Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Oh you earthlings and your "melodramas"

I see that Annie Baker and Mac Wellman are congratulating each other in the latest issue of The Dramatist. The best part is Wellman's dissatisfaction with theatre critics, whom, as I noted earlier on this blog, all think he's a genius no matter what they think of his plays - although they almost always love his plays.

But apparently this is not enough for him, because in spite of their good taste when it comes to piling on the superlatives about his work, they still insist, occasionally, on admiring work that engages human emotions rather than simply adoring incoherent word salad:
Theatre criticism is a remarkable one note only interested in what I call Sentimental Melodrama. They miss any intellectual sharpness, visual or physical acuity. They are only interested in what I call Face Value theatre. What you see is what you get, no time for reflection (incidentally they miss the sharp edges of your work.)
Now of course he doesn't give any examples of these pieces of sentimental shit, because he's too savvy a political player for that - you don't get to a lofty perch in Academia by being blunt to your colleagues.

But certainly we know that critics looove Shakespeare. So I'm going to assume he means Shakespeare - Wellman thinks that critics are fucking idiots for enjoying all the sentimental melodrama that Shakespeare engages in - which is plenty -  instead of focusing on what really counts, which is Shakespeare's wordplay.

Unfortunately I haven't seen Annie Baker's big calling card Circle Mirror Transformation yet, and didn't find it last time I was at the Dramatists Book Shop. But here's a review from the Washington Post:
Resonantly, too, the playwright has constructed a comedy about acting that gives actors terrific moments. Everybody gets at least one: The state of Marty and James's marriage, for instance, comes coursing to the surface in a sharply rendered scene in which Mendenhall and Winter reveal their characters' mutual resentment while role-playing another character's parents. The expertly played sexual tension between Talbott's Schultz and McElfresh's Theresa supplies another swell undercurrent for the evening. 
The state of a marriage? Mutual resentment? Sexual tension? Sounds like Baker indulges in a big stinking pile of melodrama there. Perhaps that's why Wellman hastens to say that critics "miss the sharp edges of (her) work." Because although they praise the melodrama, they failed to see what theatre is really about - sharp edges! It's all about being edgy. And pushing those accursed boundaries.

One of my personal peeves is the absolutely mindless worship of "pushing boundaries" in theatre these days. A few months ago I posted on the NYCPlaywrights weekly email blast a long list of theatre company manifestos in which they proclaim their seething hatred for boundaries:
Since becoming Artistic Director, Diane Paulus has programmed
innovative work that has enhanced the A.R.T.’s core mission to EXPAND
THE BOUNDARIES of theater.
The legendary Maly Drama Theatre began against all odds in war-ravaged
Leningrad in 1944, performing in relative obscurity until the mid-70s,
when current artistic director Dodin and other well-known artists
joined the company. Maly Drama grew, in breadth and ambition, to
become an internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning theater
famous for CHALLENGING THEATRICAL BOUNDARIES with Dodin’s thrillingly
imaginative productions and accomplished ensemble of actors.
The honor is presented "to an artist who embodies the courage and
pioneering spirit that Ms. Stewart encouraged at La MaMa, an artist
BOUNDARIES and expanding our understanding of human potential."
Stewart died Jan. 13 at age 91.
Ridge Theater has established itself as one of America’s premiere
creators of multimedia theater, opera, and new music performance.
Ridge productions are epic visual and aural works that typically
position performers within film and video projections, REDEFINING
TRADITIONAL THEATRICAL BOUNDARIES. Dramatic staging by acclaimed
director Bob McGrath and haunting film work and projections by the
filmmaker Bill Morrison (“Decasia”) and the visual artist Laurie
Olinder are hallmarks of the Ridge style.
Ars Nova is on the prowl for talented artists who see the future of
live entertainment and want the chance to show off their skills. We’re
interested in edgy, offbeat, charged performances that tell a story,
make us laugh, showcase musicians with a vibrant new sound, or BLUR
THE BOUNDARIES between theater, music and comedy. If it can be
performed live on stage, we’re interested! http://www.arsnovanyc.com/antfsubmissions 
    Our shows share a common distaste for the mainstream naturalism/
realism that characterizes much of contemporary American theatre.
    They evince a belief in stylization, kineticism, and formal
    They take seriously the notion of comedy as a philosophy of life.
    They revel in the form and matter of both American pop culture and
global mythological archetypes.
    They embrace the inherently collaborative nature of the art form
and constantly seek new forms and processes with which to involve
their fellow artists in the creation of new work.
    They’re fun, dammit.

