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April 18, 2007

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MattJ

The interesting other side I have witnessed since moving to NY is that sometimes the artistic director / playwright relationship can become a weird feedback loop based on the premises of who actually has the money: the artistic director.

What I mean is that the precedent being set by artistic directors for down the middle, more commercial work is sometimes matched by talented playwrights capable of much more risque material, so that they can just get produced. Whatever it is, just get produced.

I'm not making a generalization. Just an observation that more than a few very talented downtown playwrights I know have specifically said to me they are trying to write a play that will have more viability for that kind of artistic director, or for a regional house with its proscenium arch and conservative subscriber base.

Jaime

I agree that there aren't enough artistic directors pushing daring, really *new* work, but aren't a lot (most?) of their overly safe seasons coming largely from financial concerns? I mean, they don’t hate the plays, but it's so much easier to sell subscriptions if you pander to the subscribers a bit, give them material that feels a little challenging (ooh! it's about grief!) but is actually comfortable and easy to take, or if you just program shows that you think are easier to sell. How do you take the risk of putting up an edgier, more interesting piece with nothing but faith that you’ll be able to bring an audience? I mean, I guess you just do it, but tell that to your budget. It's terrifying. I don't think this excuses the programming, not at all, but I also don't think the artistic directors are all stodgy and boring old fogies who love the work they're producing. Which is its own problem, and sad. (What would the environment be if arts were more fully funded from the government, like that magical England they talk about?)

Also, just something I think of when Biltmore Syndrome comes up - the first play I saw there was Reckless, which while a revival. I at least still see as an exception. The Biltmore’s also the prettiest theatre on Broadway, but that's neither here nor there.

Johnna

If I were David Lindsey-Abaire, I would have to do a lot of soul-searching before I accepted a prize that I was not nominated for by the appointed jurors. I think it is a huge insult to the three nominated writers that the committee would set their nominations simply because another play was more highly rewarded and higher profile in its initial production. And it does Lindsey-Abaire no real credit to "win" under such circumstances. I feel bad for him. He is a very talented dramatist (I enjoy Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo a great deal). He doesn't deserve a cloudy Pulitzer win-- and all the jaw-flapping and sniping that will follow.

Imagine the next theater mixer that he and Paula Vogel are both invited to? What will they talk about? Interesting short play topic.

I think Matt is right on when he talks about playwrights purposefully writing things they know are "safe" and "produceable." I think that is why Rabbit Hole was written. It is also the type of play that "reads well." Or, stands up in the ubiquitious staged readings you have to go through to even get considered for a production nowadays. Not too visual, small cast, actors mostly sitting talking or folding laundry, -- I have done it as a playwright, too. It is all fine and good to talk about "pushing the boundaries" and "breaking into new forms"-- but there is no good feeling about having a drawer full of plays that no one produces. And "breaking new ground" on your own computer, with a play you keep in a file and no one ever sees, isn't really accomplishing anything.

I, too, felt "TV Movie" while watching RH at first. Then, I found the scene where the mother tries desperately to be nice to the boy who killed her child very affective. Affective enough that I walked out moved. And I think that scene lifts the play out of the realm of TV movie for me. Makes it human and thought-provoking.

I didn't see the finalist plays. I am hoping to read them or see re-mounts soon.

I think it is important to blame the Pulitzer Committee for a lame decision, and not important to criticize Lindsey-Abaire for writing a play that felt produceable and had one small moment of good in it. He didn't ask to be held up as the national standard for excellence. He was just trying to get produced.

Zack Calhoon

It's true. Writing a play that will be financially viable is becoming as formulaic as screenwriting. I don't blame these writers. They want to be produced. What is wrong with that?

There is so much theatre now and so many choices for audiences. We're all competing for the same audience. Theatre producers are becoming more conservative and insisting on having moviestars like Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington to sell their vehicles. They think that it's the actor that brings in the audience. Sometimes they'll just settle for famous people. I'm waiting for the Rachael Ray or Donald Trump. Sounds like a joke but just watch. But they don't think about the law of diminishing returns. If I can see Denzel this year, then they have to get me a bigger star for next year, until we get to the point where we don't have any bigger stars left. We'll have to start casting George Bush, Condi Rice, or Vladimir Putin in order to get someone famous enough to sell tickets. Is it any wonder our writers are playing it safe?

I do think that if you look at the history of theatre, it tends to be a pendulum that swings between star based productions and story based productions.

This dialogue is important and I believe will shake things up in the community. I'm feeling inspired to write something right now.

RLewis

While I agree with all comments about Rabbit Hole and definitely about Doubt, I would be intersted in knowing who are these "Artistic Directors"? But only to remind us what we already know - money changes everything, and nyc theater is no exception (maybe more an example). As Off theaters push to fill the void of non-musicals on Broadway, they have changed who and what they are. So, if you're waiting to MTC, Playwrights Horizons, and LTC to do challenging work, you might be a couple of decades behind the times. I think that role will be played by our next generation companies (Target Margin, New Georges, Big Dance, Elevator Repair, Tiny Mythic (lol), etc.), and no one is going to give them a national prize... yet.

