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?


  1. Thank you for this. Great respect for Ms. Rebeck's ... mind. I'm an actress, caught between the pull of expanding my own artistic nature and the desire for a job that pays (being a part of the Agatha Christie audience pleasers.) Can we pursue both with integrity?
    -- A.M.C.

  2. This was a wonderful piece, and resonates with me as I try to figure out my own place in the playwriting world. I think a play can be serious and popular at the same time. At least I hope so!

  3. Wow, I really appreciate this. I'm a playwright who admits, sometimes sheepishly, sometimes defiantly, that I often don't "get" experimental work. I have seen experimental pieces that knock me to the floor with a visceral truth which seems to flow from an intrinsic internal logic - and I admire the hell out of that - but just as often when I've gone to see something "experimental" I've ended up confused and frustrated, wondering why I'd subjected myself to the experience. I love a great story and well-developed characters - who doesn't? But of course it's not an either or... Each playwright has to find the best way to tell his/her story; I just would never vote for "non-traditionalism" purely for its own sake. If the content dictates the form it seems to me you can't go wrong.

  4. That was a provocative and honest piece, I'm glad Rebeck has the guts to say that some theater problems may be self-created. I like experimental theater, when it grabs me emotionally. When it doesn't, I find myself staring at the stage wondering why they're doing stuff that doesn't serve the story and in fact may detract from it with unnecessary flourishes or digressions. Sometimes it seems like someone's reliving a classroom assignment: "Add a magical element here." "Write an impossible stage direction and see what happens." and so on. Some non-craft-oriented theater people have an insular, elitist attitude, as if their focus is to impress the few others in their community whom they consider edgy enough to appreciate their awesomeness. It begs the question: What's the difference between creativity and pretension? I know there is one, but when exactly does gold turn to tinsel? My personal touchstone is whether the work's engaging, and that takes craft. Without pacing, characterization, progress, some kind of plot -- creativity easily becomes vain spectacle, with feathers rather than blood at its core. I'm not interested in merely clever displays. If a play doesn't engage me intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually, it's a dead duck, no matter how pretty its feathers. People who go to theater make a real effort to support live art. If they see an insular production that doesn't respect them or try to engage them, they'll be bored, and they won't return -- possibly to any theater, which hurts us all.

  5. I disagree with Rebeck completely. Plays overly concerned with story or structure are ultimately more detrimental to theater than plays that run the risk of being self-referential or incoherent. Experimental theater is vital because it is (at its best) harnessing a full, uniquely theatrical set of tools to create and interrupt "reality", as opposed to crudely mimicking tropes and structures found in popular TV and movies.

  6. I once shared a stage with Ms. Rebeck, our plays were combined for an evening of one acts in NYC. I complimented her work then, and I agree with her now. In the 19th century there was no distinction between what was art and what was popular. Art and what pleased the audience was intextricably connected in that Charles Dickens was the most popular novelist and Tennyson, the most popular poet. Both were beloved by the people and both were considered to be, and remain to be, lauded as two of the world's great literary artists. Before endowments came along to skew the nature of theatre, it lived and thrived as the reflection of its audience. In return, the audience loved it, bought tickets to it and it flourished until the 1970's when the grants and endowments arrived and the educated and tasteful producer receded. Bring back convention, structure, craft and storytelling and the health and happiness of the theatre will be heartily restored.

  7. There is a tremendous cultural divide, then, Ms. Cinoman... A return to pre-70's liberation and politics is the cure for American Theater? NO WAY. That's the death rattle.

  8. Who are all these conservative losers?

  9. I don't think audiences really give a damn about structural form one way or the other. They just want to see a good show. (Content is usually king in that regard.) If the show is good most audiences will go with what ever structure the writer chooses.

    A lot of us have prized form over content and then are pissed when audiences don't show up or don't like it.

    sidenote: I've never understood the logic behind writing a stage direction that is impossible to stage when you do actually want someone to stage in--not just read it.

  10. I am not a conservative loser. I am a liberal loser.

    I don't think audiences will pay to be bored. Just saying.

