Making Work

 

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Maybe I should say who I am? Karla Boos, Artistic Director of Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh, which I founded over twenty years ago. We make experimental work, original pieces and plays from around the world, some re-envisioned classic plays and unusual operas. One of the ways we experiment is with environment; we stage them all environmentally in unusual places.

I really loved how thoughtfully Tammy spoke as a Pittsburgher. We are all that, and I’m sure all the responders will feel as I do, that we join in answering the question of what this means because we care about our town. We’re moved by its complicated connections and layers, and we’re proud of its fairly amazing artistic profile and accomplishments, in our art form and in all the arts. As artists, we feel that our accomplishments are connected somehow to the character of the city itself, the relationships that come from its many layers. At least I do, since my work depends on a super-adventurous audience, people who go to a play not having a clue what might happen, and our productions are inspired in some ways by the physical city. So it’s good to note that a problem exists. I care that local playwrights don’t have ongoing, natural ways to develop. This is not only a problem of funding (because that does exist to the degree that funders are trying hard to create opportunities for individual artists of all media) but also due to a lack of local theaters willing to produce local playwrights.

Tammy, in her article, did not suggest as a solution the creation of a theater (or more than one) whose mission was to produce new plays by local playwrights. Do you wish that existed? In a recent article about the Bricolage and Pittsburgh Playwrights collaboration to produce Dutchman; Justin Laing of the Heinz Endowments comments that Dutchman is old and its sentiments tired (maybe this good man didn’t exactly say that? Maybe he said “already expressed” or something like that?). But I’m sure I heard him say words to the effect of, why are we reflecting LeRoi Jones’ fifty-year-old thoughts, where’s the contemporary play, that comes from within our community, and addresses the ongoing issues of race in Pittsburgh that Tammy points to—and I’d add is brilliant, and might endure like Dutchman?

So… a theater dedicated to the development and evolution of playwrights? I’ll play devil’s advocate to my own suggestion. Theaters are dedicated to making great theater, aren’t they—however they define that? One hasn’t arisen that thinks it will make great theater in an ongoing, sustainable way solely from producing, nurturing, and developing the writing of local playwrights. There also hasn’t been a professional theater dedicated to having local professional actors on its boards. Every professional theater does have local actors on its boards—what could be better?  But no one’s dedicated to that, only to making great theater—and sometimes that can be accomplished with local artists and sometimes it can’t. Same with directors, designers, and every kind of artist in our collaborative art form.

Tammy didn’t say she wished that a theater existed for that sole purpose. She said that she wished theaters would take on a nurturing role with a local playwright who interests them. She’s right, I’d say, but would also just warn that I think there’s something that comes before all else: we should all believe that we’re making the greatest piece of work of our lives every single time we ask an audience to spend two hours with us. Though I feel shy to reveal these things, I not only need to feel that, I’ll further say that I, personally, need to feel like I’m dealing with a new language every time, that I’ve never heard this particular language before, I don’t understand it necessarily, it’s moving me; in its unknown quality it’s providing me with new meanings, and I need to replicate my own process of discovery of its meaning in the two hours’ traffic the audience will experience. My purpose is to give the audience its own, speeded up—edited, I guess—discovery of new meaning.

 

...we should all believe that we’re making the greatest piece of work of our lives every single time we ask an audience to spend two hours with us.

 

So I already have quite a tall order for myself, as a person who runs a theater that does four works per year—too many, probably, for such a tall order. My theater can’t take on a different mission. But I could, definitely, feel that my collaboration is with writers as it is with directors, performers, and designers. But I’ve found that writers in the American theater think of themselves apart, think of their writing existing as a totality in itself—I think this even though Tammy has articulated the value of the collaboration from a playwright’s perspective (and it could be my limited experience, I know less about American writers). When I said “language,” did you understand that I meant an entire continuum of communication, so much more than words on a page, words in the mouths of characters?

Maybe I haven’t felt like my trip—discovering the new language, finding meaning in the environment and what it yields for the ensemble, is something to impose on a writer? I feel shy to even go there with writers because they seem like such self-sufficient entities in their rooms with their imaginations and their desks. Maybe writers should understand other theater artists better—where Artistic Directors are coming from and where directors and ensembles of performers are coming from. Maybe the play on a page as the point of departure is not the only way. I do think I’m speaking from limited experience, for all my twenty plus years, that writers no doubt yearn to be better-understood by me and my kind too, and Tammy’s point is they want to come to the party, so to speak.

There’s my Howl. It’s meant to provoke, like my theater. I have the greatest respect for anyone trying to make work from a personal point of view, and wish it was easier for all of us.

