Daily Dojo

Why Old Plays Bore The Sh*t Outa Me!

Okay, well, I haven’t gotten yelled at in awhile, so I might as well drop this one . . .

Interesting post in screenwriters scribeosphere, one that rang a big bell in my head.

John August, screenwriter (Go, Big Fish, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory) and newly minted director (The Nines, unless he changes the title) has a post up that has caused a wee bit of controversy called On the topic of old things sucking, which I highly recommend.

It’s also very interesting because, not only do I agree with much of what he wrote, if you’re a regular reader of John’s, as I am, you’d know that while he’s honest and straightforward, he’s hardly a rock-tossing firebrand looking to tear shit down, in fact, I’d say he’s a pretty reasonable fellow.

And it really struck a cord with me because I realized, when reading it, that it’s one reason that, for the most part, WHY OLD PLAYS BORE THE SHIT OUTA ME.

Because I’ve seen them and read them. I’m not surprised by them. The context is lost, especially these days because quite often old plays are “presented” as new and, well, they’re not. They’re just not.

I saw a classic play, just a little time ago, and it had some great actors in it, but for the most part, because I knew the play so well (I’d done scenes from it, I’d seen it before, I’ve read it, etc) I couldn’t even really concentrate on the show before me.

Interestingly enough, that play was considered “new” because the authors had “re-adapted” it (evidently the original author, the most produced playwright in the history of theatre, didn’t know what he was doing and thus needed to be rewritten) and despite the fact it had sections moved around, it wasn’t surprising in the slightest, no matter how much I admired some of the performances within, because it wasn’t new, not just to me, but to hardly anyone.

Some of us in the audience could almost do the speeches ourselves.

Added to that, even though it was a showcase, it cost me and my date thirty-six bucks to see a play that I could very nearly quote myself.

It happens to all of us in New York City. I mean, think about it, if a friend of yours invited you to see a performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, could you honestly be excited about it? I mean, who hasn’t seen that play?

Or, to choose another, THE ODD COUPLE? Or that other horror, ‘NIGHT MOTHER?

I admit, I know more plays than most.

I’ve had four years of college and three years of graduate school focused strictly on theatre, that’s true.

But that also may be be part of the problem, during those years, like most other theatre people who studied it in college, the majority of what we did was submerge ourselves in the old plays, to the point that it seemed as though nothing else in the performing arts, at least on stage, seemed to matter.

Which does a disservice not only to the performing arts, but to we the audience and to the authors of those old plays, who didn’t just want to be remembered, but wanted their work to inspire and spawn new work. They wanted to be part of a grand tradition, not its finale.

Not that we should dismiss old plays, especially the classics, they can be great learning tools and sources of inspiration, but that shouldn’t be the sum total of our theatrical lives.

I mean, INHERIT THE WIND is running on Broadway AGAIN.

Just a few years ago, it ran with Tony Randall on Broadway. I realize people may think it’s relevant given today’s political atmosphere, but why not produce a new play by a talented playwright about dumb people who refuse to believe in evolution? There are playwrights that would LOVE for that opportunity, I’d bet.

110 IN THE SHADE is also on Broadway. I ACTED in that musical in summer stock, it’s true I was a wee young chorus boy in that very show IN IOWA IN 1986!

Why in the name of Bacchus would I pay seventy to hundred bucks to see that show, which, let’s face it, wasn’t all that great WHEN I DID IT and based on a movie that’s more than a bit corny?

PRELUDE TO A KISS is back, after premiering Off-Broadway fifteen years ago or so, then it was made into a movie, then it played all the big regional houses, then all the Universities, then all the summer stock and community theatres, now it’s back on Broadway. Oh, yay for us.

Why? Is it better, did Craig Lucas rewrite it?

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great play, but it meant a lot more back when gay men’s lover’s were growing old and dying before their eyes and no one knew the reason why . . . now we see through everything, in fact, we keep seeing Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan in everything, and wonder why we paid eighty bucks when Alec ain’t in it, just the dad from Fraser.

TALK RADIO? See above. Off-B’way almost two decades ago, done regionally, summer stock, universities (I first saw it at the University of Nebraska) and made into a movie all so that we could pay ten times as much to see it on Broadway, years later.

I could go on . . . And that’s just Broadway.

Off-Broadway is almost as bad, and here’s where I say something truly incendary . . . Off-Off Broadway is worse.

There are more old plays being done Off-Off Broadway than anywhere else in the city (and being done badly) if only for the reason that, if the play is OLD ENOUGH, you don’t have to pay for the rights.

Again, I’m not deliberately crapping on old plays, we can learn from them, but at some point we need to learn that lesson and move on, you know?