  11. I'm pretty simple-minded when it comes to theater: I know what I like when I see and hear it. Whether it's a traditionally structured piece on Broadway, or an experimental piece in a little ampitheatre in Mexico, I enjoy it when I find the piece shows an aspect of truth or life I've never considered, and when I'm engaged. Like visual art, where there's room for naturalism and for abstract, theater can encompass any narrative and mode of telling it.

    Because (I think) theatre is a conversation with "the audience", (and maybe with cultural context) those who experience it positively will inevitably feel encouraged to return and to tell others to go, (which is why word-of-mouth is still a stronger draw in theatre than reviews, advertising, etc.) This has proven true both for straight plays/musicals and for experimental work, which is why there are artists who have found success (or at least acclaim) in it all.

    The real problem is that each side denigrates the other...("conservative losers" written as "anonymous" is a good example.) That's why Theresa's article may offend those who only make experimental theater, and why this conversation is difficult to have. In my view, one form isn't more intelligent than the other, or harder to make, etc. As artists, I think it's important that we each respect each other, and support each other as we each tread the very difficult process of putting our "visions" on stage.

    I've met enough theater artists by now to know that each of us tries to combine some form of "craft" with "the poetic essence of the creative impulse." Craft isn't set in stone. In my view, Aristotle got it right when he said that certain elements make a piece work better than others, for example, content over spectacle. I'm relieved/grateful that there are more spaces than before for writing, developing, and yes, experimenting - with multiple approaches.

    I want to thank Theresa for continually writing pieces that generate conversations about the theater at a time when they're necessary, (God forbid she should have a strong point of view) and also the Lark for asking good questions.

  12. I notice the person who calls others losers prefers to remain anonymous. So easy to attack from that vantage point, wouldntcha say? Can't we all just get along?

  13. Check out Theresa Rebeck's article from this past March in the LA Times called, "Playwright Theresa Rebeck likes to tell stories". Here's the link:

  14. I think there are infinite ways to have a "conversation" with an audience. And within them are also infinite ways to bore them, engage them, make them think, make them not think, make them imagine, make them stare into forgetfulness...

    Ultimately it is up to the theatre artist as to what sort of "conversation" they wish to present to an audience. I know we have all been in a theatre and been completely lost, annoyed, or simply apathetic. And probably more times than we have been in a theatre staring in awe. There are going to be successes and failures with whichever sort of "conversation" one wishes to propose. It doesn't matter if it is a well-packaged play with an escalating plot, or a fragmented series of brutal scenes unrelated to one another.

    What is important is the INTENT that the writer is interested in engaging an audience with.

    If a writer's goal is to engage an audience with identifiable characters and the unique plot that befell them, then the artistic test is whether or not the story or characters meant anything to their audience. And far be it for any other artist to label them un'artistic because they chose to write a cohesive story with caracter arcs.

    And equally, if a writer's goal is to make an intellectual impact or elicit a guttural reaction through stage images, human encounters, or poetry, and "not" to engross them into a storyline or character journey, then how can a more craft'favoring writer say anything just because certain story structures were absent.

    The measure of success lies in the audience and how engaged they are in the sort of "conversation" that the artist wanted to engage them in.

    (the real danger is when an artist has no interest in an actual "conversation")

  15. I think that "craft" in the above discussion is intended to mean mainly the professional use of the aristotelian structure: unity of plot, characters' arcs/consistency, reversal, resolution, etc.
    There is LOTS of craft involved in writing an absurdist (see Beckett's Waiting for Godot), surrealist or poetic play.
    Sometimes the structure involved in this kind of plays is more complicated and needs more "craft" than a linear/naturalistic/aristotelian play because the LOGIC employed is poetic, associative, as opposed to cause-effect, so the PROGRESSION constructed in these cases requires careful orchestration - it can be a progression based on accumulation and repetition like in music and dance...

