I Bring to You All Both a Pressing and Intriguing Matter:
In times of such world strife, are depressing dramas still marketable and popular?
People often come to me and say, "Why don't you write a comedy? It makes people happy in such times of world suffering." (Not their exact words, but a general idea) To that, I say, "No. I am not going to bend to the status quo. I am provoking the exact opposite. I want to try and dissolve the aspects of human existance that I see as unfavorable. I want to write a play that opens people's eyes to my opinion; to show the public my side of the story. And I choose to do this in the world of theater."
Of course, I would not be inclined to openly bash people's beliefs (it is part of my inherently respectful nature). But I have opinions. Opinions that I choose to express through drama.
My world view is somewhat unconventional (as is dictated by American society). I live in the US and I have, to speak bluntly, anti-American views: (Maybe I'm exagerating) I am a believer in anti-capitalism and atheism (both by my own accord). Naturally, as my inherent personalities act, I am questioning and philosophical.
But I have fears. Fears that we (Americans) are becoming increasingly intolerant of new ideas. How could this help my questioning philosophy and produce my non-conforming plays?
Most important of all, should I take a hand at comedy, when I know that I do not have that sort of personality? Will it hurt me a lot to stick solely with controversial tragedies?
Any input is valuable. (Within reason.)
Last edited on Thu Apr 23rd, 2009 12:09 am by RTurco
That's an interesting question, sir. And, quite frankly, I don't know the answer to it. What I think is, a writer worth his or her salt must write what is in their hearts and minds without regard to commerce. Keep in mind that the play we begin today might not be finished and on the boards for years. The world changes. What people may want now may not be what people will want tomorrow. Write what feels right for you.
Here is my original post when I first joined The Forum in 2006. You can still locate it under Q&A thread and see the response. You can find it on page 6 of the Question and Answer thread as well as the original follow-up comments.
We are on the same track. I have found most theatres gutless, timid and blind. Theatres used to rock the boat. Not anymore. Theatres used to make us think by the choices they made in their selection of plays. Not anymore. Theatres now want us to walk out of the theatre saying "Wasn't that nice?" That is okay some of the time, but not for an entire season.
I recently talked to a successful fellow - and an ABSOLUTELY great guy - who is force in theatre in Chicago and he said, "What a great time to do a revival of Clifford Odets!" I replied, "No, what about a play that addresses our current situation? Odets is wonderful but he is almost nostalgic given our current situation." He looked at me with a blank face, as if as if he had no idea of anything new. Scary to me. Someone in a theatre who could do something and they accept the status quo or the nostalgic past.
Here is my original post from 2006:
I noticed this past year that there is no longer a group listing in the yearly Dramatists Guild Index for theatres that do political plays...of any kind. However, there are genre breakdowns listed for gay, racial, gender stories, environmental, etc. but nothing that just deals with social/political/economic in general. Does anyone know of any theatres that are interested in them? Or where one would look to find a list of theatres that are interested?
Yes, there is the NY Shakespeare Festival/Public Theatre, but there already is an established tradition there to at least touch on the subject occasionally. But where are the theatres that will do plays about job loss, globalization, militarization, poverty, economic brutality, etc? Other than on Broadway in "The Threepenny Opera," is politics now a dirty word in theatre? It seems as if no theatre knows there is a war on! I don't see it in Chicago.
I have seen two plays by two small, independent theatre companies in NYC do some good work. But these are not mainstream, well-attended theatre institutions. The mainstream theatrical situation, at least in America, reminds me of the great movie, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." They felt their wall around the house would keep creeping fascism from affecting them. Brilliant movie. I recommend it.
David Hare, the British playwright of "Stuff Happens" (and many others) has said something like "American playwrights have all but given up on writing political theatre." I don't think it is the writers. It is the theatres that won't produce them. "The Laramie Project" is a beautiful, painful and notable exception, but that also was gay oriented, and who can not get sympathy for that horrible event. "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley has some political underpinnings about the Cathoic Church, but is not really a "political play."
In the early part of the 20th Century in America there were scores and scores of highly successful revues, plays and novels about greed, corruption, politics, de-humanizing and exploitative industrialization. Yet, it seems as if there is a total dearth of them today. I am not talking about political non-fiction books - they are now a dime a dozen from
Al Franken to Ann Coulter.
But what about theatre? Does anyone write political plays? Anyone seen a political play that just sizzles with danger and theatrical excitement and makes you a little unsettled? That makes you leave the theatre questioning something? Anyone had one produced? I know "political" is a big umbrella. What does the term "political play" mean to you? Any comment on this?
