Scott Walters has taken a moment to express his disinterest/anger at the lack of innovation in theatre over the last few decades. Responses came quickly, most of them taking exception to his tone and dismissal of Off-Off Broadway. You can find them...
Ian (in full-blown fury mode)
PLUS: James chimes in.
I won't repeat their points or take particularly angry issue with Scott. It's been done so many times now, we might as well identify that Scott is TRYING to rile people up and is good at it. Sometimes he does it by being dismissive, which is a shame, but it's all right with me.
What I took particular note of, though, was his clarification in his comments section.
"Matt and Isaac are right, however: OOB is not ONLY about saying fuck in an empty theatre -- there is another chunk that is as conservative as regional theatre. There is a small contingent struggling to say something worthwhile -- my question is: are they saying something worthwhile in an innovative way?"
To which I might reply: Does it matter?
If a piece of theatre is effective, and communicates well, and entertains, and makes the audience feel something... it doesn't matter if it's performed in three acts, or one act, or 4 minutes, or full-nude, or in complete silence, or with Brechtian distance or with Pinter Pauses, or with a sense of revolution or a need to protect the status quo. All of these things are tools, and their value is judged by how they are used within the context of a piece of actual theatre. Ideas are important if they drive us to action. George Hunka has a particular aesthetic that he believes in, and while he's creating a series of essays to define it, it's true test will be on its feet, performed. Only then will he, and anyone else, know if the ideas create an effective piece of theatre. He's taking action, which I absolutely respect. The originality/innovation is secondary (even tertiary) to however he might define it beforehand.
Innovation, in and of itself, is not a goal. It comes from a need. Beckett followed a line that included Irish storytelling tradition, Joyce, World War II and Buster Keaton. Together, they make up his voice. He did not innovate out of thin air, and did not proport a theory. In fact, he was maddeningly elusive, probably because he didn't know any better than anyone else WHY he wrote they way he did. He simply wrote in his own voice, and that voice was unique because it was only his. The plays are the result of his life, and his ability to stay true to what sounded best to him. What more can anyone ask of himself or herself?
The best plays do not innovate, they illuminate. If by attempting to illuminate, the writer is forced to innovate, then so be it. If the play illuminates within the context of an existing form, I honestly don't care. A well-made play, a verse play, a play written in the jangly tones of spoken word, a "movement piece" that has voice over, a deconstruction of Greek tragedy, a reconstruction of Greek Tragedy, a mythic epic about Indian folklore, a "Fringe" play, a play on Broadway, a Musical about Tarzan, Blue Man Group, a one-woman show about public education or the immigrant experience, a one-man show about meeting Spalding Gray, a translation of a Polish classic by an Australian company, a new version of Dead Poet's Society featuring a pedophile, a Bob Dylan dance show, two characters standing at music stands reading the text to the audience affectlessly... it's all the same. Does it work? Is it moving? Do you leave the theatre thinking "Seeing that made me feel something."
Innovation will come when a writer or director says "Given the tools in front of me, knowing what is outside these walls, I must invent new tools." If the tools are sufficient, what is the point of new ones? It's vanity and folly to invent for invention's own sake, and it always looks that way on stage.
That is not to say if one seeks to innovate, they should not explore that urge. They should use the tools of exploration to find something new, if that's what they are looking for. Let's restrain ourselves, though, from decrying a lack of effort, if no effort is required. It's inspiring for me, each day, to see so much work being done, and so many people trying to get the word out about that work, and so many new ways to communicating the existence of that work to the audience.
Whomever sees a hole in this art where a new idea should be, it is their own responsibility to call attention to it, specifically, and if they can, fill it himself or herself. To lambast others for failing to do the work is, shall we say, counterproductive. No one gets graded in real life...we do our best, and try to speak with our own voices as best we can. I find the tools that help me speak in my own way around me. Maybe someday, those tools will fail me and I'll either rise to it or find myself frustrated. Either way, that's my journey, and, happily, I don't have anyone to answer to but myself.
- 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.