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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.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Question for you

I have a friend who believes that in order to compete in the current world of art and entertainment, theater should embrace how "disposable" it is. More quick and dirty, more homemade, more fast and fun, less precious and high-minded and expensive.

I'm not sure about that. I wonder if part of the reason theater audiences seem to be shrinking is because when audiences do venture Off-Off Broadway, they tend to find relatively "homemade, disposable" work and don't feel like it's worth their time and effort to seek it out. It's more expensive than a movie, more work to discover what to see, and more often than not, looks like it's been made on a budget of a few bucks and dressed in hand-me-downs.

Not that I think the handmade, downtown, two-chairs-and-glass-of-water aesthetic can't be terrific and compelling. I'm just wondering how you, the reader, feel about this question of the disposable versus the rare.

Not a fully formed thought, clearly. Just putting it out there.


thedevore said...

That friend of yours sounds like an idiot.

Heather Cunningham said...

I know a lot of people who would agree with your friend. Actors in particular who think that all you need to tell the story is the actors to say the words, and shouldn't we just concentrate on that and save our money on the other stuff.

I couldn't disagree more. Anyone who thinks good design doesn't contribute to story telling doesn't know good designers. Now this is coming from someone who has made it a point to do shows that are enhanced by good design, because of my particular belief that design helps to tell the story. But I have to tell you, of my budget, maybe 1/12th is actually spent on the physical production... the rest is 1/2 or more on rent, 1/12th on copyrights (we do mostly published work), 1/6th on marketing and pr, 1/12th on insurance and 1/12th on stipends (and most folks don't get paid at all, only the union folks get a stipend... i wish i could pay everyone, including myself, but it's just not in the budget),

And when I go to a show and I see two folding chairs and costumes out of the actors closet, it usually pisses me off that the producers didn't care enough about the audiences experience to at least find two chairs that made sense to the play or setting. And I know how expensive it is to produce theater, but if I'm going to spend $18 (like you said, more than a movie ticket) to see that, at least show me you put some thought in to it.

joshcon80 said...

Your friend is half right. It needs to be more fast and fun and wild an unpretentious, for shizzle. Cheaper and more hastily thrown together? Not so much.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Quick and dirty. Glass of water. Quick response.

That's what theatre does best in my opinion.

Your friend is right.

Jeffrey Alexander Lewonczyk said...

I think there's a place - and an important place - for fun, fast-and-dirty theater, but I think that to say that ALL theater needs to take that approach is the same as saying ALL TV needs to be cheap reality shows or ALL movies need to be low-budget mumblecore. You can't cram an entire, millennia-old art form into a single, pithy economics-based formulation like that. I for one love the raw, punky, DIY aesthetic and vibe that comes with events like the Vampire Cowboys' Saturday Night Saloon - but if that's ALL that theater was, I'd find it very limiting. Audiences and artists alike should be encouraged to switch back and forth between scrappy offerings like that and high-minded, big-budget stuff at places like BAM - and furthermore, these different levels of theater-making should support and acknowledge each other for the greater good of the art form as a whole. This is what pisses me off most about Broadway - not the quality of the fare (though that's often problematic), but the fact that, for the majority of Americans, that IS theater. Neither Saturday Night Saloon nor BAM not regionals nor the entire spectrum connecting them is considered as authentic as this supposed "gold standard." Anything claiming to the one and only RIGHT way is invariably WRONG.

isaac butler said...

Let me ask: is your friend a theatre artist? I never hear "civilians" talk about how they wish theatre were sloppier, more poorly thought out and thrown together or less crafty. I hear off-off broadway theatre artists use it as an excuse all the time to justify sloppy, slapdash work.

I agree, in other words, with Josh (although if I had a beer or three I'd probably put it in Devore's terms). More fast and fun yes, but it still has to be well made. A good example of this for my are those loveable Vampire Cowboys. Robert Ross Parker is an incredibly precise, smart, crafty director. But their pieces are still a lot of fun to watch and not very precious at all.

Ian Mackenzie said...

. . . not to discount all the great theatre that took a long time to make and that needs a lot of resources to pull off.

But for me, slow and spectacular is not theatre's competitive advantage.

Freeman said...

