Everything Is Already Something Week 62: What If Plays Were Like Prom Dresses?

Allison Page is storming the barn.

This year there were three separate productions of Glengarry Glen Ross in the Bay Area meaning the play was running for four months straight: one production in San Francisco, one in Berkeley, and one in Alameda. I should say there was one ten day stretch where GGR wasn’t playing, but there was also one ten day stretch wherein two were happening at the same time, 11 miles apart, so they sort of cancel each other out in my non-scientific mind. I wonder if both of those Ricky Romas were looking up at the same moon.

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Eurydice is playing right now in Berkeley, and played earlier this year in Palo Alto, as well as two years ago in both San Francisco and Hayward, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I were missing some.

There’s a company who does Book of Liz every year in San Francisco, and another company has upcoming auditions for that same show in the East Bay.

Company is playing right now in San Francisco, and auditions were just held for another production of it in the Bay Area.

Where am I going with this? (It isn’t that I’m dying to get hate mail, and it’s not that these productions can’t be good) The point is — why is this happening? I’ve heard many people say that they don’t know what other companies’ seasons are like, and that it happens out of pure coincidence. I’m sure that’s true a lot of times. Though naturally, Samuel French will tell you which other companies have a show like Glengarry Glen Ross in their line-up. Looking at it now, if you manage to miss it here, head on over to Attleboro, Massachusetts to hear some old white men yell “Cunt!” this October or wander into Cincinnati, Ohio in April of 2016 to get your Roma fix!

Now you probably think I hate GGR because I just said that. I don’t. I like it, and I actually saw one of those productions. It’s not like someone’s about to surprise anyone with it, though. “Come see our new and inventive production of Glengarry Glen Ross set in a basement sex dungeon in Quebec!” Okay, maybe I’d be into that, I don’t know.

There’s also that whole thing about how the theater community at large, and definitely the Bay Area theater community, have done much buzzing about gender parity, and clearly having three of those things happening at one time means, uh…well, something not great. I think what it actually means is not willful constant dude-choosing over lady-choosing because SCREW ‘EM, on ANY of those companies’ or directors’ or producers’ parts, but actually just the age old problem that we tend to assume it’s someone else’s job. We’ve all talked about the issue together, and now everyone will do better because we did that…so we’ll just to stick to the old white men yelling “CUNT!” train and wait for someone else to produce Top Girls to balance us out. (Also, there are other plays featuring many women at once that aren’t Top Girls. I just have to say that twice a year to remind myself that it’s true.) And then we’ll hop onto another panel next year and nod our heads while everyone complains about how there aren’t roles for women and how awful that is.

BE it, not talk about it.

BE it, not talk about it.

While I totally understand that super common impulse, it’s also how we keep things exactly the same and never ever change them: by thinking someone else will do it or that we’ll get to it later. That’s why my dad still hasn’t invented any of the weird gadgets he doodles on scratch paper, like the little water-filled windshield dog who turns to look in whatever direction you’re about to turn the car. (Sorry, pops, should’ve gotten a patent.)

At the Theater Bay Area Conference in April of this year, I was struck HARD by something Martha Richards said about parity at the opening panel. (I had to search through the billion #TBACon15 tweets from April to find this — already more research than I’ve ever put into any other blogs.)

“The numbers haven’t budged in years, there’s just more conversation about it.”

Woof. Ouch. We talk about it and then almost 5 months later I’m writing this blog about how it feels like instead of being the change — Be The Change was actually the tagline for TBACon15 — we’re just looking for the change from other people.

Okay, parity is not actually the point of this blog, I’m heading back to my original point.

I’ve heard many times over that the most offensive theater is the boring kind, and — to me — there is nothing more boring than the same shows over and over again. I like a classic as much as the next guy. I like a 90s romcom, or an 80s feminist play, or a 50s drama, or old white guys yelling “CUUUUNT!” but I like them to be mixed in with a representation of NOW. Or at least something I didn’t just see last month. We live in a time of instant entertainment. A movie comes out and it’s up on iTunes nearly immediately…or sometimes even before it’s out in theaters. We want the now, we want the here, there, and everywhere and we want it immediately. Why does Bay Area theater often feel so far behind? New works are being given readings which is…good? Sometimes I’m not sure. I want those FULL productions. I want to see what the new blood has to say before it resigns itself to being produced 25 years from now and buys a warm cardigan to settle in for the cold spell. TV shows and movies take time to make. Movies can take years. Plays take time too, but they can also go up really quickly. So, to me, theater can be the most vital, fast, furious beast around, but it often isn’t. It doesn’t feel like that right now.

And yes, I KNOW PEOPLE LIKED MAD MEN, BUT GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS ISN’T MAD MEN. I’m glad we cleared that up. Also, guys, Mad Men isn’t even on anymore. You’re way fucking behind. If you wanna tap into that vibe, there have got be other plays about businesspeople/assholes so that we don’t all have to do this at one time, but seriously, Mad Men is over. It feels like we’re teaching the emerging voices of what could be a flourishing generation of theater makers that their art isn’t going to matter until they’re either in New York or have been dead for 40 years. Or until our marketing campaigns for said art can align with a TV show. That feels shitty.

