We Could Use a Little More Imagination Around Here
IT HAPPENS FROM time to time in most areas with more than a few active theater companies: everybody winds up doing the same play. In my neck of the woods this season, there are, this season, no less than four productions of John Patrick Shanley's play Doubt, all within a 100 mile radius, give or take a few miles for how the roads go.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Shanley is a fine playwright and Doubt is a fine play. Reviews and audience responses to all four productions have been positive and strong. In fact, some folks have taken advantage of the opportunity provided by the situation to go see more than one of these productions and compare how they’ve been done. All well and good, and a fine thing to boot.
But what does this situation show about the level of imagination and effort going into selection of repertory? How is it that so many production companies find themselves thinking in lockstep?
How many plays have been done in recent years that were not originally written in English?
How many plays have been done that were not written by whites?
How many plays have been done that are not written by Americans?
How many plays have been done that were not given the New York Stamp of Approval i.e. that were not produced on- or off-Broadway in the last ten years or so?
The answer, unfortunately, at least in my neck of the woods, is, “Not many.”
In short, the coincidental production by four unrelated companies of the same play in the same year in the same small area is a symptom of a larger problem. Everybody’s thinking in the same grooves. Everybody’s doing the same kinds of plays, from the same kinds of perspectives, even in the same production styles, as everybody else.
And everybody’s wondering why the audience doesn’t grow. Hmm, does the thought, “Bore them to death and they’ll stay home,” ring a bell with anybody?
There is an amateur company in my area that makes a specialty of doing classics. What’s even more remarkable is that they do classics other than Shakespeare most of the time. And what’s even more remarkable is that they are the only company in a 200 mile radius taking that approach. The rest of the live theater world does Shakespeare in the summer, recent off-Broadway small-cast plays in the winter, and grant applications year-round.
It couldn’t hurt to try to break out of that grind. It would provide a growth opportunity for the artists at the very least. A very fine actress I know freely admits that she has read very few plays written before the 20th century. A problem encountered in a recent production of a Greek tragedy—a very rare event around here—was a lack of actors who were open to the idea of speaking verse in a heightened fashion. Lacking experience of anything but realistic prose, they literally had no idea of how to handle heightened language other than to reduce it to grocery-list level. The director had a major problem in deciding what to do about the chorus, and opted to turn it into a sort of display of group gymnastics. In other words, having eaten mac & cheese for so long made it difficult either to cook or to appreciate pasta primavera.
With so many fine plays out there, from so many times and places, with such a wide variety of viewpoints, reflecting such a plethora of experience, you would think theater companies would find a sense of adventure rewarding. One can only hope the mold breaks.