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American Theater's Failure of Nerve

Whose play is it anyway? Charlayne Woodard and Gregory Itzin in Shipwrecked! (Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR)

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.

I can’t imagine an unorthodox, once-befuddling little play like Waiting for Godot — with its capacities both to turn the theater on its head and to confound half the audience — standing a chance at a festival like this. Here, the playwrights are in consultation with too many intermediaries, even at the formative stages of their plays, just like in the movies. With no marketing strategy in place, Waiting for Godot was eventually produced in every corner of the globe, on the strength of its conviction and literary merit, stemming from the uncompromising vision of an author who wrote in a kind of solitary confinement. Samuel Beckett certainly didn’t collaborate with directors, dramaturges or anybody else while he was in the formative process of writing, yet this is now the protocol in American new-play development.

As Edward Albee told the Weekly earlier this year, “The big problem is the assumption that writing a play is a collaborative act. It isn’t. It’s a creative act, and then other people come in.”

The beginning of our theater’s failure of nerve starts with the fundamental, historical shift in the relationship between the playwright and the theater, which was treating its scribes like screenwriters long before “developed to death” became a mantra in the regions.

A screenwriter sells his or her property to a production company or studio, for which he/she is, theoretically, amply compensated, whereas the playwright (when not also writing for TV or film) remains in comparative financial poverty by ?retaining legal ownership of the play he or she has created, while leasing it to a theater. This is the standard that is supposed to offer some assurance that a playwright’s initial instincts have a chance of showing up on the stage. This is the standard that once propelled Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee and August Wilson into the spotlight. And this is precisely what doesn’t happen in the movies or TV, where writers are hired to work with committees, to massage products in order to reach the largest possible demographic.

Associate artistic director John Glore insists that at SCR, playwrights are never told what to write. Technically, Glore is correct. Two years ago, while visiting California from his Washington, D.C., home to see SCR’s production of his play, Lovers and Executioners, playwright John Strand was approached by the theater’s co–artistic director David Emmes, who offered Strand a commission for a new play.

“He asked me what I wanted to write,” Strand explains. Being a Francophile, Strand said he wanted to adapt Eugene Labiche’s 1850 French farce, AnItalian Straw Hat, into a musical. Emmes liked that idea, composer Dennis McCarthy was brought in, and Strand turned in a version of the play updated to contemporary Washington, D.C.

“I think of Washington as one of the most comically rich places on Earth,” Strand says. “So I think setting the play in Washington offers you symbolic possibilities . . . about what’s considered sane and insane in this city.”

But before any actors even got near Strand’s play, Emmes asked for a change of locale and era.

“They weren’t interested,” Strand remarks. “So they said, ‘Let’s do it in costume. Let’s do it in period.’ ”

Strand rewrote the play, setting it in turn-of-the-century New York — the version presented in the festival.

Strand’s pun-laced play, marbled with mistaken identities and lunatic characters, concerns a bridegroom who stumbles upon an infidelity (albeit not his own bride’s) in the woods when his horse eats the Italian straw hat left in a tree by the adulterous woman. He must then find a replacement hat to appease the woman’s lover, a soldier with an insane temper. The musical follows the bridegroom’s Candide-esque travels in search of that replacement hat. It was read and sung by nine actors, and featured some lovely comic turns by John Vickery. With its rampant mayhem and many characters’ delusions, the play contains one serious idea — the broken levy that’s supposed to separate what’s real from what isn’t. Given how America’s foreign and domestic policies have been largely determined by what isn’t real being passed off for what is, Washington is the perfect city in which to set this comedy. But for reasons having to do with, I guess, costumes, and one author’s willingness to please, the play is now set in 1905 New York, washing out its political resonances and making it a pretty good farce in search of a purpose.

“David and SCR have been great to me,” Strand says, diplomatically. “I try to listen to what the artistic directors want. Once you get it in, it’s the theater’s option to produce it or not. This is their way of saying, ‘This is not what we have in mind,’ and I’m free to say, ‘No, thank you.’ ”

But when Emmes suggested that Strand alter the setting and era of his adaptation, he didn’t say, “No, thank you.” He said, “Yes, please.”

Some of the pressure on Strand comes from the nature of a commission, or prepayment for a play that’s merely an idea at the time of the agreement. A commission does not legally alter the playwright’s ownership of the material, but it gives the theater the first right of refusal to produce it within a given time frame. And this is where the game of “chase the carrot on the stick” begins.

In the SCR lobby just before the reading of Strand’s play, I asked Glore about the commission process. He explained that the author is paid regardless of whether the theater chooses to present the play, but should the theater decide to place the project in development, it offers the playwright a new payment schedule and time frame. In such a case, all final decisions for proposed changes rest with the playwright. The author is free at any time to say, “No, this is not where I want this play to go. I’d rather take it to another theater.” Glore added that “quite a few” playwrights have made that decision to walk away with their plays in their backpacks.

These claims, however, are disingenuous, given the inherent power imbalance in the relationship between author and theater, plus the track record. When I asked for some names of playwrights who have ended the development process for reasons of principle, Glore couldn’t come up with any. As the lobby lights started blinking, he remembered that, in the instances he was thinking of, it was actually the theaters that terminated the development process, not the playwrights.

Meanwhile, all seven of this year’s Pacific Playwrights Festival plays came from commissions. Glore insisted that this was not calculated.

