All Plays Are Classics

On Lineage, Trust, and The Necessary New

After reading Cary Perloff’s recent article I will admit that I found myself slightly offended (okay maybe not so slightly). I was quite sure she was saying that we should abandon new plays and only do classics because new plays could never match the oldies. Or that somehow the universe had shifted during the night and new plays were being done so much that classic plays felt bad that they couldn’t get a production (not to mention a second production! Am I right?!).

We all know that this is not true. Shakespeare is doing fine (most produced playwright in the multiverse). The Greeks are swell (I see marvelous new translations and terribly boring old translations all the time). Ibsen, Chekhov, even crazy ass Woyzek gets productions that far outweigh most new plays. The good news buried in the article was that ACT is going to open a new space for new plays for new students. A lot of new going on, which will be a great boon for my city. I think that’s what’s happening. I was so miffed that I couldn’t quite tell what’s going on. But yay. We hope.

The point of the article that I was most stung by was the assumption that young writers don’t care about the classics. Or worse, that we don’t know them. Or that an MFA program somehow bleaches the grand tradition of theater out of us in favor of plays that sound like television. The idea that somehow, because some new plays sound modern, this means that the writers do not appreciate Sophocles, Marlowe, Molière, or all the other white guys of yore. Yeah. That pissed me off. Because that, my dear readers, is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard. So. Here is a list of things that my colleagues and I know about writing new plays because we have read old plays:

1. New Plays Wanted! The best thing about the Greeks is that they insisted on new plays. The highlight of the damn year was the annual festival of—what’s that again?—new plays! Plays were presented in a competitive manner. Tragedians vs. tragedians. All night, all day performances for the entire city. It was like the superbowl… of theater! So when we talk of the classics, we cannot help avoid that we are talking about new plays too.

 

 What gives me chills every time I pause and think about it is this: we work in an art of resurrection. Every time we read or perform Antigone we resuscitate the same story that people saw thousands of years ago. Shakespeare’s exact words and ideas are reborn in the mouths of actors hundreds of years after he thought them. When I toss around an idea from Beckett or Ibsen or Williams or Hansberry, I am squeezing their heart into a new kind of beating. It’s alive in us. Our job is to bring it to life. Isn’t that just holy? *** 

 

2. Stakes! The first thing you notice when reading the Greeks is that everything is going to hell. Oedipus is dealing with a plague (and a bad case of hubris). Agamemnon can’t seem to shake this constant warring. Everyone has some issues with the gods. The stakes are so high all the time. Everything is life and death. Everything is massive and holy. This is all very exciting to watch.

3. Solid Storytelling I’m a fan of structure. Aristotle is my favorite (minus his annoying misogyny and racism). I think structure solves a lot of dramaturgical conundrums and adds some meatiness to a very emotional art form. But more to the point is that the clarity of a character’s intention and goals gets us from beginning to end. We know what Hamlet wants from the second scene (revenge for his father). In the end of the play, he gets it. Same in Lysistrata. Same in Strindberg’s anti-plot Miss Julie. Storytelling is, at its essence, following a character that wants something so bad that they will do anything to get it. This is all very exciting to watch.

a woman looking at the camera
Lauren Gunderson. 
Photo courtesy of Lauren Gunderson.

4. Flaws A hero isn’t very fun if she/he has no flaws. Macbeth teaches us this (so does Lady M). Oedipus of course. If someone is perfect then nothing will go wrong, and it is only when things go wrong that plot—y’know—exists. We know Romeo rushes into things with the ladies, but there he goes again with this Juliet girl. We like knowing the characters better than they know themselves. This is all very exciting to watch.

5. Make Things Go Wrong This is basically playwriting. And it’s very exciting to watch.

6. Funny Isn’t Just Silly! I fear that modern American theater is often FOCed up. FOC is the dreaded Fear Of Comedy. I fear that much of American theater sees comedy as a scary or simply “entertaining” thing, not as the necessary, satirical, brilliant theatrical punch-in-the-face that it was in the time of the Greeks. Look at the scathing, sexy, and hilarious Lysistrata. Or The Frogs. Or The Clouds! Lampooning the elite and ridiculing the powerful is the same instinct that Voltaire employed, not to mention John Stewart. Funny is essential and meaningful. Plus audiences really like it.

