Last night brought me to WNYC’s Greene Space for a panel with three great playwrights – Melissa James Gibson, Annie Baker, and Amy Herzog. The event, moderated by Village Voice theater critic Alexis Soloski, featured readings from the playwrights and one-on-one interviews with each writer followed by a broader conversation with all three. If the playwrights had just read from their plays (specifically [sic], The Flick, and 4000 Miles) and sent us home, it still would have been worth going.
I was happy to see that the audience had a sizable male population. And equally so that there wasn’t much time spent on the concept of “women playwrights”. About an hour into the evening, Soloski remarked, “I can’t help but notice that we’re all female.” And to her credit, the only part of the discussion that was gender-focused pertained to whether opportunities are changing for women playwrights (consensus: not on Broadway, but yes elsewhere) which is a more interesting conversation than had a moderator tried to connect women writers on the basis of gender.
One quality that does link these particular writers, however, is a pursuit of naturalistic language -- that imperfect vernacular that ultimately reveals a character truthfully. As Gibson stated during the discussion, “I think we’re all interested in the colloquial poetry of everyday conversation. It’s all right there for the stealing.”
Another common thread is the way these playwrights, each in her way, create subtle, secret moments that make the audience pay attention. Baker’s gift is with silences. In the script to Circle Mirror Transformation, her author’s note states that “without its silences, this play is a satire, and with its silences it is, hopefully, a strange little naturalistic meditation on theater and life and death and the passing of time.” Herzog sets one of the most powerful scenes in 4000 Miles in near darkness where the characters' silhouettes are detectable but their faces and expressions are obscured. She specifies that the stage should be actually dark, not simply “stage dark”. And Gibson sets her play [sic] almost entirely in doorways and hallways so that we might, as she writes, “watch the action unfold through a half-closed door or a partially open window blind. In this way, the visual perspective is at times as limited as the outlook of the characters.”
To me, this is challenging theater in the best sense.
There have been many articles recently about the need for theater to be less self-important, less about polite audience members listening to actors talk. Many have pointed to experience-based theater as the perfect antidote, like Here Lies Love (involving dancing and movement), Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies at BAM (encouraging live tweeting), and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (featuring food, vodka, and cabaret seating amidst the performers). These productions are, without a doubt, invaluable to making theater vibrant, and to making a wider circle than dedicated theatergoers take notice. But I hope it doesn’t diminish plays like Herzog’s, Baker’s, and Gibson’s that necessitate a quiet, attentive audience.
In a recent post from playwright and blogger Gwydion Suilebhan, he writes that live communal events like sporting events, parades, even church services are “so much better [than theater] at convincing people to sit in a shared, real space together at the same time.” I too love theater that creates a shared experience and agree with Siulebhan’s sentiment. But I think it’s important too – and the playwrights last night reminded me – that a shared experience in theater can happen when the house is quiet. I wouldn’t call those audiences polite. I’d call them engaged.
Photo credit: Rachel Reilich, Heather Weston