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August 10, 2009


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Lindsay Price

That's what boggles my wee mind about the argument. Why can't craft and creativity exist together? Shouldn't they always? From what I read, apparently not. That freaks me out.

There are some days I feel alone in my little niche writing world, and others (most others) when I say forget you lot, I'm happy as an isolated clam...

Sara Cormeny

As an audience member who sees piles of theater and has become friends with several playwrights, directors and artistic directors in the DC area, I have this cranky observation.

I do feel like I'm seeing a lot of new plays of late (as in, the last 5 years) that get out of the gate at the beginning of Act I with an exciting idea and compelling characters. Then, either shortly before or shortly after intermission, the excitement of the play drains away with a handful of awkward new-character introductions and confused incorporation of new facts in the world of the play, sometimes too much repetition and sometimes not enough explication. The play loses muscular tone -- it seems that the playwright is failing to overcome her own boredom with the scenario she's introduced. At this point, our playwright often throws in an absurdist, Chris Durang-ish or Mac Wellman-ish scene -- a wryly ironic tapdance with the main character's dead mother, say, or a mock-courtroom-meets-Newlywed-Game scene moderated by the previously minor shopkeeper character. Or a mysterious apocalyptic disease that may or may not be a commentary on modern life, or a medieval-European ghost fascinated by the water dispenser on the refrigerator. Are these incursions what we're deeming "experimental"? If so...

It seems to me that some playwrights are attacking the structure of a play at the truly experimental level, and lord knows I love me some Caryl Churchill, some Mac Wellman, some Sarah Kane, some Will Eno. LOVE 'EM. But other playwrights are taking on the mantle of "experimental" by injecting some wackiness late in Act I or early in Act II, thereby absolving themselves from their problems with a plot structure that was either not at all planned from the start ("my characters tell me what they're going to do" -- it chills me that this gets said with a straight face, ever), or was distorted in the play development process beyond recognition.

If I were trying to "fix this," I would probably declare a two-year ban on producing plays by anybody who has graduated from a playwriting program anywhere in the USA in the last 15 years. This would be a chance to introduce more new voices to the stage from outside the usual suspects, or a chance to produce more classics and contemplate how they got that way.

Now I'm going back to my worklife where I actually do get to help disseminate information about health insurance for a good-guys nonprofit! www.healthinsuranceinfo.net , from Georgetown University, thanks for the opportunity to include a plug. And since as a DC resident I don't actually have voting representation in Congress, that will have to be enough for me today.


Hey Sara,

Thanks so much for your comment on both levels! I know you might not want to "name names", but can you think of some examples of the plays that fall into the format you're talking about?



I am speechless.

I cannot imagine a more dead-on, perfectly encapsulated description of the types of plays I believe Rebeck is referring to in her column.

Of course, the problem is that Rebeck leaves it so vague that she sends everybody chasing their tails around the comments sections of the blogosphere.

I hope your suggestion, along with that of Mr. 99 Seats over on his blog, helps to bring the discussion back to focus and to take the heat off writers who truly are experimenting.

Malachy Walsh

The cure for these problems has 3 parts:

1. Talking about it, which we're generally doing.

2. Admit that lots of things work that are dramaturgically unwise (Churchill, Shepard, Bond, Mee, Ruhl - for starters) and that playwrights will continue to do dramaturgically unwise things since that's what those unruly bastards do.

3. Create a board of "Structure Supervisors" tasked with determining what plays properly conform to "The Pre-Approved Structure Code" so that whenever you go see a piece of theatre you are always guaranteed to have the narrative experience that never deviates from what you want or surprises you in any way. All plays must be reviewed by the "Structure Supervisor" board before production. (Note: This is not a ban on experimentation, just a way of ensuring that every experiment always succeeds.)



You forgot #4

#4 The Mollycoddling Board. This panel will make sure to protect all playwriting from criticism of peers, mentors, reviewers and audience.

The Mollycoddling Board sits under a banner that reads "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder." And they open every meeting with a recitation of Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Behind the MB is a gigantic refrigerator door, onto which are placed ALL applicants.

Subjects who come before the MB get extra points for every element that traces to an All Things Considered segment or a New Yorker article.

(Note: This is not a suggestion that ALL playwriting is of equal quality, just a way of assuring we don't discourage genuius.)

Malachy Walsh

Oh, I haven't forgotten that one.

Only I haven't actually seen any truly thoughtful review/critique/analysis from anyone (in print) aside from Robert and Sam Hurwitt in San Francisco.

The rest seems to be created by the Bullybatting Board Supervisors which is prone to rejecting, beating and condescending to all that come before it. (God help those who don't agree with BBS rigorous and always straightfoward standards.)

