Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Play Development Blues - Brustein on Nelson

Richard Nelson the now outgoing head of playwriting at Yale Drama wrote an address last year that went around the blogosphere and to points beyond. Nelson talked about how the playwright was being shoved to the side under the current system of play development.

Robert Brustein, in the Huffington Post wrote a response, (I don't rember seeing it at the time):

Still, while he describes this unhappy development with accuracy,
Nelson sometimes seems to confuse theatre companies with publishing houses. There is a difference between giving a manuscript to a group of editors responsible for improving your grammar or correcting your facts, and contributing a play to a producing organization responsible for staging your script. The publishing house may suggest modifications in an author's text, but its ultimate function is to convert type into print. To convert a script into a
production, by contrast, takes an army of actors, directors, designers, technicians, literary directors, and composers, who also bear responsibility for the play's life on stage. This is called collaboration. It is the process of a collective, and it has all the failings, but also all the advantages, of an egalitarian democratic system.

Nelson wants none of this. He believes the function of his ollaborators is to "solve" the play, not to "help" it. Longing for those halcyon days when the play was the thing and the playwright the king, Nelson
deplores the fact that the most creative figure in the theatre now stands at the bottom of the ladder, hounded with requests for revisions of his original script. "What other person is viewed in this way?" asks Nelson. "Imagine hiring say a director with the assumption that he couldn't do the work himself?" But all theatre artists are hired on that assumption. The actor, for example, must
answer to the director (and also to the playwright), who must answer to the artistic director, who must answer to the managing director, who must answer to Board members, who must answer to their money managers. All the work artists do in the theatre is subject to editing and revision. And what about those imaginative theatrical artists, the designers, whose superb creations are always
at risk of being modified to suit the whims of directors, artistic directors, actors, and even actors agents (who might have complaints about their clients' wigs and costumes). Kicked around by the entire theatre world, the designer has no one to kick but the cat.

In other words, everyone in the theatre fumes about being subject
to the whims of somebody else. And at some point everyone has the luxury of feeling disenfranchised. But when the system works, theatrical collaboration has enormous advantages.


Thomas Garvey said...

Really, with this kind of wacky thinking, no wonder the A.R.T. was so mediocre under Brustein. Does he even ponder the fact that the playwright - particularly in the case of a debut - is providing a blueprint for future productions as well as the current one, and that therefore he may be in a special position within this supposed "collaboration"? The playwright is collaborating with the future, Bob - not just with you.

Scott Walters said...

This is a very odd essay. On the one hand, he talks about collaboration, which is what equals do; on the other hand, he talks about a hierarchy -- X reports to Y, who reports to Z. This is what has happened in our idea of collaboration -- we have mixed it up with hierarchy, and they're not the same thing at all.

Art said...

Brustein has said many times that he long ago turned down the NY Times Head Critic job. While he did have ideological reasons, he also always states that he had didn't feel he had the ability to write coherent reviews on a daily reviewers deadline.

In the past few years, Brustein's posts at Huffintong on on Open University at the New Republic show that he may possess a talent to asesss himself accurately.