7. Mystery, Poetry, and Magic are Welcome Humans are curious, beauty-beckoned, and thrillable creatures. A good mystery, a gorgeous song, or some impossible nature are always worth watching. Use them wisely and they will carry your story.

  • Oedipus Rex starts with an unsolved mystery: Who killed the king Laius? Well now I have to watch the thing.
  • Hamlet’s father and Banquo (magical ghosts that deliver very important stake-raising information).
  • Marlowe’s description of Helen (beautiful lines for a beautiful subject) in Dr. Faustus: "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium." Timeless and mythic.

These elements are everywhere in the history of story, because they pretty much always work. A well-placed moment (or throughline) of intrigue, poetry, or magic can land the themes of a play in an instant.

8. History is Awesome We love history. As a species we really can’t get enough of it. Especially onstage. The Greeks knew this, so did Shakespeare, so did Brecht. There is nothing more poignant than heading in to Antigone or Henry V or Equivocation and knowing what will happen to those historical figures. There is also something extra special about witnessing these historical celebrities in a more candid way than lectures or books could deliver. Theater makes these titans of time into people.

9. Go for the Gods Write about big stuff. That’s what I learn from Euripides, to the Medieval Passion Plays, to Shakespeare, to Ibsen, to Beckett, to now. Write about the biggest stuff you can, the fundamental edge of what humans can take, the struggle for justice or peace, the hot hearth of the heart, the absolutely hilariously insane, the huge mistakes, the grand plans, the existential core of time and life. It’s not an imperative as much as a fucking joy. We get to write about that stuff. We are able to tell those stories. Why waste the stage on anything less?

10. Give me Emotion or Give me…The Remote! I think you haven’t gone to the theater if you don't leave choked up, fired up, or still laughing. What sets off those instincts? Emotional reactions to characters or events. This is where I disagree with Brecht. I think taking the emotion out of theater takes the theater out of theater. (That and I get really bored by his female characters in Galileo. Ugh.) So find the edge of your characters' desires and push them there. Insist that the worst or best thing that could happen to them happens to them. Let loose their heart’s wish or deepest fear. For what would your characters poke out their eyes?

11. You can Disagree with the Classics! Yes. True. I don’t really like Brecht’s philosophy of theater. I said it. And lightning didn’t strike me and/or my MacBook. Just because it’s famous, or a play that survived a few thousand years doesn’t make it perfect. That is something called the classical fallacy—the false notion that just because it's classic that it is better than anything we could produce today. This is not so. We can and should challenge these ideas. Re-imagine them. Test them.

12. New Writers Wanted Sophocles can’t help us understand a world so interconnected and hyper-informed (Oedipus should’ve just googled who his parents were—duh). He can help us dig deeply into the human hubris and sorrow. Shakespeare doesn’t have a play about marriage equality or pandemics or global warming (maybe the Tempest is), but he does show us how universal rage, lust, greed, and mistaken identities (identity theft maybe?) make us all human. That’s why we need new writers and their newest plays. The Greeks knew that.

13. Trust All great writers needed the trust of their patrons and producers. That is still exactly what new art needs to flourish and speak loudly for our time. Trust is not saying “here’s what you must think about what you’ve read” or “can you do it a little more like Sophocles?” Trust is saying “Go.”

14. Lineage Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen, Beckett are playwrights. So are Sarah Ruhl, Tony Kushner and Lynn Nottage. So is that kid writing her first play in high school. That’s lineage. Only time separates them. Their work is the same. We all tell the true human stories of our time through dramatic writing for the stage. Sophocles is holding hands with Paula Vogel who holds hands with her newest discovery at Yale. Playwrights are all talking to each other over the time and space of theater. When I was in high school I picked up three books to start learning how the hell to write plays: Oedipus Rex, Waiting For Godot, and Hamlet. Beckett was the first one I read actually, which meant my first few attempts were super weird. But then I learned to balance the grand form with the philosophical conversation with the spark of my own curiosity. That’s why I wanted to write. Not to be exactly like the authors I so loved, but to join them with my own stories of the human experience. Lineage. It’s one fabulous dinner party (Top Girls anyone?) where every new, young, inspired playwright is welcome to bring a story, bottle of cheap wine, and the time and mind to listen.

