Jul 18, 2012

Who Makes a Play?

Maybe because it was the first speech at the opening plenary of the recent TCG conference, maybe because it was more sobering nuts-and-bolts than rousing stump speech, maybe even because it offered a somewhat challenging if nuanced point of view to a field that had many other topics and agendas pressing on its mind for the week—whatever the reason, Woolly Mammoth a.d. Howard Shalwitz's speech, "Theatrical Innovation: Whose Job Is It?", hasn't yet gotten the wide play and discussion I think it deserves. Now that the full text is up on the TCG blog, I hope it does. To me it reads as a patient, clear-minded, and quietly urgent wake-up call for American theaters seeking ways to be at once aesthetically daring and beloved by audiences, both humane and rigorous in their process, both artist-centered and institutionally sound.

Shalwitz starts with European theater as a jumping-off point of comparison, but not before getting past the familiar they-have-funding-and-long-traditions-of-respect-for-artists-and-we-don't refrain:
At first I was tempted to dismiss the work I saw in Poland—and later in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Russia—by saying to myself that their tradition is more Brechtian while ours is Aristotelian, they have a director-driven culture while ours is playwright-driven, they get more government funding so they can rehearse longer and aren’t so dependent on the box office, they sustain whole companies of artists while we have more of a freelance culture.

But the more work I saw, the more it became impossible not to be envious of a few things: first, that the variety of different kinds of work on their stages seemed wider; second, that it all felt like new theatre whether the script was new or old; third, that every play felt like an exuberant civic event because of the way the actors owned the material and seemed to be sharing it as an ensemble with the audience; and finally, that the audiences were noticeably younger than American audiences.
I won't steal all his thunder, but what Shalwitz goes on to explore is a way America's institutional theaters can strive toward these goals without becoming European state-run theaters, in part by becoming production developers as much as play developers, and by extending responsibility for and ownership of the art on the stage beyond the playwright's silo to everyone in the company (and to somehow do so without turning the creative process into a free-falling free-for-all).

It's not a silver bullet or a universally applicable program, and Shalwitz does pause to acknowledge that many small ensembles in the U.S. have been and are doing just the kind of European-style innovating and young-audience-building he covets (Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Rude Mechs, Pig Iron, Neo-Futurists are just a few names that come to my mind). But I remain extremely impressed by the way Shalwitz manages to tie together so many of the daunting challenges theaters face in the 21st century: audience engagement and retention, new play development, the divide between artists' and institutions' priorities and needs, the ongoing search for theater's purpose and relevance in a digital age.

These are not easy topics; indeed, they're so big that each one could practically spawn a conference all its own. Credit to Shalwitz, then, for seeing a practitioners' way through some of these thistly questions, and for teasing out their fundamental interdependence.

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