The Playgoer: South Coast Rep

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

South Coast Rep

Steven Morris has an interesting and critical behind-the-scenes piece in LA Weekly on that "swap meet" hub of new plays, South Coast Rep. It is indeed--along with Louisville's Humana Festival and the O'Neill Center--one of the elite generators of all the new plays you're likely to see headlining at the nonprofit theatres in the seasons to come.

Here's a succinct conclusion that is, alas, not unsurprising: "This festival underscores how the American theater in general employs a small circle of writers endorsed by 'the network,' writers who are well entrenched in the national pipeline."

Among the many cases he examines of the pros and cons of the complexities of playwright commissions at SCR, I found myself most perturbed by this whittling down of Donald Margulies' ambitious sounding new piece:

Donald Margulies based his play Shipwrecked! The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself) — An Entertainment on a turn-of-the-century controversy surrounding a Swiss storyteller who chronicled his three-decade travel adventures in a British periodical. His saga, which took him to the Australian outback, included being marooned on a Pacific island and marrying an Aborigine, with vivid descriptions of his riding on the backs of sea turtles and of “flying wombats.” Such details aroused suspicions at the Royal Geographical Society and led to his saga being discredited as a hoax.

The play was originally commissioned as a children’s story, but after it was first submitted, the theater decided that because of its sophistication, it shouldn't be so boxed in. Originally written for 12 actors, it was presented with nine in an earlier workshop. For the current festival, it was carved down to three. Two weeks earlier, director Bart DeLorenzo had told me that the plan was to read it with two actors, but in the intervening days, that strategy obviously proved unworkable.
Uh, "unworkable"? I'll say.

Morris then asks: "Were these changes made for the integrity of the play, or for the expedience of making the play economically viable to stage in multiple markets?" We hear often, don't we, of the compromise most American playwrights have to make from the beginning on this simple issue of cast size. Yes, we've seen all kinds of ingenious and creative "solutions"--from Paula Vogel's shape-shifting ensemble players to Doug Wright's complete restructuring of I Am My Own Wife once he found a chameleon star in Jefferson Mays. But these cases of "virtue out of a necessity" should not let our theatres off the hook. The sad truth is playwrights are constantly getting the message "think small, not big."

As for a theatre company injecting its budget and marketing concerns at even the early stages of the development process, Morris argues,
Perhaps what the theater needs is a standard of ethics similar to that used by newspapers to protect their integrity — a firewall between the publishing side, with its interests in marketing, and the editorial camp. What’s happening in these theaters is similar to a newspaper publisher stepping in — with the newspaper chain in mind — and consulting on the content of articles before they’re even completed. In newspapers, this would be considered an outrageous intrusion upon editorial liberty. Obviously, marketing interests still have subtle influences over the content of newspapers, but imagine what it would be like if that firewall were removed.
Looking to newspapers for ethics? My God man, has it come to that!

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