This contest is for a groundbreaking play that explores the theme of
Boundaries. Though the characters can be few and the location
specific, we are looking for big ideas and challenging questions. The
Boundaries we wish to explore can be physical, emotional,
psychological, cultural, political, spiritual or all of the above, as
long as it is expressing an individual perspective on something
humankind can intimately connect to. This is not only an opportunity
to have a text exposed to different audiences, but a chance to engage
in a cross-cultural exchange that fosters a collaboration with
multiple directors around the world who will each have a personal
vision of the play. It should offer each director and cast in the
various locations a unique opportunity to work on the development of a
provocative and engaging text through the lenses of audiences around
the world. This play should speak both on a personal and universal
level. It should be ambitious and STRETCH THE BOUNDARIES of what is
Theatre has always been an evolving and dynamic form of self
expression. It is meant to PUSH BOUNDARIES and raise questions.
We are looking for NEW scripts for our regular Shelterskelter show. We
are also looking for new scripts for a possible "adults only" late
night show which would follow the regular show. This is a chance to
PUSH SOME BOUNDARIES and experiment with more mature content. Deadline
for submitting scripts is June 1, 2011. In general, scripts for
Shelterskelter should be 30 minutes or less in length. Indicate you
are submitting for Shelterskelter in the subject line of your email.
For The Inkwell, that means we want to work with playwrights who:
seek a sustained and open collaboration with The Inkwell’s playmakers,
playgoers, and playwrights
create impossible worlds that PUSH PAST THE BOUNDARIES of Theatre As
We Know It
spin yarns in their own way, without regard to what is popular,
producible or profitable
PUSHING BOUNDARIES, taking artistic risks, exploring new ideas in
Theater & Film.  http://www.pushpushtheater.com/ 
The Phoenix Fringe Festival presents innovative, experimental and
provocative theatre productions in the downtown Phoenix area. With a
mission to promote artistic exploration by showcasing a variety of
works that PUSH THE BOUNDARIES of art, the Phoenix Fringe Festival
works with local theatres and producers to create this exciting annual
event. The 2011 Phoenix Fringe Festival will be held from April 1-10,
2011, at a variety of theatres and galleries throughout downtown
Set in Louisiana's bayous, the play explores the struggles of two
brothers locked in a fierce tug-of-war for their souls. This is the
first Southeastern production of a work by this 28-year old Miami
native and New World High School graduate whose plays are PUSHING THE
BOUNDARIES of form, language and sexuality in provocative and poetic
ways. Winner of the New York Times 2009 Outstanding Playwright Award.
Visiting and resident artists PUSH THEATRICAL BOUNDARIES at the Hop in
The Hop offers the visions of singular and adventurous downtown and
Off-Off-Broadway theater-makers in winter and spring 2011, presenting
works that push visual boundaries, break open social issues and offer
rich retellings of classic works. In addition, the National Theatre
Live continues, bringing to Hanover the best of the British stage via
high-definition video broadcasts.
Our season is drawn largely from the established dramatic canon,
though new plays, devised, and contemporary work have also frequently
been produced. As part of the University's English Department, we
primarily produce 'straight' plays, though musical theatre continues
to be an vital, if not annual, part of our seasons. In all our
productions we pride ourselves on exploring the multiplicity of ways a
theatrical story can be told, on PUSHING THEATRICAL BOUNDARIES , and
on creating exciting work for a young, contemporary audience. Though
our work is centered on the dramatic text, multi-media, music, dance
and puppetry have all made their appearance on a regular basis in our
For over 25 years, NYTW has been devoted to building long-term
relationships with artists and giving emerging and established artists
alike the space to take risks and explore their creative visions.
Further, as a home for project exploration and new collaborations, we
