Hey there, friends. It's been a while since we last met in this format. I got bogged down in a bit of research for the big article that dropped last week, so I haven't been around to wax on self-righteously about the news. Since last week's subject was… complicated and this week's subject involved a lot of haranguing on my part, let's hold up for a moment and remind everyone that there's a lot of good things happening here in Minnesota theater:
(1) Up in Duluth, the restoration of the NorShore Theatre is continuing apace. Not only are they still on schedule to open in February 2018, but they uncovered a mystery mural that is hopefully not too haunted.
(2) The Star Tribune would like to remind you that the Twin Cities is still a hotbed for new work being created by new companies.
(3) City Pages would like to remind you that bringing some diversity to the improv scene has turned out to be awesome.
(4) The Star Tribune is hiring a new theater critic/reporter. This is a rare opportunity, folks, so let's make the most of it. It's a chance to get a new voice with a fresh perspective on the scene. If you know someone who fits that bill, get them to apply right now.
(5) Ordway leader James Rocco is stepping down. Those of you who were upset with the Ordway over Miss Saigon and West Side Story might cheer. Those of you who weren't that bothered might not. Either way, it's one more large institution in the Twin Cities that is shedding its old leadership and making way for new visions and new directions.
(6) And, yes, Michelle Hensley is leaving Ten Thousand Things as well. I'm sure that nobody is really going "hooray!" about that, but you should listen to her talk about her departure in a recent interview on NPR. You'll be hard pressed to find someone who is so good at simultaneously walking away from theater and still making you feel good for continuing on.
(7) Finally: politics. No, no, no, keep reading! There's no Trumpiness here at all. The Minnesota state legislature passed a budget and the governor signed it, and it's full of victories for the arts in our state.
Never forget that there are great things happening all around us. Now, let's get back to the regularly scheduled stupid bickering:
Dear Edward and David…
It's been a banner few weeks for complaining about playwrights being controlling jerks. First we had the story of Edward Albee's estate pulling the productions rights from a theater company because they cast a black man as Nick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Then David Mamet reached peak David Mamet by arbitrarily forcing a theater company to renegotiate their rights to one of his shows, rewriting them so that they could not hold talkbacks or post-show discussions of the mighty Mamet's masterpiece. A lot of commentators have been conflating these two stories into one bigger story of playwrights having too strong a grip on their work, which allows them to force their own prejudices on the producers, directors and actors that want to tackle that work. But I'd rather not tangle these two stories up, because one of them is an interesting issue that requires a deeper, more nuanced look than one side screaming "CENSORSHIP!" and the other side screaming "RACISM!"; and the other story is about David Mamet, who is—on a purely objective, technical level—a raging dickbag.
Let's deal with David first. This "no talkbacks" rule is not a new one for him. Mamet has been on record for years saying that he hates them, because "the play should stand on its own" and not be dissected by "experts", which is dick-speak for "my fragile ego can't handle someone pointing out how regressive and misogynist my writing can be". Back in 2009, as the Broadway revival of Mamet's Oleanna was losing money, Mamet cut them a deal to waive some of his royalties in exchange for eliminating post-show discussions. (The run still lost $2 million, by the way.) This breakthrough in forcing everyone to shut up and not talk back to him gave Mamet an epiphany. His next new show after that, Race, also ran on Broadway in 2009, and after its rights became available, Mamet stepped up to the next level of dickishness by mandating the "no-talkbacks" rule as part of the rights agreement for the show.
Since then, he's been expanding it to all of his scripts that he can. (Except for his early works, which he doesn't care about, because he traded away his royalties for them in a bitter divorce settlement back in the '90s.) This most recent flap only happened because someone didn't get around to updating the contract for Oleanna with the Magic Shut Up rule, and Mamet, being the colossal dick that he is, decided not to honor the contract that the company had already signed. If it had been a bigger company with more resources, they probably could have sued him for breach of contract. Instead, Mamet was able to hold them hostage at the 11th hour and force a concession, like a toddler throwing a tantrum just as mom and dad are about to leave him with a babysitter for their first night out in god knows how long.
None of this should be surprising. Mamet finished his complete transmogrification into a flaming mass of dicks piloting a human skin suit a long time ago, well before he turned into an angry, know-nothing conservative after listening to Glenn Beck for too long. David Mamet has never had much regard for the opinions of people who are not named David Mamet, and we all ought to know this by now.
There is one tenuous connection between Mamet and the current Albee controversy: in 2014 he pulled the rights for a production of Oleanna because the producer had cast a man in the lead female role. I'm sure that the producers of that one thought that Mamet's take on sexism and modern feminism (where the straight, middle-aged white guy in a position of power is clearly the victim) could be turned on its head by swapping a gender, and I'm sure that Mamet responded to that with all the tact and dignity of a profanity-laced tirade; but I have to say this: he's within his rights on this one.
In 2015, we all had a collective conniption fit when a production of Katori Hall's The Mountaintop cast a white man as Martin Luther King. Last year we all got mad again when a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights failed to put a Latino actor in the main role. No less than Miranda himself explained the reason why succinctly: "In every case, the intent of the author always wins. If the author has specified the ethnicity of the part, that wins."
The Albee estate isn't some racist organization striving to keep all of his works lily-white. In fact, the character of Nick in Virginia Woolf is one of the few that Edward Albee insisted in his lifetime must be a certain race (Nick's wife, Honey, by contrast, has been played by people of multiple ethnicities). He had his reasons for it, and seeking the rights to the play means acquiescing to those reasons. Sure, there are good arguments to be made as to why Albee is wrong; and you could effectively argue that it reveals a certain amount of white fragility; and there are fascinating, on-point discussions to be had on how allowing authorial intent to extend beyond the grave stifles the innovative reimagining of older work; but if you allow that, you'd better be ready to march over to the Dramatists' Guild and tell them that we only need to listen to playwrights' intents when we agree with them. You will not be received with open arms.
In a recent Washington Post article about why the Albee and Mamet situations are overblown, Nelson Pressley said, "You may want to experiment with “Virginia Woolf,” but you’re not entitled to. End of story – but goodness, think of all the other plays you might do!" In a blog post responding to this incident, Chicago-based performer Tania Richard concurred: "As my dear friend and mentor the late Russ Tutterow used to say when people's feedback on original work would turn prescriptive, 'Well, maybe you should write that play.'"
This is to say that the real problem isn't that some mean old playwrights won't let us change their work to shoehorn it into modern sensibilities. Maybe the real problem is that we don't do enough to bring up and promote new work that does fit the current discussion. I know this is going to sound outrageous, but, since we all know that David Mamet is angry, regressive dickhead screaming at us from three decades in the past when he was still an innovative and interesting writer, maybe we should just stop producing his plays. While the pipeline to the Great White Way has been clogged up with multiple money-losing Mamets, somehow Lynn Nottage is only now getting her first shot at Broadway. While we've been agonizing over how to squeeze diversity into the old canon, a hell of a lot of new plays that have come into the world chock full of diversity have been left to languish, unproduced.
The next time you're anguishing over the thought that some dead playwright's estate won't let you do your gender-swapped, color-conscious, queer production of his classic work, maybe take a step back and leaf through The Kilroys' list or the New Play Exchange or any number of other places that I'm sure the Playwrights' Center could happily point you toward. You might discover that someone has already written the piece that you actually want to do. You should find that someone, because not only will their work be more likely to fit you and the world we live in now, but they will definitely be nicer to work with than David Mamet.
Really? Is this what we need right now?
Apparently, Diablo Cody is adapting Alanis Morissette's 1995 album Jagged Little Pill for the stage. Other than suddenly feeling old at the realization that this album came out when I was in high school, and it's now 22 years old, I'm having trouble having any kind of reaction to this news. However, other people seem to be excited about it. Can anyone out there tell me why? Please, for the love of god, tell me why!