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April 02, 2009

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Aaron

I'm going to have to read the article now, but while it's true that BROADWAY theater isn't exactly lacking in these things, she's right that the post-modern trend has led to some odd plots that go way beyond the elliptical--for instance, Richard Maxwell's latest, "People Without History," or even "The Gathering," which Nerve is doing at the Lyceum in Brooklyn right now. I'm seeing "Beowulf" tonight--if it's anything like past Banana Bag & Bodice plays, I don't expect there to be much of a "story," and can you defend the importance of PLOT in a Richard Foreman play?

Even so, I still disagree with Rebeck that this is a *PROBLEM*--that is, that theater necessarily has to be written for "all" audiences.

devilvet

Does Rebcek teach theatre anywhere? I find that teachers sometimes are reacting to the observations of their students more so than other models. They interact more with students, and young promising students who want to make their mark are the sorts that more other than others want to throw out the baby with the babywater.

dv

mirroruptonature

I agree with Isaac in that these types of arguments usually heat up very fast because people appear to use very fluid, varied and interchangeable definitions of story, structure, plot, etc.

For instance, one person's "plot" is another person's "story" is another person's "structure."

The main problem I have with Rebeck's article is that it is hyperbolic while at the same time lacking any meat or specifics. It is kind of like the B-list comedian with a great delivery - the audience smiles and titters for the whole 10 minute set - but no ACTUAL jokes.

I think she needed to give an example of the type of play that she thinks is plotless.

Aaron Leichter

Yeah, she's pretty sloppy about defining "structure." I suspect she uses it to mean "linear structure of cause & effect that rises to a climax."

Maybe she's talking about playwright-driven experiments with structure. In NYC this spring, Caryl Churchill uses hyper-compression for agitprop; Sheila Callaghan somewhat obscures her characters & plot with formal experimentation; Craig Lucas plays with memory & non-linear chronology. All of these are thrilling plays (I think "That Pretty Pretty" deserves the Pulitzer!) & none of them Aristotelian.

But more likely, Rebeck's talking about the lack of solid traditional structure in boulevard theater. And here, she's got a substantial argument. Fifty years ago, mainstream theater built dramas to last - even mediocre work (let's say... "The Caine Mutiny") was dramatically effective simply cause it was a juggernaut of pace & structure. Whereas now, Neil LaBute, the latest playwright to reach B'way, & Adam Rapp, Off-B'way's golden boy, leave a lot to desire in their plays' structures. And "Impressionism" has the chassis of a jalopy.

I don't agree with Rebeck in the particulars. But in general, I kind of agree: I read a lot of scripts & see a lot of shows that don't even know what they're doing, structurally. A good playwright should be know the basics of traditional Aristotelian structure before they violate them. And too many good playwrights don't.

Scott Walters

"King Lear is a lot more than its story (or structure), so is Waiting for Godot or Uncle Vanya."

Well of course, Isaac, but they HAVE a plot like a body has a skeleton. Like the skeleton, a plot holds a story upright and allows it to move. So I'm with Rebeck.

Rebeck's example, while connected to what she is talking about, also indicates another common problem: trying to create from a "not." I once saw a production of "Macbeth" where the actress playing the leading role (yes, it was experimental) threw away the "Tomorrow and tomorrow" speech. Afterwards, I asked her why. "Because all the other productions I've seen, the actors made such a big deal about doing the speech, and I didn't want to be like them." This is acting a "not." Rebeck's writer wants to avoid a plot -- she's writing a not. And the result of such motivations is usually pretty lame.

I've created my share of plotless, postmodern image theatre. Some was interesting. But I'm not certain it was really something best done in a theatre.

And Richard Foreman's plays have events, not plots. And I hate them.

Tony

Rebeck's essays read to me like a lot of her plays. (and note: I'm not the first to say this) A lot like other things I've read, but not quite as good.

You can just as easily say that even with "structure" few plays are Lear, Vanya or Godot. It's not accidental that in thousands of years of works there's only a handful of titles you can reference as quickly.

I think a play without any structure is as useless as one devoid of any content. That being said--there's a lot of different possible structures and a lot of different content that can make great theatre.

I think our greatest writers are able to meld content and structure into a new living thing. Some of our better ones have a strong hold on one of the two. And a lot struggle with both.

Karl Miller

I wonder where, say, Melissa James Gibson's [sic] would rank in this discussion? I can see that play as a ravenous abandonment of structure (as it is broadly conceived) ... but I could also see it as a rabid obsession with structure.

I find it odd that Rebeck chalks this up to post-modernism. After all, "post-structuralism" is another way to name the school of thought that evades and deconstructs all names (DFW had a wonderful essay on this and I'm guessing many readers hear have read it). And Post-structuralism has a tendency to become Hyper-structuralism in the wrong hands: rigid, dolorous, left-brain exercises in syntax where "colorless green thoughts sleep furiously" ... but for real.

