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December 09, 2007


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Joshua James

Isn't the question flawed?

Shouldn't it be WHY NOT NEW PLAYS?



I wonder about the framework of your question, really.


Well, I would say that plays is general are voices for the time that they a written in, some transcend that and speak to successive generations. Given this, new plays are the voice of today. They explore the world and ideas through a contemporary lens in a way that older plays cannot. They may not all continue to speak to generations to come, but they are worthy explorations of the world as it exists in this moment in time. This makes them different from the reinterpreted classics which put a different mirror in front of us and can show that we are not so different from those that came before us.


As a new music guy, I think about similar questions.

I second afb, and have a few other thoughts:
1. Someone has to do new stuff for the tradition to remain a living growing one.
2. It takes a rather different skill set to figure out how to do new work than an older one that has been fully developed and has history of performance one can draw from.
3. Performing new stuff discourages canonical thinking, which arguably makes for a more honest and vital enagement with the work at hand.



I have a problem with staying concise...


Taking a chance and daring to fail is almost always worthwhile. It's also a good experience for actors directors and designers to work directly with a playwright. Seriously, we're wonderful people.


Joshua - you know that I'm not simply trying to be contrarian, and I know that this sort of thing pushes your buttons. But there is nothing wrong with the question. It is not, perhaps, the question you want asked or wish to answer... but that doesn't invalidate it.


Where to begin?
First off, I should mention that I think you might also enjoy Bogart's A Director Prepares.
Second, I'm a little torn about Bogart. So much of what she writes resonates with me, but when I saw Hotel Cassiopeia at BAM, I was sorely dissapointed. The language and the set, as well as physical score rarely seemed to match up.
So. . .your actual questions. . .Why new plays? Why old plays? There's probably a good counterargument to this, but I'm going to take a shot, and say that we should do both new plays and old plays for the same reason: We want to say something we haven't said before. When a director chooses to stage an old play, he should have a new vision or concept of the text. The director's work is another piece of art. (This of course all goes back to a discussion on your blog from way back about whether or not a director "owns" his work like a playwright does. Should a director get royalties? I won't go into that now though.)
There's a difference between a revival and a remounting of a show. In the former, there should be a new take on the old. It is sometimes difficult to "say" something new with a play that has been done again and again.
When we stage a new play, we have a wider range of options with which to work. At least, assuming we adhere to the philosophy above, we should. With a play that has never been produced, we have no other versions with which to compare it. That's probably what often makes staging new work so much more exciting than staging old work. The options are limitless. Any choice the actors, directors, designers make will be a new choice. New plays mean two sets of new choices: new concepts, visions, etc. PLUS a new text.


I don't know of a good reason to do new plays beyond the quality of an individual script. I don't know of a good reason to do old plays beyond the quality of an individual script.


New plays for the same reason that they print newspapers every day and I read them. New plays for the same reason people keep having babies even though there are already too many of us here to take care of. New plays for the same reason sometimes you put on the radio instead of popping in a CD.


I'd have to agree with Mac. New isn't always better, and old isn't always better.

I'd have to be either really arrogant or really ignorant to believe that in thousands of years of storytelling, we are ever truly unique, doing something that no human has ever done. But the stories we choose to tell, and how we choose to tell them change with time. A good story well told is a great thing, whether lit by fire or by source fours.

Some people tend to favor the new in all things we do, and plays are no different. Some dislike the new and untried, and plays are no different.

There's room for both a new perspective and reminders from the past. I think both have their place.

My experience has been that most companies that are dedicated to new works, are so because of people, not because of the plays themselves. "Supporting New Voices" is a common refrain, not about the work, but about supporting the writers. And there's nothing wrong with that. Other companies feel better supporting actors and performing large cast classical texts. And there's nothing wrong with that.


I have to echo what has come before. If there are there no new plays, then theatre becomes a museum of either dusty and neglected or well-maintained and polished artifacts--either way, it's not truly alive, and it doesn't reflect where we are today. Every play, no matter how encrusted it is with a "classic" veneer, was new and untested once.

Joshua James


I didn't say the question was wrong, rather it may have been flawed . . . questions can be flawed (either with us or with the terrorists kinda thing) and honestly, while I have heard the why new play question before, rarely, if ever, do we hear why old plays?

That's my experience, anyway.

And I'm calm, really ;)!


Hey all,

I just wanted to say that these responses have all been really great, and I'm thinking about all of them in writing a follow up post.

Just to address Josh's concern, which I think is an understandable one... Josh, if I was dedicated to directing classics, I'd be asking on my blog the "why classics?" question. Since I'm more interested in new work, I'm more interested in questions surrounding it. That's all.


Why new plays?
Because the theatergoer, citizen, and feeling human being in general needs it, needs to hear playwrights who possess the gift of articulating our present times to us, implicitly or explicitly.
Because this artform, like all artforms, needs to keep advancing and producing to stay relevant and alive, and because theater as a whole needs desperately to catch up with all the other arts who surpassed it a century and a half ago. Which is NOT to say that innovation isn't going on in playwrighting, it is all the time, in extremely exciting ways. What I'm saying is that those plays need to ever move, through being produced and put before audiences, to the center, from the margins where they currently reside, hopefully attuning contemporary theatergoers' minds to all that which is most challenging, alive, and exciting about new plays today.

