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On Theatricality

An illustration of white figures against a black background.
Original illustration by Skye Murie.

A few years back I was invited to take part in the launching of a new play development program and was paired with a fresh, young director. I was quite surprised as we talked about my play to find him urging me to pepper the text with highly theatrical stage directions which he assured me were more likely to attract prospective directors and theater companies to the play. This form of seduction was new to me. I had assumed the less one “staged” as a playwright, the better, allowing space for the designers and director to do their job. It turned out that my assumptions were mistaken.

I’ve been reminded of that experience lately as I mull over certain recent discussions about the state of our American theater that have been troubling me. In a recent piece for the Brooklyn Rail I described the Gesamtkunstwerk as practiced in the German theater in relation to our own practice. The Gesamtkunstwerk might be defined as a total work of art that combines equally all the arts of the stage and the sensual and intellectual participation of the audience. In response to my piece, a few American theater folk have lamented in emails that our own theater tradition is too playwright-focused, and our current discussions about our crisis are too limited to the playwright/artistic leadership relationship while ignoring the collaborative potential of the art form as practiced in traditions like the German.

I had assumed the less one “staged” as a playwright, the better, allowing space for the designers and director to do their job. It turned out that my assumptions were mistaken.

I strongly agree that a collaboration deficit is central to the crisis of the American theater, and, by extension, to a crisis of the contemporary American play. And, to that end, I think it imperative to make a distinction as to the nature of “theatricality” in the American context vs. that of the German Gesamtkunstwerk—to avoid confusion and make something clear. Because there’s a lot of “theatricality” happening on American stages these days but it has nothing to do with the theatricality found in Germany, which has been going strong for a couple of centuries. And the theatricality so prevalent on our stages now has done nothing to alleviate our crisis.

Theatricality in America today, I would argue, is an MFA-inspired phenomenon produced almost solely by playwrights and duly supported by directors. The resulting highly theatrical plays teeter on the edge of magical realism or plummet over the top with plot elements and stage directions that seem derived from a handbook on wizardry. It’s worth noting that this new theatricality is woven into the plot, making it impossible to ignore in the way the old stage directions (She stands, he sits) were and are ignored.

A group of actors staring up into a bright light onstage.
Wagner's Lohengrin in Bayreuth. Photograph: EPA

The fact is, that a generation of playwrights has been encouraged by increasingly mandatory stints at MFA programs or through the inevitable process of imitation to step outside the bounds of “realism” and let their imaginations take flight. One begins to think that it’s the new aesthetic imperative. At best, this can be charming, but at worst, and far too often, the result is whimsicality at the expense of motivation and an apolitical disconnect from the real world. It’s particularly troubling that this kind of work has won the undying approval of the New York critical establishment at the expense of equally stimulating reality-based work, which often contains political themes. Critics, seemingly desperate for any kind of stage magic, are finding it where they can. And thus, “theatrical” plays dominate the theater landscape country-wide in a process of proliferation and risk-aversion described so well in Todd London’s book, Outrageous Fortune.

More crucial perhaps to what I am talking about here, this new scripted theatricality beats directors and designers into submission, leaving them little room to let their own imaginations soar. Directors seem oddly cowed and are also in crisis. And it brings a more general problem regarding the playwright’s role in the theatrical experience into the spotlight.

Theatricality in America today, I would argue, is an MFA-inspired phenomenon produced almost solely by playwrights and duly supported by directors.

I think back to that young director at the workshop, and also to the certainly necessary discussion we are having about play ownership today, and I can’t help but think that our insistence on the centrality of who owns what may have inadvertently played into the hands of a theater culture in which stage designers and directors perform a secondary role. And I fear that the irrelevance of the director and her/his fellow stage artists has gone a long way towards killing the art form in this country. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a playwright, fiercely protective of my words, who believes that perhaps the most valuable contribution institutions like the Dramatist Guild have made has been the insistence on the sanctity of the playwright’s text, which is now a given in America. It’s a situation that I have no doubt most German playwrights would view with envy and awe. But our insistence on the playwright’s ownership of the text has spilled over into the problem of who owns the theater experience. And here, I think we have a lot to learn from the Germans.

In Germany, it’s the directors and designers who produce the theatricality. Often to the detriment of playwrights, the play itself, is material to be taken apart at will. But half-staged or whole, the plays, for the most part, attempt to say something about the world and language and ideas, and contain refreshingly little whimsy. That’s why audiences feel challenged both aesthetically and intellectually in Germany.

