Saturday, July 10, 2010

Gruesome Playground Injuries and New Plays

Tommy and I went to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre while in DC recently. I had always wanted to see a play there, as I've heard so much about them: fresh, new, exciting, edgy theatre is their speciality, and the one we saw, "Gruesome Playground Injuries" was no exception: a very original script, very well acted, directed and produced.

Like most new plays there is a wonderful creative economy involved (it's difficult for a new play with 38 characters and 11 set changes and period costumes to get produced, even during healthy economic times). Here, two actors play two characters from age 8 to 38, with an inventive structure that leaps back and forth in time. Doug and Kayleen meet in the school nurses' office at age eight. We then follow their increasingly complicated relationship from one accident to the next: some, truly flukes/acts of God, others self-inflicted, and some a manifestation of a deeper, emotional injury that refuses to heal. It was touching, heart-breaking and extremely funny.

I love seeing new plays, it's very thrilling. You feel like you are part of something new, that's never been done before, or seen before.

I should clarify that by "new play", I mean a play in its world premiere. I do not mean a play that was previously produced elsewhere (usually New York) and then brought to Boston (usually a year later), although I think those plays are important to see as well.

I think it's crucial that Boston produce new work. It is, I feel, the only way we will be seen as a theatre town/destination. It is the only way we will be put on the theatrical map.

I wish there was a way to bottle what Woolly Mammoth has managed to do in DC and bring it to Boston. The small theatre was absolutely PACKED with people who all looked like they really wanted to be there. the energy in the room was electric. And the crowd was so YOUNG: mostly in their late twenties/early thirties.

In Boston, new plays are an EXTREMELY hard sell. Audiences seem to prefer recent hits transported from New York. But I think they like this because that has been their primary diet.

And it's just easier, in a sense, to produce a play that already has rave reviews, and/or a built-in following, and/or a New York pedigree.

And I think that's a bit of a shame.

Because if all the plays are from New York, then that is the only type of play we will see. If all the playwrights live and write in New York, then the vision will be New York, the world will be New York, the attitude will be New York, the way of saying and doing things will be New York, the STORY will be about New York. And I don't mean that in a literal way, necessarily. I am just saying that I think where you live effects how you write and what you write about.

Even the writer of "Gruesome Playground Injuries", Rajiv Joseph, lives in New York and teaches at NYU (the major difference here being that it was theatres in Houston-The Alley- and DC - Woolly Mammoth - that gave him the support and believed enough in his work to produce it. So it was the productions themselves that, arguably, made the play special, in the sense that they weren't New York exports.) A Woolly Mammoth production or play is then exported TO New York (like their "Clybourne Park") rather than the other way around.

Now, I love New York as much as anyone. But I don't think you need to necessarily live there to write plays.

Playwrights need to feel that they can live and write and get produced here in Boston.

This is important, because otherwise we lose our playwrights to New York. And if we lose our playwrights, we also lose our directors, and designers, and actors.

And, most importantly, we lose the story of what it means to be living here. We lose a sensibility that only comes from being a Bostonian.

We will lose many theatre professionals anyway: New York is huge, and there is more opportunity there. But we don't have to lose ALL of them. And we also don't need to support this myth that ONLY plays and playwrights and actors and productions and successful plays and directors come from there.

And we do that when we ONLY produce plays that had successful Off-Broadway runs.

When we ONLY commission New York playwrights to write our plays.

When we ONLY hire New York actors, and directors, and designers.

There are, unfortuately, many theatres here in Boston that do one or the other again and again.

So I guess I really just want to applaud the theatres that are taking a great risk by supporting and producing Boston plays and supporting Boston theatre artists.

Kate Snodgrass and everyone at Boston Playwrights Theatre, which continues to be the ONLY theatre in town dedicated solely to new work. I wish that BU, now that they have finished building their immense sports stadium/arena next door, would realize what a jewel they have in BPT and pour a bucket of money on top of them.

