To Theresa Rebeck

This post is a response to the playwright Theresa Rebeck’s essay “Can Craft and Creativity Live on the Same Stage?”, posted on the Lark Theatre Play Development Center’s blog. My favorite paragraph from her essay:

There are always questions inside questions. Who is theater supposed to serve? Why do we do it, anyway? Do we write for audiences, or do we write for ourselves and our community? If we are convinced that the purest forms of theater—the ones that honor the original and mysterious impulses in the heart of the playwright, and ask that the playwright find the most original and “unconventional” theatricalities to express that impulse—then do we need audiences at all? Why do we get mad at audiences for not flocking to theater which doesn’t interest them because it doesn’t care about them?

I heartily recommend that you click on the title link above, and read both the playwright’s essay, and the comments below. And my response:

Thank you, Ms. Rebeck. I graduated a few years ago from one of the top undergraduate drama programs in the country. During my freshman year essay class, I was NOT ALLOWED to write about art pieces with a story. I could only write about non-narrative art. As someone who came to the theatre because of an intense love of story, I was incredibly frustrated.

My frustration increased throughout my education, to the point where by the end I had decided to leave acting. At every turn, the type of theatre I wanted to do was decried as not “avant-garde” enough, too conventional, too “bourgeois,” too traditional and “conservative” (that damning epithet). Why? Because I insisted on story and heroes. I used the word “edify,” and was told with scorn that I therefore wanted all theatre to be neat little morality plays. Two of my fellow students and I walked out of a class viewing of a performance art piece that included a naked man urinating on stage, face front to the audience. When I told another professor about it, I was told that I “had a problem with peeing.” On stage, as art? You bet I do.

There were three fundamental assumptions I took out of the culture in my program:

1) Artists are more sensitive and more courageous than non-artists, and are therefore Very Special People.

2) The measure of a piece’s worth is whether or not it is new and ground-breaking, not whether or not it moves the audience deep within themselves. A piece that uses never-before-seen theatrical techniques and breaks down all the old conventions, but leaves the audience cold and confused (or angry at what they received for their time and money) is infinitely better than an old Agatha Christie or even Arthur Miller stand-by (or, God help us, Andrew Lloyd Webber) that leaves the audience in tears of laughter or pain even when they lie in their beds after the show. Did the audience feel so insulted they threw chairs at you? You’re a theatrical king, a martyr even. Did your performance of the Phantom of the Opera so move a young boy that he decided in his heart, “That is what I want to spend my life doing?” You’re a sell-out who panders to the sheeple.

This of course brings me to 3) Audiences who don’t appreciate experimental theater are not worthy of respect. I have very rarely enjoyed seeing experimental theater. Most every time, I leave feeling angry and insulted. I am angry when an artist uses shock value to get my attention. I am angry when an artist uses symbols or images that refer to story or character, but without the use of any story or character, and expect me to loan them the use of meaning they haven’t earned. I am angry when there is no story, and just an orgy of sound and movement. I am especially angry when, instead of trying to communicate with me, an artist just regurgitates his innards all over the stage. Sure, you may be complex and sensitive, and think a lot of deep thoughts, and feel intensely, but that doesn’t mean all of your thoughts and feelings are worth sharing with the public, especially when you refuse to structure them in a way that makes us able to understand them. Don’t yell at me in gibberish and then blame me for not listening.

I saw Keith Bunin’s The World Over at Playwrights Horizons when in premiered in 2002. It got mediocre reviews, but I remember it as the most moving theatrical experience of my life. It was experimental in terms of performance and staging. 6 actors played dozens of characters, including a gryphon and a hawk in flight. We witnessed a shipwreck on stage, as well as a woman being suspended over a pit of fire by a rope being eaten away by rats. The creativity shown by the performers, director, and designers was astounding. But what I remember most is the story: one hero, one man against the world, battling doubt, cynicism, failure, and loss, and finally coming to an ending so simple, but so perfect and satisfying, with a sweet edge of loving pain as well. I wept non-stop for half an hour afterwards, and thank God both the lead actor and the playwright let me wrap them in a life-or-death embrace, even while my face was still flooded with tears and my body was racked with sobs.

Give me more of that kind of experimental theatre. Give me a strong story with some hope, and a layered character I can love, and you’ve won me.

2 thoughts on “To Theresa Rebeck

  1. Thanks for this post. A lot of what you said relates to fiction and fiction-writing. I’m fortunate enough to be an MFA program that values good characterization and storytelling over experimentalism.

    Along with a poetry and fiction workshop, I’ve been in a 20th Century American “Theatre of Response” course this fall. We’re reading some well-known writers–Williams, Kushner, etc–as well as some lesser-known writers (at least to me)–Treadwell, Pinero, etc. It’s my first pure theatre class ever, so my mind continually thinks about 1) what theatre has done 2) what theatre can do 3) what theatre should do and 4) how theatre is a unique art form, borrowing techniques from the visual and auditory arts as well as the literary forms.

    All the plays we’ve studied thus far have, despite their differing techniques and philosophies, have wanted to move the audience in some direction.We will read some experimental writers at the end of the term. We’ll see how I like them, I guess.

    Thanks again!

  2. I remember when you described The World Over to me and it sounded like an amazing play. Anyway I get that you didn’t enjoy some of your undergraduate experiences but I think you have to consider that art education thrives on that annoying gap between theory and reality. Which is to say in theory that if making art that is non linear and weird for weirdness sake and includes defcating on stage is the ultimate in creative experssion and then audience should be line-ing up three deep to watch that. And the reality is that not a lot of people enjoy watching that.

    Adn certainly creativity requires innovation and new approaches. I remember you used to be a huge advocate for non traditional gender casting. (I was thinking about this recently when I heard about an all female troupe of actors who do shakespeare plays, as well as a recent all male staging of Romeo and Juliet. As an aside, I think people tend to accept gender bending in shakespear more than most other plays since the plays were written as such) Often what starts out as novel or outrageous soon becomes accepted into more and more mainstream forms.

    annother thing to to concisder is that what makes perfect sense to the artist can be lost to the audience. Remember when we did the telephone play and our intentions in what we were doing made perfect sense to the cast, and many of the choices we made in how we were to present it, but it was totally lost on the audience (albiet they all had to come and see the play since it was a school assembly) I still cringe a little remembering how much people told me they didn’t like it becuase it was about 9/11 and that made them uncomfortable.

    As a final thought, in my poetry classes your work had to stand for itself. There was a ton of peer review where you had to sit there and accept whatever cricism people gave you. Typically people gave constructive criticsm and didn’t tear you to shreads. I do remember one guy who liked to be critical of people’s work but ended up dropping the class after people criticized his work.

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