Before you read this post, I would recommend you read Mead Hunter's excellent take on Chapter Six, and Scott Walters' take on Chapter Five. You'll be able to understand the points I'm making in this post without reading them, but this post is in conversation with both so it may be a richer experience for you if you read both.
Mead's take, in fact, sums up exactly what I think about Chapter Six... the point you come away from at the end is that the institutional theater system is so fucked up that "the book in general and the last chapter in particular both inadvertently reinforce a conclusion that many of us have already come to. Which is that the only way to win is not to play."
Which brings me, briefly, to Scott's post. I agree with Scott about the level of contempt towards the audience expressed by writers, teachers and ADs in chapter five. It's pretty damn ugly... the thing that Scott leaves out in his post is where playwrights got the idea that the audience is at fault and their enemy. Without asking that question, there's a kind of blame-the-victim thing going on that, if you read the comments to his post, seems to have really pissed some people off.
Because the fact of the matter is, when scripts are rejected, the standard boilerplate is "our audience won't go for it". So if you've faced that rejection over and over again and what you're essentially being told is, "hey, if my audience were different, we'd totally do your play," it's hard to resist the pull of the idea that "hey, what I'm doing isn't wrong, the audience is wrong. And how do I know? because people in the know told me!". It's a very very human impulse to not want to see the mote in your own eye.
One of the pernicious things about systems and institutions is that they are perpetuated by individuals, who themselves have little opportunity for changing the larger systems around them (for more on this, watch The Wire with the commentary track on). These individuals are then blamed for behaving, essentially, as they've been taught to. What Scott wants to resist-- and I agree with him here-- is the idea that therefore individuals are blameless and shouldn't change and should just pass the blame onto someone else with more power. Which is another way of saying, Scott wants people to snap out of their victim stance, because you cannot build anything (power, a different model, etc.) from that position. Again, I agree with the critique, but without looking at the systemic issues surround it, you can wind up saying playwrights are solely responsible.
And this gets us, bizarrely enough, to the Quality Conversation. I haven't really engaged with the quality conversation, although Outrageous Fortune does quite frequently. Why? I read enough new plays, see enough new plays and interact with enough people in the New Play Community to know that there are a lot of good plays out there that don't get done, and a lot of crappy plays that get done too often etc. Although Todd London et al. don't come out and say it, really the question at the heart of this book is if there's really all this new play activity in America, why isn't the New Play World Better? Because I guarantee you, there is a theater out there thinking about doing W;t or some equivalent this season, and what they don't know is sitting in their pile of scripts somewhere is a much, much better play that they won't even consider. Maybe it's an earlier play by a known quantity that no one does because people don't know that particular play well, like Crumbs From The Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage. Perhaps it's an unknown play by an unknown writer like Nikole Beckwith's Everything Is Ours or Dan Trujillo's People Like Us or Malachy Walsh's Dressing The Girl or Patrick Link's Dismissal and so forth.. Maybe it's a play whose production in New York (or at a regional theater) wasn't high profile enough (or didn't get the right review in a major paper) to earn it enough consideration like Mac Rogers' Universal Robots or Maria/Stuart by Jason Grote.
And maybe part of the problem is that the system we currently have does not make the regular creation of Great Plays (as opposed to quite good plays, or even pretty good plays) possible while simultaneously raising audience's expectations for what they're going to see so high that they're bound to get disappointed. I write about one way this happens here. Outrageous Fortune documents, time and again, how the current system for new play production and development actively hinders really great plays from being produced on institutional theater stages. Like with How Theater Failed America, it becomes shocking (if not a downright symbol of hope) that much good theatre comes out of the system at all.
I want to give one example that deals with a success story whom I respect. This weekend, I saw In The Red And Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I like McCraney's writing-- I know some of my readers don't but let's just assume for the moment that he's a good writer with an interesting voice. The problem is this: McCraney hasn't written a really awesome play yet. He's written some exciting plays, plays that are certainly worthy of production, and he has a really interesting voice as a writer. In The Red And Brown Water is a good play. A solid B effort with some dramaturgical and structural issues and a really awesome ending. It's better than Wig Out, which is more exciting but ultimately doesn't hold together.
But the issue is that our system has decided that he is already a Really Great Writer. The Next August Wilson!!!1!1!!!1! I don't know McCraney, so I'll just say unless he has reserves of character that make him an almost extraordinary human being, this will negatively impact his growth as a writer because it will lead to complacency. I would argue that our system of producing might be denying us the Great Tarell Alvin McCraney Show that will be produced in 2025, because we've already said "We've got it!" with The Brothers Size.
And the end result of that will be audiences who go to In The Red And Brown Water and see it and say "this is a great play??" and so the next time they're breathlessly told this is a great play! they don't believe it and they don't come. And we have to tell them this is great! Because theatre in general has gotten so expensive while become so devalued that we need each writer to be New Coke.
We see this in the publishing world as well. Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel is a good book, clearly the work of an extremely talented college student, that wears The Moors Last Sigh as an influence on its sleeve but announces its writer as an exciting voice with a lot of potential. Then Foer gets a huge publishing contract, a breathless orgasm of a review from Michiko Kakutani and is hailed as the voice of some segment of his generation. And the result has been a basic lack of growth of him as an artist from book to book and then gets slammed for it by the same people who overpraised him to begin with. When you compare him with writers who have a long history of writing before their Big Breakthrough novels (Richard Powers, Jonathan Lethem and Alice Munro all come to mind) you see a certain development of them as artists throughout the arc of their careers.
This is one example of how a system acts on an individual in a way that goes back towards reinforcing problems with new plays and it goes on and on, system to individual to work to system to individual to work on a loop, reinforcing itself.