Graffiti from the upcoming Old Globe production of Welcome to Arroyo’s, courtesy of Izze WST:
Theater. The World. The Wire.
So recently I posed the following question on Twitter:
what was the last play that both (a) had some measure of success getting produced and (b) represented something new in the theater?
Twitter being Twitter, of course, the conversation was limited to 140 character bursts. Even still, the question got further clarified and some answers were given (you can find most of it in my timeline), leading me to this conclusion:
so what we’re saying is: there hasn’t been a massively *important *and *successful *play* since ANGELS IN AMERICA?
Now of course, this is about an hour conversation between maybe ten folks on Twitter. Hardly comprehensive. But it seems a little surprising to me, and certainly worth investigating. So I bring it here, where we can discuss it in a bit more detail.
Towards that goal, I’ll try to define my criteria a bit better. I used the terms “important” and “successful” about, but I’ll modify them slightly. I think I’m asking about “importance” as the overall descriptor here. If a play is “new” (as defined below) and “successful” (also defined below), I’d argue that it becomes more and more important. Of course you can quibble with that, but we’ve got to frame the question somehow, right? So let’s agree on that.
On the topic of “new,” I’d factor in one or more of these:
*some kind of new/novel form — and it doesn’t have to be on the level of Brecht or Beckett; I’d consider plays like M. Butterfly, Fences, and Zoot Suit to be trying something different. Basically, something outside of the straightforward realism that seems to dominate our stage (bonus points if we can see other plays that have followed in that plays footsteps);
*some kind of social interest/awareness/relevance — I wouldn’t say that something like Ruined is groundbreaking in form, but to have that subject matter in front of major theater audiences nationwide means a whole lot. Similarly, a musical like In The Heights, which doesn’t push a social message, can still have important resonance based on the musical forms it brings to a wider audience.
And that “wider audience” remark leads to the “successful” part of the equation:
*critical success/awards: if a play wins the Pulitzer, it enters sort of rarefied air. A play doesn’t have to have been given a ton of awards to be “important,” but it’s hard to argue that awards don’t push plays deeper into the conversation.
*an audience: for a lot of plays, this is the real test. Do people come to see the play? Does it have long runs? Again, you don’t have to run forever to be important, but if people don’t see the play, what kind of importance can you really have?
*educational impact: if you were going to be teaching a history of theater survey course, would this play make it onto your curriculum? And what would you say about it?
I’m not necessarily looking for plays that hit on of all of these fronts (although Angels in America and Rent (the two shows of my theatrical life that really seem to fit the bill) certainly came close. But plays that are truly important — well, I imagine they’d need pretty good marks across the board.
So here’s my slightly modified question: using the criteria above, what are The Most Important Plays Since Angels in America?
Answer in the comments.
UPDATE: Naming plays is helpful. What would be more helpful is talking about why you think those plays fit the bill.
UPDATE: Let’s add one more factor into the conversation: impact outside of the world of theater. This can include bringing new audiences into the theater, spawning a movie or television show that reaches a wider audience, changing the way people think about a topic or person — any of that. And yes, I realize that (a) this eliminates a lot of plays and (b) isn’t the goal of many plays. But still. If we’re talking about importance, you should get points for breaking through into the real world.
And that, of course, leads me to one of my favorite questions: what about Tyler Perry?
Not much comment from me here, but I recommend this article from Dance Magazine:
True diversity is when a person’s differences are welcomed, desired, and integral to the environment such that their absence would diminish the product. Exhibit A: New York. So many different races and cultures in one place create a singular energy and flavor. That’s its beauty. We may get on each other’s nerves, but we all have to be here to make it magical. We have made progress, it’s inevitable when we are living the “browning of America.” But sometimes it’s not where you are but where you are not that speaks volumes. It’s a black thing, but I think you can understand.
And I don’t mean the incomparable Joy Tomasko, or the incomparable Joy Meads, although, come to think of it, an office with these two in it would go a long way towards creating what I’m talking about, but now I’m way ahead of myself, and you don’t know what I’m talking about, and if you’ve ever wonder the characters in my plays talk the way they do, well, there’s this sentence.