Why do new plays have intrinsic value?
Mac's right, the intrinsic value in new plays is roughly equal to the intrinsic value in "old" plays. Many thousands of new plays are absolute dreck, but I think they also have a special value in that a living writer's voice might yet be developed, partially through these plays of greatly differing success, into creating work that truly is remarkable. O'Neill's early experimental works are maybe rightly less-produced than the late masterworks, but if they hadn't been written or staged, he'd never have "arrived at" ICEMAN or LONG DAY'S. New plays frequently = potential for even greater new plays by same author. That line: "If you want to help a playwright, produce his first 5 plays." Many new plays floating around = these "first 5 plays," literally or metaphorically, for a playwright.

Why should we bother doing new plays, dedicating theaters to the artistic mission of bringing them to life?
See above. Because any art needs centers devoted to showing that art in its most current, developing, advancing form. "What is the state of this art today? Who is practicing it, how is it being furthered, and most interestingly practiced? How's it being used to re-tell and re-examine stories we thought we knew?" These are all questions, among many others, that the new play institution is devoted to.

What is different (and differently valuable and important) about new plays as opposed to revisitng or reinterpreting or whatever existing texts?
One partial answer: because new plays respond not only to the present world around them (outside the theater), but because they (sometimes) respond to the history of their own artform as well, which includes said existing texts.

Eric Sanders

There is no intrinsic value to "new plays," any more than there is intrinsic value to "old plays." Value is subjective, and "intrinsic" means "belonging to a thing by its very nature." Now, assuming we can accept the argument that value is subjective (i.e. up to each individual audience member or reader) then there is no such thing as a "nature" when discussing new plays. So that eliminates that line of thinking. And we are left with this question:

Do "new plays" have any more value in today's (let's assume U.S.) society than "old plays?" And, if so, how?

My answer, as a playwright who devotes himself nearly exclusively to creating and writing new projects (rarely adaptations, etc.), is that there is no more value in the new than the old. There is universal value to be found in anything that strikes a chord with you; many of the writers I find most relevant to my life today wrote in the early 1900's. Many of the new plays I see feel dated and unnecessary. HOWEVER, in those rare instances if and when a new play is revelatory in its timeliness and dissection of present-day events—i.e. a new play about America's occupation of Iraq that really digs deep and exposes new, raw truths—it might seem more relevant to today's audiences than a 1700's costume farce. But then again, it might not; that is certainly up to the viewer. Perhaps the audience member feels no connection or relationship with what is going on in Iraq, and feels that the older play speaks to him more articulately. That is certainly very possible, and who are we to argue with his perspective on his own life? Again, we have hit the dead end of subjectivity. So if the relevance and "value" of a new play is not up the viewer, who is it up to? I would say the artist(s) who created it. The actors, writers, directors, et al. Because if they are truly creating a new experience for the stage--inventing a new world, uncovering something more deeply than it has been exposed before, finding new and human truths for THEMSELVES--then their work is not only necessary but VALUABLE. And this is up to them to define, not up to the viewers. Everyone has a say and no one has a say. Even gold is worthless if no one wants it anymore.


Let me contradict myself a little, and betray my playwright brothers, and say that it would not be the end of the world if new play production decreased. It would be sad, and theatre would become less relevant. But it wouldn't be the death knell for the art form. Believe me, I support new plays and new playwrights, but if almost all we did were revivals ... it would be kinda sorta okay.

Opera is essentially in a situation where 99 percent of it is revivals from a large canon. New operas are written, but rarely do they take off and become part of the regular repertoire. Opera is doing just fine ... yes, it's for a niche audience, but that niche is well filled.

Much, much more important to theatre than new plays are new audiences. Perhaps the most useful new plays can be is if they attract these new audiences. I honestly don't know if the audience for opera is getting older and/or deader, but I think the old stuff does keep bringing people in. Can we win new audiences to theatre with old plays? Sure ... whatever it takes.

Hmm ... I seem to be a little incoherent and scattershot. I'll stop talking now. I hope my point got across, whatever it is.

barton b

new plays because we like to hear ourselves talk.
new plays because it's a way of taking the shifty fabric running through all the old myths and wrap it around our own tiny lives in the hopes of feeling connected to some greater something, of being a melodic variation or maybe even just a grace note in the symphony called Everything That Ever Was And Ever Will Be.
new plays because playwrights need something to do.
new plays because old plays get old.

I think I would actually like to contemplate the opposite and ask - why old plays? Why bother with outdated works, the rhythms and sways of which, do not reflect our current tempo? do those who enjoy life dramatic 3-dimensional art WANT to be left behind?


1.) Isaac needs a trackback field
2.) Isaac needs comment subscriptions
3.) Old Plays Post Here:

barton b

doh! my bad.
missed that one.
what are these fancy words/pharses lke "comment subscription" and "trackback field?"


I have been drawn to new work because of the times in which we are living. There is a real need for me, since 9/11, to reframe the world in which we live. Life is different now, we have really suffered as a nation under this corrupt administration, and I feel it is reflected in almost every play I see. Granted, I have seen most of the classics performed at this point, and often have to be nudged to go, unless I hear something really breathtaking is being done. That said, I find myself suddenly reading more classics in literature.


Barton B

You didn't miss anything... I linked like 45 seconds after written...

Comment subscription would make it easier to track the discussion, it would sent a notification whenever someone else commented, and trackbacks are links to other blogs that are discussing the post, so wouldn't have to spam his blog with comments every time I take up one of his challenges...

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