Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bill Marx On the Downsizing of Plays

The fact is that tight economics are increasingly shaping the creative decisions in today’s theaters. In early February I went to a reading of a promising new play, Unbleached, at The New Repertory Theatre. Playwright Michael Aman said in the discussion period that he would have liked to include more characters in the script, but that the cost was prohibitive – he would have to “wait for the movie version” before he could pen what he really wanted to put on

Swing that lethal a budgetary axe through the history of the theater
and most of the great plays would snap like dry weeds – how many dramas by the Greeks, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, and Brecht contain two to four characters? Very few. The absurdist Samuel Beckett would be the perfect playwright for the age of dollar cost average — if he were more cheerful.

Marx also touches on the point Thomas Garvey first brought up back in February, and then Ed Siegel voiced in an editorial at the beginning of March. "Why aren't the larger houses doing the premieres by our major dramatists?"

More on that later.


Thomas Garvey said...

Yes, yes, tight economics lead to smaller casts lists - or to actors' doubling their way through larger plays (including half of Shakespeare's canon). This is all old, old, ooooold news. Rents inevitably rise; new technologies enable profits to be squeezed from recorded performance; the live audience is inevitably limited; the result is that theatre is not, actually, economically viable. We know this. The question is, what are Mr. Marx's suggestions? Does he advocate an arts tax, to provide theatres with the wherewithal to produce larger plays? Does he recommend breaking up Actors' Equity, to enable actors' wages to be lowered? Does he support public seizure of performance spaces, to reduce rents? I'm being serious here - he should name his poison; otherwise the discussion is pointless. What's irritating about his statements is that (as usual) he seems to be trying to disguise political argument as aesthetic complaint.

Bill Marx said...

Mr. Garvey lists some good oooold solutions to the theater’s economic problems. I remember hearing about the need for an “entertainment tax” in Boston when I began reviewing in the early ‘80s. Everything he suggests is worth talking about, though it will take a political effort to make anything happen, which is why the ideas are geriatric. I like the notion of an arts tax (other major cities raise revenues for cultural activity that way), city enterprise grants to theater companies, even some relaxation of Actors’ Equity wage scale, though the organization has been offering modified contracts – based on the size of theaters -- for years.

As for local grant and foundation money, The Boston Foundation (Art points out the same problem with the MCC), gives hefty bucks to the big companies rather to the smaller, more innovative troupes that would develop new audiences for challenging work. The city could devote far more resources to supporting cultural organizations, small and large, than it does now. For example, just before I left WBUR I wrote a couple of columns about how well Philadelphia gets the word out about the breath and depth of its theater community; compare that city’s first-rate efforts online (including a weekly newsletter, podcasts, videocasts, etc) with Boston’s still (!) pathetic “Things to Do” web page and calender.

Thomas Garvey said...

Earth to Bill: none of those old ideas has a snowball's chance in hell of going into effect. We are already in a recession, which some feel could tip into the first actual depression since the 30s. We will need new taxes to pay off the Iraq War, pay for Medicare, and sustain Social Security. A special tax to support Neil LaBute is way, way down the list.

Which perhaps is as it should be, as I wonder at the near-incoherence of LaBute's argument. He states that he himself, like apparently all other American writers, has become "small," writing "tiny plays about tiny ideas with two to four characters." But when he begins to talk about "big plays," he seems to unconsciously equate these with a certain kind of political writing: "Maybe every writer has a political play hidden away in a drawer somewhere, but my guess is that we've stopped writing them . . ."

Funny thing is, I don't think LaBute means a pro-Bush political play – indeed, it's hard to shake the feeling that LaBute is essentially indulging here in political-complaint-by-other-means. Not that I don't sympathize with his political position. I just wonder whether the appropriate targets for this kind of attack are really our small theatre administrations and their financial decisions.

I also wonder whether inchoate nostalgia for the heyday of Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter can really count as "criticism." One would imagine from this kind of rant that the left never failed - that Edward Bond had come up with a convincing account of why the proletariat went at the Berlin Wall with pick axes (rather than simply whining about it). But obviously Bond – and the left in general - never managed anything like this. Even Tony Kushner, in Angels in America, caved to libertarianism and the idea that there were no more big ideas. But at least he understood what he was doing!

I’m not so sure about Mr. Labute (or Mr. Marx, for that matter). It’s hard to sustain big plays without ideas of something like the same size (which is why Angels wobbles so obviously, and why even August: Osage County, despite all its energetic writing, seems to ramble). And I’m not sure bigger budgets would make much difference – I certainly don’t think having a few more actors onstage would conjure a new political synthesis. Neither am I interested, to be blunt, in seeing Mr. LaBute write “bigger” – to me, even his “small” plays are a little too thin; to my mind, they should be even tinier.

As for Mr. Marx, it seems to me he often misconstrues symptoms as causes, while ignoring possible suspects whom it might be politically inconvenient to identify. Surely the academy is a major source of the American theatre’s woe – it’s hard to think of a single major writer who has come out of it, and it’s clear the fad of “deconstruction” undermined the very idea of communal rhetoric (which is what the stage essentially is). Yet Marx seems to have little say on this score, even though one of the worst perpetrators of theoretical gobbledygook – the A.R.T. – practices at his very door. Meanwhile he flails at such odd targets as Don DeLillo – whose most recent play he clearly didn’t understand - and the New Rep, which is currently staging My Name is Rachel Corrie for its largely Jewish audience, and has waited a few too many years, in Marx’s view, to produce The Lieutenant of Inishmore - which mocks the Irish. Marx closes his “essay” by deferring to George Hunka – whose only insight seems to be that “For audiences to come back to theatre, theatre has to offer them something they can’t get elsewhere.” No; really? Who’da thunka, Hunka. But this is where this kind of “think piece” always leads – into the clouds, sans specifics, sans self-awareness, sans everything, really, but still trailing complicated dialectical tendrils.

As for me, I have to point out that “big plays” have hardly disappeared. Coast of Utopia was gynormous, and August: Osage County is pretty damn big. My question is whether they have the resonance to support their size (and if not, why not) - a very different question from Mr. LaBute’s or Mr. Marx’s, but, I think, the genuine critical query of the day.

Ian Thal said...

As a first time playwright who is enamoured of "big ideas" told on a large scale, I ran into the same issue of economic realities when I received feedback from my first draft-- there were simply too many characters for it to be feasibly produced. While this was initially a disappointment, it did force me to focus on what was essential to the story and to pay attention to what characters simply did not work. That said, the draft that I'm currently working on still has a larger cast than what is typical of contemporary theatre-- but it's also a stronger piece of writing.

The economic pressures on an aesthetic work can sometimes stiffle the artist-- but can also force the artist to attempt a more creative solution-- if he or she is committed to his or her vision.

Anyway, it's rather stimulating to read as the argument between Marx and Garvey travels from site to site.