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Thoughts from the curator

An overview of the theatre scene in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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Thanks Karla for daring to provoke. Plays are meant to be experienced not just written on a page, but written in time in space with actors, directors and designers. In my experience a new play that "reads" well on the page - can be deadly on stage. Bring your laptops into the rehearsal rooms and write for the actors in the room (not just the ones in your head) - google doc the play and let everyone co-write at moments - write for the specific space you are performing in - or please, at least make a little room for this kind of creation in the realm of "playwriting" and "new play producing."

Ow-ow-oooowwww! (That's me joining the pack on this great howl.) Great thoughts and comments by all in my opinion.

www.hiawathaproject.org

Maybe I can jump in here. And Karla, correct me, if I'm wrong. Because you see yourself not as an "interpretive artist" but as a creative artist in all that you do, choosing seasons, pairing collaborators, directing, acting and adapting -- that the work of American playwrights -- or local playwrights -- whose voices you seem to know doesn't allow room for yourself as a creative artist? By producing the writing of work that seems too familiar, which seems to exist as a totality in itself -- that there's not room for your creative spirit in that? I see Quantum Theater as such a special case, born out of your very specific artistic vision, as it should, and I am grateful for the work you bring to the city. The Task directed by Jed Harris last year stands out as very nearly life changing for me, the recent Fat Beckett and the summer Shakespeare always re-imagined in some impossible to anticipate spaces, to name just a few examples of theater we would not otherwise experience if it weren't for Quantum.

I hope I wasn't saying that any theater has the obligation to produce local writers -- and I certainly wasn't saying that you should change your theater's mission, which I personally see as a gift to the city -- but that if more theaters did start producing their local playwrights, then a more specific conversation would begin in the here and now between theater artists and the audience and we might discover that sometimes the familiar is strange...and what we think we know, has more surprises than we might have expected.

F.J., because you're also an actor and a director, you are really the exception, not the rule. I don't think Karla's comments are offensive, but a valid observation from her side as a theatre professional. I've seen many playwrights who isolate themselves in a room, don't actually want to collaborate and have no idea how to be in the rehearsal room, nor want to be. I've seen this idealogy in NYC, in Seattle, and here in Pittsburgh. I think part of Karla's point is that playwrights need to be more actively involved in the theatrical community and that means not just seeing shows around town, but getting their hands dirty...that could mean many things...volunteering to usher, or write a press release, or help run auditions, or write a grant...anything to establish a relationship with a company. It's annoying for artistic directors to be pestered by playwrights who say, "Why don't you do my play" but they never come see the productions.

Karla's point, and Kato's observation, basically says that developing relationships and working with playwrights is a two-way street. Theatres and playwrights both have obligations and need to drive the conversation. We need to work together...ie collaborate in the larger sense, not just in the rehearsal room.

PS - I am a playwright, and a director, and a designer, and an actor - and I totally dig Ms. Boos observations. I also chaired a Local Playwrights Festival for 10 years, and now run a project called The Planning Stage that produces plays by our local artists in unexpected places. We like to operate using the Indy-Band model suggested by another recent essay included in the HowlRound archive. Rock on.

Maybe the way to work with local playwrights isn't only by "doing" their work - maybe it's by inviting them in to the process of making all kinds of work happen? Nurturing a playwright then becomes more than just the offer of, "Hey come in and we'll do this stuff for you," it becomes, "You are part of a creative team, help us gather some props, or work the house, or help with rehearsal." It is wicked important that theater artists be part of a team, and be as multi-faceted as possible. It deepens the work for all artists, so invite the playwrights to the table of work other than their own. Playwrights also need to step up and learn to champion the work of others - other playwrights, directors, actors, theater companies. The stronger the threads interconnect, the stronger the fabric used to fashion an array of products.

I do not know what "American writers" Ms. Boos' has worked with, but as someone who has been writing plays for--dare I say it--40 years, I write from the perspective of an actor (which I aso am) and a director (which I also am). I do not see my work as being "complete." I see it as a blueprint from which I collaborate with a director, designers and a cast to build a production. It is quite impossible for a playwright to do this without theatres willing to produce these new works. Theatre is a collaboraive art form, and a script is not fully realized until it is seen on stage. Now I have had many wonderful experiences with directors, designers and actors who have improved the quality of my work--and for that I am grateful. I have also known directors who have wanted to "control" my work instead of collaborating. I suppose I am trying to make two points here. First, playwrights (especially Pittsburgh playwrights) need more venues to have their works performed. And second, I was truly offended by Ms. Boos' observations.