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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, June 07, 2012

What is there to talk about?

J. Holtham basically fires a big flare gun into the sky when he writes this over on Parabasis.

Read the whole thing, of course. To sum up, inadequately, he notes that most of what he sees of theatre is either what he reads about or shows he sees with his friends in them. And, then, he says: "The other part is...what would I write about? Seriously. What's going on that requires comment, discussion, dissection?" and "So the question that comes to me is: what if this is it? A lot of us invest a lot of time in being semi-professionally upset about things. We want change! We want it now! What if, though, there won't be any significant changes? What if the new movement in theatre is here, it's now established and this is it?"and finally, "Oh, we have our little flare-ups, dust-ups, scandals, donnybrooks, but pretty quickly, order is restored. The natural order of things re-asserts itself and the whole system spins on."

Now, I have a lot of respect for Holtham. He's been discussing these things, as we all have, for a few years now. (His initial blog 99seats, was dedicated to a change that he's apparently moved past.) But yes, there are some good plays, and bad plays, and Broadway is a tourist attraction and what else is there to talk about? I get it.

I've gotten a bit quieter on the blog about my thoughts on theatre. I've been busy making it as hard as I can, and trying to interest other people in seeing my own plays. I got married, I have a job, I visit my friends, my friends have kids that I love, I visit my family: I'm basically a happy guy with a lot of artistic, as-yet-unfulfilled ambitions. I don't feel the urge to rehash and rework my arguments over and over. I've sort of hoped other people would take up the cause, so I could promote my shows and have a career.

But I wouldn't be a good blogger if I didn't have a bone or two to pick with his statement.

One thing I object to is the phrase "the natural order of things." Frankly, there is no natural order to these things. The American system has been chosen and reinforced, not grown organically out the ground. Our lack of government subsidies, the size of the system, etc, etc. None of this is is immutable. It can feel permanent. Just ask the music business, the cable companies if their models are permanent, untouchable, and perfect. In fact, ask them in 1992 and ask them today. If we don't have the energy or desire to challenge that system...or the means frankly...that's fine. Let just not pretend it's because it can't be changed.

I still believe, for example, that the Showcase Code in New York City reinforces a class system for new plays and playwrights. It absolutely must be changed. I've said so over and over. We've all agreed. It has not been changed. Why hasn't it? How have we failed?

I think, though, that one of the truly unfortunate things going on that hobbles good conversation about theatre, for me, is an unwillingness to criticize one's peers. We simply don't have discussions about the work we see around us. Not substantive ones, anyway. Sure, at the bar after seeing a play, we might say "Oh that was good" or "Oh that was bad." But where do we have the discussions about the form and substance of the work of the writers, actors and directors around us? Not to review shows, but to pick them apart and engage with them? To discuss the themes. To challenge a premise.

I'd love to see more of that. Read more of that. I didn't get involved in theater because I had a passion for the business of theatre. I got involved because I love plays and love to make plays and think about plays and discuss plays.

I know I fear, at times, risking hurt feelings. I remember writing a post a while ago about my experience submitting to a large theater, and got some actually angry responses for literary managers at the places I wanted to work. It chastened me, for sure, but I also get it. We're in a new world, new ecosystem, and it's got social limits and we're all discovering them.

Still, I think that lessens the discourse. This is not a group of pals hanging out and trying to have fun. We're artists engaged in a rocky, wicked process. We can be successful or we can fail and we should talk about both of those things. If we can't, then the online discourse becomes increasingly insubstantial.


Ginger said...

I have been thinking about this a lot recently too - is this it? And is "it" worth challenging? This post made me think I should comment more thoroughly on the theater I see, good or bad. I usually only hype up things I really love and respectfully ignore things I don't, mainly because it's my opinion and I don't MAKE theater after all, I just work in it. What do I know? But as a consumer of theater and one who tracks very closely the habits of other theater consumers, I feel the conversation really needs to start with quality - what is being made that is worth seeing, and talking about? The rest should follow from there. Your post got me thinking, thanks.

August Schulenburg said...

There's a lot worth responding to here and on J's original post, so I'll focus for the short moment I have on engaging critically with each other's work. While I remain intrigued by this idea, my work - as AD, as playwright, director and actor - often improves more from the positive example of watching peers do great work than from any criticism.