Okay. From the beginning.
So we all embarked on careers in the theater because at some point in our lives, we did theater for free, and we banded together with our classmates or colleagues, and we worked long, hard hours, and we fought and challenged ourselves, and it was hard and it sucked, and then we actually did the thing, and it was awesome, and we cried tears of great happiness, and we partied and cheered each other and it was ultimately one of the most beautiful things we had ever done in our lives until that point, and we eventually found out that there were people who got paid to live that life, and we made up our minds to go live that life, no matter how hard the process of getting to that point of getting paid might be.
So then we get the jobs, and we go to the office each day, or we go to rehearsal room every day, and we get together with a bunch of other nerdy theater geeks, and we’ve found our place. We’ve gotten to the place where we don’t have to take math and science and English and PE and whatever — we just get to be in the damn afterschool drama class all day long. And yes, our jobs involve marketing and math and money and all that grown-up blahblahblah that makes everyone else who has a job anywhere in the world drag their feet and wish they were someplace else from 9-5 (or in our case, 10-6 at the earliest) everyday, but still. We’re working in the theater.
And still, it’s not a very joyful place.
And for a lot of us — especially those of us who maybe grew up in cultures that celebrated the drum, or honored joy by sharing huge communal meals with the people around us, or that can’t do housework with music in our ears, or believe in bringing babies everywhere we go so they can both bring joy and be raised by that proverbial village that other people think they invented — for those of us who grew up with those values, the unjoyful workplace is a bitch of a place to find ourselves.
And then I look at places like Google, where lunch is taken care of, and employees are encouraged to come up with and pursue dream projects, and it’s all vaguely communal, and there are those swimming pools where you stay in one place and the water moves around you, and there’s all this awesome stuff and ideas and energy, and I wonder — why don’t theaters look like that?
I don’t have more specific ideas than this right now. I’m kind of vomiting this all out. But I guess what I’m getting at is this: those of us who work in the theater are kind of in the top percentile of luckiest people in the world. We get paid to do what we love. Or to support what we love, at the very least. And a lot of the time, our workplace doesn’t seem all that happy. (And yes, that’s probably indicative of the United States itself, but that’s for another time and place.)
And I guess what I’m saying is if I ever run a theater (and if I was betting, I’d bet that I’m gonna do that someday), it’s going to be a place where my employees love to be.
Patrick Healy talks about black Broadway audiences in today’s Times.
I’m all kinds of conflicted.
1. What goes unspoken in articles like this is this: the assumption that the art form itself is white. More accurately, it’s an assumption (with a grounding in current reality) that there is one specific cultural experience that has a greater claim to Broadway than others. If Broadway saw itself as even partially “black”, it wouldn’t be feeling the need to specifically reach out to black audiences. It would be part of what the field did as a reflection of itself.
This is on my mind because, as usual, I’ve recently found myself involved in discussions of race and diversity in the not-for-profit theater. The conversation, as usual, really comes down to this: theater institutions and the people who run them don’t seem to know a lot of non-white people, and therefore don’t know how to reach non-white people to invite them into their spaces (as employees, board members, or audiences). That’s why diversity in the workplace is a good idea — it helps you understand how to create diversity in the marketplace (or, in our case, in the audience).
And now I’m digressing.
2. I never know if I agree with the existence of statements like this (emphasis mine): Whether black theatergoers become a larger, reliable part of the Broadway audience remains to be seen, as do the range and quality of the shows that are offered to appeal to them. So again, most plays are geared to appeal to white audiences, and black audiences are only going to be interested in shows created to appeal to them? To an extent, well, yeah — if you don’t give folks a chance to see themselves onstage, they’re often not going to come. But I think we really shoot ourselves in the foot when we assume that audiences with the disposable income to come see a Broadway show even once a year might not be interested in shows outside of their comfort zone.
