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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Practical Nature of Expansiveness

Interestingly enough, I've learned a strange lesson about writing and production Off-Off Broadway: less is not always more. In fact, sometimes more is more. And less is less.

I am a fan of minimalism, obviously, but I also once saw what I felt was it's practical value. In effect, a play created with a smaller cast and few budgetary needs is simpler to produce and cannot fail to deliver on it's big dreams. If you write "Black stage, No Set, Three Actors Who Do Not Move" your parameters for failure, at least on a production level, are few. You also will not be forced, due to time or budgetary problems, to build a half-assed set as opposed to a full-assed (one might say) blank stage.

Budget aside, though, your parameters for success are also tenuous. Much of the fun and pleasure of the stage, those that are expressed with visual creativeness and a richness of character and good old-fashioned drama... this is harder to achieve. Poetry is complex, obviously.

I used to view minimalism as a sort of solution to, and nod to, my limited resources.

But, in the end, the benefits of a large cast evens out with the benefits of a small one. For example (and this is pure icky untouchable work-a-day thinking) more cast means bigger audience. If you have 20 cast members, and they have friends and family, then you've got a bare minimum audience that is NOT guaranteed with one person on stage or two or three. And yes, those things will add up when you're working on a smaller scale. If you've got $15 ticket prices and not everyone can get a comp ticket... 20 people in the cast sells tickets. I feel dirty for saying so, but it's a fact.

(On the other hand 2 people in the cast, shall we say, means you might be able to perform this piece on a smaller scale and with enough buzz, you won't need to trick yourself into believing you actually have a big audience with friends and family. )

The broader point is...unless you're writing things that simply leave all logic and reason out the window (Stage Direction: "Scene 1. And then the two dragons fight, and the actors run into the town below. Fire is everywhere. Scene 2. Ten Years Later in a Briar. Scene 3. The middle of the ocean, 50 men sing and dance.") you shouldn't be afraid to creatively (the operative word) go where the play requires and places the necessary voices on-stage to create the play in your head. The benefits even out, as long as you're bright about resources and positive creative solutions.

Success and failure should be a function of risk, not a function of carefulness.


Lucas Krech said...

One of my favorite stage directions of all time comes from Charles Mee's Big Love:
"But the setting for the piece should not be real, or naturalistic.
It should not be a set for the piece to play within
but rather something against which the piece can resonate:
something on the order of a bathtub, 100 olive trees,
and 300 wine glasses half-full of red wine."

It is not about minimalism or maximalism, it is about expressing a certain poetic and emotional feel.

A lot of off-off-B'Way work is minimalistic due to budget. Which is unfortunate, but it is another aspect of the 'big cast equals ticket sales' equation. It usually comes down to the dollars.

Freeman said...

That's fabulous. Oh Charles Mee, you old smoothie.

Either way Captain Krech, it's true it comes down to dollars and cents quite often. I guess I wanted to add the flip side of the dollars and sense equation, which is that bigger can sometimes mean more dollars and cents in return.

There's quite a bit of discussion on in the blog world about aesthetics, and I've seen a fair amount that proports minimalism as a sort of solution to a lot of problems. (i.e. more direct, less fat, fewer walls between the audience and the imagery) but I feel that unconsciously this theorizing comes from how we feel forced to think.

Theory is often a retroactive justification ("Why did I do it this way?") We often feel confined, and so we turn being confined into a method.

Lucas Krech said...

I've never been given a title like that before. Thank you for the honor.

Personally, I've never met a style that I didn't like. My concern is more to do with quality than quantity. Do whatever is apporpriate for the piece, just do it well.

Additionally, minimalism is not just associated with lack of budgets. German opera, which is heavily subsidized, often goes in for a minimalist aesthetic. HUGE, but minimal. One or two simple gestures. And quite often that is all you need. Do you need 300 half-full wine glasses to do Big Love? Of course not. Its about the idea it expresses.

There is something about Grotowski's idea of extracting from a work anything that is superfluous. For him that led to a certain kind of minimalist thinking, but the impulse to remove that which is not necessary is the important part. If the production is about excessive opulence, than you need to do excessive opulence. But I do think there is a place where you need to leave air around the work for the audience to engage. Their imaginations are the best production design you are going to get.

parabasis said...

I would say the play I'm directing right now reflects (Scenically) the very things you're talking about... but my play is also filled with impossible stage directions (involving amongst other things, a house caving in) and therefore more theatrical choices had to be made.

Ian W. Hill said...

Why feel dirty for stating the facts re: cast size/money as well as Off-Off-Bway's ability or lack thereof in creating "spectacle" due to lack of funds?

I guess we're all supposed to be more concerned with the loftier artistic goals of our work in the webjournal world, but as (mostly, right?) real world theatre workers these are some of the most pertinant issues we can face. I may not have a lot of money to put together a show -- I've directed/designed nearly 50, and the biggest budget I had was $800 and 3/4ths of them had to come in at under $300 -- but I've always worked to not let any of them look like we had had to "settle" for a minimal esthetic. Partly because I like a lot of things on stage, but also as a reaction to the "well, we're Off-Off-Broadway and no one expects any more from us" attitude that becomes a rationalization against attempting the sometimes damned difficult, but usually possible, craft of making the appropriate spectacle from next to nothing.

With a bit of skill and effort, the casually miraculous can be made to happen in a small theatre, and is something to strive for.

Alison Croggon said...

One thing here: it is much easier to use large casts in co-op productions, because no one is being paid, than in funded productions, where budgetry constraints apply. So some of the bigger cast plays I've seen have been in poor theatre. And huge budget pieces in Europe, as Lucas points out - I've seen some theatre like this in France - can be very minimalist, because a minimal approach can be very effective.

In the end which approach is more effective depends on the work being made. I don't think anyone is arguing that more resources are a good thing; however, one thing I really like about theatre is that resources guarantee nothing - a poor theatre piece with no production values but a great text and wholly committed acting trumps a dressed-up piece of humdrum every time.

Alison Croggon said...

Got my negatives in a twist - I mean, of course, that nobody is arguing that more resources are not a good thing.

Lucas Krech said...

however, one thing I really like about theatre is that resources guarantee nothing

So true Alison. For all the theory and such that one may put forward, what makes good theatre is making good theatre.

Talking to an actor after my show tonight, he was saying how much easier it is to get a 600 seat house to all laugh and get behind a routine than it is to get a 60 seat house. Better or worse? I don't know. There are different dynamics at play depending upon your venue and your audience. It does not make one necessaruly good or bad.

One of the things that is so wonderful is precisely that it is so diverse. There are so many options for the theatre patron. You want minimal drama, there it is, you want comedic spectacle it's just a few blocks up town.

Striving to create the best work is the key. Poor theatre is not inherently good theatre, and money never solves structural problems.

Freeman said...

I would pose, though, that my initial point is not about money at all, or about rich vs poor theater. I'm presupposing a company with limited resources and encouraging them not to THINK small. As Ian Hill does.

The fact is, of course, theater well done is theater well done. Can't argue that all things being equal, good work is good work and "money doesn't matter." except that it does. Press agents cost money for example.

My arguement is that a young playwright should not think in terms of fewer characters in order to fit a budget. They should expand as needed, to fit the story or their vision.

If their vision, though, is intimate, it should be intimately written.

Joshua said...

I've always felt that a writer and actors can do great, expansive and huge visionary things with only a stage, the actor and most importantly, the audience.

That being said I also have a boatload of short plays with little to no set primarily because those are the plays that get produced.