When I write a play, a time comes when I listen to the audience even more than to the play. Although it’s true that what we as individuals make of a work of art is largely a measure of ourselves, I do want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to communicate as clearly as possible. A play is a collective dream: the enactment of wishes and fears, shared with strangers. When the audience watches and listens, it has the dream, or (at the very least) meets the dream halfway.
The subsequent discussion, however, and the avalanche of critical opinions, is not about the experience. It is not even a shadow of the experience. It is another play altogether – one which usually says more about the collective needs of journalists, as well as a lot about the current fashions, than it does about the work at hand.
2. There are no commercials. Even movies now have commercials-and that’s in addition to the coming attractions. It seems that our $7 is not enough. Magazines and, of course, TV are a constant barrage of products – some of which some of us ma need, many of which nobody needs. it is impossible to fully appreciate how much of our waking lives we must spend resisting the sales pitch of one huckster or other. No wonder so many people feel that their being has already been bought and sold. If drugs are truly the threat to civilization we’re being told they are, then certainly the steady noise of commerce flung at us from all directions is the greatest, most stupefying drug of all.
So I like to go and sit in a room with live performers. The mistakes they make, the heights they reach, belong only to the people who were there on that night. No one else ever sees that show. And you weren’t being sold anything but the veracity of the experience.
3. Conviction. I spent two years making a movie for a major film studio. At the end of the first year, the studio screened the movie for a preview audience in Canoga Park, Calif. (Personally, I think this may have something to do with all the environmental problems they’re having out there.) Every suggestion that was made by anyone who attended the preview was then seriously proposed to the director and myself by the senior vice president of production at that studio. In the theatre, nobody ever asks the audience to fill out a form suggesting improvements that could be made in the play.
To my mind, the Clinton government is following the movie studio’s lead. They are waiting to see which way public opinion will flow and then following it. This is not what I call leadership; this is what I call cowardice. I voted for a man who said he would lift the ban on gays in the military. When it became clear that this was not a popular opinion, the President insisted he had spent no more than two hours on the issue, and he was making an “honorable compromise” by accepting a lame variance of his predecessor’s policy. Eventually, the President may do very well running a movie studio. But he could never run a theatre, because playwrights, unlike screenwriters, maintain the copyright to their work, and so what you see on the stage – for better or for worse – is what the writer wanted to say. Popular or un-,it has conviction, hence leadership, written all over it.
It is not for nothing that the theatre has grappled so effectively over so many explosive terrains far in advance of politicians, not to mention journalists. One has only to look at the thematic content of plays by August Wilson, Sam Shepard, Larry Kramer, Marsha Norman, Romulus Linney, Wallace Shawn, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, Cheryl West and on and on, to see artists facing the most difficult crises of our true lives with courage.
I wish that our government were made up of more leaders and fewer self-promoting, semi-literate bigots who are on the payrolls of the same industries that give us those ceaseless commercials.
But I know that many of my playwright colleagues are already leaders. And that’s really what I like about the theatre.