Sir Patrick Stewart with members of the Improvised Shakespeare Company

Letters to the Editor

Readers wrote in to quibble with or praise our stories about improv, theatre in museums and the latest developments in theatrical naturalism.

Who’s On First?
Re: “Longform Improv Goes the Distance” (Nov. ’14): I am a San Francisco–based improviser who has performed with many troupes over the years, notably 3 For All, Improv Playhouse of San Francisco, True Fiction Magazine and BATS Improv. While Matthew Love’s article was interesting overall, I was disappointed to encounter the same Chicago-centric view of improvisation that is common to such articles. I enjoy the work of TJ & Dave and the Improvised Shakespeare Company, but it’s inaccurate to portray them as innovators and trendsetters in the practice of longform improvisation. Here in San Francisco, BATS Improv began doing both single and multi-narrative longform in 1989, in numerous formats and genres (Noir, Romance, Shakespeare, Western, Musicals, etc.), long before Chicago (or any other city, as far as I know)—and we performed these shows to packed audiences and rave audience reviews.

While I know I run the risk of seeming provincial in my comments, I want to emphasize that theatre is regional and that developments in new and cutting-edge formats in theatre deserve to be accurately traced back to their regional roots. In the U.S., these longform roots are in San Francisco, not in Chicago.

Unfortunately, in my experience, many Chicago-based improvisers are complicit (if not downright active) in perpetuating the self-serving myth that they have “discovered” formats which we in San Francisco, and elsewhere, have been performing for years longer than Chicago-based troupes. This is a historical inaccuracy, and also I think retards the growth of the art form by failing to acknowledge the longterm contributions that different regions of the country have pioneered.

As for the reservations in the consistent performance/entertainment value of longform improvisation expressed by Bernard Sahlins, Keith Johnstone and others at various times, these have held no validity for the past 25 years to those of us who have, night after night, performed longform to admiring audiences. They are outdated views, so long disproved that in my opinion they actually have no place being mentioned in a present-day discussion of improv.

Tim Orr, artistic director
Improv Playhouse of San Francisco
San Francisco

 

Matthew Love replies: It’s wasn’t my intention to dismiss any regional claims to a place in improv’s history—as with any big artistic movement, there are always creative minds in disparate locations working toward similar ends. My notion was to highlight ensembles that have utilized the basic tenets of longform to develop shows that enjoy significant, national (and, in some cases, international) followings that fetch relatively high ticket prices. And though I agree that Sahlins’s and Johnstone’s complaints about longform are outdated, they in some sense reflect the hesitation of modern-day theatre producers who aren’t yet willing to risk capital on what they see as essentially unproven or unreliable productions.

 

Deeper into Museums
I enjoyed reading Diep Tran’s article “If These Walls Could Talk” (March ’15), about theatrical performances within museums. However, the examples cited seemed to focus on companies reacting to museum installations and works already in place, or using museum settings as backdrops. In Hartford, Conn., Bated Breath Theatre Company, an emerging group, is actively collaborating with museums as they develop exhibits. BBTC works closely with museum personnel to integrate theatre directly with the interpretive goals of the museum’s exhibit, seeking to amplify the impact of the work on view with a devised performance that adds an experiential, emotional component that directly references the material on view.

In effect, through its performances, BBTC seeks to break through the implicit “fourth wall” of museum glass cases and labels and connect audiences directly with the power of the objects and their meanings. The historical community in Connecticut has recognized the effectiveness of this approach and has awarded BBTC an award of merit through the Connecticut League of History Organizations for its production Freedom: In 3 Acts, produced at the Amistad Center for Art & Culture in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.

Bated Breath sees its work with museums as a true partnership that breaks through some of the impediments to museum and theatre viability that are more than trendy patches on the surface of a traditional and unchanging approach to both museum exhibits and theatrical performance.

Sarah Griswold
Woodbury, Conn.

 

Living Room Conversation
Re: “The Great American Living-Room Play Gets a Remodel” (April ’15): Isaac Butler’s analysis of recent plays that might be practicing what I’ve called “dramaturgical normcore” (he quotes me in the course of the article) is smart and elegantly written. At the end of the essay he touches on potential sources of the realist-antirealist tradition, from Ibsen to Pinter, but he leaves open the question of how long avant-garde American playwrights, specifically, have been appropriating the living-room drama to deconstruct it from within, or infuse it with disruptive energies. Was it Thornton Wilder’s groundbreaking Our Town, which projected the cosmic onto the mundane? Maybe it was later, say Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play that seems to obey the unities and take place in the real world, but is actually a deeply strange and coded ritual.

A contemporary point of comparison would be Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses—that play’s inescapable weirdness, its refusal to let us forget we were watching a highly artificial, theatrical construct, doomed its commercial prospects (and apparently pissed off the Tony committee, which handed it zero nominations).

Another question that could be raised (and which I don’t have time to answer!) comes from a more cynical place: Isn’t a subversive conventional play easier to produce than a subversive experimental play? If you have a message (political or even aesthetic), it’s much easier to deliver that message in an attractive, familiar package. Even if your message is: Isn’t this cozy, familiar package bizarre?

David Cote, theatre editor
Time Out New York
New York City

 

Opportunity Gap
One of the weaknesses I find in this otherwise excellent magazine is its complete lack of information on opportunities for new playwrights. How can a new, unknown author find a venue? How can otherwise emerging writers be put in contact with the Powers That Be in theatre?

It seems the field is entirely walled out to all but the sacred cows—those who now successfully find their plays produced. How about organizing a contest? Just remember that cost is an issue: Most new writers are of little means.

Mike Morell
Yuma, Ariz.

  • Tim Orr

    Thanks for posting my letter, and thanks too Mr. Love for your reply. In my opinion, you are mistaken not to recognize that your article, insofar as it is a chronicle of the development of longform improvisation, misses the mark. The San Francisco-based groups that I mention meet all the criteria you mention in your article: “ensembles that have utilized the basic tenets of longform to
    develop shows that enjoy significant, national (and, in some cases,
    international) followings that fetch relatively high ticket prices”. This is true of our groups, and has always been true of them. And, more importantly, it has been true of these groups since 1989, long before the groups that you mention existed!

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