Interesting responses. My friend is definitely NOT an idiot. Heh. I also am not sure if I'm entirely making his whole point. So let me add a few thoughts, to play Devil's Advocate...

I think the idea is that theater can be more relevant if it moves faster. Isaac, you definitely did that with Rapid Response Team. You didn't buy a full set for each show, I'm sure.

I don't think the idea is being sloppy so much as less precious, getting it out there, that the old "set-proscenium" aesthetic is just not relevant.

And Jeff, of course no one-size fits all. But I won't lie: sometimes I do feel a little sheepish when I see work that seems to revel in it's "we found a shoebox and turned it into a gun" creativity.

CultureFuture said...

I think that the way Peter Brook treats it in The Empty Stage is about right; it's one way of doing work, but it should be there to support the work you're doing.

I think we can all think of a new work (I'm going to think of the TEAM's Architecting) that would not, in any way, be served by being quick, dirty, homemade, inexpensive, etc. I can't imagine an argument that there's no relevance for beautiful, finely crafted works like that for audiences.

On the other hand, for some shows, it's absolutely right; and for those plays, the more enthusiasm the better.

The only thing I would say is that to make homemade, disposable work shouldn't ever lead to unambitious work. Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge felt inexpensive, slap-dash, rough and ready (although I'm sure it wasn't nearly so), but it was MASSIVE in scope. Or it can be simple and small, but each moment can be deeply explored.

Heather's right about the chairs: even quick and dirty can be intelligent and well-done, or lazy.

The point is to make the decision from the work that needs to be created -- or to select the work based on what you want it to fulfill -- not to force quick and dirty on every play that you feel like doing.

Ian G said...

I think we need lots of different types of theater. Everyone will have their preferences, and I certainly have mine, but I think having lots of different, often aesthetically opposed kinds of productions going on is a good thing.

I think theater can benefit from embracing how ephemeral it is - but "ephemeral" is very different from "disposable" Butterflies only live for a few days - they're ephemeral. Dixie cups are disposable. Part of the reason a tired, rote feeling starts to set in at long-running tourist-trap musicals is that attempting to make a piece of theater go on unchanged for years, even decades, is that it's not in the nature of theater for a production to last that long.

As to whether it's somehow better or worse to have nothing but two folding chairs and a bunch of Levis, I think it just depends on what you like. The company I work with, Folding Chair, got its name from the extremely austere look of most of its production - we do classic plays (where you can get away with very minimal "stuff") and we typically rehearse with as much stuff as we think we need and then discard things along the way. We got "Pericles" down to, yes, a single folding chair, and we couldn't function without it, so it stayed. But as it was the only thing, other than the actors, to look at all evening, a great deal of care went into picking that one solitary folding chair. We often do our shows in costumes that are just simple, store-bought stuff, often out of our closets - it may look like we just came in of the street and started acting in what we were wearing, but I promise we think really really hard about exactly what we wear, because when you don't have much, everything makes a gigantic impression. I agonized for weeks over a pair of jeans, making sure they were the right cut, making sure I could roll the cuffs exactly the way I wanted, properly faded, had the right kind of detail, fit a certain way. No one would know that they weren't the jeans I arrived in. But they weren't - they were exactly the pair of jeans I wanted for that character in that production.

Now we're rehearsing "The Weir" which is gonna be our most heavily designed production ever. Not a deliberate decision, it's just that there's no choice - its style is kitchen-sink realism, and it requires the accoutrements of a pub - a bar, taps, glasses, tables, stools, etc. I suppose we could decide to pantomime it all, but that'd be out of sorts with the style of the writing. Ditto with the costumes. So there it is - different stuff for different plays, different companies, different styles.

There is what I think is a hugely interesting debate starting to happen, which I won't get into but will merely suggest as a topic for further discussion: green theater. That is, theater that doesn't generate waste. I am appalled by how much crap goes into sets and costumes that just gets chucked at the end of the season, particularly at big regional theaters. It's essentially using enough materials to construct multiple wardrobes and an entire building, and then throwing it out. Plus stage lighting gobbles huge amounts of electricity. Many theaters are trying to tackle this, and I don't know what the answer is, but I'm very interested in the discussion.