The State of the Theatre | Speech

Keynote Address

The O’Neill Playwrights Conference

You asked me to talk about the state of the theatre today.  You said I didn’t have to prepare a speech.  But I started making notes and it turned into a rant.  Well, you know, ask a writer and what do you get.  Writing.  

The state of the theatre depends very much on who you ask.  You’ve asked me, and I’ll tell you what it looks like from where I stand, but not til the end. First I want to tell you where it is from the standpoint of the young playwrights.  Then what the theatre seems to be like from the world of the producers, or the ones I know anyway, and then I’ll touch on the theatre as viewed by the critics, and then if there’s time, I’ll tell you how things look to us old timers.  

But first, I would like to talk about the world where the theatre exists now.  It is a world as different from O’Neill’s world, as O’Neill’s was from Shakespeare’s.  In fact, in terms of the theatre, I suspect that O’Neill’s world has more in common with Shakespeare’s era than with our own.  For one thing..   

Our world is a nothing but drama.  There is drama EVERYWHERE.  The techniques and tasks that used to be ours alone – for creating heroes, for destroying them, for depicting life in foreign lands, for characterizing the past, for illuminating the empty lives of men and women and children, for protesting the shallowness of institutions, for conveyingthe terror of death, and the survival of hope despite everything that would argue against it – these essential dramas are now the province of not only television and film, but documentaries, miniseries, billboards, commercials, songs, award shows, confessional shows, self-help shows, talk shows, the evening news, the all day-all night news, the little crawl running along underneath the all day news, and even our milk cartons, for God’s sake.  There is simply no escaping drama anymore.  We use it to sell things.  Beer, cigarettes, politics.

Thank God nobody is reading anymore, or I’d have to mention the saturation level that has also been reached – storywise – in magazines and newspapers, not to mention the omnipresent internet.  No wonder the theatre is at sea.  

We are drowning in drama. The tough task today is figuring out how to avoid a story not how to find one.  

This is not just the introduction to my talk.  This is really what I have to say. If the theatre is to survive or thrive or I don’t know, go on, then it has to do something that these other forms cannot do.  AND something that the audience wants.  

The reason an increasing number of Broadway shows look like theme park attractions is because people like theme parks, and so far, the networks haven’t figured out how to put a ride in the middle of the evening news.  The reality shows are getting close, though.   

Maybe we should reconsider live combat onstage. Create a play where non actors get to try to survive the evening.  Or maybe, considering how many great shows there are in Las Vegas right now, maybe we should put gaming in the lobbies. I heard Mike Nichols say that the greatest entertainment in America was now playing at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.  What does this mean.   

Well for one thing, it means that whatever we do, we cannot assume that because there has always been theatre, there always will be.  The only thing that will always be there is what the audience wants – and if the current offerings are any example, the audience wants to see musicals made from movies they’ve already seen, musicals made from collections of songs they heard when they were kids, musicals making fun of musicals, plays by British authors, or anything with a movie star in it.   

But you say, what of all the revivals of plays.  Please.   We must not kid ourselves that people are going to see revivals of plays because of the plays.  People are going to see the stars that are cast in these plays.  It is the actors, not the writers who are the key to the contemporary theatre.  Actors are the gods of the dramatic world and they probably always were.  They are kind enough to say that the better the play, the better they look, but the sad truth is that if a new play doesn’t have a big star in it, it won’t get done in anything that approaches a commercial production. If a play doesn’t have a known actor in it, the audience assumes it wasn’t good enough to attract one, and doesn’t go.  

In this room, we probably all believe that it is writing that is the true greatness of the theatre.  But we must not forget that theatre is possible without writing at all.  You can get some Christians and some lions together in a big space and nobody has to say a word. You can forget the lions and have some guys in chariots try to kill each other and call that theatre.  And you can make money doing that too.  

But we are here today because we believe in a theatre where writers matter, where great directors and great actors all contribute to the health of a vibrant art form that records how it felt to be alive in our time.  But that is not the theatre we have today.  And the sooner we all admit what the theatre is up against, and start trying to figure out we should be doing in our little corner of that theatre, the better.  

I’d like to look at a couple of the corners of the theatrical world for some ideas about how we might survive.

First, lest you think that all the news is bad, let me say that there are some extraordinary young writers coming up.  Christopher Durang and I take four of them a year at Juilliard.  Paula Vogel takes ten a year a Brown, Donald Margulies takes some at Yale and so on.   

