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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.


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

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Fantastic article. I love many new plays and playwrights - but I also know that theater needs to focus on the things it can do that can only happen in the moment of live performance. What are the experiences that can only be had if you (as an audience member) are there in the room, with other people? That may feel like a little sliver, but it's a little sliver of infinity. We have so much territory to work in, and yet so often put ourselves in a small box in terms of the forms of theatrical experience, walled in by more or less traditional narrative structure, by psychological recognizable characters, by safe conflicts and resolutions. 

Thank you for the encouragement to bust out!

Well …. yes, there's a formula, I guess, for a play, as Rob writes. Character is in status; character has rug pulled out from them; character has to acknowledge a secret they'd rather not ever look at. But there is a formula for the kind of theatre Rob advocates for: dragons die on the stage while a violin plays and sparkles sprinkle and other things happen, physically and environmentally. That's a kind of formula. If the playwright and the community of performers risk--if they are writing or performing "their" impermissible, not the audience's--then I'm going to be in the audience and know that. That's what I want. Real risk from the playwright, from the performers, from the language, is what I want. I don't think I want preferences for one form of theatre over another.

Theatre flourished when playwrights were disposable and actors humbly lived at the bottom of the food chain. Today we are ruled by actors. "We" should dissociate with power and play from the dirt.

Disposable playwrights? Actors living humbly? If you think having 90+% of your Union working without a living wage while doing union work is not "humble," I'm afraid you and I have a different definition of that word. Yes, the dearth of excellent playwrighting/playsmithing is a problem. It always has been. Probably always will be. Especially for those with a "new" voice. And yes, some actors (read MOVIES, read TV) do make a living wage and then some, but not most - most certainly not most. 

I have always been a bubble gum and baling wire theatre practitioner. If you must have more than two boards and a chair, the play/story/event/happening is lovely but certainly not necessary.  I don't need a giant ape or a helicopter or any of those things to bring the essential to the space, to bring the audience to the space, and in that space bring them together to create something new, something whole, something alive. 

People ruin their health and their lives trying to be working actors or playwrights. They don't ask for much. Just to be able to do what they have chosen to do with their lives and be able to have a little place to live, maybe a kid, possibly a lawn mower, or even a long-term relationship. But most of the people attempting these lives wind up paying to play or finding solace in things other than their original drug of choice, sharing the essential with others, and losing themselves completely.

Saying that actors need to be back down in the dirt is cruel. Saying that playwrights should be so plentiful that they are disposable is heartbreaking.

It isn't about dissociating from power. It is about finding the power within ourselves and using it - no matter what that means to you as an artist (go Broadway or go home? start the only live theatre space in 200 miles? refuse to allow norms to dictate vision?)

Brother, we are already in the dirt. We live here. We grow here. We thrive here. Come by sometime, and we'll show you around. 

Thank you for articulating this so well, Rob!  Now that TV is sophisticated, there is no reason to have a fourth wall in the theatre - why should anyone leave their large-home-screens to go to the theatre to have a wall placed before them? Theatre can do so much more in terms of ritual and ritualized space inclusive of its audience - the more we challenge the old models, the more necessary theatre will be. 

Hi all! I'm not on Twitter, but the good folx at HowlRound have been keeping an eye out for what people have been saying about this little pamphlet we've published. I'd like to start a conversation with them here. 

Our first caller says: 

"This critic has some points on what's lacking in Chicago's 'house style,' but the notion that the type of theatre they want is impossible to find in Chicago beyone the odd big-budget transfer is so negligent. When theatres like First Floor and Haven and Red Tape and Sideshow and Free Street continue to push these boundaries with no acknowledgment, it seems much more helpful for a critic to boost their platform than complain about their perceived lack. This piece seems to describe Salonathon's weekly perfoqmfes to a T and then says that sort of thing doesn't exist in Chicago, and though it's gone it spawned so many successors (Will Davis's American theatre was the same way). And even if it's just spectacle he's looking for, some of our biggest companies (e.g. The House, Lookingglass) are known for delivering exactly that. This critic's piece on Taylor Mac changed the way I think about theatre criticism, but clearly someone needs to show him the full picture of where that exists in Chicago. It's harder to find than it should be, but that doesn't mean it's not there."

I'm so glad this has been articulated! As soon as this was published, I thought, "Oh yeah—totally forgot about Salonathon." (Which, admittedly, I was never able to make it out to—but, from everything I've heard, it's the closest thing to Club 57/Pyramid/Danceteria Chicago's had in the 21st century. RIP, tho.) What I most want to address here (and which I'd like to speak to with more nuance and less vituperation—which comes off as snobbish here, I know; sorry, folx—in a second version of this essay) is that Chicago contains multitudes, and there's a lot I haven't seen. Never seen a House show; seen two Lookingglass shows but neither were rooted in spectacle (Title & Deed and Life Sucks).

That said: the emotions from which I wrote this didn't arise from one or two boring shows. It accrued. The impetus for this essay was a bitter disappointment that I had gone from loving theatre to tolerating it, waiting for a wonderful show. And can I be honest? I've seen most shows alone. I don't know how much these down feelings would change if I had a guide who was REALLY excited to show what they loved with me—maybe you, caller. 

There are companies—one example is About Face—which could be really leading the charge in their main seasons with queer work—and, like I jockey for up there, queer forms, not just gay people. I don't see that happening. And I'm just disappointed. That's the thing: there's so much happening in Chicago, so if it's happening, it's not being boosted in a way that's reaching me, a queen who's hungry for it. How do we change that? 

I hope that some of my (emotional) generalizing didn't lead you to miss the rest of the piece. I'm much more interested in getting people to think about the why of fourth-wall-bound theatre than I am in grinding an ax about how Ivo van Hove only comes to town once every nine years. :) 

And I'm so glad you loved that Taylor Mac, piece, caller. Let's keep talking about this! 


And our second caller, from an unspecified city: 

"We must be looking in different directions, or else one of us is determined not to see. The kind of new work this person wants is everywhere. It is heartbreaking to constantly be reading, seeing, and making this kind of hungry, desperate, joyful, ugly, lovely art to be told that it, we, don’t exist. Sorry, is our marketing not good enough? Or are we just not usually men, not usually white? Or because we’re usually poor?"

I think what you're saying suggests a line of inquiry I'd like to explore: if this work exists, it's not reaching me as easily as the 25 most visible theatres in Chicago, right? So how do we get the word out? I'm not on social media, but I am on the internet a lot. I read the local alternative weekly, Perform.ink. I'll pay $20 for anything that sounds interesting. How do we connect the people who want formally adventurous work to that work? 


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.