Every Monday night at the Fountain Theatre is Pay What You Want Night. One night each week, ticket payment is optional. We launched it last year as an offering to our community to make theatre accessible for everyone. We believe theatre should be affordable for all. We didn’t want the ticket price to keep anyone from experiencing live theatre at the Fountain. Our Pay What You Want Night has become popular and extremely successful. But what would be the public reaction if, for one night, the price of admission wasn’t the only thing optional? What if clothing was also not required?
I was jarred into contemplating this unexpected question because of an article in today’s New York Times. A contemporary art museum in Paris conducted its first-ever tour of its galleries given only for nudists. For one night in the museum, the art wasn’t the only handiwork on exhibit. The French nudist group, Paris Naturist Association, received interest in the museum tour from 30,000 people on Facebook. “I was imagining about 100 or 200 people might want to come, not 30,000,” said the group president. The event was limited to 160 people.
The tour was enjoyed by all. According to the article, it seemed the only challenge for the flock of nudists wasn’t the contest of keeping their eyes focused only on the artwork. It was keeping their bare bodies warm in the chilly museum halls. Even so, the nudist group president is now organizing future tours at other museums.
Ah, yes. Vive la France. Those artsy, wine-and-cheese-loving, free-living French. Would such an event ever happen in America? In a museum or a theatre? Or is America’s view of the human body too repressed, too puritanical? Would a nation outraged by seeing a First Lady’s bare arms tolerate the sight of The Mark Taper Forum filled with bare bodies? We celebrate when a play is eye-opening, not the audience.
Nudity is still viewed as silly at best or sinful at worst by large segments of the American public. Europe, by comparison, is much more lenient about public display of unclothed bodies.
So, will “Nude Night” one day become a popular American night out at the theatre? American audiences may no longer be astonished to see nudity on stage. But what about seeing it on the patron sitting next to you? Think about the actors. In an intimate theatre like the Fountain, would any costume-wearing actor be able to concentrate on their own performance while playing to a full house of naked people? It’s the classic “actor’s nightmare” coming true, in reverse. I mean, look at the poor man in this photo (above). This dedicated and fully clothed museum tour guide, elucidating on an art piece’s influence, history and visual application techniques, must be having an out-of-body experience.
Comfortable or not, I may need to start preparing our ushers at the Fountain. Social nudism is on the rise in the United States. It is one of the fastest growing recreational activities in the country. There are now thousands of nudist groups, resorts and organizations across the United States. Why?
For those who practice it, nudism represents an aspect of life that has been lost, a way to get away from the technology that permeates every aspect of modern life, to feel free in one’s natural state, more alive. When shedding clothing, some of the barriers blocking honest human interaction fall away. Social distinctions disappear. Stereotypes can dissolve. Self-empowerment and awareness arrives. Nudism challenges the conventional beliefs we have about each other, ourselves and our society. It can also just be fun and help us feel good.
“It’s a sense of freedom, a sense of being one with whatever it is,” one nudist describes.
If true, then a theatre, where the soul of man is stripped and laid bare, may be the perfect home after all.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.
Eight words. A statement declared in eight simple words jumped out at me in a feature story on playwright Tony Kushner in today’s New York Times. The eight words were stated by playwright and Kushner friend Larry Kramer, author of TheNormal Heart, which we produced at the Fountain Theatre in 2015. Commenting on Kushner’s shift from playwriting to screenwriting, Kramer says, “I wish he’d go back to writing plays.”
So, why doesn’t he?
Kushner answered that question himself in 2011 when he shocked many in the arts community by revealing in an interview in Time Out New York that not even the author of Angeles in America can make a living as a playwright.
“I make my living now as a screenwriter. Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don’t think anybody does.”
Kushner is right. American playwrights — not even one of his stature — do not earn the bulk of their living writing plays. Many teach. An ever-growing number write for film or cable television. The tsunami of playwrights today surging into television is so large that it now has become a writer’s career model: A playwright earns notoriety and success writing plays — or even one successful play, he/she “takes meetings” with Industry producers then quickly jumps to movies and/or television to make real money. The well-meaning intent being that a big-bucks TV salary will financially support the writer, allowing him/her to keep writing plays. What often happens? They write fewer plays. Some never return to the stage.