And theatres all over the country have development programs.  But here the good news ends.  Well-meaning though they are, the theatres are developing way more plays than they can ever produce.   I guess this is coming from a desire to develop plays, or express interest in playwrights, or get grants for expressing interest in playwrights, but it lacks any real understanding of what it might feel like to be one of these playwrights, endlessly developed and never done.  Always a bridesmaid springs to mind, but there are many other clichés to describe this painful situation.  Many young playwrights fear that they will, like one very well known young writer, win numerous awards and grants and be perceived as an important young playwright, without ever having had an actual production of an actual play.   

The concrete danger of this endless round of development is that the playwrights endure note sessions and make changes to their plays in an attempt to get the theatres to do them.  This ruins the plays of course, and ruins the theatre’s relationship with the playwright.  A lot of this note-making is done by dramaturgs and literary assistants, not artistic directors.  By people who have never written plays and never will.  A playwright is an artist sitting on the dock drawing what he sees out in the water – all the while constantly getting notes from people in their houses, in town – people who do not know or see this thing he sees out in the water –people who are only hoping he is drawing something they can imagine, something they would like to draw had they the brushes and the easel and the seat on the dock.  

Young playwrights face two other dangers.  One, they start writing too soon, before they’ve lived, before they’ve gone to sea, or fought with anybody for anything, or loved anything, really, or lost anything much.  They start writing so soon because they know that young writers have the best chance of breaking in, of getting attention, but those of us who care about them, need to figure out some way to encourage them to quit for a while, to travel, to work in the world like other people, to get lost, to get mad, to feel the thrill of victory the agony of defeat in person, not just watch it on TV.  We need to commission them not to write, but to live.  If I had a foundation, I would only give travel grants.  

The second danger, is that since young writers have grown up in a world of stories as told by television, they tend to write stories as told by television.  Now, given the likelihood that they will be working in television to support themselves sooner or later, this is not entirely bad news.  But it does mean that they’re not writing the kind of thing that sets theatre APART from television.  Those of us who remember it,  must tell them the difference.  We must not produce plays that should be movies or movies of the week.  We must cede that territory – both comedically and dramatically.  I’d rather see Penn and Teller pulling rabbits out of their ears than another sitcom masquerading as a play.  Those of us who teach must encourage young writers to look for the stories, the events, that must be seen to be believed, no not seen, that must be witnessed as a member of a live audience.  That’s what a play is, and we have to do whatever we can to stop putting television on the stage.  

Let me stop and say that I like television.  I earn about half my income every year from television and film.  I just sold a series to television based on an old novel of mine.  I watch The West Wing, and ER and Friends and The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and Everwood and The Daily Show and Meet the Press.  My expectation, when I come to the theatre, is not that it be better than TV, but that it be different.  Theatre, if it has a prayer of surviving, must be more itself.  Radically itself.  Wildly and boldly itself.  It must be as different from TV as radio is from Carnegie Hall.  It must be alive, it must be dangerous.  It must change us, not reassure us that we’re not any worse than anybody else.  It must tell stories that are untellable anywhere else.  Or it will die.  Because all the other forms – TV and movies and theme parks and direct to DVDs and streaming video, they’ve got all the money and all the special effects and all the actors. And that’s where the audience is going to go, except on their anniversaries, and if you believe them, on first dates derived from personal ads.  I don’t want to write for the Anniversary Theatre.  

The next group to consider, in terms of where the theatre is today, is the producers – both commercial producers and the non-profit folks.  Truthfully, these people are the real crazies of our age.  There’s almost no money to be made in the theatre, at least if we believe what they tell us. But there is no theatre without them.  They should be our Champions, the knights of the Theatrical Round Table.  What the producers should stop doing is dreaming up plays or inventing musicals.  This is what Writers should do.  What producers should be doing is what ONLY they can do – and that is mounting their white horses and sallying forth to Hollywood in search of what we must have to draw the audience – movie stars.  Either that, or they could pick out a couple of actors who they believe have the potential to become theatre stars, then engage good writers to write for them. 

We have allowed whole generations of actors to migrate to the west coast, and the writers have followed them.  This was nuts.  All we had to do was ask the writers to write pieces of theatre, musicals and plays, for the actors.  Then everybody could’ve stayed here.

