Against the New Play

(or, What Is Theatre For?)

I’m a queer person, a gay person. My pleasures are perverse, my tastes niche and specific, my desires deep and elusive. I come from art-loving people, aesthetes: balletomanes, opera queens, window dressers, fashion plates, DJs, cruisers, dancers, voyeurs, Factory girls, belletrists, and, most especially, moviegoers and theatre fags.

And I’m the sum total: a young old queen, addicted to art (amongst other things), in twenty-first century Chicago. Art’s what helps me survive. It is succor, salve, an articulation of human possibility and vulnerability. My favorite art is… Well, the only word for it is transplendent, an almost holy alliance of form, content, spectacle, sex, and guts.

Uncharacteristically for my generation, I’m nearly allergic to the internet (it’s got its bright spots, but god am I not built to use it responsibly). It’s no surprise I flee to theatre and, recently, the movies. I’m after art that lets me get closer to other human people—as a pretext, of course, for feeling less alone myself.

What I want

I want a performance art tradition. I want spaces where people put down their phones and look at each other. I want a space for acts of live art, with a Xeroxed poster and a downtown vaudeville lineup of strippers, poets, photographers, busted drag witches, pornographers, monologuists, and sax players. I want urgent performance work with no fealty to any form known or invented; simultaneously, I want recreations of and homages to all the performance work I never got to experience, wiped out by AIDS, racism, gentrification, indifference. I want a ban on the fourth wall to go along with a new borderless North America. I want live art that heals me, talks to me, reflects me for at least four minutes in an evening, and I want everybody else in the audience to get that too, with nobody going home until we’ve all seen each other.

a man holding a TV frame on his head

Keith Haring at Acts of Live Art night. Photo by Joseph Szkodzinski.

Chicago theatre

has a lot going for it—in numbers. I’ve heard that there are something like five hundred companies here? Eight or nine indisputable major ones, big LORTs; the rest (proudly) on the storefront continuum, running on anywhere from two-mil-plus budgets to not much more than greasepaint and attitude. Surely one is never bored at 7:30 in the evening, six nights of the week.

Well, so thought this glimmer-eyed postgraduate back in the salad days of 2014. Very quickly did I indeed grow bored. I moved back east, because apparently all the interesting theatre was happening in New York. It might have been, but I couldn’t afford a ticket. Back to Chicago. More of the same, but I found work and a sweet man, so I’m here. The best show I’ve seen in this town—by a fat margin—was a toured production of a fifty-year-old American chestnut as imagined by a fifty-year-old Belgian; a show which had already swept London and, mais bien sur, New York.

Let me get right to the point

I don’t pop my cork for every show I see, clearly. In a word: I’m against the New Play. New Plays take many forms and have been around for years, but they seem especially prized lately. They’re plays with budget-friendly cast sizes, simpler stories with watery stakes, forward-slashes to indicate overlapping, a pretty strict adherence to the fourth wall, “ordinary” unaffected language, and an authorial injunction to either “play it fast” or “respect the beats”—or both. Further, all of the matter onstage is matter of the theatre (i.e. no video, film, poetry, live musical interlude, non-diagetic dance, opera, or lip-sync).

How to spot a New Play from five hundred paces

The marketing copy reads something like:

[Main character] always thought she understood [thing]. But when [inciting incident occurs], she’s forced to question everything she ever knew. A [two or three blandly adulatory adjectives, usually some variation of “bold,” “penetrating,” or “funny”] new play that explores what happens when [condition a] turns into [condition b].

I am bored

This is conservative art. I’m not interested in it. It doesn’t work because the stakes are too low; it’s neither grand nor especially intimate, the only two virtues left for theatre anymore (though they are both essential to our survival, both as artists and citizens). It’s calculated to be endlessly replicable and sometimes even seem “important,” but all it really does is take up space that could be occupied by more exciting, vital, and theatrical work—as in work that understands why it is an act of live art and loves itself for that.

If we must have plays

they might sound like this: 

A woman tries to feed her husband a fried drumstick. Dragons roam a flat earth. The last Black man in the whole entire world dies again. And again. Careening through memory and language, Parks explores and explodes archetypes of Black America with piercing insight and raucous comedy. A riotous theatrical event, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World  AKA the Negro Book of the Dead hums with the heartbeat of improvisational jazz.

