Been a few weeks since I posted – shameful – as my life for the past 2 months went into a YANK!-related vortex. (YANK! is a musical I wrote with my brother that has, after its 2010 off-Broadway run, gone on a pre-Broadway Development Odyssey. Exhausting but really, there’s no downside.)
First off, for them’s who care, the workshop went great. Now as machinations happen far from my sphere of influence, I go back to the computer, to the legal pad, to write new work, to write this work for Blue Coyote.
Onto the question asked:
Won’t you please tell us about a time when your "challenging" and "unconventional" experiment never made it to the stage because some director or producer shut you down?
Most theatre people worship at the altar of free expression and innovation, so ripping down an offensive mural with a jackhammer (see: “Cradle Will Rock”) is not, in my experience, how it rolls.
That is, things don’t usually get as far as where you’re in a situation where you get shut down. You just… don’t get picked. You get a long absence of “yes” and apologetic emails saying “get back to you soon!”. And it’s understandable, but almost definitionally crazy making: you don’t know whether people are genuinely busy, whether what is wrong is your writing, or your talent has evaporated, or someone reading it was having a bad day.
…Or if the structure or tone or content is simply outside the blinders that many well-meaning people wear.
You go down a wormhole of wondering.
Sometimes (you think) these good, overworked people who run theatres and theatre companies don’t realize their biases. So you press. In my own case, I am confident some scenes that have read as “too dirty” when between men would have been seen as “refreshingly intimate” had they been between a man or a woman. I am confident that politics about American poverty or racism or homophobia (marketed by theatres a “dangerous” but really, who in the audience disagrees on these issues?) are given a pass whereas politics about, say, Israel freak people the fuck out.
Who’s right? Who’s to say. No one knows anything for sure (see: crazy making). I will say that good theatre can push buttons, even if the work is not intended to anger, merely be truthful as the writer sees it. I have had individuals walk out of my musical during a gay kiss (never gay sex; gay romance is the problem).
But my role is to be on the side of truth as I see it. How much honesty can I get into a play? How much scary fun delicious writing? There will always be a creative tension between the two sides - theatres which are businesses and creators who are not. But when in doubt, I would encourage theatres to push more, push harder. That said, running a theatre in this culture, in this economy, is hard. Artistic Directors aren’t the enemy.
Lastly, on a related note:
No one sets out to write a boring play. And no good writer accepts terrible notes. The great challenge as I see it is smart people listening to too many good notes. If you make dozens of minor shavings, all the weird nubbliness of the original work is gone. But this way lies Mitt Romney, no? In theatre I have yet to se the perfect play. Hamlet? Midsummer? Streetcar? Death of Salesman? Masterpieces. But the producing world would “have suggestions”.
I treasure development. But there is a sweet spot of time and feedback that we should aim for, which varies play to play, musical to musical.
- David Zellnik
- David Zellnik