Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Risky New Plays

Some background: a couple of weeks ago, the Goodman opened the world premiere of Rebecca Gilman's A True History of the Johnstown Flood, directed by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls. The response was not particularly strong. Chris Jones, in the Tribune, gave it two stars. The reviews in general were mixed to negative, with some being better than Jones' and others being much worse. Shortly after opening I started getting offers for significantly discounted tickets in my email, so it's easy to guess that the show isn't doing very well for the Goodman. (I haven't seen the show, so I can't comment on its quality.)

A few days ago, Jones published a reconsideration of the play. After conversation and a few nights spent mulling over it, he came to the determination that there was more to the play than he initially said, and that, despite its flaws, it was worth checking out for the ambition and ideas onstage. This angered a lot of people. There were rumblings that perhaps it was the result of a stern phone call from Falls, which he has been known to do before, but nobody has yet produced evidence that this happened. Monica Reida was bothered that Jones said that people who didn't like the show maybe didn't understand it--not to mention callin the Goodman Chicago's "flagship" theatre and Falls the city's "essential" director, which are pretty sweeping claims. Bob Bullen also took strong exception to the fawning tone of Jones' post, the "flagship" designation, and the Goodman's own policies and behavior. Rob Kozlowski first put up a very funny April Fools post on the Goodman's upcoming season, then an excellent piece on his high expectations of the companies who charge the most for tickets, and whose leadership make the most money.

As he said, when that much money is being charged (and the top ticket price for Johnstown Flood is a staggering $76!) audiences have a right to expect excellence. Jones himself made a similar point a few months ago when discussing Outrageous Fortune: while audiences should be encouraged to take risks, they should also be warned away from bad plays.

So we find ourselves in a bit of a bind: it's good for theatre to have large companies such at the Goodman taking a significant risk by doing world premieres of large-scale plays on the mainstage. This happens all too rarely, and it's vital for the health of theatre in America, particularly the livelihood of playwrights. But while theatre companies taking risks is something that should be rewarded, when those risks belly flop (as this one apparently has), critics and, more importantly, word of mouth will rightly keep people away, and the company will take a severe financial hit.

So what to do? Well, the Goodman will keep going despite this show, and with four of the six plays thus far announced in their 2010-2011 season being world premieres, it's safe to say their commitment to new work is undiminished. And this is a very good thing--what good are large institutions if they don't consistently risk big? But other companies don't have the same security, and a similar situation could severely hurt them or constrain their programming abilities. It's not hard to understand why so many theatres seem allergic to risk, never producing new plays or producing only those with tiny cast sizes.

So how about this: there are a lot of nonprofits, foundations, and charities out there devoted to developing new works: grants, residencies, festivals, readings, etc, etc. But too often great scripts, particularly the big ones, can wither on the vine, never seeing the stage. So how about some of these groups take on a new mission: production of big new plays. These groups will take on some portion of the cost for full-scale productions of new works (premieres or early productions), particularly those with large casts. The financial risk for theatres will be lessened, more new plays will be produced, and the chance of great new plays showing up will increase.

Because even if A True History of the Johnstown Flood doesn't work, the impulse that created it is a very good one. Hopefully the resources are out there for it to continue. Any thoughts?


mpjedi2 said...

Good lord, that WBEZ story is amazing.

Just looking at that section of your blog, what Falls did was kinda prove my point in my blog the other day...He's (at least in that conversation) taken the stance that the "general public" (which is pretty much what he accuses Kleiman of being) is irrelevant to his work. Another nail in the coffin of theatre as a relevant form.

I've read pieces by, say, Ebert, where years after the fact he looks back upon a film he panned, and acknowledges that it has achieved a longevity that begs him to reconsider his stance. That's fair, I think, as the passage of time (and a work which will never change) can alter your perceptions.

But...in those pieces Roger would never fawn over the makers like Jones does. Even if his conversation with Josie Rourke spawned a reconsideration, which, again, is fair, why couch it as a PR moment for Falls and The Goodman? Simply say, "upon conversations with people who's opinions I value, I have given the show another shot." PAY TO SEE IT AGAIN (yeah, out of your own pocket), then publish a revision.

I'm not gonna argue the "flagship" title, My loyalties are with the Steppenwolf, but I think that arguement could be a toss-up.

SarahRose said...