3. I’m reminded, once again, that Broadway (and theater in general) is shockingly, wildly, insanely behind the cultural times when it comes to race, ethnicity, and multicultural audiences. It’s 2010. Are we really just now realizing that there’s value in cultivating black audiences? Shouldn’t we be thinking about Latinos and Asians by now? Shouldn’t we be trying to at least pay lip service to this whole “post-racial America” thing that was all the rage back in the election of 2008? Instead, we’re somewhere on the verge of trying to integrate our audiences…kind of.
Let me repeat that: it’s 2010. Broadway theater is just now trying to INTEGRATE. And only kind of. And only on certain shows.
4. Then there’s this: This fall’s Broadway lineup includes…possibly the new two-character play “The Mountaintop,” about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., depending on whether the producers can land the stars Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry. Yes, we’re talking about race here, but this play by Katori Hall just shocked the theater world in London, beating out other huge names to win its top prize — and whether it can move to Broadway depends on getting two Hollywood stars (both of whom I like in films, neither of whom I’m dying to see on Broadway)? It’s a play about Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s road-tested, it’s two characters (don’t they always tell us to write small, inexpensive plays?), and it’s by a thrilling new voice in the American theater…who happens to be an African-American female.
And I’m expected to believe that there’s no other way to sell it than to get two of the maybe five biggest black movie stars in the country?
(And SamJack as MLK? Really?)
5. Maybe the most important paragraph here, and certainly the most exciting to me (and yes, I’m fully aware of how my own horse in this race colors my reaction here): By contrast, “Memphis” has no stars and an unknown score and story. But its producers believed that their show would become known as memorable entertainment if buzz spread among enough so-called Broadway taste-makers — who, in the case of “Memphis,” were not the usual critics, bloggers and veteran theatergoers, but instead African-American ministers, choir directors and black women.
It’s exciting to know that there are folks out there thinking about other ways to reach new audiences and not be beholden to NYT reviews and advertisements (which, to be honest, don’t seem to have anywhere near as much impact as they once did). It’s exciting to see that this strategy can and does work, if even only once in a while. But um…isn’t this the Tyler Perry model that’s been proven effective for years? Are we really just now trumpeting this as something new?
The article goes on to discuss other points of contact: lawyer groups, student outreach, lots of post-show discussions, street fairs, beauty salons — is any of this new? Are we reinventing the wheel each time we have this discussion?
And hell yeah, the reason that I care so passionately about this is because of my own show. Make that shows. And make that the shows of people of my generation, who are writing for audiences that reflect the world a lot of us have grown up in: diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, and all that good stuff; unafraid to cross boundaries, unafraid to speak to multiple audiences at the same time. It’s scary to think that our field is so far behind the times that it might not be able to provide those audiences, best intentions be damned.
1. An apology: I should have been blogging throughout the Chad Deity process. Things dropped off after the Pulitzer announcement here on the blog, but things far from dropped off in real life. There was lots to say about my first Off-Broadway production, the reviews, the cast of characters showing up backstage after performances (including, and I’m pretty sure no other entertainment event can claim this exact list: Joan Rivers, Tony Kushner, David Henry Hwang, Buck Henry…and Layla El of the WWE), and everything else that has gone done over the last two months. Lots of blog material, and blog I did not. My bad.
2. That said…I can’t really talk much about Chad and its future. That right there should be taken as a statement on its future. If you’re in the press, and you want more information than that…well, I’m not sure I can give it to you, but I’m pretty easy to track down. If it was up to me, I’d break all Chad news here on the blog, but it’s not up to me. It’s so not up to me.
3. There’s a new look and a new name to the blog, in case you hadn’t noticed. The look is cleaner, the name more fitting, based on the play we’ve been working on for months.
4. I’ll be trying to get back to theater article comments here. I’ve been doing most of my talking via twitter (where I’m super easy to find) as part of the #2amt thing, often. Hopefully, I’ll start using this space again to get past the 140 character thing.
5. I’m writing this on my second-to-last night in Minneapolis. NYC, I’m coming home.
Tomorrow, I’ll have some things to say about this article in today’s New York Times. So go ahead and start reading it now.
Okay…so I was wrong.