Company One over at the BCA is doing a terrific job of supporting new works by local writers, (and with "Grimm" coming up, SEVEN of us!) as well as the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, which produced "From Orchids to Octopi" by Melinda Lopez, "Not Enough Air" by Masha Obolensky and "Harriet Jacobs" by Lydia Diamond in one season alone!

Greg Maraio over at Phoenix Theatre (that beautifully produced Rick Park and my "Superheroine Monologues" last year, not once, but twice!)

Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans continue to produce the most inventive, imaginative, inspiring, campy theatre around.

And there are very real possibilities over at the brand new Emerson Paramount, where Rob Orchard has expressed great interest in New Work, starting with an event of new short plays by local writers to kick off their autumn opening.

There's festivals that attract audiences to new works, as well: the BPT Marathon, of course, a Boston Tradition, but also "the T Plays" with Mill 6, the "Village Voice" readings with the Village Theatre Project and others that I know I'm forgetting right now.

I am also very proud that the company I am company member of, Actors Shakespeare Project, has chosen, for the first time, to produce a play by a local writer (Jon Lipsky's "Living In Exile") and to produce the world premiere of my new play "The Hotel Nepenthe" this season.

Producing new plays is a new idea for us: we are dedicated to Shakespeare and classical works, primarily. But our new Artistic Director, Allyn Burrows, believes that supporting new work is an intrinsic part of our mission. Even Shakespeare, after all, was a living, working playwright at one time.

The Huntington has also done an amazing thing by forming the Huntington Playwrighting Fellows (which led to the world premiere productions, among others, of "Sonia Flew" by Melinda Lopez, "Brendan" and "The Atheist" by Ronan Noone and "Cry of the Reed" by Sinan Unel).

"Sonia Flew" is a wonderful example of what I'm talking about: Melinda is a wonderful writer/actor that everyone in the theatre community here knows and adores. We were Huntington Playwrighting Fellows at the same time, and it was thrilling to watch her bring in bits of dialogue, sometimes written on napkins or scraps of paper, that she would eventually shape into her play.

"Sonia Flew" opened here in Boston, and has been produced all over the country since then.

That is something the whole city can be proud of.


  1. I grew up in D.C. and amazed whenever I go down to visit my family what a dedicated theatre town it is in terms of new work, classics, and traveling shows-- and there seems to be enough new and recent construction going on that it doesn't seem like the theatre scene is struggling to the extent it is here.

    Obviously, the nation's capital is going to be awash in funds to give New York and Chicago some competition in cultural endeavors but it has always seemed ridiculous to why we have to fight so hard even to have a handful of functioning black box theatres!

  2. Hi Ian!
    I'm glad that you are confirming my impression of DC; I was only there for a short time, so I didn't want to make these sweeping judgements about its cultural landscape, but it really DID seem a bit more hospitable to theatre and thus less of a struggle, so they could be a bit more adventurous in some ways.

    The difference in the average age of the audiences was VERY striking.

    I sometimes think there is a lingering residue of Puritanism here that we still struggle with, theatrically: actors were all prostitutes, after all, and theatre was the Devil.

  3. It's not that we don't have the artists (and potential audiences) either: it's just that all the institutional power is either in the hands of Harvard, BU, and CitiCenter-- and it's not healthy for our theatre culture.

    D.C. has several professional companies with permanent well equipped auditoriums dedicated to developing new or presenting recent work (as well as two stages dedicated to year round Shakespeare & contemporaries.)

    I do think it telling that Meg Taintor, AD of Whistler in the Dark, which does present recent plays otherwise wrongly underrepresented on Boston stages, did her training at the Olney Theatre just outside of D.C.

    Again, I think a lot of it is because a nation's capital is expected to be a cultural center as well, but if Boston is "the Athens of America" and has a similarly sized population, there's no bloody excuse for us not to be giving D.C. some friendly competition.

  4. I SO agree with all that.
    I heart Whistler in the Dark.
    I wonder who owns and/or operates those DC auditoriums?

  5. words to say...If all are saying this then there must be something like this. playground accident


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.