The big OB's can't afford the risk, and the smaller ones don't have the money. And talk of govt' funding, subscribers, etc. really loses me - even foundation $ is soooo slim compared to the early '90s that even calling for it's return seems to retro to imagine.

I may be wrong, but I think that the sooner we realize those wars were lost in '94 when Newt convinced the country that if you can't buy it and sell it for a profit it's not worthwhile/worthy, the sooner we get about the business of today's theater. Not that this makes me happy. I can't believe that even the smaller theaters (my company's $30K annual is pennies) are talking "enhancement money" (not a tool of the risky or challenging). It's sick. The changes in Manhattan have created a cultural bind that is depressing, but from studying OOB history for 2 years now, I do know that this bind will squeeze out, and up, our theatrical future. All I can do is keep my head down and do the work, knowing that whatever work will be written about in 20 years can not be known right now - heck, I might have even seen that show last weekend at the Ohio. Thanks.

Jaime

Just a sidebar, regarding this: "So, if you're waiting to MTC, Playwrights Horizons, and LTC to do challenging work, you might be a couple of decades behind the times."

I can't vouch for what the productions will be, but knowing 4 of the plays in Playwrights' 07-08 season, you might not have to wait too long.

fred

the problem, as always, is that all the money comes through artistic directors (who tend to play safe, for very good reasons, and who aren't always terribly good at reading new scripts). what's needed is another way of funding new plays -perhaps an institution that allocates money based only on the quality of the script (and not on cost of production, saleability, fame of the writer..)...

Scott Walters

I'm a bit puzzled by this controversy. I looked over the list of Pulitzers, and it seems to me that most of them have been pretty unadventurous, middle-of-the-road plays. There are a few giants -- "Death of a Salesman," "Long Day's Journey," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Buried Child" -- but far more middle-brow plays like "The Subject Was Roses," "How to Succeed in Business," "Proof," "Anna in the Tropics." It seems like we might be looking in the wrong place for "daring" theatre -- the Pulitzer has never been the place for that. In fact, "Rabbit Hole" seems like just the kind of play that usually gets a Pulitzer!

David Cote

Thanks everyone for your comments. And Scott, it's true that the Pulitzer has never been a definitive mark of greatness. In fact, in recent years, it could be seen as a confirmation of mediocrity (Dinner With Friends!?!) Doesn't mean theater folks should just shrug it off. I'd rather complain, critique, offer solutions, analysis and contribute to the conversation.

Alison Croggon

The Pulitzer is probably your most internationally visible literary prize (the US version of the Bookers). So I think it's worth grizzling if you think that it gives the impression that US theatre is moribund, because that's certainly what it does.

RLewis

okay, maybe not such an important thought, but I keep wondering about all of the other Pulitzer catagories - does anyone know if there is any other group where you have to see it to judge it? It looks like all of the other catagories are read-only material. Or does that matter to the judges - are they making their selections based solely on the written word on the page? Is seeing the work on the stage important for it to recieve a prize? feel free to consider these rhetorical questions, but it does make me think that playwriting is a peculiar catagory for them (damn theatre! lol)

davis fleetwood

hey, love your blog. i though rabbit hole was good. pulitzer???? i don't think so.

i'm an "x" nyc theatre person (founder & artistic director of the rude mechanicals) doing a different kind of theatre these days. i'm online, and in character, doing a video show 5x a week at www.thehermitwithdavisfleetwood.com

i hope you have a chance to check it out. i'm trying to build an audience....

all the best

Seth Christenfeld

Hrm...an MTC show made my mom physically sick once, too, but it wasn't at the Biltmore.

Greg Machlin

Agree with everything said above. It's also worth noting, of course, that the specific play that the committee rewarded Lindsay-Abaire for was *not* one of his wacky comedies, but his middlebrow grief porn. A comedy hasn't won the Pulitzer since 1991--Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, the darkest thing he's written. Before that, you've got Heidi Chronicles--which is really more a feel-good comedy-drama… and that's it from 1982-2007.
I suspect this anti-comedy bias explains why, when faced with the unsuitable prospect of giving the award last year to either Chris Durang or Rollin Jones, both of whom wrote comedies, the committee instead chose once again not to award a prize, which I find simply absurd (but not in the funny way).

Big M

But Mr. Cote, obviously "Rabbit Hole" DID challenge your political, economic and moral assumptions, or it wouldn't make you so mad. Apparently, you prefer something that fits in with your own preconceptions and prejudices - that middle class American suburbanites are corrupt morons, that plays should be more acceptably hysterical and "cathartic", not to mention comfortably stylized so they don't awaken uncomfortable associations with real life, and that the middle-class suburbs where most theatre audiences live are unsuitable subjects for drama - as opposed to the endlessly, endlessly fascinating problems of third world revolutionaries, oppressed minorities, and artists and journalists in New York City.

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