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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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

"Why bother?" Why ask?

Terry Teachout writes a real hamdinger of a sad luck piece one the Wall Street Journal here. After noting that Tony Kushner doesn't make a living as a playwright, he goes on to say:

"The question all but asks itself: Why is anybody still writing plays? Theater, after all, is no longer a central part of the American cultural conversation, the way it was when Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams walked the earth. Nowadays most educated people would just as soon stay home and watch "Breaking Bad" as shell out a hundred bucks to see a Broadway play—assuming that there are any plays on Broadway worth seeing, which long ago ceased to be a safe bet.

So if you can't make any money writing for the stage, why bother? Putting aside the obvious attraction of being able to make up your own characters, I can think of one excellent reason: You meet the nicest people."

Honestly, I do like that I've met nice people, but as a playwright, that is not why I write plays. I also don't write plays because I really like sitting in the room and hearing the reactions (a luxury, apparently, that TV writers don't get?) I don't do it for applause, or to satisfy myself or feel the love of others. Frankly, the theater I like is usually a bit terrifying and difficult: the sort that makes people leave feeling unsettled, and not like they love you.

I write plays because they are the long-standing, traditional form of art that I've chosen for my medium. Does there need to be further explanation than that? Just because photographs exist, does that mean painters need to explain why they still paint? I do not concede that drama is no longer a part of the cultural conversation. Tony Kushner may not make thousands of dollars from Angels in America...but it's still Angels in America. It's value is immeasurable; it's a permanent part of the American canon. That's work of a value that is expressly disproportional to the amount that he is paid for it. He gets paid less than a baseball player. Fine. So do schoolteachers. Does anyone ask why teachers bother? 

Should poets stop writing poetry just because none of them is Robert Frost? Because the culture has changed? Are poets, in fact, just writing poems because poems are fun to write? No. They are important, and valuable, and necessary. Even the ones you've never heard of. Even the ones you've never read.

Theater is like any art. I honestly am amazed when people ask why it's made.


Mary Full of Grace said...

Amen ! And double ouch. And quite frankly, I think that the longer a playwright or director is in theatre , she/he might find that the jealousies that exist in theatre do not make for the nicest people. I have met some nice people but many are often very needy. One continues writing plays and directing them in the theatre , I believe, because it is a purer form of communication-not because it's fun to make up characters.

TraceTime said...

Thank you for posting this, Matthew, your timing is impeccable. I raised this question, "Why bother?", to myself last month as I was walking down the streets of New York, trying to convince myself that I've chosen an absolutely ludicrous passion. I could very easily (an exaggeration)continue selling real estate, make money, travel, raise my sons and have a happy life without the head and heartache having playwright in the mix.
Then it dawned on me that perhaps these doubts of purpose and social relevance might be symptomatic of an underlying anxiety caused by the fact that I was having a staged reading at The Abingdon Theatre later in the week. If I rejected the art first, it would be easy to dismiss it as frivolous should the NY audience reject my play.
I caught my schoolgirl fears early and chose to make that decision at the end of the week should I still feel this way about my profession. I've been in theatre for more than 30 years, 15 of that as a writer, so leaving it behind would be a complex exorcism, but the question itself does help to clarify one's purpose and the writing itself.
I write plays because they are difficult to do well and can be very rewarding; much like the Sunday NY Times crossword.
Nice or needy, those people exist everywhere, Mary, and they're just as likely to be sitting next to you in a cubicle or standing beside you at a nurse's station. I balk at the idea that artists are acting from some deep character flaw, we're just the segment of the population who is unafraid to expose our vulnerabilities.
I write plays because I have a voice to do so and because I meet interesting people who are not afraid of being challenged or challenging me.
Write on, Matthew!

A.Trocino said...

AMEN! Thank you, thank you!

B McEntire said...

"Just because photographs exist, does that mean painters need to explain why they still paint?"
That is the single best thing I've read in a week. Thanks, man.