“I don’t particularly want to do it,” Kushner said in 2011. “I think that it’s a mistake to do it. So, yes, I’m very worried about it. ” The last play by Kushner premiered in 2009.
The classic tale of playwrights writing for Hollywood is as old as celluloid itself. An avalanche is now underway. Playwrights are flocking to cable TV and streaming networks in record numbers. TV showrunners are aggressively recruiting writers from regional theaters like crazed baseball team owners scouting for hot rookie talent. One major talent agency in Hollywood has opened a department specifically targeting playwrights for film and televsion. The roster of playwrights now writing for film and TV today is too long to list. Is that such a bad thing?
Many playwrights I know, and have produced at the Fountain Theatre, also write for film and television. My pal Robert Schenkkan (Building the Wall) is writing a new project for Amazon. Tanya Saracho (El Nogalar) is now creator and showrunner of the Starz drama “Vida” and just signed a three-year deal with the network. Tarell Alvin McCraney (In the Red and Brown Water/Brothers Size) has signed to create, write, and executive produce a new hour-long television drama for the Oprah Winfrey Network. I’m confidant that all three will continue writing plays.
Stephen Sachs, Shirley Jo Finney, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Fountain Theatre (2014)
I had my own Hollywood crossover by writing the teleplay for Sweet Nothing in my Ear for CBS, based on my play that premiered at the Fountain. The sale of that one TV script paid me more than I would make running an 80-seat theatre for years. I am currently writing a screenplay based on my comedy/drama Bakersfield Mist. Does this make me a traitor to my art form? I don’t think so. It makes me a man with a family and a mortgage.
Let’s be honest. There’s a reason why it’s called non-profit theatre. One enters the non-profit arts sector like one enters the priesthood — to serve a higher power. Even so, it would be nice to make a good living doing what you feel is important. To be frank, non-profit theatre-making is an inherently shitty business model. The economics of the art form stack the odds against those who actually make the art happen. So, why do we do it? Here, we cue the piano and launch into “What I Did for Love”
Of course, it’s not only playwrights who give their hearts to the theatre at the expense of their wallets. Actors, directors and designers often work for love, and little money. The average member of Actors Equity Association, the professional stage union for actors and stage managers, made an annual salary in 2016 of only $7,700 per year. Like corporate America, it’s the folks at the top in this country’s major regional theaters who are earning large salaries. A few of the larger LORT companies have added playwrights to their theatre’s staff, but they are rare. The model of a permanent repertory company, where artists are paid a yearly salary, is a dying concept, a fossilized relic from an earlier age.
Today, the odds of making a living as a playwright are as remote and precarious as making a living as a poet. Our finest example of excelling at both is, of course, the greatest playwright/poet of them all. Shakespeare wrote multiple plays a year, dozens of sonnets, was a partner in the company, and a co-owner of the theatre building. He was also a ruthless businessman and wealthy grain merchant and property owner. Unlike the character he created in King Lear, Shakespeare was no fool.
I have dedicated my career to the intimate Fountain Theatre and the non-profit arts community in Los Angeles. I knew twenty-eight years ago when I co-founded this theatre that I would never make a lot of money. I’m okay with that. Most days. I’d be lying if I claimed I haven’t envied men and women my age or younger in the entertainment industry making a huge amount of money more than me.
This is the life I have chosen. Two things keep me going. The impact our work has on others, and the example I am setting for my two sons. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with making money. I just want my two boys to know that their father dedicated his life working at something that he loved and knew was important, that he was committed to making the world a better place in the one way he knew how, by exploring and illuminating the human condition, not striving to make himself wealthy. Can one do both? Of course. I just haven’t yet figured out how to do that.
An artist’s life offers riches not found in a bank ledger. In that, I am the wealthiest man in the world.
“Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.” — Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, as portrayed by Jason Robards in ‘All The President’s Men’
Bradley Whitford (The Post, Get Out, The West Wing), Joshua Malina (Scandal, The West Wing), Richard Schiff (The Good Doctor, The West Wing) and Ed Begley, Jr. (Future Man, St. Elsewhere, The West Wing) will head the cast of a special, one-night only reading of William Goldman’s screenplay for All The President’s Men, presented by the award-winning Fountain Theatre in partnership with the City of Los Angeles and with exclusive permission from Warner Bros Entertainment and Simon & Schuster. The free event will be hosted by Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrelland will take place in the John Ferraro Council Chamber of Los Angeles City Hall on Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 p.m. A catered reception will follow in the City Hall Rotunda.
