Travels of English & American Plays, Part 3: There’s No Plays Like Home

March 5th, 2013 § 0 comments

As I said in Part 1 of this series, Matt Trueman’s piece for the Financial Times got me thinking about a variety of issues relating to the exchange of new plays between England and the United States. After focusing on perceived favoritism or bias, and then the common issue of support beyond the box office and its apparent impact on new work, let me circle back to focus more directly on the original issue.

I agree with Trueman, and the people with whom he spoke, that despite a handful of big name plays traversing the pond every year, each country only scratches the surface of the vast number of plays produced by the other. Now, unencumbered as I am by more comprehensive data, what could be the causes for this?

Personally, I don’t really hold with the idea that some of the plays are mired in cultural differences not readily understood. I have certainly seen plays in which cricket plays a role (I don’t understand anything connected with cricket), but the plays aren’t about cricket, and the minutiae of the game is typically irrelevant. We may mention footlong sandwiches in a play, calling them subs, grinders or hoagies, but so long as it’s clear its an item of food, either from other dialogue or stage action, I don’t think English theatergoers would be lost in incomprehension. We may not know the particulars of the National Health Service, or the English may not understand the nuances of city, county, state and national government here, but those are mechanics, not meaning. If we can find common ground in Monty Python and Downton Abbey, I have no worries about plays – even those that require specific regional accents.

I certainly think familiarity and awareness plays a role, and it amplifies a frequent intra-country challenge: if a play is produced in a regional theatre outside of a major media area, how does it get noticed? I don’t doubt that large theatres in both countries have the means and the inclination to look beyond New York and London alone, but how do they look? Literary offices are likely stocked with unread homegrown material, even if they only accept work by agent submission. Media websites may offer reviews of work, but who has the time to scan it all on a daily basis, hunting for a lesser known but worthwhile work. If a play doesn’t get published, or added to the catalogue of a major licensing house, how does it get attention, at home or abroad? Some may like to decry the influence of reviews, but good reviews distributed by theatre or producer may have the most impact, but is there a readily accessible list of artistic directors and literary managers in both countries (and other English-speaking countries) to make the dissemination of that material efficient? To be interested in a play, one first has to hear or read about it.

But let me come back to “homegrown.” In America, we constantly see mission statements that, rightly, talk about theatres serving their community. This can take many forms and be interpreted in a variety of ways, but the fact is that even those not-for-profit companies which also speak of adding to the national and even international theatrical repertoire must first and foremost serve their immediate community, the audience located in a 30 mile radius of their venue, give or take. Many theatres are also making an increased effort to serve the artists in their local community as well, instead of importing talent from one of the coasts. I have no reason to suspect that it is any different in England.

So the question about producing plays from other countries is less one of interest than adherence to mission. If your theatre is the only one of any scale for 30 miles, or the largest even in a crowded field, where should your focus be? Unless your company is specifically dedicated to work from other countries, on balance it’s going to be wise to focus on homegrown plays, especially if your company does new work.

Several months back, the artistic director of a large U.S. theatre and I were discussing a British playwright we both hold in high regard, but the A.D. said he couldn’t make room for that author’s work in a season, even for a U.S. premiere. “If I do that, that’s one less slot I have for a new American play.” With most theatres having perhaps four to seven shows a season, not all necessarily new, it is in fact a tricky political prospect to debut or produce foreign work. Look at the flack Joe Dowling took for his season of Christopher Hampton plays at The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Add to that the necessity of balancing a season for gender and race, plus the desire to show the audience work that may have debuted elsewhere in the U.S., as well as classics and the challenge grows greater for foreign work (though it doesn’t justify our significant blind spot towards our neighbor Canada or the limited awareness of theater from Australia and New Zealand either). I suspect this comes into play in England as well, but I’d need to speak with more English A.D.’s to know.

When I surveyed the Tony nominations it was quickly apparent that if one removed David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Martin McDonagh, Brian Friel and Yasmina Reza, foreign presence on Broadway would drop precipitously; the same would happen at the Oliviers if one excluded Tony Kushner, August Wilson, and David Mamet. Yes, England has premiered work by Katori Hall, Bruce Norris and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, but they are exceptions to the rule, not exemplars of a new trend.

I support the exchange of dramatic literature and artists between countries – all countries –not just the U.S.-English traffic that has been the focus here. Improved communication about that work might help to foster an increase and, as I said originally, a survey of past productions on a larger scale might reveal more than we’re aware of. But when it comes right down to it, English theatres and artistic directors must focus on what’s most important for their audiences, and American theatres and A.D.s must do the same. What that yields in terms of exchange is simply part of balancing so many necessary elements, tastes, styles and budgets; trends may appear when looking from a distance, but up close, it’s a theatre by theatre function.


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