04 January 2010

On the Intentional Lack of a "Top Plays of 2009" Post In These Parts

I saw a lot of plays last year, a lot of theatre. About 50 things, total. And looking over that list, the things that I loved are:

a stand-up comedian's solo show
a one-man clown memoir
a meta meta rock musical adaptation/deconstruction of an ancient epic tale
a three-play cycle of British farce
a one-man multimedia/puppet fantasia
a bombastic Broadway musical
and one new play.

I realized something about a month ago. I was sitting in a lovely off-Broadway theatre, watching lovely actors on a gorgeous set, hearing pretty words and watching the characters go through their personal strife. And it hit me: I am sick to death of plays. Granted, I thought this was a pretty bad one - though lots of smart folks and also a major critic at the paper of record thought it was totally awesome - but just plays in general. Blah blah blah blah blah. Middle-class white people talking about their problems, having babies and getting divorced and dying and falling in love and talking about it for two hours.

Tell me please why that needs to be on a stage? Sure, these may be stories you need to tell, something you think worth sharing with the world, but why can't I pay $12 to see it at the movies, or Netflix the damned thing? Explain to me how it is worthwhile for a few dozen people to work their asses off for a handful of months to make this fleeting thing last for six weeks, tops, and for me to sit in a dark, quiet room with a hundred or two other people, and how it is special or important for us to be sharing that experience and watching what is happening on stage, in that same room as all of us? What the hell is theatrical about any of that?

What makes the theatre I loved this year stand out is that it was important - sometimes magical - for it to actually be theatre, happening in the audience's space and time. In Alvin Sputnik, Tim Watts transformed a gloved hand and a little light-up buoy into an expressive, lovable creature. In Circle Mirror Transformation, Annie Baker's awkward, longing characters lay in a circle and counted to ten, and it was full of weight and mystery and humor. The Norman Conquests made the best use I've ever seen of a theatre in the round, making a Broadway theatre intimate and communal, creating a sort of laughter amplification chamber that turned those plays into a remarkable experience. And in Beowulf, my mind nearly exploded when a woman stepped on stage with a bright red boot and basically turned the play on its head.

It's been about two months since I've left my theatre job, and I think the bit of distance I've gotten has just made me want to get farther away. We pour so much effort into trying to right (and defend) this deeply sick system, but maybe the system is doing exactly what it's supposed to - making theatre for the people who want to see it. Sure, I think a lot of that theatre is totally lame, but lots of people - people with more money than I have for tickets and subscriptions - seem to think it's all perfectly fine.

I still love theatre and am still excited to see it, but I'm sick of (metaphorically) loving Los Campesinos! and bemoaning Celine Dion's ability to sell out stadiums. I'm going to see the theatre I want to see, work on exciting projects that come along, and enjoy my little receptionisting life in the meanwhile.


Aaron Riccio said...

I wish you could have seen "How Soon Is Now?" I wonder if you'll be checking out "L'Effet de Serge" at the Under the Radar Festival.

I'm not as much down on "plays" as you are right now (I'm going to pretend you were talking about "This"), but I do agree that given the MEDIUM, it's up to the theater to do more with the space, to do stuff that could ONLY be done on the stage. Still, to me there's something more honest about live performance than film--for instance, the raw beauty of "The Pride of Parnell Street" or the tangible grief of "Commencement" that require the intimacy of a stage.

Flloyd said...

I think you have just realised what is historically so, that most plays are not terribly good, most productions are not of great value to their communities, other than keeping the theatre makers (actors, crew, directors, designers etc) occupied.

It is sad, but true, that there has to be an awful lot of plays written and a great deal of theatre made for a very small proportion of it to be very good indeed.

Theatre is no different here from any other medium, art form, or industry. There are lots of books published, but very few will make it into the 'classics' list to be enjoyed by future generations. There are lots of shoes made, but very few are really classy shoes. I cook lots of meals, but only rarely does one of them turn out to be something I would like to cook again.

