By Aaron Wigdor Levy, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to see the greatest plays in history performed by some of the greatest actors. Long Day’s Journey into Night. I saw that with Brian Dennehy. I saw him in Touch of the Poet too. And Death of a Salesman. I just saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in it a few months ago. Both were amazing performances that I’ll remember the rest of my life. I’ve seen three revivals of A Raisin in the Sun and every time I’ve gotten something new out of the play. I’ve seen Long Day’s Journey three times. I’ve seen four different productions of Glengarry Glen Ross, not including the monologues that are used for auditions. I’ve probably seen ten different productions of Macbeth, going from brilliant to not so brilliant. And Romeo and Juliet… I’ve seen a few of those too.
Theater respects its past in a way that few other industries do, but when we constantly look to what came before rather than what will come can we ever really move forward? Recently I was in a bookstore and found myself looking over the drama section. I saw the usual suspects of Shakespeare, O’Neill, Brecht, Ibsen, Chekov, Miller, and going all the way back to Sophocles. Aside from a Pulitzer winner of two, there wasn’t a single copy of a new play. How can a new playwright compete with something that’s been performed for over 2500 years? I walked over to the new fiction section saw a table filled with new books. Both fiction and theater have a heady respect for the past, but literature seems to have a different appreciation for new work than theater. A new author doesn’t have to go head to head with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We always criticize Hollywood for recycling ideas over and over, but I doubt anyone is saying there’s a need to remake Citizen Kane every few years. Yes, Spider-Man is getting another reboot this summer, but how many times is there a new take on The Seagull, Mother Courage, Hamlet or Iphigenia?
On an economic level it makes sense. Give the people a product they know and that they’re familiar with. But what are we saying about new work when nine out of ten times it plays on the smaller stage while a revival or known work plays the main stage. This is especially true with regional theaters. Google regional productions of Neil Simon and see what happens. For theater to remain relevant and have a lasting dialogue new work has to be on an equal footing with revivals. Most likely a new play isn’t going to have the lasting cultural resonance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but we’ll never know if we don’t give it a chance. Writers know they’re competing with the past. There are only a few spots in most theaters’ seasons for new work and by looking over most season schedules a writer can easily see where they stand. The message to the writer is clear.
This is not to say that revivals should go away. I’m not advocating that at all. One of the great things about theater is the way classic pieces can still have life and new audiences are able to see fresh takes on work that may have been written hundreds of years ago. This is our legacy as theatergoers and practitioners. But I don’t want to see theater go the way of classical music and opera where the same standards are trotted out year after year for an audience that refuses to embrace anything new. There are a lot of great companies and institutions concentrating on new work, but we still put so much weight on the classics that new writers feel stifled. We need to find a way for new work and classics to co-exist on equal ground.
Sometimes I’ll mention to an acquaintance that I’m working on a new play. If they’re up on new plays they’ll talk about writers they’re excited about and new plays they’ve seen, but more than likely they’ll start talking about a classic they saw years ago. To them this is what theater is because that’s what they’ve been told it is. They act astonished that people still write new plays. In New York it’s easy to ignore that most people aren’t aware of new work for the theater. As writers and members of the theater community we need to make sure that we respect the past, but to also remember we need a future as well.
Aaron Wigdor Levy's profanity laced short play, TRUBIE, was commissioned and recently produced by the American Theater Company in Chicago for their 10X10 Play Festival.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.