Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Irony et al.

I'm delighted to say that Terry Teachout responded to my earlier post so:

Er, I think he was being ironic...

As there can have been no reason for posting it at all other than in recognition of the irony, I assume what Terry means to point out is that he's in on the joke, which is not actually surprising but is pleasing, I suppose.

I'm sure Mr. Techout does not recall - and I don't fault him for it - but part of the reason I started this blog was on his suggestion. I sent him an essay I thought he'd like, and he suggested that I get one of my own going. I don't think it was meant to be a vote of confidence, but anyway I took it as such and here we are.

But as one who is non-ironically young and eager, I found it profoundly difficult to get too worked up over this. And believe me I tried. Of course I think it's incredibly interesting, and we all want to know what it could mean that a certain number of plays get produced more than any other, what connects them, what - I suppose - we can do to change it or what we can do to replicate them and their success. That said I found both of the responses I linked to (Mr. Teachout's and Mr. Kissel's) to be more programmatic than explicative.

Terry is upset at his perceived lack of classic plays. But the problem with "Classic" plays is that there are so damn many of them. My gut says there were plenty of "classic" productions just not more than 22 of any given one. How could that be a bad thing? Sure if every theatre around the country all did a given play in a given year and if everyone went and saw it, what a congress that would be! What a proclamation about our shared inheritance! But it won't happen, and anyway: how could we decide?

That said I like old plays and would love to see more of the ones that don't get done often. I appreciate criticism as advocacy, I think it's the most honest way to do it, but analysis as advocacy is a little trickier.

Kissel's response suggests without mentioning a real problem in the theater today. Indeed, the saddest and most unsustainable facet of American theater is the education but not really in the way he means. I had the pleasure of helping an Eastern European friend prepare her CV recently and was amazed to learn that she went to the only degree-granting theater program in Hungary. Every year 2,000 kids apply and between 12 and 20 are chosen (14 her year). But anyway even most of them can't actually make a living doing theater. In America, education is big business, and so people will continue to dole out degrees to the young and eager in exchange for a cool $40,000 or even to as much as $160,000, putting thousands of hopeful theater-makers in more debt than they can ever, ever surmount. That is, in fact, why they go to Hollywood. If it were true that the joy of writing were including as many characters as possible I'm sure we'd see a lot more plays like that, and if it were true that writers write for television so they can finally see some good acting I imagine there'd be a lot less horseshit on TV.

I think Kissel is more correct that the emphasis is on plays that are "cool," that seem new without being so, that are remarkable for being well-known. But this neither upsets nor surprises me. Sell tickets, everyone needs to, then build the rest of your season.

I'd also like to point out that the one play Mr. Kissel hasn't heard of (Drawer Boy) is the one that didn't pass through New York on its rise to the top. The impact of New York is larger and more complicated than a lot of people – New Yorkers, Chicagoans, and all Americans – want to talk about. First, as Chicagoans have disturbingly become aware, Broadway means more to Chicagaons in terms of selling tickets than does the idea of Chicago. When the touring production of August: Osage County arrives in a few months it will do so without any mention of Chicago in its publicity information. A way a lot of regional theaters sell tickets is by counting Tonys and Pulitzers and even Obies, I promise none of the materials for August will talk about the Jeffs it got.

But there's another facet to the New York impact on American productions: performance rights. If a New York show is in the works, most of the time publishers will freeze the performance rights for the rest of the country. When Broadway does American Buffalo, Perseverance waits. How much of an impact this has made I can’t really quantify, but it’s enough to make an impact.

Anyway, much ado about nothing in my book. The most produced play on the list: 54. 5.4 productions a year. In 50 states. Sure I wish it were Three Penny Opera or, hell, The Symposium, but it wasn't. Eh. We did 7 Macbeths in Chicago last year. I think it's going to be ok.

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