  16. First off, let me say that I agree there is room in theatre for all sorts of forms and structures. That being said, the trend by many "name" theatres toward an automatic dismissal of conventially structured or more naturalistic plays is disturbing to me. I find not occasionally, but OFTEN, that cleverly structured and inventively staged works actually tend to create an emotional distance between the audience (me) and the characters. A recent example in L.A. was the play "Love Water", which demonstrated some accomplished writing within a dream-like context. While the play was "theatrical" in its presentation, I did not care one iota for the various "journeys" of the characters, such as they were. And I have yet to speak to anyone who saw the play that felt differently. The play left me empty and, frankly, annoyed. When I go to the theatre and when I write my own plays I am motivated by a desire for an emotional connection to what is taking place on stage. Doesn't mean the dramatic structure has to be linear and moronically easy to follow. But I find that many young writers write (as I did once) from the head, the heart, and the genitals...but fail to go deeper into their guts to find the true source and stakes of the story. Which is paramount, I feel, to hold an audience. As with any fine art, I believe it is important to understand, if not master, the fundamentals first -- which in this case seems to be the more conventional approach to playwriting -- and only then move on to more imaginative and "creative" interpretations.

  17. My biggest personal issue in all of this is that I am honestly very ill-equipped to appreciate "non-conventional" theater. I tend not to like it and I think this has a lot to do with a certain kind of cultural ethnocentrism. I feel these issues ironically and deeply as a minority artist who writes for a largely white, enfranchised audience. I know that most audiences I encounter are missing a lot when they see my plays because their enjoyment of them is framed by their enfranchised homogeny/hegemony. None of this is exciting news to anyone.

    So, moving on ... according to last Sunday's NYTimes survey, the average person spends 3 - 6 hours a day watching movies or television, two media that live and die by very "conventional" story-telling structures. 3 - 6 hours every day. So, culturally, we are very well primed to understand "conventional" plays, but are we equipped to really judge the merits of "non-conventional" theater? I would say that the answer is, "no," and it begs the question -- Do we really have a sense of what we're missing? Maybe nothing, but I doubt it.

    Ultimately, I find that the craft vs. creativity debate has the potential to take on a specious tenor. I think we all know that the two are not mutually exclusive and though some people my decry "conventional" story-telling methods, we all know that the world is skewed in one direction. I suspect that this is just another wrinkle in the food chain of entertainment artiness. Experimental dramatists are artier than playwrights who are artier than screenwriters who are artier than ... take your pick. The truth is, there is crap and gold up and down the line. But, how do we in the theater community feel about the fact that there are subgroups in our community that we are not well-equipped to understand? How much do we value reaching out and creating exchange? How often are we too tired and pre-occupied to make the effort? How do we feel threatened? After all this time, are we truly capable of appreciating non-conventional American theater? Do we even know it when we see it?

  18. Great conversation.

    I think experimentation is fine, but it's an experiment, and it has to be placed (at some point) into the real world. If we're not careful, we might encourage too many writers into such a rigid experimentation that we descend into the elitist world that poetry has fallen to. Much of poetry is so rarified that only the trained and "intellectual" can understand or read it.

    Part of theatre is the writing (the writer), part of it is the performance (director/actors/production), and the most crucial part is the audience. What audience? Intellectuals are great smart audiences, but we have to be aware that the general audience is limited for experimental theatre. There is still a hunger for an exciting play that speaks to a general audience.

    I think, when guiding our young writers, to make them aware of the paths their writing can take, from performace monologue to the well made, mass market play, to experimental theatre to niche theatres like childrens or LGBT.

    However, I find that the business side is several years down the road from the beginning writer, and that you get very far in encouraging students to explore deeper what they're interested in, and offering suggestions on specific questions of craft (structure, character, plot).

    Importantly, I find that recommending the people that the beginning writer needs to read in order to be successful is often the best thing I can give that writer. The right playwright who has a similar vibe to the student can open untold door. To paraphrase Bloom, "Don't underestimate the anxiety of influence."

    When I was starting out, someone recommended I read Mac Wellman. While I didn't get him then, I didn't dismiss and looked at what he was doing. I was also recommended Albee and Mee and Williams and Churchill and many, many others, and some of those were better role models for my writing life.

