Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When Good Plays Go Bad

OK, call this one "belling the cat".

Saturday afternoon I attended the above-mentioned lecture at the Carol Shields Festival of New Works at PTE.

Robb Paterson (MTC), Ardith Boxall (MTP) and a panel of actors, playwrights, dramaturges and directors were all in attendance.
Bill Kerr, the dramaturge from the U of M started off by saying there would be no discussion of specific productions. Indeed.

Monique Marker said, we all love each other too much to say what needs to be said sometimes. But how loving are we being if we keep spending limited resources giving big productions to scripts that aren't ready, leading to mixed press and grumpy audiences?

Every theatre in town knows darn well that in the past two seasons we the paying customers, have been subjected to a whole lot of script material that was clearly not production ready: BOYS IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, NORTH MAIN GOTHIC, SHAKESPEARE'S DOG and TRANSIT OF VENUS, the opera all spring to mind. Every last one of those shows had the potential to be exponentially better than they were had the scripts had major revisions before receiving expensive public productions. If only half the PR or the set budget had been spent on rewrites.

In all of the above, swell production values and a game cast couldn't paper over the fact that the book just plain wasn't ready.
Basic structural problems like protagonists without consistent objectives ( TRANSIT, NM GOTHIC ) and meandering unfocussed plotlines ( BOYS, GOTHIC) can't be fixed by a great lighting design, great singing or fine acting. Moreover they all ran at or over 2 hours, an almost sure sign the writer needed to refine their thinking and clean up the story. Sorry, but it's a rare play that really needs to be longer than 90 minutes.

I've been there myself. I took a show on the road to 4 cities last summer that had considerable merit but that needed three more weeks of rewrites before it opened.

The year before I'd been lucky enough to be touring with my director. We rehearsed every day in the first two cities and made cuts to the play also a new script. It still needed more but it did get better on the road. Last year, I wasn't touring with my director. I went to colleagues I respected and had them tell me what I needed to do to fix the show. It did get better but it was never as good as it would have been with three more weeks of work upfront.

I figure taking it out before it was ready cost me 6K in lost box office revenue. Worse yet, even though I now know what I need to do to fix that script, it'll be 5 years before I can show it again anywhere. It'll always bother me to think I could have done better, had I taken more time off the top to rewrite.

This year, I've given myself 2 months to rewrite, rework and rehearse the new show I'm in. Why ? Because new work takes time to be ready. Right now, we have weekly rewrite meetings.

All of those theatres could have backburnered producing those shows when they saw it wasn't going to be ready in rehearsal and scrambled to stick something else in at the last minute. But they lose a lot of money doing this and they break a promise to subscribers by not giving them the season as advertised. Most theatres are so loath to do this they prefer to present a script that's not really ready rather than cancel a production.

The problem with sending new plays out as productions when they are only really at a draft stage is the audience walks out feeling more ripped off than they would have had they been shown something different but ready. It deadens their appetite for new work and makes it harder for new writers to get productions.

Rick Chafe did bravely say 50 people a night walked out of MTC during SHAKESPEARE'S DOG two winters ago, but 600 people stayed. The problem for MTC is those walk-outs add up to about a thousand people over the run. If those thousand people are subscribers and they choose not to renew the following year because they are fed up with seeing expensively mounted, unready scripts, MTC may well pull from doing more challenging new plays and do more murder mysteries, warhorses and musicals to lure them back.

I didn't dislike SHAKESPEARE'S DOG, but a largely unsympathetic protagonist, an unpalatably glib conclusion and a 2 1/2 hour running time were probably more than some audience members could take for $50. I expected a seasoned playwright and an experienced production team would have known to cut 15-20 minutes out of the last act. The moral grayness of Shakespeare's decision to abandon his wife and babies to pursue his career was whitewashed right over. And yes, I'm sure as they said, it was better by the time it got to Ottawa, but why was Winnipeg used as the out-of-town try-out?

Robb made an excellent point that 3 1/2 weeks is a too short rehearsal period for new work and many of the rougher edges could be taken off many new plays with a longer rehearsal period. But the structural and run time problems with SHAKESPEARE"S DOG were problems that needed to be figured out around a table not in front of 700 paying customers a night. MTC could and should have done their audience and the writer a favour, spent less on the set and more on the rehearsal period.

When people shell out good money at one of the bigger places in town ( MTC, Manitoba Opera) they have every reason to expect a finished play to go with the finished set and fancy costumes.

PTE on the other hand did a great production of ALL RESTAURANT FIRES ARE ARSON. Much of the really good new work I've seen here in past few years both local and from out of town ( LIAR, WHERE THE BLOOD MIXES) has been on that stage.

PTE doesn't have a lot more dough than its colleagues down the street but it does maintain a writers' room, a place where plays in development get worked informally in a peer group as well as sponsoring the writers' festival which showcases new plays. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of that room when it goes on stage. I'm willing to bet it's going to look a lot more ready than some of the new offerings elsewhere in the past few years.

I love writers' rooms. I was part of one for 10 years. Our group developed a Chalmers award-winning play (STUCK) and two film scripts that received HAROLD GREENBERG FUNDING for further development. Trust me there was a lot of re-writing done on those scripts fueled by notes from other writers.

If theatres in town want to do new work, they would do well to consider pooling resources, talking to MAP and the funding bodies and setting up a writers' room for the writers whose work they have under consideration. Meeting twice a month, the writers could share work in progress and give each other notes.

That way writers would have more feedback to do rewrites before their plays go into workshop or into production. All it would take is a room and a bit of organization. That's a whole lot cheaper than trying to win back a thousand subscribers lost by charging them full fare for a script that was only half ready. It's also a lot cheaper for the writer to fix the play before it opens than to try and repair his or her reputation and bruised ego when their work has been publicly presented in an unfinished state. Trust me, I know.