I mean, I get that LYSISTRATA is a comment on war, but does that really mean anything compared to the pictures of Abu Grab-Ass?

Or Saddamn being hanged? Or seeing a soldier in Walter Reed with one leg dodging rats?

How can we say LYSISTRATA is a comment on the Iraq war when those pictures stare at us from the newspapers every day?

People. Please.

That’s why, for the most part, OLD PLAYS BORE THE SHIT OUT OF ME . . .

Because they’ve lost their context, instead of reflecting the NOW, they reflect the THEN, very rarely THE TOMORROW OR TODAY and as a result something gets lost in the translation.

Let’s face it, the PAST isn’t the only thing that matters in THEATRE . . . the PRESENT and THE FUTURE should be of equal importance, don’t you think?

But too often people get stuck in the past, they look upon it as this magic potion that will transport them to Neverland, the place of cool stuff and they will rock and audiences will think they’re cool.

It’s hard, for some people, to know if a play will be worthy or not (I don’t think it’s as hard as some people would believe, but that’s the party line) of the financial risk involved . . . but neither old work or new, for that matter, is a sure thing (remember the Broadway run of MACBETH with that other stalwart from Fraser, Kelsey Grammar? Lasted about six regular performances) . . .

. . . And that’s the rub, folks . . . there are no absolute sure things . . . I know it sucks, but I believe you’re better off betting on the talent of today than the dead talent of yesterday, I really do. That’s how the dead talent of yesterday made it, in their day, someone bet on them and the work lived as a result.

I’ve written about this before on my post No More Covers and No More Covers, Part Deux but I sincerely, devoutly believe we have to take steps to embrace and support new work if we want theatre to have a future that means something.

There are people out there fighting the good fight to create new work, just take a look at my Blog Roll and under theatre you’ll see at least four or five people that have new works happening this very week . . . Freeman and Matt opened a show tonight . . . Isaac just closed a show and James “Mister Giggles” Comtois has a show running right now (with a teaser from SlowLearner to start things off) . . . so it happens, I have work coming up as well . . . but sometimes I feel lost among all the chesnuts . . .

To be honest, I feel quite often that for every step forward, there are five or six steps back. I’ve mulled quite often, as Laura has written about, whether or not New York Theatre is even worth it, especially on the Off-Off B’way Indie level, which is where theatres are supposed to have balls but often seem to do more old plays than anywhere else.

I believe it’s one reason that lately I find myself drawn more to screenwriting and fiction, where there really seems to be a hunger for new voices and new works. I believe it’s easier to get a screenplay read by people than it is a new play, I really do.

Even in indie-land.

Think about it . . . quite often, an indie theatre will do a classic piece and run it for two or three weeks, then do three nights of original ten minute plays and claim to support new work.

But ae they really?

That’s the dirty secret of indie-world, there’s a well-known down-town indie-theatre that just opened a play that’s almost twenty years old and been done everywhere . . . I was in that very play myself in COMMUNITY theatre in Nebraska in 1991, yet this play is getting a solid run at this indie-theatre, a decent run, and on their dark days, they’ll do three nights of original short plays - Reagan’s trickle-down economics at it’s finest . . . it really makes me sad.

That’s a pattern with this particular theatre . . . do a bunch of new works in short, short runs, then run a classic piece for three weeks or so, be it Chekov, Shakespeare, Mamet or take your pick of plays that have been produced thousands upon thousands of times.

They can’t say that they don’t know talented playwrights with work, since they produce so many short play festivals, they can’t seriously maintain that they’re aren’t talented playwrights out there . . . though I’d bet some would say that . . . people can rationalize anything, (see anything Republican, or INHERIT THE WIND . . . wait, you probably have seen that).

Sad thing is, many other indie theatres follow the same pattern. I can think of at least two others. But I name no names here.

Why is it? Is it we’re stuck to the past, afraid of the future?

I don’t know.

I suspect that part of it is that directors get to choose what gets done more than playwrights, especially these days . . . director’s work gets championed more than the playwrights . . .

Which leads to the other part of it, the control issue, many directors want to “own” or control the product solely and to bring a live playwright in means the credit has to be shared.

And I think some of it is laziness, I’ve had a few directors tell me that they like to work with a “proven” play because then they don’t have to worry if it’s good or not . . .

My opinion is that if you can’t tell the difference between a good play or a bad play ON YOUR OWN, and you need Sam French to vouch for it, then you shouldn’t really be directing theatre anyway.

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way, I’d bet these 13 Playwrights might agree with me.

Too many old plays, done too many times and they’re killing my hunger for everything theatre.