Producers should divide up the playwrights, each one pick one, and believe in them.  I have been saying for what feels like a hundred years, that if we really wanted wonderful writing in America, all we had to do was let each regional theatre choose a playwright and be their champion.  Do a play a year.  Ask for a play a year.  Playwrights will write for your companies, for your audiences, for your children.  Just let us know you’re expecting the work and we’ll do it. Don’t all of you compete for the same two writers, though.  I mean, unless all you want in America is two writers.

One last thing.  I know it looks like the British imports are good business, but they’re not.  All they do is further disillusion the American writers, and confirm the anti-American bias of the American audience of a certain age. Young American audiences care what young American writers think. Could Producers just choose American writers for a while and see what happens?

And lastly, I’d like to protest the state of the theatre as created by the critics.  Sometimes I feel sorry for them.  Imagine their life, forced to endure night after night of something they almost never understand and clearly don’t like.  It must be real agony.  I don’t know why they do it.  What else I don’t know is why the newspapers and the television stations continue to hire people who don’t know what they’re talking about.  Who’ve never written a play, who honest to God can’t tell who did what in a production, who regularly blame the writer for everything, including the acting and the sound design, and give whatever credit there is to the director, in the one sentence allotted to the director in a normal review. 

Imagine if NBC hired someone who had NEVER PLAYED tennis to cover the US open.  But that wouldn’t happen.  Networks hire football players to cover football, they hire people who’ve driven automobiles to write about them, they hire people who eat to write about food.  WHY IN GOD’S NAME do we keep having people who haven’t written plays, acted in them, produced them or directed them to write the only thing about the theatre most people will ever experience, a review.

Who do I want to see talk about tennis?  John McEnroe, of course.  Who do I want to see talk about ice skating – Dorothy Hamill.  Whose opinion do I care about in the world of music – Beverly Sills, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis.  People who know how it’s done.

Now you can object saying that the critic is a representative of the audience, who also haven’t written plays.  Well then, fine.  If the critics don’t know anything, and that’s their main qualification for the job, let’s hire random members of the audience to write the reviews, instead of the same weary, irritated, critics we have today.

The great ages of criticism, even the great critics, have always coincided with the great ages of playwriting in America.  Critics like Walter Kerr have championed playwrights like David Mamet and those playwrights have survived.  But we don’t have critics today, we have consumer journalists who write as if a bad play could actually do some damage. Like the audience has to be warned away, like from a batch of bad tires.  Critics today write as if there were lots of good playwrights out there, so why not drive away as many as possible.

Think of the writers the critics have driven away in the last twenty years – and look where they are.  And we wonder why the audience is sitting at home watching television?  They’re watching the people who’ve been driven away from Broadway by a bunch of bad spirited know nothings who work for the papers.

What our papers have never done in theatre, though they do it for books, is try to get knowledgeable people to write about the theatre for the mass audience.  I think it would be a revelation if people who knew things about plays actually started writing and talking about them.  Maybe the audience would learn more than whether or not so and so thought they should go see it.  If that’s all the critics are going to say, they might as well just post the box scores.  Post – Yes.  Times – No.  Daily News – Maybe.  Like the weather.  Rain.  Sun.  Clouds.  Simple.  

We cannot continue to drive people from the theatre with irresponsible criticism.  I would think that given the advertising revenue these publications derive from the theatre, they would have some interest in educating the audience and helping to keep the doors open.  Snide superficial criticism is a crime.  And its day is over.  Do we have any evidence that harsh ill-informed criticism actually makes people writer better next time?  It only makes it harder for the audience to make up its own mind.  It only makes people feel stupid who thought they enjoyed themselves.    

Let’s find a way to let the audience come to the theatre if they want to.  Let’s find a way not to drive our great young writers into the welcoming arms of television, film and internet magazines.  Let’s find a way to lure the great actors that Hollywood doesn’t want any more back to the theatre to stay.  Let’s find a way to stop blaming ticket prices or the Dramatists Guild or the audience for the condition of the theatre.  Let’s find a way to get the kind of theatre we want for ourselves and our children.   

Let’s have the nerve to risk never being invited back, in order to say some things that are really troubling us.  Let’s not sit around and hope it will all get better someday, when we’re done demolishing Iraq maybe.  Let’s work together.  Let’s talk.