Jeremy's Ramblings, Babblings, and Other Pretentious Bullshit.
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Theatre is not a disposable camera, and therefore should not be developed.

I have been trying to put my finger on why the world of theatre seems to be on an artistic decline. The number of really great plays (and really great playwrights) seems to be deflating at a rather steady rate.

I believe the problem is that we overdevelop our theatre. I just came back from a reading (where the actors sit and read the script out loud to an audience rather than stage it) that included a post-show talkback (where the audience gets to discuss the work). At the talkback, I heard several people tell the playwright what they felt the play should be, and what he should do to change it to their liking. And in that moment, I suddenly realized that I am not a big fan of readings, and that I really do not like talkbacks.

I understand that a reading is so that the material can be tested in front of a crowd before officially releasing it in front of an audience. And that's precisely my problem with it. Our theatre is too safe. We no longer just take a script and say, "Hey, this is a cool piece of writing. Let's do it." Now it's all about testing and surveys, just to make sure that people will like it. And in the process of inviting all of these cooks in the kitchen, I believe we lose both the adventurous aspect of live performance, the writer's original voice (having been at the receiving end of talkbacks, the immediate mental response to any sort of criticism is "Hmm, maybe they're right"), and the main reason that I love seeing great theatre.

After seeing a show like "Oleanna", "Topdog/Underdog" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", the audience response afterward is great. No two people see the exact same show. Everyone walks away with something different. That is what makes great plays great. Those shows do not strive to appeal to us. Instead, we are allowed to pull what we want from the material, positive or otherwise. Allowing the audience to try and change the play to their liking is destructive to the process of creating theatre.

When my play "American Way" was produced at The Blank Theatre, it received a reading 18 months beforehand (at which time I switched cars, lifestyles and became of drinking age). And The Blank was seen by many as making a speedy decision (another theatre company was still nowhere near deciding on whether or not to produce it, even after having been read by several company members). There are several examples of plays that are kicked around for years before getting a production.

We need to stop this. We need to stop playing it safe. We need to stop letting people tell us what our theatre should be. We need to stick with our own voices, tell our own stories, and just let the audience members tell each other what they came away with. Leave audience participation to the murder mysteries. I'm here to tell stories to people, and whether or not they like it is their business from now on.

Dear Jeremy:

I think your ideas are vaild ones, but as a long time theater producer and reader of--at least--100 scripts a year, trust me when I say that just because a play has been written doesn't mean that it should be produced.

Box office factors account for much of the reasoning behind those choices: Every play picked can help/hurt your box office. A good script that a playwright refuses to re-work into a great script can hurt both the playwright--as well as the theater's--reputation.

Theater is also a collaborative element--much like film--and part of that is fine-tuning the work prior to staging. Rehearsal time is premium for theaters that schedule more than two or three plays a season and the valuable time wasted working through a play's kinks in rehearsal when it should have been done through dramaturgy, development definately can damage the final project.

A Fan
I definitely agree that development before a play is necessary, and when a play of mine is produced, I am always willing to work with the director to make it better.

It just feels to me that the question that most theaters ask themselves now in regards to a new play is not "Are we telling the best story we can here?", but instead "Will the audience like it?"

When I see plays like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", "Topdog/Underdog" and "Othello" on stage, I can't say that I "enjoy" them, as they are stories that fills me with rage and sadness. And yet, they are some of the best stories I have ever been told, and to change them to what they thought I would have wanted to see would have left me feeling cheated.

I'm not saying we shouldn't develop theatre. I'm just saying we OVERdevelop it nowadays to the point of removing any sort of immediacy or risk.
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