Sunday, June 21, 2009

On the (Sad) State of Playwriting

Theater, and particularly playwriting, is in danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, but not because of the Internet. Or YouTube. Or Hulu. Or even the promising financial allure of a steady paycheck from the Hollywood production mill. The threat comes from within. It comes from playwrights being afraid to assert their authorial primacy and authorial autonomy and control.

Calling bullshit for what it is, of course, used to be central to playwriting. And we happen to be living in times in which the substance in question is running particularly deep. Speaking truth to power, and that includes calling bullshit as one sees it, has never been more vital to our democracy. It also resonates with audiences a lot more than passionless stenography I’m not sure why calling bullshit has gone out of vogue on the theatrical stage — why, in fact, it’s so often consciously avoided.

There are lots of possible reasons.

There’s an increased stultification of the theatrical arts -- from our academic theatre arts programs on our college and university campuses, to our regional theaters and the Great White Way. It's gotten to the point where rocking the boat, or even thinking outside the box, is seen as threatening rather than invigorating. There’s the intense pressure to conform to familiar formats, even as those formats have become ridiculously stifling and formulaic. There also the irrational fear of offending the sensibilities of the audience, as well as the the fear of being labeled partisan if honest views to the contrary are expressed or uncomfortable truths are articulated.

If playwrights don't act on the courage of their convictions, and don't assert their authorial autonomy and control, then we do risk losing our authorial primacy. I still believe that a playwright can write whatever one damned pleases, and that includes calling bullshit for what it is. We just need to get the know-nothing dramaturgs, or the academic hacks, or the corporate shills, or the self-censorship — or whatever it is — out of the way.

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