I totally agree that it's a great thing to see a company like the Goodman take on a risky new play. I'm always interested in the show that's going to surprise me. We've all seen tried and true plays over and over again and they serve an important role, but what if "Johnstown Flood" had been a success? The conversation would be very different. We'd be talking about what an innovative and smart company the Goodman is and how Robert Falls is a genius. But instead we are talking about a show that has become a flop and it begs the question, what went wrong? They still have subscribers purchasing their tickets, major sponsors, a top notch team of artists, Rebecca Gilman...So while it is risk, the stakes could still be higher- a no name team of artists, a newly discovered playwright, etc. But beyond that, what is the Goodman's process for working on new material? What bumps were encountered in that process? What is being learned for them to improve on the next risk? I haven't seen this show yet, but am actually interested more now that there is so much hub bub over how it hasn't received the kind of accolades that they had hoped. Let me know if you want a date because I'm on board :-)

Tony Adams said...

I think the risk isn't with new plays it's with poorly written ones. I think we often confuse the two.

The Goodman does a lot of really bad new plays. Some of them seem as if no one actually read them before being greenlit. That's not risk taking, it's bad programming. (There are a lot of great new scripts out there that aren't getting produced.)

I don't think any company should be patted on the back for doing new work because it's new or risky. They should be patted on the back for producing great work.

Zev Valancy said...

Mark--I agree on the WBEZ story. And as was said, disagreeing with a critic is fine, whether in print or to their face. What's inappropriate is calling them at home. That's a violation of privacy, and sorta creepy.

And it's fine to make a show with a narrower appeal, but then don't be surprised when the wider public doesn't embrace it. It's one thing the Court Theatre does well--they do far out shows, but don't ever pretend they're anything but.

And people absolutely change their minds--I've done it frequently. And it generally happens from encountering a work again--I'd love for Chris to actually go see it, and see how his perspective changes. (The Goodman would totally comp him though.)

Sarah--I do hope the process that they use to choose, develop, and produce plays gets scrutinized as a result of this. Because sometimes you end up with an "August: Osage County" and sometimes you end up with...something not as good. (And Steppenwolf has had its share of those too.) My next couple of weeks are busy, but I will let you know if I do go.

Tony--The Goodman's done some good new plays too, better than good in the case of "Ruined." They may need to look at their process, but any theatre can produce a show that looks great on paper and then just doesn't work. Even a reading can't tell you what a production can. "Johnstown" may have been obviously flawed even on the page, but isn't it possible that it looked like a good idea at the time? The company's relationship with Gilman also probably had an impact on their decision to produce it, but a theatre's relationship with a playwright can also be a very good thing.

And as I said, I think the desire to take risks on new shows is praiseworthy, but only if the show is great is it ticket-buying-worthy. But you can't have great work without occasional crap.

Finally, for one more perspective on Jones' article, here's what Don Hall had to say: http://donhall.blogspot.com/2010/04/staring-at-ceiling.html

Tony Adams said...

Other than Ruined, what was the last great new play they've produced?

(genuinely asking.)

Zev Valancy said...

I actually liked "Dreams of Sarah Breedlove," though I know that wasn't a majority view. I haven't seen a lot of them, so I don't know for sure, but some of the well-received ones weren't world premieres, but were still pretty new, i.e. Boleros, Passion Play, etc. Not a sterling record, but not a hall of shame either.

Tony Adams said...

Missed Boleros, heard it was great.

I think they do a great job presenting work from other places. I loved what I saw of the O'Neill fest in the Owen, and I love the Latino fest. So I'm not a walking Goodman hatefest. I just wish they'd pick better scripts to lavishly produce.

Bob said...

Thanks for continuing this discussion, Zev.

And, darn it: Now I want to see "Johnstown Flood." Just to see what all the fuss is about.

What did you think of "Elms"? Like Jones, I reformed my opinion several days after seeing Falls' production. But unlike Jones, I went from liking it (mainly due to the strong performances), to actually begin annoyed with it (after attempting to analyze what that big house and all those boulders had to do with everything else).

Zev Valancy said...

Tony--I only got to Strange Interlude at the O'Neill Festival, but that alone was worth a whole lot. They need to bring that show back. And I think that there's a lot of merit to finding good scripts and productions that premiered elsewhere and bringing them to Chicago, or giving Chicago companies a forum they wouldn't otherwise get (though Steppenwolf is at the head of the pack with the latter). Not enough to make a full mission, but definitely worthwhile.

Bob--I actually didn't see "Desire." It was a combination of laziness, negative responses from a number of critics and people I trusted, and irritation with both the hard-sell "Pre-Broadway" marketing and the AWFUL poster.

Mr. K said...

I saw "Passion Play". On the one hand, I thought it was daring in its scope and tried to grapple with religion in a complicated way that didn't pat anyone on the back for their beliefs or lack of them.

