Okay. First read this so you get what's up and then you can bother to read my response to Chapter One of Outrageous Fortune.
Some disconnected and quickly written thoughts...
The first chapter is entitled Dialogue in the Dark: Playwrights and Theatres. It is stark and familiar. It describes a landscape of not-for-profit theaters that operate on a tremendous scale (two produce on Broadway); that have replaced commercial producers as the arbiters of new work; and the playwrights who find themselves somewhere in this complex system of developers and decision-makers.
I suspect everyone who reads this will find in it confirmation of an existing view, as this chapter presents a full breadth of well-worn arguments. It acknowledges that artistic directors both believe new work is in abundance and also that it is scarce. It quotes the Richard Nelson speech that decries the ascension of a belief that playwrights are in need of outside "help;" but it also acknowledges that playwrights seem to write increasingly unfinished plays. It talks about how great (if erratic) Joseph Papp was. It's good, balanced journalism in that way.
It's a picture of, I'm afraid, a community of artists that have utterly unremarkable frustrations and concerns. Some playwrights believe that those who are making decisions about quality have the wrong measuring stick; some artistic directors fear that playwrights self-indulgent or impatient. Money, profit - we are afraid at how they corrupt the decision making process. In the same breath, we wonder if the not-for-profit model has divorced producers from their passions and might not be preferable. We want producers to be wild, passionate entrepreneurs; not-for-profits to run like there's no such thing as paying the bills; and everyone to embrace the plays we think are really good. We want to be bold. We want the pure of heart leaders of our well-funded institutions to say "Damn the ticket sales, damn the grant writers, damn the Board, damn it all, I love this play and we're going to do it even if it means I lose my job!"
And we want everyone (as we'll see in later chapters) to get paid for this.
Of course we do.
There isn't an industry or collective in a capitalist society that doesn't, at times, feel like it's hard to make decisions, that money wins over integrity, that makes compromises for the sake of survival, etc. etc.
I know that I am asked or expected to be appalled by this. I'm not. Frankly, even if the entire American public decided that it loved plays and couldn't get enough of them and reallocated its family budgets to cut out TV entirely and just see new plays; we'd still have quibbles about whose plays are being produced and how often.
Look at the film industry. It's massively popular, tremendously rich, and has delivery models that are far more extensive than ours. We still hear about little independent films that barely get their due or never move past the development stage. We hear about how hard it is for guys like Terry Gilliam, or even Martin Scorsese, to get funding for their movies.
That is not to dismiss the complaints and concerns entirely presented here. The gap between playwrights and artistic directors/producers/board members on an institutional level does seem to be widening. And, of course, there's a bit of natural paranoia created by all the barriers. I'm just not surprised.
One thing that struck me in particular was the expression of frustration that there aren't companies that coalesce around a playwright anymore. I don't see that, personally. Maybe that's true on the scale of regional theaters 'filling slots'...but on the Off-Off scale, I see it all the time.
I have been working with a single theater company (more or less) in New York City since about 2004. Just over six years of productions. Do we produce on the scale of Manhattan Theater Club? No. Have I gotten reviews and publications and all that other nice stuff? Yes. Do I still work, and work hard, in an unrelated field to make ends meet? Yes, yes I do. Still, when I read chapters about the nomadic lives of playwrights now, I felt a bit happy to know that's not my position.
In fact, lots of playwright driven theaters exists Off-Off Broadway. Electric Pear (Ashlin Halfnight); The Brick (all artist driven); Nosedive (James Comtois); InVerse (Kirk Wood Bromley); Blue Coyote (me, David Johnston, David Foley and others); Gideon (Mac Rogers), Flux (Gus produces his own plays, certainly). I could go on. This is common in Off-Off Broadway.
So...what does that leave me with? Mixed emotions. There's a part of me that feels very real revulsion at being painted a picture of a world of new plays that is inhospitable. There's a bit of poison in it, and I can't place exactly where. Maybe it's simply the sense that this chapter is more dedicated to airing frustrations that presenting solutions. It is, of course, just one chapter.
There's another part that thinks we need to have this discussion and I'm very happy to see it presented in a professional, forthright manner. If the picture ain't pretty, that's what we're here to learn.
Onwards and upwards.
Will be writing about chapter 2 tomorrow.
- 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.