I know how depressing it is to sit in a theatre watching a play which adds nothing to the sum of human understanding, that provides a mild sense of amusement that evaporates like the morning dew, that fails to move in any way, shape or form. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to have another go, to try to make something worthwhile to share with an audience. And I would rather endure the seemingly endless parade of mediocrity onstage for the chance of some day experiencing something truly magical in the theatre, than never have that possibility.

So, yes, I agree with you. But don't give up on theatre - not yet...

Jaime said...

Maybe it's not stuff that can *only* be done on stage, but stuff that is *worth* it? I'm conflating some things, I know - bad plays and boring theatre, at least. But it's just all so unexceptional, and we wring our hands so hard. It's just all become annoying.

I guess I'm not saying that hands should not be wrung, but that I don't have the energy or inspiration to try to be the next Joe Papp or whatever.

And Flloyd, I'm not giving up - this is still my number one best medium. But I don't know that it's going to be where I spend my life working. I can see theatre and love theatre and support theatre without working in the industry, right? (I really hope so, because right now I am super sick of that world.)

Flloyd said...

I totally understand, having wandered in and out myself over the years, getting very frustrated and doing other stuff, then finding I couldn't live without being involved again. I guess I'm trying to say, keep it in perspective, there's nothing new under the sun, artists have always struggled to survive,and to create work that is deeply satisfying, and purveyors of mediocrity have been with us always. You do what you have to do, when you have to do it. Good luck with whatever you undertake, it will always be creative one way or another.

heather said...

Does this mean you won't help me adapt my overly-dialogue-heavy short stories into a play?
Cause I was gonna ask you to do that.

Ken said...

I'd like to think you'd enjoy my plays, where people sit around talking about their problems, and their dreams, and their schemes, and every damn thing under the sun. If they've created a theatrical template that's any more powerful than people talking to each other, or to you the audience, I've yet to find it.

No doubt you've seen a lot of boring plays, or plays that weren't necessarily boring to begin with, but ended up being staged that way. As I said, I'd like to think you'd enjoy my plays. But I don't know.

99 said...

Ken, I don't think that's what Jaime is saying at all. It's not that talking is bad. I mean, she lists a one-person show here which (though I didn't see it) is probably a whole lot of talking. The Norman Conquests are indeed a whole mess of talking, in funny accents, about some fairly domestic concerns, but it was still alive and present and fantastic. What the people are talking about is part of it. Who the people are who are doing the talking is also part of it.

If I'm off-base, Jaime, let me know.

Jaime said...

99's right. What I'm basically saying is that so many plays don't make themselves worthwhile. They don't make being theatre worthwhile. Something that's just people talking can very easily be boring.

Because, honestly, people talking is not what's compelling. People feeling things, experiencing things, having things happen and reacting and being afraid and engaged and whatever else - that's what's good to watch, to experience. People living interesting or strange or familiar stories, people saying strange and beautiful words that make me think about things differently. And finding that ephemeral thing that makes it magical for it to be happening live.

What makes your plays *plays* and not movies? Why do you write for theatre and not novels or TV or film? Why is it important for me to be in the same room as your actors, to be in the same physical, three-dimensional space as the world you're creating, and how do you use that space and that relationship?

(And yes, Heather, we're still good to go.)

Ian Thal said...

I have certainly had similar experiences with at times with new plays: why do I have to go to a theatre for this?

For me there's always two questions I have to ask myself after seeing new work: am I excited enough to want to see another company's take on the script a few years down the road? To seek out other work by this author? To see more performances by this troupe?

And sometimes the answers are "no, no, and no," and frequently that's because the author did not write the story in such a way that demanded it be put on a stage.

anna said...

yes! and well said. this is a nice gloss of why i was irritated by august, osage, but adored "the gogol project" (stylized, wonderfully weird, original score, some huge puppets. theatrical.

Ian Thal said...

For me there's always two questions I have to ask myself after seeing new work: [...] And sometimes the answers are "no, no, and no,"

One of these days I need to learn the difference between two and three.