Monday, November 27, 2006

Morphy, Breathed and Storytelling

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving holiday (as I did), as it's now time for us to all go back to work. Until Christmas, anyway.

While being back in New England this weekend (Vermont for most of my Thanksgiving, New Hampshire for the tail end), I, along with my sister, Ben VandenBoom and Marsha Martinez, went to go see a play in Portsmouth, NH featuring "Old School" Nosedive vet Chris Bujold. The play was a new work, Paul Morphy, written and directed by Noah Sheola, about the life and times of the man considered to be the greatest chess player who ever lived.

Although the play did indeed have minor problems here and there, it was overall a nice and fun show about a man given a rare gift for something in which he has no interest. I was engaged in the play from beginning to end.

Watching this very simple, no-frills show, we (Ben, Becky, Marsha and I) were struck by how rarely we see shows like Paul Morphy nowadays, especially in New York.

In my fair city, most productions are trying to outdo everyone with impressive effects, Big Ideas, convoluted designs and In-Your-Face Polemics trying to Change The World, but rarely do they just want to tell a story.

Storytelling often, in fact, takes a back seat in New York theatre.

I'm not trying to point any fingers here. My company and I are often equally guilty of this. I suppose it comes with the territory of trying to Make Your Mark in the City That Never Sleeps. I imagine that the need to "outdo" everyone else is not nearly as strong in small towns as it does in New York (or other cities where competition is fierce and you have God-knows-how-many plays put on by God-knows-how-many companies on any given night).

There are obviously exceptions here. In fact, I'm winnowing down the options for my upcoming "Best Of" list for the end of 2006 (so far, all plays staged in New York) and I'm happy with everything up for consideration. And I don't mean to imply that all of New York theatre is pretentious and incoherent. But wow, a whole heck of a LOT of it is.

I think this is because we get so caught up in trying to impress everyone we forget about just telling our audiences stories.

(I also don’t want to give the impression that this was a Great or even simply great play. According to my friend Chris who was in it, the writer/director just wanted to write a simple character study and had no ambitions of making Paul Morphy The Next Great Play. Again, it was simply a very good and enjoyable piece that you don’t see the likes of often in the Rotten Apple.)

I am reminded of cartoonist Berkeley Breathed's response to an interview question about whether or not a comic strip can be socially relevant without resorting to pop-culture references:

"Ya know, just reading those words 'socially relevant' made me physically wince just now. Our job is to make people smile. If my cartoons stray into — I'm sorry, I can't type them again ... those words you used above — it's an accidental byproduct in the effort to make ME smile."

Yes, Mr. Breathed's Bloom County strip engaged in social and political satire and dealt with hot-button topics du jour. But what made the strip work was that he never lost sight of his primary goal, which was to make the reader laugh.

The makers of theatre — which, although not as populist as the comic strip, is really different by only a matter of a degree or two — should keep in mind engaging the audience should be their (our) primary goal.

Anyway, since I don't have anything to plug at the moment, I just thought I'd mention this.

Still woozy from all the tryptophan,

James "Big Turkey" Comtois


Blogger Joshua James said...

I LOVE Berke Breathed . . . I heard a rumor he was from Iowa . . .

2:04 PM  

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