Praxis: Staging the Now
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
By Lily Janiak
All right, you informed, socially conscious playwright, you: let's say you're moved to write a play about Ferguson. Or the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Or Robin Williams's death. Or anything else that's happening right this second. That's your job—you're not just a storyteller; you're an observer, a seer, and the world you create through your keen perception and vivid powers of expression gives us the language to think about, to process and to make a shred of sense out of the nonsense that daily unfolds around us.
Director Erin Merritt, producer of this year's Bay Area Playwrights Festival.
But then you do a quick calculation. You give yourself six months to complete a draft—okay, a year, to make it a good draft that you can actually show to other people. Then you start submitting to festivals and theatres. To hit all parties who might be interested, with their various submission windows and deadlines, you allocate a year. And then—and this is if you're really, really lucky—you might get a positive response…after still another year, given the time it takes theatres to process submissions.
Your timeline is now three years. And this is if everything goes fabulously. Suddenly, your timely play might not be so timely. Will theatre companies and their audiences still want to talk about the July 2014 bombings of Gaza in July 2017? Or, as Erin Merritt, freelance director and producer of this year's Bay Area Playwrights Festival, puts it, "How, as a playwright or an artistic director, do you know years in advance what will be timely for your audience?"
These questions inspired Merritt to host a roundtable discussion called "Staging the Now" as part of the festival, a Playwrights Foundation event in its 37th year. Theatre people such as Prince Gomolvilas, TD Mitchell, Amy Mueller, Elizabeth Hersh, Elizabeth Spreen, Don Nguyen, Phillip Howze, Chas Belov and other directors, playwrights, audience members and producers gathered to explore these and other issues associated with doing timely work.
For writers, how do you write about an event or a phenomenon that's still happening? How do you know when to stop researching and conclude your writing process? You can't both "break a story," as it were, and wait for it to wrap so you can reflect on it and then tell it with greater perspective and context.
For producers, how do you be timely when, because of foundation timelines, you need one to two years to get funding for a show? Do we need more models like the Humana Festival, which has a shorter timeline between submission and production? Or is that timeline still too long for some projects? How might we create other non-season-based models to better serve plays that "stage the now"?
Elizabeth Hersh, playwright, Shelter in Place
Merritt started thinking about these issues in great depth after reading many of this year's contributions to BAPF. Elizabeth Hersh's play, Shelter in Place, about a cyber-attack that exposes all Americans' private online activity, was for Merritt a particularly interesting example of a timely play. Though Hersh has been writing Shelter in Place for years, Merritt felt it was much more relevant in the wake of the Heartbleed virus attack earlier this year. Hersh, of course, isn't a psychic; she began writing it in the era of Wikileaks. And at Staging the Now, she even mentioned that she thought that the play would have to get produced very quickly; she worried that, as that event became old news, societal anxiety about online privacy would dissipate. It's easy in retrospect to see that she was wrong, she says, but at the time, it was genuinely hard to predict how the issue would evolve.
This roundtable was part of a bigger conversation, raising more questions than answers. Many of the participants made provocative observations about what theatres, over time, look for when they "stage the now." Here is a selection of just a few of the powerful statements from the discussion's participants:
• "We're not trying to program what audiences think they want to see—They think they want Fool for Love again. What we want to do is find out what Fool for Love is providing for you, and provide it in a new way."
—Erin Merritt, director and BAPF producer, on her work at BAPF and beyond
• "That's a risk you take. This play might not be worth producing in five years. [Plays are] a fun way to explore issues—just a slow way."
Elizabeth Hersh, playwright, on writing about contemporary issues
• "Your play isn't about a breach; it's about a family."
—Amy Mueller, Playwrights Foundation artistic director, on why Hersh's play doesn't feel bound by its timeliness.
• "I can't write from the place of, 'Will this matter in x number of years?'"
—TD Mitchell, playwright, on her process
• "Post-9/11, our political plays were by non-American writers, a lot of UK writers. There was a 'you're [either] with us or you're against us' fear. Theatres said, 'We're concerned about our donors.'"
• "I completely agree. I'm not going to write something that you feel good about. Many plays, one side or the other is going to feel good. What about a play that doesn't make anybody feel good?"
—Elizabeth Spreen, playwright
• "A lot of theatres are producing comedies and calling them political. This bothers me; it says a lot about what audiences can take."
—Phillip Howze, playwright
• "That's where we are right now. Comedy makes sense of the world in a different way than drama does. We're not certain enough to make dramas."
What do you think, noble reader? When a momentous event happens, do writers have an obligation to create a powerful artistic response quickly, or to wait until the dust settles and all the facts are in? What can theatre makers do about the multi-year lag between script completion and production? Comments welcome below!