Based on the book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the 1976 film All The President’s Men tells the story of their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the Watergate scandal, which brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
“This high-profile reading will be a statement asserting the First Amendment, advocating freedom of the press and honoring the tenacity of American journalism in a free society,” says Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, who will direct the reading. “As the current administration is under investigation, the echo of Watergate rings loud and clear. Reporters from The New York Times and Washington Post have been heroes, warriors for our democracy, as they were forty-five years ago.”
According to Councilmember O’Farrell, “All the President’s Men is a reminder of the parallels between Richard Nixon and the corruption that brought his presidency to an end and the current state of corruption overshadowing the Donald Trump administration. I want to thank the Fountain Theatre for producing this live reading, which underscores the importance of art in its many forms that can illuminate the conditions that affect us as a nation and as a society.”
Adds Sachs “We are profoundly grateful to Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office and the City of Los Angeles for taking the extraordinary and unprecedented action of hosting the reading at Los Angeles City Hall, in the City Council Chamber, as a sign of solidarity. I am very proud of our city.”
The event is co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Press Club, which exists to support, promote, and defend quality journalism in Southern California with the belief that a free press is crucial to a free society. Although admission to the reading is free of charge, any voluntary donations will support, in part, the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s oldest organization representing American journalists, founded to improve and protect journalism and dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press.
The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won over 225 awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include being honored for its acclaimed 25th Anniversary Season in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council; the inclusion of the Fountain’s Citizen: An American Lyric in Center Theatre Group’s Block Party at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. The Fountain’s most recent production, the world premiere of Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, ran for five months and was named “L.A. hottest ticket” by the Los Angeles Times.
All The President’s Men takes place on Saturday, Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m. in the John Ferraro Council Chamber, Room 340 of Los Angeles City Hall, 200 N Spring St., Los Angeles, CA90012. Admission is free. Seating is extremely limited. Please go to www.FountainFreePress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire. No walk-ups will be permitted.
The sold-out house Saturday night at the Fountain was packed with patrons, donors, board members, Fountain family and the press. Following the powerful performance, the crowd gathered upstairs in our indoor/outdoor cafe to enjoy a catered reception prepared by our new chef, Baltazar. Playwright Robert Schenkkan and the cast were surrounded by well-wishers, congratulating them on an unforgettable evening in the theatre. By all accounts, it looks like the Fountain has another hit on its hands.
Mondays at the Fountain Theatre are usually slow and quiet. The traditional day off for folks in the theatre, Mondays at the Fountain are usually spent catching up on office paperwork and reconciling reports from a weekend of performances. But yesterday was anything but quiet when a series of national news stories on our upcoming world premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall, posted on line and in newspapers across the country, triggering an avalanche of activity.
The New York Times featured a story by Michael Paulson profiling playwright Robert Schenkkan and his “white-hot fury” to write the first draft of the play in just one week after the election. The Times outlined that four theatres across the country are producing the new play — lead by the Fountain’s world premiere on March 18 — as part of an National New Play Network (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere. Each theatre had to move fast.
“We no longer live in a world that is business as usual — Trump has made that very clear — and if theater is going to remain relevant, we must become faster to respond,” Mr. Schenkkan said.
In the Times article, Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs adds:
“We had our season in place, with another production planned, but as soon as I read this script I knew we had to move fast,” said Stephen Sachs, an artistic director of the Fountain Theatre. “It’s a raw, passionate warning cry, and I knew we had to be bold and make this statement.”
Playwright Robert Schenkkan (photo by Chad Batka, New York Times)
The Washington Post, in a story by Peter Marks and Nelson Pressley, examined how theatres have changed their season programming in response to the Trump administration. The article highlights Building the Wall.
This flurry of national press activity — all on the same day — generated a blizzard of phone calls and emails to the Fountain. Social media lit up, with our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts buzzing with posts, re-posts, likes, and comments. The office at the National New Play Network in Washington DC also reported a flood of emails and calls yesterday. Interest in the play is expected to increase as we move closer to opening.
