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March 09, 2011


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1. I see his point, but I also resent it a little. I might have written a pro-gay play in MilkMilkLemonade, for example, and I'm sure people know straight away that it's a pro-gay play. That said, I don't think anybody knows from the start of the play exactly WHAT I'm going to say about gayness or HOW exactly I'm going to get there. Just because you know a play will be pro gay before you watch it, doesn't mean that it's pro gayness is a spoiler alert. You still have no idea specifically what the playwright is going to say on the subject or how he/she will take you there.

2. I can't stand it when people say they don't like contemporary playwrights. That's like saying they don't like new music or new movies or anything that's on television. It may be true, but it speaks to their myopic tastes and not to the art in question.

3. Who the eff wants to sit through an anti-gay play or a pro-war play? I did see an anti-abortion play last year and it made me want to abort myself.



Yeah, I'm not 100% sure I agree with Barker, I was just trying to explore where the comparison between plays and essays gets us.

I think when you go to see MilkMilkLemonade, yeah obviously you're seeing a "pro-gay" play, but what that play is really about (for me and from an audience perspective) is a kind of comic psychic nightmare about what being a gay kid feels like. You go to that play to enter a metaphoric space with the writer where you can confront some shit.

It seems to me, then, that MML is not ultimately a pro-gay play in the sense that it's overall point isn't to weigh in on the question "Gayness, Good Or Bad?" but rather to explore that experience of being gay. It's actually somewhat essayistic in that regard, I think.

Without Barker naming names, it's hard to know what plays he's talking about as well.

Jeremy M. Barker

Sorry, meant to respond. Josh, I'm definitely not trying to imply I'm against new work or that the proportion of work that's good is lower than it used to be or anything of the sort. I'm just referring to trends I see in how contemporary American playwrights write plays and create works.

As for the point about anti-gay or pro-war plays, I wouldn't either. I'm just saying that when you have homogeneous audience, creating, say, political or socially engaged work is trickier, because part of what I'm getting at is the relationship between the work created and its audience. I mean, isn't that a huge part of theater? When you wrote MilkMilkLemonade (which I don't know and haven't seen but will look into), you must have had some idea of what you wanted to communicate to your audience?

My point about playwriting is that a lot of the scripted dramas I've seen over the past few years strike me as an argument the playwright sets out to make. Regardless of whether he's honest or dishonest, it just strikes me as didactic, and the narrative then exists to entertain you along the way. Often, these shows can be easily summed up. What's Ruined but a new version of Mother Courage with edifying details about the reality of the situation in Africa? What's Hunter Gatherers but another take on the Fight Club idea that there's a deep tension between how we're expected to behave in modern society and our own animalistic instincts? There's good things to say about both plays, but both in production are so obviously leading to the point they're going to make that the narrative exists just to keep you entertained and maybe add some emotional wallop to the climax and denouement.

And I know those are just two examples and I'm trying to find ways to follow more emerging playwrights and I know that there are plenty of good writers out there. But I also think it's a common enough trend, and I think partly betrays a lack of faith on the playwright's part in the artists who will be producing the work. It's one thing to over-write a script, and it's another to structure it as an essay where the narrative serves to get you to and justify a point. That's what I actually meant by calling it essayistic. I love it when I see what Isaac describes, when a writer working through material is discovering something along the way. It's such a richer experience and usually winds up focusing on the language rather than the structure. Even at her most programmatic, Caryl Churchill has an ear for language that surprises you. Mamet is ONLY good because of his language. Sarah Ruhl has her moments (and can sometimes be truly surprising), but I've always found her plays wooden because the efforts are always based on the ideas she's seeking to convey, and the productions of her plays I've seen never quite take off because the actors can't bring her characters to life. True, that's sometimes just the fault of the actors, but she definitely writes her characters to type.

Anyway, if either of you want to disabuse me of my notions, I'd love to be disabused. For the last year it's been mostly devise/experimental theater and dance. I started reading Adam Szykowicz's blog recently just to try to get more of a handle on young and emerging writers.


