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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.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Stereotypes and Development

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.


MattJ said...

I don't think the article is saying that theatre is unpopular because it has been surpassed by TV. I love this article. The ramifications of the thought behind it are moslty persistant in the way theatre artists look at their art, themselves, and at the masses.

It happens in the blogosphere all the time. Folks spend all their time writing about how valuable, vital and important theatre is to culture and the masses are too engrossed in pop culture bullshit to appreciate really good art. As if theatre people are so intellectually superior to their potential audiences that that they condemn them.

Theatre people are compassionate people who want to reach out to the masses because they believe in their work and how it can help people. I truly believe that. But I also believe that they still refuse to let their art form participate in the actual culture of society. Theatre marginlizes itself more and more all the time with these off conversations of being the cultural landmark of society, while not actually being part of the culture at all.

So this incestuous loop becomes the result where the theatre is better than the population and therefore, the culture, and falls completely off the radar map of any sort of audience the theatre might wish to employ. We keep asking "Why won't you come?" And then we condemn them for not being there, and we demonize their own immersion in a popular culture that they created. What use do they have for us then? Why should they listen to us if we aren't speaking to them in a language they understand nor want to?

It's not about equating the theatre form with the Television form. It's about understanding that theatre doesn't exist without an audience, and neither does TV, that's what they have in common. And if we learn from that success rather than writing it off as consumer bullshit, we might be able to stop marginalizing ourselves, and do what we have always wanted to do, connect with other human beings.

Scott Walters said...

Matt -- I hate to say it, but I think your summary of this piece is kind of messed up. While part of what Birkenhead says (and really, who cares who he is -- do you have to show your credentials to have an idea?) is that development and institutionalization has made the creation of new work boring (and haven't many of you been saying the same thing yourself?). The 1918 remark isn't about development, but about being stuck in an old idea of what constitutes the avant-garde, which I think is fair -- has there really been anything since Artaud and Brecht that has been new? Yes, Birkenhead picks out a few plays as examples -- what other option is there? 1) No examples (at which point people will demand specific examples); or 2) what? -- a long list of plays? Surely he is using certain plays as types -- plays that have been labeled good enought o make it to a manjor NY stage. And of course we could argue about his TV choices (Lost instead of The Sopranos, but the larger point is that there is more innovative TV than there is innovative theatre. Now, we can argue that, of course, but we can't dismiss it because we think his taste in TV and theatre is subpar. We need to engage the ideas on the same level of generality. You can do this, Freeman -- you've done it before quite well. But this post seems sort of querulous and tossed off. Matt Johnson has brought up some good points, too. I hope you'll take another look

Freeman said...

He aggrandizes minor plays as examples of a systemic problem and tosses off major works as if they are exceptions. The option isn't "no examples" or a "longer list." What's lacking here is objectivity. He's cherry picking productions that are easy to attack to make his point, and treating "Spring Awakening" and "Angels in America" as good signs, or somesuch.

I wasn't actually arguing about his TV choices, but the idea that his TV choices are somehow more innovative that what's on stage. I'd love someone to show me how any of the shows he mentioned are more innovative than anything being written by Suzan-Lori Parks or Mac Wellman or Sarah Kane. I actually LOVE the Sopranos and Lost and Deadwood and The Shield and all sorts of movies. I love pop culture. I just don't agree with his conclusions. They're based on stereotypes and, obviously, broad exposure to TV and limited exposure to the stage.

That's about all there is to it. It's merely an uniformed diatribe.

Sorry if you find this essay quickly written, Scott. It was. Thank God I'm not getting graded on it. ;)

Freeman said...

Er, that was written by Sarah Kane.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm with Matt here (though I think the stereotypes he identifies are his own caricatures). All these places are more complex than they are portrayed. Elitist art snob that I am, I adore popular culture. I even write it. But I think true things can be made in any form, and that true thing - whatever it is, and for godsake don't ask me to define it - is what excites me. I also have this abiding belief (and it may be not more than a belief) that when that true thing happens, it enters people lives in a real way.

