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: director, playwright and performer Mark Jackson.
by Mark Jackson
The dichotomy of new and classic plays, and the argument over which is ultimately worthiest of our attention, recurs regularly in the American theater. Maybe it’s an extension of our eternal inner struggle between our pioneer spirit and love/hate-obsession with the mother countries.
I don’t see that we’re currently obsessing so exclusively on new plays, or that we’ve abandoned the classical repertory. That we have a plethora of new play programs is partly because new plays need more attention up front than well-known classics. The effectiveness of a given new play program could be debated, certainly. But as Harold Clurman once noted, the theater needs a lot of new—even bad—plays to create the fertile manure from which rare flowers rise to become important, lasting classics. Still, even a quick scan of the production listings in “American Theatre” magazine reveals that classics of many kinds are in production everywhere, often in greater numbers than new plays.
I’m 100% on board with the conviction that a thorough study of the classics is vital for contemporary playwrights. Those who sidestep this necessity reveal their having done so in their short-cutting work, with its narrow scope and reliance on pop culture references over genuine humor or substantive ideas. Writers who know well what came before them are indeed more likely to leap off that foundation with a purposeful recklessness. Same goes for directors, actors, and designers. So, yes, let’s all collide the old with the new!
Straight up: it’s lazy directing, acting, and design that have given classics the reputation of being boring, irrelevant, impenetrable, and obsolete. American productions are generally too reverent (reverence being itself a form of artistic disrespect) and certainly too habitual to reveal any of the searing passion or insight that season brochures and program notes insist are there. Audiences are lied to constantly in this regard—young people especially. Why should they come?
Young people turned up in herds for an “Oresteia” I once saw at Berlin’s venerable Deutsches Theater. The actors there are considered among Germany’s best. The set was made of raw plywood drenched in buckets of blood. Clytemnestra smoked cigarettes and drank canned beer. The Greek chorus stood behind us in the balcony section, chanting their choral passages with the classical precision of a symphony orchestra. A teenager to my right yelled “Bravo!” repeatedly when it was over. Fat chance of seeing either that production or that teenager at your local American LORT theater. (And don’t anybody start barking about European subsidy. This production could easily have been afforded in America. We only lack the courage.)
The best access schoolchildren can be given to those vital substantive and formal issues of history, justice, and the human experience that classic playwrights deal with is through critically creative productions that yank their chains and blow their minds, not obedient productions where everything is as it should be. Kids don’t pretend to buy in to that crap. They’re more honest than their parents in that regard.
It’s exciting that ACT is making a new live venue out of the old Strand movie house. Hopefully they won’t scrub that former porn theater down too much, but will allow its visceral history to impact the work done there with a bit of grit, blood, sweat, and—well, you know. Moliere could use some of that. Chekhov too. And who loved free flowing bodily fluids more than Euripides? I hope ACT really goes for it and kicks some classic ass.
Mark Jackson is a director, playwright and performer based in San Francisco. He is also the artistic director of Art Street Theatre.
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.