Hasn’t it always been the role of playwrights to tell stories, reveal character, to examine problems—personal and social—related to our humanity? Were our theaters to allow for a healthy collaboration between all the arts of the stage, playwrights could abandon the “theatrical” imperative and think about what they really want to say. Directors could take on the role of co-creators of the stage experience. As things stand now, playwrights have been forced into the position of doing it all.

Total theater is a form of magic. We know the magic is missing, and we’ve somehow decided that it’s the playwright’s job to fix the problem. More and more, this has affected the way playwrights write and it has affected the kinds of plays theaters choose to produce. For most of the last century we were famous for a kind of psychological realism, which at its best soared with poetic metaphor. What do we have now? We have hundreds of professionalized MFA playwrights from a pleasing variety of backgrounds, but something’s wrong. It’s not working. The sum of plays and productions are not affecting audiences and the culture. If we could suddenly wave a magic wand and see that every play is a source of magic, perhaps we’d arrive at the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, which in turn might stimulate and provoke audiences, and revitalize the role of theater in our culture.

In Germany, it’s the directors and designers who produce the theatricality. Often to the detriment of playwrights, the play itself, is material to be taken apart at will.

It’s hard to describe the buzz of expectation that meets a new production in Germany and the excited discussions that take place at intermission or in the local Kneiper (fueled admittedly by beer) afterwards. I think it’s what we’re all hoping for here. But I don’t think we’ll get there unless we realize theater’s full potential as a Gesamtkunstwerk. This will require all the practitioners to take advantage of this unique moment of discussion to question our assumptions about what a production is and to redefine what the experience of going to the theater might be.

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Perhaps I'm misreading the post, but if greater collaboration is what is sought, the German regis-theatre model is a horrible example to hold up.

From my vantage point, there is a content problem, a leadership/producer problem, but not as many problems with of deficit of collaboration or varied aesthetics. What is being created is overshadowed by what is produced on most major stages.

All due respect to Gwydion, magical realism is every bit as valid as naturalism on stage. But if a play is about nothing, the form will never change that.

Just a quick reply to your point, Tony, about the German theater model. Directors are very central there, indeed. Having worked in the German theater myself, in my experience, yes, the designers are also very centrally involved, but also the actors generally are more collaboratively forthcoming than their American counterparts. As for German playwrights, there are new German plays coming out all the time, yes, but it's true the German playwright is not as centrally positioned as in America. The German playwrights own expectations are different as a result.

In any case, collaboration is not in short supply in the German theater. They just go about it in the ways they go about it. The German theater has PLENTY of problems, as any community's theater does. But my experiences working in Germany were more, I'll even say insistently, collaborative overall than many of the experiences I've had in the States.

To be clear, I'm not pitting the American against the German theater. I've never been interested in championing one over the other. They serve different audiences and must be different. But I think Stryk's references to the German theater and what we might learn and adapt from them are quite astute.

You are right to call me on that, of course. I meant to suggest (and failed miserably to communicate) what has struck me as a shallow understanding of magical realism: "cool stuff" on stage that remains unconnected to the story being told. The "real" magical realism is indeed powerful and important and, as you say, just as valid as naturalism.

Plays have always been theatrical. It's not a trend. The Greek plays are theatrical. It's only in the last hundred years they've been interpreted as kitchen sink dramas. Theatricality is traditional. Realism has only been with us for a hundred years and is the real trend (or what I like to call the real avant-garde). I'm not dismissing your desire to see more collaboration (yes, please) but I take offense (though lovingly so) to the notion that playwrights are writing theatrical work because of an MFA trend. Maybe those MFA programs are simply teaching theater history (I wouldn't know as I didn't go to an MFA program). What I do know is my work is highly theatrical because I enjoy that kind of theater When I write theatrical stage directions it's always in the hope that my descriptions will inspire more vision, collaboration, thought, passion, and clarity to story, not less.

It also seems the hundred year trend of Realism is waning, to be replaced by our theatrical roots, and those who work in Realism are fearful their preferred art form won't be as dominate in the culture as it has been. It seems to me the kind of work that is attracting theater audiences today is theatrical work because audiences can get Realism in film and television so why go to the theater for it. They are craving theatricality (which, in my mind includes ideas, debate, conversation, and deep engagement). I doubt Realism is ever going away and hope it doesn't but it's ruled the roost for a long time now, there is an saturation of it in our culture, and I for one welcome theatricality back to the head of the table.

