Theater Commentary: Does Playwriting Have a Future?

To mark the dedication of the New College Theatre at Harvard on October 17, a panel of four playwrights gathered to address the question “Does Playwriting Have a Future?” To allay suspense, the answer is yes (whew, that’s a relief).

By Caldwell Titcomb

The New College Theatre in Cambridge, MA

The venue is a thorough renovation of the old Hasty Pudding Theatre, built in 1888 and a notorious firetrap. It has been turned into a state-of-the-art facility, seating 272 people, which Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell hailed a few days ago as a triumph.

Prior to the discussion, the University’s new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, cut the ceremonial ribbon and in brief remarks pointed out that 700 undergraduates are currently involved in some sixty productions. Saying that “this is a great day for the arts,” she concluded by quoting from Samuel Johnson’s 1747 poem on the reopening of the Drury Lane Theatre in London.

Moderating the panel was Robert Brustein, founding artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.). Two of the invited speakers were well-established writers, and two were considerably younger; and they spoke in alphabetical order.

First up was John Guare (b. 1938), with more than a dozen plays to his credit. His work has copped a passel of awards and landed him in the Theatre Hall of Fame. He teaches playwriting at the Yale Drama School.

Looking at the surroundings, Guare said, “New theatres create new material. I hope many plays will start here.” He lamented that some talented young writers (including a pair of graduates from the A.R.T. Intstitute) have departed for Hollywood and vanished. Some have imitated the style of other dramatists. “You’ve got to trust your own voice, and pay special attention to the first 15 minutes of your play.” He revealed to us that he has written a new play for the gifted Tony-winning black actor Jeffrey Wright.

Local playwright/actress Melinda Lopez, in her early forties, received a Kennedy Center award in 2000 as a “promising new voice in American theatre.” She is best known for Sonia Flew, first mounted by our Huntington Theatre and the winner of an Elliot Norton Award for outstanding new play. She currently teaches in the theatre department at Wellesley.

Lopez said that playwrights “have become incredibly risk-averse,” and advised them “to tell the story that you have to tell.” She claimed that she has long been haunted by a statement made by Albert Einstein: “I do not know what the Third World War will be fought with, but the fourth world war will be fought with sticks and stones.” She urged us to remember that “the human connection can never be replaced.”

Playwright/novelist Adam Rapp (b. 1968) has written some twenty plays. His first, the remarkable Nocturne (which won a Norton Award), had its world premiere in 2000 at the A.R.T., which in short order went on to premiere two more of his plays. “This shows,” he said, “that it’s possible for other [unestablished] writers to get ahead.” Much of the future of theatre “lies in colleges, on campuses.” Elsewhere, “I worry that there’s atrophy in audiences.” Like Lopez, he felt that “writers are afraid” and “need permission to fail.” He deplored the current flow of film and TV actors to the stage while real theatre actors go unhired.

The last participant was Paula Vogel (b. 1951), who won the best-play Obie award in 1992 and the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1997. For more than two decades she has guided fledgling playwrights at Brown University. “I’m an incredible optimist,” she averred. Part of the reason for this is all the “intergenerational learning” that goes on among writers today. “New York City is not synonymous with theatre, and theatre must be kept more accessible.” In their reactions, “audiences do talk back, and we must not lose this as a mark of democracy.” She also quipped that “great plays are those that I don’t understand.”

There was some banter among the quartet and a few questions from the audience before time ran out. At one point Brustein interjected that “we have 40 or 50 major playwriting talents in this country.” So it seems that the famous Fabulous Invalid will continue its grip on life, and playwriting is by no means moribund.


  1. Dorrie King on October 21, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    Really nice piece. I am anxious to see something at the new theatre.

  2. Thomas Garvey on October 22, 2007 at 9:42 am

    I hope this site is not going to become yet another cheerleader for Harvard’s very mixed record of support for the arts. (Already we’ve seen “Anonymous Sources” quote the Harvard Crimson as part of a “critical consensus” on the “Matter Pollocks.”)

    If Harvard wants to get serious about theatre, it could always start an actual undergraduate major. I suppose renovating the Hasty Pudding building – after 120 years – counts as progress, but honestly, it doesn’t count as much progress. Despite having an endowment large enough to fund a space program, Harvard seems unable to either support a true repertory company (the ART), or fund a genuine school for the arts. And as for supporting playwrights – please. When was the last time the ART premiered a new play by Albee, Kushner, Churchill, or Barker? I’d rather hear from them than Adam Rapp or Melinda Lopez. I’m not against the undergrads at Harvard getting a new theatre to play in – I just wish it wasn’t being marketed as something it’s not.

  3. Caldwell Titcomb on October 23, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Garvey is partly right and partly wrong. The ART started out in 1980 as a real resident repertory company, but those days are long gone. Garvey complains that the ART has not mounted Albee, Kushner, Churchill, or Barker. Well, it did offer a compilation entitled “Albee’s Men” in 1998. And it deserves some credit for staging, along with eight works by Brecht, plays by DeLillo (2), Durang (5), Kopit (2), Mamet (4), Parks, Rabe, Rudnick, Shepard (3), Vogel (2), and Nobel laureate Walcott — whatever one may think of the productions’ quality (which could sink to an appallingly low level).