What of more recent fare like Jenny Schwartz's "God's Ear"? The plot is simple, but the linguistic structures spin, dervish-like, from a solitary fractal of emotion. Or "Thom Pain" and "The Flu Season" ... where the effort to evade and orbit the plot becomes the governing structure of the composition. Or the complete works of Christopher Shinn? Can one begin to talk about Dying City without resorting to the language (and crude math) of Structure? I thoroughly enjoy all of the above and I wonder how they might classify themselves.

Postmodern and deconstructionist writers don't hate structure ... although, a lot of them seem to forget that they need structure to sharpen the scalpel before they can shred a drama into the flurry of tantalizing wisps that constitutes the average pomo fantasia. I fear I've gone far afield of Rebeck's original point by now, but I read a lot of new scripts, too, and I understand the basic aggravation.

Ken

I agree with Rebeck, less about plot in particular (I have lots of trouble creating plot, and try to put in as little as I can get away with) than about obscurity vs accessibility. I don't consider myself a slave to old-fashioned Broadway naturalism, yet I have heard comments from people deriding the fact that a play of mine takes place in a living room. "I'm sick of plays with couches!" someone will inevitably say. There seems to be a distinct unhipness to any work that, in even the vaguest way, replicates real life.
What I enjoy most is creating what appears to be a realistic, familiar facade, then let the weirdness and creepiness seep in, like rising damp. I like people being unprepared for what's happening as the play slowly turns into something quite strange. But to be strange from the word "GO" without ever setting any kind of ground rules seems unfair to audiences. I always thought when you write a play you're creating an edifice that is structurally sound enough to work correctly wherever (and by whoever) it is done. Many plays I see or read look like something hastily scribbled by writers who know the play will be acted and directed by friends and viewed mainly by friends, who will "get" everything immediately. Outsiders not welcome.

Ben TS

I'd like to make a huge distinction here between plays that are "annoyingly plotty" vs. ones that are "well structured." Plot and structure becomes a problem, in my mind, when it isn't really linked to character, only objective events.

Part of the reason I think people don't like biopics is that they fall into this trap. Like, let's say you're watching a movie about the life of a musician. There will be a scene where the guy writes the song that will make him famous, scene with the guy in court divorcing his wife, scene where the guy decides to move to New York City, etc. But the problem here is that just because these scenes make sense in a chronological telling of the character's life story, they aren't necessarily important to the character's emotional journey. They're just a literal statement of facts. Which is why I find plots like that really boring.

What's interesting, in looking at the biopic as a good example, is that the problem with narratives that are overly "plotty" is usually because they're LESS structured, not more. The problem is a lack of through-line, or any sense of one event leading to the next. You can have a play like "Waiting for Godot" where there's not a whole lot that literally happens, but which is masterfully plotted because we can see a meaningful evolution of the characters. Likewise, there are plays that are jam-packed full of events (I'd put a lot of realistic British and American plays from the 80s in this category), but which don't really have any real "plot" because we don't understand how all the onstage business is connected.

Jason Grote

I actually know what play and playwright Theresa is referring to from the Lark, and s/he was not quite so delighted with the exchange. It's interesting having heard both sides of the conversation now.

I actually consider Theresa a friend and have talked about this stuff with her, and what she's talking about is more visible on the inside than the outside -- that is, the feeling that anyone doing traditional, linear, plotted-in-the-Hollywood-sense work, is uncool, even though it obviously predominates in any practical sense.

The narrative is usually just the opposite -- that we as a society are hostile to experimentalism, and the money is in doing TV shows for the stage. I even said this on my blog not 48 hours ago. But there's also this other thing, too: the feeling that what is cool and sexy and the future of the artform, the place where crossover stars like Antony, Sam Shepard, and Laurie Anderson come from, is the avant-garde. No one ever talks about this, because prima facie it seems like these downtown types are doing short runs in tiny spaces for no money and occasionally touring Europe, while the traditionalists are getting all the money and all the productions, but it's a real thing -- I like hanging out with Theresa because she's really smart and enjoyable to spend time with (and I respect her as an artist), but when I'm hanging out with Eric Dyer from Radiohole I feel like it's 1968 and I'm with the Velvet Underground or something (but without the heroin, I think).

So it's basically about street cred. But it's genuinely hard to bridge this "uptown/downtown" (hate those terms but they do the trick) gap. I try to be friends with everyone, but I've seen the worst of both sides -- the lunkhead conservatism of "uptown" and the rockstar snottiness of "downtown." Though, given my druthers, I find the latter to be more open-minded and open to all winds.