15. The Time Is Always Now Though I am not a classicist, my sister is. She illuminated me on a few points about classic plays. They are full of “contemporary” references that many of us will not get today. They are timeless in many ways, but they are also about very specific politics. Some are even propaganda (commissioned by specific leaders). What this exposes is that we should not fear the specific moment. We can write from our now and not risk losing the hereafter.

16. The Times are Always Changing Like any other art form, classic plays and poetry were always changing. From the Greeks to the Romans, new styles were constantly being advanced. It wasn’t like theater emerged fully formed, as Athena from Zeus’s head. All of this proves that even the sacred texts were emergent in their times, were challenged in their times, were criticized in their times. Theater is truly at work when it is changing.

17. Theater is Alive in Us What gives me chills every time I pause and think about it is this: we work in an art of resurrection. Every time we read or perform Antigone we resuscitate the same story that people saw thousands of years ago. Shakespeare’s exact words and ideas are reborn in the mouths of actors hundreds of years after he thought them. When I toss around an idea from Beckett or Ibsen or Williams or Hansberry, I am squeezing their heart into a new kind of beating. It’s alive in us. Our job is to bring it to life. Isn’t that just holy? *** So. The main point of my heated reaction to that article is that all plays are new and all are classics…or could be. We must never lose the old classics (and I hardly think we are at risk of that, so put down the fire hose and stop soaking all the new plays please). We also cannot, must not, under any circumstances distrust our new plays. You may not like every one. They may rub you wrong. You may not get them at first. But don’t assume that this is because they are unaware, shallow, or meaningless. Because every single classic play was once new. To treat only the classics as infallible scripture is to miss the entire point of theater. That it’s human. That it grows with every generation. That it must speak to the immediate age, which does not mean that it can’t also speak to the eternal one.

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¡¡¡BRAVO!!! So much of what you say here translates directly into music. I'm a concert pianist who has played quite a lot of new music, and am now in the turbulent middle of my second international commissioning project, whose central axis is women in México. My programming is somewhat unusual in that I often mix new music with the "classics": unusual because new music still tends to be quarantined in festivals devoted only to it; because, in turn, many concert presenters are scared silly that their audiences will walk out of the hall if the music is "contemporary", i.e. written after 1950. In these programs I often use that wonderful word, "LINEAGE". I always say that in his day, CPE Bach was contemporary music. Thank you so much for this eloquent post!Ana Cervantes

the amazing dialogue contained in this long thread makes me very proud to be a part of the American theater. Thanks to all of you for raising the bar. Much more to be discussed...

I truly appreciate this conversation. There are parallel conversations occurring also in Hip Hop. Hip Hop Music as an art form is going through the same sort of pull as theatre is. Theatre artists are trying to define what the classic is and how these new plays are fitting that or not and Hip Hop artists are discussing how far hip hop has strayed from its original core of being the true pulse of the community to rappers now talking exclusively about their riches.

The worlds collide

Example:

Classic: GrandMaster Flash "The Message" (http://youtu.be/O4o8TeqKhgY)

VS.