aim to support work that PUSHES THEATRICAL BOUNDARIES and reflects the
world around us.
Following six award winning seasons the ensemble looks to the future,
continuing its focus on development of new works, the exploration,
discovery and re-envisioning/re-imagining of classic works. Our
intention is to stay open to new ideas and PUSH THE LIMITS AND
BOUNDARIES IN ALL DIRECTIONS. We thank you for your support of live
theatre and look forward to entertaining and provoking you to think,
laugh, weep and explore with every production. Onward!
Trans-Global Readings: CROSSING THEATRICAL BOUNDARIES (Theatre: Theory-
Practice-Performance) [Paperback]
Put simply, we consider an unproducible play to be one in which the
cast size, subject matter, potential depravity, complexity of staging,
or scale of spectacle take the play out of consideration for most
other companies or producers in their right minds. They should be
extreme, outrageous, epic, imaginative, and SURPASS THE BOUNDARIES of
convention. Our belief is that the right combination of these
qualities – especially when coupled with satire, allegory, or fantasy
– make up what’s most transporting, stimulating, and surprising about
The mission of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) is to
expose, entertain, educate, and inspire our audiences with the
powerful, transformational potential of theatre. BETC stages plays
that chronicle the human condition. We target an audience of adults
and young adults in Boulder County and surrounding areas through
production of contemporary plays, regional and world premieres, and
revisited classics. Through our professional theatrical productions,
we alter our community's cultural perceptions and provoke discussion
BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES enlarges and updates Theodore Shank's 1982 book
American Alternative Theatre, examining the ways in which the
experiments of the 1960s and 1970s continue to affect contemporary
theater.  http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=16487 
Centaur Theatre is proud to mark the 15th anniversary of its Wildside
Theatre Festival with a spectacular line-up that BREACHES THEATRICAL
BOUNDARIESand breaks new ground. Performed by both seasoned and
emerging talent, the avant-garde works range from slapstick comedy to
the surreal. Co-curated by Centaur Artistic and Executive Director,
Roy Surette, and writer and performer Johanna Nutter, this exciting
edition of the festival includes the winner of Centaur’s Best of the
Fringe Award, Blink Blink Blink; the North-American, English-language
premiere of Bliss; and Bifurcate Me, Wildside’s first bilingual
We envision an annual production that unites students of all academic
backgrounds and interests, BREAK BOUNDARIES, and eliminates the
stereotypes associated with engineering students. We envision an
energetic, innovative, and unique production that maintains a high
level of quality and fun every year. We envision a significant annual
contribution to a charity that we care deeply about.
Formed in 2006 at Goldsmiths, University of London by Charlotte Croft,
Laura Hemming-Lowe and Chloe Stephens, SKIPtheatre BREAK BOUNDARIES
between performance, theatre, music, fashion and art. Charlotte, Laura
and Chloe work collectively as artistic directors to create theatrical
experiences for audiences where space, play and interaction are
Similarly, the Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademi’s annual Chandigarh
Theatre Festival was an effort to BREAK BOUNDARIES between different
genres of performing arts by making events more comprehensive. The
endeavour was to promote both regional as well as Hindi theatre of the
region, as also the local theatre groups.
It not only survived fire and flooding water, but rose to become the
place the theater community looked to for BOUNDARY-BREAKING plays.
When the Omaha Community Playhouse did an impressive staged reading of
Sarah Ruhl’s vibrator play, it seemed clear that the Barn was the
place to fully produce such an intimate, humorous look at sexual
Transform festival sets out to break boundaries - YORK company Pilot
Theatre and their ever-progressive artistic director Marcus Romer will
take part in Transform, a two-week festival of BOUNDARY-BREAKING