Dear Taylor Mac,

I am not arguing for realism and against theatricality by any stretch of the imagination and (lovingly) apologize if you felt I was. I am in fact appealing for theatricality-- for a total theatre experience. But I strongly feel that the theatricality must be allowed to flow from collaboration. The theatricality at the heart of your work is just that, its heart, and you have profound things to say which makes your work so valuable. But I am making an appeal for a theatre that posits the theatrical in all work, through true collaboration, instead of only seeing the theatrical in those plays that read as such.

Without getting into an historical debate, I would just say that I am seeing a problem in our theatre culture right now, not in Greek drama, not in history, and I am looking for answers that will enrich the art form, make it healthier for directors and designers, free writers up and bring audiences back. I know you are doing your part!

A fan,

Lydia Stryk

And I apologize for working my agenda instead of actually addressing the main point of your article. Yes, getting those designers, directors and actors in the room from the very beginning is a great way to anchor theatricality to meaning, rather than use it as a marketing tool or only as an aesthetic. So thank you for those thoughts and here's to hoping the thoughts inspire more deep collaboration.

Taylor (also a fan)

Dear Lydia,
Thank you for this provocative and well-thought-out piece.

As a director who often is caught between feeling stifled (or bored) if I simply execute the theatricality already written into the page, and feeling disingenuous or derivatively flashy if I embellish the page with my own theatricality, I could easily relate to your words. I think we are in the middle of a big debate (or we should be, anyway) about the field's understanding of the director's role when it comes to this.

I think of myself as a good collaborator, but you're right, true collaboration is so rare in American professional theatre. What I see happen much more frequently than collaboration is merely negotiation.

Thank you for giving me a lot to think about today.

What a breath of fresh air this is!

I am thoroughly finished with plays in which stage directions are intnded to be transformed into empty spectacle, as if what every story wants is a thin act of magic (or, heaven help me, magical realism) to delight and amuse an audience looking merely for distraction or eye candy, rather than deeper engagement.

Good stuff, great points. I would disagree just a bit with some of your points about German theater. There are plenty of German playwrights writing some very whimsical plays, complete with fanciful and outrageous stage directions (they, too, are trying to catch the attention of directors - those all-powerful German directors...). The latest Wolfram Lotz (Einige Nachrichten an das All) has footnotes. Footnotes! Big-ass ones. The difference is: German directors do still feel free, very free, to ignore the playwright's stage directions, even ones that are clearly central to the playwright's vision for the play.

And the pitfall for contemporary German playwrights is that, in order to capture a director's attention, they often write plays that are meant as fodder for the director's creative genius. Deliberately dense, too long, narratively fractured, "unstageable", etc. They can be good at digging into meaty political/social topics but, I would argue, they often are not so deft with compelling characters - psychological realism is wayyyyy out of vogue and if you want to get produced, you'll shy away from it, big time.

Amen to this posting. I recently heard David Ives say there are two kinds of writing, theatrical and dramatic. Theatrical is now for theater and dramatic writing has gone to TV. TV is much better off for it, theater the worse.
Just tell a story and tell it well. Everything else will work itself out along the way.

As a playwright, director and performer myself, I'd like to say how refreshing it is to hear a playwright acknowledge the artistic, collaborative role of the director, who, in this country, is indeed typically still thought of not as an artist but a midwife or intruder -- or both.

I’m similarly heartened by Stryk’s general championing of the collaborative nature of theater, and her astute point that the American theater’s insistence on being a “playwright’s theater” has contradicted what is the ancient collaborative nature of the art form, causing lasting damage to our nation’s theater.

It’s likewise refreshing to hear a playwright openly decry this nearly decade-long trend in playwriting whereby many clever and quippy plays are elevated -- as Stryk notes, by grad schools, NYC, and I would add our national new play devo industry -- to “smart and witty,” thus earning their writers stock adjectives like “fresh,” even “brilliant,” and hopefully “hot” as well. This whimsical theatricality Stryk refers to usually strikes me as rather sitcom-like, with the inevitable string of references to recognizable pop culture substituting for true humor or insight. When I sit watching yet another of these plays I wonder yet again why something that truly NEEDS the stage in order to work, and couldn’t succeed just as well on a screen, isn’t getting produced in its stead. And yet these too screen-worthy plays are called “theatrical” by theater makers.