    I think it important that students discover they are part of a history, have a wide reading base, and that they don't have to reinvent the wheel. And it's also important to note that innovation is not innovation if it's already been done by someone else.

    I think the key to this conversation is the question we often forget about in a workshop situation, "What audience are you writing for? Who do you think wants to see this play?"

    And often, if the audience was not a factor in the student's process, I suggest they consider that factor in the next draft or if they can't see the audience participating in the piece to try their hand at telling this particular story in fiction or poetry.

  19. check out the Time Out NY theater blog UPSTAGED joining the conversation...

  20. Thanks for getting this discussion going, Theresa!

    I think the Holy Grail of playwriting is to create a piece which is both experimental and traditional, i.e. one which breaks new ground formally while also embracing the storytelling values of the great plays that have preceded it. Such a work would stand a good chance of pleasing both critics and audiences (maybe). Needless to say, this is very hard to achieve.

    I was taught by two great mentors -- Sam Shepard and Maria Irene Fornes. While their works can exhibit great craft, as teachers, they were not particularly concerned with form. In my own writing life, craft is something I've acquired over time. Yet, even as rewriting has gotten easier for me over the years, first drafts have gotten harder, because I need to forget my craft in order to create something that's truly alive.

    So perhaps it's not so terrible for young writers to skew towards originality and finding their voices, which are more likely to come naturally at an early stage in a writer's life. Over time, if a writer is diligent and ambitious, s/he will acquire craft -- and perhaps even find the Holy Grail.

  21. I think Fornes is a great example. Formally she's all over the place, changing from text to text, but the form always fits the work.

  22. Read the essay "Crimes Against Genre" in Dodie Bellamy's groundbreaking book ACADEMONIA and then we'll talk.

  23. As a member of the Lark Literary Wing for the last couple of years, I find that Theresa Rebeck’s questions are very much on target with issues I am trying to understand myself in judging some of the scripts that come to the Lark for consideration. I do think art can be popular and serious at the same time, and would give you the example of Shakespeare’s plays.

    These were written to be seen by many kinds of audiences, from the most learned to those who can but spell, as it says in the First Folio. Different audience members would get different benefits from the same play--- those who could but spell would admire the actors and the beauty of the verse, while those who were more serious “the wiser sort” as they were termed, would digest the underlying allegories in the plays and comprehend their deepest meanings and the plays within the plays within the plays. My column in today’s Clyde Fitch Report addresses this particular issue. If Shakespeare had merely addressed “the wiser sort” directly there would not have been a large enough market to sustain the theater company.

    Today however perhaps audiences are more segmented and can (perhaps should?) be addressed separately. In the world of the Internet there are a range of other possibilities—if one employs non Equity actors. The marketing costs of trying to reach a large audience make doing so unrealistic for new and unconventional work. Thus in my own work for instance, I am content to do tiny productions with two or three performances, because I know that an audience a thousand times larger will see the work on YouTube over the following year, which is a way that a ‘long tail’ of niche audiences can be reached.

  24. I would also add that Shakespeare’s plays—which seem to follow a very conventional 5 act structure and are often highly symmetrical so that actions at the beginning mirror actions at the end---are also like all Elizabethan theater highly metatheatrical. All of them are highly inter-textual making hundreds of literary,contemporary, musical and other allusions in a single play. So it is possible to be both conventional and experimental at the same time, and this is certainly one of the factors I look for when I read new scripts.

  25. My girlfriend is an animator. She makes her own films, 15 to date that have played at film festivals around the world. Once a week she goes to a life drawing class, though her style is a far removed from realistic figure sketching. This continued work on craft has helped her immeasurably. She better able to transfer the images in her head on to paper. She has more control. She can express herself better than she could five years ago and yet her imagination has dimmed not a whit in the process.

  26. Wow. Glad I read this, and all the comments. Not quite sure what I think.

    I don't believe craft and creativity are separate. I believe you need both. I use both all the time in my plays. They work hand in hand with me. I'm not sure why they would ever be apart. I never use one without the other. I believe in well drawn, three dimensional characters in creative situations, for example.

    Clearly, this is an odd out feeling and I don't know why.

