Sunday, April 09, 2006

Theater Matters

Isaac at Parabasis and I have continued our comments on the Isherwood Humana review controversy. You can catch up over there.

Tonight, he's also posted a letter to the editors of the New York Times from Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists.

I'm debating whether to post on this, since it rather proves the point I made in my last comment on the Isherwood review (how the two sentences in question make rather weak ammo for the points about his alleged biases).

My thought is to wait and see if it gets into the Times -- I tend to expect it would -- and then to comment on its form there. If it's not published, my inclination is to withhold comment, since there could be any number of reasons for its non-publication (for instance, if Mr. London withdrew it).

On a personal note, I've been chewing on possibilities for a rather complete rewrite/revamp of If There Were Monuments for the last month or so. I'm afraid that I did commit a cardinal sin of playwriting in the current version.

I am sometimes known to say that if you want to write up your political opinions on an issue of the day, you should write an editorial, not a play. There are two reasons for this, as I've found out.

First, the facts behind a political issue of the day (like, say, torture, or the Iraq War) can change substantially from the time you write the play to the time it gets anywhere close to production. If the plot of the play turns on such details to a significant degree (as mine does), then it's in danger of falling out of date (and thus out of favor).

Second, I have my own bias against didactic plays, and I suppose I should narrow that to the small subset of contemporary plays that attempt to lecture their audiences on political issues of the day. Following from the first point, I don't think this is best use of the very limited resources of today's theater (what, when you could accomplish the same at much lower cost and effort by writing a newspaper editorial). Moreover, I can't see how such political sermonizing wouldn't be a matter of preaching to the choir, given the generally assumed political sensibilities of today's professional theater audiences (at least, in places like New York City).

In other words, I don't think it takes much courage or political risk to use the professional stage to say something that the vast majority of your audience will agree with before the lights come up and the actors open their mouths. Why waste 90 minutes or more of an audience's time when 800 words in the Village Voice would do the trick just as well?

My point is not that there should be no political theater, or certainly not (as some conservatives have argued in terms of college faculty) that there should be a quota for politically conservative (or at least non-orthodox liberal) plays.

My point is, when a play's politics can be neatly reduced to an 800-word editorial stating the author's views, it's not likely to be very interesting (except, perhaps, to ardent members of the choir) or revelatory.

Now, where I'm very much in favor of political theater, and where I do try and include politics in my own plays, is when it comes to issues that are not so clearly cut, where characters may take multiple conflicting sides without me playing favorites -- and, indeed, where my own views on the issue at hand may not at all be clear.

I think this kind of play gives actors, directors, and audience alike a lot more to chew over, think about -- making for a more compelling theatrical experience. And one that's not likely to be put out of date by tomorrow's headlines.

Which is my roundabout way of saying -- I'm redoing my play. It's going to be very intense over the next couple weeks, I think (since I'm going to shoot for this reading opportunity) -- but I think it's ready. And when it's ready, you got to go for it.


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