There’s no reason for me to go on further since Stryk has already hit these nails on their heads so well. Really, I’d just like to express my relief and my thanks, so: Whew! And thank you!

Directors, designers and actors usually band together to form companies... then a dank office gets piled up with scripts, for that company to read and judge.

If the one shot a playwright has to get produced comes from a text that has to sell itself through reading alone, you betcha a playwright will be protective of it, and of his or her right to maintain a vision of the play that's consistent and dependable enough to market to as many other theatre companies as it takes, to get it sold. Isn't that the kvetching at the heart of the new play development dilemma -- that a production team develops a play beyond recognition, to highlight their own contributions?

Seems to me directors, as freelancers and company heads, get first and greatest access to production resources, and yet they're, in America, "typically still thought of not as an artist but a midwife or intruder — or both"? There's a difference between being a collaborative artist and an insensitive one taking advantage of a power imbalance, and until directors and designers see playwrights as more than the people they work with when they get tired of Shakespeare, the tension's not going to end soon....

Thanks for this article. I am a writer/performer/director who really hates the traditional model of American theater although I am still inspired by it (go figure). My work with Felonious (company I co-founded) and subsequent work with Campo Santo in SF continually blurs the line between all the creative job descriptions. At the beginning of the day there is a director, a writer, a group of actors, designers, etc but we approach the work in a radically collaborative manner that allows everyone in the room a voice. Our best writing discoveries often come from designers because their voice is vital to the visual composition of the whole show. We have team members lead a certain area (i.e. lead writer, lead musical director ...) but the sum total of the artists in room make a huge difference to the execution and realization of any given show. In our work no one sits in a room, comes up with something and turns it in to be produced. The text, movement, music is just a road map that we all lean into and make clearer, deeper, stronger through the rigors of collaboration. Works for us ...

I thought this was a wonderfully provocative article. I do think some of the appeal of the "highly theatrical stage directions" actually ties into the "developed to death" phenomenon in that those stage directions are so delicious to read, both by literary managers and in a staged reading. When we expect all of our plays to read like novels, we lose some very good plays that don't play by those rules.

Thank you for your compelling article. I do think you highlight a potential problem: in the name of moving away from "developed to death" syndrome as described by Steven Dietz, Richard Nelson, Todd London, and many others, playwrights are embracing theatricality to the point of turning their back on the world of realism. However, I am not sure if the power struggle you define directly favors (or gives too much power to) the playwright. After all, the playwright still does not have a closed shop union, and works in a world in which if one produces a play, the producing organization is doing the playwright a favor (I've encountered this, and I am sure that many other playwrights have had similar experiences).

What you do offer, and what I agree with, is the notion that theatricality is a product of collaboration. I also think that collaboration may vary vis-a-vis who has the most power: that is, sometimes the director will have more, sometimes the playwright, sometimes the producer. I think it is vital that all theatre practitioners recognize that there are times when the power (and responsibility) becomes yours, and there are times when it does not.

In terms of the way theatre affects audiences and culture in the U.S.: I don't know if there's a single function (playwright, actor, designer, or otherwise) who is to blame for our current deficit in audience attendance. I do think it has more to do with how the arts are treated in the U.S., and in order to make theatre "important" to larger audiences, it has to start at the top somewhere. I don't know what the answer is, but my suggestion (I've argued elsewhere) is that theatre is a local phenomenon, for an immediate audience. Rather than try to negotiate with (or compete with) national media (or the internet, etc.) theatre practitioners may benefit by creating works that speak to the immediate, local community. And if something in that work becomes viewed as "universal," and can find productions around the country, then all the better for the playwright, the production team, and the intended community.

In terms of the MFA: yes, we are taught that playscripts are codebooks for behavior (or blueprints) rather than dramatic literature. Playwrights are being trained to think theatrically (and I'm thinking of the works of Michael Wright and Jeffrey Sweet when I use this term), but I don't think that necessarily means moving away from realism (in my MFA program, we were still geared toward psychological realism, with an emphasis on behavior, rather than dialogue). Rather, it means playwrights should recognize the theatrical in any "ism" they choose to write.

Thank you again for giving your readers so much to consider!

All the very best,
John Patrick Bray

Lecturer, Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Georgia
Ph.D., Louisiana State University
MFA, The New School (Actors Studio Drama School)