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The artistic risk of the new play

ART TIMES Oct, 2004

ARE new plays actually risky? I talked about the audience risk of new plays last month. Now I’d like to tackle the artistic risks.

The argument goes that a brand new play that’s never been done before is artistically risky because nobody knows how to do that play, since it’s never been done before.

Let’s think about that argument for a moment. What does it say about how theater artists do their business? Doesn’t it say that theater artists can’t do a good job on a particular play unless they’ve seen someone else do it first? And isn’t that a pretty hideous thing to say? And wouldn’t it be even more hideous if it were true?

Consider another common practice among theater directors. There’s a school of thought that says the first thing you should do with a script is black out all the stage directions. The reasoning is that if you don’t have the stage directions in front of you, you won’t be unduly influenced by the playwright’s concept of what should happen in a scene. You’ll be better able to see the material fresh, and possibly in an original way that brings new insight into the work and makes you able to do a better job with it.

If that’s the case — and I do think that this practice can be carried too far — would it make the slightest difference whether the play is new or old? Of course not. You would still want to tackle the play fresh, quite literally as if you’d never seen it before. Well, how convenient the new play is! You are absolutely guaranteed to have never seen it before! You have the perfect situation, according to your own idea of how you would like to proceed.

The fact is that in a very important sense, there is no such thing as an old play. Every play, no matter how long it has existed in script form, is not a fully realized work of art until it is performed. The essence of theater is the moment in which the living presence of the actor meets the living presence of the audience in word and action. Each moment in which that happens only happens once. A given group of performers encountering a given group of audience members in a particular space, at a particular time in the history of the world, performing a particular play — that only happens once in the entire history of the universe (unless some of the wackier theories about time are true.)

Every play, no matter how many times it has been performed — from zero to infinity — is brand new at the time the performance occurs. Theater artists who forget that fact do so at their peril. Given that fact, new play? Old play? What difference does it make? The same process must be gone through; the same perils successfully avoided, the same opportunities successfully exploited. The degree to which producing theater is risky doesn’t depend on the type of material; it depends on the skill with which the material is done. That’s what enables us to do good work, provide an audience with a good experience, and thereby do our jobs.

So if a great new play comes across your desk, and your company has the skills required to deal with the specific idiosyncrasies of doing previously unproduced work, your risk will be the same as it would be in any other theatrical endeavor of comparable magnitude.

So go for it!

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