I've been thinking about the subject of narrative structure and the theater community's relationship to it so much over the last couple months that it's been very hard to write down my thoughts. But with the sudden and constant chatter about the Lost season finale, I feel like it's bubbled back up again, and I really just want to get it off my chest.
For some strange reason, the mainstream theater community has a stunningly unimaginative view of narrative structure. Or, the mainstream theater community has a shockingly simplistic view of their audience's view of narrative structure.
These views may exist for good reasons; I don't run a theater, I don't know.
But nonetheless these views are around—and at least at the level of a theater maker under 40, they are very hard to reconcile with the world I live in. (Ah, that theme again. See my last "After words" blog.)
What does this have to do with a television show and why am I posting it in the "after words" blog? Because I started wondering about it after reading this exchange in a dialogue/review of a show of mine last month in New York:
STEPHEN: Yeah. it is definitely a yummy concept, that I think works well in this play.
DIANNA: Yet I also feel that because it is not something that the average theatre-goer is used to (unless everyone in the audience watches LOST) that the playwright and director need to be careful. . .
I know its bad form to talk publically about your reviews. If they're good, you look like you're bragging. If they're bad, you look like you're whining. And any points a critic might make about your show that you wish to argue with, may actually be the critic's gentle attempt to say simply that they didn't like the show. And so, if you engage the argument, you're arguing with an inarguable point, i.e., that this individual just didn't get into your stuff, and so one finds oneself even more frustrated than before. Best to leave it alone.
However, I don't really want to argue with this review. You can read the whole thing here if you really want. It kind of rambles, I don't recommend it, it's generally positive, I'm not complaining. . . What has been needling me is the juxtaposition of the average theatre-goer and the audience for Lost as though the average theater-goer is so outside the popular culture loop that they don't even have a basic understanding of one of television's most popular shows.
Hey, personally, I haven't watched Lost—I'm saving it for when I have a weekend to lose with Netflix—but I do know the basic ideas and some of the twists and turns. I do live in America after all. I wasn't thinking that the audience needed to be familiar with the show when I wrote it—actually I don't feel Lost was as big a cultural phenomenon when I wrote the show in 2005-2006—but I certainly wouldn't expect any random bunch of 50 people who go to some off-off-Broadway show on 36th Street in Manhattan in 2010 to be entirely ignorant of the thing. . .
IF WE DO EXPECT OUR THEATER AUDIENCE IS IGNORANT of Lost and by Lost I mean, any of the fantastical narrative structures that anyone can see all over network television and cable television and movies and books and the internet, then who the hell is in the theater audience?!?!? It's like we're actually trying to find an impartial jury for a crime that has had wall-to-wall coverage in the media for the last month; I mean to say that the only audience we will be able to find who are that outside the loop may actually have some real mental deficiencies.
And the more I think about it, and the more I look at the plays that I see produced, or the plays that I've been encouraged to craft out of the plays I've initially written, or the reviews that I have received (and I'm not complaining, I've received some great reviews—oy, I'm not bragging either—I'm very grateful to the people who take the time to. . . o, fuck it. . .)—When I think about it, it sort of seems like American mainstream theater (and by mainstream I mean primarily the theaters that can actually pay a writer for a writer's work) ABSOLUTELY CANNOT HANDLE non-linear narrative of anything but the most basic kind.
Meanwhile, remember that even a not-very-popular television show like Flash Forward has millions, actual millions, more viewers than most theater has.
Originality in the mainstream theater, if that's even desired at all, is usually found in character, or theme, or some fantastical quirky element like a tree that grows in concrete or a magical envelope you can fly anywhere in. (I think I've just made those up; I don't mean to dis anyone's play.) But, for god's sake, don't let anything happen out of order. Or if you're going to do a flashback, only do it once, and preferably after the intermission.
A dramaturg I know, who has been very influential and who I won't name because I like him anyway, told me that audiences can only handle "one new element" in any new play. I'm not kidding. So, I guess, keep the narrative simple but have a strange character. Or keep the characters recognizable but transfer them to some fantastical island. But weird narrative stuff just adds too much to keep track of all at once. . .
Of course, you're welcome to show me I'm wrong. As I think I've made clear repeatedly through my writing on this website, I'm open to the idea. But I'm really having trouble figuring out where.
Narrative structure has gone through so many innovations through the internet and television and movies in the last 20 years, yet narrative structure in the theater has, somehow, gotten more conservative. Sometimes I look at regional theater seasons and suddenly fear that the decades of the 60s through the 80s didn't exist. Except for one or two Mamet plays, Shepard's True West, and the super-occasional Lanford Wilson play, it's only linear, kind of quirky, contemporary stuff or stuff from the 1950s or earlier.
Why is that? Is it truly harder for audiences to follow narrative when it's live in front of them? Perhaps.
Of course, there are certainly theater companies (usually smaller, scrappier) who are having some relative success with nonlinear stuff. (I should talk about Walking Shadow's Trandimensional Courier's Union here, but I've already written more than I intended.)
Or, while television, movies, and the internet become more relevant, more modern, did theater retreat into a kind of circle-the-wagons-around-the-codified-culture mode? Making the theater we produce more like museum pieces than modern art? (I like museums. I think they have value in preserving cultural history. And they relax me. But they don't pretend to be "relevant" in the same way that theater artists squawk about relevance. Or in the way that television actually is relevant.)
I can't help myself from quoting another review of the same show, this one less positive, that begins: "Almost Exactly Like Us, the new play by Alan M. Berks now playing at the WorkShop Theatre, is the sort of play that my fairly conservative parents would hate" and ends with the line "this play has something to offer, but I don't think I would recommend this to the majority of my theatre-going friends."
OK, of course as a playwright, this review infuriates me: Who cares whether your parents would like the show or not? Are they you? Were they even there? Did they tell you they wanted to come? Was it their job to review it but they sent you instead? And what do you mean "something to offer" but who are these theatre-going friends? (And why do you spell theater with "re"?!?) Are they like your parents too? Why do I care about them? Why can't I care about the people who would think this play has "something to offer" like, I guess, you--for cryin' out loud.
But once I get past my petty annoyance—So you didn't really love my play, Mr. Critic. I didn't really love your review, or, to be honest, your floppy writing style. I guess we're even. —Once I get past that, I start thinking about how I actually do hear other people judge theater based on other people's, usually more conservative, criteria, all the time: "I liked it but I don't think other people will." Or, "O, that's just so theatery. I don't think most people will like it.
All I'm saying is that most people are actually at home watching Lost, so I think we've got to consider that many of the conventional ideas about what most people in this country like in their stories are wrong—and need to stop being considered mainstream by the theater community.