Uncategorized | March 14, 2012
No Offense, Shakespeare…
Sometimes I like to think that I lead a double life. I’ve got one toe dipped in the English Department pond, the other in the whirlpool of theatre, drama and, more specifically, playwriting. Those in the former look at me as some sort of outsider, a literary interloper that fails to fit inside the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry boundaries. Those in the latter, after automatically assuming I’m an actor (to which I respond with a mortified objection) reply with a rather crestfallen “Oh… so then what do you do?” Um, I, like, write the plays, man.
To be clear, I am first and foremost a playwright. I am the unloved, underappreciated minority with thick glasses and no stage presence. I confound writers and actors alike. I enjoy hyperbole. So how do I straddle the threshold between my English roots and theatrical ambitions? As a college student stuck, er, grounded in the Midwest, I don’t always have the best outlets for getting my work produced. Aside from the Mizzou New Play Series, and the highly unlikely possibility of being accepted as a student to a professional theater’s production season, there are few options. As a current employee and former intern of The Missouri Review, my mind automatically thinks literary magazine. It seems like such an obvious solution, right?
Of NewPages.com’s extensive list of literary magazines, less than a dozen state that they actually accept drama submissions. Google searches for “drama literary magazines” come up with only a few results of publications that include plays. DRAMA, a magazine I thought would for sure include new dramatic work, is actually a forum for emerging costume designers. This noticeable lack of literary dramatic venues is shocking not only as a young playwright and creative writer, but also as general literary consumer. People involved in this expanding community should feel concerned over the almost complete lack of public access to theatre and drama outside of local and Broadway playhouses. It prompts the question: What happened to the value of theatre as a literary genre?
Thirty years ago, according to my sources who are in fact over my 22 years of age, college English curricula regularly included the great American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neil. Mentioning Strindberg then was not met with looks of confusion, and Arthur Miller was known for something other than that one guy in the Marilyn Monroe film with Michelle Williams. Now, unless you are a part of a theatre department, it is unlikely that you will study any playwright besides Shakespeare, maybe Marlowe – definitely no one outside of the 16th and 17th centuries. With no disrespect to Shakespeare, I cannot fathom why plays, especially classic American works like “A Streetcar Named Desire” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Glass Menagerie” are not a fundamental part of students’ literary education. Plays have just as much technical skill and creative value as novels, poetry, and essays, and should be taught alongside such works in modern curricula.
A few years ago, I was sitting in an Intro to Theatre class, one of those cattle call lecture monstrosities that freshmen take because all the other Humanities credits were filled with upperclassmen. Our professor asked the class to name just a single contemporary playwright they knew without hurrying to Google it on their precursor to the iPhone (this being 2008). No one raised a hand. I couldn’t believe it. Even as a relatively new member of MU’s theatre department, I had at least heard of Edward Albee, Williams, and O’Neil, but of course my paralyzing fear of hearing my voice amongst a crowd of 400 (remember I said I’m not an actor) prevented me from spouting this diminutive list of names. When I think about it now, I cling to my hope that there were a few other shy freshmen who simply didn’t want to speak up, but in reality I know that the vast majority of those kids did not and could not name a major playwright from the 20th century. This frightens me, both as a student and as a young theatre artist. The best solution I can see, other than writing an angry letter to a long list of deans and superintendents, is to create a flourishing community of dramatic literature magazines.
I will say one thing about playwrights: we are a lazy bunch. My theatre friends and I constantly moan about our deadlines and requirements. We complain that people don’t care enough about theatre, and then we do little to contribute to its canon. I admit this freely and openly as someone who has yet to start the character worksheets that are due in my Playwriting capstone next week. This being said, I cannot think of a more tightly knit community within a specific major at the University of Missouri. Theatre students and professionals unfailingly support one another, offering advice, contacts, and productive criticism, which is why I cannot help but roll my eyes when I hear or read some expert exclaim about the slow death of the American theatre.
The art form is undoubtedly changing. It has to. The average person can’t just drop $150-$300 on a ticket to see Wit on Broadway (open through March 17 starring Cynthia Nixon!) Local playhouses are doing their best to produce theatre for the masses, but it is not always the most supportive venue for emerging playwrights. Financial and artistic choices often prevent adequate development for new plays, and subsequently limit the general and literary community’s exposure to new work. That is why this conspicuous lack of drama in the creative writing/publishing world continues to baffle me. Theatre is all about the shared experience, but when the forums are closed to dramatic growth, there is a real danger of endless recycling of old works. We must allow theatre to evolve in the same manner as fiction, poetry, and essays, so that young artists like myself and other undergraduates around the world can have the same opportunities as their literary cohorts. We must remind people that theatre is educational, theatre is entertaining, theatre is valuable. Theatre matters.
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