That said, it did read like something written as a college thesis by a very bright and talented playwright who still hadn't figured out her voice or how to pull her story together. The three different stories & doubling didn't really build or complicate each other. And moments like a dancing line of giant fish sat uneasily along a homosexual Nazi romance (no joke).

The further I got away from it, the more disappointed I was in it.

Mr. K said...

I do think there's something to be said about the fact that Goodman's risks are usually taken with big-name stars or pretty well-established writers. O'Neill Fest is probably the exception, though picking The Wooster Group & Ivo Van Hove as two of the artists was nowhere near as daring as the Hypocrites & the Neo-Futurists.

I know it's a common refrain, but you have to wonder how many epic, daring, polished scripts sit in the Goodman's slush pile from year-to-year?

Anonymous said...

I think that no matter how good or bad a script may start off as when it is greenlit, it undergoes many changes during the writing and rehearsal process. And after production. I mean, Wicked as more or less panned in San Francisco, did a major rewrite, but look what that became. Also, Lestat was a hit in San Francisco, did a major rewrite, and now its a legendary Broadway flop. All said, all shows need a first production!

Monica Reida said...

I have to wonder if revisions of the script were ever discussed with Gilman.

In regards to Tony's question, I was discussing the issue with quite a few people Monday and Tuesday and the only plays that the Goodman directly produced that were positively mentioned were "Ruined" and "Animal Crackers," which wasn't a new work.

Rob Kozlowski said...

The Goodman's track record in developing new work since it moved to Dearborn Street is positively dreadful. For every "Light in the Piazza" and "Ruined" (which were both developed in tandem with other theaters, mind you), there's a "Bounce," "Randy Newman's Faust," "Turn of the Century," "The Boys are Coming Home," "Vigils," "Passion Play," and "Dollhouse" among others. The last two were plays I could not stomach watching to completion.

I thought the O'Neill Fest was redemptive, and the Goodman needs to move in that kind of direction. They do wonderful things with already-established works. In terms of plays sent to the Goodman, I think one of the problems is that playwrights simply don't write plays of large scope anymore because they don't believe they would ever be produced because it would be too expensive. I think I read an interview with Tanya Palmer somewhere in which she was lamenting that the Goodman just doesn't get big, epic plays from anyone.

Falls also has a stern loyalty to Gilman and Regina Taylor, which on paper sounds good but how many *great* plays have come from them? I think they're fine writers, mind you, but this is supposed to be the very, very best, right? Merely good doesn't cut it for me.

Mr. K said...

Hmm... I notice that Other Rob K's list of failures mostly share one thing in common:
The Goodman + musicals....
I guess the premiere of my high-concept production of Oklahoma set in Nazi Germany is not going to do so well when it opens in the Albert next year.

Tony Adams said...

Anon, you have me scratching my head a bit.

I know that scripts change during the process, but any changes to a script in the process should improve it, not make it worse.

If a theatre is picking projects that aren't very good when they commit to them, that's a problem to me.

If anyone consistently greenlights weak scripts--when there are many great ones waiting to be produced--or weakening scripts once they get their hands on them . . . that is a huge problem that should lead to seriously re-examining the processes and personnel working on those productions.

Not every script deserves a production.

Zev Valancy said...

Okay, a little late following up here. But a few responses.

Re: "Passion Play"--I'm just going to have to agree to disagree with y'all. I thought about 2.5 acts of it was great (I can't defend how the third act went off the rails and won't even try). I found it exciting, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally involving. I don't know that much of Ruhl's work (basically this and "Eurydice"), so maybe I haven't had time to get tired of her quirks, but I think this was a more than worthwhile use of the Goodman's resources and my time. Rob, I hope you can forgive me.

Re: Loyalty--It's funny to me that this is the very quality that playwrights cry out for in "Outrageous Fortune." Without a company devoted to performing and developing their work, how can they grow and improve? And yet, shouldn't a theatre of the Goodman's scope only do the best plays? How do you reconcile these ideas? And is there any evidence that this loyalty is leading to better and better plays being done? Or is it more of a dead end?

Re: Improvement--While I think Anonymous may have overstated it initially (some scripts truly shouldn't be done), there is something to be said for an unsuccessful production that leads to a better one. The history of commercial and nonprofit theatre is full of shows that tanked in tryout and turned around and shows whose first production didn't really work roaring back in the second. Wouldn't it be great if Gilman took the lessons of this production and made the necessary improvements, giving us the script we were promised? I'd run to see that show.