AMERICAN THEATRE | Why New Plays Now? A Case for Supporting the Unimaginable
The following is a version of a speech playwright Steven Dietz delivered to the board of Merrimack Repertory Theatre in May, and, more recently, to the board and long-time supporters of ACT in Seattle.
I have been asked to speak to you today about the need for new plays in our field. I welcome the chance to do so. I will endeavor to telescope my 40 years of passion on this topic into no more than 15 minutes of your time. Like creating and producing a new play, this task seems impossible. Like creating and producing a new play, we will do it, anyway.
There is much I wish to celebrate today.
I celebrate the fact that the theatre is so unbelievably bad at being dead. Despite generations of obituaries, despite severe cuts in funding, despite robust competition with other media, despite an ongoing global pandemic…it may be time to finally just come out and admit that an art form which is so consistently inefficient at dying must actually be alive.
There is both levity and purpose in my statement. The theatre of our time remains drastically underfunded, overly elitist, woefully non-inclusive, and perpetually marginalized. I, for one, do not believe this is the result of some grand conspiracy. I believe the failings are fully mine, ours. Over the course of my 40-year career I have, with the support of many beloved colleagues, made some impactful and resonant work. But I have also—despite what I considered my boldness, passion, and good intentions—made a series of regrettable mistakes, badly informed choices, and more than a few short-sighted decisions. I have often taken the theatre and my place in it for granted. For years, it proved seductive to blame my own artistic failings on an art form that I had convinced myself was expiring.
And yet, like death and taxes and Keith Richards, the theatre just keeps coming back for more. The fact is: We quit on the theatre much more readily than the theatre quits on us. I am aware now—as a working artist in my 60s—that the theatre has outlasted all my teachers and mentors and heroes; that the theatre will outlast me, and all my students; everyone I’ve ever known, and everyone I am yet to meet. I seek to remember that “dying” is the fundamental condition of a “living” thing. The transience of our art form mirrors the impending peril of our lives, giving each of them immediacy, urgency, and grit.
Thus, let me say to you here today, in the most full-throated way possible: I reject the easy, glib, and pervasive mythology that to speak of the theatre of our time is to speak of entropy. Instead, I champion a view of the theatre which—despite the profound failings we must surely address—constitutes a rigorous and comprehensive outlook of awe.
I celebrate the fact that the theatre is wildly out of step with popular culture. Oh, how beautiful is this disconnect! This “culture”—which I consume as readily as you—essentially devotes itself to one question only: “What is current?” Pop culture is concerned, in the most relentless and unapologetic way, with queries of this instant in time: Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s rich? Who lost? Who won? Who’s hot? Who screwed up? What is everyone watching?
The theatre, on the other hand, remains devoted to this question: “What is constant?” It concerns itself—it has always concerned itself—with queries eternal in time: Does love endure? Does compassion heal? Can tragedy be overcome? Am I truly able to communicate with my neighbor, my child, my father, my friend? Is loneliness inevitable? Can a memory still evoke delight?
I think of pop culture as a magazine I buy, page through, enjoy, and discard. It asks very little of me. It is an easy, synthetic, momentary pleasure. It fills my time. I think of the theatre as the diary of a stranger I stumble upon, and open for the first time in a darkened room. At its best, it asks a great deal of me. It offers a deep, complicated, lasting pleasure. It alters my time.
Our field has tried for years to chase and imitate the fizzy tonic of pop culture—believing it to be some kind of “current,” “catchy,” or “relatable” panacea for our audiences. And, regrettably, we’ve learned the hard way that the dog who chases the car usually catches it. When we chase the fad and fashion of the current “hot list” or trend, we relinquish our most fundamental power as audience/citizens: the bracing lessons of reflection. The theatre, at its best, is not a camera taking selfies. It is a prism. It gathers, reflects, refracts. It shines a previously unseen light.
I celebrate, with gratitude and humility, that the theatre has been my primary livelihood (yes, the way I pay my bills) for nearly 40 years. Despite my teaching and directing, despite my random forays into film and television, the royalties from my plays continue to be the primary source of income for me and my family. Full stop. I am fully aware how rare this statement is. I am filled with profound appreciation for the “outrageous good fortune” I have received. Why do I tell you this? For several reasons:
First: I tell you this in the spirit of awe that I mentioned earlier. I tell you this because it is fully at odds with what has become an accepted truth in our field: that “no one makes their living writing plays.” This is simply not true. Do enough of us make our living this way? Certainly not. Not by a long shot. (More on this later.). But there, once again, is the seductive myth of entropy; the easy moral cover of scarcity. Once we convince ourselves that “no one makes a living writing” then we can next accept, without much effort, that the craft of playwriting is basically a hobby, a side hustle, an act of willful volunteerism. This is not only untrue, it is unacceptable and insulting. My career—one that has never included a “hit” play or a Broadway run, one that frankly most audience members have never even heard of!—is, in its humble way, evidence of the theatre’s sustainable and unacknowledged bounty.
Second: I tell you this because I know you will rightly ask: “How did this happen?” “Who made this possible?” Let me assure you it was not due to my unique and blistering “talent”—nor my visionary “mastery” of the New Play World—nor some “secret sauce” I’ve learned to drizzle over my plays and adaptations. The reason for my longevity in the American theatre is you. You and your colleagues at America’s regional theatres are the reason I have been able to serve a 40-year apprenticeship in the field I love. Your theatre, and those like yours—theatres devoted to communities large and small, theatres in states both red and blue, theatres that (with due respect) will never show up on a Tony broadcast—those theatres remain the foundational source of new work in this country. You are both the beacon and engine of the new-play field. And—against all odds—it is your support, the willingness of your artistic leaders to read, consider, commission, develop, and produce new work; the skill of your resident artisans to render new stories potent and memorable onstage; the commitment of your managing directors, staffs, and boards to secure funding, build constituencies, and evangelize on behalf of giving audiences (what a recent house manager called) “the play they did not know they’d been needing.” All these factors describe the how and why of my fortunate and uncommon journey in our field.
Third, and most importantly: I tell you this because there are not nearly enough playwrights with my story. If the theatre of our time is to remain potent, popular and—above all—representative of our kaleidoscopic nation, we must commit to the long-term support of an entire generation of playwrights. Playwrights from all ethnicities and identities, all regions and cultures, all ages and walks of life. And though playwriting will always be an astoundingly competitive field (no writer should think otherwise), these artistic voices must not be pitted against each other for an increasingly dwindling number of production opportunities. The pie must get bigger. And the pie must look different. You and many of your peer institutions are already striving to do this, I know. I strongly champion this long overdue focus on diversity and representation as a timely and crucial mechanism to address years of neglect and inequality in our field. The ultimate goal, I believe, remains the impact, resonance, and timelessness of our collective—and comprehensive—stories for the stage.
As has been widely noted: The theatre is well behind the curve on this issue. Should actionable diversity have been baked into the founding of the American regional theatre 60-plus years ago? Yes, of course. Absolutely. But, given that failure, shall we now throw up our hands or shrink from the fight? Shall we determine that the theatre of our time is beyond saving? My answer lies in this adage:
The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.
I celebrate the ability of new plays to startle and transform. This should not be underestimated. All great and lasting plays have one fundamental thing in common: Until they existed, they were unimaginable.
Our culture tends to act as though its artistic cabinet is full. Look around. There’s no shortage of things on the walls of the museums, the shelves of the libraries. We never run out of songs on the radio. The theatre, in particular, often exudes an unspoken sense that we already have all the plays we need. And the fact of the matter is: This is true.
Until it’s not.
There was theatre for a very long time in America before A Streetcar Named Desire, A Raisin in the Sun, or Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But now, of course, we cannot imagine our theatre without these plays. These once brand-new plays. Audiences of their day surely believed they were well-stocked with theatrical stories until suddenly—and don’t all great new plays seem to arrive suddenly?—Death of a Salesman told them, in no uncertain terms, that “attention must be paid.”
I listen to a Bach fugue and three instruments are weaving a rich, intricate, complex sonic tapestry. I know a fourth instrument is coming in a few bars, but I think to myself: How will it get in? The song is already full! There is not an opening. There is no space for its voice. No matter: It makes a space. It finds a way in. A necessary new play does the same.
The hardest conversation I have with avid and gifted MFA playwrights starts when I tell them that there is not a place in the field waiting for them. Despite many theatres’ commitment to new work, there is not really a sacrosanct “space being held” or “set aside” for the new play we did not expect. That space must be won. A new play must make a place for itself. It must contrive, coerce, crowbar its way into our theatrical consciousness. A new work will never get an invitation to join the canon; it will more than likely get the cold shoulder, since we already have plenty of plays, right? A new play must trespass in the field. It must insist on being present. We were not “waiting for” How I Learned to Drive, or Execution of Justice, or Anna in the Tropics, or Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. They crashed the gate. And they are never going away.
The American theatre is not full. It is hungry. American audiences are not full. They are hungry. “Hungry for what?” you may wish to ask them. Oh, it is extraordinarily tempting to want to ask your audiences what they want!
Don’t do it. Really. In my opinion, it is not the job of our audience to articulate what is missing in the theatre. That is our job—yours and mine. Furthermore, I venture to say no audience member could have envisioned, much less could have articulated, the need for Until the Flood, The Whale, 4000 Miles, or Cambodian Rock Band. These plays insisted on being present. Who, really, could have called up their local theatre and requested a play in which a gay couple and a Mormon couple collide in Reagan’s America with the worlds of Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, Valium, AZT, the Kaddish, imaginary Antarctica, and an angel who crashes through the ceiling? Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was completely unimaginable…until it became fully indispensable. With the crucial support of our artists, leaders, boards, and audiences, these plays—and many others—created a prominent and lasting place for themselves in both our art form and our public consciousness.
Many things have gotten easier to generate over the last 40 years—especially as it relates to technology, data, communication. Not new plays. The process of making them remains expensive, inefficient, time-consuming, unpredictable, and often remarkably maddening. And yet, it remains our job—yours and mine—to champion this process; to advocate relentlessly for the new, to push forward the odd and the bold, the unexpected, untried, and unreasonable. History has shown us that it is the play we cannot yet imagine that will one day make itself necessary to us.
How might we do this? I am destined to now list things that you and your theatre are doing already, but here are some thoughts on the matter:
Initiate. Tell new stories. Take the leap. Commission and develop new work. Convey an active readiness—an eagerness for the New—to playwrights, their agents, and your colleagues across the field. When you make new work the norm at your theatre, it will become the norm at your theatre. To be sure: Audiences have nostalgia for what they’ve seen before. There’s no harm in that. What’s more: Some new work will be applauded, some will be rejected, and some will leave people scratching their heads. Those reactions—across all fields of endeavor—define the impact of the new. But it is not enough to dust the shelves of the art form. While we respectfully curate the work of the past, we must avidly initiate the work of the present. Why? Because the moment we are living has not been written. And it will only ever be witnessed by us.
Will our audience come along? First of all: Despite our habit of regarding our beloved subscribers as one homogenous entity, the word “audience” connotes plurality, not singularity. At any theatrical gathering there are many “audiences” in the seats—a vast and complicated array of histories, hungers, expectations, and opinions—all of which becomes clear upon engaging with them individually, one on one. Let’s not only grow and diversify our audiences, let’s disenthrall ourselves with the need to view our bedrock supporters as a singular relic entrenched in the familiar.
But are they ready for new work? For years I’ve had a healthy and productive disagreement with colleagues who believe audiences need to be “educated” to appreciate new plays. Tell me: What other field asks this of its consumers?! The American public regularly responds with gusto to being assured they are ready to have (and, in fact, are deserving of) completely new things which they have never experienced. The American public signals an “eagerness for the new” in nearly every other corner of their life—without receiving a proper “education” on how to “understand” or “appreciate” the experience at hand. Are we not willing to let them do that with new plays? Do we fear their reaction, their rejection? If so, that is the price of the new. Artists have long used “the audience” as a straw man to complain about why their “adventuresome” work was not finding a home. We can do better.
Invigorate. Tell existing stories in new ways. Find new perspectives. Shake up both the known and unknown canon. New plays are born of the present but they most surely engage with the past. We invigorate our field with bold new interpretations of existing stories; with the viewing of familiar literature through an unfamiliar lens; with dynamic new adaptations for young audiences; by discovering the work of writers, performers, dancers, designers, thinkers, and inventors who perhaps found a fallow cultural field in the past—but are ready to be nurtured and celebrated in the present.
It need not be nostalgia which drives us to reconsider literature from another time. We engage with art from the past to test the efficacy of the myths we are living with now. Art does (as they say) “reach a hand across time”—but let’s remember that this reach is not a high-five or a pat on the back. The reach of great art is often more like a slap, an actionable one—intended to disrupt our present-day slumber, trouble our paralytic myopia.
As someone who has been fortunate to write a number of adaptations (still the truest way to test one’s playwriting mettle), I have witnessed the power of fusing a familiar story, which invites, with a new theatrical perspective, which surprises. We tend to be drawn to adaptations of Great Titles (as though the titles themselves were the art!), but we should remember that it is not the title which has endured. It is the vivid and visceral humanity of the story; a stone thrown in a pond hundreds of years ago, sending ripples toward us still.
Innovate. Make new strategies to fit new work. Reimagine the process to fit the dynamics of your time, your city, your theatre. Waiting for the “right” play to arrive in your inbox is, I say with some nostalgic regret, a 20th-century strategy. Challenge and support your leaders to be artistic activists in the new-play field. There has never been more comprehensive new-play advocacy (as evidenced by the National New Play Network and others) than at this moment in time. There are more and better new plays being written now than at any point in my career. That’s the upside. Downside? There is more and more societal and cultural (and political) noise, clutter, animosity, sycophancy and nonsense than ever before. Get ahead of the conversation. Make a strategy to find the play, find the writer, even before they find you. Maybe before they’ve even found the play they want/need to write.
One example from my career: My two most widely produced plays (excluding the ones that have “Sherlock” or “Dracula” in the title) are the result of straight-up artistic patronage. They were generated by board members and long-time subscribers who approached ACT Theatre in Seattle with funds to commission a new work (of the writer’s choice) from a playwright (of the theatre’s choice). No financial participation, no creative stipulations, simply the chance to participate as onlookers and supporters in the process of developing and premiering a new play. This activist approach by theatre supporters—which resulted in my plays Bloomsday and Becky’s New Car—continues to pay dividends to this day.
COVID, of course, has produced its own new forms of engagement, sending theatres out into their communities in new, previously unimaginable ways. This is another innovation (born of necessity) that exudes artistic activism, one that belies the fact that “important” plays need be sanctioned by theatres or critics in a few cultural power centers. The bold, founding principle of the American regional theatre can still be found—however quietly flickering—in these actions: to not only take the plays to your people, but to find the plays among your people. We elevate our community through art. We elevate our art through engagement with our community.
Okay, it should also be said that if innovation were easy, we’d do it all the time. It’s not. It’s a lot of damn work, with very little short-term reward. It calls on us to actively forgo the familiar. To risk the unknown. I assure you, the playwrights in your city know this feeling well. Let’s begin to take these risks together.
I have had the opportunity to serve as a trustee myself, over the years. I understand that being on the board of a nonprofit arts organization is an enormous responsibility. It requires leadership, courage, vision, and engagement. Thank you all for the time and talents you bring to this challenging task. However, it seems to me that something gets overlooked by theatre artists (like me) in this equation: Serving on a board is also an emotional act. While I know you take your oversight responsibilities seriously, I expect your connection to the theatre is rooted in something deeper than its bottom line. Though you were perhaps recruited because of your particular savvy and expertise, you likely stayed because some play, some performance, some moment onstage rendered itself unforgettable.
I wish to call on that part of you today.
No one would blame any of you for defaulting to the plays that are familiar to your audiences. No one could disagree if you determined it was much harder to develop and produce new work today; that to do so would require a great deal more effort and resources than it did 25 years ago. Those days are surely gone, and what is to be done?
Were it me: I’d plant the tree.
Steven Dietz is a playwright, director, and teacher. His new adaptations of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links will premiere in 2023.
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