Last edited on Thu Aug 3rd, 2006 01:01 pm by in media res
My post script of today 4-21-09 is this: If theatres - all of them, commercial, non-profit, academic - had had the courage to produce plays like pointing our the the economic, political and military immorality - maybe this economic meltdown would not have happened. Maybe it never would have grown in such an illegal and fraudulent way. But the major - and minor non-profit theatres have been sucking off the teats of the big money earning corporate and private sponsors and have lost their sights on the moral under-pinnings of the the world and the theatre that has been established from Greek times. They have bought in to the fraud and deception of the political and economic scum that have gotten us in to this mess.
There is the argument of course that all theatre is political but I know what you mean. I'm silly enough to be in the middle of writing a very political play. All of the debate about climate change and what to do focuses on the cost of making changes. The opponents of any change will always argue that switiching to alternative energy sources will damage the economy.
Now I've been watching this debate for sometime and believe that the point is being missed... The real implication for climate change will be a shortage of food. Great civilisations of the past have fallen when their energy source.... food ran out or when the numbers at the top of the social pyramid became too many for the base to support.
I'm writing a play where the shrinking number of countries in the world which can still generate an export surplus of food unite ... in something the same way as OPEC.. to use food as a political weapon. I've been involved in the grain industry for a good part of my life and can tell you that during the early 90's the US and the EU used food as a weapon against each other and the US used food subsidies as a political weapon against the USSR.
Why am I writing it... do I have a commission? Do I know a theatre that will automatically take it up? No. But live theatre is the last of the soap boxes where an individual can get his/ her idea out there.
I'm frightened. I want to say it and I'm going to say the best way I know how.
I was shooting and Industrial Film for one of the chemical fertilizer companies about 15 years ago. The guy from the company said if everyone in the world got the same amount of food to eat - if it were all spread out equitably - the world's food supply would last about two months. Or maybe it was three. Whichever, it is kind of a depressing thought.
I remember he said, "We would not even make it to the next harvest."
For me, lovely is the kiss of theatrical death. I have a play everyone is afraid to do. A friend walked out during the cold reading, stating later, it took him three days to shake the play, another friend said brilliant, but she would not be involved in a production of it....blah blah blah.
I'd rather someone hate my play than tell me it's lovely.
I'm never going to write family theatre...it isn't in me.
Without sounding too critical...this can also be dangerous.
"I want to write a play that opens people's eyes to my opinion; to show the public my side of the story."
I read a lot of plays...a lot...and I know when the playwright has an agenda, when his/her voice comes into the play....it's no longer a story that needs to be told, and it lessens the value of the art...in my opinion...which is sometimes humble.
When I leave a theatre, or wherever a play is performed, I want to be moved - challenged - scared - nervous....a lot of things but never pleased or content.
for what it's worth, i tend to prefer comedy over tragedy (or serious) in life in general. when i recently went to nyc & could see only one show, i looked at everything that was playing & decided on a comedy despite some very good serious productions being staged. i just felt i wanted something fun that would make me laugh. that's not to say that i never enjoy serious books, films, plays, etc but after all the bad news around these days, i wanted something to cheer me up.
i agree with what others have said - you can only write what you can write. writing with a specific goal in mind can be awkward & forced. tell the story you have & worry about possible productions when it's done.
Your fleeting two cents are of the utmost appreciation (that goes for everyone else too). I will not restrain myself from artistically displaying my opinion. Just because the public wants to be smugly satisfied, that does not mean the public will get it from me.
And who knows, maybe I'll write a comedy. But it will probably still be a critical piece and full of dry humor.
Yes, let's not sell comedy short. Great comedy can and often is very hard-hitting. From Greek times to the present. One must somehow must entertain theatrically in some way to get them through the door, whether a comedy or a drama. Mere screeds do not work.
As in all things in life, one must remain true to oneself. Doing otherwise will inevitably lead to unhappiness of some sort.
In regard to your initial question, I think you only need look to the phenomenal success of the recent revival of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” to find your answer. More specifically, though, I don’t know that anyone sets out to write a “depressing drama” do they? If the story and subject matter of a play evoke emotions such as anguish, sorrow, dread, melancholy, etc., that is one thing, but would you really set out with the goal of leaving your audience in a state of depression? And let's not forget that quite often a very harrowing story can ultimately bring a great sense of catharsis to an audience. Perhaps I’m parsing your words too much, and if so I apologize.
Write whatever you want to write. Break rules, flout convention, shock, disturb, do whatever you want to do as long as it comes naturally. Ignore trends, ignore advice from friends who don’t share your passions, and most importantly ignore commercial considerations. Write something with a small cast with minimal set requirements that’s full of “ripped from the headlines” humor that could easily and cheaply be put up in a black box theatre if - and only if - it’s the play you want to write. But if you want to write something dark, something that trawls the very depths of human misery, that has a cast of twenty and is set in multiple locations around the globe, then that is the play you should write. If it’s good, it’ll get produced. And if you wrote it from the heart, it’ll be good.
