Earlier this month I wrote, “I don’t think that anyone much cares for my opinions, or cursory thoughts on theater.” That is still true. However I am changing in my assertion, “Nevertheless I try not to restrain my tongue.” In daily practice, and now extending to the web, I find myself hesitant. Time moves me away from the world of theater, at least in my putative role of playwright, and while plenty of opportunities exist to see things, in Chicago and without, I begin to doubt the value of opining on any particular play.
Recently it was suggested that Lynn Nottage is our best playwright, and I duly endeavored to find out if I agreed. More recently Alison Croggon has a post at Witness Performance about, “according to Tony Kushner, one of the most important playwrights now writing in the US.” She asks, “Why do we insist that our theatre be so dull?” scoffing “that the biggest risk our major theatres face is of boring themselves and everyone else to death.”
I gave some thought to the question; mostly familiar with Melbourne theater only through Croggon’s own reviews and blog posts, yet I had some ideas about theater in Chicago, particularly our prevalence of black boxes, which I don’t know if have their equivalence in Melbourne, and thought of scribbling out some apropos response. Then I had second thoughts and chose not to, opting instead to put something here, with intimations that I may be letting go of this forum sometime soon. After all, who am I to have an opinion?
This marks the closing of a period for me: several years ago, I decided to not pussyfoot around anymore, but rather voice my opinion online whenever I felt it. It was a staking out territory in the fringes of an industry that would not have me. So, even though it got me accused of harboring “sour grapes” (I’m sure I did) and being “such a dick” yet I persisted. The fact is, you have no reason to believe that any opinion voiced by me holds value beyond the assertion: what, indeed, have I done?
Still, it felt good; and you have an archive of things I put up on Disqus, not to mention comments scattered about in other places such as the aforementioned Witness Performance website that lie beyond tracking. Yet a realization that it is almost exactly twenty years since I opened my first email account got me thinking of this past two decades’ trend in my life.
The email came about specifically to facilitate the preproduction of my Non Fit Press book The Requiem, and all subsequent engagements with the internet (excepting one social media site) were done with one eye partially blinking to see how it would move (to paraphrase Richard Huttel) “my illustrious (writing) career.”
Now that course has run; and I find myself bent on disengaging. Not to promise that I will let the website lapse, or even slow my commenting in this “News” section, but to reorient my relation to it a little if I can. Email is no frivolity anymore, and maybe even social media. You have to have it with more business transacted online these days than ever in the past; the (alleged) “public presence” of a personal website may be less critical, yet why should I pull it down? I’m not embarrassed of that course, even if I find myself wanting to change direction.
Yet, opining on theater: is it really necessary? Performance reviews lack utility without a specific audience that needs information to know what it wants to see, whereas off-the-cuff criticism such as I might make here probably will not have much of a shelf life. (Ever the optimist at one time I gathered some of these blog posts et al. into a collection of literary criticism. It is clear that I believed them worth the publishing, even as with single poems, but I have fallen into doubt.)
The immediate catalyst for this post was feelings I have about plays just seen. The one, The Children by Lucy Kirkwood which opened last night is the best contemporary script I have ever seen mounted at Steppenwolf. Jonathan Berry, a director about whom I have posted and whose work I make it a point to follow, proved once again that given a strong script his direction is masterful. The other is an abysmal local production of Peter Handke’s Self-Accusation which I attended night before last. Originally a two-hander, the company expanded the play’s cast to eight and introduced all kinds of extraneous shenanigans in an effort (largely failed) to add interest. I have admired Handke novels, but cannot assess him as dramatist based on this the first production I’ve seen.
The point is, of what use opining? (Even when I was working in theater doing mostly assistant stage management work nobody wanted my opinion; why should I feel obliged to give it now?) So I begin to reconsider what I put forth. Kirkwood’s play—wherever you are—is something you should see if you have the opportunity. It touches on the Anthropocene maturely, and is worth seeing for that alone, even before its exquisite execution.
Chicago’s black box scene is varied, and the quality of production on offer varies between extremes even in most of our established companies: that is what gives our theatrical community the excitement it has. Even an atrocious production is worth seeing when it adds to the ferment (atrocious—the word I meant instead of abysmal).
It would be lovely to spend a season in Melbourne to see how the theatrical culture differs from ours. My sense is, the all-round artistic quality of Iain Sinclair’s A View From the Bridge exceeds anything we are capable of except accidentally, and that the audience is more attuned with classics and high-toned virtuosity than ours; whereas we excel in messiness. I wish Chicago standards were higher, yet one cannot deny the frisson of it all. One does not ask, “Why do we insist that our theatre be so dull?”
The Children opened at Melbourne Theatre Company a year before Steppenwolf’s production, yet both have done Lucas Hnath’s seemingly awful A Doll House Part 2. It would be curious to see a Berry-directed A Room with a View to judge whether Berry could rise to Sinclair’s standards; or just to see more of MTC and Sinclair to make comparison. Standard fare like Single Asian Female (by Michelle Law mounted at Fairfax Studio) would not be out of place making it to our Goodman stage in due time, hardly differing in tenor to the Nottage play I saw. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Repertory Theater recently mounted an excellent production of Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to Be True which I got to see.
On the other hand, contrary to David Mamet, of what use is theater if one doesn’t talk about it? Post-performance talkback forums feel a bit too town-hally for my liking, at least in Chicago where our audience lacks the apparent sophistication of Melbourne’s—Melbourne may be a different matter. For now, a bird in the hand is what I have, so why not spout? These are but random thoughts—with some small effort to make them less so, which for me is blogging’s function. Increasingly, the need feels absent.