Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Future of The Playwright"

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American Theatre at a Crossroad:
The Function of the Critic

American Theatre at a Crossroad:
The Function of the Critic

Date: Tue, 18 Nov 2003 11:18:45 -0500
Subject: American Theatre at a Crossroad - The Future of the Playwright

Hi Larry,
Here as a quick play by play of the Discussion Panel last night! Once again, my apologies if I am misquoting. This recap is from my scribbled notes

. American Theatre at a Crossroad

The Future of the Playwright

Moderator: Robert Brustein


John Guare - Playwright
Wendy Wasserstein -Playwright
Christopher Durang - Playwright
Paula Vogel - Playwright
Jim Nicola - Artistic Director

Quote of the Evening: "Did you hear about the Polish actress....she slept with the writer."

The first impression last night at the final session of Robert Brustein's panel discussions on the future was that the talent always packs them in the aisles. There was a notable increase in attendance as compared to last week's panel, The Function of the Critic. Though the playwright's were a little wittier, and more forceful in their convictions, they did not provide the more informative discussion we heard the critics give about their direction and their function. While it was an informative evening about age old questions of playwrighting, only Paula Vogel really started the discussion into the area of what is the "future of the playwright."

Moderator Robert Brustein asked his standard three questions:

1. Do playwrights have an obligation to deal with current social and political events?

2. What is the role of the playwright in the theatre?

3. What are the differences in writing for the stage and for other mediums such as film?

Brustein added that after 9/11 it was the playwright's who responded the fastest, trying to make sense of the tragedy. Indeed, The Guys is a powerful work of drama that came out so fast on the heels of 9/11 that it was almost amazing.

John Guare started things off by pointing out that Ibsen was always shocked that A Doll's House became a launching pad for dialogue involving feminism and women's rights. In his view, playwrights aren't neccessarily trying to be political. He stated that a playwright's obligation is to tell what happened at this moment in history. "To say this is what it was like to be alive and living at this moment, and," he continued, "by the very nature of doing that it makes it political."

The text is also a sacred thing to Mr. Guare. "Once the production is over, all you are left with is the text," he said. He continued by explaining that to him the director is an illuminator and not a collaborator. He brought up the fact that Samuel Beckett "owns" Endgame and that he can insist it is performed however he wants it to be. As far as the film world goes, he thinks it is a different ballgame, and he doesn't particularly like working for film because you don't own your words. In fact, he was on the set of Atlantic City for which he wrote the screenplay and one of the producers asked why the writer was on the set. Louis Malle, the director, said, "If you have somebody here for the hair, why wouldn't you want somebody for the the words?"

Wendy Wasserstein agreed, and told a funny anecdote about how she got calls from Hollywood after her play The Heidi Chronicles had received all its praise. She met with a Hollywood representative named Wendy. ("The skinniest Wendy I have have ever seen in my life," she joked.) Wendy told Wendy that they just had problems with the second act, the third act and the main character. Wasserstein thought, "I just won the Pulitzer Prize a week ago can you give me this moment just a little longer?" Agreeing with John Guare she said that in film and televisio, you don't own your work. However, she did have a great experience making the film Object of My Affection, but she attributed that experience to the fact that Nicholas Hyntner, a theatre person, was the director on that film.

Wasserstein said that the very act of playwrighting is political because it expresses individual voice in a society where choices are being diminished. On a plane recently, she saw a photo in the newspaper of President Bush signing the late term abortion bill. She said that one of the people standing around him seemed very happy and had his hands clasped as if he was praying. This made her so angry, and she said that that anger is individual voice, and it is the stuff of which plays are made.

Christopher Durang, the hit of the evening, started by saying that he got hung up on the word "obligation." He said that he feels that social issues fit into plays automatically, but that the political does not so much fit in easily. He related an experience of having reacted very strongly to the Bush-Dukakis political debates and wrote the play Media Amuck. However, in retrospect, he feels that he did not have enough time to really absorb and process all of the implications and that he may have attempted to dramatize it too soon.

He told a story of how a college production added simulated sex scenes to the end of one of his plays. The scenes did not exist in his original text, and he was confused when, before he had seen the production, a reporter from the college's newspaper asked him what he thought of the "sex scenes at the end of the play." "That's funny," he thought, "that she would call them sex scenes." He then saw the production and realized, "there are sex scenes at the end!" It was not a pleasant experience for him.

Most interesting of all, I found out that, by his own admission, Durang hates conflict. And when an audience member asked the playwrights if they ever "retract something from the page because they are scared of how it would be received," Durang was the first one to step forward and elaborate on how he did tend to do that. Most of this was stemming from his experiences with the Catholic League and their forceful protests against his play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. "Most people seemed to think that I enjoyed all the controversy," he confided, "but, I did not enjoy it."

Paula Vogel is always a galvanizing speaker, and she started off by saying that she thinks that individual voice in the theatre is being killed. She stated some of the same concerns at the NETC conference a few weeks ago. She thinks that the creativity by committe or, worse, focus group is turning theatre into the same marketing machine as Hollywood is. She thinks that the commercial and the LORT theatre is suffering, but that small, community theatre is alive and well. Some of her best experiences were working at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska where she developed How I Learned to Drive.

Paula disagreed with her other playwrights when she said that she welcomes other directors to add to the experience of her plays. "The entity is the play, not the script," she said. But she did think that a disturbing practice is happening wherein MFA students are being taught to cross out the stage directions when approaching a play. She thinks that the playwright is speaking to you in those elaborate stage directions, and that you have to read those. I myself think of how August Wilson opens the playscripts of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, or Joe Turner's Come and Gone. To not pay attention to those descriptions is to ignore a major clue in the meanings of the plays.

The last guest was Jim Nicola, the artistic director of New York TheatreWorks. He is passionate about the theatre and since he does not have the creative talent, he thinks that the best thing he can do is strive to provide a venue for those original voices. He expressed how plays are very dependent on our language and how he has noticed, as a specific example, how Caryl Churchill's playscripts have gotten smaller and smaller over the years.

There was spirited discussion concerning an assertion made by Ms. Vogel that the audiences have to be part of the journey or else the theatre will die. Mr. Guare kind of agreed and noted how theatre people tend to speak of their interaction with the audience. "We killed them." "They weren't giving us anything." "They are killing us."

Ms. Wasserstein noted that she has been on almost a panel a year that asks, "Is theatre dying?" Government giving was brought up and Mr. Brustein noted that the NEA has done itself in by its problems with Mapplethorpe, etc. And that its original mission was to help subsidize Arts organizations in order to make the arts more accessible to the public. He said that they have failed in doing that. The question of bringing young people into the theatre was attached to the affordability issue, but I disagree and think that Ed Siegel addressed the question more thoughtfully in last week's panel when he said that the theatre needs to look at Blue Man, Stomp, and def Poetry Jam, if they want to attract younger audiences. Young people find the money to go to concerts.

Congratulations to Robert Brustein, once again. I hope that these types of discussions can continue in other forums and with other panelists.x
===Art Hennessey

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide