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Developed to Death

Our writers should be grappling with the limits of production, not of development.

It is time to ask the question. Playwriting conferences, new-play programs and staged readings have become the meat and potatoes of the contemporary American theatre. They become the road to being a playwright in the culture. So, how are we doing? By all accounts, we should be basking in a new-play renaissance. Maybe we are. There are more new plays on the boards in my hometown each year. But how many of them will be remembered next year? In 10 years? Twenty? More important, how many will have a life instead of just a premiere?

My suspicion is that our “development process” is turning out more and more writers who know less and less about the stage. We have integrated them into our bureaucracy, but not into our theatre. They write our program notes and our holiday adaptations, but we are still waiting for their “mature work.” Even theatres (like one in my city) with a nine-million-dollar budget rarely have two thousand dollars to commission a new play from a pool of nationally recognized local writers. We watch aspiring writers jump through our developmental hoops, enticing them with the chance to one day collect 5 percent of their plays’ proceeds. Even a mediocre waiter earns 15 percent. What signals are we giving our playwrights as they ride the developmental bandwagon? What kinds of plays are they producing as a result?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” It’s been exactly 30 years since Allen Ginsberg wrote those words. I have felt of late that our theatre could use a little madness. I feel that I am watching the best minds of my generation being destroyed by logic.

There is an irony in the fact that as new-play programs continue to proliferate, the script itself seems to be the theatrical component that is trailing the pack. Performance art and the “high concept” production of classics have served to richly amplify the aural and visual components of theatre, helping us transcend the relatively recent notion of “real rooms, actual sounds and natural light.” In most cases, however, our playwrights have not made their language rise to the occasion. We continue to subsist on that good ol’ realistic dialogue that the small minds in the theatre value as gold. Not even a set with obtuse shapes, neon light and throbbing synthesizer score dislodges our dependence on realistic language; the designers on such a project may have succeeded, but the playwright, in all likelihood, has given us a grocery list. And, more to the point, we probably demand it of him/her. The actual words of illumination, the dangerous cadences, most certainly the poetry have fallen helplessly into the stage manager’s wastebaskets as the playwright ruminates on that comment made at one of his/her first public readings: “Your characters don’t talk like real people. At least not like anyone I know.” Dutifully, the playwright scribbles this comment on a legal pad and that is that. Another new voice is slaughtered. Another mad writer tamed.

Who workshops lighting plots? Who dramaturgs ground plans? Designers of all kinds, formally trained or not, put their faith in effects. And well they should. I don’t mean Lucas-like “special effects”—I’m talking about the visceral and intellectual effect on an audience. A set designer gives us a powerful visual metaphor (not just “scenery”), a lighting designer gives us a series of startling illuminations (not just “moods”), a sound designer makes us “listen in overdrive,” as composer Bruce Odland puts it. These artists make empty space valuable. We set them loose to shape the theatrical arena in a way that will have an intended, if not always definable, effect on an audience. We revel in their enigmatic choices and value the impact of their art.

In most new play development programs, however, we preoccupy our playwrights with cause. What causes this character to do this monologue (“And hey, I love the monologue, it’s brilliant, really”) at this point in the play? Maybe we should cut it (“It has nothing to do with the writing, you understand, it just doesn’t fit the character’s emotional logic.”) What caused you to end Act One that way? (“I love the way she storms out of the room, took my breath away, but where is she going? I’m afraid we’ll lose her through-line.”) What caused you to abandon the humor in Act Two? (“You’re not alone. It’s the Act Two Syndrome. We see it all the time.”) And here’s a personal favorite: “I think Joe’s speech to the audience is a bit bald, a bit too direct. I think the stage time would be better spent giving us some info about the early years of their marriage. I’m not looking for explanations, you understand, I’m just curious about how he and Cindy met. What was going on before the play began?”

That’s not text. That’s homework. Often I think the perfect play to hand the lazy director goes like this: CauseCauseCauseCauseCauseCauseCauseBlackout. There must be no effect that cannot be traced to and overwhelmed by a cause. The defense of this method, of course, is that it helps “flesh out the character.” In most cases, homogenize would be a better word. Consistency has never produced a memorable character. Contradiction has.

Many new play directors favor cause and transition over cause and effect. They love a good transition. It gives them something to do. They are often willing to kill the play to save the slick movement from one scene to another, one moment to the next. Playwrights learn to break the bricks to make the cement. The play becomes all transition: arc, flow, emotional logic (how’s that for an oxymoron?), getting from A to B. In fact, cause is past. Effect is present. Flirt with madness. Bring us some effects.

