Playwright Gunderson stakes out some Perspectives in Criticism

Playwright Gunderson stakes out some Perspectives in Criticism

Perspectives in Criticism talk, the 33rd in a series that began in 1992.
By Lauren Gunderson, playwright

For the ATCA National Conference at the Humana Festival, April 3, 2014

(Some history of the 23 year series.)

Hello my name is Lauren and I am a playwright and you are room full of critics and that is not awkward at all. Not at all.  We’re all gonna be fine.

Now, I do not speak for all playwrights of course as we are, like dogs, a many and varied species.

But I do understand that I’m the first playwright who’s had the honor of speaking in this series, and it is a quite an honor. It’s also an addiction as I’m sure you’re like me and could manage to talk about theatre all day if someone would let you or pay you or both. Or neither. We’re all going to talk about it anyway.

So we meet today as a support group for those compelled to find each other in the dark, turn off their mobile devices, and watch people live in front of us for hours. We’re an odd bunch. But here we are.

Fact: In pre-revolutionary France actors and executioners weren’t allowed to be full citizens because of their morally questionable professions. I don’t know where playwrights and critics fit on that morality scale but wherever it is, we’re probably right next to each other.

So. Once again. Here we are. Together. Hoping that the next show we write, or the next show we review knocks our socks off.

Here we are. Together. Thrilled at the leap of an athletic actor into a role we’ve never encountered before.

Here we are. Together. Going to theatre, caring about the theatre, believing that the theatre can do good work in the world, knowing that this ancient practice belongs in the present. Here we are being full theatre idealists in the way Todd London showed us we could and should be.

Indeed we are together in this craft and in this art. That’s why it’s not awkward. We are all together in the vitality and accessibility and coherence of the American theatre. We are not practitioners and we are not individuals. We are collective advocates. It is our ecology.

We all love theatre.

We all want it to be its best. We all have high standards, and work our asses off, and don’t get paid enough, or have enough time, and sometimes we have to make imperfect compromises, and we all know it when we do, but we get up –-not at the crack of dawn because we’re theatre people — but we do get up and when we do we support, make, and make people talk about, art. And most of us, I hope all of us, cannot wait to see what someone comes up with next to shake us out of our patterns, or surprise us, or move us. 


What can I tell you about criticism that you don’t already know, at which you aren’t already professionals, that I would have any right or knowledge to explain to this esteemed body?

I’m still not sure. But I am still honored to have the stage, and I’m also still talking. So we’re gonna just go for it and be honest and fluid and generous of heart. And last week I read a ton of theatre criticism which makes me an expert.

– – –

I can tell you how to make a play. It takes a damn long time usually. And when you get to the end and write “black out” on the first draft, which could take an untold number of months and tantrums, that’s actually when the real work starts. Readings, rewrites, pitches, rewrites, workshops, rewrites, take a shower, have a life? No time. Rewrites. Or committed procrastination. Either way it’s very taxing.

Now the pattern I’ve recognized after doing this for a decade or so, is that I usually get to draft 16 before the play is done …. ish. Draft 14 is usually the draft that goes into first production if I’m so lucky to have one. You will note the number differential there between first production and done …. ish.

After the first production I continue rewriting to take in all that we learned. Audiences tell us so much. So do trusted friends and dramaturgically minded confidantes. So does my mother who always has two notes that make all the difference. All of this teaches and inspires and reminds and propels. Much more than we can apply (or force on our capable actors to apply) by the time our few previews are over in the regional theatre. And we open.

Which is when y’all come in.

This is also where this speech could get awkward again. But we won’t let it. Honesty and fluidity and generosity of heart. OK. 

This is where I can tell you what it’s like to read reviews of your brand new show while it’s currently in production just starting out, hoping your artistic intentions were seen and manifested and understood. It’s a roller coaster every single time.

Good reviews are amazing. Good reviews feel like a relief. Like there’s hope for more plays in the future, like maybe they’ll invite me back, like maybe theatre is not the most insane profession of all the liberal arts, maybe it’ll go beyond this production, maybe it’ll see other cities and other versions. Maybe it will last, maybe it will grow, maybe, maybe.…

Maybe this play will actually get the chance to find its audience. Which is the real point, isn’t it? Not praise or commissions or pull-quotes. Audience. Theatre doesn’t work without it. We want them coming back. We want them engaged.