You have explained my views quite accurately. I do not think that I am intentionally trying to hurt people, but it is just the nature of my views. You are not parsing my words, rather you are explaining them better than I could have done.
"And let's not forget that quite often a very harrowing story can ultimately bring a great sense of catharsis to an audience."
Last edited on Fri Apr 24th, 2009 01:21 am by RTurco
I do think that most plays produced today (especially new plays) with a political or social message are veiled in comedy, absurdism, high theatricality, etc. Part of that is economic troubles -- people who can afford to go to the theatre are generally going to want to see something entertaining, and most people associate entertaining with conforming to mainstream views.
I'm facing the same problem with my directing. I am attracted to plays that require more thought -- from myself, the cast, the audience, etc. I am aware that these plays are not (as?) financially viable compared to something like Arsenic and Old Lace, or Sound of Music. I directed a production of A Christmas Carol that was vary minimalist, at a theatre that had for years done a more traditional production with bells and whistles.
On the other hand, having served on the board of a community theatre and running a self-sufficient high school program, I realize that getting an audience is crucial to staying alive. The question, then, becomes how do I do what I enjoy doing (and feel I am best at) while still producing commercially viable works? It narrows the options, but there are still a number of plays out there that push the envelope, while still being funny, suspenseful, etc.
Whether you want to make comprimises in your own writing is a choice you have to make. How important is it that your work is produced soon, frequently, and/or for large audiences? How flexible do you want to be in how you treat your themes? (For example, I think that Blood Diamond does an excellent job of exposing the inhumanity of African warlordism by framing it as a heist/suspense film, and that Children of Men uses the suspense genre to discuss environmental/ecological issues. These films reached a far wider audience than they otherwise might have by using a popular genre to frame the socio-political messages.)
In the end, or so I've come to terms with as a director, I have to be true to myself, my analytical process, and my vision; but I also look for ways and plays that are going to entertain the audience, too.
I'm a partisan of comedy of course, and consider it adequate to express the most challenging of ideas (Live, from Athens for instance is the trial and execution of Socrates recast as a reality show for tv). I wouldn't recommend trying comedy if you feel you don't have the personality for it, and even more if you don't think it's sufficiently serious. But a look at The Ruling Class and The Bewitched by Peter Barnes will tell you exactly how excoriating and tragically inflected comedy can be. (But his indifferent success at attracting productions suggests a depressing answer to your question about challenging theatre. I'm not at all persuaded the problem here is with audiences however; it's with an increasingly mechanistic attitude to the production of theatre, a kind of assembly line 'elements of the popular hit' approach. I don't know what to do about that except to continue writing challenging dramas and see if anyone can be interested in them.)
I could not agree with you more regarding our Mister Barnes. For my taste, his wit, humor, and intellect are second to none. His "indifferent success at attracting productions" is a great loss to the literature of Theatre. As to "continue writing challenging dramas and see if anyone can be interested in them." there is little else left to those whose life and the Theatre are synonymous. Someone said to me early on, "Raise your flag and see who salutes it." Mister Barnes has not gone un-saluted by those who know quality when they see it.
I have one word for combining political with entertainment:
Of course, he died on the stage.
If one can make people laugh, and yet recognize, that is genius.
Aristophanes was a master. But the Greeks citizenry (as opposed to silver mine slaves) who were allowed to attend theatre were exceptionally educated and enjoyed a good debate, though they may have bristled. His comedies were quite successful in their time.
Oh, what the f*ck do I know? Listen to me! I have no idea at this point.
I am enjoying this discussion, though. Christopher Durang's new play did not get very good notices from the ones I read. (Doesn't mean that it is not good.)
Our own edd's play, "The Moon Away" is a mature play of great depth of character, drama and horror that I briefly wrote about in the critique section over a year ago. Where is the theatre that will perform this stunning and wonderful play? Here is the link to the Forum comments I wrote - and others wrote - after reading it:
The only thing I'd add to that, IMR, is that when it works best entertainment isn't superadded to the ideas of a play, or its characterizations, it arises with them and forms a unified package. Nobody'll ever succeed in entertaining who thinks it's nothing more than a means to an end, some sort of duty call made on the way to the higher goal of meaning. A little while ago I stated in one of those manifestos of intent I sometimes issue that I "want to fuse high art and high entertainment so thoroughly that only a pedant would try to separate and examine them independently."; or words to that effect.