    I believe theatre should communicate, connect and create a community with their audience. That's what I love about it, the energy sent out from the stage, taken in by the audience and thrown back to the stage.

    I don't think the conversation amongst an audience after the show should be 'that was so creative.' It should have something to do with the fact that they were touched so deeply (be it through gut busting laughter, or sorrow, or anger, or anything strong, vivid, powerful), that they connected to what was happening on stage. Whatever the type or genre of play.

    Again, I'm not sure why this, in the general scheme of things, is wrong.

  27. I learned of Ms.Rebeck’s essay from David Cote’s Time Out NY blog, and I am really grateful for the discovery. Comments by Garret and Karla especially resonate with my own views.

    Garret rightly emphasizes the importance of reading. A sense of what has been done, not just in the past decade or century even, but through the centuries, is crucial, because as relevant as this topic is right now, it is not a new one. To be part of the theatre, at most any point since its inception, is to be part of this tension. During the Restoration period in England, for example, the debate centered on innovation versus imitation and whether "native" drama could be truly or uniquely "English" if it rigidly adhered to classical conventions or allowed continental influences, such as Italian opera or French farce. While we may not be trying to write plays that together form a clear-cut “national” style, I don’t know that our fundamental concerns are all that dissimilar to those of our predecessors. The past also reminds us that there is nothing different or varied about the need for diversity or variety, new ways to express the mundane, and that the terms "experimental" and “unconventional” are relative and subjective. By the actual dawning of the Modern period, and the flurry of -isms that comprised it (from surrealism and dadaism to absurdism and expressionism), the terms remained the same but were used to classify an entirely new gene pool of drama. Alas, theatrical "innovations" of the past are destined to become the theatre mainstays of the present, our repertories, repeat, repeat, repeat.

    I also agree with Karla that experimentation with no regard at all for conventional elements risks not only appearing self-indulgent but also failing to even register on the Richter scale with viewers. Though Wilde may have talked up style over substance, his plays ultimately had both. So did plenty of Beckett’s work, as formally unconventional as much of it was—his play “Play,” for example, though it is short and consists of just three urns with talking heads that speak in rapid succession, manages to flesh out characters with depth and tell a compelling story about the breakdown of a relationship following an affair.

    Our craft can help us evaluate and voice or temper our creative impulses, and our creativity can help us breathe new life into our craft.


  28. I've been following this discussion from the beginning, and trying to think about what makes a playwright an innovator, and how a student of playwriting balances tradition and the pressure to do "that brand new thing".

    Here's where my thougths have led me:

    Innovators have the ability to tap into the current of their age, and see the changes that effect everyone around them, and then to find the new form that can best express the profound differences of our day. I am beginning to believe that to do this a writer doesn't necessarily need to know all the conventions that came before her, but I don't think that any writer with the courage to experiment can in anyway be sullied by more traditonal teachings, and may instead find strength in them.

    Maybe the key to balancing the craft of the Old-School Greekks and the creativity that pushes us from a more internal place that's more connected to what's going on today, is simply to be as open as we can be for as long as we can be.

    As I start to meet other students studying theatre, I see that people who are too narrow in their goals- either towards experimental or classic perfection- tend to have a limited vision that consumes their writing and keeps their work from growing into anything that will touch the lives of others whether the theater is filled with 10 people or 100.

    I have immense respeect for anyone who can master craft, since as a student I'm working on the whole craft thing myself. And despite the pressures I feel to do that-thing-that-no-one-has-done-before, I know that craft can strenghten my writing and widen my perspective; with the hope that my vision as an artists grows large enough over time to encompass some small corner of the world, and use that discovery to relate to the rest. I'm hoping that will lead me somewhere that is new, if not ground-breaking than at least new and unique to me, and new enough to engage new audiences. I'm trying to stay positive and believe that any playwright who can remain open, no matter what path they take as an artist, won't need to worry about creativity vs craft or the caliber of their audiences, but will find that things fall into place.