The National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall opens at the Fountain Theatre on March 18, directed by Michael Michetti. Set in the very near future, the Trump administration has carried out his campaign promise to round up and detain millions of immigrants. Now, a writer interviews the supervisor of a private prison as he awaits sentencing for carrying out the federal policy that has escalated into the unimaginable. This riveting, harrowing and illuminating drama delivers a powerful warning and puts a human face on the inhuman, revealing how when personal accountability is denied, what seems inconceivable becomes inevitable.
Citizen: An American Lyric, adapted for the stage from Claudia Rankine’s award-winning book of poetry by Rankine and Fountain Theatre co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, will headline Primary Stages’ 2016-17 season at Off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre. Citizen premiered at the Fountain Theatre last summer to critical acclaim.
“We are thrilled that yet another Fountain project has succeeded in moving onward and upward,” says Sachs. “In 2007, our world premiere production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances was presented Off-Broadway by Primary Stages, so this continues our relationship with them. Claudia and I are working together on a new draft for the New York premiere.” An announcement for the NY opening was featured in The New York Times.
‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Fountain Theatre
An intensely provocative and unapologetic rumination on racial aggression in America, Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been heralded as one of the best books of the past decade and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. In this new stage adaptation by Rankine and Sachs, seemingly everyday acts of racism are scrutinized as part of an uncompromising testimony of “living while Black” in America, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to the tennis career of Serena Williams and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his “critic’s choice” review of the Fountain production, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty wrote, “Claudia Rankine’s powerful writings about the trauma of racism make for a staging and message that resonate,” and Stage raw critic Myron Meisel called it “a transcendent experience.”
“We are particularly pleased that this piece will have a life in theaters across the country,” added Sachs. “By enlivening Claudia’s powerful book to the stage, we add our theatrical voice to the national conversation on race in America.”
Other plays written by Sachs that were created and launched at the Fountain’s intimate venue in Hollywood include Bakersfield Mist, now produced worldwide including London’s West End starring Kathleen Turner; Heart Song, produced at Florida Repertory Theatre; Miss Julie: Freedom Summer (adapted from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie) at Vancouver Playhouse and Canadian Stage Company in Toronto; and Sweet Nothing in My Ear which has been produced nationwide and was adapted into a TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin.
The world premiere production of Citizen: An American Lyric at the Fountain Theatre was directed by Shirley Jo Finney and starred Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Tina Lifford, Tony Maggio, Simone Missick and Lisa Pescia. The director and cast for the Primary Stages production have not been announced.
For more information about the Primary Stages production of Citizen: An American Lyric, visitwww.primarystages.org.
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or maybe “A Raisin in the Sun,” or “Death of a Salesman,” a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are all still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.
For the past few years, like a lot of other people, I’ve been preoccupied — sometimes to the point of obsession, lost sleep, free-floating dread and active despair — by the economic state of the world. I spend more time than is healthy pondering the global labor market, the minimum wage, rising inequality, the collapse of the middle class, Thomas Piketty, Janet Yellen and the gross domestic product in China, India and Brazil. Closer to home, I’m grateful for my luck and worried about my neighbors, anxious about my children’s prospects and troubled by the fissures that divide my city and my country.
Strictly speaking, none of this has much to do with my designated area of professional expertise, which could reasonably be defined as writing about the stuff that people seek out to escape such worries and anxieties. Serious art and popular entertainment, in their diverse ways, offer refuge and distraction. Their pleasures and comforts are not trivial, but essential. Art is the domain of solved problems, even if the problems are formal and the solutions artificial.
But if art, ideally, floats free of the grim reality of work, need and sustenance, that reality is nonetheless its raw material and its context. Intentionally or not, artists in every form and style draw on and refashion the facts of life that surround them, and the resulting work takes its place among those facts. What I’m grandly and abstractly calling “works of art” are more concretely and prosaically books, songs, movies, plays, television series, environmental installations, paintings, operas and anything else that falls into the bin of consumer goods marked “Culture.” These goods are bought and sold, whether as physical objects, ephemeral real-time experiences or digital artifacts. Their making requires labor, capital and a market for distribution. The money might come from foundations, Kickstarter campaigns or retail sales or advertising revenue. The commerce between artist and public is brokered by the traditional culture industry (publishing houses, television networks, record labels and movie studios) and also by disruptive upstarts like Amazon, Netflix, Google and iTunes. But the whole system, from top to bottom, from the Metropolitan Opera House to the busker in the subway station below it, is inescapably part of the capitalist economy.