My response at my blog.



I'm going to have to strongly dissent from your opinion of Ruined. First off, I think it goes rather far afield from Mother Courage, and the connection on both a plot and character level is quite overblown. It's an inspiration point for the play, but the play is hardly Mother Courage + Africa = Awesome. Nor is its primary objective simple edification. It present a world to us-- an unfamiliar one-- and details multiple characters' attempts to survive and thrive and reclaim themselves within that world. And the characters are themselves memorable, particularly Mama Nadi and Christian. I think your reading of it is foreshortened by the (I think unfortunate) decision on the part of people surrounding the play to market the Mother Courage connection. The stronger connection, I think, is to the work of Graham Greene. To me, Ruined is a Graham Greene novel in which the voiceless characters are given voice (Greene would've made it about Harari) just as Intimate Apparel has a relationship to the work of Henry James.

I also think there's something going on in that play that relates in general terms to black and white poetics. My professor for my Contemporary Black Theatre seminar has this interesting theory that in work by black playwrights there tends to be a deemphasis of the protagonist/antagonist dialectic in favor of work that is more about communities and dynamics within those communities. That's certainly true of Ruined (and Raisin in the Sun and Two Trains Running and a whole bunch of other plays). There's no one antagonist for Mama Nadi. There's an outside force that could at any point invade and destroy her. The play is more about how a community responds to that force.

So part of the question is... what happens to a plot when you don't have a protagonist/antagonist dialectic at work? It changes the rhythm and structure, that's for sure.


I've never had an idea or opinion about some issue and then wrote a play to dramatize that idea, and I don't know many playwrights who have. I've always started writing the play and then discovered there was an idea or opinion in it. Then, in the course of rewrites, I've done what I can to make that idea as clear to the audience as I can, just as you would make every element of the play as sharp and focused as you can. That doesn't necessarily mean I steer the audience to a particular conclusion. You may look at Ruined and see it all leading to that one conclusion, but that doesn't mean Lynn Nottage wrote the play in order to do that. You've just processed the the play that way. As Sam Shepard once said when asked where he gets his ideas for his plays, "Plays don't come from ideas. Ideas come from plays."

Jeremy M. Barker

@Isaac--No, I see your point and my intent is not just to slag down certain plays. Like I admitted, there's good things to be said for these shows as well. But your dissent really cuts to the heart of the point I'm trying to make. My response would be to ask: why is it important to represent experience in this fashion? On the one hand, I get it, the representation and reclamation of experience is a huge theme throughout a lot of theater, in part just because theater is to some degree more accessible than, say, film, or even publishing. A huge part of August Wilson's project in the cycle is just to bring the African-American experience of the 20th century to the fore. But I do think that context always matters. Wilson's work helped reshape the idea of African American history in the 20th century when the plays came out by giving voice to the voiceless. But these days, I think it sort has the reverse effect because of its embrace by the mainstream LORT circuit, which is guilty of no small amount of tokenism, and now serves to represent that sense of progressive multiculturalism such cultural organizations embrace while at the same time helping to deny the opportunity for new voices to be heard. Again, context.

The same applies to Ruined. To return to your explanation of "essayistic," I wonder why we should take a Brooklyn born, Ivy League educated playwright's evocation of the lives of war-torn Congolese women as inherently authentic? And I do think that functionally, getting down to the bones of the narrative, Ruined is rather archetypically Mother Courage-esque by playing on issues of moral ambiguity. The central character, herself a victim of circumstance, is engaged in an act of exploitation herself which she sees as justifiable as a means of survival given circumstances, and her own sense of moral obligation to others is shaped by this flexibility. That's the problem at the heart of the play, which is the imposition of stock narrative devices that could just as easy work in a variety of situations.

Are the details that make Ruined unique? Yes, of course. It's a good play. But what does it do? If Nottage's connection to the "real life" that informs her characterizes is nothing more than interviewing and research, then I don't think it's unfair to say the play is journalistic, or that the audience could have just as meaningful engagement with the harsh realities of the experience of Congolese women by reading quality journalism. In fact, far more people in America today know what they know about that conflict from reading than from watching a play. If the added emotional content of a fictionalized narrative adds impact, isn't that an act of manipulation? I'm not AGAINST using emotion to impact an audience, I just want to square that with these ideas of authenticity, which would suggest that the narrative is a seemingly unaffected representation of reality. And in the end, what's the point? Educating American audiences about these people's experiences? That may be laudable, but if you reverse the equation to say something like: "You should see Ruined because it shows you war is bad and terrible things in particular can happen to women," it's not as impressive sounding.

And I'm just not seeing how it constitutes some sort of speaking truth to power by representing the true voices of the oppressed. You could just as easily argue that it's co-optation by an American.

@Ken--I can't speak to how playwrights create work, not being a playwright. I can only try to make sense of the finished product.



Interesting point. i don't know where "authenticity" came into this conversation. You seem to be responding to my comment as if I said something about it. I didn't. I treat the entire play as a work of fiction, even though it's heavily based on interviews and research. I think Lynn expects it to be treated that way as well, which is why the actual political circumstances surrounding the conflict are only touched on lightly, just enough to give the narrative stakes. If I remember correctly (I saw the MTC version at a press preview, and have a very good memory, but have not read it) the Congo is never actually named, nor do we get much detail about the two armies fighting it out (this is another Graham Greene/Robert Stone strategy at work in the play).

So I judge the play not in terms of political or journalistic efficacy but rather does it succeed as a play. And it's overwhelmingly successful as a play. It's a harrowing viewing experience, the characters are interesting, the pregnant woman's monologue in the second act will stick with me for years, the way it explores themes of survival and the preservation (or not) of humanity in horrible circumstances is rich and resonant etc. I think there's a lot of marketing around the play about how it was constructed and what went on it etc. I think that's unfortunate, as it gets in the way of actually seeing the play. I mean, all of Caryl Churchill's work with Joint Stock was developed through interviews as well, but that's not the lens we view Cloud-9 through.

I'm curious about this question about what the play "does." What do plays do in general? They strut and fret obviously. But I didn't know that suddenly we're judging plays on them having to do things and there being a clearly defined "point" to watching a show. I think those kinds of quests are doomed to failure, if only because the experience of watching a play is so subjective.

This was, to continue the black theater conversation for a moment, one of the odd contradictions of the Black Arts Movement. The aesthetics of the plays of the Black Arts Movement were supposed to be judged by whether or not they inspired concrete action on the part of the audience, but most of the plays of the movement don't actually work that way. It's unclear what the lesson (or point) of "The Dutchman" is (don't talk to white women on the subway?), but Dutchman is still a riveting work. It's unclear what the point of Ed Bullins' Goin' a Buffalo or Gentleman Caller is.

Similarly, August Wilson has certain stated goals for his work that don't really play out when you see them. One of the main problems of Wilson scholarship is the effort to use his plays as a checklist cross referenced with things he says. So for example, a lot has been made of the Africanness of the characters in Joe Turner's and how returning to an African consciousness is the key to healing oneself. But that's only true of one character in the entire play. Seth Holly is just fine at the end of the play, and he actively denies the whole African thing. Similarly, I think it's hard to read Ma Rainey's and figure out which of the four band member's perspective you're supposed to agree with at the end. There's a complexity to Wilson's dramatic project that's lacking in his interviews and writing about that project.

You seem to want plays that tackle anything timely to do things they are (in general) not well equipped to do, and frequently aren't trying to do, namely provide the same experience as a documentary film on the subject. But Ruined isn't trying to provide the same experience as a documentary film. it's trying to tell a story and take you into a certain psychic and emotional landscape that's not really possible in a documentary. And yes, there's probably some awareness raising embedded within it. But awareness raising within potboiler structures has a rich and venerable history, just read any Walter Mosely book, or watch Prime Suspect (or The Third Man).

Of course then there is docu-theatre, but that's a horse of a different color.


