Around a year ago, Createquity got discovered, if you will, by a certain Isaac Butler of the Parabasis blog. Isaac is a writer and director active in the theater field, and since Parabasis is one of the central pillars in the “theatrosphere,” as its participants call it, he ended up sending me a lot of traffic. From that point forward, I’ve started to have more and more members of that crew engaging with me in discussions about arts policy and so forth, a development that I’ve really enjoyed, and so in that sense it’s not that remarkable that I’ve been invited to participate in a group reaction to Outrageous Fortune, the study on the problems of new play development that’s been making the rounds out from Theatre Development Fund. But there is one thing about all this that’s kinda weird, and that is that I am not really a theater person at all. In fact, I pretty much knew flat out nothing about theater until maybe two years ago, when I started making a concerted effort to experience other art forms besides music (where I’d spent most of my energies between the ages of 17 and 27). So as I was reading the first chapter of the book and formulating a general response, I kept coming back to that outsider’s perspective: as I read all of this kvetching about the problems endemic to the producer-playwright relationship (or whatever vestigial remnants of it remain today), how is this analogous or not to the problems faced in classical music and jazz, with which I’m much more familiar?
First things first. Outrageous Fortune is, at its core, a book about new plays. It is billed as a study, but my initial sense (and I should clarify that I am still making my way through the book) is that it is closer to a work of journalism than of science. Sure, there are a couple of surveys involved, but the number of respondents is not overwhelming; most of the information presented is gleaned from in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with hand-selected participants. So it’s a qualitative investigation into the life of the working playwright and the life of the new play, examined from the perspectives both of those who write the plays and those who are responsible for bringing them to the stage.
Outrageous Fortune paints a none-too-bright picture of the environment for new plays in America. Of principal concern are the economic challenges faced by playwrights and the lack of opportunity for making one’s living through playwriting; the gap in support for mid-career playwrights; the inauthentic professional relationship between playwrights and artistic directors; and the creeping institutionalization of theater that hamstrings true artistic leadership. There’s a lot of nostalgia for bygone eras and erstwhile heroes, from Eugene O’Neill to Joe Papp, the likes of which (it’s implied) we’ll never see again. Broadway and the commercial theater has ceded responsibility for new play development altogether, we’re told; playwrights complain that unconvention in form is brutally punished at the box office, if it ever gets programmed at all; how are writers supposed to develop, the question is posed, if they don’t see their works produced?
It all sounds pretty bad, particularly on economic grounds, and my instinct is to turn a sympathetic ear, but then I put my composer’s hat on and find myself re-evaluating. Wait a minute, I’m thinking, you’re complaining that theater is hostile to new plays when, according to Terry Teachout, the top 9 and 10 of the 11 most-produced plays of the past decade were written after 1993? You’re complaining that artists aren’t nourished when even at regional theaters, a play can expect to be seen most every night for several weeks?
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the land of orchestras. A wondrous nation where you’ll find almost every concert (especially at the regional level) dominated by dead white guys, most of whom did their writing before 1893. A vast field in which there is exactly one full-size orchestra dedicated exclusively to music by living composers (the American Composers Orchestra), doing so on a shoestring budget. An environment in which a composer can perhaps hope for several hours of rehearsal time with a new work, so that it can be performed a total of three times, or twice, or once. Ever. In which union regulations often prevent said composer from distributing or even hearing the recording of that one performance for future reference. In which less than one-seventh of those who consider themselves professional composers actually make a living from their work. And for all you diversity kids, get a load of these stats for composers: 80% male and 85% white! (Actually, those numbers are for all composers reached by that particular survey – I’m sure they’re even worse for those who specialize in orchestral music.)
I don’t mean to start an interdisciplinary pissing contest about which artists have it worst off. My point, rather, is this: whatever else is said this week about the problems facing contemporary theater, let’s not forget that many of these issues are common to the arts as a whole, not just the stage. The glut of amazing work that never gets read because there’s no one to evaluate it? Talk to a composer. The rat race and ever-expanding degree requirements to make it in a field that will never pay you money? It’s the conductor’s lament all over again. And as you’re working out your frustration over the system, keep in mind that there may be aspects of how the theater works that actually do work well, and that may even serve as models for other disciplines. For example, I think it’s great that the nonprofit theaters serve (or at least used to serve) as a “farm team” of sorts for the major leagues, aka Broadway. I don’t see it as a problem at all that B’way rarely takes on risky new work; after all, they’re businesses, what do you expect? All I think is, wouldn’t it be awesome if Hollywood plucked its composers from the ranks of the concert music crowd more than once in a blue moon? And what’s so bad about having a play done in multiple locations across the country, reaching different audiences each time? Isn’t that kind of good for live theater, in that it opens up the possibility for a common, shared experience/conversation around specific works among people in different geographic areas — the way such possibilities currently exist for movies and television and books and recorded music and other mass media? Doesn’t that raise awareness of theater as a whole?