artistic endeavours at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
2008 launched the musical side of the company with a modern day,
version on the classical ‘Wizard of Oz’.  In 2010 sunlight productions
gave a little back to its theatre roots, creating a youth bursary in
conjunction with the Riverside Theatre youth drama school. It was in
2010 Sunlight Productions developed its community and education work
further which led to our drama being used as a meduim to BREAK THE
BOUNDARIES between the classroom and the community.  Consequently
Sunlight Productions Theatre AS Education was born and has been
developing ever since.
The 2010 Must Experience is all about Shakespeare. Over the course of
the camp, students will explore one of Shakespeare’s comedies and
learn skills needed to approach the play in three unique ways: in
classical Shakespearean style, in a style of Asian theatre, and as the
basis for devised or improvised work. We welcome students interested
in developing performance and production skills, learning new
approaches to theatre, collaborating with other creative students, and
BREAKING BOUNDARIES of the expected as a way to reach new
understandings of making theatre
PuSh Festival: Multimedia work Amarillo potently BUSTS BOUNDARIES of
traditional theatre
POINTLESS THEATRE CO. is dedicated to creating bold, visceral, and
affordable spectacles that gleefully SMASH THE TRADITIONAL BOUNDARIES
between puppetry, theatre, dance, music, and the visual arts.  Through
our work we excite a passion for adventurous art in the nation's
capital and nurture a diverse, active, and inspired audience.
GWAR is the predominant project of Slave Pit Inc. and the culmination
of numerous artists and musicians from nearly two decades. This is a
band as well as a theatrical troupe that has been ahead of its time
for many years as they SMASH THROUGH BOUNDARIES that no others would
even contemplate.
Maybe your bad vision doesn’t require a trip to the optometrist.
Pangea World Theater’s Alternate Visions Festival promises to showcase
diverse talent and DISINTEGRATE THE BOUNDARY between artists and
audiences with unique viewpoints told in new lights. The festival,
which runs through May 1, is currently featuring a world-premiere
performance of Eleven Reflections on September, a multimedia
performance exploring the tension between Arab Americans and others
post-September 11. Also featured are open-mic nights, panel
discussions and video screenings of culture-defining and norm-breaking
The Icarus Theatre Collective explores the harsh, brutal side of
classical and modern drama. We also value post-modernism and the great
surrealists, blending classic stories into a new Theatre of the
Absurd, which maintains a cohesive, evocative story. Tales of
mutilation, rape, and incest are not anathema to us, rather we choose
to relish what others shy away from, show what others daren’t, DESTROY
BOUNDARIES when others would create rules.
The winner of eight Tony awards and featuring “the most gorgeous
Broadway score this decade” (Entertainment Weekly), with songs by
Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, Spring Awakening is a celebration of
youth and self-discovery that combines classic text and rock and roll.
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind, Spring Awakening follows a group
of 19th Century German teens as they grapple with sexuality, morality
and rebellion in a world of unresponsive adults, Spring Awakening
EXPLODES THE BOUNDARIES of musical theatre to reveal the touching and
passionate journey of growing up.
Presented by Yale Repertory Theatre and World Performance Project at
Yale, celebrates the diversity of voices and experiences in today’s
world. NO BOUNDARIES explores—and explodes—the frontiers of theatrical
invention through cutting-edge, thought-provoking dance, music, and
theatre. Tearing down cultural, linguistic, and geographic barriers,
NO BOUNDARIES extends and enhances the educational mission of Yale
University through a series of performances by artistic innovators
from around the globe—right here in New Haven, right here at Yale.
Perhaps a little too slow-moving and slightly drawn-out at times, it
is nonetheless effective in tugging at the heart-strings. Touching and
sentimental, time is not the only boundary crossed here; SURELY,

