My fellow Americans, theatre lovers, playgoers, enthusiasts, and critics:
Our theatre has never been as strong as it is today. As I write this, we’re in a bull market for the American play. More writers are writing than ever, and our sudden advent of prestige television has made “dramaturgical savvy” into a sought-after quality again. The biggest cultural event in the United States is Hamilton. The latest Harry Potter installment is a play. Take that, everyone who pronounced drama over and done with! Take that, ye mockers who said theatre was a quiet place where old people go to snooze.
Or…is something else true? Is it actually a bear market? Is our theatre in a moment of peril?
The state of our American playwright has rarely been so fragile. Just thumb through Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play for the sobering data. Playwriting pays nothing. The nonprofit sector uses writers but barely supports them; even Broadway scribes make pennies from royalties. The growing infantilization of the cultural sphere means that pieces aimed at children do spectacularly well, while adult-oriented work rots on the vine. Difficult plays make demands on our time and our patience, and a shrinking number of people seek them out. Being a playwright has been described by playwrights themselves as an expensive hobby, and those cruel economics have driven serious writing into television.
We’ve heard both arguments, and they’re both irrefutable. But they both also avoid an underlying argument about our theatre: What is it doing here? Critic Eric Bentley asked that we consider the “playwright as thinker,” and philanthropist Howard Gilman further refined Bentley’s definition, asking that we think of the playwright as metaphysician or philosopher. So looking at the landscape of current U.S. playwrights, can we say what it is that these writers know? How do they marry, to borrow from Bentley, passion to idea? And is there even enough cohesion in the vast and bustling American theatre to ask that question in a meaningful way?
I have spent the last 12 years as a theatre critic in New York City, which means I see five or six shows a week, minus holidays. What I’ve found most exciting about trying to write this, an overview of American theatrical writing, is how impossible the task is, even having seen those hundreds of plays. New York witnesses only a portion of the nation’s theatrical output, and in my reporting whenever I asked for someone’s favorite playwrights, I heard—again and again—names I’d never heard before. Any honest assessment of our theatre has to begin there, with this rampant multiplication. As recently as 2007, critic Robert Brustein could say on a panel that we had 35 “really fine” playwrights; even the hardest-to-please observer would say now that the number has more than quadrupled.
Some theatre lovers don’t like to categorize the flood because of the canon’s long history of exclusion. In fact, after 18 years at New Dramatists (and from his current position at the University of Washington), the great playwrights’ advocate Todd London (and co-author of Outrageous Fortune) rejects the idea of “canon” utterly.
“I think the ‘names’ become the names because of a couple of prominent producers of new plays,” he says. “Playwrights Horizons, the Humana Festival [at Actors Theatre of Louisville] under Les Waters, and the last couple of years at the Public have been formidably influential in shaping the conversation around who is important. And because there’s continuity between those choices, this creates a sense of cohesion (or canon) which is really about the taste of a couple of influential artistic directors.”
London is right, of course. Some economic actors have their thumb on the scale, and we can’t discount the gatekeepers who create the national conversation. But those gates are being positively stormed by new writing, and—canon controversy or no—we can point to that sea change in quality.
Charles McNulty, theatre critic for the Los Angeles Times, gives his full-throated endorsement to the current dramatic era. “I can say without hesitation,” he comments, “that this is the most vital period in American playwriting that I’ve seen. The prospect of a new play by Annie Baker, Samuel D. Hunter, Tarell Alvin McCraney fills me with inordinate excitement.” What he loves about the generation writing now, “which includes Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Young Jean Lee, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Thomas Bradshaw, and Rajiv Joseph, is their refusal to conform to the existing producing landscape. Institutions have to accommodate them—they aren’t writing for the marketing departments of regional theatres or ingratiating themselves to Broadway producers. Their diversity isn’t merely demographic, but stylistic and experiential as well.”
For every writer who threatens to retire (Richard Foreman has largely turned to his film work; Mac Wellman now wants to write libretti), a dozen flood in. It’s a turbulent time.
The largest one is the neo-absurdist move toward what I call the Weird. Wherever we look in American dramatic writing we find elements of the Lovecraftian uncanny—whether in pursuit of delight and wonder (Sarah Ruhl, Kirk Lynn, Qui Nguyen, Ariel Stess, Tony Kushner, Sibyl Kempson, Lisa D’Amour, David Greenspan, Adam Bock, Casey Llewellyn, Madeleine George) or as a way to convey a kind of metaphysical terror (Stephen Karam, Edward Albee, Julia Jarcho, Jenny Schwartz, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Richard Maxwell, Anne Washburn, Will Eno, Heidi Schreck, Suzan-Lori Parks, Andrew Ondrejcak, Erin Courtney, Tina Satter, Jordan Harrison).
Indeed, it’s almost rare to see an important piece that doesn’t hint at strange forces gathering, that doesn’t stretch its hands out to the supernatural, that doesn’t use realism for non-realist ends. Look around: We’re in an upwelling of what Yeats called the “mad, abstract dark.” Even writers who hew to realism-qua-realism use the metaphysical to set off their brutal observations. Think of Tracy Letts’s use of the near-silent Cheyenne housekeeper in August: Osage County, a symbolist hint that the work could be read as a ghost story. Annie Baker’s high-definition reality is capable—in its long silences, its hauntings—of creating spiritual dread. And Christina Masciotti’s slice-of-life dramas best thrive when directors like Richard Maxwell or Paul Lazar interpolate Weird gestures into them. (The same goes for Lucas Hnath, Samuel D. Hunter, Clare Barron—the list goes on.)
The reason for this change in the theatrical weather, I would argue, is practical as well as cultural. In the last 10 years, the theatre has shifted abruptly into a near-exclusive relationship with the academy. (Everyone I spoke to in connection with this piece noted the same trend, and everyone, even those with their own degrees, seemed ambivalent about what it means for the form.) There was a time when education was one of many options: Sam Shepard dropped out of school, as did Edward Albee. But by the time Albee himself was teaching (particularly students like the dazzling Adrienne Kennedy), the long change had begun. Theatrical writers now take for granted that they’ll do some kind of training in the craft; we’re living in the time of the MFA. And since Broadway playwrights were making enough money that they didn’t need to move into the academy, for generations it was the experimental (read: struggling) playwrights who took the teaching gigs. Students followed.
What do we get from the shift into academicization? There are certain obvious positives. Informal “schools” of playwrights are now actual schools. We can trace direct lines of descent, long allegiances to a school of thought, throughout the American form. The existence of a “path” to playwriting has coincided with an explosion of writers. The magnetic attraction among these groups has given classes of writers a strong horizontal identity as well.
And how has this prodded the American play toward the uncanny? A generation ago, writers like Constance Congdon, Jeffrey M. Jones, and Eric Overmyer began their assault on the high-low culture of Off-Off-Broadway. Anti-commercial and unabashedly lyrical, their plays stayed deliberately away from Broadway lights. Their own mentors and models were Albee, Kennedy, Caryl Churchill, and the great María Irene Fornés—a massively influential figure whose impact we sometimes miss because we’re all standing inside the crater she formed. Then all those Weird writers of the ’80s turned teacher. When the current wave of professionalization hit the shore, it pushed all our young writers and thinkers into programs headed by artists already devoted to innovation. The playful Paula Vogel (first at Brown, then at Yale) shapes playwriting minds; the modernist Mac Wellman at Brooklyn College does too. David Mamet, for all his influence on American performance, does not.
It changes the subversive impulse to encounter Shepard and Kennedy and Parks on an official syllabus. We now have several generations of playwrights whose training twines together things that would normally be diametric opposites: experimentalist subversion and academic authority. You can see the traces of that strange braiding—the A student’s notion of transgression—everywhere, from the best works being written now all the way down to the least successful.
The claim of the critics from Gotthold Lessing to Stanley Kauffmann has been that a drama allows us to “think the long thought.” Forced to sit together in a room for three or two hours or one hour, an audience can parse complicated arguments. Conventional plays stage both (or more) sides of an issue; dialogue demands dialectic. Bruce Norris, for instance, is engaged in this kind of long thinking. In his work, we see the direct drama-as-argument line stretching back through Ibsen and Shaw. Television, with its long seasons, has taken the “long thought” to new extremes.
But duration in this new and spreading school operates differently. Anne Washburn calls it the “time signature”—the way that Weird-influenced writers use time differently onstage. In Weird work, you’re always aware of a certain obliqueness, a sense that there is a world behind the world, a code that runs the system. It’s not so much the thought that is long in these plays as that they create the sensation of length (of life? of revelation?) itself. The Weird is not the well-made play, in which you expect everything to be explained at the end. This facet of the American drama has turned into a theatre of secrecy rather than revelation. This is Snowden-era writing: a metaphysics of metadata.
