[NOTE: If you’re curious about the playwrights to whom I am referring, click on the next tab – “Playwrights” - and you’ll find an alphabetical list of them.]
WARNING: If you judge success in terms of box office income, believe that plays that make it in New York are the only good ones, or you believe “a good play will always find productions” stop reading. You have every right to your sadly conventional view of theater in America. May you be very happy together. Now, go away.
Are they gone? Good. Let’s proceed.
I want to talk a bit about achievement by writers with whom we worked from 1972 to 1984 when I left NPT in the incapable hands of a Board of Trustees that eventually let the place go bankrupt. I may ramble on and off topic here, so let me say from the very beginning that I am still in awe of many of the writers and composers with whom we worked. I sincerely hope that they appreciate their playwriting and composing achievements even if what they created went no further than Church Street. Appreciating your achievements may be difficult – I can relate to that, and the bottom line, after all “success” is a subjective thing and then … a fleeting thing.
That said, let me start with some generalizations. There are many good plays & musicals out there that get a production in a regional theatre, earn positive notices, attract large appreciative audiences … and then are never produced again. At the same time there are mediocre plays & musicals, even lousy ones that run on or Off-Broadway which get replicated across the regional theatre spectrum, are produced in colleges and high schools and earn their creators lots of cash. Okay, I’m not against that. Composers, lyricists and playwrights getting money is a good thing and if I don’t particularly like the material for which they are being paid so what? No sweat off my back. But it does make me wonder. Why do those “properties” of questionable quality (again, my subjective opinion) get an “after-commercial-market” life? What, you may wonder would be an example? … oh I don’t know, how about URINETOWN?
Being in the new play & musical-producing profession, I often asked experienced regional theatre leaders, “how does a play enter the American repertory? How does a play gain a spot on the theatrical menu and have a life of its own?” I refuse to accept the widely held belief that all a play need to be is good. Horseshit. Good is not enough. (Yeah, yeah, yeah – in 2008 a new play it’s got to be good and have a cast of 2 and a unit set and be first produced in NYC. No. Let amend that. For a new play to “have a life” after it’s initial production nowadays, it’s got to consist of okay material that requires one actor playing a whole lot of different parts on a unit set. Write one of those puppies and watch the royalties pour in. Oooooooooooooooh, have I become a cynic? Perhaps. But I’m a cynic who is still hopes that good things will happen for good writers if they just hang in there. From cynic to optimist in one paragraph. Oh well …
When puzzling the life expectancy of a new American play or musical I would often think of Marc Crowley’s great line from THE BOYS IN THE BAND when the birthday boy intones “who do you have to fuck to get a drink around here?” This point of view was wonderfully updated when in THE PRODUCERS Nathan Lane
cries out “Who do you have to fuck to get a break in this town?”
I think the thought has crossed every playwright’s and musical theatre lyricist’s and composer’s mind at some time in their career.
So … how does a new play or musical find a life?
Only once did an experienced theater professional answer that question succinctly … a guy named Bill Stewart. Bill was a successful managing director in the American regional theater movement and, for a much appreciated but short time, advisor to New Playwrights Theatre from The Foundation For Extension and Development of the American Professional Theatre (FEDAPT). We were at the O’Neill Playwrights’ Conference in Waterford Connecticut strolling towards Long Island Sound down that gently sloping lawn. NPT had experienced several successful productions that previous season and I was sharing my frustrations with Bill about how the plays and a musical were not “finding a life.” Bill was a wonderfully patient big brother when I whined about what was working and what was not working for our theater at the time. So anyway, Bill and I are strolling along and I asked him, “… just how does a play get into the American repertory and get a life of it’s own?” Bill paused for a moment, look right at me and simply said, “Luck.”
When all is said and done, he is correct.
There’s the “luck” of getting the right mid-wife for a new work. The producer and/or director are key. Would “Streetcar” have been such an achievement without Kazan pushing Williams for re-writes and cuts? Not to mention his and the great cast’s work which ensured that the audiences would be transported into that world and give a shit about Stella, Blanche and Stanley. Matching the correct production team members to a new work, or even a used one, is also a matter of luck most of the time. Peter Zeisler was speaking at a FEADAPT conference once and confessed that out of about 100 or so plays he had produced at the Guthrie, the productions in which he felt he had the right cast with the right play with the right director and the right designers were … five.
So does the fact that all the production elements and staffing weren’t perfect and your musical or play didn’t receive as many productions as Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN or even Tim Kelly’s CRAZY CAMP negate the achievement? Some may buy into that belief. Personally, I think that’s a fucked up way to look at. From a “big picture” point of view, maybe your production had a limited run and you didn’t set the theatrical world on its ear. What if you reached a few thousand people, and, for a moment, your work touched them, moved them to laugh, cry and maybe just have nice time in the theater. Nothing wrong with that. Not as far as I’m concerned. Nothing at all.
Many NPT writers experienced “success”, each to different degrees. But more importantly, they had each confronted the blank page – yes page – we didn’t have computers back in the NPT days – they confronted the blank page and music sheet and created something from nothing that captivated audiences in Washington, DC and sometimes beyond. Their works often garnered great reviews from the Washington media. Sure, sometimes they would receive bad reviews, but the main thing is that they were achievers with whom I am impressed to this day. It was exciting just being around such gifted people.
I was wondering the other morning …in my fine Yogi Berra style … once it’s over, it’s over, isn’t it? A play gets produced and no matter how long a life it has from a mere ten week rehearsal and performance period to decades of post productions … when it’s over, it’s over. The roller coaster ride of getting it on the boards is long gone, the royalties are spent. The actors have forgotten the lines, the newspaper notices have faded, but you know what? There was a time when you, a composer, lyricist, playwright … there was a time when you made something from nothing that filled “the empty space.”
Sure, there are moments when, looking back, you question if it was worth the emotional expense because so-in-so gets more productions than you or has won more awards than you or gets published and you don’t and on and on and on the voice of judgment goes. But try this … slow down, breathe … and reach into your memory and you will find a rewarding moment or two (or more) that validate you … moments of acceptance. Not the pats on the back, the hugs, or the notoriety that helps you get laid, not the newspaper notices, or knowing that the people who thought you were a loser in high school read the Washington POST and most likely read of your success, nyah, nyah, nyah. Not that kind of acceptance. I’m talking about the good stuff. The intangible intoxicating good stuff (and I don’t mean what we inhaled down in the furnace room at NPT so often.) How do I define “the good stuff”? When the punch lines got the laughs … when the really good punch lines got laughs that built to applause. When a ballad or love song elicited an appreciable “aw” or sigh from audience members. When you heard audience members humming one of your catchy tunes. What about that time when the audience was so into your story that the theatre was perfectly still. No coughs. No shifting in chairs. Just fuckin’ still! You might even have wondered if everyone was holding their breath. That’s thrilling. Then there’s the unbeatable moment at the end of an involving drama when the lights blackout and the audience is quiet. …oh, shit, they hated, didn’t they? No. There is no applause because they are so moved that they don’t want that “something has just touched me deeply” feeling to go away too soon. The stage manager is wise enough to hold the blackout a moment longer … even still another second … and then … lights up, curtain call and then the audience breaks out into thunderous applause and you get a standing ovation.
It’s the silences, the laughs, the tears, the applause – knowing you made contact. Those are the moments you have created with your work. Congratulations my friends. That is an achievement that no one – nobody anywhere any time – can take from you.
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