Playwright Theresa Rebeck showed up on my radar again. Long time devotees to my ramblings will recall that last year I discussed Rebeck’s comments on sexism in theatre. Rebeck - whose diverse body of work includes a play that was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the current TV hit Smash - recently wrote a piece for the LA Times about a recent discovery: writing well-structured plays is a good way not to get produced.
In the article, she tells the story of an unnamed artistic director who remarked to her that his literary department considered it “uncool to structure a play these days” and how, at a development workshop, a young playwright proudly announced that she was purposely avoiding “anything that resembled a plot.” You can read the rest of Rebeck’s comments here, but the gist is this: she has noticed a trend that new theatre, while beautifully written, lacks in structure and cohesion. “Structure is not our enemy,” she protests. “It is the form that makes content possible.”
Assuming for the moment that Rebeck is correct, one might be tempted to wonder whether Canadians are doing the same. I certainly was and I knew there was only one way to find out – or rather five ways, as the case may be. I decided to make a few quick visits (digitally) to some of our leading dramaturgs and directors, each of whom are in some way at the frontlines of new Canadian theatre.
My first stop was Iris Turcotte, the famed literary manager at Toronto’s Factory Theatre which is one of the only theatres in Canada still accepting unsolicited new scripts. She definitely agreed that the theatre of today is being created differently then ever before. “Form is leading content,” she remarked. In her opinion, modern theatre has become increasingly about collective creations and devised text. In traditional theatre, the text is king, but Iris suggested that these days other elements are taking centre stage.
On the other hand, Emma Tibaldo of Playwrights Workshop Montreal stated categorically that she hasn’t seen the sort of shift Rebeck spoke of. “There are fragmented stories, yes,” she agreed, “but there are still stories.” She agreed that in some cases, non-linear theatre was becoming more popular – she pointed specifically to the Festival Transamerique, Montreal’s international festival of new work. But in her experience the scripts crossing her desk still feature elements of the classical structure.
Vicki Stoich is also seeing structure everywhere. The Artistic Associate at Alberta Theatre Projects, Vicki sees countless new scripts thanks to ATP’s annual Enbridge Playwrights Festival Although she agreed that structure is changing, she added that she didn’t feel like new writers were avoiding narrative. “As the world is fracturing,” she said, “people are a little freer with how they structure their narrative.” One of her joys as a dramaturg is to help writers find the narrative within whatever structure they’ve created.
She did seem to sympathize with Theresa Rebeck, though. “There’s something comforting in a traditional structure,” she told me, adding that some audiences still want theatre given to them in the usual way. And she agreed with Iris Turcotte that when it comes to collective creations, narrative is not always the first thought.
...she used the word “fracturing” to describe the method employed by modern writers.
A little further west, Heidi Taylor is preparing to assume the reins at Playwrights Theatre Centre, Vancouver’s home for new play development. Until now she’s been the centre’s literary manager and while she admits that experimentation has increased, she still hasn’t seen many radical scripts coming across her desk. Like Vicki Stoich, she believes that structure exists, but in different forms; also like Vicki, she used the word “fracturing” to describe the method employed by modern writers.
“Audiences,” said Taylor, “are way faster at sussing out plots, given their experiences with television and online content. So fracturing and cutting and omitting can take us into the high stakes moments we look for in unexpected ways.”
Back in Montreal, Guy Sprung is getting pretty impatient with the “lack of craft and discipline in the theatre that is hitting the boards at the moment.” The Artistic Director of Infinitheatre, Sprung and Co. run the annual Write-on-Q Contest, which solicits new work from across the country. While the plays that are sent to him are often text based – he suspects the fact it’s a playwriting contest has a filtering effect – he does agree that Canadian theatres are favouring theatre that is plotless and structureless.
In case you’re keeping score, it’s 3 – 2 in favour of Canadians being more traditional then our American counterparts. Still, no one can deny that there is a discernible shift towards less classical theatre. None of the people I spoke to thought this was necessarily a bad thing. Iris Turcotte probably summed it up best. “To me,” she said, “it’s about one question: does it work?”
Shakespeare toyed with the form too, anticipating the multi-scene format of cinema by three hundred years.
Theatre is always evolving and whatever the trends are, perhaps we shouldn’t be scared of the evolution. Theatrical history is filled with experimental writers – Beckett, Pirandello, the more surreal plays of Albee – and each of them toyed with structure to great effect. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare toyed with the form too, anticipating the multi-scene format of cinema by three hundred years.
Guy Sprung made another interesting remark. “Story,” he said, “does pre-suppose or rather reinforce the illusion of an ordered universe.” This reminded me of a famed comment by Woody Allen in Annie Hall: “You’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” Story is our attempt to add perfection to the universe, to imply that everything has a purpose in some greater design. It is symbolic of the religious view of the universe, with the writer acting as God, arranging every character and event for some higher purpose.
So assuming there is some sort of shift, what does it mean? Are we no longer interested in using art to perfect the universe? One could argue that this would explain the relatively recent popularity of memoirs, creative non-fiction and real-life storytelling events. Perhaps we are choosing to seek wisdom by exploring the world as it is, rather then as we want it to be.
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