Taking my work as a playwright for example, I've been blessed to learn from many of the playwrights Flux has developed and produced. Johnna Adams' GIDEON'S KNOT taught me what was possible with a two-person real-time play, and led directly to THE FIELDS OF BLUE AND GLOW. Rob Ackerman's VOLLEYGIRLS showed me the power of competing narrators that I used in JANE THE PLAIN. There is a sequence in DENNY AND LILA that I think of as the Adam Szymkowicz sequence because it is so clearly inspired by his sense of comedy. (I don't fear plagarism because my own voice is so persistently weird, for better and worse, that it's like spinning gold into birds).

This of course extends beyond Flux, from Mac Rogers' use of repeated ritual in VIRAL to Octavio Solis' holy/taboo sexuality in LYDIA, from Anne Bogart's gestural epiphany in THE ROOM to Qui Nguyen's balance of genre send-up/embrace in AGENT G, from Annie Baker's ladder sequence in THE ALIENS to Anna Deveare Smith pouring out a cup of tea in LET ME DOWN EASY, from Dan LeFranc's ritual dinners in THE BIG MEAL to James Comtois' time-twisting sequence in THE LITTLE ONE; what growth I have achieved as a playwright has more to do with absorbing tactics and strategies from other playwrights successes than from the most well-meaning criticisms. I can only hope my own work has likewise opened up possibilities for my peers they might not have found as quickly on their own.

This holds true for my work as AD of Flux, with a small recent example the world-building of DEINDE inspired in part by terraNOVA's FEEDER and Gideon's Honeycomb Trilogy. I've seen other companies adapt successful programs from Flux for their own work, which is exactly what we want to happen.

Which is not to say that there isn't room for more criticism within our community - I agree that would be valuable. But I think adapting what is working as an artist and producer to your own work is just as valuable (if not more so), and as I've become more conscious of it, I've become better at it. I like to think of it as a Peter Petrelli vs Sylar system; rather than thinking we need to compete and steal each others power, we can just absorb them and make them our own.

Dare I end this comment on a HEROES reference, of all things? I do so dare.

Freeman said...

A daring reference, and very early 2000s.

RLewis said...

While I really enjoyed Deinde, to compare the ad'ing/producing of it to Feeder seems a bit of a stretch. But I worry that we've latched on to "criticism" and missed the larger point here.

Look, I love the idea of absorbing the collective consciousness of our community. I try to do it whenever I can. But, more than what we're taking away from the community, what are we giving back?

We all work in these little sandboxes, and there's always more work to be done there than we could ever do. But do we have an obligation to stop and look up and around. To get outside of our box and do something for the larger good of the community. And do I have a responsibility to prod Gus to get involved with LIT or some org' and risk pissing him off?

Flux has done very well for itself. Who doesn't love Flux? But does Flux has a responsibility to put some energy toward the showcase code issue? I don't know.

P13 - what did they do in their short lifespan that was not in their own self-interest. The very structure the org reenforced that - you get your slot, I get mine. But everyone loves to lay praise on them. I know that I feel an obligation to do more than my own show, but I'm sure many would say it's not right for me to put that on anyone else.

Sometimes I wonder if criticizing each other is the only way we can come together. I never felt more indie-alive than when the new FringeNYC and RAT were at war. Everyone was talking to everyone. People really wanted to be involved in more than just their own next production.

This generation is growing up now, getting married, having kids. Theater is no longer the most important thing in their lives. I've been doing this long enough to see it happen a few times before. Cyclical, generational. The time has past for the theatrosphere. And the facebook generation will only last so long. Twitter even shorter. Where's the next Cedar Bar?

So maybe we're just waiting to pass the torch, and hoping that the next generation will do better than we did. We've little to brag about.

But it's just very hard to bring people together in a place that they believe they're only passing through ...until their big break comes. Why should they put in the effort to make this community better? It's hard. It's just very hard for all of us. I've done no better, so who am I to criticize?

August Schulenburg said...


Flux is a LIT member and has signed onto the new LIT Fund initiative. I think we'd be open to playing a more active role in LIT activities - please email me (gus@fluxtheatre.org) and let me know what I/we can do.

For me personally, it's less about passing through towards someplace better, and more about time and priorities. For example, I missed the last Community Dish meeting because I was cast in a reading of a play I loved with a favorite playwright of mine. I know I need to set aside give-back time to the community and treat it as untouchable until it becomes second nature, but I have to admit, when the decision time comes, doing the thing itself often takes precedence...I'll try to keep your comment close and do better. I, too, want a theatre community that I am proud to belong to, and understand the responsibility for making it a reality start with me.