New: Kanye West and JayZ "Otis", from "Watch the Throne" (http://youtu.be/cz61J6osH4Q)

Here is an amazing article speaking of this shift in the Financial Times from last month: http://on.ft.com/NNlFVb

Here is a song response to JayZ and Kanye song "Otis" from older MC, Chuck D: http://youtu.be/161ZRrJZESA

This is a great and exciting conversation - thanks, Lauren, for your smart and witty post and thanks, Carey, for having the grace to respond here. I should point out that also part of the reason why playwrights are writing for TV is that right now, TV writing is awesome. Looking at Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, these are great shows (that also look to the classics of literature, maybe not plays, although American Hurrah was featured on Mad Men recently...) But back on theater, I love the idea that the classics and new plays speak to each other and would love to see more of a conversation between them. Unfortunately, they often happen in bubbles - the classics being done on big stages and the new plays on much smaller ones. As playwrights, we are often asked to write smaller plays - "Ooo, six actors? Is there any doubling that could happen? Or could you just cut that character?" With my next play, I'm trying to combat that voice in my head to make it "produceable." We'll see because I do have mouths to feed, both my own and my son's. But thanks for the great conversation and food for thought.

This conversation is stimulating, and I'm thrilled to read this discussion regarding Brecht's theories. I remember when I was an undergrad that a the theatre history courses were not taught by historians, and Brecht's theories were summarized as "writing directing 'above' the audience; engaging thought; did not care about emotion." I had a problem with that. I imagined that when Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, that his moment of "eureka!" (intellectual engagement) also came with many tears (and frantic, joyous conversations with friends and colleagues).

In terms of MFA programs - I believe it depends on the teachers in the programs. Some will gear playwrights to create the kind of realism which is (arguably) better suited for television and film. I earned my MFA at the Actors Studio Drama School when it was housed at The New School. The acting courses were certainly grounded in the Stanislavski tradition (and American adaptations; mostly Strasberg, some Meisner, etc.), but the playwriting courses were not. My writing teachers were James Ryan, Jeffrey Sweet, Neal Bell, Jack Gelber (for a playwrights/directors workshop), and Andreas Manolakakis (also for a playwright/directors workshop). James foregrounded poetry, and had us read a selection of Britain's "In Yer Face" playwrights; Jeff's focus was on improvisation, and he bought us anthologies of current (popular) plays in Britain and the U.S.; Neal is a language-based-playwright, and showed us how to break with conventions of realism (without telling us all "we are breaking with convention right now").

I think this is a long way of saying that MFA programs have started getting a bad rap. One of the issues I had with (the otherwise wonderful) OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE was the suggestion that there were too many programs and not enough production opportunities. With my MFA program, I banded together with actors and directors and started producing my own work. There have been a number of conversations of late (within The Dramatists' Guild, and with other groups I belong to) which have been championing self-production, and I fully concur. That said, I would not have started producing my own work if I had not been part of an MFA program, working closely with actors and directors (and I in no way mean to cut choreographers and designers out of the mix; there were only the three tracks at New School). It is my hope that MFA programs with guide the playwright to think like an entrepreneur, as production is a key component to playwright-training; and with the self-production model, yes, playwrights actually get paid ;)

Lauren - I love the notion of a "writing ensemble!" (For some reason, this brings to mind the team of resident writers at Victory Gardens in Chicago. I believe their focus is on new work, however). It would be sensational to have a "writing ensemble" along side classics writers, and, for the love of goodness, non-western theatre (too often overlooked in the U.S.).

Done soap-boxing ;)

Best, John

Humbled by the great responses - Carey's, Kent's and Michael's especially. Thank you for all you in in American theatre.

Yes - new and classic plays performed together is the best idea around. It's certainly the way that I experience theatre naturally. I go see a MacBeth at CalShakes, then the new Christina Anderson at Crowded Fire, then a Beckett piece ACT, then a premiere at The Magic, then a new musical at Playwrights Horizons, then a showy something-or-other on Broadway. Back and forth, new and classic.

I also think that the training for this kind of back-and-forth is reflected in acting programs now. My actors friends at Tisch get deep training in Shakespeare and Chekhov, but are now involved in brand new projects during their training as well (as are the students at ACT, with Steve Yockey's wonderful new plays written specifically for them). The way to tackle a brand new play is a complementary but different set of instincts from a classic. It needs its own training. Plus so many lasting relationships are formed working on new plays - look at Steppenwolf's work with new plays for that ensemble. The creative relationships built from developing new work are long lasting and catalytic.

