I almost wrote a letter to Moises Kaufman recently. Had the email to Tectonic Theatre all ready. Then I almost stood outside the stage door at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in NYC to get autographs from the cast of Sweeney Todd. What’s up with that? I’m so not that kind of person.
One of those fundamental rules of being a playwright is that you should read plays and see plays. Read and see, read and see. But what happens when you get into a mode where every play you read is really crappy and every play you see just makes you – or me – crazy? Bad thunder cloud crazy. Plays with huge gaping plot holes, sitcom-like characters, bizarre lighting, bizarre blocking, flying helicopters and falling chandeliers. The people putting this theatre out there are the ones who supposedly know what they’re doing, the professionals, the ones getting the big bucks. Seeing these plays makes me lose some of my faith in theatre and drives me downright cuckoo. For awhile I had a first class ticket on the train to Crazy Town. All aboard!
And in order to stop the train to Crazy Town I had to stop reading plays and seeing them. Which was good for my mental faculties but not great for my theatre awareness. And every once in awhile I’d venture back out to give it another try and I’d see something awful and retreat once again.
But when there’s still hope in the world, there’s still hope for the theatre! Two great experiences happened recently to really bolster my faith in the big boys, Theatre with a capital “T.”
Doing research for a (funnily enough) writing research workshop I read The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre. I had been avoiding reading this play (and seeing it too) because of the subject matter and I was afraid it might be an overwrought “woe is me” type of thing. Alternatively, it could be overly-narrative which is the fastest way to suck the drama out of anything. I had recently seen a play about the holocaust where the actors (there were no characters) stood at the lip of the stage and “narrated” what happened to them. It was boring, and that is something that should never happen.
With great trepidation I sat down at a table at the Toronto Reference Library and cracked the cover. What a great play. I almost cried sitting at that table; not just because of the story, but because the characters were so well drawn on the page. I felt like I knew them – on both sides of the tragedy. Mr. Kaufman knew that issues have more power when the audience connects to the people involved. It should never be a play about an issue, an event, a historical moment – it should be about the people who go through it.
I was so moved and thrilled to read this play that I came home and wrote this huge “thank you – gee this is great – wow I’m a new person – letter.” Which ultimately I didn’t send because in the end, it’s really more about me and my issues. I’m sure my letter would be scary to read, best kept to myself. In conclusion I have this huge feeling of gratitude that such a influential theatre is putting out this kind of work and keeping the chandeliers out of the equation.
And on that note, the production of Sweeney Todd I saw in New York last month was the epitome of theatrical, a prime example of why I write and what I like about the theatre. A true ensemble piece of the highest quality. The fact that it’s on Broadway, it’s playing with the big boys and not safe, and not mere spectacle. It’s the big time and yet everyone on stage (so far as I can see, and if they’re faking I certainly couldn’t tell) was totally committed to the work. Love, love, love that. Made me dance in the streets afterward. Still makes me smile.
What’s the moral of the story? Keep the faith. (OK that was corny, but what can I say? I’m terribly fond of the theatre. I think that it isn’t dead and it will always have the power to truly affect people.) Now if I can just stay off that train to Crazy Town…