SHOTS FIRED: Is hope the crutch of the American Theater?

March 10, 2014

1.

My wife is teaching Waiting for Godot. This is at a community college. Her students are from all over the map- they usually have a lot more going in life than their elective classes- so their commitment can be variable.

But they love Waiting for Godot. Not a lot of the other plays being assigned. When asked they say it rings more true- waiting, no conclusion, disappointment, expectation without the expected reward… they can RELATE.

2.

I meet with a playwright friend a few weeks ago and at some point in the conversation I’m asked advice- a little about touring but a larger content question is asked- do I write political plays because they’re are “easier to get produced.” Which I was kind of floored by- I never found them easier- I actually don’t think they are… just as I think most theaters don’t produce a lot of truly political plays. And I think a lot of plays that are about relationships, or love affairs, or techno music sometimes have politics tacked onto them. I don’t judge them for this- I just don’t think they are political. And that’s okay- they probably shouldn’t be.

(My answer to her was I like the Greeks and I write most of my plays to try and learn what I actually think about a subject not because I think I have an answer at the outset).

3.

I meet with a theater about a play of mine. It’s called Goodness and it’s had readings basically all around the country. Each time the theater writes me a letter and says the reading was well intended and the audience was very responsive- very excited- great talk back. And then our conversations about the play are over. This is part of the nature of being a playwright. Lots of conversations on the business end go nowhere, you can’t really get upset about it.

So… we met and I heard a popular refrain in my experience- “I love this play. The ending just punched me in the stomach but it’s so bleak. Our audience likes hope at the end.”

I respect this. I invariably know it not to be true. But I respect it. The Happy Ending Complex.

4.

I read a review of a play I’ve been hearing about for awhile- a necessary play about youth violence and gun culture. The reviewer mentions how great it was until the end- how real it was- and suddenly a bit too much hoped peered in… an unearned ending. A way of ensuring that our audiences don’t care too much.

Same day I read of a play moving from a small NY Theater to a large Off Bway house- “Did you change anything?” The playwright is asked. “Just the ending,” he says. “The previous productions it was a bit nihilistic.”

The previous productions I’ll note sold out- and ensured the current incarnation.

It’s possible the playwright’s made these choices on their ownbut i’d be less than surprised if the friendly producer mentioned- “I love it but my audience! Those fools they just need a bit of hope.”

5.
There’s nothing wrong with hope. I like hopeful plays- I love Angels in America… totally hopeful but I love Our Country Is Good too. If you lised the greatest plays you’ve seen, and some of the most excited packed houses you were part of… how do they end?

A short list for me today:

ALL MY SONS
DEATH OF A SALESMAN
KING LEAR
ANTIGONE
BLASTED
A NUMBER
BURIED CHILD
HOMECOMING
TOYMAKERS WAR

Amazingly, these all survived their unhappy endings.

6.

For me, I feel many of the arguments for larger diversity in programming for women and race connects to content, as well. In each case I believe producers say to themselves “well, i want to do that, I love that stuff too- but my audience has an expectation. My audience only likes THIS THING OVER HERE.”

If true you need a new audience if only for your own sanity.

I’m in Iowa which producers elsewhere used to really like to point out (though, lately I think we’ve changed the game a little on that- good theater everywhere, could it be?) And seasons here are kind of fascinating- musicals about Ice Fisherman will live next to Caryl Churchill in the same season??? Both sell out.

Don’t make the mistake your audience DOESN’T WANT HOPE. They want HONESTY. That’s your job. And they know… they know when you’re lying to them. You’re not smarter than them- people watch more entertainment now than probably ever before- they aren’t uneducated to theater!

They just caught you lying:
about the make up of their world
about the myth of the happy ending
about the scope of stories even in their regional worlds

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