What does all this have to do with prom dresses? I don’t know how it was for you, but where I grew up, no one was allowed to buy a prom dress someone else had purchased, for either a certain mile radius, or based on which school they were going to. I’m aware that rights givers could themselves crack down on this the most easily, but I don’t see that happening. I know sometimes companies try to get the rights to a play and they can’t, because that’s the hot new play at the moment and everyone wants it. That’ll happen. But why, then, is the fallback not something equally as new and exciting? I want someone to get a beautiful new prom dress, and the next person in the store is told they can’t have it, and gets an equally beautiful new prom dress — not the dress off the person working the register. There’s more than just one new great play in one hand, and one that’s been done a hundred thousand times and has no parts for women in the other.

Listen, everyone wants to sell tickets. Everyone needs to sell tickets. And get new audiences. Ohhhh the elusive New Audiences moving around in hungry clusters, passing us by. We’re all trying to hook them into our atmosphere and get them to stay there, orbiting with us. It’s not like I’ve cracked the code, but I know what doesn’t crack it. I know what they don’t want — the 21 year old, hip, fun audience members companies are salivating over, the ones you want to hop aboard the theater train — they don’t want to see something they’ve already seen. Or something so far removed from themselves (old white men yelling “CUUUUUUNT!”) that they have no real connection to it. They need to look up there, and connect. I don’t see them connecting to that. This isn’t really about Glengarry, it’s just such a good fucking example I couldn’t not use it. No, I’m not worried about Mamet alienating me. He does not now, nor will he ever know I’m alive, so it’s fine. But if you do try to move GGR into a sex basement in Quebec, I’m sure you’ll hear from him. Meanwhile you could have just commissioned a new play about Quebecois sex dungeon lovers for less than or equal to the royalties of GGR, depending on the writer.

One could argue that those theaters are in different parts of the Bay Area and that their audiences are not necessarily shared. That stance doesn’t really do it for me. I go to all those cities and see theater. And I keep thinking it wouldn’t be terrible if somebody missed something some time. Maybe next time something they want to see is showing a 20 minute drive away, they’ll suck it up and go there because it’s not coming directly to their living room (if it’s interesting enough). Training audiences about what to expect from you is something I think about a lot. If your shows start late, the audience will assume the next show will start late, and they’re not going to be on time. And now you’re starting shows late for the rest of your life because you did it twice. Teach people that theater here can be missed because it’ll just be back 10 miles away next month, and there’s no urgency to see it now. The Bay Area also shares a creative pool. Actors from Vallejo perform in San Francisco, actors in San Jose perform in Berkeley, so at least keep your collaborators excited by offering something that every other town isn’t offering. Because we’re getting paid peanuts anyway, ya might as well create something.

I can’t solve this whole thing, clearly, but I have to put out there that it feels like we’re not taking risks as a community right now, and playing it safe doesn’t work forever. Eventually we’ll play it so safe that everyone will forget we’re here. Hell, maybe they already have. And then they’ll just watch Glengarry Glen Ross on Netflix because Jack Lemmon is in it and he’s the man and theater doesn’t feel like it’s for their generation. There are definitely some groups and companies that are making really interesting, cool, risky stuff. But there are so many more who aren’t doing that. Or are relegating those projects to readings. I often want to take a company’s reading series and swap it with their actual season.

******** UPDATE
So, I started writing this a couple of weeks ago and wanted to sleep on it. Then I went to New York City for a vacation. While I was there I saw two extremely popular shows: HAMILTION, and HAND TO GOD. They were so exciting, unfamiliar, wild, creative, new, unexpected, and VITAL. The houses were packed (Yes, they’re on Broadway so pretty much automatically they’re going to be selling tickets like hotcakes, but there was an excitement there that can’t be explained away with flashing lights.) They felt really risky in a good way, and you could tell that everyone working on them was invested in something they believed in. Maybe that’s what I’m really talking about. I want to see something and say to myself, “These people really believe in this. They really feel they’re doing something here. It feels important and necessary to them.” Even if I don’t like it, even if I think it’s poorly executed or just straight up isn’t to my tastes, I can get behind people who get behind their stuff and feel that it’s got urgency.

When you look at HAMILTON, you see a runaway hit, a game-changing hip hop musical with as diverse a cast as I’ve ever seen on stage at one time, based on Alexander Hamilton of all people. It’s a big idea. It’s a big, seemingly risky idea.

The diverse and talented and good looking and magnificent and swinging-for-the-fences cast of HAMILTON.

The diverse and talented and good looking and magnificent and swinging-for-the-fences cast of HAMILTON.

HAND TO GOD is a comedy about a man with a demonic sock puppet. It’s weird. It’s brash. It takes everything to 11, and knocks it out of the park.