 What a bunch of zombies. Break Boundaries! Smash Boundaries! Maybe they hate boundaries so much because they figure that on the other side of boundaries are braaaaaaiiiiiins!

The kind of playwrights Wellman likes, he explains:
(have) an attitude towards story-telling that is very different from the norm in our theatre in These States. Often their plays operate like a game of three-dimensional chess: characters who are firmly located in one apparent world suddenly find themselves in a situation that is drastically elsewhere... Sometimes the apparent explanation for a series of events is more baffling than the events supposedly elucidated... and still other plays, a series of apparently unrelated scenes take on an evocative, if malign mood, when linked together. 
Three-dimensional chess! That sounds smart! Not the usual Theatre of the Retarded that critics in These States adore so much!

And clearly the critics are ever so dull because I have yet to see a single chess metaphor in their rhapsodies for Circle Mirror Transformation. The NYTimes said:
Lauren gets the big finish too. In a final exercise, she and Schultz pretend to run into each other 10 years in the future. Everything is made clear: People know you better than you may think. Many truths are unspoken. Everything will be fine.
That sounds alarmingly coherent and... dare I say it... traditional. How about the LA Times?
The play allows us to make discoveries of characters as we fit together the scraps of their biographies. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that James, who broods depressively over his estranged daughter, teaches at the college and that his marriage to Marty is not as idyllic as it initially appears. And it’s only over time that we sense something is not quite right about Theresa’s manic friendliness or begin to appreciate the sharply observing intelligence of Lauren (Lily Holleman), the youngest of the group. A socially remedial high school student, she's the only one brave enough to ask, "Are we going to be doing any real acting?"
Damn they love that line "Are we going to be doing any real acting?" I don't think a single review fails to mention it. But hey, it's funny - and anybody can get it. So what else is there - biographies? An estranged daughter? That doesn't sound a bit baffling and nothing at all like three-dimensional chess. Clearly the critics are less discerning than even Wellman gives them credit for, they failed to sense a single sharp edge.

Obviously my next step is to track down a copy of Circle Mirror Transformation and find those sharp edges... but then, maybe I'm not really cut out for comprehending theatre. I mean, I suck at even one-dimensional chess.

In the mean time, enjoy these remarks from Theresa Rebeck:
Last year I attended a cocktail party for a theater that was doing one of my plays. The artistic director was making a little presentation, introducing me to his staff and his board, and he said -- in front of everybody -- "Theresa's plays are always really well-structured, but don't hold that against her."

The next day I wrote him an e-mail. "Hey, is it somehow considered uncool to structure a play these days?" I asked.

"Actually," he wrote back, "my literary department kind of does think that."

Literary departments aren't the only ones. I was hosting a session at the Lark, a New York developmental theater that helps playwrights build plays in a workshop setting, and one of the writers presented a beautifully written complete mess of a play. After many people, including myself, praised the grace of the writing, I admitted that I found the play incoherent. The writer nodded and laughed, delighted at my response. "I just wanted to stay away from anything that resembled a plot," she explained.

"Oh, well, plot," I said.

Here's a plot: Two guys are waiting for somebody big and important to show up. That guy never shows up, but somebody else does. They go back to waiting, and then the tree grows.

Here's another plot: A lonely guy lives on a farm for a long time. He gets bored with his life. He gets a crush on his sister-in-law, and she gets a crush on his friend. Eventually, everyone goes home, only now all of them are even lonelier than they were before.

Here's another plot: A king divides his kingdom between two of his daughters. All hell breaks loose.

I think it goes without saying that young would-be playwrights in developmental workshops should be so lucky as to write plays as good as "Waiting for Godot," "Uncle Vanya" or "King Lear," none of which would have existed without a decent plot. Obviously a theatrical masterpiece needs more than a plot; many television shows are nothing but plot, and it is doubtful that they will stand the test of time. But I also don't think that making fun of plot, or acting like we're all somehow "above" structure is such a good idea.
More here...

UPDATE - I just came across another worshipful piece on Mac Wellman (except for this blog, is there any other kind?) called, what else, Mac Wellman: Pushing Boundaries.