Jeremy, reading your comment I think I may have misunderstood your original point or put words into your mouth that you didn't say, and if so I apologize.

For the record, I didn't know I was writing a gay affirmative play when I wrote MML. In fact, I didn't know it until after sometime during its New York remount. For me, it happened accidentally and organically and was a surprise.

I see your point about message plays, but remain optimistic that a play can be political and, you know, an engaging and wonderful play that isn't didactic.

Jeremy M. Barker

@Isaac--I think we might almost be talking past one another now. To return to the beginning, your original analogy used the example of a joke to talk about narrative and its relationship to the audience. The joke in written, brief form flops because what is does is provide a long, entertaining set up for a very small punchline. You then used this to ask questions about the use of narrative in theater. In my response, I generally agreed but said that my issue that the "payoff" at the end is almost non-existent because, like the Aristocrats, the ending is sort of pre-determined. In the theater, this is usually because of the general homogeneity of audiences--they likely will agree with the sort of social or political sentiments of a given show. Most people going into Ruined, for instance, will general enter and exit opposed to the rape and exploitation of women, and the circumstances that lead to it. So my point was that in a great deal of scripted theater I see, the only thing you really have is narrative. Most playwrights aren't even trying to hammer home a political point because they know their audience will probably agree. So my question becomes one of intent. What's the intent of a play which doesn't set out to challenge its audiences? The examples we're talking about may or may not do so, but generally speaking, that was my point. My interpretation is that many of these essentially just entertain. Entertainment as edification. To continue to use the example of Ruined, what does its audience leave with? A deeper emotional connection to the strife of women in a country like Congo (I think you're right, it doesn't mention where it takes place, but it does deal with mineral exploitation which is strongly but not exclusively tied to the conflict there)? Hear me out--on the one hand that's good, but having gone to and seen a lot of plays over the years, I've begun to wonder about things like that. Again, it sounds laudable to say, oh, we're providing an emotional experience for our audience, connecting them emotionally and to some degree intellectually (by contextualizing the situation) through our story--our narrative--to someone else's experience, someone who otherwise does not have a voice or is otherwise unable to tell their own story. Sounds good, and it's laudable and, depending on the context, sometimes necessary or true. But look at it from the other side and ask what assumptions that's making about audiences. That they're uninformed? That without that human connection, achieved through the fictional narrative of fictional people, they're not sufficiently invested in the suffering of their fellow humans? What do we hope they take out of the theater with them?

For me, and here I'm really speaking for myself, from my opinion--and I always said that this was my perspective and ultimately my preferences--to me it seems like theater of this nature essentially becomes a form of entertainment and not much else. And there's nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, but a tear jerker is a tear jerker, a comedy is a comedy. I don't think most playwrights set out to write a play that is just a form of entertainment--they have things they care about, things they'd like to discuss or address. They're motivated by a sense of trying to process and respond to the world. But that being the case, I'm not sure it's always successful when we're so reliant on these sorts of narrative models.

Jeremy M. Barker

Oh and Josh--no worries. You brought up a good point either way.


But look at it from the other side and ask what assumptions that's making about audiences. That they're uninformed? That without that human connection, achieved through the fictional narrative of fictional people, they're not sufficiently invested in the suffering of their fellow humans?

Sometimes, to be honest, yes.

We might be decent and well-meaning in a general sense, but we still have blind spots, we still have moments when we are not at our best. Sure, in an abstract, detached, intellectual way you could say things like rape is wrong, discrimination is bad, and so on, but when these things happen to real people, these same well-meaning people will respond as though they're OK with those things (or at least don't see them as "that bad") and not sense the contradiction.

So watching a play that tells us "what we already know" (in my experience, it's always the people who think they already know who do the most damage) reminds us of how much we don't know. Not in the rhetorical sense, but in the viscerally human sense.

As a playwright, this isn't something I necessarily set out to do, but it became clear that was happening when people shared their reactions to what I wrote - at times people who previously disagreed with me about the very issues the play brings up. And people who shared some aspect of the experience I wrote about often told me how affirming it was to see, in a very real way, that someone understands something very important about their lives.

