12 October 2012

Reality Check: Doesn't Showbiz Have More Pitfalls than the Po-Biz?

A friend who's followed my evolution from poet to performance writer/playwright has rightly questioned about my move being a case of "out of the fire into the frying pan."

Obviously, theatre is deeply encumbered with commercial pressures--far more than poetry and its production.  And publishing plays is every bit as onerous and belittling as publishing poetry--and I would argue even moreso, with agents being thrown into the picture, and with far fewer venues available for producing your work.  On top of that, I have to admit that I think the state of American theatre and American playwriting is far worse than it is for poetry.  I'm not talking musicals, but "serious" plays like the platitudinous Red (just a castration of Rothko so that it all becomes a Tuesdays with Morrie with really good paintings) or the unspeakably banal God of Carnage (ooooh, let's poke fun at sanctimonious liberals, how daring!) or the reductive melodrama of Doubt.

I still find some hope in Suzan Lori Parks, and I marvel at some of the latest works by old guards Sam Shepard and Caryl Churchill and Tom Stoppard, but mostly it's derivation, or just really bad pissing as indulgence (Neil LaBrute, anyone?).   Too many playwrights have that eye on Los Angeles, or the false notion that off-Broadway can be restored with some reincarnation of Miller or Williams, just calibrating it to the right social issue of the day, just teasing out the right psychological dimension.  I'm really not interested in that work, and I find it more appalling than even the worst of academic poetry.

Where I have landed with my performance writing, though, is a very lucky spot.  My ideal is to write for a small theatre company (it's quaint, I know, really quaint, not unlike the dream some poets have of starting their own co-op, hand-letter presses), where I also act and collaborate, where I may also write press releases, clean up after shows, post on Facebook, etc.  And I have it.  With Ghostbird Theatre Company, a venture that started last spring (although we didn't name it anything then), and that came into its own this summer.  I'll be writing more of this little troupe in later posts.

The model here isn't theatre, really, but performance.  And above all, I don't mean performance art (which is justly ridiculed in all its caricatures).  Traditional theatre is caught under the tyranny of message, of slogan, of assuring the audience, who've laid out $50-$500 for a seat.  I'm good with theatre that is meant for entertainment, and much of it is genuinely artful.  But if theatre is to grow, and to offer something more than spectacle (at best) or reiteration (at worst), then I think it has to do something with what those live bodies, their dimensionality and immediacy, signify and project and absorb.  And scripts (not plays) must serve those bodies and their voices that engage in ritual, in retrieval, in reverence, in violence, in reconciliation, in abandonment.  The script for me is neither more nor less than the choreography, the lighting, the set design, the blocking, the acting, the soundscape, the music, the props, and the audience.

Just as in poetry there is a danger to make a monument out of the publication, there is a danger in theatre to make the play the thing, that there's something inviolable and sacrosanct about the text, that some plays are meant to be museum pieces.  If that were all to playwriting, I would be better off remaining a poet.  My attraction to theatre, as I practice it with my collaborators at Ghostbird Theatre Company, is that it's all about the performance itself, which is always more than just words.

No comments:

Post a Comment