April 21, 2010

Expanding the Idea of New Work, Part II

Contributed by Charles Haugland, in response to Lisa Timmel's recent post

I'm curious about your theory of the "Goldilocks Point," this balancing point between new work and old work that is different for every individual. I believe that it exists in the aggregate; our audience here has a balancing point for the number of new works/number of classics in our season. But, what I hear from individuals takes a different approach.

One woman tells me, "I think the Huntington should stick to the tried-and-true classics. It's what you're good at, and plays like ALL MY SONS are the ones I enjoy the most." Another says, "It's always the new plays that I think of as the Huntington's biggest successes - Melinda Lopez's SONIA FLEW or Lydia Diamond's play STICK FLY." What's remarkable to me is that neither is talking about balance. They're talking about which they prefer, and they are positioning this as a binary choice: those who like new work, those who like classics. But, is it a binary? Certainly, I don't think it is. Who are we as a theatre that sits between the two?

It gets me thinking about theatre and pleasure. And, as you say, new plays or old plays are not individually "important" for this time-based classification - whatever important means - but they do appeal to different parts of our minds and even to fundamentally different audiences.

Classic plays are a kind of active nostalgia, a longing for home. We long for old stories, we long for the turn that we know is coming, we love the terrible (or joyful) anticipation of it. How do you long for a new play?

And yet I do, and I think you do, too. We feel it as a kind of empty space in ourselves, and not for just any new play, but to hear a play that tells a story we have never heard before, a story so specific that it feels as if it's the story of our own lives, a story we've tried to tell ourselves again and again but never had the words, the images, the mirror of experience to make sense of it. (Next season has both of these kinds of pleasure for me, including this second kind of pleasure in the just-announced-today three-play Annie Baker festival.)

Is it then a relatively recent idea that the pleasure of returning to a culturally familiar story or the pleasure of an entirely new story are best experienced if they walk hand-in-hand? That is probably the subject for another post. But, from the Greeks to the Elizabethans to commercial theatres of the 19th century, there have always been both "classic" and "new" work in the marketplace, often performed by the same actors under the same roof. Did those theatres think about the Goldilocks Point? I know we do.

Depending on where you sit, regional theaters have morphed over the last fifty years into either a flippant idea of "It matters to you to see these seven plays, because we're doing them" (if anyone ever believed that idea, it is dying along with subscription numbers) or a more earnest one: These plays matter to you, because this is an ongoing conversation. These plays matter to you, because they are part of a legacy that began and is ongoing.

- Charles

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