Reference Upon Reference Upon Reference

A while back I wrote a post about the absurdly long lead-time in theater, which I referenced recently, and which I forgot was inspired by something said by J. Holtham at 99Seats, where he now references the idea again. (Got that?)

Anyway, this is still true, and still explained by J. Holtham better than I did or could:

I remember reading once about the news business, how radio and TV and, now the internet, are great for breaking news and constant updates, while the newspapers give you a little more distance and perspective and then finally, the news magazines give you the fullest view of the story, since they’re the last to hit the street. …We’re the magazines of the entertainment world.

…We can miss out on stories, miss out on moments when the iron is hot to strike. By the time theatre gets around to a story, everybody’s heard it, decided what they thought and moved on. We cede ground to Law & Order.

I still think the answer may be small, seasonless theaters that can be nimble, get plays up quickly, and let them run as long as they are relevant to the community.


10 Replies to “Reference Upon Reference Upon Reference”

  1. Theatre is like the magazines of the world?

    Really? I don’t know if it’s that I disagree with J’s definition of what a magazine is or it’s the idea that there’s any simile that makes for a good comparison.

    Theatre makes the iron J speaks of hot. It makes its own moments. Several great mid-century plays (LONG DAYS, SALESMAN, for example) speak to lifestyle and life values without any reference to any specific real world event. The revelations of these plays hold up (I’m arguing) because the truths they are anchored by have little to do with style and more to do with the cultural nervous system we all feel at various moments.

    Not every play needs to do that, of course, to make a good night of theatre, but I don’t think the long lead times for play development can be said to be robbing theatre of its relevance.

    Something else is happening. Or not happening.

  2. No, you’re right about the plays that don’t reference real world events being great plays, and J even talks about the fact that those hold up specifically because they aren’t tied to a cultural moment and are universal and so on. Your argument works for me.

    I’m trying to make a different argument: that there should be a place for a whole other type of play that IS, in fact, tied to specific events happening at the moment. I think about Tore’s play March To November, which was about the feelings people had during Obama’s campaign. My argument is that the play was relevant specifically because it was performed right as Obama’s campaign was happening. It was written in May, ran in November, and if he had to submit it for development and that whole process, it would never have been seen. It would just now be hitting the top of some lit manager’s stack and they’d say, “Old news” and move on.

    Or my friend who wrote about the 2008 global financial crisis in early 2009: that would have been a great play to see in mid-2009, but he submitted to theaters with seasons and the earliest anyone could get it up would be 2011 and it’s quite possible that literary managers are again going to think it’s old news.

    Like you say, I don’t think every play has to do that to make a good night of theater, but it should be possible to write a play that talks about current events.

    I just worry that someone’s gonna skip writing their brilliant play about Tea Partiers or somesuch because they figure the play won’t come out until 2013 — so they’ll write a more generic family drama that they think is timeless and universal.

    There should be a place for both, is my point.

  3. I know you’re familiar with the Living Newspaper plays of the past. But I don’t think you’re arguing for that – though maybe you are. Still, plays that are about what’s happening now, and only now, really aren’t useful to anyone except tonight’s audience.

    But nobody really knows.

    There’s a play going around right now about Enron – not exactly ripped from today’s headlines. It’s simply, from what I understand, a really great play. Is it dated? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.

    But clearly the playwright, Lucy Prebble, was inspired by something in that situation and she didn’t let that stop her from writing it. And it’s not stopping people from producing it.

    My guess is that the play touches on something quite a bit more than the specifics even if it starts there.

    And personally, while the Obama play had an easy producer’s hook when Obama was cresting, I can also see an easy producer’s hook now that he’s been beaten up a bit.

    It’s not really about the process, the development, the whatever. It’s about who is reading and how they’re reading it. And, then, of course what’s in it – or seen in it.

  4. Dude, quit making me think before I write.

    I think what I’m really talking about is beyond subject matter and gets to the emotions and the zeitgeist.

