Saturday, June 19, 2004

Death by workshop, a common phenomenon in the theater, is covered in today's NYT:

You may have never heard of the play "The Bread of Winter," by Victor Lodato, but apparently it's pretty good. After all, it's collected a haul of honors: it has been accepted by the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., and given a staged reading at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco. It won its author a residency at a villa in the south of France. In 1998, it won a prestigious Princess Grace Award and then, in 2002, Mr. Lodato won a Guggenheim fellowship, an even bigger deal, for "demonstrating exceptional creative ability in the arts" with his play.

The one thing that has eluded Mr. Lodato's award-winning, globe-trotting play about a boy and his housekeeper is exactly what he, and every other playwright, desires most: an actual production, with real sets, real costumes and a real paying audience.

I've spent some time on the development bandwagon, and in fact a lot of my work happens there right now--WASTING YOUR BREATH is being done on Tuesday under that aegis, and Manhattan Theatre Club has had THE UGLY AMERICAN in development for the last year, with a reading in the spring which has led to a prestigious development opportunity at the Cape Cod Theatre Project later this summer. So I know whereof I speak.

I'm grateful that my chosen form saves me from a lot of the dangers of the workshop universe. I agree--most standard plays are getting workshopped to death. But for my shows, it's been nothing but good news, because the ways in which my work doesn't follow the standard theatrical idiom lend themselves to workshopping.

Point One: Workshops are bad because you get fresh performers each reading who do not have enough chance to fully inhabit the characters, leading to rewrites that pull the play off its original track.

Response: I am the only person who performs my work, so while a show may not be completely finished or as vibrant as I'd like it to be in workshop it's never the case that new actors throw the work off.

Point Two: Rewrites that happen as a consequence of endless workshopping blur the original, fiery impulse of the playwright and often blandify the play into gruel over time.

Response: I don't work from a written script, and this unusual way of working insulates me from excessive revision, since one of the points of oral traditions is the way they warp and twist over time, reacting to circumstance.

Point Three: Without a full set, costume, lights and sound plays don't get full expression on the stage, and the imagination of the playwright isn't getting adequate exercise.

Response: I practice a form of minimalist storytelling, and as such I rarely need more than a table, a chair and a glass of water. I also wear exactly the same thing every time I perform, and while both lights and sound can help shape and give wonderful definition to my monologues, ultimately the heavy lifting is in the speaking, and I have everything I need in hand for that already.

In fact, if there's a problem with this system for me it's that when I do a "workshop", for me it's really a full production--I need to run the show up to the same level of energy, if not higher to account for the lack of theatrical trappings, and it just happens that "workshops" are synonymous with "performances at which I am paid less than when we do full productions." Story is story.

What interests me, and rankles, I have to admit, is how the article points the finger of inquiry at the system and never at the playwrights themselves. I mean, take Mr. Lodato--he can win a Guggenheim fellowship for a play that hasn't been produced? WTF? I'm not currently up for a Guggenheim, but let me tell you--if I had the good fortune to not only be up for one, but to WIN, and I didn't have to actually execute the art on which the award was granted--well, that sounds like a fucking holiday, frankly.

This doesn't even touch his Princess Grace award, or his villa in France--where does this entitlement come from? From the arts system. It rewards people for NOT doing their plays, because there is precious little reward for actually putting a show up--once you do that the mystique is over, and it's all mediocre reviews and half-empty seats for most shows in American theater. Keep it in development and collect your villas in France is the watchword of the day.

Because we should make no mistake: Mr. Lodato could have his play produced NOW. He is an adult, a working artist--he should be able to find a director who would work with him for free, as there are thousands of those, and of those thousands even hundreds with some talent. He could certainly find actors who will work for nothing, and of the masses who would beg to be in the show some percentage will actually not on and so forth.

As for money, the great bugaboo--just put the damn play on in a meatpacking warehouse, an abandoned garage or an old shoe factory, to name three places where I've found myself performing over the years. Getting your play "produced" is not automatically synonymous with doing it at Playwright's Horizons or some such bullshit unless you're visionless--the beauty, the often-forgotten beauty of theater is that it is LIVE, and being such it is not bound to any particular space. If you want it up, get it the fuck up. Get your hands dirty and start lifting.

But Mr. Lodato doesn't actually want this. He wants a production with some prestige and élan, with an opening night party and a review in Variety and all the others bells and whistles that go with the theatrical idiom, because that's what gets Guggenheims and that's what gets stuff farmed out on the LORT circuit. Who can blame him? I'm working that world now too, and I'm much more inclined to enjoy receiving money for my troubles and getting to work with actual heat, actual publicists and an actual dressing room.

But if you choose to play the game, know the rules...and don't go crying that your play isn't getting any productions as you write the next one in a villa in France. You could have gotten off your ass, put your hands in the muck and done the work it takes--you choose not to. That's your choice, but don't cry so earnestly that your artistic lifeforce is being stamped out. You always have choices if you have the guts to make them.

I say all this with a foreknowledge of irony--I suspect in the upcoming years I, too, will be on the development wagon from time to time, and I can only hope that the time I spend there will be as rewarded as Mr. Lodato's time has been. But I will tell you this: I will not forget the time I spent performing in unheated garages, and I will not forget to return to that place, again and again, to keep authentic and honest the simple act of communicating with an real, breathing audience outside the walls of traditional theater.

(That is, if there are unheated garages near my villa in France.)