Currently involved in the Pretentious Festival. Reading things about Howard Barker. Reading about the Tony Awards. Reading about that piece in Salon (have you read it?) that basically says theatre is unpopular because TV has passed it by. (And because theater has been hijacked by development.)
What I'm hearing sounds something like this:
People in the theatre are pretentious snobs who write by candlelight, even though the rest of us are using lightbulbs. If you go to see a Broadway show, you're going to see a cheap, Circus-like knock-off of a movie or you're going to see a play that sounds like they had to blow the dust off of it before they put it on stage.
I'm also hearing, out there:
Theatre is high art, a landscape for the mind, a sort of spiritual happening that is ceaselessly compromised by the desires of the revolting marketplace and its progeny.
What I'm thinking:
The idea that playwrights sit in their Ivory Towers and write distantly dull museum pieces is an idea that can only be held by someone who hasn't seen very much new theatre, and is equating a few lousy productions (or productions that weren't their taste) to the entire theatrical community. Saying "Playwrights aren't good because I don't like Richard Greenberg" is inoffensive, but it's almost precisely the same logic that says "I don't like guys in frats because I frat guy once hit on my girlfriend" or "Blondes are stupid. I knew a stupid blonde woman once."
Note in the Salon article that Birkenhead (who is this guy again) says that if you want to know what theatre is like, take a look at Three Days of Rain. He says Angels in America and Doubt are pretty good, but MAN... A Fair Country isn't his thing. Excuse me?
Essentially, it's picking out examples of bad tendencies and applying them to a whole. There are tons of people out there with very cool music on their iPods making punk rock theater that deserves to me seen. It's reductive to paint plays and playwrights with a "you guys are out of touch" brush.
That is NOT to say that many of us who are banging away on the country's stages aren't guilty, often, of similar thinking. Other mediums, because of their popularity and commercial aptitudes, are dismissed as somehow inherently corrupt. American Idol does not equal the The Sopranos does not equal Veronica Mars does not equal Fox News. Just as Mary Poppins does not equal Long Days Journey Into Night.
There is a seduction is sequestering ourselves and attacking others. Film, television and theater seem like natural rivals, in some ways. They certainly act that way. That's, though, the thinking of children. There's no need for three different mediums to compete. They can learn, acknowledge, grow, exchange. They can simply be themselves.
As a playwright, I don't have to compete with The Sopranos. I have contend with the stereotypes that my work is obscure, or high-brow or "not for people who watch TV." That, my friends, is a far tougher opponent than David Chase.
Let me say one last thing.
I'm no huge fan of development, but the argument that development is the reason that TV has be allowed to be creative and theater is stuck in 1918...that's patently absurd. In fact, I can say without reservation that the average television show and is approved of, tinkered with, rehashed and developed by far more paid executives and marketing gurus than any play that was recently seen at Playwright's Horizons. If television shows are, very recently, being given more creative freedom, it's not as if they are somehow doing so by way of deep experimentation.
The Sopranos is a perfect example: it is absolutely derivative of an already popular pop culture staple. It just happens to add layers to the Mafia stock characters that are unavailable to a two-to-three hour film. It's excellent, but it's not groundbreaking. Lost (one of my favorite shows) is a combination of existing and popular elements, and was pitched to the networks as a fiction version of Survivor. The Simpsons is hilarous (though not as good as it was years ago, by far) but it's just a very funny family comedy. It's wonderful, but it's not exactly the TV version of Marat/Sade.
Development is not unique to the stage, by any means. If there are things on stage we don't like to see, let's get some perspective: it's not because of readings.
- 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.