UPDATE: lightly rewritten for clarity throughout.
Ghost Light posts a quote about realism on the same day that I was planning a post on realism! Arg! The Zeitgeist! It Burns! It Burns!
My relationship to realism has changed a lot over the years. I was trained as an actor in a realism based program. The classes I took were title Principles of Realism and Character and Emotion and they taught me more about theatre than any outside-of-the-rehearsal room experience
I've had since I had had (whoops!). Somehow along the way, I became deeply involved in what for lack of a less-pretentious term might be dubbed The Ideological Struggle Over Theatrical Genre. In other words, other than the classics, realism became if not the only valid theatrical choice, the primary theatrical choice.
Of course, "realism" had a pretty broad definition in my book. Marshall Mason in The Directors Voice says that realism is something like "real people in recognizable situations". I took out the latter half. Thus, plays like Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls (which features real people in unrecognizable situations behaving according to the rules of farce) at least sort-of counted, because there will still objectives, obstacles and tactics. What this really was was rebellion against an experimental theatre-based acting teacher I didn't care for in College and my growing perception that there was a lot of hollow work out there excusing itself by calling itself "experimental" (I still believe this). I got recruited into the ongoing behind-the-scenes civil war over what genres are appropriate to put on stage and badmouthed Anne Bogart a lot even though I had never seen her work. "I was in College," is just about the only excuse I can offer, given how influential Anne Bogart's books have been to me, how much I've enjoyed her work, and how nice a person she was when I met her at the Clambake a few years back.
Then I got to New York, and I figured out that the stuff I had been doing wasn't "realism" at all. True, it was based in some of the tenants of realism and the acting methods that have sprung up to deal with it, but the "unrecognizable situations" part, along with a lot of the formal play that excites me and the lyrical language that attracts me to scripts made me realize that while the work I was doing wasn't necessarily "Experimental" or heavily deconstructed, it still wasn't *quite* realism. So I switched sides again. I said that realism was better left to television and film, who could do it better than we could and we should focus on the things that theater can do well.
Except... realism is one of the things that theatre can do really really well provided that theatre doesn't try to do realism the way television and film do it. The conventions for "realistic" story telling on stage and on film are completely different. What really was bugging me all along were plays that didn't realize that. There's a difference between a beautiful, truthful, powerful piece of realism on stage like Burn This and tired cliched made-for-HBO movies on stage.
Ultimately, the quality of the piece transcends the form it is put into. I resent the hegemony of realism on stage, but if I were living in Germany I'd resent the hegemony of arbitrary director-driven spectacles. It's the hegemony part that's problematic-- that one genre is seen as superior to others inherently-- rather than the particular merits of this or that genre.
Some directors work towards specialization (i.e. Michael Kahn, Anne Bogart etc.) and other directors work towards versatility (i.e. Davis McCallum, Les Waters etc.). I see my skills and sensibilities pushing me towards the latter model. I can't do that if I am also saying that certain ways of writing are fundamentally inferior to others. There are some that are more likely to get the juices flowing than others. But every form a play might take has something to offer to those who want to learn from it.
(Of course then there's the side issue that all categories are of course somewhat arbitrary and flawed. And there's also the issue that realism isn't realistic at all but rather obeys conventions that we are trained to see as realistic. And then there's the third issue that calling a script "Realism" ignores the variety of ways that it may be executed. But those are each their own post, which someday i will hopefully write)