"There's nothing wrong with the American theater that better plays (and better programming) can't cure. I honestly believe this. So why the problem?"One crucial thing that gets lost in all off the tall-weeds wonkery and pitched battles of the blogosphere is something startlingly simple: Most of us talking about theatre on our blogs care very deeply about one goal: Making Theatre Better. That's why we started talking about this stuff in the first place, why we're passionate enough about it that we devote several hours unpaid a week to talking about it and exposing ourselves to attacks from strangers. We care about theatre. We want it to be better. And the project we've undertaken-- in fits and starts over years-- is in general a search for the answer to "how do we do this?"
-- Rob Kozlowski
"There are aspects of my (old) job that I've madly loved - mostly working with a flock of amazing, awesome playwrights - but a lot of working in theatre had started to really wear on me. It's like we're selling people something we have to convince them they want, and half the time what we're selling isn't that awesome to begin with. (I mean this in general, not just for my soon-to-be-former place of employment.) I haven't been able to tell how much of that fatigue was about where I was working, how much was theatre in general. Have I been on a career path based on what Jaime-five-years-ago wanted, rather than Jaime-right-now? I don't know."
-- Jaime Green
Talks about arts policy for example, are ultimately rooted in the question of "What policy goals would create the best environment possible for good work?" Sometimes they slip into separate, less helpful questions like "What policy goals would create the environment in which I personally am more likely to make a living?" Just as questions about how theaters could better make programming decisions can devolve into "How can I get theaters to hire me etc.?" But ultimately I in general believe that the questions we kick around out here, the fights we get into, the thoughts we try to elucidate have to do with a desire to make the system better, or frustration at how un-better its gotten over the years. (See 99's post about banana republics for an example of that one).
A lot of times on this blog I don't talk much about aesthetics, at least not much in a prescriptive way. This is partly because i generally have wide taste; I can, in general, find an example of something you think theatre shouldn't do that works and works well. And I think theatre is a wide tent that can serve a lot of needs. Also, I think-- in the theatrosphere at least-- these discussions frequently take on an unproductive mix of victimhood, self-promotion and, frankly, mean-spiritedness. Even though there were parts of Teresa Rebeck's essays advocating for more plays that resembled her plays that i thought were worth talking about, I found both of them ultimately discouraging and lacking (to an extreme degree) any perspective about her own success and position in the industry.
But I digress... What both the posts quoted at the top of this one share is a simple thing that can get lost in discussions of the industry or the system etc... the actual work. And whether or not it's worth doing. And what would make it worth doing. Which, as I'm trying to say is so fundamental to what we talk about that it can actually get lost.
And what Jaime's post in particular (and boy am I glad she's gonna be back writing about theatre) leads me to is a kind of modest proposal, or at least a modest thought-experiment:
What if we really went back to that most basic of things... desire. Let's for a moment abandon all questions of career or making a living. What if we only worked on plays we wanted to work on, went to see plays we wanted to see regardless of level of social obligation, supported and thought about and discussed the work that we actually desired? And what if this didn't stop with artists?... What if artistic directors only programmed the number of plays they actually felt like doing that year and felt were worthy and could be executed well? What if reviewers only saw plays that interested them-- particularly as far as Broadway is concerned? The New York Times Book Review doesn't review every book that is published by Random House, why does Ben Brantley go to every play Jeffrey Richards produces? What would happen? What would be the positives? The negatives?
Now for some of you out there (I'm thinking particularly of Don Hall and some of his Chicago cohorts) you already do this, for the most part. And we all try to do this to the extent possible. But I don't know many theater artists (including myself) who don't see some shows out of obligation, or don't take jobs on plays they don't like etc. And they don't because they can't, and this gets more pronounced the more up the ladder of industry success you get, for all sorts of reasons that we could list. One of them, obviously, is that if you're somewhat career/making-a-living oriented, you know you can't love every play you do, just as an ad copy writer can't love every product she's writing about. Another reason which comes up in the fever swamp of the not-particularly-successful that i belong to is the idea of community. A community aren't only supposed to be fair-weather friends after all etc.
But still, I wonder if we might be able to make better plays and get people more excited about our work if we all actually wanted to be working on a given project. And I wonder if we'd have as much trouble selling someone something they don't want if it was actually something we think they should want. And for playwrights, I can't help but think about David Dower's point at the TCG conference that a lot of playwrights end up courting the very theaters that they think will fuck their plays up because in order to make a sustainable living they need to make a large enough premiere for their play that it'll get on the map and be produced more than once.
To close on a personal note for a moment, I'm thinking about this quote from Josh Conkel about the success of MilkMilkLemonade, a show's whose putting up was pure joy in a bottle and had me thinking along similar lines:
I feel good because I feel as if I made theater for my immediate community, which is something I've been thinking about a lot. Until recently I had very different goals. Without going into it too much, I got caught up in my backwards thinking of what a successful playwright is. Lately though I've been thinking that it's important for theater to be local. It's not television or a Hollywood movie, which have to reach widespread audiences. We should be making theater for our communities. The people who are actually around us. Maybe then they'd actually come to the theater. I knew this when I was 12 and performing in musicals in Kitsap County, Washington (which always sold out, by the way). I wonder when I forgot it.As a director, the ways for me to take the above approach are fairly limited because of the particularities of how directing a play works and the industry as it currently exists. One of the strategies, the most likely one in fact is to give up on the idea of a "career" as a director, try to make money elsewhere and work on projects that I really care about, that I feel passionately about, or that have people involved that I truly want to work with. I'm already doing that for the most part by accident. In a weird way, though, I hold out the bizarre "hope" of taking some jobs on shows I don't feel passionately about so that someone will pay me to do them. When you put it like that, it sounds insane but let's face it, that's part of what it means to make a living as a freelance director. Almost no one gets to only work on stuff they like and make a living at this in this country. And maybe that's okay. Maybe theater needs to be the hobby I care a lot about, and I need to try to move writing (which accounts for the bulk of my income now anyway) to the fore. Who knows?
On an unrelated note, I'd just like to address one thing Jaime brings up in the quote above... I think some of that perspective of hers (and mine, for that matter) is shaped by working in theatre in New York a city where it largely seems like people take theatre completely for granted despite it being the capital of the industry, in part because every other art form is also extremely active here. In my experience in other cities-- particularly Richmond, VA and PDX-- people are hungry for theater, they love theater, and you don't have to convince them to want it. They might not want it enough to adequately pay for theaters, but that's a different issue. And in cities like DC and Philly, while they're not the promised land or anything, there's even more of a willingness to fund the theater companies that are producing the work.