Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The O'Neill

I posted this review on another site some time ago.  As I wind down new posts on this site, I thought I'd bring it over here, where it belongs.

The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern Theater
 By Jeffrey Sweet
Yale University Press

 This coffee-table sized book is a solid history of an important institution in 20th century dramatic arts, even if it doesn't quite merit the grandiose subtitle (embarrassingly common these days, and I sympathize. The writer probably isn't responsible for it.)

 It's a 50th anniversary account of an institution--the Eugene O'Neill Center-- that began inventing itself in the late 1960s, in Waterford, Connecticut. The O'Neill began with the intention of nurturing new playwrights and new plays, which was not then the formal function of any other institution outside of a few university classes. This evolved into the National Playwrights Conference, held for a month every summer. Other programs were added over the years, and this book chronicles them.

 The proximity of New York and also of Yale Drama were crucial, as some of the best young actors in the country came up to be an intimate part of the process. (Two of the earliest, Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, provide prefaces.) The O'Neill is young enough that many present at the creation, including its founder George White, were available to be interviewed for this volume.

 Sweet reports the story, and includes theatre lore to satisfy that appetite as well. Under the leadership of Lloyd Richards, the playwrights conference evolved into both a model and a unique experience. Many new playwrights thrived there, including its most famous alum, August Wilson.

 I attended two weeks of the 1991 conference for a Smithsonian Magazine article and saw how well it worked, and felt the personal bonds that it made and that nourished its success. For actors who went there every year (like John Seitz, who I interviewed and who is mentioned in this volume as having his ashes scattered there) it was a holy place, and participating was (as Seitz said to me) like "renewing my vows."

 Since this was the first of the O'Neill programs and the most influential, Sweet begins with it. He punctuates this narrative with chapters on other programs (National Theatre for the Deaf, the critics institute, etc.) though following the death of August Wilson with the Cabaret and Performance Conference is more than a little jarring.

 When I was there in 1991, the O'Neill and the Playwrights Conference specifically were already encountering financial problems, and a certain anxiety accompanied that summer's activities. There was a particularly strong feeling of appreciation for what it was, since it seemed it might not last.

 In fact the conference did undergo changes after Lloyd Richards left, many of them for reasons related to money. One year there wasn't enough to fund the open submission policy that was the heart if not the soul of the conference, but loud clamors of opposition to the change brought it back. Thanks to a fund set up by former O'Neill employee and playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and initially financed largely by Meryl Streep, the resources necessary to continue that process are safe, this book says, for a long time to come.

 But it does seem that the power has shifted towards the commercial theatre, particularly musical theatre, even within the O'Neill. This reflects a long trend in American theatre as much as the growth of university playwriting programs. Dramatists are now more likely to find creative homes as well as financial support in television, as was even the case among the 1991 playwrights I met and followed.

 I hope this book inspires more books and different books (with additional photographs that exist) that delve into the history and the magic of the O'Neill, and such extraordinary figures as Lloyd Richards, George White and Edith Oliver. My two weeks there were among the most memorable of my life. Just the theatrical stories told by participants and visitors in the Blue Genes cafe would fill volumes. In the meantime this book is a very good start.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Great American Playwright

American Masters series recently broadcast a 90 minute documentary on playwright August Wilson and his unsurpassed 10-play cycle about African Americans in every decade of the 20th century. It can now be viewed on the program's website here.  There are some segments there also that didn't make the broadcast film.

The film a good introduction and summary for its length, occasionally powerful, especially when August is talking, though it maybe could have done with less of Christopher Rawson, the Pittsburgh critic.  There are lots of other stories out there, and much more to know about the plays.  There's more to be explored for future filmmakers and writers.

It does put August Wilson's accomplishments in some historical perspective, especially for younger generations. His ten play cycle is unique, providing good grounds for calling him the American Shakespeare.  He treated large themes with specific characters and situations, and he brought something to theatre that has been much lacking since: a voice.

 I just read part of a Dramatist magazine discussion of  "devised theatre."  Its confusion convinced me that "devised theatre" is just another new marketing category, like "creative nonfiction."  There's always been a place for experimental and highly collaborative work.  But devised theatre has become fashionable, possibly because it's easier, on every level.  It can make contributions, but it's not by any means the only way to make plays.

Above all what devised theatre often lacks is a voice.  That's what Lloyd Richards always said the O'Neill was looking for: not a polished play or commercial potential--but a voice.  August Wilson was the greatest example.

The O'Neill fostered a kind of collaboration, but the playwright decided.  Did that line an actor suggested belong in the play?  The playwright decided (and August decided yes at least once.)  Devised?  Take a look at all the scraps of paper he assembled, culled, made cohere.  The voices came to him, and he gave them theatrical voice.

Easily the best example of an excellent play that began in collaboration that I know of is Arthur Giron's Becoming Memories.  It began with his students telling stories.  But it ended with Giron writing--arranging, structuring, and giving the play a voice.  It's a wonderful theatrical experience.  I've seen at least three productions, all different, all luminous: one in Vancouver, BC; one at a university in Pittsburgh and the best one at a central Pennsylvania college with untrained student actors, directed by Margaret Kelso.

The film on August Wilson included a monologue from Gem of the Ocean, performed by Phylicia Rachad, who played this role of Aunt Ester in the Broadway production.  (I saw the Oregon Shakespeare production, which featured Greta Oglesby, who originated the role in pre-Broadway productions.) Rachad tells the story of how Aunt Ester came to be.  August heard his characters talking--sometimes he didn't know who they were when he wrote down what he heard.  Sometimes he did.  So he knew who Aunt Ester was--the ancestor of everyone in the last 9 plays--because other characters had talked about her. But she had never spoken.

This is true. I sat at a table after dinner at the O'Neill with a few others, listening to August tell stories for his next play, and one was about Aunt Ester--perhaps the first mention of her.

Then one day she spoke to him, Rachad said.  He scribbled down what she said on some napkins.  Then afraid he would lose them, he called his answering service and read the dialogue so it would be recorded.  Then afraid it hadn't all been recorded, he went to a pay phone and called his cell phone, and read it again as a recorded message.

August Wilson and I grew up at about the same time, some thirty miles apart.  But our lives were very different.  There were points in common--the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, for instance--and I think I did recognize things in him that seemed common to western PA kids of our generation.

So I don't know if this business of mistrusting chance and technology with something valuable is a Pittsburgh thing, or just a character trait we had in common.  Because when I sat down to interview him for the first time--at a picnic table on the O'Neill grounds--I turned on my tape recorder.  And then I turned on my other tape recorder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Traffic Circle Purpose Revealed

Two crop circle investigators from England arrived in Arcata this week, but they weren’t on the lookout for bent corn.

 "We've gone right off crop circles," Nigel confirmed. "We're onto something new."

 "Something big," Bruce whispered.

 "Very big," Nigel agreed.

 Bruce looked both ways before he talked. "Traffic circles," he breathed. "That's why we're here."

 Attracted by Arcata’s new circle, euphemistically dubbed the Bicycle Hub, the Brit duo revealed that they’ve had their eye on our local traffic circles for some time.

 “As you know, crop circles are navigational aids for alien space craft,” Nigel said. “That’s okay if you want to land in like Iowa and so on, but what about other places? Urban areas, for instance? Maybe starting with small towns where aliens could blend in. Arcata is perfect for that.”

 But do they really believe traffic circles are the work of aliens?

 "They don't make much sense otherwise, do they?" Nigel said. " They’re purposeless and confusing. I mean, what kind of intelligence would think up traffic circles?"

 "Not human," Bruce said. "Clearly."

 But these traffic circles don’t just appear, our reporter objected. They are designed, engineered, built. They have slogans and marketing campaigns.

 “But not very good ones,” Nigel pointed out.

 “The aliens behind all this just haven’t gotten it all down yet,” Bruce said. “But they’re learning.”

 So is this the prelude to a huge alien invasion?

 “I guess we’ll have to wait for the new X-Files series to know for sure,” Nigel said slowly. “But we think so.”

 “But I wouldn’t be too worried,” Bruce added reassuringly.

 Why is that?

 “Just remember what these aliens are creating as navigational aids,” Nigel noted. “Like this traffic circle. Confusing. Disorienting. Nearly impossible to navigate.”

 "If traffic circles are an indication of how they think," Bruce concluded, "it's entirely possible they'll never get here."

 "Think of it. Thousands of huge space ships circling around each other, nobody knowing who is supposed to stop for who, and where to get on or off the orbital path."

 "They'll be there forever." Nigel and Bruce smiled at each other. Nigel bent his gaze to the circle. “Then we can get rid of these things, once and for all.”