As to peers, mentors and audience, that's covered in 1.

However, I did forget #5 and #6.

5. Critics are always right and not to be talked back to.

6. And audiences, too!

(Of course, 5 and 6 are often contradictory, but hey, what isn't?)


BBS sits under a flag that reads "Nobody Ever Gets Fired for Saying No."

Alison Croggon

I suppose Shakespeare gets away with it because he's Really Famous?

malachy walsh

Alison, that old man founded all three of those boards!

Seth Christenfeld

One of the plays that Sara is referring to is explicitly Wonder of the World (the one with the Newlywed Game sequence); not sure about the other(s).

Lindsay Price

Very nice comment Sarah. Boy do I love it when unexplained wackiness/experimental/characters telling me what to do shows up in Act Two.

I love it so much it makes me want to bang my head on various hard objects.

Jason Grote

Thanks for the shout-out, and for the first sane commentary I've read about this so far, and for trying to change the subject back to healthcare reform. I kinda think this is an infuriatingly bullshit argument. You know that saying about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? This is like that, except everyone's fighting over a single deck chair.

Sara Cormeny

Thank you so much for the affirming comments! I can't bring myself to name names though if I think of more examples I can all-too-thinly disguise I'll try to remember to share them.

Honestly as much as these plays annoy me I would place whatever "blame" that audience members get to apportion (and I will speak on the audience's behalf, as grandiosely as possible, from here on out), on artistic directors. Any old schmo can write a problem play (and lots of tiresome old professors can encourage their eccentricities in MFA programs). But for a paying audience to see that play staged, some other schmo has to go to the trouble of producing it. And it's that second schmo who must be fingered for misunderstanding the extent to which this objectionable brand of experimentalism is turning off audiences. I feel like I'm seeing season after season of predominantly problem new plays.

Since one particular play got mentioned by Seth (well done!), I do want to point out that that playwright's Fuddy Meers is on my short list of amazing plays that I love, and that I also adore his Rabbit Hole which had a delicious, thoughtful production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a couple of years ago. Also, did you know that the actress who played the shopkeeper in the New York production of Wonder of the World, Marylouise Burke, also played Paul Giamatti's mom in Sideways? I believe she's also a regular on HBO's new series Hung as Anne Heche's mom though the IMDB record seems incomplete. I enjoy Burke's work so much.


Malachy Walsh

As much as Jason is right (this conversation is just ridiculous) I'd like to lay aside my joking to state forthrightly (as a character in a dramaturgically correct play would): I think the narrowness of the POV Sara and Mirror expresses is tragically wrong-headed.

And Sara really doesn't appear to know anything about what goes on inside MFA programs - at least not the way I read her contradictory problems with David Lindsay-Abaire (she likes some of his plays, but hates some of his plays) who happened to actually go to an MFA program in the form of Julliard. I think he'd be barred from production under Sara's moratorium on playwrights who got MFAs over the last 15 years.

But, whatever. Let's not let facts and truth get in the way of pre-conceived self-serving notions about what's good, what's bad and who's responsible for those things.

By the way, I've sat as an MFA student in MFA classes taught by Theresa Rebeck, and however people maybe reading her recent comments, I can tell you that, while she certainly prefers one form of theatre over another - do you know someone who doesn't? - she is not anti-experimental.


I think the narrowness of the POV Sara and Mirror expresses is tragically wrong-headed.

Hey, at least I'm a tragedy and not one of the plays Sara mentions, whew!

The real tragedy is that Malachy wants to fault Sara and me for what Rebeck has done.

On my blog, I said this would happen on the very first day Rebeck posted.

I said right off here, too, that the maddening part of Rebeck's columns are that she seems to be slagging off on something pretty hard, but she won't name it.

Then, we all chase our tails until we agree that Shakespeare was the greatest artist in the history of drama and therefore there are no such things as sloppy, bad plays.

But, in the meantime, those who are trying to decipher what Rebeck means, end up being labeled narrow-minded, while, SURPRISE, Rebeck turns out just A.O.K. A real friend to all playwrights.

I've seen this happen several times before, and I predicted it would happen again.

As I said, I think Sara is describing the kind of self indulgent, sloppy work that Rebeck is taking aim at.

Why? Because I agree with you Malachy that Rebeck doesn't seem to be opposed experimental playwriting.

But I can't know for sure. As I have said before, it is up the authors of these incendiary posts to define their terms.

As I titled my post, "How Uninteresting!"

malachy walsh

I'm responding to what was said here. As in, this thread.

I'm definitely guilty of that.

