Monday, February 1, 2010

A Possibly Outrageous Proposal Inspired by "Outrageous Fortune"

Among many other topics, Outrageous Fortune discusses how it is often easier for playwrights to earn money by teaching, rather than by having their plays produced. As the study says, "the ranks of university playwriting programs have exploded in recent decades," and the opportunity for student writers to learn from professional playwrights "has been a boon to the field, in terms of creative mentorship."

Agreed... but isn't there also something kind of messed up about this? If the system is breaking down--and part of the broken-ness is that more people are receiving playwriting degrees than the American theater has money/space/willingness to sustain young writers' careers--then to become a teacher of playwriting is somehow to be complicit in a malfunctioning system... to be part of the problem and not the solution. MFA programs succeed because they make their students think that this diploma is the key to success, but now Outrageous Fortune proves that success, for a playwright, is a rare and fragile thing. Cf. 99 Seats' post last week about how grad school is built on delusion and on denying that there is an alternative path:
I love young playwrights and have worked with them over and over again. And they're running into a meat grinder. If we shrug our collective shoulders and say, "Well, that's just the price of the business we do," we don't help them. We don't let them know there are other paths, other ways. When I got out of college, I moved to New York because it seemed to be the thing to do. I interned at a small theatre because it seemed to be the thing to do. I went to grad school because other writers I knew and I liked went to grad school. I worked with small theatre companies, run by grad school and college friends. Always the sense was, this is just the first step, my apprenticeship, before moving onto a place where there was more work, more artistic challenges, and more support. Now I see that that place doesn't exist, despite the way it's sold.
Now, I am not trying to decry the importance of educating and learning from more experienced writers. But all of the work that goes into developing "new voices" is meaningless if there is no one to hear these new writers--if audiences do not expand, if theater attendance does not increase. Because, also, when playwrights teach other playwrights who then beget other playwrights--mightn't that make for a very insular system? And contribute to the impression that we playwrights are congregated in ivory towers, increasingly marginalized from the culture at large?

So, too, Outrageous Fortune talks the need for audience education and development, and the idea of a "gulf between [aesthetically conservative] audiences and adventuresome writers." Which is another thing that might be killing the American theater: because arts education in this country has declined, even as much of the most interesting playwriting is formally experimental, audiences just don't have the tools to understand these new works.

(This really hit home for me when my parents went to see a production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's boom in Portland a few weeks ago and completely failed to catch onto the twist ending. Now, my parents are intelligent people--they are pretty much the epitome of the "educated bourgeois middle-aged theatergoer"--and the ending of boom isn't even that experimental or ambiguous or tricky. Nonetheless, they somehow lacked the tools they needed to understand the play. They were not watching it the way Nachtrieb would want it to be watched.)

And then, too, I have several friends who tell me that they'd love to go to the theater more, it's just hard to know what's good, or what's playing (unless it's playing at a theater with a big marketing budget), or to find people to go with...

So, with all that as preamble, I've come up with a scheme that I think might kill multiple birds with one stone:

Instead of MFA playwriting grads teaching playwriting for a living, what if they taught "laypeople" how to watch a play and appreciate theater?

The program I envision works as follows: During a time of year when a lot of good/interesting plays are on the boards in a given area, but maybe they're taking place at lesser-known theater companies that don't get a lot of press attention, a playwright* gets together a group of people, say 10 or 12, who want to see some plays and learn more about theater from an expert in the field.

*Obviously it could also be a director, an actor, or any other underemployed theater professional who can talk engagingly and intelligently about the plays that are on the "syllabus."

The participants will pay a fee that covers the cost of theater tickets, as well as something to compensate the instructor. The instructor chooses 4 or 6 plays, one per week, all on the same night (Thursday night?), and buys a block of tickets to each show. Maybe then some theaters would offer a discount rate on the tickets? And then that could be a selling point for this program: "see 4 plays at 4 theaters, save money, and learn about theater from an award-winning playwright!"

Anyway, the instructor and the "class" attend the plays together. But beforehand, the instructor gives the other theatergoers some guidance about why he or she thinks that this is a worthy/interesting play, and some suggestions for how to watch and appreciate it. Nothing that reeks of homework or of the dully educational, just some information offered in a spirit of friendliness: "you might like this play anyway, but you'll like it even better if you know this going in!" And afterward, instructor and students all go to the nearest bar and discuss their impressions of what they saw!

I realize this isn't a perfect program. It'll work only in cities that already have enough interesting theater going on at one time to support this 4- or 6-week program. And with the whole "in this economy" thing, how much are people willing to spend on theater tickets at this time? Therefore the program would be only accessible to the middle-class and above... people with discretionary income. And it will only work if it's kept cheap enough that people are willing to take a chance on it even if they don't know much about theater... rather than all the slots filling up with people who already love the theater and attend it regularly.

But, if it works, it'll make theater companies happy because they'll be selling blocks of tickets--a new source of group sales! And the writers and other theater artists who lead the seminars will get some income (probably not enough to live on, I admit...) and have the satisfaction of introducing some awesome theater to people who might not otherwise have seen it, and get to step out of the somewhat insular theater world and connect with audience members, which will be so valuable to their other work as artists.

In addition to cultivating the next generation of theater artists, let's cultivate a more aware and engaged audience! Let's prime people to enjoy great art, and then expose them to it! That's our ultimate goal, after all, isn't it?


Ann said...

Marissa, this is the first time I've read your blog, and I'm delighted to have found it. I'll certainly be back to read more.

Your proposal as to how to move forward using the data from "Outrageous Fortune", is inspired for more reasons than I can enumerate in this comment. Thank you! Your thinking is fresh and fun. More to follow.

Ann Sachs
President/CEO Sachs Morgan Studio

(@TheatreSmart on Twitter)

Marissa said...

Thanks Ann! I'm enjoying being a part of the ongoing conversation about "Outrageous Fortune" and glad that so many people are joining in!

Anushka said...

i would pay a small fee to you for this service. in fact, if we're both in the bay area next theater season, i will.

Marissa said...

It's a deal, Anushka! You were definitely one of the people I was referring to when I mentioned having friends who tell me they'd like to see more theater!