So any review that encourages audiences to see the play for themselves is a good review to me. That’s a healthy American theatre. “Hey everyone! Go see plays.” Even if the review says “I hated it, like really completely hated because of this and this, but you should check it out anyway because of this and this….” That’s fine. I’ll take it. “I didn’t like” is different from “it’s not worth seeing.” I’d actually love much more of that than I ever read. 

I can tell you that more than being disliked, playwrights fear being misunderstood. That’s the worst. That’s when it feels like the review is for a play you didn’t write. No one learns from that.

I can tell you that reviews of new plays are powerful forces in that play’s future.

I can tell you that people outside of our towns read reviews to decide whether or not they’re going to even read the play. Not everyone does this. But a lot of people do. It’s sad and unproductive and does not trust the new play process.

I can tell you that plays need to grow and mature and that usually takes at least one full production plus some distance plus another rehearsal process for the second production before it’s done .… ish. 

I can tell you that sometimes new plays die too early because of poor critical reception. We all know this happens. I hate this, I’m sure many of you do too.

I can also tell you that I’m not going to accept that there is an inherent antagonism between critic and theatre-makers. Because we’re all theatre-makers. We are all audience-builders, and art-advocates, and theatre champions. Of course we are.

But this is where it gets tricky. Our relationship is complicated, and as much as I have the right to build a play as I see fit, y’all have the right and duty to convey your opinion of it. And sometimes that opinion is painfully powerful and stunts a new play before it starts.

This might have been the case for the very play that you are honoring as a Steinberg/ATCA nominee, my play I and You. For its first production at Marin Theatre last year we were reworking up until opening as writers often are. We got really close but there was room to grow for the play, as I well knew. There’re always things you learn in that last preview that you wish you could go back into rehearsal for a week and rewrite the whole scene. But alas. We open tomorrow. 

The audience taught us a ton, including that this is a play that draws young people. The best compliment this show got as far as I’m concerned was when teenagers who came to see the school matinees retuned with their parents to see the play again. Teenagers brought their parents to the theatre. Our salvation has come, theatre is safe, amen.

But! Two major papers reviewed it and thought that it was annoying and boring. Our terrible and brief appraisal of art in the Bay Area, our version of stars, the “jumping man” -– and we can have a whole discussion about the aggravating insouciance of stars and thumbs ups and other false quantifiers of art which I think demean the whole endeavor -– Sorry. That was my one time lashing out. We’re done.

Our version of stars is a little jumping man, whose excitement and position in his theatre chair tells you how “good” the play is. He was not happy nor was he jumping. The little man was sitting still, not even clapping.  This is bad. Even though we got glowing reviews from the other papers and theatre blogs in town .… this was still very bad. Ticket sales weren’t great. There is an algorithm for this theatre that for every decrease in position of that stupid little man, their revenue shrinks by tens of thousands of dollars.  The show was not getting an audience, even though I got emails saying, “thank god I came with my granddaughter anyway. We loved it and she wants to come back to the next show!”

That could have been the end of that play. With those prominent reviews it suddenly sunk to bottom of everyone’s to-read pile.

If it had not been a National New Play Newtwork Rolling World Premiere. Before we opened at Marin we already had 3 more productions lined up at theaters across the country. There was a built in safety net for me and the interested parties to continue the work on the play in our way, to implement the larger discoveries we saw during the run, to let that production teach us not define us. After rewrites, a new cast, design, and director continued the premiere of I and You at Olney Theatre where it’s gotten some of the best reviews of my life. And became a Susan Smith Blackburn nominee, and a nominee for your prestigious award.

What do we make of this? Well, I carefully and with great hesitation wrote a blog post called “On Rolling World Premiere and Only Reading Good Reviews,” which I think is why I’m here today.

Yes. I learned a long time ago that when you’re going to glance at a review of your own work, only read the good ones. It’s not denialist, it’s self-protective. So, I have my husband scan them and tell me which ones seem fair, which ones seem to have understood what we were going for. I should have put this duty in our vows. It’s very important. The good reviews needn’t be raves, but someone who is a believer in the play like I am. A person who thinks it’s worth their time, like I do. That’s a person I can have a conversation with.

Because neither plays nor reviews are actual conversations. They are catalysts of conversation but they are not a dialogue unless we make them. We are offering things to each other in the dark, throwing halves of conversation over a fence, but we are not talking. Conversational criticism. Let’s invent that. It’ll take more time and it’ll take extra bravery on everyone’s account but we can do it. Especially if it means that theatre is presented in an ever fuller and more authentically complex way around discussion, not judgment. Which will serve us all.

Side note on this front: I’m loving projects like Mark Blankenship’s TDF Stages, which includes video profiles of theaters across the country. It’s sharable, communal, conversational, celebratory and a platform to have artists declare their intent. Yes to this.

– – –

As I mentioned. I did not read those bad review of I And You. I could tell by their titles and the fact that no one was posting them anywhere online that they were .… we’ll say unsupportive; they may have been snarky or kindly and gently dismissive, I don’t know. I only say this again to explain that it wasn’t whatever those reviews said that prompted rewrites. It was the natural process of playwriting. The natural lessons you learn in a production. The organic flow of a play’s growth.

It took two productions.  For me it always does. Even when the play gets raves on its first outing, I still go though that same natural process and rewrite before anyone does it again. Does this mean that the play wasn’t ready for a production? That plays just need more development? Productions are development.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Rolling World Premieres saves lives.

This isn’t a new idea in American theatre, that plays need to learn and grow through production not just readings and workshops. Not all plays need it but most do -– every playwright I asked said it takes at least two full productions. Even the ones who already got raves, like my mentor Robert Schennkan whose play All the Way is on Broadway right now. He continued to work the play while rehearsing in the Neil Simon. Fences got slammed in its initial production and went on to be a firm feature in the American cannon. Over and over again it happens. Those are the plays that made it out. How many of them didn’t? The playwright wasn’t big enough, or didn’t have other committed productions to continue to make it more perfect.

I’m not saying “be nice to new plays.” Maybe I am. I am saying that: BE NICE TO NEW PLAYS. They are hard as hell to write and they take a lot of time and it is always the play itself that suffers a bad review most keenly, so -– wait. No, I don’t know how to do your job anymore than you know mine. So I don’t exactly know what the answer is. Awareness of our ecology is part of it.

And maybe we don’t change anything. And we keep it simple. And we all just do what we’re already doing. Playwrights write the plays, reviewers come on opening. Sure. Fine.

Or. We might think of what serves all of us the most. And that is the health and vibrancy of theatre as a cultural force in America. Can we iterate that with respect to playwright-critic relations? Can we invent conversation criticism? Can we say screw the old format let’s offer something else, let’s let others in, let’s admit that there is more to theatre than “tell me what you think”?

What can reviewers, critics, playwrights, producers do to help American theatre besides what we’re already doing?

I’ll tell you what hurts theatre: Bad press and bad plays.

Once again, it seems that we’re in this together.

– – –

Why don’t I follow that advice of “if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones”? Because an opinion is not a universal fact. Because art and reactions to it are fickle. Because my job means that I have to have my taste and my aesthetic forefront or else I can’t do what I do. Because it doesn’t feel good. Because it makes me angry that some potential audience will be turned away before they get the chance for the play to speak for itself. Because we worked, usually, damn hard on that. Because there is a point to that story. Because bad reviews don’t help writers write. At least this writer.

We still friends? Yeah? OK.

So why don’t bad reviews “help me write”? The same reason novice theatre goers who are just trying to figure out what “going to the theatre” even means might not be helped by reviews. We don’t know you. Some reviewers I do know, and I do trust them. Some reviewers have made connections in my plays that even I didn’t see -– linking styles to other writers, or connecting first act moments to final act moments. It’s amazing when that happens.

But for many of you, I don’t have that history. I don’t know your Point Of View. I don’t know if you’re a formalist, an advocate of absurdism, a PhD in Jacobean tragedy, of political theatre, of Brecht. I don’t know if you’d rather see Beckett or Wasserstein or why, and that means that I have no idea how to place your thoughts next to my own.

Neither do novice theatre-goers giving our art form a try. They could take your word for it, you write for fancy papers and blogs. But no one just takes someone’s word for it these days, certainly not young people. Who are you and why do you think like you do? What are your patterns, your interests, the last 5 plays you adored and last 5 you hated? That’s data. That’s context. That’s helpful.

With every review, at least online as I know space is so limited, why not tell us, remind us who you are, why you love theatre, and what you look for in a play. There is no such thing as objectivism. Why not define your subjective for us?

From lauded critic Julius Novick: “To write as yourself, to keep the reader aware that it’s one individual writing, who may or may not be coming from where the reader’s coming from, that’s honesty. To own up to your subjectivity is to give the reader what she needs truly to make up his or her mind.”

There is always context. For playwrights it can be artistic intent. For critics it’s your point of view. Y’all know this of course. I’m just putting this all together myself.

So. Why don’t we all explain who we are? Me too. I’ve started keeping a tumblr for each new play I write as I’m writing it -– is one example. It explains why I’m telling this story in this way, what sources and histories it’s tapping into, what my artistic intention is, and how we’re going about manifesting it. And because I will practice what I am literally preaching, after this weekend I’ll go home and write a super clear post called, “Who Am I and Why Am I Writing This.” For every play.

Now. What would that look like for y’all? Declaring intent and subjectivity?

“His abiding interest in theatrical givens like theme, story, dramatic construction and character could make him seem old-fashioned, and set him in direct opposition to the auteur school.” – That was Stanley Kaufmann’s NYT obit

“As a drama critic he typically championed the iconoclastic and the cryptic. And he consistently dismissed the more naturalistic, commercial fare found on Broadway.” – That’s Richard Gilman’s NYT obit.

Why wait for an obituary to re-declare our tastes and trends so that new audiences can learn which critics speak for them?

– – –

How do we serve audiences best? We get personal. We put our taste and our biases and our hopes up front for all to see. What is your mission statement? What is your context? Knowing what you usually like helps me decide how to read your review, which is nothing but helpful, open and encouraging of an accessible theatre.

Everything else is getting more and more personalized, why can’t theatre and its criticism? You can’t write a review from the perspective of each individual, but we can let them personalize based on our honesty. We personalize through the airing of biases and tastes.

What if you tell each of your communities why you goddamn love theatre. You don’t just love it. You goddamn love it. Why? What do you think as you sit down to see a new play? What’s the play that’s moved you most, made you laugh the hardest, stuck in your brain weeks after you saw it and why? Why do you think theatre matters to America today?

Not only would that catalyze theatre, it would re-introduce your perspective to new audiences. Why should new and potential theatre-goers trust your review? Where does your taste come from? Does it match their interests? The new American is tailored to, is used to on-demand that’s curated for them. It’s about if you liked it its about a fuller picture of why.

The selfish part of this on behalf of playwrights is the option for theatregoers to not read a review as a fact but as a personal opinion. I don’t want someone to be turned away from a play based on someone else’s personal taste, when that play could have changed them into a life-long theatre patron. Again. “I didn’t like it” is different than “it’s not worth seeing.”

How do we encourage theatregoers to define their own taste. That’s a theatre devotee in the making.

– – –

Because the real point is not my show, your review, or the next best thing in New York. It’s not about the objectivity and prominence of the critic’s voice or whether you read or don’t read reviews. It’s theatre as a whole.

And I think we need more cheerleaders. Loud and proud. With every project we do or play we cover we are ambassadors for this art. We are our own advocates. And we can all make theatre sound awesome, more awesome than we even feel it is when working on deadline and not getting paid enough and why god did I major in this charade.

How do we make theatre matter to more and more Americans? How do we make sure that theatre occurs to them to seek out at all? We know theatre achieves different storytelling that TV and film, how do we explain that over and over again?

We tell them How Theatre Works for and in America. We tell them often. I know many of you already do, but in this fast-posted, re-tweeting, what’s-next world, we need to be pumping it full of further examples of theatre kicking ass and changing hearts.

Cats get way way more attention than theatre does online. And I think, although this is debatable, that theatre does more work for the world than do cats. Again, everyone’s a critic.

Todd London’s book An Ideal Theatre is an inspiration to me. Reading all of those charged-up women and men who said, “we’re doing this differently,” “we’re doing this locally,” “we have other options.”

I am one of his cohort complete with a “roaring impatience, crashing idealism, compelling fanaticism, and over-the-top belief -– against all odds and reason -– that theatre matters and can help us change the world.” That last bit was Todd’s.

We can’t just be that, we must project that.

As longtime editor of The Village Voice Ross Wetzsteon said, “I don’t mean the kind of parietal ‘they’ve all worked so hard’ encouragement that doesn’t do anybody any good, but simply a sense of mutual commitment to enhancing the theatre, a sense of alliance, however uneasy, in a common cause. Far from being incompatible with ‘high standards’ this attitude provides their very basis.” Hell yes, Ross.

My stint as an essayist on the Huffington Post (your laughter is welcome here) is as a cheerleader for theatre more than a reviewer. The post I’ve written called “How Theatre For Young People Could Save The World” is not a complicated article, but it ties together the way young people can practice listening, empathizing, and being curious, and how theatre can do all that with craft, wit, and activism. It’s just a big high-five to theatre for young people, but I believe it and it might just energize parents to take their kids to a play. Not that this is the great moral beacon of our age, but that article has been liked on Facebook 47,000 times as of last week.

I’ll take articles, posters, memes, Instagram videos, ANYTHING that keeps theatre in the forefront of our minds, especially young ones.

Wanna Do Something Different That Might Change How You Think? Go See A Play.

Wanna remember what being in the moment is like? Go See a Play.

Wanna Laugh Your Ass off and feel super smart? Go see a play.

We need a Theatre is America campaign, country wide. Theatre is Life-Changing, Theatre is Epic, Theatre is YOU. Let’s “Got Milk” this thing, y’all.

No, wait. This isn’t about sleek ads, this is our honesty. Theatre needs to be re-introduced as a force for human connection, artistic innovation, mind-bending ideas, empathy, intellectual revolution, boutique community building and life-affirmation. Think Global, See a Play Local.

Now, my colleagues need to hold up our end of the promise and create some holy shit theatre, and knowing the writers working today in American theatre, I can promise you we will. But y’all are the front line of this re-introduction. Your papers, and blogs, and reputations, and outlets.

We are all creating the culture that we want and allowing the culture that we don’t. We’re creating how theatre lives in a modern society, we’re offering the tone of theatre’s success or failure as a medium of meaning, we’re doing that together. 

As David Bohm says, the observer and the observed affect each other. We are all of us affecting who comes to theatre, who discovers it, who comes back, who sees it as a hobby and who sees it a profession, who comes for the first time, who thinks they aren’t allowed in, and who doesn’t have the context to feel welcome.  

I want theatre to do work in America, not just entertain. I want it to thrive and provoke and challenge and inspire and revel and participate in the issues of our time not just reflect them.

And yes it’s about excellence, of course it is, but for god’s sake can we move past the idea that that word isn’t inherently relative and can be confined to two or three opinions? If we don’t admit this we are relegating our field to the further echelon of elitist culture esotericism, which is not the way to welcome new and diverse audiences. This does not mean lowering our standards or a rogue and peasant populism. But excellence cannot be one thing and biases must be aired.

We are all responsible for the vitality and excellences of American theatre.

We are all responsible for making sure new audiences can find what’s going to change them into theatergoers.

We are all responsible for making the theater occur to people it’s never occurred to before.

We are all responsible for helping people find plays that fit them, not that satisfy us.

We are all responsible to the fact that female characters are fewer than male characters on most seasons -– not to mention female writes and directors.

We are all connected to the lack of diversity onstage, behind stage, in the audiences, and in our cohort of critics.

We are all connected to those things that theatre needs to be doing better, because it’s failing all of us if it doesn’t.

Yes there’s a simple way to do our work – and that is the way we’ve always done it. But as I tell my playwriting students, this is fiction. We’re all making this crap up. Let’s make it up differently.

As I said in the beginning, ours is not an antagonistic relationship, ours is also not an esoteric private dramaturgical conversation. We are together and we are in public. And that public co-presence is also responsible for public coherence.

Thank you for trusting me to talk to you in honesty and community.

May we all keep advocating for an excellent and open and urgently valuable theatre. May we also ask what else can we do.  

I think it’s worth closing this speech on a point of community. We are all, after all, writers and thus share the grand presumption that anyone should give a crap about what we think anyway. We are bonded in that.

Thank you again. And I hope we meet as friends, theatre ecologists, and compatriots.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

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