And of course, as a certified theatre nerd I must reiterate, I respect Brecht. I respect him for insisting that theatre could 1) effect change and 2) effect it in another way besides Absurdism, Melodrama or Naturalism. As you said, Michael, Brecht's was a response to the conditions of his time (which were tumultuous). In our time, as we can see by the theatre of our national politics, a solely intellectual approach may not be as "right" as it once was. Or maybe it's exactly what we need! Or maybe we need to explore it more. Or maybe we need something newer than Brecht! I agree that the layers of Brecht's ideas are many and deserve much exploration and reinvention in today's landscape. Fact: Brecht intended less emotion ONstage - he wanted the emotion to come FROM the audience not AT the audience. Awesome idea. But I like emotion onstage - in music, in performance, in physicality. I need it. I am not as moved by a presentation of ideas. I like to read Brecht, not as much to watch it. Whereas Beckett, I can't get enough of. I love it - on the page and off. We disagree! All is still well.

It's also extremely hard for living playwrights to hear about the lack of funding for classics, when "lack of funding" is our unintended anthem. And to be in active conversation with theaters who "can't afford" to do new work so they do MIDSUMMER because it sells. And to talk about actors not getting paid regularly or enough... talk to writers! That is part of why the TV stampede is welcome to many of us. "An actual paycheck! For writing! Which is what I do! Regularly!" (Arena has done great job of saying "Yes we can!" to this idea for the theatre.)

Perhaps, like Arena, we should explore the idea of a writing ensemble for major theater's like ACT not just an acting ensemble. What would a consistent, engaged, responsive group of writers do for a theater's ecology? Imagine a group of living playwrights of all ages gathering regularly to write "with" the greats - one month tackling Sophocles, another tackling Chekhov. Or a series of commissions, like at OSF, that ask writers for brave new plays that converse with the classics. Bam! Who doesn't love that? And imagine the funding opportunities.

Thanks again, everyone. The conversation is riveting and necessary. My respect for you all is magnified.

Great response, Lauren, and I love the whole discussion that's going on here EXCEPT... yep, you're really wrong about Brecht. I second what Michael Paller wrote and would like to add that there is a ton of emotion in his plays. He wrote, "“Feelings and emotions may well be a part of the experience for the audience, but the actor is not asked to convey them himself." We all know how manipulated we feel when the music swells under something that isn't otherwise touching, or how disconnected we become when an actor wails or sheds actual tears on stage just because it's in the script—he was trying to make room for audiences to have their own reactions instead of just following what they knew they were supposed to feel. So I guess this does feel like a hole in many people's education—he's coming out of a time when people were watching melodramas, then went to a mass mechanized war that they lost badly and soldiers were returning alive but with fake jaws and looking like they were part robot, or just collaged back together. Perhaps he would have stated things differently in a different situation, and the way we present his work now is different, of course, but all that bad Brecht out there is the fault of the misinformed presenters. I have only seen one production of a Beckett play that I could stand, but I don't blame Beckett. I'm stepping off my soap box now. Viva both new and old plays, as long as they are fiercely engaged in re-creation and illumination of our worlds and ourselves—and I can't wait to see "Emilie."

Thanks Lauren for a terrific response. I think its absolutely wonderful, and the joy of Howlround that this discussion is taking place. And I am glad Carey got to respond directly. Mostly, because I felt exactly the same way about her original article as Lauren. In fact, I am stunned to learn that Carey places the blame on k-12 education. Because that actually isn't what she says in her original article. She lays the blame entirely on grad school programs who are "push(ing) young writers in and out of MFA programs where they successfully learn to write acceptable contemporary plays that might appeal to the watchful eyes of television executives and artistic directors hungry for "relevant" and sellable plays." Those are two completely different issues. One I can get behind and one I cannot.