    From the middle of the last century, Harvard has offered courses in playwriting — first by Robert H. Chapman for some decades and then by William Alfred. In 1977 the late actor/director Harold Scott wrote a hard-hitting essay, “Harvard and the Performing Arts: ‘How Long, O Lord…?’,” which I reprinted in “Blacks at Harvard” (1993). Not long after, Harvard began offering for credit courses in acting, directing, and designing. In 1980 the precocious and now peripatetic director Peter Sellars received his degree magna cum laude with a “Special Concentration in Dramatic Theory and Practice.” Since then a few students have forged similar individually-tailored concentrations.

    If Harvard were serious about theatre, it could start an actual undergraduate major, Garvey says. If he had checked, he would perhaps have been half-mollified to learn that Harvard already has in place a minor in dramatic arts. It requires six courses, of which at least two must be practice-based and two the study of dramatic works.

    Harvard now has a Professor of the Practice of Theatre; and overtures have been made to two leading drama professors to join the Harvard faculty.

    Characteristically, the wheels at Harvard turn slowly — often infuriatingly so — but they do turn.

    The first production in the New College Theatre (opening November 1) will be Kopit’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad….” (which I was the first to write about just before its premiere here in 1960), followed in January by composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Children of Eden.”

  4. Thomas Garvey on October 24, 2007 at 7:29 am

    Sorry, but Peter Sellars is an argument against Harvard’s arts education, not for it (I’ll be savaging him soon for his staging of Ainadamar). And I’m afraid the ART has, indeed, ignored all our greatest living playwrights (while staging FIVE productions of Christopher Durang? You’ve got to be kidding!). I’m afraid a revival of Arthur Kopit doesn’t exactly float my boat, either, as the inflation of his reputation due to his being a graduate of – yes – Harvard is a precise example (like Sellars’s career) of the kind of Harvard-flattery (harvattery? flavardy?) I’m talking about. To my point that Harvard has no theatre major, you point out that it now has a theatre minor, that requires, count ’em, six whole courses. Again, boat – not floated. (I mean even MIT, my alma mater, has a theatre major!) So sorry, but I don’t stand corrected – not even half-corrected.

  5. Caldwell Titcomb on October 24, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    I did not see Peter Sellars’ staging of Ainadamar. But he put on some remarkable shows even as an undergraduate, and his batting average since then has been pretty high, including a superb production of Mozart’s not-quite-complete Zaide at the Barbican in London last year.

    I second Garvey’s distaste for Durang, who has always struck me as a false alarm. But he is widely considered a major writer. As Bernard Shaw said in another context, “I heartily agree with you, but who are we two against so many?” When you are an artistic director, you get to choose the shows to be offered. Like Garvey, I wish the ART had put on Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill — along with Peter Barnes, Roy Williams, Peter Gill, and Simon Gray. And I wish something by John Galsworthy, who won the Nobel in literature, had been revived; I don’t believe he has ever had a professional production in the Boston area in at least the last sixty years.

    Brustein did learn one important lesson during his ART tenure. He vowed he would never put on a play by Shaw (or Wilde or Stoppard) — and Shaw was one of the five greatest playwrights of the century (OK, the others were Beckett, Brecht, Pirandello, and O’Neill, so there!) Brustein finally was persuaded to offer Major Barbara in 1990, with Cherry Jones in the title role. This proved so popular with the audiences and critics that in the ensuing decade he allowed resident director David Wheeler to stage Misalliance, Heartbreak House, Man and Superman, and Doctor’s Dilemma, all with great success.

    Garvey is just plain wrong about Arthur Kopit (and how many people know or care where he went to college?). Oh Dad, Poor Dad is a wonderfully vicious farce; it’s a splendid achievement for a college senior, and would have been a winner by a playwright of any age. His Indians and Wings are masterly dramas (both were nominated for best-play Tonys and ought to have won over their competition). And Kopit’s book for Phantom joined Maury Yeston’s music to produce a work vastly superior to what we got from the untalented Andrew Lloyd Webber. Since the New College Theatre is to be the province of undergraduates, it is especially appropriate that it will debut with Kopit’s undergraduate triumph. Its second show, Children of Eden, is an enterprising choice since, though it was staged in London, it has never been done in New York.

  6. Thomas Garvey on October 25, 2007 at 6:46 am

    Well, okay, “Oh, Dad” is a splendid achievement for a college senior, I’ll grant you that, so it’s an appropriate choice for the new theatre. I don’t think Kopit has had all that exciting a career, however, and we’ll have to agree to disagree about Peter Sellars, too (who at any rate seems to have learned that he’s better at opera than drama, as opera is more forgiving of his particular brand of intellectual schmaltz). I also have to disagree about Wheeler’s productions of Shaw – it was nice to see Shaw, but the productions themselves were over-rated, as, I think you can see by now, I feel Harvard’s theatre scene is generally. Indeed, I’m not really sure how much significance the opening of an undergraduate theatre at a local college has for the city at large; still, for much of the press, it seemed to count as some kind of cultural event.

  7. Caldwell Titcomb on October 25, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    This particular colloquy could go on forever. Since Garvey likes to have the last word, let’s cede him the last word.

  8. Thomas Garvey on October 26, 2007 at 8:38 am

    You know, it’s not really about me – it’s about transforming the dialogue around here. Harvard is a problem for the local culture – a gigantic economic and political force to which everyone does obeisance (particularly its alumni), but which, at least when it comes to theatre, is largely disengaged from the city, and simultaneously imagines that without even committing to an actual School for the Arts, it should still sit at the top of the cultural pecking order. In a word, this is an unusual, and somewhat oppressive, situation, and a new undergraduate theatre does nothing to change that.

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