Donald Margulies based his play Shipwrecked! The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself) — An Entertainment on a turn-of-the-century controversy surrounding a Swiss storyteller who chronicled his three-decade travel adventures in a British periodical. His saga, which took him to the Australian outback, included being marooned on a Pacific island and marrying an Aborigine, with vivid descriptions of his riding on the backs of sea turtles and of “flying wombats.” Such details aroused suspicions at the Royal Geographical Society and led to his saga being discredited as a hoax.

The play was originally commissioned as a children’s story, but after it was first submitted, the theater decided that because of its sophistication, it shouldn’t be so boxed in. Originally written for 12 actors, it was presented with nine in an earlier workshop. For the current festival, it was carved down to three. Two weeks earlier, director Bart DeLorenzo had told me that the plan was to read it with two actors, but in the intervening days, that strategy obviously proved unworkable.

Were these changes made for the integrity of the play, or for the expedience of making the play economically viable to stage in multiple markets?

Glore said it was about the play’s integrity: “Louis [the central character] was dominating, and none of the other actors was being utilized. We sent Donald off thinking about those things.”

The three remaining characters are Louis, read with unimpeachable charm by Gregory Itzin, a Stage Manager (the delightful Charlayne Woodard), and a sound-effects man listed as Ensemble, beautifully performed by Michael Daniel Cassady.

The play is a wondrous exercise in storytelling, about storytelling, the ownership of one’s story and its relationship to “truth.” These concerns are reiterations of themes from Margulies’ 1996 play, Collected Stories (also premiered by SCR). Here, however, he gives the fact-versus-fiction conundrum short shrift by demonizing Louis’ scientific detractors as petty minds devoid of eye-opening imagination. But what about the eye-closing imagination that ignored the warnings of eco-scientists, at the peril of our future? What about the embellished facts that justify endless wars? Sometimes the truth is empirical, and sometimes that’s the truth that sets us free. Herein lies the so-far-unexamined paradox at the heart of Margulies’ lovely play.

There was also a reading of José Rivera’s new realistic, domestic drama, Boleros for the Disenchanted, which starts with his own parents and their wacky courtship in the morally strict confines of 1950s Puerto Rico. Act 2 picks up 39 years later with the aging couple and their harrowing isolation near a U.S. Army base in Georgia. The wheelchair-bound husband (Gary Perez) calls for last rites based on the appearance in his dream of an angel announcing his imminent death, but nobody takes him seriously.

Some patrons believed that a TV series could be constructed from the intervening years between acts, a motive supported by the conspicuous absence of any Spanish lingo in the play. The beauty of the colossal jump in time between acts, however, is the glaring flash-forward to a vision of the ambitions that we saw so clearly in Act 1 now crushed by time and destiny.

Rivera is a master craftsman who has a revolving commission with South Coast Repertory, which means that when he’s completed one commission, he’s automatically granted a new one, though he says he only has time to pen one play every three or four years because of his career writing for film and TV.

Why, then, does Rivera need such a commission?

“We want to keep him in the theater,” says Glore, which raises the question of who, exactly, is keeping Rivera out of the theater. Wouldn’t these resources be more appreciated, and more bravely dispersed, going to established, provocative but less heralded writers from, say, Padua Playwrights or Dog Ear Collective?

This festival underscores how the American theater in general employs a small circle of writers endorsed by “the network,” writers who are well entrenched in the national pipeline. This applies even to SCR’s “new generation,” such as Julie Marie Myatt and David Wiener. Myatt’s and Wiener’s plays each received full productions as part of the festival. Myatt’s My Wandering Boy concerns the disappearance of a young man and its effect on the people he left behind. Since the eponymous subject never appears, and the play’s culminating event occurs before the curtain rises, the play’s mystery depends entirely on the power of its monologues and interviews, which are strikingly prosaic (compared with Margulies’ tour-de-force soliloquies in Shipwrecked!).Director Bill Rauch tries to compensate for the absence of drama with Christopher Acebo’s Hockneyesque set, which places couches and lamps against a looming desert backdrop, and with the ingratiating accompaniment of a Dobro guitar, which suffocates the stage in “atmosphere.”

I’m reluctant to condemn the clichés in Wiener’s saga of moral bankruptcy in Hollywood, System Wonderland, since I was tipped off (and not by the author) that the play was completely rewritten before it reached the stage. Suffice it to say that Wiener’s linguistic and theatrical skills are in full bloom, even if his play isn’t.

Perhaps what the theater needs is a standard of ethics similar to that used by newspapers to protect their integrity — a firewall between the publishing side, with its interests in marketing, and the editorial camp. What’s happening in these theaters is similar to a newspaper publisher stepping in — with the newspaper chain in mind — and consulting on the content of articles before they’re even completed. In newspapers, this would be considered an outrageous intrusion upon editorial liberty. Obviously, marketing interests still have subtle influences over the content of newspapers, but imagine what it would be like if that firewall were removed.

One of the healthier new-play-development scenarios I observed occurred at the Mark Taper Forum, where Glore was serving as dramaturge. Glore, with director Lisa Peterson, helped develop Richard Montoya’s Water and Power, while the theater’s artistic director, Michael Ritchie, removed himself from the process. Ritchie gave himself one role: He could decide whether to present the play or not. Marketing concerns were largely kept out of the process of developing ?the play.

After viewing five of the seven new works at the Pacific Playwrights Festival, I actually have little argument with the plays on display. My complaint is for the braver work that’s being left behind, because the reasons for that neglect are being echoed in a hundred more instances around the country, while our theater’s relevance as an art form hangs in the balance.


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