Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Attack of the Monster Yellowjackets

Sunday night I went over to Berkeley (my first time in the People's Republic of B.) to see a preview of the new play, Yellowjackets, by Itamar Moses. I'll post something later that goes into more detail about the script and the production... but for now I want to highlight one specific aspect of it. Yellowjackets is a Big Play--11 actors playing 23 characters in a story that eventually connects many different subplots.

Now, the conventional wisdom is "more than 7 actors and your play won't get produced" but over the last year alone I have seen several new American plays that violated this rule and thank heaven they did. Besides Yellowjackets, there's Passion Play (11 actors) and August: Osage County (13 actors)--some of the most celebrated plays of the past few years, and ones that I immensely enjoyed. Not all subjects lend themselves to Big Plays, of course, but there are times when it's necessary. Itamar's play Celebrity Row has a complex, epic structure but uses only 5 actors in 20-odd roles. And I don't think it works as well as Yellowjackets.

I'll admit I am biased toward Big Plays. I seek them out, I feel inspired and invigorated when I see them, and I cheer them on when they do well. I have always been drawn to dramas where ideas explode and collide, where people interact with a variety of other characters instead of just one or two, especially now that I am an author myself. I don't want to have to fetter my creative imagination or sense of scale, and I take heart from the fact that these playwrights have been allowed free rein. Not to mention that I spent this winter writing a Big Play (16 actors--oy!) and this spring helping to produce it, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Over in Britain a group of playwrights have actually banded together and written a manifesto encouraging Big Plays--they call themselves the "Monsterists." Here are the qualities of the work they want to see more of (and I find myself nodding in agreement):
  • Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
  • The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
  • Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
  • Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
  • The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
  • Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
  • The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
  • Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers)
  • Use of the very best directors for new plays
  • Use of the very best actors for new plays
If anything, a similar movement might be even more necessary in the States--as we look over enviously at those Brits with their government-funded theaters! Though, at least judging from the evidence of the plays I've seen in the last year, we Americans have been doing pretty well despite not being formally organized into a movement...

I have my own personal name for this kind of theater. You've heard of "kitchen-sink drama"--downbeat stories of working-class families in realistic settings? Well, this is the opposite. This is "Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink Drama."*

But whatever name you call it, I like it!

*Google reveals that this phrase has been used in a Guardian headline from 2007. But I swear that I came up with it myself in 2004 after reading Stoppard and Kushner for the first time and becoming inspired.

No comments: