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April 24, 2006


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What a question.

Hmmm. Well, it pains me to say this, but I would say that we should make the playwrights the priority. I don't say this because I am a playwright (though it certainly informs my conclusion) but more upon my experience. Bear in mind, playwrights have no union, unlike actors, singers, stage managers and directors. Wwe have little to no voice. I think that plays a part in the little to no new play development going on today. Without a voice, no one can hear our concerns. So I'd set up a house where up and coming playwright can present new work.

Right now companies are more interested in plays that show, demonstrate, underline, illustrate THEIR THEATRICAL WORLDVIEW - they don't pick new plays by new writers who are great at what they do, they pick plays that serve what they've already decided. Or plays to serve the actors they have.

It makes it difficult, in the end, for playwrights to find homes for work close to their hearts that doesn't fit the design or cast of a company choosing it.

Just my opinion, of course.


I actually wrote something along these lines on my own blog a couple of months ago after being inspired by the programming of the LAPhil; I recall posting a comment here that involved my ideas about this, as well. Anyway, here's what I wrote on my page:

"I have this pie-in-the-sky idea for a company that would use a similar approach to [the LAPhilharmonic's] programming. Lots of variety, a versatile, large ensemble able to tackle a variety of styles and genres, a cycle of plays performed for short spans of time, maybe even a series of evenings of short plays -- pairing Wilder with Durang, say, and throwing in a satyr play.... The actors would wear simple black dress, there would be zero-to-minimal set, and the focus would be on the texts, the performances, and the connections one might make upon seeing such seemingly disparate work right next to each other.

Of course there would be evening-length plays, but perhaps in mini-Signature-Theater-type cycles, or variations, such as mixing a month of Wilde with Orton, a month of Shepard with Rapp, etc. And not just the obvious greats and up-and-comers, either. There could be residencies and commissions, too, that would allow risky work by unknown voices to take center-stage, and not just be on the second stage as some kind of workshop or reading series.

And all of this would be geared towards a historical understanding of the art form...not in any kind of academic way, either, but in such a way that reinforces the form's importance in our culture and its continued ability to be relevant."

George Hunka

Oh, sure, just put all this in your comments section.

I would dedicate my energy to creating a theater that emphasizes the lyrical elements of all aspects of the theatrical experience: text, design and performance, in an attempt to realize the kind of theatrical art I've been talking about, the theater as a sensual contemplative object.

I talked about gallery theater before dismissing the term as unhelpful, but one thing which occurs to me is that we should be creating theater that people want to revisit, as they revisit paintings or sculptures or watch films. It's not unusual to revisit exhibitions or go to see a movie two or three times to experience its effect on us again. Of course, this means we have to create objects and performances worthy of a second or a third viewing: of sensual complexity, density and depth, instead of telegraphing messages to the audience.

I suppose this is one of the reasons explicitly, narrowly narrative theater doesn't appeal to me. One of the reasons people don't go back to the theater is because they've already heard the story and know how it ends; they've achieved an aesthetic closure on that experience. I'd like to see a theater that denies that aesthetic closure in service of a deeper aesthetic communion.

I'd write more but I'm in the middle of a new play and trying to stay away from theory for a little while. But in short: my theater would be small (100 seats or less), dedicated to performing these works in repertory or otherwise, priced at a level that would encourage repeat visits; in a way, I admire theater artists who, in collaboration with others in a repertory company of performers and musicians and designers, seek to put their own consciousness on stage for contemplation and meditation.

In fact I'd like cities to be filled with these small theaters, each one of them an idiosyncratic lyrical theatrical voice. But I doubt I'll get them.


I honestly don't think that there's this failure of writers to create new compelling work...I just think a lot of the best new work isn't given the support and resources and attention that it deserves.

I would certainly de-centralize the process of workshops and readings. Workshops and endless readings and public discussions of new work have turned all plays into this community project of well-intentioned theater's that just happen to have put "new work" into their mission statement. Those companies are often ironically killing the work.

I guess any theater of my choosing would be a place that performs plays of quality, on their own terms. It would be, of course, up to me what made up "quality" but that's the fun part, isn't it.