Let’s go back to Monday. I’m on a plane from Chicago to New York City. The flight leaves at 1:57pm Central, which is 2:57pm Eastern, which is three minutes before they announce the Pulitzer. I know that I’m eligible. I know that I’ve been nominated. I know that I’m not going to win. I doubt that I’m going to be a finalist, but the possibility is on the table. I believe in my play. I believe I deserve to be a contender. I’m convinced that the winner is going to be either Horton Foote or Tarell Alvin McCraney. I think that if Tarell wins and I’m a finalist, it’s a big year for up and comers. The awesome Annie Baker is in the mix too. I feel like there could be some excitement here, even if I’m not anywhere on the list.
And I’m glad that the flight is scheduled for when it’s scheduled, because I really don’t want to know who won before I take off. Either way, being stuck in the air for the following ninety minutes would be tough. I turn off my phone. Once we’re in the air, I start working on an entirely different and unrelated play. I need my brain to be occupied with something else entirely. And it works.
The plane lands. I’m not thinking about the Pulitzer. I take out my phone. I turn it on. I put it back in my pocket (that’s a habit of mine – whenever I land, the phone immediately comes out and goes on, but gets put away again before I check messages). It’s on vibrate. It vibrates. I remember that the announcement was made about an hour and a half earlier. The phone vibrates again. And again. And again. The phone vibrates fifteen times: fourteen times for new texts, once for new voice mails (of which, I’ll later discover, I have eight). I know what it’s all about. I just don’t know to what extent.
The first two or three messages say “congratulations.” The third one, luckily, says “congratulations on being a finalist for the Pulitzer.” My heart pounds. I resist the urge to grab the nearest passenger and yell “I’m a Pulitzer finalist!” I listen to voicemails. I get two messages in before Carole Rothman calls me, filling me in on all the specifics. My agent calls from London – he’s still on his plane there, but just got the news. My brain is melting. My girlfriend calls, and we’re both speechless, and she asks what I want to do, and all I can think is “what the hell do you do at a time like this?”
I get off the plane. I call my mom. She’s getting her hair cut. She can hear in my voice that something is going on. She asks what’s wrong. I tell her. She goes somewhat speechless. If you know my mom, you understand the magnitude of that statement. I call my dad. He says something to the effect of “you’re fucking shitting me.” He says it five or six times. I can hear him smiling. I call Rajiv Joseph. I don’t know it at the time, but he’s already called me (I haven’t checked all my messages at this point). He’s in Los Angeles, or we’d be celebrating over beers in Brooklyn later that night. Instead, we congratulate each other and share the exact same sentiment – somehow, it’s that much sweeter to be nominated alongside your boy. (At this point, I didn’t know that there was a third finalist – the amazing Sarah Ruhl. When I found out later, I get that same huge smile on my face – what remarkable company).
When I finally get to look at my e-mail a few hours later (on my girlfriend’s iphone at our favorite NYC bar), I’ve got eighty-nine new messages, and more than a hundred Facebook notifications. Most say “congratulations.” Many say “HOLY FUCK” or “HOLY SHIT” or “HOLY FUCKING SHIT!” And my god – it’s just beautiful.
And now it’s Tuesday afternoon, and I’m on a plane from Chicago to New York, and for the first time since, well, about this time yesterday, it’s quiet, and I’m alone, and it’s all sinking in. I can’t say what this honor means for the play (which is currently running at Mixed Blood in Minneapolis, and is deep in rehearsals at Second Stage in New York) in terms of ticket sales or future plans (seriously – I don’t know, so don’t ask). I don’t know what, if anything, this means for Welcome to Arroyo’s, which opens in less than a week at American Theater Company in Chicago (and which was written seven years before Chad Deity, but now becomes the de facto follow-up to a Pulitzer finalist – so no pressure there). I definitely don’t know what this means in terms of the rest of my career (I mean, first professional production ends up like this – what the hell am I supposed to do next?). And really, none of that matters.
Because four years ago, I started writing this silly little play about professional wrestling.
And look where it lives now.