And that economy, in turn, provides an endless stream of subject matter. Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.
If I want to understand the dreams of the gentry and the nightmares of the poor in early-19th-century England, I turn to Jane Austen and William Blake. All the news you need about class divisions in Paris and London later in that century can be found in the pages of Balzac, Dickens and Zola. The history of European painting from the Renaissance to World War I is, in large measure, the history of power, wealth and social status. In the 20th century, film, theater and television tell the same story, as comedy, tragedy, thriller and farce. Class consciousness in Depression-era Hollywood ranged from tuxedoed and mink-coated swells in Manhattan penthouses to strikers on the picket line. Postwar Broadway was the kingdom of Willy Loman and Stanley Kowalski, and as television became a fixture of middle-class homes, it chronicled the struggles and aspirations of families — the Kramdens, the Conners, the Jeffersons, the Simpsons — trying to achieve or maintain middle-class status.
And now? Should we be looking high or low? At sitcoms or science-fiction allegories or realist dramas? At a movie like “Snowpiercer,” which imagines a train speeding across a frozen, apocalyptic landscape as a microcosm of global inequality? At a television series like “Black-ish,” which illuminates the contradictions of upward mobility in a decidedly non-post-racial America? Some of my previous Cross Cuts columns have tried to plot the contemporary intersections of culture, class, work and money. In the past year and a half, I’ve written about how movies like “The Great Gatsby,” “Pain & Gain” and “Spring Breakers” reflect our ambivalence about wealth and materialism; about how Leonardo DiCaprio has become the movie-star embodiment of that ambivalence; about the gentrification of Brooklyn and the eclipse of middlebrow taste; about the contradictory status of creative labor and the state of the working class as depicted in the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
But I want to go further. I want to know more about the political economy of art at the present moment, to think about how artists are affected by changes in the distribution of wealth and the definition of work, and about how their work addresses these changes. So I decided to ask them.
This fall I sent out a plea, accompanied by a questionnaire. My intention was to conduct a bit of unscientific research, and also to advance a discussion about what art has done and should do at this moment of political impasse, racial tension and economic crisis, which at once resembles earlier such moments and has its own particular character. My questions were simple and far from new. The social responsibility of art has been a topic for debate since the ancients. But the answers that came back — from playwrights, filmmakers, rappers, poets and storytellers who have directly confronted these issues — testify to the complexity and the urgency of the issue. These thoughts — largely shared by email, and edited and condensed for space here — convey the sense of a conversation that is going on wherever audiences and creators grapple with the relationship between art and the world. It is my hope that what these artists have to say will provoke reactions from other artists and from readers, viewers and listeners.
Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast in 2005, causing damage in Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida that would reverberate for years to come. Now that recovery is well under way, the Katrina Comedy Fest lets you experience the heartbreak, humanity — and yes, comedy — of those fateful days through the words of five New Orleans-based stand-up comedians who rode out the storm and lived to tell the tale. The funny and powerful play will be performed for one night only on Sunday, July 28, at 7pm at the Fountain Theatre.
The Katrina Comedy Fest cast.
Judy Jean Berns, Deidrie Henry, Travis Holder, Jan Munroe and L. Trey Wilson recount their experiences with irreverent humor without trivializing the tragic enormity of what happened. Written by Rob Florence and directed by Misty Carlisle, the show won “Best of the Festival” at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival and was a recent hit at the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival.
“Celebrates triumph in disaster.” — LA Stage Times
“True and hilarious stories about riding out the storm. Props to anyone who can face their tragedy and laugh in its face.” —LA Weekly
“True personal stories brought to life by a stellar cast” —Bitter Lemons
“The audience was mesmerized throughout. Sure to satisfy your soul!” —Tolucan Times
THE NEW YORK TIMES wrote: “The evocative true stories assembled are full of fear, courage and resilience. But they are also rich in the flavorful humor, inextinguishable identity and civic love that characterize the inhabitants of America’s most battered city.”
Join us on Sunday, July 28th for a funny, thought-provoking and evocative evening you won’t soon forget.