I've said this a few times: I don't think that it's the artistic work that needs to be changed because there is LOTS of it and a large amount of it is plenty good. It just needs to be encouraged, exposed, supported and promoted.

A large amount of my theater's resources would be put into attracting and maintaining an audience for theater. The ideal theater would have a cool, interested, educated crowd, cultivated by that theater, who enjoy coming to see Arsenic and Old Lace and Samuel Beckett and Ionesco and the latest play by a completely unknown writer...like I enjoy Rap or Rock or Folk or Jazz or Blues.


Lucas Krech

I'm pretty much in agreement with Freeman on this one. A key point is that the company take the work on its own terms. This ties in directly with Joshua's point about how a lot of companies only accept work that conforms to their worldview, or worse, force a work into their world view.

I consider a diversity of opinion, of style, of language, of image etc. to be incredibly valuable. This is also what theatre has the potential to do extremely well. A single play may contain a multiplicity of viewpoints that all contribute to a larger understanding of the world. Within a production, the intereaction of artists from diverse backgrounds can serve to give a work an internal dynamism that is truly powerful and transformative.

Providing a space for that larger vision of the world is a good and necessary thing. It is fine if people choose a narrow focus for their companies, but in a world where traditional barriers andbourdaries are being crossed and obliterated with increasing speed, it seems silly to limit oneself to a single idea.

George Hunka

How is this different, though, than what's already being done? Maybe not at the Public or the NYTW, but certainly PS122, La MaMa, the Theater for a New City and The Kitchen are already providing that room and space for a diversity of approaches and visions, aren't they?

If one proceeds on that current basis -- a show-by-show repertoire that doesn't really have a consistent worldview, in which directors, writers, performers and designers are gathered for ad hoc productions of individual new (or old) plays according to some inherent quality of the individual work -- is that really changing our theater? Certainly we're still in that same six-week-rehearsal four-week-run rut that's become all too common. Is that a new approach?

Interestingly (and most of us are playwrights here) many of the responses have been to drama, new or old, rather than other kinds of work. I can foresee an individual theater run by a designer, or a performer, rather than a playwright or director: certainly designers like Appia or Robert Edmond Jones could have developed a rather remarkable repertory company from the vantage of design, rather than a dramatic or a directorial vision.

Lucas Krech


There was an interesting model for a kind of very eclectic programming in the last SF Opera Administration. Pamela Rosenberg delineated five major themes and selected numerous operas from those various themes. Then, the productions were a large mixture of everything from European Minimalism to classical American big dresses and big hair.

These themes and production styles did a wonderful interweaving with eachother and created a dialogue of work coming out of a single institution over a span of five years. It is quite a remarkable way of looking at theatre programming. Beyond the show and beyond the season to a larger complex arc of meta-storytelling. This is very different then a simple show by show eccecticism. It takes a vision, and an expansive vision.

It's also good marketing. You keep your older monied subscriber base happy but also get the young people into the theatre. But this kind of programming requires a stern rigor or it becomes a meaningless uncontrollable mess.

George Hunka

You're right, Lucas (and as a vocal music lover myself I'm sorry sometimes I don't live in San Francisco); and this sounds like a fascinating way to run an institutional theater. Joe Papp tried to do the same thing with the NYSF when he ran through the entire canon, bringing a variety of artists, from Steven Berkoff to Andrei Serban, to the plays. Of course, such a project takes an enormous personality to coordinate, and Papp (like Pamela Rosenberg, I suspect) often acted like more of a ringmaster than an artistic director--not a bad thing at all, by the way.

But in a way we're talking about economies of scale as well. Isaac didn't say how much money we were going to get, but assuming that we all got the same amount--enough to open the doors of a theater like the one you're describing--I'd prefer twenty or thirty small theaters to one huge theater with three or four stages.

But that's a personal preference, and you know my own aesthetic inclinations.

George Hunka

Oh, and Ellen Stewart's taken a similar interest in Greek drama over the last few years--they're running through all the tragedies at La MaMa in a very fascinating project.