And when a play doesn’t pull anti-realist supernatural shenanigans, its writer heads to Hollywood. For instance, the playwright Keith Josef Adkins, who founded the theatre festival the New Black Fest, notes the strength of the Juilliard-to-Hollywood pipeline. The school’s aesthetic tends toward character-driven “pushed” realism, and is excellent at gathering and grooming writers of that stripe. Liz Meriwether, Beau Willimon, Adam Rapp, Tanya Barfield—the list of Juilliard grads who have either switched to film and TV completely or lead a hybrid career is long. David Lindsay-Abaire, a Juilliard graduate, has joined Marsha Norman as co-head of the playwriting program there, replacing the long-in-service Christopher Durang. Thanks to those three parent figures, that branch of our dramatic family tree values thought-in-action, vivid dialogue, and cleanly structured storytelling. In a television landscape hungry for writers, executives looking at the lists of Juilliard graduates must feel like fishermen when the salmon are running. They just heave ’em into the boats.
With the realists devoting at least half of their energy to TV, they’ve surrendered a portion of the field. If you look at the national scene, American style has shifted from lyrical realism (the vein of Tennessee Williams) to uncanny neorealism (the vein of Edward Albee). I greet some of these changes with joy. These writers are sophisticated. They make objects of astonishing beauty. And while Howard Gilman used to complain that in conventional plots, “story ends in empty arrival,” the Weird’s strange stories end in a strange little dance, or in a verbatim sequence from “Sesame Street,” or in a glance into the cosmic abyss. A little dash of the Weird, as in Stephen Karam’s The Humans, thickens its atmospherics, while the High Weird stuff, like Sibyl Kempson’s Fondly, Collette Richland, gives your mind a brisk deep-tissue massage. As director and theorist Herbert Blau said, “Being baffled is a virtue.”
But there are also serious drawbacks to this shift into theatre as a learned art. It has made the form as a whole, paradoxically, more fragile. In much the same way that we now have movies about war directed by those who have never fought (Fury in place of MASH), we now have plays written by those who have not had their primary life experience outside the theatre. We have largely given up on the idea of the writer from the street, from the battlefield, from prison, from the customs house—from anywhere other than the academy.
Chris Jones, chief critic for the Chicago Tribune, worries about the demise of the working-class writer to the point of calling it “the American play’s biggest crisis.” He points out that August Wilson was a short-order cook in Minneapolis when he sent Fences to the O’Neill. “That was an open submissions process,” Jones says. “Today I don’t think our theatres are set up to find that voice. Diversity now means people of color coming out of Yale or Brown. Where are the poetic geniuses coming from the kitchens of Minneapolis?”
Even as the number of voices has increased, this aspect of the multiplicity of experience has narrowed. Thus we have created an American theatre that’s simultaneously more diverse and more elitist, and one that is demonstrably alienated from the affections of much of the public.
Why does that matter? Because suddenly, theatre and live performance have become lifelines. We need them to defend us against the techno-erotics of our device-driven, binge-watching, one-touch- ordering culture. When two people discuss a show, they talk about the different things they saw that night, a night that has become, by virtue of the live performance, different from all other nights. Theatre, alone of all the arts, can make us hunger for thought and insight; it can, per Gilman, “reinterpret and relocate man.”
The real hunger that has greeted Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton has been the symptom of something too long denied. We have been desperate for a serious, politically minded, mingled work that’s aimed at ensnaring audiences across the economic spectrum.
For all our gorgeous modernism, for all the advances in our drama, the American play seems still to teeter on the cusp of full confidence. In his beautiful study The American Play, theatre scholar Marc Robinson distinguishes a typically American dramaturgy as being one that elevates chaos over order, a “choppiness” and disjointedness that recalls the Emersonian rejection of European style. The individualistic American mind inside the requirements of a play leads to a productive struggle on the play’s existential level. But the American play has also, largely, ignored certain topics entirely. That “choppiness” hasn’t pushed writers toward the epic. With the exception of Kushner, U.S. playwrights don’t generally go for scope, and despite the surfeit of playwrights with progressive politics, few plays take on the mechanisms of the state. Says Chris Jones, with real concern in his voice, “The American play is insufficiently reactive. It suffers from the producing structure where you write a play and spend a year or more in development, or worse.”
How can something so slow speak to a nation in constant flux?
Adkins remembers his formative years in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, reading and learning and trying to find his way. “I was mainly, honestly, reading Toni Morrison and Henry Dumas, and listening to Sonia Sanchez’s active performance poetry. I wasn’t finding inspiration accessible in the theatre. I was always asking, ‘Where is the black version of that?’” Adkins has been trying to solve the “insufficiently reactive” problem, both in his own work and as a producer who can move black playwrights directly into production without the dilatory development process.
