To start off, here are a list of things I found this week that could not be connected together in any other way than a loose and overly-used rhetorical device:
(1) The MacArthur Foundation has announced its latest list of MacArthur Fellows (which you probably know as "genius grants", even though the foundation has never once referred to them as such). This year there are two theater people on the list: artist and educator Anne Basting, who teaches at University of Wisconsin - Madison; and playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, whose play An Octoroon you might have seen at Mixed Blood Theater last year.
(3) Speaking of lawsuits: last week I mentioned the lawsuit against the Fringe Festival coming before a judge. My predecessor at News and Notes and current law student, Joshua Humphrey, dropped me a note to let me know how this procedure works: "Judge in the Fringe case has up to 90 days to enter her order. And the order is on a motion for summary judgment, so if it were denied, trial is a possibility." He consulted with his fellow law students and even tracked down the Minnesota statute they believe covers this particular proceeding. Thorough!
(3) Speaking of trials: I know it seems weird to talk about ol' Dubya right now (considering the current politics we're all slogging through), but there's a production in New York right now putting George W. Bush on trial for war crimes and asking the audience to literally render a vote as a jury deciding whether he should live or die.
(4) Speaking of death, here's a well-researched and amusing article on the history of theatrical portrayals of death.
(5) Editor's interruption: Want to wish a fond farewell to John Miller Stephany and Andrew Cooke before they head off to the wilds of Arkansas? Stop by the Theatre Garage on Monday, Oct 3 from 7-10 pm for a Bon Voyage Celebration. RSVP to Ann Michels, [email protected] if you plan to attend. The organizers wanted to reach as many people who know and love these gentlemen as possible but this dumb editor didn't send the information to Derek in time for his column--so this dumb editor is breaking in where he thinks this information fits. See you Monday. Interruption done. Back to Derek:
I hope you're getting ready for Halloween! Now, on with the show:
So, is playwriting dead or not?!
In this section, I'm pretty much just going to give it over to American Theatre Magazine. In their latest edition, they go through the yearly ritual of analyzing the most-produced plays and the most-produced playwrights of the theater season (excluding A Christmas Carol and Shakespeare, because, come on.) Granted, this analysis only applies to theaters that are members of American Theatre Magazine's parent organization, TCG, which means that it mainly covers LORT houses and other larger houses that dominate their local markets; but it's usually been a fairly reliable marker of what's been hot across the country, even in the smaller houses. (I know off-hand that at least half of the list of most-produced plays have been produced here in the Twin Cities in the past season.)
Every year when they release these lists, ATM usually includes a few quick trends that they noticed, like this year's note on diversity:
"American Theatre started counting the Top 20 playwrights in 2014 and so far, 2016-17 is the most diverse season yet, with 8 playwrights of color and 6 women represented—an increase from last year, which had 3 and 5, respectively. On the other hand, this year’s Top 10 Plays do not reflect gender parity, and, unlike last year, a playwright of color is not in the No. 1 spot."
However, this year, they didn't stop with that back-of-the-envelope analysis. Instead, they produced a bunch of really interesting, thought-provoking articles on the state of playwriting in America. For example, there was this in-depth analysis of gender parity. They conclude that only 26% of plays in the upcoming season were written by women, which seems low (because it is), but that is actually up from last year's 21%. If that seems dispiriting to you, they also dug up a silver lining. This coming season also features a higher than normal number of new plays (64%!), and, of that specific group, 32% are by women. So, it's not gender parity, but the trend line certainly suggests that it's moving toward that, especially as more companies decide to put up new plays. (Thanks, Kilroys!)
But even as American theater is starting to invest more heavily in new plays, there are still sizable systemic problems with how plays get produced that dilute those achievements. Philip Boehm, the artistic director of Upstream Theater in St. Louis, warns against bowing to the supremacy of New York. As he correctly points out, a good deal of the plays that fly across "most-produced" lists have to get produced there before they get taken seriously elsewhere, and this can have serious consequences for a local community's ability to define itself through theater:
"Theatre in the United States is homogenized enough as it is, with a relatively small set of plays dominating the larger LORT houses in any given season—a phenomenon reinforced by the same theatres casting most major roles out of New York. Regional distinctions become erased, while the concept of the resident company—a concept so crucial to Zelda Fichandler’s pioneering vision—has become largely eroded as the same stages now tend to hire show by show. This practice does not build community, does not lay the foundation for an artistic home. Actors from the province move to New York to get hired back to the province, though not necessarily to the one they know best."
Critic Helen Shaw wades into this issue even further by pointing out that the explosion of new playwrights on the scene are all coming from the same place: a a handful of MFA programs whose graduates achieve notoriety by being selected by a handful of influential artistic directors at a few key theaters. As Shaw sees it, this has produced a new brand of theater that is more experimental with its forms, but less fundamentally connected to the lower classes of society. This increasingly cerebral, academic approach to playwriting has also coincided with longer and longer development times for plays (with the accompanying endless rounds of workshops and rewrites) that have eroded theater's ability to be truly reactive to any particular moment in society.
