Monday, August 3, 2009

August 2009 - Theresa Rebeck


This year, we’re focusing in depth on what Lark community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Every month, we are inviting a guest essayist—theater artists as well as people from fields outside theater—to sha
re a unique perspective on some important strategic questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately about the purpose of live theater in the twenty-first century, what the field has to offer society as a whole, and what we can learn about how to shape the theater of the future.

Theresa Rebeck joined the Lark’s Playwright Advisory Board in 2000, serving as consultant to the company and session facilitator in our Playwrights’ Workshop program. She also served as Playwright in Residence for the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons during which she wrote THE WATER’S EDGE, THE SCENE, and MAURITIUS. She is an accomplished writer in many disciplines—film, television, fiction, essays, and theater—and brings to the Lark community her distinctive voice as an accomplished American dramatist, heartfelt passion for plays, desire to nurture th
e next generation of playwrights, and driving concern for the ways audiences experience the theater and its relevance in their lives. In her essay this month, she opens up an exciting conversation about the inextricable connection between craft and creativity. I hope that she will provoke an active debate about balancing iconoclastic ideas with the skills necessary to engage and transport audiences.

We look forward to reading your responses to Theresa–and to one another!


by Theresa Rebeck

Recently, John Eisner asked me how, as a playwright, I reconciled my passion for structure and historically more traditional elements of craft with fidelity to the inchoate and poetic essence of the creative impulse.

I was honestly startled by the question. John is smart and reasonable and he spends a lot of time thinking about theater and theater artists and questions of how theater can remain a lively and important element of the American culture. So when he wondered how I reconciled craft and creativity I had to take it seriously even though the question kind of made my head want to explode. It has always seemed to me that the instigating impulse is something messy and internal and that a playwright’s job is to take that messy internal moment and build it into a stronger and more complex and dynamic version of itself so that it can sustain itself, on a stage, with actors, in the light of day. It’s like being a gardener: You have a seed; you add water and dirt and light, and you have a plant. You have an idea, you add structure, and you have a play. That’s not reconciling a conflict, that’s art.

Not so much maybe. Last summer I was talking to Rajiv Joseph about the overt disdain I sometimes hear come out of people’s mouths around the whole notion of structure. He agreed, noting that “people are really down” on anything that seems like it might be “conventional.” The suspicion is what John’s question suggests it might be—that craft somehow presents a compromise to some essential voice, and that purity of expression actually needs to detonate tradition for it to be authentic.

I do understand that artists of integrity can disagree around this question of aesthetics. I recently served on a panel with the exceptional Constance Congdon and Mac Wellman. Connie and Mac spoke passionately for the need for originality and the exploding of expectations that can prove the groundwork for provocative writing. I spoke passionately on behalf of story and character and forward motion. I think at one point we got a little annoyed with each other, but that really was only once during a workshop that took place over four days. Mostly we shrugged and agreed that sometimes it’s hard to know what to tell a young playwright who’s got a kind of interesting mess on his or her hands and theater is a weird business no matter how you slice it and we’re all in this together. They’d we go off and have cocktails.

But there are real questions around this conflict, if that is indeed what it is. Steven Dietz wrote to me a couple of months ago, noting that when he was just a wee beginner of a playwright, people praised his “experimentation.” But now he feels that at that time he just didn’t know how to write a play. This is my worry, honestly: In the current environment, when young writers are being encouraged to stay away from anything “conventional” are we perhaps falling in love with a kind of playwriting that frankly just doesn’t work? Are we judging too harshly plays that do work? And how does the audience fit into this discussion? Does it?

There is a class issue at the core of this discussion which I think frankly never gets named, and that centers on the question of audience. Several times I have heard wonderful theater artists complain about how stupid the audience is. Usually that statement is tangled in a larger discussion of why that particular audience didn’t particularly enjoy an especially experimental piece of theater. I also hear a lot of people complaining because while all us intellectual and hip theater artists are so busy running away from what may or may not be conventional, audiences are pretty much running toward it. Up in Dorset, Vermont, where I hole up in a little farmhouse during the summer, there’s a fantastic little theater which produces wonderful work, the Dorset Theater Festival. They started out their season this year with Jack Gilpin starring in Conor MacPherson’s St Nicholas; it was a terrific night of theater, but didn’t sell many tickets. Just last week, however, they opened The Hollow, by Agatha Christie. This production is a boffo hit; they’ve sold more tickets to the Agatha Christie play (staged with dazzling panache by artistic director Carl Forsman) than they have sold to any production of any other play in the last three years.

Does that make the audiences in Dorset stupid? I’m sure there are plenty of theater artists who would say, well, it doesn’t make them smart. On the other hand, these are not people who just stay home all night and watch television, or go see bad movies about idiots blowing up airplanes. These are people who got in their cars, drove to the theater and paid $45 each to watch three full hours of some pretty hilarious Agatha Christie. They laughed and clapped and had a great time, and I’m pretty sure they will come back and see another play at the Dorset Theater Festival soon. I suspect all the actors who were in that Agatha Christie play thought those audience members were smart enough. I suspect Carl Forsman and the merry band who are up there trying to keep that theater alive up there in Dorset don’t think those audiences, or Agatha Christie, are all that stupid either.

There are always questions inside questions. Who is theater supposed to serve? Why do we do it, anyway? Do we write for audiences, or do we write for ourselves and our community? If we are convinced that the purest forms of theater—the ones that honor the original and mysterious impulses in the heart of the playwright, and ask that the playwright find the most original and “unconventional” theatricalities to express that impulse—then do we need audiences at all? Why do we get mad at audiences for not flocking to theater which doesn’t interest them because it doesn’t care about them?

Do we think that theater is art only if people don’t understand it?

Can art be serious and popular at the same time?

Is the idea that craft and creativity are in opposition perhaps mistaken? Isn’t it possible that they are the yin and yang of storytelling? Isn’t it possible that greatness in theater embraces both?