It seems like you're trying to force political plays and the people who write them into a certain mold despite what we're flat-out telling you. Ironically, this is the same reason why talking about political issues outside of a fictional framework often leads to nowhere and/or turns sour.


I mentioned this on RVC's blog too, but something else I've been thinking about today...

As a queer writer I find it almost impossible to write a play about queer life without it being political, whether I want to or not. Everything about my existence is politicized, from falling in love to walking to the damn corner store.

Interesting conversation...


As a queer writer I find it almost impossible to write a play about queer life without it being political, whether I want to or not. Everything about my existence is politicized, from falling in love to walking to the damn corner store.

Josh, you win the internets!!!

Jeremy M. Barker

@RVCBard--I tried responding to you on your own blog, but for some reason it shows at deleted, so I'll say it here: I think you're interpreting me completely backwards. My point isn't that work shouldn't be political or challenging. I want to see work that is. But originally this wasn't about the subject, it was about use of narrative. My argument is about whether or not certain devices or approaches are effective. You can disagree with me on that point, but please don't suggest I don't challenging theater. I think I've repeated a couple times that my argument is about theater that I don't see challenging its audiences.


You can disagree with me on that point, but please don't suggest I don't challenging theater. I think I've repeated a couple times that my argument is about theater that I don't see challenging its audiences.

And I'm saying that it actually does. I'm saying that, as far as I've seen here, you're simplifying a lot of the things these works are talking about and then criticizing them for not being challenging. You bring up the use of narrative in political theatre as though it's only one thing, decide what the point of that narrative is, then criticize what you see as preaching to the choir despite what Josh and I are saying about our own experiences with it. So my only choices seem to be: deny my own experience (which is contrary to what you're saying), or speak for someone else who is not me. Either way, what I have to say about my own role as an artist who wrote political theatre is insufficient, so what do you want me to say?



I think I understand the point you're making a lot better now, so I thank you for sticking with this conversation. Are you essentially saying that some subjects demand a different kind of narrative treatment? That the issue you have with Ruined is that ultimately it's a politically conscious work of entertainment and that (for you) it doesn't do anything more than that?

Vanessa Dewolf

hi folks,
I'm vanessa dewolf in seattle, and just felt compelled to stick my nose in this conversation. I used to write plays now mostly I'm an improviser. I'm often asking myself how did this process come to pass? I have often wondered why do other people continue to write plays? And I have decided it has something to do with the live event. When I was in grad school I felt like many of the playwrights I was encountering not only could be writing for television but would actually have careers doing so. It made my work that was weirdo-language-driven-and-non-narrative just seem like another planet. I'd read and seen plays like I was writing, yet that kind of narrative still seemed alien to most folks. Nonetheless I enjoyed ten years or more of writing plays. Some were well received some were not, I just proceeded undaunted. Then I began improvising in movement and text and narrative and when I found my work was suddenly well-received I stuck with it. Yup this playwright is now a dancer or choreographer or interdisciplinary-performance-artist, there aren't good words for what I do now. It's crazy because I experiment with narrative form and structure now tons more then I did when I was actually working in a narrative form. Good or bad certain kinds of narrative are still widely excluded from the theater. So here's my question is there some inherent nature to narrative that is in theater? If you can describe a play as a novel or approach the material in the same way that you do an essay why go through all the hell that is playwriting? Especially since those other forms are frankly more lucrative. Certainly filmmaking is very different because viewers expect a level of versimilitude live-art could never achieve, so the narratives in film often has an obligation to some kind of realism theater doesn't. Television is closest to what theater used to be, and in my opinion it just gets better and better every year excellent writing excellent narrative challenges and even takes chances in the realms of politics, culture and more. So why tell stories on stage? What is this form of storytelling now in this era of theater? I like to believe playwriting is not a dinosaur, but I wonder what keeps it off the extinction list.
My perspective probably needs a little adjustment so you intellectual chiropractors I'm ready for it, twist crunch and crack away.
vanessa dewolf

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