  29. Sharing some Link Love! <3 I have linked to this blog on my post, Link Love 1. :)

  30. What theater needs is not coventional structure per se, but coherence. Many new plays I see/read seem put together by a playwright for his/her small circle of friends--the ones who'll "get" the obscurity--and everyone else is left to fend for themselves.
    I've always thought a work of art was something you create that must live apart from you; it must have meaning and coherence to people who don't know you, never met you, and don't share any of your demographic statistics. It must live on its own on a stage, maybe thousands of miles from where you are at any given time. It should not require the audience to know you, your sense of humor, the books you read. I don't know who should win the Conventional vs. Experiemental battle--ideally, they both belong here in the theater. What I think is always essential is rigor. Writing is a craft that demands your best, demands merciless scrutiny until everything is as clear as it needs to be. I don't necessarily mean everything has to be immediately clear and simple to understand: Pinter, Beckett, Albee, and a host of other great writers have made ambiguity thrilling. But they all crafted their work so that nothing was mysterious just for it's own sake. They wanted to communicate and they did, fantastically.

  31. The assumption of "craft" VERSUS "creativity" as if they're mutually exclusive or antithetical is misleading. Such dualism can lead to sophomoric blurts like "conservative losers" (by the way, this discussion's overall maturity is pretty neat). Craft and creativity are equally intrinsic to good work. Look at Picasso and Shakespeare. Picasso spent his early artistic years painting in every genre, including mawkish Victorian sentimentalism, because he wanted to master all forms so that he could know how to use them and when to break them. Shakespeare could've run with the innovative, elitist sonneteers who were establishing English sonnets as distinct from the Italian guys, and he would've been more respected if he had. But he chose to get down with the grubbies because he sensed his creativity would find its greatest freedom in the crude playwriting craft, and its conventions. Had he been less daring, he'd be just another semi-obscure historical poet. "Craft" doesn't mean classical structure and so on, it means understanding all possible structures as well as the myriad ways to create characters and themes. It means learning what others do, and why, and mastering these skills so that you can transform them when you need to.
    Without creativity, the best crafted work is deadly dull. Plus, every art advances through creative innovation. But without craft, creativity has no bones to grow on, so it turns blobby. Yech! Unfortunately, sometimes people mistake arrogance for creativity, they assume they're such geniuses they don't need no stinkin' craft, or believe only a select few can truly understand real creativity. I fear this is one result of theater's academicazation, which threatens to turn our art from a lively popular cultural expression into the cultural artifact that American poetry's become. In what single sphere does American poetry remain vital and important to our entire culture? In pop songs! My god, I hate to say it, but it's true!
    We were born in streets and alleys. Now we're being lured into ivory towers, and tamed.

  32. I wholeheartedly agree. I think that experimental art, when coupled with a strong background in classical form and historical knowledge, can be very powerful. But certainly, a lot of shock-art is, I believe, an insult to the viewer.

    I think that the best experimental work is often produced by those that built upon conventional form and made it their own. Unconventional theater can be powerful and effective: Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” or Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses,” for example.

    At the same time, I think that what happens in this day and age, is we begin to feel that “everything has been done,” and artists are at a loss at finding a way to stand out, be set apart. And audiences play into this, because they are so tired of “the same old thing;” but this does not mean that they should be alienated, or confused, by art.

    Thank you for writing this, addressing such an important (and skirted) issue.

  33. Ruhl's "Eurydice" and Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" are excellent examples of playwrights who studied established stories and forms in order to transform them. Both plays sprang from Greek myths -- you can't get more classic than that. Would they fit under the category of "experimental?" I don't know. They still used classical plot structures in their retelling of classical myths. But, they did something fresh with these forms, and took care to create powerful, beautiful language and compelling characters. And I'd hazard to say that "Angels in America Part One," an astonishing work, is also extremely (even traditionally!) well-crafted, as is "How I Learned to Drive," though it goes backwards through time. Both plays left me with tears in my eyes because they were so powerful, so engaging. Both are also creatively innovative. But would they fit under the category of "experimental?"