“Yeah,” you’re thinking, “Those are amazing plays. Amazing plays like that don’t come around every day. My company needs to produce good stuff and most new plays aren’t going to be as good as that.” and to that I say, look harder. Or find a writer you believe in and commission something.

What do we want people to think theater IS? I want to ask myself that more often. I want us all to ask ourselves that more often. Because right now I’ll tell you what they think it is: outdated. And we’re not doing enough to show them otherwise. We’re too often giving them what they expect us to give them. And few things are less interesting to me than walking out of a theater saying, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I thought it’d be.” I’m not shitting on Shakespeare or O’Neill. I’m doing Richard III next month (a cut version in a bar, and as a Sid Vicious-lookin’ murderer named Ham, with an eye patch, but still Richard III.)

Maybe we just need to be more aware of each other. We’re not disparate entities floating in the ocean. We’re part of a larger whole as much as we may try to pretend otherwise. We are all theater, and the choices we make for our companies impact what this person or that person thinks of theater. What message are you sending? Is it the message you want to send?

Is it “CUUUUUUUUNT!”

Allison Page is a writer/actor/creative director of Killing My Lobster, a sketch comedy company with gender parity across both writers and actors with a new show written in two weeks, rehearsed in two weeks, and then performed live, every month at PianoFight in San Francisco. Ya know, in case you were wondering if she sticks to her own nonsense ideals, the answer is that she tries. And sometimes fails, of course.

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8 comments on “Everything Is Already Something Week 62: What If Plays Were Like Prom Dresses?

  1. Interesting to see the topic of conferences- and panels-as-solutions (or lack thereof) brought up as I read the following article about “diversity panels” at comic book conventions a few days ago:
    http://blacknerdproblems.com/site/no-more-diversity-panels-its-time-to-move-on/
    One part that stands out: “Let’s be honest, these Diversity 101 panels aren’t FOR Black people, they are for White people ABOUT Black people. We remain the object discussed, not the subjective person leading the discussion.”

    This is why I tend to avoid “topical” panels altogether (theatre, comics, what-have-you), because I always walk away with the impression that the folks who arrange the panels have no real interest in making changes to the issue discussed, but rather just pat themselves on the backs for acknowledging the issue exists. It reminds me of someone who watches those Children’s Fund tv spots, says “Aww, too bad”, but will never dedicate him/herself to donate the 13 cents/day that would change the orphan’s life. Now, I’m as guilty of the latter as anyone, but as someone of a group still represented in the margins of theatre, there’s still a resentment on my part of still being thought of as the “other” (yes, even in an area as diverse as the Bay Area).

  2. jereco1962 says:

    “Old white men yelling “CUUUUNNNT!” is now my favorite thing, like ever. (the saying, not the actual thing). #OWMYC (pronounced “Ow, Mike!”) shall be my future comment on anything of that ilk. I’ll give credit, though. (q.v., #AnAllisonPageOriginal)

  3. Frankie G. says:

    Seeing old shit get put up over and over makes my blood boil. I’ve said this before, but how much better and lively would Bay Area theatre be if, just for one year, everyone agreed to ONLY mount totally new works?

    • sftheaterpub says:

      Stuart here. While I think I understand the gist and spirit of what you’re saying, the truth is, The Bay Area is already one of the leading cities in America for world premieres. Personally, I think a better question is how lively and better would it be if 1) Bay Area audiences committed to attending more new work and 2) some of those world premieres were then given a second production or we in the Bay Area committed to more second and third productions of plays originating elsewhere.

      • Frankie G. says:

        I don’t think the onus here is on the audience, and I don’t blame them for seeing things they think they’ll like. If they have no other options, however, for live theater, than to see something definitely new, then they might stop feeling inclined to go see something like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which apparently you can pay $48 to see.

        And if EVERYONE got on board, I wouldn’t, for a year, have to see an ad for bloody HMS Pinafore on my MUNI. I’d see an ad for something NEW. Just for a year! One year where everything on every stage is new.

      • Allison says:

        I would love it if Bay Area audiences committed to attending more new work, but if we could just get them to do what we want we wouldn’t even need to have the conversation. We can only control what we make.

        But I am down with more second and third productions, definitely!

  4. sftheaterpub says:

    See, I think we can get them to do what we want, but that begins by first understanding what they want- and then deciding how we’ll cater to that and how we’ll challenge that- we get them to do what we want by convincing them we’re doing what they want. Audiences don’t just see familiar stuff because it’s familiar- they see it because they think it’s good, they think they’ll be entertained, they think it will resonate with their life and experiences, etc. It’s our job to create work that both challenges the work of the past and builds upon it, and the later aspect is often ignored in the “new work at all costs” mentality. The assumption then is new is automatically better, but it’s not, and it’s our responsibility to make it good. That said the audience does have a responsibility to recognize that they effectively vote with their dollars/attendance and so if they want new work or gender parity or more diversity or whatever they need to call for it with equal or greater gusto than we need to create it, otherwise at some point we’ll cease to be serving our community and miss whatever opportunity we might have had to also improve or educate that community.

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