“The oral tradition has been paramount in the black community—and in marginalized communities, period,” Adkins says. “Political marginalization creates a lot of urgency. There’s not a lot of time to wait for somebody to write about what just happened. The expectation with spoken word is: ‘I write and it will be received.’ In the theatre, you may write and it will never be received.”
With Adkins’s damning statement ringing in my ears, I put before you my humble suggestions to increase our theatre’s ability to receive, as no State of the Play address can be complete without concrete policy proposals.
First, we need to acknowledge flaws in our funding systems, the ones that have calcified around certain types of voices. Namely, we must change how writers apply for grants and residencies. When we ask for professional references, for instance, we compound the privilege of those who have taken workshops or done degree programs, since these are the ways that writers form relationships to people in power. Education is a wonderful thing, and some playwrights will always seek such programs, looking for ways to deepen their skills, find a community, and have time to write. But advanced programs shouldn’t be required. In letting these institutions work as de facto gatekeepers, we’re shutting the doors to the new Shepards and Albees of this world.
Dramaturg and ArtsEmerson co-artistic director P. Carl, who himself has a doctorate, thinks a great deal about the way educational privilege shuts out certain voices. “I do have a lot of education,” he says, “but I feel that being a person of the world and an astute observer with creative sensibilities should be something that the theatre can hold with or without a degree.” Carl went on: “When I started at the Playwrights’ Center in 1998, we would give Jerome Fellowships to people who did not have graduate degrees in playwriting. By the time I left there 11 years later, that was pretty much unheard of.”
Given that trend, is the narrowness of our form a surprise? It’s time to work nationally to help by dismantling the granting-educational complex.
Second, we must look back to look forward. The desk drawers and back catalogues of our writers are a great unworked seam of ore. Theatres are thrilled to produce the next blockbuster play, so they race forward with commissions or “emerging artist” slots; then they balance their season with classics—another Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, say. Everybody loves Cat! But there is a great middle period we have forgotten, one we can mine to forge our seasons. What about Miguel Piñero? Fornés? And of the writers who do leap to mind when season-planning comes, too much of their best work seems strangely forgotten. When did you last see Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day? Or a deep cut from the early work of Suzan-Lori Parks?
The inestimably great, keenly missed Jim Houghton—founder of New York’s Signature Theatre—modeled this “looking backward” for us at his theatre by engaging with a playwright over first a season’s length, then over a career’s length. If we keep our attention and our productions focused on playwrights, our sense of our national theatre as national treasure will concomitantly increase. As Todd London argues, “I wish the focus on the American play were really on the American playwrights, the diversity of the body, and on how do we nourish and keep vital this community of writers who we are always in danger of losing?” The Signature models a way we can focus on both. Every city—heck, every neighborhood—should have one.
Last, and most important: Let us return the National Endowment for the Arts—50 years old last year—to a position of power and large-scale, diversified giving. According to Andy Horwitz in The Atlantic, only 4 percent of arts funding in the U.S. comes from public sources. The terrors of the ’90s and Bill Clinton-era budget slashings are behind us. Write your congresspeople! Lin-Manuel Miranda changed the national conversation around aid to Puerto Rico with his direct activism; Hillary Clinton quoted Hamilton when she claimed her presidential nomination. It’s hard to imagine a moment when arts and civics will be dancing so joyfully together again, when the strong currents pushing us away from national funding are so clearly shifting.
We are theatre lovers, but we are also organizers and citizens. We must acknowledge the hard truth: If we want our playwrights to continue making great work, if we want to hear what a 60-year-old Young Jean Lee has to say or to see if Nathan Louis Jackson will have a late-career wild-hair masterpiece—we must change the fundamentals of how we pay them. Piecemeal fundraising will not do it. We must unite and fight for subsidy on a national scale. Should the NEA give every Pulitzer-nominated playwright $100,000? It would be a nice start.
Theatre in the United States finds itself in a time of staggering talent and energy. We have the means at our disposal to woo our brilliant minds back from Hollywood or out of retirement and onto our stages again—by valuing them, producing them, paying them. We can open the gates wide to admit writers of varying experience by consciously breaking apart and reforming our funding mechanisms. We can speed up our page-to-stage process so that our theatre, when necessary, can speak to current events.
So, I come before you in these pages to say: The state of the American play is strong, but it can be stronger. We stand on the brink of a great moment. We may be about to ring up the curtain on a Golden Age, and we must all ready our hands on the ropes.
The stage manager just called “Places.”
Helen Shaw is a New York City-based critic and arts reporter.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.