That’s from Lileana Blain-Cruz’s 2016 production of the Suzan-Lori Parks play, directed for New York’s Signature Theatre.

I want live art that heals me, talks to me, reflects me for at least four minutes in an evening, and I want everybody else in the audience to get that too.

Here’s what’s wonderful about that copy:

  1. The first four sentences describe actions or conditions of the theatrical space, but don’t promise a linear narrative, the kind where human characters move through one of the two plots (“the hero takes a journey” or “a stranger comes to town”). Instead, we understand that the play will deal with action and image more than story, and that those actions will involve repetition, failure, and rebirth (“a woman tries to feed”; he “dies again. And again”).
  2. The middle of the copy helps us to understand that the subject is Black American archetypes, priming us to enjoy the play looking for that as the topic instead of trying to tease out a plot. It also piques our curiosity as to the elements of Parks’ fantasia—Why dragons? Why is the earth flat?
  3. It’s a “theatrical event.” They never call it a play.
  4. The blurb ends by talking about the form, not the content or the plot: the “event” “hums with the heartbeat of improvisational jazz.” While I can quibble with some of the language (hearts beat on the one and three, don’t they?), it’s nonetheless remarkable.

That’s a play, Mary. But what else could we have if we liberate ourselves from that word entirely?

a man and woman sit holding a watermelon with other actors in the background

The Death of the Last Black Man. Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times. 

This past summer,

I gave up on theatre (temporarily)
and threw in my lot with film.

I finally read The Celluloid Closet (1984; rev. 1989), by Vito Russo, a fascinating travelogue of gay and lesbian representation in film since Edison. That swelled my to-watch list from three dozen titles I’ve never gotten around to into hundreds. I ditched my living-room-hogging roommates and moved in with my boyfriend. His parents bought us a big new TV, which I scoffed at before I realized I could watch movies on it. I subscribed to FilmStruck, the late, great streaming service from TCM and the Criterion Collection. I read Pauline Kael, Dave Kehr, and Mark Harris. Soon, I knew my Mizoguchi from my Ozu, my Renoir from my Melville, my Varda from my Akerman. I discovered silent comedy, '70s documentary, the New Queer Cinema of the '90s. I bought a membership to the Gene Siskel Film Center and began to watch old movies, in public, with strangers (and friends). I saw—on celluloid—Fanny and Alexander, Mikey and Nicky, Drop Dead Gorgeous, California Split. I paid eleven dollars to watch Orson Welles’ legendary unfinished masterpiece, The Other Side of the Wind—which I could have seen for free at home on Netflix (which paid to get the movie finished—go figure)—because it was on 35mm and I could see it in a room full of film obsessives.

I barely missed plays at all.

Why film matters

You’ll remember that I’m a young old queen; perverse, niche, and what all. I love history. I love what my ancestors loved. It’s very important to me to access, any way I can, the matter, ephemera, and artifacts of the queer generations that preceded my own. So, I dwell very comfortably in, and behave in ways that contribute to the preservation of, the archive. I’ve spent hours pawing through the complete runs of Blueboy and Christopher Street at the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives here in Chicago; I once took a whole day to explore the Reza Abdoh papers at the New York Public Library. (And I don’t have a graduate degree, and I’ve no plans to get one.) This stuff matters to me. The only way I find the present—and the future—tolerable, much less understandable, is by immersing myself in the past. It’s my greatest pleasure, my means of orientation, and my source of strength.

Film is the archive. It always already happened. Peter Bogdanovich says that “every film is a documentary of its own creation”—meaning its period, its historical matter. It is only natural that film should be very appealing to me. When I go to the Music Box, Chicago’s last remaining movie palace that still shows movies, and watch Sunset Boulevard on celluloid, my experience is nearly identical to that of the queens in 1955 seeing it for the first time. This is very special and something theatre can’t touch. Neither can it beat the sheer availability of cinema in 2018: I’ll still slam the internet as a miserable blight, but I have to admit that, thanks to it, the Chicago Public Library, boutique Blu-ray imprints, and local film societies, I can access nearly all of film history at once.

black and white photo of two actors

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

The camera

offers tremendous advantages. Stories open up not just when artists can film on location, but when the kinetic camera and the editing machine become essential tools for shaping narrative, crafting visual intrigue, suggesting internal states and emotions. I never understood how much the camera could do until I started watching film: Visconti’s brash zooms in The Damned; the flickering, exhilarating editing of late Orson Welles; Mike Nichols and Haskell Wexler opening up Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Once I’d watched enough movies with an eye to their form and their makers’ craft, and then went back to New Plays, I noticed at nearly every one—which all lacked life onstage—how dynamic and essential their stories might have become if they were filmed instead of played. I couldn’t (and won’t) go back to pretending to enjoy them.

