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August 23, 2011


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Nowhere in the Stryk piece or here are there any specific examples of plays with "highly theatrical stage directions" or "plot elements and stage directions that seem derived from a handbook on wizardry". So what plays or playwrights are we talking about, exactly? Shouldn't be hard to list some, since they apparently "dominate the theater landscape country-wide".

(Also, anybody doing that wizard handbook play this season? It sounds kind of interesting.)


That's always the sticking point, isn't it? It can be hard to discuss this without "naming names," but we're all reluctant to, because some of those names are friends, colleagues, people we like, whose work we might even like, even if we don't like that particular style. It cuts both ways: I read interviews and blog posts from people decrying plays that like TV or sitcoms, but again, no naming of names. Is it possible to have this discussion without calling people out? Is it possible that saying "I don't like this style of play" ISN'T "calling someone out?"


Go ahead and call me out, a-hole.


Obviously, I'm with Taylor on this one- at least in terms of theater history and personal taste etc. That said, I always feel a little perturbed by this question. It's a little bit of a red herring because the real question is, "Why one or the other?" Theater should be big enough for both styles and way, way more.

And I love you 99, but is it possible that "theatrical" plays being the go-to is just your perception as a playwright who writes "realism"? Because, just to say, I feel the exact opposite. Which is probably just my perception as a writer who feels on the outskirts for writing kind of kooky plays.


Romeo and Juliet, THEATRICAL
The Misanthrope, THEATRICAL
Death of a Salesman, REALISM

See how easy that is?


How is DEATH OF A SALESMAN "realism" when it involves multiple flashbacks, a fantasy character, and was conceived by the playwright as existing entirely in one man's head as he drove towards his suicide (with an epilogue in the "real" world), but THE MISANTHROPE is "theatrical" when it takes place in one room, in real time? I think you're absolutely right that personal preferences feed into it, but I think, as an industry, we've started using "theatrical" to mean "I like it." Which is lazy.

I find this more frustrating when "theatrical" isn't used as a description or even a discussion about style, but an indication of *quality*. So-and-So's plays are good because they're "theatrical." Our theatre is looking for truly "theatrical" plays. Your work isn't "theatrical" enough. (And those are all things I've heard at various times.) That's the other part of the laziness.

About the kooky plays, and even Taylor's work (which, again, I have respect for...just like yours!), I agree there should be room for all of that and more and what you both do with staging and style is amazing. I think you should get credit for it! But that's not all that makes your work unique and interesting.

Mark S.

I don't think that the theatrical v. realism binary is particularly helpful. They're both so relative and contingent--it's like trying to have a moral discussion about private property and theft: can we talk about an absolute good or evil in relationship to them when, in the end, both are just paradigms of appropriation? Similarly, theatricality and realism are paradigms of expression--does it make sense to assign absolute values to either? I don't think so.

And I'd go further: realism is an inherently theatrical expression. It may not be a particularly whimsical expression, but it's inherently theatrical. Death of a Salesman, with all of its memory scenes, the way in which its structure plays with time--all of that is incredibly theatrical. Something more "realistic" like All My Sons nonetheless resorts to some pretty classic theatrical tropes--the mysterious letter in the end, for instance, which seems like it would be more at home in a farce than in the sort of tragedy Miller was aiming for.

And that's not even to speak of language. No matter how realistic, the language of a play will always be different from conventional speech--can only approach conversational idioms and rhythms asymptotically--and that's because it's at least one step removed from "real life" simply by being a recreation of life or some aspect of it. Language in a play will always be theatrical.

But we could go still further: each play is its own language, demanding its own linguistic and imagistic syntax and creating its own context by which it is to be understood. And for the most part, the play's native language defies easy categorization. Is Waiting for Godot theatrical or realistic? In fact, fewer expressions of life are more realistic. And yet, how theatrical! Is the fire conjured by the Watchman in the first moments of Agamemnon less real for being theatrically invoked? It's a wonder that literal flames don't consume the theater in the first brief moments of the play.

I feel that, often, when we engage with the theatrical/realism binary, what we're really doing is asking: what is the best way to express something like life and the living of it truthfully, honestly? But there is no one best way. The most artificially theatrical things can sometimes reveal the most startling things about the reality of life (look at Moliere) and are not the less truthful for being artificial. To the extent that a playwright is honestly writing from their own vision, their own unique perspective, the play that they're writing will conform to the demands of the playwright's honesty and will represent a truthful expression of human life. Structure, artifice, realism, language, all these things will spring to life in their own wonderful way when and how the play needs them, and according to its own necessary syntax.

I don’t think anyone sits down to write a theatrical play or a realistic play. I can only speak from my own experience, but I would venture to guess that when we sit down to write a play, we sit down to write the play that we need to write, in the way in which the play demands to be written in accordance with the honest expression of our vision of human life and love.

What creates the value of a play or a dramatic expression is not whether or not it’s theatrical or realistic, both or neither, but the strength of our vision and the power of our honesty.



Beautiful stuff, as always, Mark, and largely, the point I'm trying to make: this concept of "theatricality" as the antithesis of "realism" means absolutely nothing. Zip. Zero. It's a false dichotomy and an increasing lazy and meaningless way to describe the differences between styles of theatre-making and playwriting. In practice, it effectively means "boring" versus "not boring." Or "weird" versus "not weird." Entirely subjective concepts that have no actual value when discussing work. The fact that artistic directors and literary managers and critics and pundits use it to describe work is endlessly frustrating to me.

Again, this isn't a rant about how my plays are mistreated or misunderstood or whatever. I write plays. Plays, all plays, every single play ever written is inherently theatrical. Period. The simple act of speaking words in public is theatrical. All plays require some measure of the suspension of disbelief, the live performance of text and/or action, the communication, however, subtle between performer and audience, the audience and each other. That's what makes it theatre and being theatre makes it theatrical.

I think the way we use this word blocks real discussion of style, voice and meaning. We use it as catch-all, generally for things we like. We, as artists, as administrators, and as a field, should be able to talk about the work with more precision, more specificity and far more care for the work of our writers. We should be able to talk about the use of magic realism in August Wilson and Chris Durang, the use of camp in Taylor Mac or Charles Ludlam, the use of lyric realism in Lucy Thurber or Rom Linney, the use of naturalism in Adam Bock or Richard Maxwell. Instead we just come up with fancy terms for "I liked it." It's dispiriting in a field that so desperately wants to be taken seriously. You don't hear film critics saying, "I thought this was so...cinematic!" It sounds dumb. We have artistic traditions in our work. Let's embrace them.


I wholeheartedly agree that a bunch of characters in a room with only three walls having so many "exciting, life-changing events happening in such a short time span" has nothing to do with realism. Theater can only be so real, because it's NOT real, it's THEATER. It's theatrical. Always. And, given that - though this is simply a matter of personal preference - I think the best and most exciting thing that you can do is embrace that lack of realism, the magic, the theatricality. Exploit it. Let weird shit happen on stage because it CAN. Step outside of realism to tell the story better. Of course, sometimes it doesn't tell the story better, sometimes it just feels like weird shit for the sake of weird shit and I'll be the first to tell you that's dumb. And I'll also be the first to admit that there's nothing inherently better about a "theatrical" story versus a more straightforward story - both have equal potential for being something transcendent or for failing miserably. But because of possibility that exists in the theatrical (the extra-realistic), that's where my preference lies.

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