OF AMERICAN THEATER
of a Master Playwrights’ Roundtable
in ArtsAroundBoston, Winter 2000
of the future of American Theater? This
was the question at the heart of the conversation among nine of the
best American playwrights who gathered on an October Saturday
evening at Provincetown's Town Hall.
Is it really important to the culture, to assure the future of this
ancient art? Can its unique
qualities be preserved under the onslaught of technology, economic
instability, censorship? Can theater serve the community in a meaningful
way in an increasingly global culture, when television and film are
the dominant forms of entertainment and the whole world seems to be
living on-line? Big questions
with heavy portent, and the town turned out to hear the discussion.
was a fitting locale for such a discussion, this town known as "the
birthplace of American Theater". It was here in an abandoned fish
house on Lewis Wharf, long since fallen into the bay, that the Provincetown
Players, an avant-garde group of writers and artists including the
then unknown Eugene O'Neill, now considered our greatest American dramatist,
staged their performances. Then 27, O'Neill would go on to win four
Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel. Here,
too, in 1946, the newly organized Provincetown Playhouse on the Wharf
staged Tennessee Williams' "Unsatisfactory Supper" and, for
the next several decades, became a training ground for some of America's foremost
actors. When the Playhouse was
destroyed by arson in 1977, Williams wrote, "Hundreds of theatre
people have lost their roots." Since
then, Provincetown theater has
had no place of its own, despite over 30 years of active productions
by undaunted companies in whatever space could be commandeered.
event was sponsored by the town newspaper and orchestrated by actor
and Artistic Director of the five-season-old Provincetown Repertory
Theater, Ken Hoyt, a young man with a mission -- to restore professional
theater in Provincetown to its glory
days and to find a permanent home for it. Guest moderator Steven Drukman,
contributing editor of American
Theatre Magazine and frequent contributor to The
New York Times, noted the extraordinary historical significance
of the panel which included John Guare, Christopher Durang, A.R. Gurney,
Terrence McNally, August Wilson, Wendy Kesselman, Lanford Wilson, Paula
Vogel and Jon Robin Baitz. Together these playwrights have created
a staggering sum of plays, more than fifty of them award-winning.
did Hoyt pull it off? "We
didn't really see it coming," he admits, "the magnitude of
the event. We wanted to do something special for this
year's Fall Arts Festival. In
1997 Edward Albee came to town and gave a talk. That
was a wonderful event. Everyone
loved him. So we thought we'd
do something like that. I wrote
a long, heartfelt letter to 25 people hoping someone would say yes. Guare
said yes. That was fabulous.
Then, they all began to say yes." Hoyt thinks it has to do with the character
of Provincetown, "with
our reputation as an artists' colony. They
all know interesting things happen here. Theater people have a special feeling for this
his opening remarks, Hoyt amused the audience by drawing a comparison
to the long-standing policy against the British royal family traveling
together "so in case of an accident they are all not in the same
place at the same time. If you
are a fan of the theater," he said, "there is no other place
to be tonight."
began by asking the panel to consider whether there are now two separate
theater cultures in the US, the nonprofit regional theater, where most
of them got their start, and commercial Broadway -- and off they went
on a thoroughly captivating, spirited and thoughtful discussion, shifting
from one to another, sifting through all the issues that influence
the state of American theater.
Guare responded that Broadway has always been the marketplace. "It was where Death of a Salesman was done, where O'Neill worked, where The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire came. And then suddenly there was Off Broadway, which
became a much more viable place for serious plays." Guare said that when he was a student at Yale Drama School in the 60's, "you
dreamed about having a play on Broadway. I don't think anybody dreams that today. You dream of having a play at the Seattle Rep,
or Louisville, or the Goodman
or Trinity Rep. That's where the theater is, and that's healthy."
do dream of having a play on Broadway, John," countered Terrence
McNally, "It doesn't mean my dream is going to come true. But it's a valid dream." And, no, he doesn't
think there are two theaters; rather, that the problem is economic,
that even off-Broadway is hard to break into because all theaters are
less and less willing to take chances on the Terrence McNallys. "There was room for us when I began writing."
Vogel, who makes her home in Provincetown, agreed that
the future of American theater is related to the future of our economic
structure. She voiced the increasing concern that support for theater
is at risk, that the cost of production has priced itself out of the
market, and that funding is "tied up with the attitude of government
officials, who can do a kind of benign censorship. It's
not an isolated problem," she suggested, referring to the recent
efforts of both Mayor Giuliani of New York to close down
the "Sensations" exhibit at the publicly funded Brooklyn Museum and Wellfleet
Selectman Larry Gallagher's opposition to a municipal water connection
for the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.
Robin Baitz was the panel's youngest member. He relayed a poignant
story of being asked by a rock star friend, "Why would a young
person become a playwright?" He
suggested that the culture might have moved past theater for now. "When
you can make a smart, sexy movie for under $100,000 on digital video,
it becomes what the theater might have been."
nothing new -- this declaration that the theater is dying, according
to Christopher Durang, "As long as I've been around the theater,
which is 25 years, everyone is always saying the theater is dying,
blah-blah-blah. And yes it is. On the other hand, will it really end? If somebody
wants to make a movie, maybe they're not meant to be a playwright.”
you're a playwright, inserted Wendy Kesselman, a year-round resident
of Wellfleet, "you have to write plays." Referring
to Broadway, where her adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank played in 1997, she said, "I can't wait
to go back."