Henry Akona

T.S. Eliot argued that there is no such thing as "free," i.e., unmetered, verse. He believe that every poem contained syllables and stresses that could be counted and analyzed. The "meter" may be irregular and complex, but it exists. He went further to argue that the poet's intention (of using meter) was immaterial.

The same is true of "structure" and performance. If a performance takes place in time and space, it has a structure. Ms. Rebeck unwittingly concedes this when she writes: "Time, innately, has a structure." The structure may be irregular and complex, but it exists and, once again, the playwright's intention is immaterial.

Ms. Rebeck uses (and misuses) ambiguous terms (structure, plot, postmodernism) that she makes no effort to define. If her essay were a serious dramaturgical analysis of theatrical forms, this would be a fault. However, the essay is not really about dramaturgy; it's about class.

Ms. Rebeck is very forthcoming about this: "Which leads us to the question behind the questions: Is theater a populist or an elitist art form? Is it an obscure poem that no one is meant to understand? Or is it TELEVISION?" (emphasis mine). Her beef is not with playwrights, but "artistic director[s]," "literary department[s]," "famous genius[es] of the contemporary American theater," and "critic[s]."

Consider two of the most successful plays on Broadway in the last 20 years: "Angels in America" and "August: Osage County." The former is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of dramatic structure and storytelling; the latter is, to use Ms. Rebeck's word, television.

Critics had a similar opinion. Frank Rich found that "['Angels in America'] speaks so powerfully because something far larger and more urgent than the future of the theater is at stake." On this other hand, Ben Brantley wrote about "August," that it "allows theatergoers to feel they’ve experienced a Significant Play without being in any way challenged."

As I director, I'm constantly on the lookout for the next "Angel in America." I suspect that most artistic directors, literary departments and critics are as well. We read, work on, and see plays all the time. Most companies want plays that are new and "challenging." (Although few want work that is utterly opaque and obscure.) If I had been handed "August," I probably would have given it a pass. Not because it's badly written, but because it doesn't feel new and the "structure," for lack of a better, is old-fashioned.

Audiences (and certain playwrights) disagree.

isaac

Jason,

YOu're going to make me bust out that DFW quote about how both mainstream and experimental literature are highly conventionalized and conservative and sceeny in their own way, aren't you.

99

This is definitely very much "inside baseball" kind of stuff and it is about "cred" and perceptions of cool. And exactly about the attitude that Henry shows: a "traditionally" structured play "doesn't feel new" or "challenging." It has nothing to do with subject matter or the actual writing or anything, and it certainly doesn't matter what the audiences are responding to or liking. The irony, that Jason kind of hints at, is this: these writers who are doing experimental work get the buzz and the heat and often get snapped up...to work in television.

Jason Grote

Isaac,

My agenda is revealed!

Henry,

Someday, I'm going to pitch an article to Harper's about how the contemporary theater infrastructure has made a contemporary "Angels in America" impossible, even by Tony Kushner. It's going to talk about not just regional theater, but MFA programs and downtown, RAT-model, and European theater and everything! And it's going to use Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History" and "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" as touchstones. But that day is not today. Today I am working on a movie script.

Jason Grote

Oh, and 99: very true. Though the big "uptown" (sorry to keep (ab)using these terms) playwrights often wind up in TV too.

99

Do you really think that a contemporary Angels is impossible? Or is it just that we don't have enough distance from the current times yet? I even find myself forgetting that, while Angels captured its time beautifully, it was set in a time ten years earlier. I don't think we've seen enough plays about the late '80s and/or early '90s, in a way because we don't have quite enough distance yet. But I think, honestly, it's more likely we'll get another Angels than it is we'll get another Long Day's Journey into Night or Streetcar Named Desire. Not that I think those plays are inherently better, but there are very few playwrights working in that style. People aren't aspiring to write those plays and I think the current structure of theatre-making makes those plays less likely. The closest we get is August: Osage County and a number of different things went into that, not the least being Tracy Letts' access and connection to a company of actors. It definitely feels like those kinds of plays are becoming extinct.

99

Well, extinct, except for the fact that they win Pulitzers and such.

Henry Akona

Jason,

I'm attending the opening of Kushner's new play "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures," at the Guthrie in May. I'll let you know if your thesis holds. The play, which surely has the most non-commercial title of all time, was commissioned by the Guthrie.

One issue that has not been brought up in this discussion is commercial vs. non-profit. The Guthrie is not doing this play to make money, but because they believe Mr. Kushner has something to say. There is very, very little not-for-profit television or film. Even the most "independent" films are funded by producers looking to make money. It's difficult to meaningfully compare the two.