    It makes me wonder (honestly) what is "experimental?" Is it anything that's innovative? That would include a lot of what's also considered traditional, which ever since Shakespeare (and Arthur Miller, and Disney) means magical elements and spectacle, and ever since Beckett (or Lorca or Joyce) has explored new sensibilities. I'm at a loss as to what "experimental" means since the fourth wall's long broken and any play's likely to include puppetry, video, audience participation, inchoate monologues, actors going into and coming from the audience, and pretty much anything else. So I'm feeling the same "It's been done" syndrome. But I don't think it has been done. What's striking about what might be considered experimental work because it messes around with structure, characterization and expectations is that thematically and wrt to plot the play is often safely predictable. Perhaps we think "It's been done" out of concern for getting outside our audience's comfort zone and expectations, or a lack of engagement with the world outside theater.

    Which brings up the big "C", commercialization, whose presence lurks throughout this thread beneath the word "craft." Perhaps Theater, in fighting to keep its artistic virginity and not join the commercial whorish hordes, has ironically isolated itself from common interests and been playing it safe in its precarious niche, leary of offending what audience it has, and of risking destroying itself by producing plays that challenge political patrons (we know where our funding comes from) as well as the mindsets of our aging liberal audience. I'm just saying. I don't know the answer. Wish I did.

  34. I have often commented that my work is too experimental to be considered mainstream, and too mainstream to be considered experimental.

    But of course the base problem, I think, is the labeling of plays that goes on. What truly qualifies as experimental play for me is not a play that follows an experimental form rather than a more conventional form, but plays that present something heretofore rarely seen on stage, whether that is a subject matter, a way of presenting the material, or a fusion of the two.

    People categorize in order to encourage imitation, i think. So that one can say I like such-and-such play - give me more like that.

    And in the modern theater climate, I think it is also a way to speed the way through a slush pile: we only want plays that are like this or like that, so there's no need to consider this play any longer.

    It is the same trend that we sometimes decry in audiences - be open to seeing work because it's good, not because it had been labeled or branded in a way that makes you feel comfortable. This is true for a downtown play as it is for anything else. One look at the roster of the plays in the Fringe will tell you very quickly that they're working for a form, as well. Hip, edgy, slightly irreverent, etc etc. And it works. Urinetown in part has branded the festival, and the audience comes looking for more of the same.

    Not that the work is bad or good necessarily. But it is no more experimental than Billy Elliot, or the next jukebox review, in that way.

    Plays should be judged, I think, on simple criteria: Does it work for me? Was that a valuable artistic experience? Did I enjoy myself?

    Afterwards, perhaps analysis can come. If the play didn't work for me, I too go back to old form to compare it. Sometimes that is useful. Sometimes not. Sometimes, I am sure, I would push the play into being something more enjoyable for me, but maybe less enjoyable for someone else.

    I would take the word popular out of the equation though. Popular has to do with an audience's willingness to enter the theater, which can have as much to do with marketing as the quality of the play.

    But can a play be enjoyed by a vast audience and artistically important at the same time? Isn't that what most of us aspire to, no matter what our views are on experimentation?

  35. creativity is invention within convention. to attempt to be creative is to reach beyond yourself. creativity exist at that moment when it is recognized that the individual is unique. creativity then exist when the author/artist makes no concessions to the expectations of others, but is accountable only to self while working from those before whose work has withstood the test of time in assessing their work. the author/artist then becomes the sole audience and the harshest critic. any judgement of a resulting audience is reflection of their exposure, understanding and appreciation of the highest standards of invention and convention.

  36. I recently directed a production of Our Town, a play I would have scoffed at 20 years ago as a theatre student in a directing program. I marvelled at how, as I age, this play now speaks volumes to me. In encouraging young theatre artists to look forward I think we inadvertantly allow what's popular in the moment to overshadow those works that actually last because they have the capacity to speak to people universally. Your essay is perceptive, provocative, and a much needed discussion to have.

  37. I began a comment, but it quickly grew to the length of a blog post, so that's what it has become:

    Ms. Rebeck, thank you.

  38. "I don't think audiences will pay to be bored. "

    Oh but they will. Over and over and over again.

  39. Very informative article, thank you for your suggestions and tips.
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