April 13, 2010

Expanding the Idea of New Work

For the next couple weeks, Lisa Timmel and Charles Haugland are going to have an ongoing conversation about new work at the Huntington. (They actually have that conversation everyday; they're just inviting more people in for a bit.) Stay tuned for more updates. Respond to the posts to join their conversation. Here's the first post from Lisa:

Believe it or not, next season is just around the corner. While I can’t divulge any details yet, I can say that next season features two world premieres and two highly acclaimed contemporary plays, plays that you might call “newish” including Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama, RUINED. Having taken a season off of brand-spankin’ new world premieres, jumping back in has got me thinking about the whys, the wherefores and the conventional wisdom of new play production.

Way back in January, critic Terry Teachout set the theatre blogosphere aflame when he compiled a cursory list of the most often produced plays in the States and concluded: “It suggests to me that American theaters have a pronounced bias in favor of new and newish plays by American authors, especially ones that have high public profiles.” Art Hennessy, at his Mirror up to Life blog compiled statistics for the Boston area and by his calculation new/newish plays account for well over half of all play productions here. David Mamet on the other hand has a different view: “ In 1967, when I was at acting school in New York, there were 72 new Broadway plays produced. In 2009, there were 43, of which half were revivals.” He concludes that various social and economic factors have contributed to the decline of an educated, engaged middle class audience, his requisite habitat for new plays. Although I should note that he, like the Pulitzer Prize board (according to Charles McNulty), thinks new plays only count in New York. So, it seems that contemporary plays are both thriving and dying at the same time.

Some local critics have complained that there is too much new work going on in Boston. The pleasure of experiencing a new play is very different from the pleasure of experiencing an older play and I think everyone has their goldilocks point: this theatre has too many new plays, this theatre has too few, and we’re all looking for the one that gets the balance just right. But that kind of categorical thinking unfairly limits the expansive and expanding experience of attending live theatre. A play is not important simply because it is old or because it is new. A play is important because of the specific story it tells and the unique way it is told. A play is not important simply because we choose to produce it; it is important because you come to see it.

So, why new plays? Because the world changes and perspectives shift. Because American theatre, in all its forms, thrives on the new, it always has. Our theatre history is full of the degenerate melding of forms: immigrant melodramas, minstrelsy, vaudeville and musicals all of them bubbling up into the mainstream one way or another and getting whitewashed along the way. There simply is no other way to tell the story of this country and our selves without including new work.

Incidentally, the answer to the question “Why classic plays?” is exactly the same: Because the world changes and perspectives shift. There simply is no other way to tell the story of this country and our selves without including plays from other places and other eras.

contributed by Lisa Timmel

Comment on this post


Todd Williams said...

Hey Lisa!

Congrats. This post got picked up on the daily "You've Cott Mail" (more info at www.ThomasCott.com ).

Can't wait to see the Cott bump in traffic. I hope that our Cott visitors will join in the conversation too.



Lawrence Goodman said...

Thanks so much for this. Hooray for new work and especially ambitious new work that seeks to tell us who were are. I have despaired a lot over the last few years because I've seen more topical--and often very good--shows on TV than I have at the theater. It's clear the Huntington has been and continues to try and do something about this. Yeah!

One thing I wish is that we could standardize what the definition of a "new" play is. If a regional theater puts on The Clean House after it has played in New York, is it putting on "new' theater? I suspect the artistic director would say yes, but the local playwrights say no. The artistic director sees herself as taking a risk on a playwright her audience doesn't know; the playwright thinks there's no risk at all since the show has been thoroughly vetted in New York already.

I see good points in both sides.