Can I admit this? 29 days in, I’m finally ready.
I don’t know what to do with plays.
I make most of my living in making theater and I pretty much never deal with them. You’ll notice, if you comb through Swim Pony’s website or press kit that the word “play” never appears. It’s not an accident. It’s always “show” or “performance” or “piece” instead of play. Even “theater” makes me pretty nervous. It’s why I went with “Swim Pony Performing Arts” instead of “Swim Pony Theater Company.”
“Play” and “Theater” conjure up some very specific ideas in my mind. Red curtains. Plush seats. Proscenium stage. Fly system. 3,000 seat houses
Google image search the word “Theater.”
No really. Do it, I’ll wait.
No really. I need to prove this point.
See what I mean?
I know that’s a little reductive, but I think that’s probably what most people think when they think theater. I think it’s probably what most theater audiences think when they think theater. I almost never work in spaces like that. And the few times I have, I’ve spent all my time wishing I was back in a dirty warehouse or in a de-sanctioned chapel space or outside. These spaces feel so filled with another era’s idea of performance that I spend most of my time trying to get the play to undo everything the space does. So much of what I make is about teaching audiences that the performers are aware, that they aren’t separated by an imaginary wall, that this is about communing with each other and personally, I feel like this:
Just gets in the way.
Some may maintain that the concept of theater is bigger than the building that shares its name. Maybe, in theory. But I’d counter that until the specter of that building (and the many nastier, sadder, dirtier, worn out, step down versions of it) gets out of our minds Theater the art form will stay synonymous with Theater the space.
So back to the p-word.
What do you do in a theater? You do Plays with a capital P.
Plays are written by someone who is impervious. They must be, because we are not allowed to change anything they say. Plays can be pulled apart to study their dramatic arc and action. The best Plays’ plots are incredibly clean and wrap up neatly at the end. Big things are revealed in Plays. Plays are about words. They have monologues and juicy scenes where the best actors get to show off their emotions. Plays suggest blocking with stage directions. Plays take four weeks to rehearse. Brilliant Plays deserve standing ovations. Plays are done in Theaters that look like the one above.
These are my stereotypes about “Plays.” I call them “Play Plays.” Aka – stuff that is exactly what you think of when you think of a play in a theater.
My problem with the traditional system (playwright writes a play, company produces it, director directs it, designers design for it and actors act it) is that at every level it’s so hard to connect the parts of the chain. When your job is super clearly defined, why think about anything else? When the system is too well defined, it gets hard to innovate. If there’s a single way to do things, people whose talents lay outside that box tend to stop participating. Some artists get around this and force their niche into Plays and Theaters. But many end up feeling alienated from the majority. I know I have.
There are lots of super talented people who do Play Plays in Theaters. Their talents can translate into the larger messier definition of the word. But some of my worst collaborations have been a result of working with people when their idea of theater and mine are different. I know I break a lot of the rules that matter a lot in the Play Play system. I don’t break them to be a jerk. I do it because I think there are lots of things about a “Play” that prize only a few aspects of live performance. I often want to explore the rest. Sometimes to give the other elements the floor you have to change the way you do things. And if a creator is so entrenched in one way of doing things, it gets exhausting to explain or apologize why you want to do things differently over and over and over.
I talked early on in this space that there are things theater is awesome at. I believe that many, dare I say most, scripted shows minimize opportunity for a lot of these things to happen and hold onto a lot of the things that I think keep theater shackled to versions of itself that I want to shed:
That actors perform the script exactly the same every time.
That ideas should developed in the head of the playwright for most of its conception and development with other elements only added on top of this foundation.
That once we hit opening night, the time when the director and actors could in theory learn THE MOST from how the thing works with people, the play has to stop getting changed.
That words are the predominant driving force (and they kind of have to be if they are the thing that you get handed at the start of the process) and sound, movement, visual landscape, are all lower places at the table.
That words on the page are the best way to begin.
That italics between lines are enough to describe what else should be there.
That you can create a set, sound and light design for a finished script.
That actors should have to make sense of and say every word that’s written.
Sure, there are playwrights who think about those things. But they have to think about words more. That’s why they’re playwrights. They think about words more. And while there are some pieces where that makes sense, I think most people don’t realize that’s a choice, that a play could equally start from an impulse of sound or physical space or movement. When was the last time a sound designer’s name was as high up on the playbill as the playwright? We’ve enshrined one way to build a theatrical experience, and we’ve taught our audiences that way is THE way that things are done. And that “Play” way has lead us to one dominant way of thinking about “Theater,” a way that doesn’t often serve other elements taking the lead.
I’ve worked hard to develop a theatrical eye. But that eye happens not to be well served by being handed a script. I need to be able to question the playwright, just like I question all the other elements, and encourage others to question me. I need to see the thing formed in process. I like the option to have a piece start from music, or an actress I love. I don’t think I’ve directed a fully staged “Play” since college.
As I near the end of this 30-day experiment, I wonder if I’m not sick of theater, just “Theater” and that I do like making plays, just not “Play plays.”
The former, to me, feel like something I can add to. The latter I think will have to change if it wants to survive.