In re: the peer/status issue, edgy screen writers, like Charlie Kaufman, have a cred and status that more conventional writers envy. It's simply the nature of art. Theater in not unique in this regard. It's merely a matter of degree. Fortunately theater's fetish for the new is nothing when compared with dance, painting, sculpture, etc.

Tony

It's sad that people would pass on August because the structure seems old-fashioned, and Deadman's Cellphone is produced all over (including at Steppenwolf) for God knows why.

Jason Grote

Because Dead Man's Cell Phone (I don't think it's about the DC comics superhero Deadman and his cell phone) is a good play, maybe? And who, exactly, is passing on August at all, let alone because the "structure seems old-fashioned?" Aside from any issues I might have with the play (which frankly has more to so with big-picture, state-of-American-theater stuff than the play itself), you think maybe the 14-member cast (for whom the play was actually written) might be a little hitch?

Henry, the regional theater world (at least some nodes of it) has been pretty good to me, but I sadly think that most of the faux-noble posturing about "playwrights with something to say" is mostly just that. I'm sure everyone working in nonprofit theater got there with the best of intentions, but whether due to circumstance or a sort of Stockholm syndrome, they increasingly behave more and more like businesses. Unprofitable businesses, but still.

My whole thesis about there not being another Angels has much more to do with the above than anything else -- nowadays the Guthrie can take a "risk" on this "noncommercial" piece because Kushner (whom I adore) is famous. This doesn't mean it isn't risky, but a play with that title by, say, me, might thrill the literary manager but would surely go ignored by the Guthrie's AD (for that matter, a play with a short, pithy title probably would too). All of the playwrights who formed me, who were getting all the productions and awards in the early 90s -- Kushner, Robert Shenkkan, Mac Wellman, Erik Ehn -- were some variety of "new" at that time, at least to big nonprofit theater audiences, and were doing tremendously risky and exciting work. I mean, Mac was produced on a big budget at Humana! That's almost unimaginable today. In my darker moments, I feel like the theater system deserves what it's getting -- like labor unions, the pre-2006 Democratic Party, or the auto industry, it is worth preserving (well, maybe the auto industry isn't, but you get it) and is under attack from external forces, but is also suffering in large part from self-inflicted wounds.

99

Jason, I definitely agree with the risk-averse nature of theatres, especially now, and the self-inflicted nature of their situation, but I don't know whether things have really changed so much. Yes, Mac and Erik and Robert Shenkkan seem to have faded from prominence, but what about the new folks following in their footsteps? And I would very much include you in those ranks (at the risk of sounding suck-up-y). I think part of Theresa Rebeck's complaint is the theatre's ever-growing hunger for the "new" thing. They've already produced Wellman, Ehn, etc. and now they're looking for a "young" Mac Wellman. And this goes for styles as well. August has a lot going against it, but the big thing it had going for it was Steppenwolf's commitment to Tracy Letts (and Tracy Letts' commitment to Steppenwolf). I think a lot of theatres would have passed on it (and Henry, above, says he would have) not just for cast size, but because it wasn't saying anything "new." Or really, it wasn't saying what it had to say in a "new" way. It's one of the self-inflicted, vicious cycles of theatre. They desire to find the new thing means chucking anything old which means casting off things that audiences have connected with which means losing audiences which means you have to find something new. And around and around it goes...

Tony

Jason, I dunno. It's easy to say the cast size of a show like August is too big, but the big regionals trot out Shakespeare (and musicals) without worrying about cast size all the time.

I think there's a big difference between what we can do and what we want, or have the guts to do. If you want to do something bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen.

By far the most successful (artistically and financially) productions at non-profits in Chicago in the last five years were all things that should all have been "risky, new, non-commercial works", or "old-chestnuts that no one wants to see".

I completely concur about suffering from self-inflicted wounds. If there is one thing I know with every fiber of my being it is that audiences are far more open to challenging work than producers are. However, we have a huge perception problem to get over.

We'll have to agree to disagree re: Deadman's Cell Phone. (With the exception of the monologue at the top of act two, which is quite brilliant.)

99

You really hit the nail on the head here: if an AD really loves a play, they'll find a way to do it. But they'll rarely just admit that, or admit that they don't want to do a certain play for no other reason than they don't love it. And they'll also do a lot of plays that they don't love, but think that they should do, usually because it got a good review in the Times and all the other theatres are doing it.

I agree that audiences have a higher tolerance for experimentation than most organizations think that they do, but you also have to prepare them better for it. And respond better to their response. Too often, there's a vaguely hostile relationship between theatres and audiences: you should like this, but you won't because you like TV, so we'll give you your TV stars and now we want you to love us. It's so divorced from the actual mission. Most theatres really are run by incompetent businessmen (and businesswomen) who are made worse by a system that ties one hand behind their back already.

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