We’ll doom the field to oblivion

“There is always room for artistic risk taking and experimental theater, but if we’re going to have a theater that matters, we have to make theater that people want to see,” Mr. Eustis said. “If as a field we resent that criterion, we’ll doom the field to oblivion.”

The New York Times, “Playwrights’ Nurturing Is the Focus of a Study”

I went to our first preview of Phèdre on Friday. I am not sure what I was expecting. I think something inside me was quietly skeptical of it, despite my affection and respect for Racine’s tightly-constructed script. About an ancient queen’s desire for her stepson—legally and morally equivalent to incest at the time—how would this play read in a world that has given us plays in which a woman can become the lover of a whole family of men or in which a man can consummate his love for a goat. Could the relatively tame Phèdre be other than artifact?

But, I am happy to report, it is a truly wonderful show. Amazingly acted by members of Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival (and two of our MFA students!) on an elegant yet gritty set, it reminds me why we have a canon to begin with. While the taboo surrounding the particulars of Phèdre’s relationship to Hippolytus may have relaxed, the concept of taboo has not. And with writing and characters this strong, and a story this iconic, the taboo in the play transforms into something else: for me, unsurprisingly perhaps, suddenly the play became about Prop 8: Phèdre, when she learns that her love has been superseded by Hippolytus’s love for the outlaw Aricie:

Have they oft been seen
Talking together? Did they seek the shades
Of thickest woods? Alas! full freedom had they
To see each other.
Heav’n approved their sighs;
They loved without the consciousness of guilt;
And every morning’s sun for them shone clear,
While I, an outcast from the face of Nature,
Shunn’d the bright day, and sought to hide myself.*
(*This is not the translation we’re using)

I started to become angry that Phèdre lived in a world where her love was something ugly and to be ashamed of—something to be kept hidden. This is not at all what the playwright had intended, I realize, but isn’t that the fun of working with old texts of worth: without changing a word, they evolve to meet society’s needs.

Interestingly, the reading of Eisa Davis’s The History of Light last Monday also made me think of issues surrounding gay marriage. Her play explores (among other things) the relationship between a black man and a white woman who are lovers and civil rights activists in the 60s. The man eventually leaves the woman for the “perfect black woman” (who is the protagonist’s mother), in part because of society’s pressure to keep the biracial couple apart. Two very different plays by very different writers writing in very different times, both making me think about the same issue . . .

Both the classical (canonical) text of Racine and the new work by this contemporary playwright have value. I’m thankful to be working in a theater that is exploring both in the same week. There is much to be said about the balance of old and new. There has been a lot of pressure for theaters to explore new work, and what little funding that is out there seems to be focused on this. Is new work the only thing audience’s want? If so, where’s their patronage? There is a new study examining the reality of the relationship between playwrights and non-profit theaters: Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play. The quote at the top of this post is taken from the New York Times article about it, and here are the Theater Development Fund’s summary of the somewhat scary findings of the study.

1) PLAYWRIGHTS VS. NOT-FOR-PROFIT THEATRES: The relationship between playwrights and producing not-for-profit theatres is collaboration in crisis. The two groups studied are deeply divided in how they view each other, the audience, and the successes and obstacles of the field of new play production.

2) ECONOMICS OF PLAYWRITING: In economic terms, it is virtually impossible to make a living or sustain a career as a professional playwright in America. The royalty system of payment that grew out of the commercial theatre has proven ineffective in the not-for-profit world. Commissions are too small to pay for the time it takes to write plays and rarely lead to production. Large grants to individuals continue to dry up. Substantial bodies of work regularly go unproduced. Mid-career is the crisis point for playwrights, and the new play ecosystem has nothing in place to help playwrights through it.

3) PREMIER-ITIS: When it comes to new play production, an emphasis on premieres—by artistic directors, the press, boards of directors, and funders—is the operating principle. This “premier-itis” means that plays rarely get the continued life they need to reach the kind of artistic completion that results from second and third productions. It also means that playwrights can’t earn from their plays in an ongoing way, as there is often no income stream, because of the field’s “one (production) and done” practices.

4) DOWNSIZING OF THE AMERICAN PLAY: New play creation and production in America has downsized in every way: cast size, size of venues for new plays, expectations of artists and audiences alike, and, even, ambition.

5) DWINDLING AUDIENCES: Our theatre is losing the audience for new plays at both ends, as current, mostly homogenous theatregoers age and die, and as younger and more culturally diverse audiences fail to take their place. Playwrights blame this on the conservatism of the theatres’ leadership. Artistic directors believe that playwrights aren’t writing for their theatres’ actual audiences.

6) THEATRE BECOMING THE LOST ART?: Under all the division and concern over the state of new play creation, development and production is the widespread fear that theatre as an art form has been pushed to the margins.  Writers and artistic producers alike are looking for ways to move it back to its place at the center of the conversation that is American culture.

7) HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: There is enormous, field-wide energy and commitment to new-play production. New-play activity is almost certainly at an all-time high in the not-for-profit theatre.  Some of this activity, geared toward new and better practices, holds the promise of improving the systemic problems explored in this report.

Does anyone else think number 7’s “hope for the future” isn’t all that encouraging given the weight of the other 6 concerns? I’m looking forward to reading the book after I convince our library to buy it, but I bet I know the punchline: money.

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