Saturday, July 17, 2004

Trends, Industry and Despair

This will be a kinda/sorta response to both Mac’s recent blog post and George Hunka’s blog posts (here and here).

I think it’s basically mandatory that every playwright goes through a recurring phase where they think, “Why the FUCK are we doing this?” Mac calls it “gazing into the abyss.” I know it well.

I don’t have anything specific to say in response to these postings, any more than I have much to say about Larry Kramer lamenting that theatre is dead, simply because I am very detached from the theatre industry. Personally, I think Mr. Kramer’s anger at the industry and medium of theatre (because his play closed damn near overnight) treads a little too close to the “Whiny Little Bitch” persuasion, but I understand his frustration.

The truth is that the reasons why some plays become successful and why some plays fail are completely unknown. One year, plays with small casts are in, the next, huge ensembles are what are sought. Sometimes audiences (and I mean in large quantities) want musicals, sometimes straight dramas. We never know what it’s going to be and we never will.

Obviously, institutional theatres have to second-guess and follow these trends, simply because their motives aren’t creating art, but making money (I’m not saying this is bad, this is just the driving force of companies and corporations). Since producers and businessmen can’t create, they can only follow trends and join the bandwagon (hence the onslaught of ironic and “edgy” musicals: “Urinetown:” “Menopause: The Musical;” “Musical: The Musical;” “Jonestown: The Musical”). A few years ago staged adaptations of films were the trend on Broadway (“The Full Monty,” “The Producers,” “The Graduate”). In a year or two, something else will take that place (and we won’t know what that something is ‘til we get there).

Basically, if I think too much on this and believe that this is what the medium is capable of I’d be in that nihilistic despair.

My only advice to all of us is: “Chill, baby. Just go with the flow.” ‘Cause really, if we don’t, we’ll get aneurisms.

When Nosedive produces one of my plays, I’m always praying that it won’t coincide with an up-and-coming trend and therefore bury us within the flotsam-and-jetsam (which would have happened if “Never Stop Rocking,” our aborted rock opera with puppets, got made, since it would have theoretically been scheduled to open just months before the premiere of the show “Crank Yankers” and the musical “Avenue Q”). But then again, I just can’t worry about that shit (one of the shows mentioned above, “Jonestown,” was actually written by a friend & colleague of mine YEARS before “Urinetown” opened—I absolutely wish the play the best but I do fear it’s shown up on the scene just in time to catch the death-rattle of this ironic musical trend).

People are interested in going to the theatre, just maybe not in mass droves. So what? Mr. Kramer’s play did not succeed this time around because there isn’t enough large-volume interest right now in tragic AIDS plays. Again: so what? Why do we have to adopt Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality to a much smaller, more intimate and (frankly) weirder medium?

If I sound like I’m harping on Larry Kramer, I don’t mean to be. What bothers me (and I mean it both pisses me off and breaks my heart) is reading him say that he never wants to write another play again. I feel bad that a seasoned and talented playwright, in the twilight of his career, is going to be wrapping things up on such a sour note, but I also think, “Well, boo-hoo, bitch. This shit happens. You of all people should know this by now.”

The nice thing about theatre is that it is relatively cheap to make. Sure, we always lament about budgets and not getting enough money for our productions, but when you compare the cost of making the lowest budget of low-budget plays versus the cost of making the lowest budget of low-budget films, you see the huge chasm in between the two (even the lowest budgeted indie films I’ve seen cost twice as much as our most expensive play). Retrenching, regrouping and reassessing is not the worst thing in the world if you stage a play and it fails.

Another nice thing about theatre is that you can stage plays relatively fast. A play can be written, rehearsed and staged in well under a year.

(Also another nice thing is that, if that play sucks or bombs, it can be quickly and easily forgotten.)

Mac wrote in his SlowLearner blog: “Somehow we're not saying things that make people want to stick around and listen.” That’s really the problem, isn’t it? And, this may sound harsh, but if we continue to write/produce plays that aren’t speaking to people, we deserve to have dwindling audiences. Despair never solves anything. Blaming audiences isn’t going to help, either.

And I believe an almost unforgivable sin for playwrights is to try to follow the bandwagon of whatever trend is happening. It makes sense for businessmen to do that (they can’t write, so all they can do is see what worked last month and replicate it). It makes no sense for actual creators to do that (and if they do and the play fails, well, no sympathy for self-inflicted injuries).

At the same time, trying to guess what will speak to audiences won’t work either, since (as I wrote before) it is a complete and utter mystery as to what shows will speak to people and what shows won’t.

If this sounds like the most frustrating thing in the world…well, it is. That’s why most of us playwrights dip into despair more than just a few times.

Right now I do have hope for the medium of theatre, just not necessarily the industry. When I see shows like “True West” (Broadway), “Bug” (Off-Broadway) or anything by Tom X. Chao (Off-off Broadway), I have to admit: theatre’s got some game.

But then again, you’re talking to a guy who has never made money from his playwriting, never had a play of his staged at the Public and never had an attractive middle-aged British Lady of Affluence want to act as his patroness. And I’m super-broke.

Shit. Now I’m back in despair.

Fuck this theatre shit,

James “I’m Happy” Comtois

July 17, 2004

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