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:
- 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”).
- 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?
- It’s a “theatrical event.” They never call it a play.
- 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?