And honestly, in a New York theater scene where the non-profit theaters dedicated to revivals have multiple broadway houses (Roundabout has 3, Lincoln Center has 1 and often rents a 2nd), I don't believe that the Signature's beautiful new spaces should be singled out as proof that the world is paying too much attention to new work while ignoring classics. In my experience I can pretty much see any kind of work, in any city in the country that I would like. In SF, if I want to see a classic, I go to ACT or Berkeley Rep, both of whom always have a healthy dose on their seasons. Or I go to Cal Shakes,or SF Shakes, or the Aurora. If I want new plays, I go to The Magic, or Crowded Fire, or Marin Theater Company. And the same is true for theater towns across the country. In New York I can see new plays at Playwrights Horizons and classics at Lincoln Center, or Roundabout, or BAM, or Classic Stage Company.

And I hear the complaint about funding. Not necessarily the point that Carey's original article was making, but one that is clarifying and interesting. And I think the point about actors in the funding universe is very real. Theaters and decision makers are very very dis-respectful of the contributions actors make to the process of creating new plays and old ones. They are treated as jobbers who can be replaced on a whim (and often are). ACT has made a commitment to the ensemble which is beyond admirable. But that strikes me as a different article. As for the rest of the funding story - ACT is the largest theater in the Bay Area. Berkeley Rep is the second. Both theaters produce a healthy mix of old and new, while a theater like the Magic, with an emphasis on the new struggles to survive. This isn't an accident. Nor is it unexplainable. So perhaps the funding world is simply responding to the landscape.

There has been a lot of emphasis on new work of late. Howlround grew out of a new play institute, which grew out of David Dowers research. Todd London's book changed the way theaters relate to playwrights, providing some wonderful residency and contractual changes. And we're starting to see some terrific progress. This year on Broadway we have real home grown new plays - Clybourne Park, Other Desert Cities, Seminar, Peter and the Starcatchers, Chinglish, Stick Fly, The Mountaintop, all written by living American playwrights. We also have Death of Salesman, Streetcar, and an adaptation of Servant of Two Masters. Its not an accident and its pretty glorious. So maybe what's really happening is the balance is being appropriately struck. I for one am encouraged.

I also would like to see more theatres producing new and classic plays side by side. As a contemporary playwright--and as a feminist and a fan of classic lit (yes, all those dead white males)--I see myself as entering into a conversation with folks like Aeschylus, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. The pity is that funding is so limited for theatre in general, that we end up fighting desperately for the scraps and elbowing each other in the process. [Lauren, I'm glad that the Kickstarter campaign for your new play Emilie at Symmetry Theatre in Berkeley made its goal. I'm looking forward to seeing it next weekend.]

Entirely aside from the specific debate (yes, by all means, please don't soak the new plays!) this is a fantastic crib sheet for what is amazing about theater, from the ancient to the new! And it showed up in my inbox at a really excellent moment and plugged me back in, so thank you for that. A sweet side-benefit to the Howl, this connecting thing-

A note on Brecht, since he's been brought up in this discussion, He never EVER wrote, talked about or tried to take emotion out of the theater. Even if he wanted to, he knew it is impossible to do so. This is why he named his one play MOTHER COURAGE, and another GALILEO, and not THE DEHUMANIZING EFFECTS OF WAR or THE BATTLE BETWEEN COMFORT AND RESPONSIBILITY. These plays are not exercises in intellectual abstracts. What he did want to do, in response to what he considered to be the overheated emotionalism of the German theater, was to reduce the amount of emotion in order to add something to it: thought and reflection. He was always concerned with adding to, making richer, not thinning out, our experience in the theater.

This may strike some as a minor or academic point in relation to the broader arguments being made, but it ill-behooves theater people, and perhaps playwrights in particular, to repeat the kinds of inaccuracies that affect playwrights' reputations and over time helps to create an atmosphere not conducive to the production of their work. Certainly, living playwrights want their work to be understood properly rather than unwittingly propaganized against through the careless repetition of untruths.

As Carey has pointed out many times -- and as the dramaturg at A.C.T. I have been there to hear it -- classics and new plays belong next to each other, enrich each other and the audience. We are doing two world premieres at A.C.T. on our mainstage next season -- George Walker's DEAD METAPHOR and Aaron Jafferis's and Byron Au Yong's STUCK ELEVATOR -- alongside to great classics -- Sophocles' ELEKTRA in a translation we commissioned from Timberlake Wertenbaker, and A STEETCAR NAMED DESIRE. It is our hope and intention to continue this kind of conversation between old plays and new in the Strand.

In reading your comments, Ms. Perloff, I realize that you're talking about public schools (k-12). I think you need to be very specific. The challenges of collegiate level teaching and k-12 are not the same. There's a lot of stuff that is traditional to teach that is no longer taught in US school. Cursive writing is an example. The funding is just not there in many districts and there's a tremendous pressure to teach the test. If your point is that our HS students need this to influence, I think you need to be that specific. In skimming the article, I thought it was about colleges. Maybe it's because my mom is an elementary teacher, but I see this as not a theatre topic, but a public education issue that is expansive.

Hi, Lauren,

I also felt pretty miffed by the article (just posted a reply; pending approval). While I'm sure Ms. Perloff has much on her shoulders as artistic director of ACT, she ignores research (London, Penser, Voss, Dower, Anderson, Dolan, myself, others) which suggests that the new American play has a decent chance of getting developed, but not produced (and each scholar/agent of research has his or her own argument as to why that is happening), while the "tried-and-true" are favored in production at universities and LORT/SPT theatres. My issue here is the notion that there is some "American theatre;" that is, I argue we have no singular, national theatre, and for anyone to suggest that we do shows favoritism toward the regional theatres, Off Broadway, and Broadway, while ignoring the notion that truly exciting theatre is happening in independent communities (inside and outside of New York; but if we just look at NY, consider 13P, Vampire Cowboys, Rachel Klein Productions, The Living Theatre, Rising Sun Performance Company, At Hand Theatre, and the list goes on; some produce classics, some produce new work, some can do both).

I'm also a little baffled by the notion that on one side, we have classics (Beckett and Brecht), and on the other, something new (Albee....with all due respect to Mr. Albee, I do consider him a 'senior' playwright, and a living classic...this is not to suggest that I find him old, just prolific ;)).

And yes, the wonderful news re: ACT's (old and new) play initiative does become a bit buried due to the nature of the rest of the article.

You were not alone in being miffed. With all due respect to Ms. Perloff, some very current research has been completely ignored. I suspect it is due to Ms. Perloff's commitments of time and energy to producing classics along with new works. At least, the last paragraph of her article gives me some hope.

Cheers,John Patrick Bray (Ph.D., M.F.A.)University of Georgia

Hell yes! I can't wait to share this with my students. The rate of new everything has sped up so much in the last century, I walk into bookstores and stare at the shelves hungrily and wonder--how will I ever read all the things I want to read? Curating the mind is a daily debate. The Greeks had theater, yes, but there wasn't a new play opening every night, a new book or movie released every day, a gallery opening--aside from new plays, Olympic matches, orgies & feasts, a lot of warring, and Facebook updates, the Greeks had more room for plays and playgoing. I suppose the exciting thing about our era is that there is no shortage of great work, it's just a matter of having the patience and fortitude (and the money or comps) to find it. Now, I have to go sacrifice my neighbor to the gods so that I may have wind in my sails for today's battle. Thanks for a solid read.

Hi Lauren, what a wonderful article- you touch on many of the core elements of what makes compelling theatre. But I don't think Carey Perloff's article was asserting a zero-sum position towards classics v. new work. Perloff uses "abandon" with respect to fear of abandonment of classical repertoire, not new work. I think her argument is a plea for balance- that an appreciation with the old invariably informs the new:

"Why are there not more courageous funders in America … who might get excited about exceptional productions of the classics SIDE BY SIDE with new plays?"

As an actor, the two things I enjoy most are working on Shakespeare and on new work. I've found a familiarity with the former influences everything about the latter. Knowing how to analyze Shakespearean verse makes it that much easier to parse another writer's unique voice and bring it to life.

Sarah Ruhl and Tony Kushner aren't Shakespeare, but each wields an individual use of alliteration, meter, antithesis, assonance and a score of other tools Shakespeare helped define and polish. Every writer does. They may do it consciously or sub-, but it's always there and if you can hear it they bless you for it.

I love walking into a rehearsal room to work on a new script, in part because I don't walk in there alone. Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, Caryl Churchill, Naomi Iizuka, Sarah Ruhl, Jeffrey Hatcher, Melissa Gibson, Ellen McLaughlin, Barbara Field, Michael Hollinger and twenty others have my back. And If I ever have the good fortune to work on one of your plays, all those who came before will doubtless be there with me, as sure as you will be the next time I meet a new writer.Coraggio and thanks for your thoughts!

Great riposte post. One very small demurral. I have done Brecht's Galileo twice, mainly because the stakes for our times contained in the basic faith v. reason dialetic are so high.. After have been similarly annoyed by the treatment of the women in my first production, I decided to make them as central as Brecht's dramaturgy allows in the second-- and found that two of the most powerful moments in the whole production came from Mrs. Sarti's confrontation with Galileo in the sunspots scene and, even more shatteringly, from Virginia's prayer in the scene where we await news of his recantation. Finally, we made Virginia a co-conspirator with Andrea and Galileo in sending the Discorsi out of Italy, and that seemed both textually sound and thematically liberating. I don't know if Brecht intended that, but I know he didn't prevent it in what he finally put on paper.

Hi Lauren,Your piece is wonderful-- I agree with everything you say! It's a sad day indeed (and pointless) when the classics are pitted against new work, since, as you so beautifully articulate, the past informs everything we are experiencing today, and the new work of today will become the literature of tomorrow. The problem as I see it is one of funding and education. I am so happy you feel writers are so steeped in classical literature today, but in the SF Unified School system where we do a lot of teaching, there is less and less exploration of ANY great literature, at least in a way that is meaningful to the students. At the same time, unless I have missed it, there is practically no funding dedicated to the production of classic work (or to translation) in this country (and classics are by definition costly to produce because most are large in scale and long in duration), and even less for the kind of training the classics require. If you look at the numbers (and now I am speaking primarily of Equity houses, not because they are better but because they provide artists somewhat of a living wage), the past ten years has seen a sharp drop in the opportunity to perform in, direct or design classical plays. We also seem to have no interest in sustaining permanent, paid acting ensembles, the kind of ensembles writers dream of writing for and on which Sophocles, Brecht and Moliere honed their craft. Funders just don't seem interested in the role actors can play in sustaining writing.Yet as Zelda Fichandler has said so powerfully, it was the commitment of actors to tackling challenging material as a consistent team over and over that allowed theaters like Arena Stage to excel at producing classical work and to inspire new work as well. I don't in the least distrust new plays (I have loved reading yours!) I just feel that perhaps we have fragmented our theater ecology and the funding for it in unfortunate ways, and that we might all benefit from a more holistic approach to how we support both the past and future of our field.Thanks so much for the response, and to Polly as always for stimulating the dialogue,

"I have been thinking a great deal lately about whether we in the American theater are missing the bigger picture by obsessing so exclusively on the development of new plays."

To me the sentence above is a complete "WTF" although I do agree with one portion of it: YES, there's too much obsessive "development" of new plays. Stop "developing" them and just produce them! If you produced them obsessively instead of "developing" them obsessively (which is really just murdering them slowly) then maybe we'll get somewhere interesting.

Great article, Lauren. I usually lose interest in most things I read online before the third paragraph, but I really enjoyed reading this. I'm not very into the theatre, but I feel there are many similarities in our views on the visual arts that are reflected here. I've always had a hard time with peers in the art community who fail to see the importance of the classics, or those who cannot accept the equal importance of the modern and contemporary. Art, like theatre, is a dialogue. Those who came before us speak to us and we must speak our responses. Thanks for a thoughtful look at this.

I love all of this. And especially this statement of the why of theatre with a modern voice stating the obvious about a very old story: "Oedipus Rex starts with an unsolved mystery: Who killed the king Laius? Well now I have to watch the thing."

Now we have to watch the thing indeed! Delightful.