Anyway, it's all good stuff, and one of the best single editions of American Theater Magazine that I've seen in a long time. In fact, just stop reading this right now and go read that instead. Or, as my editor would probably prefer me to say: go read that after you've finished reading this fine Minnesota Playlist article.
Or, even better, go out and produce a show in your local community that comes from your local community.
You know, after you've finished reading this fine Minnesota Playlist article.
Last week I was furiously typing out an article mostly about the Ivey Awards and mostly in the few short hours between waking the morning after the Ivey Awards and the email I received from my editor asking exactly when the article about the Ivey Awards was going to be turned in. In that furious typing, I missed a few things about the awards that, upon further reflection, I should have included. Fortunately, my readers left me more comments than usual (in that they left more than 0) to point out the errors of my ways. My responses are mostly math, which should make for absolutely riveting reading.
First of all, someone asked if the title to last week's article was a nod to the comic strip Jim's Journal. Congratulations, Carol J! It only took two different articles about the Iveys referencing this, but someone finally got it. Right before I went to college, my mom bought me a copy of I Went to College and It Was Okay, and I thought it was deadpan hilarious. I suspect that most people will not agree with me, but hopefully you do, Carol.
Someone else asked if it was true that performers at the Iveys don't get paid. I can't speak to everyone else, but I have performed at the Iveys twice, and we were never offered money. I don't believe anyone else was, but I also don't believe that's the point of the show. As for the "six Ivey evaluators needed to qualify" statement I made (which this comment also asked about), that was how it was explained to us when my company first signed up for the Iveys years ago. I tried looking through the Ivey website for their guidelines to see if this is still true but came up with nothing. (The Iveys website is light on that kind of information.) I did find an interview with Scott Mayer, in which he says "we require that there be between five and six evaluators observing every production", but I don't think that means the same thing. My statement may be outdated information. If anyone knows the answer to that, please feel free to comment below.
A reader took exception to my comment insinuating that the Iveys usually don't hand out more than one award a year to designers. He even helpfully listed out the six years when they have handed out two or more. I decided to take a look at those and crunch some numbers, and it was enlightening. Previous to this year's ceremony, there have been 17 Ivey awards connected to design (either to an individual, a production as a whole, or to an Lifetime Achievement/Emerging Artist). Over those eleven years, that means an average of 1.55 per year. Including this year's three (which push up the total substantially to 20), that brings the average up slightly to 1.67 per year. Reader, you're correct in pointing out that this is more than one; though I am also correct in pointing out that this is less than two.
While we're doing math and both being right about things, I would also like to agree with this reader there have indeed been six years in which more than one person was given an award for design. By simple subtraction, this also means that there have been six years in which there hasn't been more than one. (In fact, there was one year--2011--in which there were no design awards at all). Looking over all the years, the mode (most common number) of design awards given out is, in fact, one (5 years out of 12). Statistically speaking, based on previous behavior, one is the most likely number of design awards that they will hand out in any given year. (According to famed mathematicians Three Dog Night, it is also the loneliest number). So, I guess my point was this: it was pretty awesome this year that we got to see three.
(More math coming at you: of the 144 awards the Iveys have handed out over 12 years, 20 have been connected to design, or 13.9%. Whether you think this percentage is too high, too low or just right is all a matter of your own perspective.)
A different anonymous reader said that it seemed like there were actually more non-musical acts than musical acts and figured that I just didn't see them all. According to the Ivey website, there were 10 performances featured this year. Six of them were musical acts or songs from an otherwise non-musical piece. Three of those four non-musical acts were put into one sequence near the midpoint of the show, in which each had less than two minutes to perform. Mathematically speaking (I know, again) non-musical acts were in the minority, both in number and total stage time. But this makes perfect sense: a song is already a self-contained piece of performance and can stand alone much more easily than an excerpt from a play. As entertainment at an awards show, musical numbers are just easier and usually more effective, given the limited time.
This same reader also begged of me "Can we also mention that Jasmine Hughes also won an acting award for Sunset Baby at Penumbra Theatre?" Yes, that is true; but this comment made me realize that I skipped over something that should be called out and celebrated from this year's awards: the sheer number of people of color we saw on the stage this year, both performing and bringing home awards. But let's forget about numbers; there's been enough math today. Instead, I'll let local Twin Cities performer Theo Langason have the last words, with this piece he posted to the world the day after the Iveys:
I am so thankful for you, black artists.
I am so thankful to see you shine,
To bathe in your light.
You inspire me,
You give me life.
You are so important.
When you are allowed your artistry,
You are saving lives.
When you are allowed to be
More than tropes or tokens,
More than racial plot devices,
More than how They see us,
You are saving lives.
When you are allowed
To tell stories
That are universal,
That are complex,
That are human.
When you are allowed,
Your work is humanizing.
Our black skin
Is perpetually weaponized.
Your work is
Once turned weapon,
Will be flesh
If They see
Our flesh is human
Just like Theirs,
They will know our humanity.
If They know
Just like Theirs,
It won't be so easy for Them to kill us.
You could be saving a life.
You saved mine.