I think many would say, "Perhaps you need to explain why they aren't going to Moscow."
Lucas continues, "Theater should be a participatory event, not 'you sit back in your chair and we'll do everything for you.' That's fine for mass entertainment, but that isn't why I go to the theatre. I go to be teased and drawn out."

This fits neatly with another director/playwright's stance, this time from Harold Pinter, courtesy of John Lahr in The New Yorker (Dec. 24 & 31). His view is tidily expressed here: To supply an explicit moral tag to an evolving and compulsive dramatic image seems to me facile, impertinent, and dishonest. Where this takes place it is not theatre but a crossword puzzle. The audience holds the paper. The play fills in the blanks. Everyone's happy. There has been no conflict between audience and play, no participation, nothing has been exposed. We walk out as we walk in."

Yeah, consider how much the Times hated The Homecoming when it premiered in the '60s (though they offered a corrective a few weeks later, hint, hint), as opposed to how much they like it now. Truth be told, you'll always find someone who thinks the whole play is broke -- even Raymond Carver's brilliant short story collections were first torn to pieces by his editor (again, that issue of The New Yorker, specifically, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"). So what's the trick to escaping "development hell"?

Try letting the playwright free-fall; whether there's a big impact or just a feeble splat, at least the work is being experimented with, at least it's not in limbo. Everyone's entitled to some failures, so long as they have the will to keep on going, as long as they're able to find the audience. That's what I admire about 13P (this year is Shelia Callaghan and Lucy Thurber): they're letting the playwrights do what they must, and last year's production of Have You Seen Steve Steven (and the revival of The Internationalist) both gave unique voices the opportunity to be heard. You'll also see things like this in groups focused on getting those voices out, like New Georges (God's Ear and Good Heif) or Clubbed Thumb (the upcoming Amazons and Their Men, but see also their recent book 'o seven plays: Funny, Strange, Provocative). I hope to talk to these groups in '08 to see what their perspective is on where the director steps in. (Note, I've left companies out of this mix, like Elevator Repair Service, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, the Debate Society, &c., because their work is collaborative, and totally something else that I'd like to focus on in the new year. Bold theaters, however, like SoHo Rep and the increasingly daring Playwrights Horizon are worth checking out.)

Theater should be more than junk food (I railed against a recent production of The Santaland Diaries because of this), and my resolution for the new year will be to challenge myself as an audience member at least as much as the playwright is challenging me. Doesn't mean I'll like it, but it doesn't mean it's broken either.

No comments: