Friday, May 26, 2006

Why do Brits rule?

Another burning question on the elists: "Why do Brits rule on Broadway? ... no really, why? Is it because they think out of the box, while Americans are rule-bound, formulaic?"
I think the American playwright thinks "out of the Box" as much as any muse-inspired neurotic word-drunk dream- or cause- obsessed writer anywhere does. Our American Business/Academy model for the development process may shove them back in the box-- to improve them. The Brits-- and as far as I can tell the Irish-- have a supported theatre with fewer gatekeepers, lower costs, and although the directing ranks are filled with well-connected Old Boys from Oxbridge, entry level writers are not required to have academic or professional credentials or to work their way through untold rounds of readers. Directors actually read plays-- for all I know, they may only read the first 4 pages, or limit themselves to writers with Type O blood, but the program notes say things like "by the end of the first scene the voices were in my head, begging to be put on stage..." There, somehow, putting on a flawed new play is not a high- risk project: it's R&D, and "interesting" seems to be OK. Theatres even sell copies of the-- certainly obscure, probably unsuccessful-- script in the lobby! When I go to London I see new plays at the Cottylesloe (sp?) but also in basements; flawed but interesting new plays performed before audiences that, as in NYC or Boston, may be outnumbered by the cast. They are usually brilliantly performed, often featuring actors I've seen on "Masterpiece Theatre" or "Mystery" and reverently directed by people with extensive experience nurturing new scripts. Apparently being connected to a flop is not a career-killer. The authors may be young or experienced, but generally the play has just been written: it is not the product of years of Development Hell. It feels fresh and individual-- it has a POV and a way with words. I'll point again to McDonough-- I saw his trilogy in Galway the year in which he'd finished writing it! I noticed elementary awkwardness and overwriting that over here would have been met with demands for rewrites-- which might well have stretched on and on until the
playwright lost confidence in his talent. After all, he's a high school dropout with no theatre experience whatsoever-- what business does he have writing plays and expecting professionals to put them on? His plays went from Galway to London and then to NYC and world fame within 3 years of their inspiration--- less than half the time it takes a typical American script to make it from completion to a first public performance. (McDonough may still crash and burn-- his meteoric rise is a tough act for anyone to follow, including himself)

But I think that the main reason the Brits are "better" is that plays
matter more in that culture. The audience is closer to a cross
section, and includes more working people as well as more politicians
and intellectuals. It is hard to imagine an American version of
Hare's "The Permanent Way". Who in NYC would pay $100 a ticket (NOT
that it cost $100 in London-- that's part of the point, that the
National sells 10 pound tickets to the general public, but the same
show cost much more to see here) to see an account of the NYC rail
transport system?-- even though the transport system is an important
part of the lives of millions and a good trope to use to examine the
way the society works-- or doesn't work. Would the unions see it and
argue about it? The newspaper columnists? The transport
administrators? (Well, here the columnists and administrators
generally do not use public transport-- they have limos and corporate
jets) Would anyone expect a play to change the way the government
does business? One writes with a different and perhaps wider mind
set when it might matter.... when it is not mainly entertainment or


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