After awhile, I get bored with it all . . . you can only stage STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE so many times before it loses it’s magic without time, distance and context.

I wouldn’t mind seeing it again at some point, but only after I’ve seen something new to whet my appetite . . . I mean, I like spagetti, but if I had to eat it every time I went out for dinner, and didn’t get to eat anything else, I might not go out to eat that often.

And I’ve noticed lately I haven’t been going out much at all.

I miss it. It didn’t use to be this way. Used to be, you could open a show in indie-land, get people talking about it and get it done again and maybe even get more work produced.

Now it seems the only way to get new work out there is to put up five hundred dollars of your own money to get in The Fringe Festival, put more money into producing the show yourself FOR THE FRINGE (the nominal producers, who RISK NOTHING), get maybe twenty minutes of tech rehearsal for a ten o’clock show on a Tuesday night during a festival that also features two hundred other plays running at the same time.

Forgive me, but that sounds less than ideal to me, though maybe I’m in the minority.

Hey, I love to write. I will keep writing things, screenplays, books, pilots . . . the fact that new work isn’t as important to theatre as the old shit won’t kill me, in the end, or that playwrights can’t really make a living at their craft most of the time . . . that’s all right, I’m not going to commit seppiku as a result.

But I just thought I’d take the time to point out that, to me, theatre’s YESTERDAY is not more important than TODAY or TOMORROW.

I just thought I’d get that off my chest.

5 Responses to “ Why Old Plays Bore The Sh*t Outa Me!”

  1. Donovan Says:

    Exactly. Why not Edward Bond’s “Lear” instead of Shakespeare’s? A playwright who’s still above ground, at least. The truth is, the longer the playwright’s been dead, the more the director feels entitled to make it his/her (superficial) own. I don’t know if it’s still possible for theatre to affect society as strongly as it did even 50 years ago (and I blame t.v.), but I don’t think directors, producers, audiences are trying or caring as much as they did 50 years ago either.

  2. Jon Says:

    While I sympathize…

    …at the same time, y’gotta pay the bills. And whether playwrights like it or not,
    Shakespeare sells to those who want to see Shakespeare. The Odd Couple sells
    to those who want to see The Odd Couple.

    In today’s economy, it’s familiarity that gets folks out of their easy chairs and into
    the theaters/movie theaters/bookstores/etc. It’s why Disney can move a billion tickets for
    (the admittedly beautifully done) Lion King. Joe Hill “comes out of the closet” as
    Stephen King’s son, just in time to sell his book.

    If we know you–or if we feel like we know you–we will buy.

    See if Mamet has trouble getting a new play produced, anywhere he damn well
    pleases. Theaters can say “See the new David Mamet play!” and people will
    probably come see it–at least those who want to see a Mamet play.

    Who wants to see The New Fantastic Play by Joe Blow?

    And so, since theaters–however small–have to pay the bills somehow
    (stage lighting ain’t getting cheaper), they have to show the shows that will
    draw money into the theater. New playwrights and experimental shows from
    established playwrights have their place, but economics says that place can’t
    be the predominant one.

    You’ll find the same thing trying to get a novel published or a movie made,
    I suspect…

  3. Jon Says:

    Wow, nice line breaks. The comment box just kept scrolling, so I made liberal use of the Enter key. Sorry about that.

  4. Joshua James Says:

    Shakespeare sells? What about the Kelsey Grammar MacBeth drive-by?

    I think GOOD shows sell, whether they be new or old . . . and there are certainly people anxious for hot new shows by Joe Blow . . . we see some of that excitement during the fringe festival . . . so it’s out there.

    And I have no problem with people making money, I want people to make money off of my work . . . but especially in indie world, I feel ripped off when I go see a play I can see in any community theatre in the country for about five or ten bucks, but in new york I pay twice as much, if not more, and it’s presented as something special when most of the time, colleges do better work.

    So there is two issues there, I guess, craft and choices . . . but I don’t believe that there ISN’T a hunger for new work out there by audiences . . . I believe that the powers that produce are scared of new work, I believe that, but I don’t believe audiences are . . . I think audiences, like me, are hungry for it.

    And oftentimes, they’re not getting it.

    But like I said, that’s me.

  5. James Says:

    Although I’m not indifferent to what Harlan Ellison described as the “lemming-like dementia” we have over any and all things “new,” I think you’re right; a lot of this is due to a mixture of laziness and cowardice on the part of theatre-makers and producers. With Broadway you can understand it: budgets are slowly and steadily getting to Hollywood movie-levels (with no hope of getting Hollywood movie-level box office returns), so producers are going to play it safe and middle-of-the-road. Off-Broadway and Off-off Broadway/indie theatre is another story.

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