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 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.