Tuesday, July 28, 2009

the perniciousness of "I" (playwriting I)

There's a reason theater people get lampooned as a bunch of ineffectual navel-gazers: it's because we are. But that's nothing a little discipline and a bit of cold self-reflection can't fix. Let's delve in, shall we?

Theater is a wonderfully fungible realm in which to work: more than film or fiction, it allows you to gather a bunch of strangers into a dark room and force them to accept the most ludicrous of precepts. There are many self-respecting cynics of the twenty-first century who will cry at the plight of an actor who is clearly pretending to be dead, will accept without question that two actors on stage within five feet of each other cannot hear the adjacent conversation, and will laugh uproariously at a joke they know is coming.

But the fungibility of the form does not conceal when a given effort is flaccid; you can't use the generosity of an audience to allow dramaturgical sloppiness. There are still things that make good theater good. Some basic tenets I think are true:
  • Theater isn't therapy: if you can't tell a mental health professional at $100/hour, don't expect to charge strangers admission to your analysis session;
  • Basing plots on "real events" is the refuge of the unimaginative: no one cares if that's how it happened -- if it's not believable on stage, it doesn't belong on stage;
  • Identity politics is a coward's game: defending writing based on one's gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, health status with you haven't lived my life is no better than that's how it happened.
Theater isn't therapy
(Also looking at you, actors.) Two points. First: the overall direction of therapy is a movement towards resolution: one unearths unpleasantness in order to become whole. Similarly, there is a notion that good theater leads an audience to resolution, which is nonsense. A good piece can lead an audience to murderous rage; it can leave an audience queasy with implicated guilt; it can leave them wishing for a missing scene to tie it all together. It need not end with an empty kleenex box and a hug. There is no time in theater for some misplaced search for universality -- some mistaken idea that all plays speak to all people. (This is dangerously close to a past era when stories and casts failed to resemble society at large in gender, sexual orientation, or skin tone -- oh, wait, that's still true.) Nevertheless, it's nonsense to think that good plays should bridge a gap and speak to everyone -- effective stories are narrow ones: you don't try to tell the history of mankind, you tell the story of one woman and her travails in one day, one decade, one life. The audience can be given some credit to extrapolate as needed. (If they can't, it's the wrong audience.) But don't get too narrow.

That leads me to the second reason theater isn't therapy -- hey, Playwright: don't just talk about you. If you do (as is your right), you'd better allow that it's the audience's right to extrapolate -- and since they're not you, their conclusions might not resemble yours. That is, you might be mistaken enough to think that their extrapolation is wrong. (Woe is you.)

Basing plots on "real events" is the stuff of the unimaginative
You're going to waste everyone's time in order to perform a transcript of ... real life? Are you mad? Reality television is an affront to professional storytellers. If you think the monotone confessional of your neighbor on the bus was compelling drama, by all means enjoy The Rock of Love Bus Charm School. If the only reason you like it is because you can say shitty things about the people on screen without getting your hair torn out, recognize it for what it is: a guilty pleasure, but no replacement for good stories. And believe me, you need good stories. Those lucky enough to be read to sleep used to get this for free. Now we have to pay for it. That's adulthood, people. Hollywood ain't giving it to you. You can rely on them for Dance Your Ass Off and G-Force. Jiggling dancers and talking hamsters. Up to you.

Reality-based dramaturgy is ... really, really lazy. (I'm not talking about good found-object theater, obvs. Relax, I love Anna Deveare Smith and the Tectonic Theater Project and Eve Ensler, too. But they have a bunch of shitty, shitty imitators.) It's either lazy or it's the most egregious example of passive-aggressive bitchiness ever known. You have a problem with your friend's boyfriend? Write her a letter; don't stage a play about how hurt you feel. Unless you're three years old, at an intervention, or in a therapist's office (see "Theater is not Therapy," above).

(Glaring exception: history plays. Another post to come on why I love these. But re-telling a story that's based in fact is different than regurgitating, word-for-word, real events. The best history plays are artfully told lies.)

Identity politics is a coward's game
I'm brown. I think Alan Keyes is a certifiable lunatic, Clarence Thomas is a non-introspective asshole, and Pat Buchanan should be sent to the moon without a helmet. But I'll be damned if all I'm going to write about is how hard it is to be brown (and double-damned if I use a script to catalog all the instances people were mean to me because I was brown -- see "Basing Plots on Real Events...", above).

And hey -- something for all you brown-skinned, t-cell-challenged, and penis-deprived theater practitioners: theater is a straight white man's game. Seriously. Not because they're better at it, but because they sign the checks. You're playing in their country club. You know what happens when you go to the country club uninvited and in too big a number at once? That's right.

I'm not saying dress up like a lawn jockey and to talk like Rochester -- just be smart about your subversive discourse. Unless, of course, you want the reach of your dramatic output to be roughly equal to the crazy guy who screams on the subway waving his dick around.

Don't get me wrong, lunatic dick-waving has its perks -- total creative control, for starters. But accept the fact that the world is a playground for the rich and powerful, and the rest of us pay rent. Doesn't mean you have to say or do everything they want -- but they wont want to bankroll your play if all you're gonna do is bitch.

What we should to is entertain; there is such a multitude of ways to achieve that simple verb that if we took that action as our lodestar -- before soothing our psyches, before educating and browbeating -- it would make our plays, our performances, better. What's not our job? Changing the world.

But we'll get into that point another time. I have a northbound A train to hop on.

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