    Like, I wrote a play that was very much borne out of the frustration and the sense of conspiracy that was around amongst liberal SF in 2004 after Bush was re-elected. The play’s not really about that at all in terms of subject matter; but it’s of that time and that emotion. I feel like that play could have been particularly cathartic and timely if it had gone up in 05 or 06. But people were considering it for their 08 and 09 seasons and felt like the time had passed; 08-09 was all about hope and change. It’s still a good play; it still has the larger issues we want in theater; it still is perfectly fine if it’s produced next year or five years from now. But if the lead time of theater was shorter and people could have read it in 05 and got it up in 05, I think it would have been even better.

    Or the Enron play: I don’t know when it was written, but let’s imagine it theoretically was written while Bush was president. Wouldn’t it have been nice to stage it then, when the guy who was friends with those guys was right there in office? As awesome and perfectly relevant to what’s happening now as it probably is, wouldn’t it have been even better had it been staged closer to the events themselves? Do we have to wait until it’s far enough in the past that people can tell themselves that it’s a period piece and pretend all’s right with the world because those guys are no longer in office?

    Ugh, I hate talking about shows I haven’t seen. For all I know the play is completely of the moment and just acts like it’s about Enron, sort of like MASH was about Vietnam and acted like it was about Korea. So pretend everything I wrote was theoretical.

    Anyway, I guess that’s what I’m really interested in: the energy and feeling and zeitgeist of a piece that captures the moment and not just the subject matter. Not plays that are about “what’s happening now, and only now” but plays that capture how people feel right now and not how we think they’ll be feeling three years from now when we can finally work the show into our season.

    Still, I read your comment and nod along the whole time I’m reading, so maybe we want the same thing and I just want it to happen faster.

  5. Oh, and also, I should be clear: I’m not arguing that this is how “theatre should be.” I just want there to be an option. I’d love a Caffe Cino type place in SF that puts on full-length plays started four months ago; and then we’d still have places putting on plays that need several years of development. By the same playwrights.

    Hmm, that’s kind of what PianoFight and PlayGround did with Daniel Heath, actually. PianoFight put up the full-length Forking several months after he wrote it; PlayGround is slowly developing another of his full-lengths. That’s what it is: We should all be Daniel Heath!

    A side benefit of us all being Daniel: bourbon sales would go way up.

  6. I’m sorry if I seemed pugilistic. Didn’t mean to. And I’m definitely all for the Caffe Cino type-place when Sam Shepard would go into the back room and emerge 10 hours later wild-eyed with pages in his hand.

    We are definitely missing the freedom that more spontaneity offers – and did offer at other moments in our ridiculous history.

    But I also don’t hate development the way others do. The way I look at it, development is something you do when you want a relationship, not necessarily a play. I also believe, quixotically to be sure, no theatre should ever develop a play they aren’t going to produce. There are special exceptions, of course, but there shouldn’t be many. I think it would immediately end the push to develop “voices” over plays and start making theatres walk the walk instead of just talk the talk.

    But, here’s where I’ve maybe failed to be clear – and I apologize: I don’t think there’s any way of anyone knowing when it’s a good time to put a play on. You and your play make the time. And theatres that pass on scripts because it would be too late for this or that material are not telling you the real truth to you or themselves. It’s their job to make it a good time to do a play.

    I’ve heard Artistic Directors wax poetic about needing to find plays with as “a sense of urgency” that “cry out to be done now.” It was all crap – just a laying out reasons to say no to something.

    But I can only write what draws me. And unless I’m producing myself, its up to others after that. In the meantime, I’m sure not going to let the timing of my subject matter keep me away from the writing desk.

  7. Nothing pugilistic taken; I love the opportunity to think through this kind of stuff. If you hadn’t commented, I wouldn’t have realized I was making it sound like I only wanted plays pulled straight from the printer. Typing out replies to you made me realize all I really want is the possibility of some plays getting done quicker. And that while I talk about resurrecting Caffe Cino, PianoFight is sort of already doing just that.

    The point in your last three paragraphs has finally sunk in. I stepped back and thought about it like the publishing industry. Is it “time” for a novel that reexamines the legacy of Richard Nixon? Who the hell knows? But if someone writes that novel, and it’s good, and they publish it, and they “make it a good time” to publish it…

    I get what you’re saying. You write what you write; you send it out; you see if it connects to others; meanwhile, while it’s making its way through the world, you write what you write.

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