Tuesday, January 7, 2014

After Dark, January 7, 2014

The Pull of Pulitzer
Why do we insist on dragging the same goddam plays onto our stages
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

When I was a youngster just starting in the theatre, the idea that a company was about to do a Pulitzer Prize-winning play thrilled me to my teenager's core and when I went to see the show I was all aquiver with excitement. 

That was then.

What I very quickly discovered were that PP plays were often insanely over-rated. Or, perhaps, the excitement of their newness wears off very quickly. Maybe, I now think, that on the opening night (who knows when the PP juries see these things) the febrility of the event just took over. 

But you might note, among PP plays, is the incredible lack of revivals of most of them. Wit, Heidi Chronicles, Lost in Yonkers, How I Learned to Drive, Dinner With Friends, Night Mother, A Soldier's Play, The Gin Game...and the list goes on and on. But each of these plays, when they won the PP, were done obsessively not just across the US but all over Canada too. We got a steady diet of them. 

Now a lot of these, arguably, are not awful though I have seen a lot of awful productions of many of them. I have yet to see a decent production of The Shadow Box (it may not be possible - a pretty turgid thing, as I remember it). I can't stand Doubt. A colleague of mine quails when anyone mentions mounting a production of Proof. Seascape and The Subject Was Roses are both just bloody awful. 

Whether the plays are good, bad or meh is neither here nor there. They are simply obvious.

Why am I saying this? Because right now artistic directors are putting the finishing touches on season 2014-15 and you're gonna see a hell of a lot of productions of PP plays of the last three years. Whether the plays are good, bad or meh is neither here nor there. They are simply obvious. Obvious like all the plays of Yasmina Reza - especially Art and God of Carnage - obvious like a handful of American chamber-musicals, obvious like the current Broadway favourite (which may only be a favourite because a mega-star is filling the production). 

What we used to see, among artistic directors, was a spirit of exploration beyond our neighbours to the south. It was this spirit which brought Athol Fugard to our shores, which discovered David Fennario (when the AD in question, Maurice Podbrey at Centaur, read a published diary), that led ADs to the Royal Court or the London Fringe for plays, once in a while. After two solid years of reading literally hundreds of reviews, plays and watching seasons at dozens of companies come and go, I simply am not seeing that spirit in many ADs anymore.

ADs are going to the prize-winners when they might be having a look at the also-rans or never-nominateds. 

More sadly, we are not nurturing Canadian writers in our theatres or reviving the works which - as one American TV network said about summer reruns - if you haven't seen them would be new to you. When I created The Encyclopedia of Canadian Theatre, I consulted a board of professionals and academics and they'd propose plays which had to be profiled. I'd go to the National Theatre School's library, get the play, read it, and write up a piece. Time after time I wondered to myself: why isn't this play being done anymore? One, Tom Walmsley's Something Red, comes immediately to mind. Herman Voaden's plays - dense, difficult and forebears of anything Robert Lepage has ever created - are ripe for reexamination. And someone, somewhere, has to do Kent Stetson's absolutely breath-taking Harps of God, ferkrissakes!

And it doesn't stop there. How about creating our own chamber musicals or even operas? Gwen Pharis Ringwood's Still Stands the House is as creepy and atmospheric as any goddam thing out there.

So, as we head into the new year and towards a new season I can only ask ADs to do one thing over another: reveal, don't recycle.

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