I've found it illuminating taking children to the theatre. The things that excite them most, in their ignorance, are things written off by many commentators as "elitist". That's because they're open to new forms, not having expectations about what they're supposed to be; and also, they hate being talked down to.

Freeman said...

I wouldn't say those "caricatures" belong entirely to me. The Pretentious Festival wouldn't come off very well if people didn't automatically identify theatre snobbery as something to lampoon. Then again, the idea that playwrights are stodgy and out of touch is also a broad stereotype.

All that notwithstanding, I think what it comes down to (I've obviously not been very clear) is that the public perception of theatre is usually (not always) rather far off from reality. Unfortunately, we have to battle those perceptions, in my view, more than we have to struggle to innovate.

That is not to say we should STOP innovating. It is to say that the idea that television is MORE innovative than theatre is simply hooey.

Scott Walters said...

I think we have to remember that the context of the original essay was the Tony Awards, and his examples are Broadway shows. Surely we can agree that not much of interest is happening on Broadway, can't we? And I don't think Sarah Kane, Mac Wellman, and Suzan-Lori Parks have made it to Broadway.

But surely it is hard to argue with Matt Johnson when he writes: "It happens in the blogosphere all the time. Folks spend all their time writing about how valuable, vital and important theatre is to culture and the masses are too engrossed in pop culture bullshit to appreciate really good art. As if theatre people are so intellectually superior to their potential audiences that that they condemn them." There is a hostility towards theatre among the masses, and I think it revolves around a perception that we are elitist and snobby. And in some ways, it is hard to argue that it isn't true.

I think as far as innovation that people who appreciate television aren't talking about formal innovation, which is what we talk about in theatre. We tend to be really focused on HOW the story is told -- almost to the exclusiuon of what is being said, sometimes. They're talking about the content, and often it is about the kind of depth and character complexity that works in long-running shows.

Listen, I don't know squat about pop culture. My TV isn't hooked up to cable, I rarely go to movies, I mainly listen to NPR, and I don't get a daily newspaper. So I can't talk about the innovation of "The Sopranos." But I do know that there is high regard for that TV series, and many others, that I don't hear in relation to theatre. Now, we can accept that marginalization and revel in it (and that's a pretty good option), or we can try to figure out something that would make theatre more exciting.

Freeman said...

Suzan-Lori Parks was on Broadway. She won a Pulitzer for TopDog/Underdog.

Who else has recently been on Broadway? Tom Stoppard. The History Boys (just recently a movie). Lieutenant of Inishmore. I am my own wife. Good plays, popular plays, innovative plays, cool stuff. Worth seeing. It isn't seen by the number of people who see the Sopranos. Why? Because of technology.

I think we all need to remember that part of what's feeding the love of the Sopranos, as opposed to love of Broadway, is just technology. The Sopranos is broadcast to millions of households, and a single episode is probably shown more than ten times a week on HBO. Beyond that, it can be seen OnDemand, downloaded, and bought on DVD. Even if you don't see a first-run episode, you can get caught up on Netflix. You can watch the Sopranos alone, whenever you want, or in groups, and it costs less money. Simply put... it's an unfair comparison to ask theatre to seek the same cultural resonance with the mass market that any TV show can reach. The very worst television show on the planet (let alone the best) as technological advantages that theatre simply lacks.

Notice that this has nothing to do with quality. Equating it to some sort of quality difference is simply inept logic. The reason people feel more about the Sopranos is because they all have seen it. During its entire run, fewer people saw Coram Boy than a single episode of the Sopranos.

It's not a matter of theatre being exciting. We just have to acknowledge that we are offering something different.

Zack Calhoon said...

Comparing TV/Film to Theatre is like comparing Baseball to Basketball. They are different animals.

Perhaps the problem, is the way we look at it. Birkenhead (nice name) shouldn't be comparing the two mediums. They are completely different. It's because of articles like this that producers keep churning out facisimiles of movies like "Legally Blonde", "Hairspray", "High Fidelity", "The Producers", etc. They keep treating them like the mediums are interchangeable.

When this happens, we theatre people get on our high horses about championing how theatre is vastly different (and superior) when it isn'st superior, it's just different.