May 30, 2013

What is New and What is Abandoned

Paul Valéry 
I am part of a New Works thread of local playwrights where I live and recently the discussion touched on the vague phrase "New Plays." 

A local critic made a passing statement in a review about a recent production at one of the area's larger theatres. Despite the fact the work had not been transferred to New York yet, it had received development and productions elsewhere before playing in the Dallas area. The critic cited this and, therefore, did not consider the piece a "new work."

This launched a discussion about what constitutes a "new play."

My belief is that the phrase we use, "new work," is too vague to have adequate meaning nowadays. For instance, a few years ago, Dallas had a slew of Sarah Ruhl plays presented over the course of a year, year and half. Every play presented had been seen at multiple other theatres around the country either previously or at roughly the same time they were being shown for Dallas audiences. All of the plays were published. But Sarah Ruhl (and I really do love her stuff) was marketed as a "new playwright" presenting us with "new work."

When does a play stop being "new?" This is one of the things I struggled with when I worked as a Literary Manager. 

Theatres are often, and usually in an unspoken way, reluctant to do honest-to-goodness new work. That is, unless it is a world premiere. It seems preferable to find a piece that has some legs, but is still under the national radar. Proven enough, but not something everyone else has had a crack at yet.

The problem here is, there is no name for this kind of work. Could we call it "new-ish?"

As I've progressed as a playwright, I have formed my own theory on the definition of what constitutes a "new play." It is new, or in-progress/development, as long as the original creator(s) of the piece are still working on it.

Poet Paul Valéry famously said "a poem is never finished, only abandoned." This is how I regard plays. Only when they are released into the world, outside the involvement (and protection) or the original creators, only then is it no longer "new." This includes publication. If a play is published or otherwise available in the marketplace for anyone, anywhere to produce, then it is no longer new.

This does not preclude the playwright from still working on the piece, it only acts as the dividing line representing when a play is no longer "new."

A play is, like a poem, never finished. I think sometimes theatre artists are too quick to move on from one project to the next. We enjoy our gypsy encounters. But sticking with something over a long time can be beneficial. It can't indefinitely stay new, but it also doesn't necessarily need to be pushed out into the world too quickly. I profited hugely by taking my solo show CHOP around to various festivals and playing before different audiences over a two year span.

There is an anecdote about the director Peter Brook (one of my long distant mentors). Directors usually leave the production process after a play hits opening night. Not Brook. He watches it and continues to work on it well into the run.

He rehearsed a scene from his production CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS on the day of the final performance in Paris. The play had had a lengthy run. Asked why he was rehearsing on the final day of the run, he replied, "There's no reason that tonight's audience should be denied a potential improvement."

I love that.

Brook knows there's always room for improvement and, though it is the goal to strive towards, perfection is impossible.That's how it is. Theatre is ephemeral, perishible, but that is where it draws its strength from. It isn't set. You can keep going back to the theatre. It is the only form of artistic expression that can be changed at any time.

I conclude with another Paul Valéry quote. Here he is explaining the thought behind his "never finished..." saying: 
In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed - a word that for them has no sense - but abandoned; and this abandonment, of the book to the fire or to the public, whether due to weariness or to the need to deliver it for publication, is a sort of accident,  compared to the letting-go of an idea that has become so tiring or annoying that one has lost all interest in it.

No comments:

Post a Comment