Bucking the trend?

An article caught my attention this week, appearing in The Independent [UK] on April 13, 2009, written by playwright J.T. Rogers, a Brooklyn-based writer of exceptional talent, insight, humor and craft (and also a great person with whom I’m happy to have built a friendship). But he wrote something that gave me pause for thought (and, now, fodder for the blogosphere). Excerpts below, or the full article is available here.

Back home in New York City, when a colleague asks me what I’m working on, I tell them I’m contributing to a 12-play cycle of works set against seminal events in Afghan history. I tell them the cycle will be performed by a cast of 20 and run in rep over three nights, augmented by a film festival and lecture series. And every single one of them asks some variation of “Why can’t we do something like that here?” They ask because they know as well as I that presenting work like this in New York is a pipe dream. …

Alone in the Tricycle’s lobby, I picked up the company’s brochure for our project. I flipped it open and read this: The aim of this festival is to explore Afghan culture and history. The text went on to state that since both the US and UK seem poised to be intimately involved with this country in the coming decade, the Tricycle hoped that, through debate and discussion lessons from the past can be used to better inform action for the future.

Never in a million years would you read something like that in a New York theatre advertisement. Such text would be the kiss of death for ticket sales because it would immediately arouse suspicion, even hostility, in most theatergoers. Why? Because where I live theatre is for entertainment only. The idea that you would go to a show to both be entertained and learn something is anathema. …

Certainly, I can’t put words like “debate and discussion” and “lessons from the past” in a New York theatre program.

A couple months ago while I was in New York I grabbed dinner with J.T. before seeing his play White People, and we talked about this Afghan project, which is now soon to open at London’s Tricycle Theatre. I, too, was astonished by the thought of it and envious once again of the incredible Tricycle Theatre, which seems to continually tackle large, timely and important pieces of work, both on stage, on screen and through discussion. (It was they who developed and originated Guantanamo: Honor Bound To Defend Freedom, which TimeLine produced a few years ago). But my amazement wasn’t necessarily about the audacity of them programming discussion-inducing, historical material (obviously, considering TimeLine’s mission) but more at the financial and logistical heft that is needed to pull off a project on such a scale.

So when I started reading J.T.’s piece in The Independent I figured that his take was more along the lines of the financial support needed for bold, large-scale projects. And I admit that he caught me off-guard with his rather depressing assessment of what gets people to the theatre (at least, in New York).

I quickly emailed him to let him know that at least here in the tumbleweeds of the Midwest there were fools like me who were so bold as to use some of his catch phrases. We hadn’t gotten the memo from New York yet!!! Crap!!!

Indeed, recently in TimeLine’s 2009-10 season press release I was quoted as saying, “We aim for TimeLine to be a place for people to come together, feel a sense of community and engage in a dialogue about our place in history. With the work on our stage we hope audiences will lose themselves in a story from the past to perhaps better understand where we are today and where we might go tomorrow.”

Yikes!! We’re screwed.

Or, how ‘bout this doozie from my Artistic Director letter in the program for The History Boys: “Bennett’s play gets to the heart of TimeLine’s mission of exploring history. While none of his characters are based on actual figures and the plot points aren’t necessarily moments of historical import, his play asks us to consider our role in history — what we have to gain by examining the past and how we personally and collectively connect to it. Is it merely to collect facts and be able to speak with an air of authority at opportune times — to be a part of the intellectual elite? Or is there a more profound and vital necessity for us to understand the past in order to better cope with the present? These are the questions upon which TimeLine was founded and the ones we grapple with every time we select a play and present it to you.”

Holey Moley!!! I’ll never be a successful producer in New York!! Please, Chicago, keep me forever!

Of course, I jest.

I’m just proud to be in a community that gives TimeLine the support to put forth work that is provocative, challenging, discussion-inducing, and yes, entertaining too. And I’m equally proud to continually see that there is hunger from audiences to attend such theatre – people who aren’t scared away by phrases like “debate and discussion” and “lessons from the past.”

Perhaps J.T.’s bigger distinction may stem from the differences between the world of commercial producing vs. not-for-profit producers – a distinction that exists in any market but one that is probably felt the most in New York.

In fact, J.T. has already shot some holes in his own theory because his astonishing play The Overwhelming about the genocide in Rwanda had an incredibly successful run in New York at the Roundabout Theatre. Yes, it’s a not-for-profit but one that is planted amid the heart of Broadway and commercial theatre. I can’t speak for how that play was marketed but I gotta believe it wasn’t billed as an entertaining romp. On stage the material was bold, haunting and conversation-starting. And people showed up in droves, for months. (You can see The Overwhelming in a local production that just started performances at Next Theatre, directed by Kimberly Senior who directed Dolly West’s Kitchen for us last season.)

So, ultimately, I understand his frustration and offer some consolation that it ain’t just the Brits who are loony enough to market historically inspired material. God willing, we’re not all totally nuts, especially since we’re about to open The History Boys, a play which asks a lot of its audience, but one that seemed to find its audience in New York and elsewhere without too much trouble.

Moral of the story: Despite many signs pointing to the contrary (i.e. some mindless television programs or movies, video games, and, yes, some fare that is put on stage), a vast number of people really do want to go to theatre where they don’t have to check their brains at the door. Theatre where they’re challenged. Where they learn things they didn’t know. Where they rethink what they thought they did know. And where they leave the theatre talking about or debating what they just saw.

It’s playwrights like J.T. who remind me of that great moral again and again, and I’m thankful that there are bright, young writers like him who write from their heart and head.

I’m curious to hash this all out with him some more, and I’m curious what your thoughts are as well.


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