Friday, January 18, 2008

Theater vs. 14/48

Before the memory fades I want to say a few things about 14/48 The World's Quickest Theater Festival.

I was invited to write for the first weekend of the January 2008 edition, where I again encountered the festival's unique standards. In case you don't know about this yet, the invited 14/48 writers are given randomly drawn themes and a cast size (also how many men, how many women) and are asked to write a ten-minute play overnight, for two nights in a row.

The bizarre thing is this: Unlike almost every theater producer in America, the 14/48 Steering Committee LIKES writers. Not only do they like us, they also respect what we do, and what it takes to do what we do. They give strict, clear guidelines: Nothing over six pages, because six pages will perform at ten minutes on stage. Stick to the theme. Give every actor significant work on stage, not a one-liner or a walk-on.

That's it. Those are the constraints, along with the cast size and theme.

And what do WE get?

We get loved. We get a script that WILL be produced. We get a director and a cast who have been instructed to "Go big, or go home!" We get food. We get fun. We get free beer.

But the great thing--the thing that no one can buy or replace--is a chance at RELEVANCE. We get to write a play set anywhere, at any time, with any characters imaginable, from leaders of state to ladybugs. We write it now, tonight, and it is performed tomorrow night.

Back in 2000 I wrote a play set in Seattle, about two rival reporters vying for a career at a (fictional but thoroughly researched) newspaper. The play was about the clash of values I saw shaping up in my adopted city during the latest tech and econ boom. It was a skeptical evaluation of the widely cherished (but in my opinion damaging) Clinton years. It looked at both Boomer and Gen-X practices vs. stated values, and found the next wave of affluence in Seattle to be ominous in moral and ethical terms.

I also thought these cranky themes were woven pretty well--though not as well as they might have been--into a good story with dramatic tension.

I pitched that play--written to cast-size spec in accord with what a local equity theater's literary manager advised would be the best bet for having it produced--to all the people I knew in town, who might be able to put it on its feet and pay the director and actors. The script had not yet achieved its potential, but I thought it could really sing if it had the right director and if we could workshop it for a weekend and make changes as needed. Most of all, I felt that the story had meaning right then, at that moment in my city's history.

No one agreed with me.

Now, of course, every day brings a fresh version of "Hey, Gumby, how come our city has become like THIS?" in our local publications in print and online. But theater isn't addressing this question.

Well, how could it address the questions of the moment? It is not set up to do that. Big budget theater in America is a lumbering idiot. Everything takes forever. Adding to the problem, many equity theaters are run by people who have become so arrogant, they won't read or consider un-agented plays.

This is ridiculous. All sorts of excuses are made, but I have edited enough magazines and newspapers to know that the turnaround time is bogus. It all depends on whether or not you are actually looking for new work.

From past experience with other plays, I know that in the U.K. even the most famous and prestigious theaters bring in a cluster of interns to read scripts, agented or not. (A notable exception is the Old Vic, which is run by an American. I guess we just love to play the aristocrat.) And most of these companies reply with comments, within four months. A few take six months.

In the U.S., you can expect a theater to take at least six months, if they will read an un-agented script at all. More likely it will take a year for your play to be rejected, without comment. Quite a few American theaters do not reply at all. Is there any other industry in which this would be considered OK? Presumably, they just toss out the script and self-addressed stamped envelope and go to lunch.

But, even if you get a play accepted into a theater's season, it will be nearly two more years before it climbs onto the stage. So, how relevant can it be? This is one reason most of the work you see in theater is of the frothy, uplifting, tap-dancing variety, or the very well-known (often boring) classics you recall from high school English. If a social or political play is presented, it will be written by a very famous playwright and the story it tells will be moldy by the time you see it. With all their gears grinding away, the big theaters are so slow they can't possibly offer up-to-the-minute drama.

All the more reason to see the slam-bam style of theater presented at 14/48. You will not see anything ponderous or mundane. It may have a parachute. Or a rain forest. Or a swine maiden. Or a miracle. Most of all, it will be what all theaters promise, and hardly any deliver: It will be NEW.

Check out the great photos from the January 2008 weekends of 14/48.

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