This is not the place to be stingy eh ?

I want a theatre of the body and the word.
A theatre of punctuation.
A community theatre.
Ensemble definitely.
A theatre of process in which all players are equal from the playwright to the designers.
The audience is involved along the way.

I want a theatre where the artists just make the art.
Other people who can get with the vision support it with their skills in non theatre areas because they feel a part of the community and the ensemble ( ie the pr people and the marketing people).
Designers have a creative voice.
The vison and mission statement is always evolving.
A theatre of exploration.
One that concerns itself with the global picture of the world.
The plays we put on come from necessity of the times.
Not a theatre centered around capitalism.
Not standard 4 week rehearsals. Longer if we need.
A true relationship to the audience which isn't centered around money but around service to the community.
Art is not a luxury.
There is so much more I could add.
And yes, none of this is new... yet it's hard to imagine a theatre doing that and having full seats on every performance, isn't it ?


Oh . Also :
A mash-up theatre : something for everyone.

A theatre of inquiry. A theatre which embraces risk and not knowing ( whatever that means for the people involved).


I think the question often becomes, with these things...what do you think "the problem" is.

I personally think the problem isn't what is being created, but what is being seen and HOW what is being created is put through the process of finding its audience.

George wants something more radical than that. Fair enough. I think that there is already plenty of radical and faux-radical theatre. Just not enough people know or care about it.

George Hunka

I'm more than happy to be a radical of any sort.


As you should be. Radical just takes a lot of forms.


To elaborate: Who would create the theatre that would go INTO the theater space I envision without some radical writers out there?

It's actually two sides of the same solution. More access, better plays. Seems simple enough...

But of course it isn't.

Alison Croggon

I'm assuming a generous budget (and let's pretend I'm a brilliant director, which is a big imaginative leap). I'd make sure there was a really good bar in the theatre, with cheap and excellent food. I'd have a theatre with two venues, one intimate (100-200 seats) and one bigger (say, 400). I'd program a mixture of in-house and interesting invited companies, local and international. I'd program a mixture of new interpretations of classics (Patrick White, von Horvath, Shakespeare, Genet, Buchner etc) and the best contemporary writing I could find. (No workshops - I totally agree with Matt on the workshop question - you would support plays by committing to them and putting them on). Basically it would be an actor/writer oriented theatre, but I'd want brilliant designers and tech people as well - you'd want to be the kind of place that attracted people like that because you created the environment where they could do their best work. I'd also be on the look out for theatrical work that isn't necessarily play-based - dance, movement &c. I'd curate a program of work around the theatre, maybe have regular concerts of music, say, talks and other events. Artists in residence etc having exhibitions and parties and readings, all ancillary to the theatre but part of the buzz. I'd want to make as many of those events free as possible. I'd get a good bookshop at the theatre to sell books. I'd also get some talented and energetic person to run a community outreach program, that embeds the theatre in various ways into the community around it. Free performances in schools, cheap tickets for the unwaged, maybe taking theatre into carparks and supermarkets and other untheatrical spaces, etc etc. I'd want to make the theatre a place where people liked to go, even when they weren't seeing plays, where they could feel excited and interested about what was going on, and that would attract young people. (Of course it goes without saying that all the theatre would be excellent...what was that? Time to wake up?)


Alison .... YES!!!!
And why oh why are you so far away ?
Or why am I ... ?
That just sounds lovely Alison, lovely !!!

Abe Pogos

I'd do my plays first (no one else will), then all that other stuff that Alison mentioned.

(Except Patrick White whose plays I can't stand.)

Scott Walters

I'd have a permanent ensemble (and I mean permanent -- lifelong, till-death-do-us-part, in order to leave you have to buy your freedom type thing) of cross-trained theatre artists, so that actors also designed, directors also acted, designers also directed, playwrights also...well, you get the idea... as needed and desired. No union -- people would work whenever and as much as they decided the piece needed. Rehearsals would go as long as necessary, but only until there was still some level of anxiety about the readiness. The season would be entirely devoted to full productions of new work by the company, with Sunday afternoon readings of classics. We'd play in rotating repertory. Like Alison, my theatre would mix the arts: at six, there might be some one-acts, then a full-length play ay 8:00; after the play, there would be concerts on the stage, and post-show discussions in the theatre's cafe where the artists and the spectators sat at tables of four and talked, and then on a signal moved to different tables to continue talking. At midnight, independent films would be shown. The work of local artists would grace the lobby and the walls of the theatre.