So, what are the playwright’s weapons? Poetry, action and story seem to me to be the most at risk, the most in danger of being “developed to death.” A popular new play comment is: “In listening to your play, I became too aware of the poetry.” But the theatre’s first language is poetry, not prose, and to think otherwise is to sever our ties with greatness. What many directors and dramaturgs hold up for emulation as “realistic writing” is often theatrical poetry at its best. Months ago I heard a director tell a young playwright: “You should listen to the way ordinary people really talk. Like Mamet does.” We love to canonize David Mamet for being a human tape recorder. But Mamet is not a tape recorder. No great writer is. Mamet is a poet. The listener in him selects phrases and cadences, but the poet in him fashions them into a play. He find the words between the words. If people actually talked—day after day—like the characters in Mamet’s plays, it would cost you $12.50 to get into Chicago.

Today’s plays of action—those that move freely through time and space and dirty up Aristotle’s theories—generally encounter the following comment at some point in their development: “What I think you have here is not a play. It’s a film. It’s too expansive for a play.” Now, this is probably meant as a compliment, and it certainly makes sense financially, but it implies that the things we used to do very well in the theatre (action, suspense, surprise, journey) are now the province of the Tube ’n’ Screen. It implies that the theatre should content itself with being home to character studies, not adventures. But the fact is that the Tube ’n’ Screen does miniaturizations (war, breath spray, new cars, John Hinckley, beer, bigotry, mink coats, famine—they’re all the same size), while the theatre does magnifications. The theatre offers a flesh and blood gathering of people that cannot be rented or owned. Because of its immediacy, the theatre prioritizes experience, while the Tube ’n’ Screen, under the guise of offering limitless opportunities, actually homogenizes it. When it deals in action, the theatre creates a desire to grapple with the world; the Tube ’n’ Screen, while promoting passivity, creates an ongoing need for itself. I’m tired of giving our best ideas to the Tube ’n’ Screen. We must restake our claim to adventure. Nothing moves faster than the theatre.

The resurgence of story, from Spalding Gray to Emily Mann to August Wilson to Len Jenkin, is one of the few hopeful signs of life we have in today’s theatre. But the well-made story must not be confused with the well-made play. They are worlds apart. We accept that there are innumerable ways to construct a memorable story. We have Tolstoy, Twain, Woolf, Salinger, et al. to tempt us with the enormity of the spectrum. I can count on one hand, however, the times I’ve heard a director or dramaturg tell a playwright that he or she has “innumerable ways” to tell a play’s story. Instead, the playwright’s vision must somehow fit into a form that is both recognizable and comfortable to the new-play team: it must be accessible within the 16 hours allotted by Actors’ Equity; it must require a cast of six or fewer; it must “fit” on the set of the mainstage show currently running; it should avoid songs; and, most crucial, the language must be familiar enough to sound confident after four rehearsals. These are the rules of the form.

And that form is the well-made play. You’ve seen well-made plays. They are easy to spot. They are almost always performed as staged readings. The staged reading has become its own form, completely distinct from the theatre as we know it. Some of the most memorable times I’ve spent in the theatre in the past five years have been at staged (or even non-staged) readings of new plays. Many of these plays, viewed later in full production

(usually in the mid-winter slot of the subscription season) do not begin to match the magic of their script-in-hand predecessors. The reason is simple. Our playwrights have, with the adaptability of cockroaches, learned to write brilliantly to fit the form—and in today’s theatre, more often than not, the given form is not production, it is the staged reading. We have a wealth of these well-made plays because we have a wealth of staged reading writers. But the demands of a full dramatic event, and the text which galvanizes it, will never be codified to fit a workshop and will never be reduced to fit a staged reading. We must empower our playwrights to challenge, not placate, directors. We must enable our playwrights to educate, not emulate, dramaturgs. The stage most certainly has its limits, but our writers should be grappling with the limits of production, not of development.

On the other hand, readings can certainly be valuable in realizing a playwright’s theatrical aims, and some very good plays have been born out of the reading/workshop/staged reading process. What I am warning against is a growing trend in conferences and new-play programs to formularize the development of plays. If said play fits the formula, great. But I fear that some of our truly unique voices are lost because their plays do not fit the formula. Consequently, we are cultivating apprentices, not artists.

If we do not recognize that by using a formula to develop plays we will get formula-plays; if we settle for a theatre of cause instead of a theatre of effect; if we continue to treat our playwrights as trespassers who write program notes instead of prodigal sons/daughters who write plays; if we use workshops and staged readings not as a rehearsal tactic, but as a hurdle to production— if we do those things, we will get the theatre we deserve. We will never get a Hamlet. And that will be not only our loss, but our legacy.

Steven Dietz is a Minneapolis playwright and director whose Foolin’ Around With Infinity is currently running at Los Angeles Theatre Center. This article is expanded from an essay that appeared in the Autumn 1986 issue of Subtext, the newsletter of the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis.

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