The “Not Lost” series: five prominent Bay Area theatre makers reply to American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff’s recent essay, “The Loss of the Old,” on classical work versus new plays and playwrights. Where should American theatres invest their artistic focus and resources - and why? Today's respondent: Cutting Ball Theater artistic director Rob Melrose.
Under the Influence
by Rob Melrose
My heart leapt when I read Carey Perloff’s article “The Loss of the Old” on the Huffington Post website. In it, Carey laments the loss of funding for classic work and makes an excellent case for the importance of classics for a healthy theatre. I don’t want to take away any funding or opportunities for new playwrights. I love playwrights and new work. Todd London’s excellent book, “Outrageous Fortune,” shows that we still have a long way to go for helping our nation’s playwrights find artistic homes and appropriate compensation for their work. I am heartened by the investments made by funders that take a particular interest in new plays including the Mellon, Zellerbach and Kenneth Rainin Foundations.
At the same time, I think playwrights and all theatre artists would benefit greatly if some new funders came forward to fund classical work. At Cutting Ball, the classics are a large part of our mission and an important part of what goes into making new plays. Few people realize that all of Shakespeare’s plays are actually responses to works that came before him. I just finished directing “Troilus and Cressida” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in association with The Public Theater and “Julius Caesar” at The Guthrie in a co-production with The Acting Company. “Troilus and Cressida” is Shakespeare’s reworking of texts by Chaucer and Homer and “Julius Caesar” is his version of the Brutus and Caesar chapters of Plutarch’s “Greek and Roman Lives.” All great writers have been profoundly influenced by a host of great writers that came before them. The Charles McNulty article Carey references (click here) does an excellent job of tracing Beckett’s and Pinter’s many literary influences.
This year’s RISK IS THIS…The Cutting Ball New Experimental Plays Festival features all plays that are either responses to or translations of classical works. Christopher Chen’s “Aulis: an Act of Nihilism in One Long Act” is Chen’s response to Euripides’ “Iphigenia at Aulis,” Anthony Clarvoe’s “GIZMO” is a reworking of Capek’s play proto-science fiction play “R.U.R.,” and Paul Walsh has done new translations of all five of Strindberg’s rarely performed Chamber Plays. For me, it is when innovative contemporary writers grapple with revolutionary writers from the past that sparks really start to fly.
Here is our dirty little secret: here in the US, Cutting Ball is an experimental theatre. If we were in France or Poland or Germany, we would just be a theatre. In those countries it is just expected that theatres will be constantly experimenting with form, constantly proposing new ideas about what theatre might be, constantly finding new ways of telling ancient stories. That’s just what theatres do there. The best way to find new forms is to explore the work of playwrights who were revolutionary in their own day.
Cutting Ball’s audiences and artists have been prepared for new innovative playwrights by experiencing the work of writers who influenced them. We produced a Gertrude Stein play as a way of preparing for the work of Suzan-Lori Parks. We did Beckett plays as a way of preparing for Will Eno. Having an audience that was familiar with Suzan-Lori Parks’ work prepared them for Marcus Gardley’s plays. Andrew Saito’s “Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night” was a hit of last year’s RISK IS THIS festival. Andrew has seen lots of Cutting Ball productions and has been influenced by our productions of Ionesco, Beckett, Parks, and Eno. These influences are crucial for providing the work with a richness and an ability to find new forms.
Without these influences, you are stuck with the baseline of television. While there is a lot of great television being written today (“Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” etc.), in the theatre, television writing translates to 90-minute to two-hour “relationship dramas.” Relationship dramas are basically the same play written over and over again with new characters and new problems. But there is always a problem and it always is revealed and resolved in a similar way. I’ve seen this play a million times and I never need to see it again. Sometimes it is in the city, sometimes in the suburbs. Sometimes the characters are old, sometimes they are young. But it is the same damn play. They say audience find this format comforting, but I find it deadly boring.
That is why it is so refreshing to come across a playwright like Beckett or Pinter or Suzan-Lori Parks, who is extremely well read, who’s seen a lot of plays, who isn’t afraid to tackle new forms. That’s why we need to continue to explore the classics in our theatres. And as Carey points out, very few people are funding the classics. Next year, thanks to the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation, Cutting Ball is going to the birth of the theatrical avant garde with our production of all five of Strindberg’s Chamber Plays. This, however, is the rare exception. When we do a world premiere, we often receive funding by multiple foundations, whereas most of our productions of Shakespeare, Beckett, and Ionesco have no funding beyond the box office and unrestricted donations. This means that we do these plays at a great cost to the theatre simply because they are important, simply because they create the foundation that makes the innovative new work possible. Hopefully with more people like Carey speaking out, new foundations will hear the call and come forward to support classics in the theatre. They do indeed seem to be disappearing from our landscape.
Rob Melrose is the artistic director for Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco.
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.