Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Red Meat for the Masses

Mr. Excitement and Joshua James point to the recent article by Richard Nelson on the first anniversary of Nelson's taking over the Playwrighting Program at Yale Drama.

After reading teasers, I was pumped up to read the article. After all, what playwright wouldn't be stirred by this:

The damage this culture of “development” has done and continues to do to my profession is and has been immeasurable. To take just one catastrophic change: actors, directors, and even audiences are being taught by this culture to “help”
the playwright write his or her play...

here is a whole slew of individuals, often interesting and generous individuals, who have been put into the unfortunate position of “shepherding” plays through this process. In other words there are many many hands now stirring or being encouraged to stir the playwriting pot...

Getting others’ hands out of the playwright’s play (and head) is a major task and a necessary goal of the profession and of a professional playwright-training program.

Mr. Nelson's disdain for the development cycle is understood. I won't argue that, in fact, I agree.

However, (please read the rest of the article) his argument is near impossible to follow:

He wants a pre-professional program, but he seems to spit on any talk of the nuts and bolts of how a play works?

Hamlet has no structure? No character, no motivation? What the hell is he talking about?

For the record, I agree with 13P's mission and I agree that development cycles can be ridiculous. I do think that audience feedback takes things a little too far. But let's remember Shakespeare went through many versions of plays over the years, tinkering with Hamlet, etc. One has to believe that some of the changes were based on seeing the play performed and looking at how audiences reacted.

Having followed plays through development cycles and all the way to production, I will say that Mr. Nelson is dead wrong. One of the problems is that there is too much "What is the play about?", "Why did you write it?" Meanwhile, everybody tiptoes around the fact that the play is "not working," and that there are serious problems with it.

Mr. Nelson is too smart not to know that he is playing semantics. He is substituting the word "rules," (which he knows will always disgust artists,) for what are actually "principles."

(Far more valuable are Jose Rivera's Assumptions About Playwrighting.)

Now, once again, I would rather see productions than endless development. And, being a playwright, I do take ownership of my plays. Very often I have produced and directed my own plays.

What I see happening is that development programs are becoming the equivalent of the Hollywood test screening. Theatres put on a series of readings for the subscribers and see if they like respond positively. If so, then it wins a production. If not, the playwright is subjected to all sorts of vague advice and gets the equivalent of going straight to DVD.

Contrary to Mr. Nelson's view, I find that plays change very slightly from first reading to production.

At least he is clear what he thinks. Original Voice is the only thing one needs to succeed. No principles, no guidance, no knowledge of what has come before. The fact that the audience, or even the director has no clue what you are doing, (or what the point is,) should not matter. Once you have original voice, you need nothing else. You just need productions.

A friend of mine who graduated from an MFA writing program often jokes: "The first thing you notice about going to get an MFA in writing is that you are immediately set to studying the works of authors who never went to an MFA Program. And the second thing you notice is that most of the best teachers you have never went to an MFA program."

13P realizes what the answer is. They have formed their own company, and they are taking ownership.

As a supplement to this article, I would suggest people read Feingold's review of a Second Stage production last year.

I wish I knew who encourages plays like Rajiv Joseph’s All This Intimacy, the second entry in Second Stage’s summer "New Plays Uptown" season. I don’t mean that the results are so dire—Joseph has talent and is presumably young enough as
a playwright to be entitled to make the many kinds of mistakes that All This Intimacy commits, all over the stage, practically every time it draws a breath. Nor do I object, particularly, to the inflicting of such an immature play on adult critics with better things to do, or contrariwise, to the infliction of their resentment on the author: Baptism by fire may not be the most pleasant way for a young artist to learn, but it has its informative side, especially in our cuckoo-headed culture, which offers artists constant encouragement to repeat their worst mistakes. Some of Joseph’s elders and should-be wisers have built entire careers on such encouragement.

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