What is theatre for? (Peter Sellars, 1985)

The only advantage of theatre is that it is the art form par excellence that mitigates against selfishness. You have to go into a room with lots of other people, and you have to sit there for two, three, maybe four hours and think about someone else, so you get outside of this little world of you and your friends. Now that a lot of people don’t go to church, it is the only chance to come together in one room and collectively care about someone else. If you think of art as a kind of biological survival mechanism, then just as sports keep the body able to do more than get around town, art does that for the mind and the heart.

A person who needs people, or: What good is sitting alone in your room?

Sometimes, I find pleasure in the Grand Theatrical Event. Big plays that take up space: Albee revivals, Ivo van Hove. The Broadway musical, my heart’s devotion. I love plays with major stories, where the experience of careening through them with hundreds of people over three hours or more feels revivifying, clarifying. Opera does this; so does The Flick.

Let grandness look like the collision of forms: take true advantage of the thrill of live space. Look at shows like Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a play about football told with the language of football, plus modern dance, physical therapy, and a script divided into four quarters and a halftime show: it’s the play writ large, sexy, physical; the title is apt.

If all you know is theatre, watch as much film as you can—mostly old, preferably in cinemas or with other people; let it inform your art.

If it’s not larger than life, though, let it be intimate. I find the small encounter with a live artist very edifying, very moving. I’ve written before about how the Neo-Futurists and Taylor Mac do this. It’s present too in shows like Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, David Cromer’s version of Our Town, and Annie Baker & Sam Gold’s Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep. Intimate theatre values the beauty of the direct encounter. Usually small; the glimpse, the warm direct address. Intimate theatre can be a conversation between lovers, a bitter monologue before a Peggy Lee song, a dance right in front of your eyes when words fail. Intimate theatre demands that the audience exist, too, not just sit in the dark. It takes bravery.

Consider the theatrical apparatus and its assets; consider your ability to talk directly to the audience. Consider performance forms that never see any value in the fourth wall: standup, improv, drag, gogo dancing, cabaret, slam poetry, pop music, rock music, Moth-style storytelling. Consider why you are still holding on to a convention that has outlived its usefulness.

I’m lonely. Won’t somebody talk to me?

man sits in a wingback chair

Reed Birney in Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep. Photo by Sara Krulwich/New York Times.

How to do it

Educate. Teach the audience how to watch a performance that is not a play. Provide a vocabulary for talking about form as much as we talk about content. Without discarding the very important work toward parity and inclusion on the basis of race, gender, and other identities of artists, simultaneously begin work toward formal diversity and plurality at every budget level and audience size. Make form a part of every dramaturgical conversation, “season-planning” meeting, MFA program, acting seminar. If all you know is theatre, watch as much film as you can—mostly old, preferably in cinemas or with other people; let it inform your art. Trust and understand the difference between the two forms. Build stages in bars and make performance there. Empower actors, designers, writers, directors, and dramaturgs to think of themselves as individual artists with something to say. Facilitate haphazard collaborations between artists of different disciplines. Encourage playwrights to create hybrid works if the idea demands it. Take a page from the contemporary art world, which, for all its flaws, at least knows how to make weirdness approachable even as it packages it and defangs it. Make work for queer audiences even if they don’t have money. Do not let anything hobble your imagination.

Envoi

Dream of a sustainable artistic ecosystem where no one is aesthetically thirsty, and then create it.

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Best article ever (this week :-) 
You are giving me hope here in Paris (france) where the situation far more miserable than in Chicago! Political correctness (in state subsidised theaters), lack of money, lack of inspiration, lack of talent, (which all in all means mostly lack of guts) make this boredom feeling unbearable. You gave me the stamina to rebel against it and do something :-) Cool.