October 21, 2011

Emptiness and the living playwright

It may seem strange for me to say this, but the biggest influence on my work as a playwright is Peter Brook's The Empty Space and The Open Door. The Empty Space is one of the first books about theatre I ever picked up. At the time, I only plucked them off the shelf because they were short and easy for me to understand. Little did I know how fortuitous it was for this piece to appeal to me. From the first sentence, I was immediately made aware of the sheer possibility of theatre:
"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged." -- Peter Brook, The Empty Space
If I can be said to have anything approaching a philosophy of theatre-making, that would be it. This idea of emptiness as a core component of theatre-making fascinates me as an artist. What a liberating, empowering concept! To make vital theatre that engages audiences at every moment, you don't need a building, or sets, or a light/sound board. All you need are people and space. Imagine that!

The Open Door is the book that made me realize that making theatre that captivates and touches an audience depends not on a complex intellectual edifice, but the freedom to explore and discover. This helped free me from feeling obligated to explain so much about my plays, whether in the script itself or when collaborating with others.

Of course, Peter Brook was working with playwrights who are either dead or not present during the production.

As a living playwright, this puts me in a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, I want to help collaborators in whatever way I can. On the other hand, I want to give people the space to discover their own meanings for the play. Sure, I want to be involved, and I want the intentions I have to be honored, but at the end of the day, I wrote a play, not a manifesto.

In my own writing, I deliberately create empty spaces, and I am often reluctant to make any definitive statements about my work's meaning or intent. For one thing, those things are not static. Who I am when I initially write a script is often not the same person as who I am six months after the final draft. Another thing is that I enjoy making room for a variety of perspectives and approaches. Giving my scripts this free space, I find, does much to keep the work fresh and allows for more powerful collaborations with fellow artists and audiences.

What about you? How do you create empty spaces in your own work as a theatre maker?

October 19, 2011

Follow-up "Moneyball" post at TCG Circle!

At TCG Circle, I ask, "What if . . . theatres played Moneyball?"

Then I dig deeper by asking, “What if, instead of relying on gut reactions and chemistry, we figured out a way to describe, observe, and measure what we are looking for?”

Check it out and drop a few of your ideas!

October 13, 2011

What if . . . Indie theatre played Moneyball?

There's rich teams, and there's poor teams. Then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us."
-- Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, Moneyball

I'm not much of a sports fan, so Moneyball was a real departure for me in terms of my normal film viewing habits. That said, I was glad I went to see it because what I saw got me thinking about the way we approach making theatre.

In the film, the Oakland A's is a major league baseball team that doesn't have the money to attract and maintain star players. When they get someone really good, they're quickly snapped up by teams that can offer a lot more money. In effect, the A's were constantly hemorrhaging talent to rich teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox.

The story starts when the A's have just lost their top three players, which they have to replace on the same limited budget they've always been operating with. Having had enough of this, General Manager Billy Beane starts to question the conventional wisdom of finding and recruiting talent. Help comes in the form of Peter Brand, a Yale economics graduate who has adapted a system for determining just how much a player can contribute to winning games. It completely goes against the old way of thinking about what matters when it comes to how baseball games are won. The system leads to the A's uncovering rare gems in major league baseball who were previously overlooked because they looked and performed differently from the square-jawed All-American ideal of what makes a great baseball player. The result was what Peter Brand called the major league baseball version of the Island of Misfit Toys. Once they were able to maximize and synergize the unique talents of these players, the A's had a 20-game winning streak.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this.

What if . . . we applied Moneyball thinking to off-off-Broadway theatre?

How would we take out the guesswork and bias of conventional wisdom to find what truly works for the theatre we want to make? How can we transform the way we relate to and organize with other people in the trenches with us? How can we maximize the strengths of off-off-Broadway theatre to uncover the hidden gems that get overlooked by the current way of doing things?

The way things look now, a lot of us are doing what Broadway does but on a smaller scale (in other words, cheaper). From our selection process to putting together a cast and crew to securing a venue for rehearsal and performance, there's nothing about the way we go about doing these things that separates us from the big guys. We even look for the same things when we do this, with a few cosmetic differences here and there.

We're all on the lookout for this vague thing called quality and striving for this thing we call excellence. Although this can lead to some amazing results, I sometimes wonder if this is despite the system rather than because of it.

What would happen if we took the search for quality out of the equation? What if, instead of relying on what we call talent or chemistry, we figured out a way to describe, observe, and measure what we are looking for? How would that change the way we talk about what we're trying to do? How would that change who could be involved in that process? How would that change where we worked? How we worked? Why we worked? What we worked with/on?

What I see happening is a move away from credentials and connections toward model where individuals come together to create theatre for a specific purpose in a distinctive way. Imagine more things like FUREE in Pins and Needles, things that could not happen in any other environment but one that made room for experimentation, encouraged the participation of non-specialists, and facilitated direct collaboration within communities.

At least, that's what I hope would happen.

October 5, 2011

Present-day African theatre forms

I came across this article about present-day African theatrical forms while doing research on a few things. It's an intriguing read, especially in comparison and contrast to discussions about devised theatre that crop up from time to time.

I'm not yet sure how I'll relate this to the poiesis as a whole, but I do know that I am reluctant to do what's always been done with African culture and limit analysis and engagement to specific forms as opposed to digging a bit deeper. For instance, I wouldn't want to end up focusing overmuch on masks and dance -- the predictably "exotic" elements -- while ignoring the different ways African cultures conceive and construct reality. I'm far more fascinated by, say, the impact of a diunital worldview upon the ways people of African descent construct and interpret story.

October 3, 2011

QBWL poiesis: go figure

Somebody beat me to it. It's worth a read, especially as a way of putting a lot of what I say in context. While the linked article described what womanist theatre is about, my poiesis seeks to be more about how to make it work.