August Wilson, who has had six plays on Broadway, said he would hate
to see playwrights abandon it. "I
think it's vital, primarily because the American people see it as the Mecca and because
the straight play, or the honest, serious playwright, should be represented
there." He questioned the
validity of an American theater based solely on European-American values. "If we're going to have something that
is called an American theater, then we have to allow room for the esthetic
values of Hispanics, for Asians, African Americans, for all the racial
and cultural groups that make up this society," and they have
to have access to funding, he added. He
noted that while vast sums are spent to build concert halls for classical
music, a European art form, there are no similar venues for jazz, a
purely American invention.
to the issue of young writers choosing the theater, Drukman wondered
if it's only a question of access that there isn't a new avant-garde
theater culture comparable to young independent filmmakers. "How
experimental are we allowing ourselves to be?"
response of A. R. Gurney cut to the heart of theater's purpose and
power. "All really good theater has an element
of anarchy underneath it, of chaos, of real darkness. I think that's
why we go to the theater, to see people put on masks and try to put
shape on that darkness. And
that can be frightening not only to the standard bourgeois audiences
that go to plays, but to the people who fund plays. And that's a serious thing. When a play becomes too dangerous, too tricky,
then the odds are it might not be produced."
of young playwrights, John Guare illuminated the landscape with his
tale of two remarkably talented students he had that made him feel "Ah,
there is a future for the theater." But
they had gone far into debt sending themselves to the writing program
and when it was done, both of them went out to California to get work
in television so that could pay off the huge debt that had incurred. "Now the amount of money it costs just
to go to Yale or NYU makes your future impossible, because you incur
an extraordinary debt that then paralyzes your life paying that off."
Wilson found the assumption behind Guare's comments very disturbing. "I never took a course," he said, "or
went to school. I think there
is something called an artist and either you want to be an artist or
you don't. You pay your dues
or you do whatever is necessary. I'm
sure Picasso could have made more money in graphic art, but he was
again to the question of access and of barriers to funding sources,
Vogel told of teaching a playwriting class in a women's maximum security
prison to women who had never
seen a play, whose only reference was film or television. It wasn't
the competition of film that kept them from becoming playwrights. Vogel
thinks it has to do with the censorship of community dialogue that's
tied to funding. "Those
women in maximum security don't become playwrights because they would
tell us a thing or two about realism."
wondered if the playwrights themselves had taboos. "Are there
things you feel you shouldn't or mustn't....?"
Durang: No elephant
August Wilson: I can't think of a taboo I would impose upon
myself. If I did, I'd write
a play about it.
Baitz: I think
race is still a taboo. Even
though people do write about it, it's very, very difficult, because
there is so much rage and guilt. It's the great
subject in this country, this race rage on all sides.
Kesselman: If you
portray children as having deep, serious emotions, you are absolutely
group agreed on the necessity of writing about what is difficult, about
think we understand one another even less as the century ends," Baitz
added. "And the divide
becomes even bigger. So, as
a taboo, the longer you're silent, the harder it is to grasp."
the end, with only two questions from the moderator, the panel had
traveled the continuum of issues that face the American theater of
the future -- all intricately linked, and returned to the age-old role
of the theater: to mirror who we are.
do we need that? Lanford Wilson
seemed to answer that question for all of us:
Writing a play
for me is like walking down this landscape of the self. Many things that you confront sometimes are
not the best parts of yourself. But
you have to be willing to deal with them so that you emerge at the
end with a brighter and stronger spirit, ready to go through the
the next century, one might add.
The Panel of
Jon Robin Baitz
is author of The Film Society, The End of Day, and The Substance of Fire,
staged at Lincoln Center Theatre and later made into a film, and Three Hotels for which he received the
Durang is an actor and the writer of Beyond
Therapy, Baby With The
Bathwater, Sister Mary
Ignatius Explains it All For You, which won an
Obie, and Durang Durang,
and Co-Chair of the Playwriting Program at the Julliard School.
first full-length play, The
House of Blue Leaves, opened in 1970 and won the New York Drama
Critics Circle Award and four Tony Awards for its 1986 revival at
Lincoln Center Theater. Six Degrees
of Separation won national and international awards and is still
playing to rave reviews around the world after a decade.
A. R. Gurney's
plays include Love Letters and The
Dining Room, Scenes from an American Life, What I Did Last Summer,
The Cocktail Hour, and Snow Ball. He has written three novels. Until
1996 he served on the faculty of M.I.T.
wrote My Sister In This House, The
Executioner's Daughter, and I Love You, I Love you Not and adaptations
of A Tale of Two Cities and The
Dairy of Anne Frank, revived in 1997.
is writer of Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Tony award-winners Master
Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! and is Vice-President
of the Dramatists Guild.
won an Obie for best play for The
Baltimore Waltz in 1992 and the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
and the New York Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle and Obie
Awards for Best Play for How
I Learned to Drive.
became active in theater as a co-founder of Black Horizons, a Pittsburgh community
theater, in the 60's. He is author of the acclaimed Fences, Joe Turner's Come and
Gone, The Piano Lesson,
and Seven Guitars. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Fences and in 1990 for The Piano Lesson. He was recently inducted
into the American Academy of Arts and
is the author of 17 full-length plays and many short plays. He was one of the founders of Circle Repertory
Company and was resident playwright there from 1969 to 1995. His new play, Sympathetic Magic, will be produced in March by The Second Stage.