A few weeks ago, the Pulitzer Prize for drama was awarded to David Lindsay-Abaire’s The Rabbit Hole, a study of a marriage in the wake of the freak-accidental death of the couple’s child. The play originated as a commissioned work at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, from where it traveled along the narrow-gauge railroad we now call American Theater. Very few people wrote negatively about The Rabbit Hole. There was, however, a collective “huh?” heard around the country when the Pulitzer was awarded to that play.
When I heard The Rabbit Hole had won the prize, I had to look up my own review of a production at the Geffen Playhouse last year, because I honestly couldn’t remember what it was about. The problem is not with my memory. The Rabbit Hole is an emblem of the kind of finely crafted, polished, entertaining, emotionally vivid, mildly thoughtful (but not too heady), palatable and ultimately forgettable experiences that constitute most new plays on our national stages.
I was reminded of the play’s Pulitzer win again earlier this month, when SCR presented its 10th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, a potpourri of seven wonderfully performed readings, workshops and full productions of plays in various stages of development written by very good dramatists, including José Rivera, Richard Greenberg, and writer-lyricist John Strand along with composer Dennis McCarthy.
On hand to untangle the knots in each work were notable directors, some of them playwrights themselves. On the opening day of the festival, the authors met with literary representatives from about 40 of the country’s more prestigious theaters, including Manhattan Theatre Club and Actors Theatre of Louisville, and it was clear that SCR was using the fest as a kind of swap meet — a way to get these plays, and their writers, on the national map with multiple productions.
The festival, hosted by associate artistic director John Glore with literary manager Megan Monaghan, on the surface seemed like a fine thing. What sane playwright could object to having his or her play marketed even before it’s finished, or refined by such smart directors as Pam MacKinnon, Bart DeLorenzo and Chay Yew? What producer doesn’t want his or her new musical to land on Broadway, then tour the country, then be made into a movie?
None, of course. But what’s good for the theaters may not necessarily be good for The Theater.
Much has been written about the politics of this year’s Pulitzer selection — particularly on how the committee vetoed more-adventurous works initially submitted by a jury. Unlike in other Pulitzer categories, it’s a mistake to use the drama prize as a measure of greatness or as a symbol of adventurism. There’s never been a shortage of scribes ready to do the heavy lifting of moving the theater forward in scary new directions with works that challenge the assumptions of the culture and of the theatrical forms we’ve become used to, but these are not the kinds of works represented in the Pulitzers, or being produced along the regional theater byways, or at this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival.
Of course, money is at the bottom of all this. Money is at the bottom of almost everything: Because of the dire climate for arts funding, the theaters have formed alliances, and those alliances have evolved into chains, like Denny’s, and the food they serve tilts toward homogenization.
If you want to see an exercise in recycling, just turn to the regional theater openings announced in American Theatre Magazine. To watch the majority of new plays in the established venues of New York and around the country is to hunger for the kind of electrical charge that, in their times, made Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and August Wilson the buzz of America’s coffee shops, cocktail parties and subway lines. Their plays, frequently denounced by critics and audiences, were indispensable to the lifeblood of the culture and its conversations. For that same vitality today, we turn not to the theater but to TV, to the likes of Jon Stewart, George Clooney and Oprah, who, under the weight of colossal commercial pressures, show far more bravery than most of our institutional theaters. The underlying causes of the blandness in our theater are more nuanced than the obvious “commercial pressures” that everyone talks about. Compounding the problem is an identity crisis. Theater gets so little respect because it has so little self-respect.
Among the Pulitzer categories, only the drama prize gets dropped like a date with bad breath — three times in the past 21 years; four times during the ’60s. Playwright — and festival participant — Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer in 2000 for his Dinner With Friends, calls this “Pulitzer condescension.” But if theater wants more respect, it might first try giving greater value to what it does best, uniquely, as theater. SCR doesn’t seem to realize that it’s a theater, not a film studio. A recorded pre-show announcement uses movie-biz parlance to trumpet how that theater stages plays by “America’s hot writers.” SCR’s stated goal of generating multiple productions borrows from the film industry, which, at its outset, conceived of movies for a chain of markets. Live theater’s comparatively smaller economics of scale should allow for the kind of nervy, potentially upsetting play “that pricks the conscience of the king,” but under theater’s new global marketing, bravery becomes eclipsed by commercial appeal.