I have not faulted you for what anyone else has done.

That I am not guilty of.

I did joke that Shakespeare was a founding member of the "Boards", but I'm pretty sure it's clear I was joking. Right?

One more thing about Theresa, in my experience, she critiqued plays without any sentimentality or attempt to make them into a play she would write. She tried to understand what you were trying to do and generally supported that. But she didn't pull any punches. She said what she thought and offered constructive tools to help you figure out what might or might not be wrong - tools like character, plot, structure, need, desire, etc.

She really was/is a friend to all in that manner.

Karl Miller

I thought Sara's original observation validated Rebeck's point?

I do think a lot of contemporary playwrights have Intermission Anxiety -- if the play can't be done in 90 minutes, then this darn escape hatch opens and the audience is permitted to leave. The whimsical flight into bafflement is the playwright's attempt to hook the audience into concession food.

It is also, as Sara pointed out, a defensive regression to prop up a Premise that has already spent itself. There are no "experiments" here. Just devices.

There was a book back when I was an undergrad ... forget the exact title, but it was something like "How's Your Act Two?" ... the subject being the novice writer's enthusiasm for catchy first acts and apocalyptic third acts at the expense of a compelling heart in the composition. I think Intermission Anxiety plays into this and I think it stems from the insecurities and evasions Sara describes.

I've done a lot of development readings as an actor and I'm always sifting through new, unproduced manuscripts for my young DC company ... and I've seen the same trends: a saggy mid-section luxuriating in the hammock position between some nifty Premise and some confounding Blackout.

But I was talking this over with a playwright/artistic director friend last night and he reminded me: at least new playwrights are fucking up in sillier ways instead of fucking up kitchen sink plays.


Sorry Malachy,

All I was saying is that Rebeck is the one who wrote the column. Other people were just trying to decipher what she means. And, I did say that in this thread.

Of course, I knew you were joking (somewhat) about the "boards", as I hope you knew I was (somewhat.) We were both joking along, and then you turned and said I am tragically narrow. And then, in the same comment, praised Rebeck.

Sorry if I got defensive. But my point from my first comment here is that Rebeck is the one that seems to have a problem.

I don't doubt anything you are saying about Rebeck. I know people who know her very well and they have told me the same thing.

But the last few columns she has written, along with her pile on to Jon Robin Baitz's slam of Will Eno on the Huffington Post last year, (Yes, I know Baitz apologized,) indicates that, well...she is having some serious problems with what she is seeing on the playwriting landscape.

Now, this doesn't mean I agree with her, because, well, I'm not sure what she is talking about.

All I am saying is that it is Rebeck who put this out there.

What do you think she means? You haven't really said. You only read as if you are protecting Theresa Rebeck from... Theresa Rebeck.

malachy walsh

Somehow my reply got lost, so I'm trying to repost it. If the original shows up, it'll be interesting to see how well I paraphrased myself and the difference in meaning and tone the two replies have.... Anyway.


I was definitely joking along... but then it seemed to me that my humor obfuscated my point, which was that there really aren't any good iron-clad standards.

So, I'm the one who should apologize. I did tun. Earnestness usually serves the blogosphere better and I should've just kept my mouth shut.

I don't find anything Theresa has said (on the Eisner question or the April article) to be crazy or whacked out. But I object to turning her suggestions (that playwrights keep traditional narrative tools and form in mind) into a springboard against "experimentalism" in writing. And for many of the same reasons she decries writers who look disdainfully on those principles. My interpretation of her words is simply, we should be open to those things because in her experience they have been helpful.

But in the two articles we're talking about, one of which lead to the other, I don't think she specifically says experimentalism is not a good idea. Just the defensive posturing that many take up when they learn there are some out there who just don't want it.

And I think she asks some pretty good questions at the end of the Eisner interview that really opens it up.


It would be really, really nice to have a solid set of distinctions between 'theatrical', 'cinematic' and 'experimental'. When reading critiques, it's hard to figure out whether a play being too fast and visual makes it cinematic, whether *not* relying on a realistic set or timeline makes it experimental, and whether there's ever a balance that people can agree on that could be described as purely and successfully theatrical.

The counterargument to Rebeck could be that she wants to trade the larger effects of theatricality possible through experimental work for the certainty possible in the well-made play. She can be all for quality, but I bet she's also for giving writers a step-up into more lucrative and sustaining work -- and she can't do that when they stubbornly write about ghost zebras in the living room and refrigerator-magnet koans.

Considering how so many prominent playwrights of the past 20 years have done TV gigs, to Rebeck this might be a life-or-death issue for the profession.

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