Considerations of a Master Playwrights’ Roundtable

Originally Published in ArtsAroundBoston, Winter 2000 

What 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.


It 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.


The 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.


How 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 town."


In 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."


Drukman 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. 


John 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."


"I 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."


Paula 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.


Jon 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."


It's 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.” 


If 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."


And 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.


Returning 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?"


The 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."


Speaking 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."


August 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 an artist."


Speaking 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."


Drukman wondered if the playwrights themselves had taboos. "Are there things you feel you shouldn't or mustn't....?"


Durang:  No elephant dung.


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 lambasted.


The group agreed on the necessity of writing about what is difficult, about our taboos.


"I 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."


In 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.


Why 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 next journey.


Through the next century, one might add.
































The Panel of Playwrights


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 Humanitas Prize.


Christopher 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.


John Gaure's 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.


Wendy Kesselman 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.  


Terrance McNally 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. 


Paula Vogel 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.


August Wilson 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 Letters.


Lanford Wilson 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.










©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved