The Playgoer: Outside the Bourgeois Box

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Outside the Bourgeois Box

"The next great playwrights aren't necessarily in Yale's MFA program right now. Sure, they might be. But you know what else? They're just as likely to be self-producing a play at The Brick. Or at Dixon Place. Or not even in New York at all."

-playwright Joshua Conkel.

The above may not be earth-shattering news to most of us. But in the context of Conkel's larger point (in an already much bandied about blogpost I am only now catching up with) about the increasing class-insularity of the professional theatre it reminds us of the pitfalls of over-relying on what I might call The MFA/University Complex as the primary source of our new writing. As the links between the regional nonprofit theatres and elite MFA playwriting programs become stronger, we can no longer pretend surprise at the narrowly bourgeois worldviews represented on our stages.

If we want to see a socially broader canvas of work than, say, Rabbit Hole, Mr. Marmelade, and Eurydice (to pick just three recent widely produced new plays that typify this insularity) then Conkel is right that the only solution is to proactively seek work from different sources--from writers less likely to be so mentored and shaped in their training by the same upperclass world as subscription audiences. (Whether these playwrights are born into that world or not is almost besides the point.)

But just to add to Conkel's point--and perhaps show how even more deep-seated the problem is--let's consider the link not just between class and subject matter, but class and aesthetics.  I actually don't believe those lit-manager "gate keepers" Conkel points to are all just clubby snobs looking out for their classmates. They are serving the mission of their employers--which in most cases is to produce new plays only when they kind of resemble popular old plays. (New wine in old bottles is how I'd sum up the preferred new-play product of most subscription theatres.) Writers who come up through the university system--and, perhaps, are reared on a diet of regional theatre and Broadway, too--are more likely to put out that kind of product. Historically, the realist "well made play" was very much a bourgeois cultural product, and remains so--which explains how new-oldish plays like Doubt will always find a healthy audience even if the hip theatre world thinks its style is way out of date. More playful modernist forms like Beckettian poetic drama or Absurdist farce (especially when recycled by popularizers like Durang) also appeal more to the aesthetes in the audience than to theatre neophytes.

Those dramaturgical aesthetics, I would argue, tend to be linked to class--the class of their origin and/or consumption. I say tend to--obviously this doesn't rule out the possibility of someone in rural Iowa picking up a copy of Endgame and enjoying it, nor the fact that a lot of "educated" people actually hate Beckett if not all theatre itself! So please don't accuse me of overgeneralizing and robbing all audiences of their individuality.  Yes, that is a factor, too, but for purposes of argument, just stay with me a sec. All I'm suggesting is to notice how certain kinds of cultural forms (genres of drama or music or visual art) seem to be favored by one class of audience or another. Or at least marketed to one class over others.

So I have no doubt that if an MFA program or a top LORT theatre would enthusiastically embrace a writer hailing from the projects, or the farmlands, or overseas refugees, if they wrote a play about those experiences that kind of resembled a Miller or Williams script. You know the drill: talented emerging "voice" comes along, and then is mentored into certain kinds of "story arcs" and "character journeys" and "character development" that somehow makes it resemble the kind of play professional theatres are more used to producing.

Which is why Conkel is so right about the need to go see young writers work in their element--even if in shoddy self-produced showcase venues, so that you hear that voice unfiltered first.

Think of this in terms of Hip Hop Theatre--one of the most promising challenges in recent years to the bourgeois hegemony of the theatrical scene. We don't really see a lot of it on today's professional stages, do we? And yet HipHop is one of the most dominant (even class-crossing) cultural forms of our era. Sure an artist like Will Power gets some grants and gigs--but one of his biggest was his play The Seven which benefited from being based on Aeschylus! (More like old wine in new bottles, I guess.) I actually consider In the Heights to be the most successful and widely seen example of the Hip Hop Theatre aesthetic--but it was nurtured as a commercial theatre product from inception and never had to go through the usual university/nonprofit theatre development process.

Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety is another example that actually did successfully survive the bourgeois theatre process with its voice intact, beginning at Chicago Victory Gardens and then becoming a surprise success at New York's Second Stage. But try as some of the Pulitzer drama critics did to get it a prize, there was no way that august body was going to approve of it--instead they overruled in favor of that prototypically insular bourgeois dysfunctional family musical, Next to Normal. Diaz did make his way through the MFA mill (at NYU) but has notably nurtured his talent and skills in a number of hispanic fringe theatre groups and urban education settings.

Thomas Bradshaw I would not classify as a HipHop dramatist, but his deliberately and bluntly "bad taste" race drama/satires indicate another aesthetic break from the norm that has taken a while to slip into the mainstream theatre consciousness after several largely self-produced efforts. (He just had an opening at the Goodman!) He too is a private college alum (Bard) and got an MFA, but the latter from Mac Wellman's Brooklyn College program, which has indeed been a rare den of diversity in the MFA system, partly due to Wellman's still-bourgeois but at least truly loopy and iconoclastic aesthetic.

When it comes to non-bourgeois aesthetics like HipHop, though, many Artistic Directors (and Boards of Directors) are still petrified--in 2011--to put it in front of their subscription audiences. If Danny Hoch wrote a three-act family play, great!  But otherwise...

Which leads me to what I think is the most important point--the goal, if you really care about this issue, should not be to get more HipHop plays produced at tony subscription theatres across America. The goal should be to ensure that non-bourgeois institutions like the Brick, PS 122, the HipHop Theatre Festival, and whatever your local low-rent performance space is...survive! What we need is not more diverse seasonal programming at the top. (Let the bourgeois subscribers see the kinds of plays they're paying for.) What we need is a broader array of performance venues, not all operating under bourgeois business models that seem to reproduce the same kind of play, and the same kind of theatre-audience relationship, over and over again.

What we need is a truly alternative theatre--alternative not just in style or content of particular plays, but in the way it relates to its audience, its community and the world.  One that is more plugged into the local poetry slam scene than the latest Julliard showcase readings. One that meets diverse audiences where they live, not just invite them to the rich man's table. One that addresses audiences as workers, kids, the downtrodden and hungry, not just as patrons.

We are lucky to have many alternative theatres throughout this country, of course. But let's do what we can to give them the attention, publicity, and respect they deserve, if we feel the more privileged side is getting too much of that spotlight.


Ken said...

As the years pass, and I continue to try to get past the gatekeepers at the major (and a not a few of the minor) institutions, I often think that theater would really benfit from adapting to a rock-club model.

For years, during my teens and
20s, I played in a rock band, and we were fortunate to gig at the late great club CBGB on numerous occassions. Now, how did a bunch of teenage jerks from Brooklyn with no record deal, and (frankly) not much experience playing period, get to gig at the hallowed, world-famous palace of punk (which by that time was no longer an unknown hole in the wall, but a major NYC rock venue that could have instituted any exclusionary booking procedure they wanted to)? It's simple: CB's had an open-mic audition night, where anyone could sign up and play for 20 minutes. If you brought a big crowd, or if owner Hilly Kristal took a shine to you, you got booked on a regular night. That's it. No one asked where you were from, with whom you had taken music lessons, your music wasn't "developed" by committee, or anything like that. CBGB operated on the principle that new talent is most likely going to spring up from sources that cannot be anticipated ahead of time, so why not keep every channel open?

Can anyone imagine a similar thing happening with the Public, or Playwrights Horizons, or the Atlantic? Hardly. Of course, they'd claim that an open-door policy would inundate them with material far beyond their staffing capacity to handle it (to be fair, Playwrights still has an unsolicited submission policy, though it's common knowledge that virtually none of the plays they've produced have come from it). But what about imitating CB's, and having one night a week where anyone can come in and get 10 pages read?

Naked Angels does this (although when I dropped off my 10 pages, they never contacted me again. That bad, NA?). Would it really be taxing to the resources of the theater, allowing six or seven people to have their little snippets read, and then asking the people whose work you (as AD or Lit Manager) liked to submit a full script?
Why assume that worthwhile work is only going to come through the same old predictable channels?

Anonymous said...

No, not at the Public, etc.
But it's happened a gazillion times at LaMama.

Rick DesRochers said...

Speaking as a former gatekeeper cum literary manager/new play development guy, I concur with the MFA/Regional Theatre insularity problem. Being outside of this box while I was a new play development staff member at the Public and the Goodman, I have to say that a lot of my colleagues were also Ph.Ds and MFAs from these very same programs, thus making the circle complete. The US non-profit theater is in the end only speaking to itself, and telling subscribers (also in this same class structure of upper middle class/mostly white folks) that this is the best work available.
- Rick DesRochers

joshcon80 said...

Thank you all for joining in the conversation and for taking my argument further. You managed to put into words a lot of what I'd been thinking about, but couldn't figure out how to articulate. Good stuff!

Thomas Garvey said...

I don't mean this as a crack, but it's interesting that in a post about the insularity of the MFA-driven new play development world, you cite the work of MFAs (Diaz, Bradshaw) as "outsiders" (I think Diaz actually has two MFAs - and btw, doesn't Josh Conkel have an MFA?). Meanwhile the people you and Conkel seem to think of as bourgeois insiders - Williams, Miller, John Patrick Shanley - did NOT, actually, have MFAs. I'm not sure what to make of this yet - but it does seem that "class" for many bloggers has gotten all tangled up with educational class in a funny way.

joshcon80 said...

I actually don't have an MFA. I do have a BFA, though.

I also don't think any of the playwrights you mention are bourgeois per se, but their contemporary audiences largely are.

It should be noted that the MFA "problem" seems to be a rather new one. Paula Vogel, as an example, was a working class, queer playwright. One wonders how she would have fared in the system she now helps run.

joshcon80 said...

For what it's worth, I also think that educational class is all kinds of tied up with financial class. Not to mention location, race, gender etc.

These things all tend to have a cross sectionalism.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

This is a very interesting conversation, and I would add that mainstream critics can be equally insular. It is our duty to branch out and not just check out the usual Broadway/big nonprofit circuit. This helps support work outside of the usual "predictable channels," but it's also healthy for us as critics.

Brad Akin said...

Right on! And regarding alternative theaters, I agree with Erik Ehn and his colleagues in the "RAT" Conference ( that the best way to ensure the survival of alternative theaters is for alternative theaters to support one another through the exchange of resources, audiences, artists and work. It still remains to be seen, but it seems that Rocco Landesman is really interested in supporting these initiatives. Forming a support network among alternative theaters will allow all of us to break from competing for the same grants and the same audiences in the same ways. Which, in turn, should encourage us to foster new and different voices without feeling it necessary to squeeze them into the 'old bottles'.

Playgoer said...

Belated addendum and partial reply to Thomas Garvey's well-taken point...

Yes, in the days of Miller, Williams, and even as late as Shanley, a Drama School MFA was not a qualification for having your script read. We were arguably a better off theatrical ecosystem because of that--certainly more open, and some might say, a better quality of work.

And speaking of Shanley reminds of another example I should have cited as the "exception that proves the rule"--Steven Adly Guirgis. As far as I can tell, he went to college and got involved with LABrynth right away.

So no wonder Shanley took him (and all of LABrynth) under his wing.

Whatever one may think of Guirgis' writing, it's vibrant, it's contemporary, and it's not like anything coming out of the MFA programs.