What kind of theatre would I do? We'd use whatever style happened to suit the play and the audience, but whatever it was the approach would have to be rooted in theatricalism. Fourth-wall realism would be permitted, but would not be the default.

Students would be apprenticed and mentored in the techniques, and when the ensemble reached a certain size it would split into two new ensembles.

OK, now the next thought experiment: aside the given of money, are their other barriers to building your dream?

George Hunka

Leadership, I think. A theater like this would require a remarkably charismatic personality to lead it -- I can't think of one theater like this (or close to it) that hasn't had its figurehead leader, whether it was Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre, or Ellen Stewart and La MaMa, or Joe Papp and the Public, or Harold Clurman and the Group (not to mention Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble, Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall of the NT, Yeats and Lady Gregory of the Irish National Theatre ... the list goes on).

Someone who is savvy, practical, with a vast knowledge about theater and able (and not afraid) to communicate it well to a general audience, unafraid to champion unpopular work, looks good all dressed up, and radiates good nature, wit, authority and confidence.

So an individual leader, or a partnership of perhaps two (more than that and the identification gets a bit indistinct): faces with which the theater can be identified.

This may be harder to find than the money.

Alison Croggon

(Apologies, just pausing for an Australian squabble) You can't stand White's plays? They're glorious! Beautiful! Funny! Rude! Tragic! Intelligent! Theatrical! Poetic! What more could you want?

Scott, the ensemble you are thinking of is how the Comedie Francais works, aside from the cross dsicipline stuff. All very fine, and of course run on very democratic lines, but everyone agrees that it leads to a certain stuffiness. I rather like Peter Brook's idea of lifetime ensemble, a lot of his actors have worked with him for more than 30 years, but they also work as actors directors etc elsewhere.



Who is "everyone" in your everyone agrees? Might be better to say "I believe it's stuffy." Unless you're going to cite sources.


I don't like the idea that we should skip the money issue. The money part is SO fundamental, and no one likes to talk about it. We like to hurry past it. I think the money problem might well be the Universal Problem.

Also... gosh I don't know. The union is good and bad, definitely. But it does provide health insurance for actors. The union needs reform, but it shouldn't be kicked out. Equity Reform might be an important topic for the blogosphere.


Do you think Leadership can come from a unifying principle, as opposed to a single leader? A "Constitution" of a particular theatre that governs it, without having to rely on one personality?

George Hunka

I've argued elsewhere that increased government subsidy for the arts, as unlikely as that is, may be a controlling factor here. In France recently the reorganization of the state funding structure for theater led to demonstrations in the streets (Alison knows far more about this than I do); have we even written our local, state and national candidates to suss them out on this issue and pressure them to make a meaningful (and by this I mean monetary) stance on the arts in this country?

No, I don't think leadership can come from an abstract unifying principle. As ideal as that sounds, it remains abstract. This is actually a very practical consideration, as potential audiences will find it easier to identify their interests with a charismatic person or persons rather than a well-intended mission statement; this is the age of celebrity, after all. A passionate enthusiast, in the public eye, speaks volumes more than a manifesto. They would then attend the theater to share in some of the glamour of that celebrity, which is turned to a higher purpose than mere self-indulgence.


George, I do believe that's the first time you've talked about branding. But I agree that personalities attract theatergoers.

Scott, I think, is talking more about his ideal. All of our ideal solutions have practical problems. That's why they're...idealistic.

George Hunka

I wouldn't call it "branding"; that drags the art into the same post-capitalist arena that destroys the very experience that theater tries to create. Leadership, sure. Even charisma, celebrity: all those can be turned in on themselves. But post-capitalism is something that the theater should be undermining, not participating in.

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