After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I felt like I’d felt after 9/11: grief stricken, traumatized and voiceless. In all the categories I fall in: woman, mother, playwright, human being, the events of that day, remain unbearable. The blessing and the curse of the writer is her imagination. At every mention and at random moments of every day in those first few weeks, I would begin to imagine what occurred in those classrooms, what was waiting for the first responders, and for those children’s parents. Even now, I have to harden my heart to put these words onto paper. While I avoided most of the news on cable, I did venture onto Facebook where I discovered some of my “friends” were anti gun control. I do not understand this position, so I started reading (and posting) all the articles I could find on gun legislation. I read some very cogent, practical and common sense articles like New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s, op-ed. Then I read Porochista Khakpour’s essay, “Why Did Nancy Lanza Love Guns?” In it, she describes her personal journey of love and obsession and ultimately rejection of guns: guns made her feel safe, guns made her feel powerful, guns were sexy, guns were fun.
I met Khakpour when we were both fellows at the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008. I see her standing at the podium, tall and beautiful, throwing back her long dark hair as she read from her novel with a mischievous and joyful spirit, and now I can imagine her shooting a gun.
I have never owned a gun, never touched a gun, never even ever seen a real gun. I don’t share Khakpour’s obsession, but the characters in my plays do. Not in all of them—just the most successful ones, the ones that have been sanctioned by the powers that be as “good,” the plays that receive professional development, multiple productions, get published, and win awards. In each one of those plays a character either, has a gun, shoots a gun, is threatened by a gun, threatens someone else with a gun, is afraid of guns or is somehow traumatized by the violence of a gun.
This is a deeply disturbing revelation for me for several reasons. Firstly, I don’t think of myself as writing about guns. I think I’m writing about family, communication, the power of forgiveness and healing. But the presence of guns in my writing is undeniable. In my first play Pig, written straight out of grad school, a troubled sailor goes AWOL and takes his family hostage. He shoots his neighbor’s dog (which was for audiences the most disturbing thing that happens) shoots his uncle and them himself. (note: I called it a comedy, okay, a black comedy) At the first talkback an audience member expressed disbelief that I’d written this play. The moderator chimed in, “Seriously, you look like you’d write something like Mary Poppins, where did this come from?” To be fair, at the time, even at thirty, I did look like I was twelve years old, but I was offended by the implication that a woman, even a seemingly innocent young woman couldn’t write a play with what I then imagined as real world action in it. I wasn’t going to be put in that woman ghetto box, thank you very much. After giving birth to my first daughter, my plays began to evolve. I knew I’d write different kinds of plays from that point on, and no matter how dark I’d go, always strive to “reach for the light.” But, the guns kept coming back, emerging seemingly organically in play after play.
Now, I am not a careful planner of my career. My ideas show up like orphaned babies on my doorstep that cry out in the cold until I cave in and let them in. Besides guns, there is also a lot of war (often as backdrop): the First Gulf War, Bosnia, the Hundred Years War, Sudan, Iraq. Once early in my career, my mother asked me “Why don’t you write happy plays? I answered “I don’t choose these subjects,” I told her, “they choose me.” I do enforce some practical parameters, like maybe don’t put eleven characters in your plays unless you can double, but do I ever think, even subconsciously: better put a gun in your play if you want this one to get produced? Isn’t there always an exchange, a feedback loop between artist and potential producer? The fact remains that it is my most commercially successful plays that are the ones with the guns. Marsha Norman said something to this effect in her article “Not There Yet.” Says Norman, “People like the plays in which the women act like guys, talk like guys, wave guns around and threaten to kill each other…The critics have liked my “guy” plays—the ones with guns in them—and pretty much trashed the rest.”
I’m not advocating for self-censorship. I’m not saying never write about guns or violence, since writing about it is a way of standing up against it. As a student of mine said recently, “There are three hundred million guns in this country. We are clearly a gun culture. How can art not reflect that?” My husband is a good, gentle and kind man and his favorite movie is Pulp Fiction. Whenever it is on television (which is actually very often) he will stay up until two in the morning watching it again and again. “It’s funny,” he says. Is violence different when it’s combined with humor? Does it make it more palpable? Or does it desensitize? I once wanted to walk out of a production The Lieutenant of Inishman because I found the combination of butchery and comedy too much to take. Is it a matter of degree? I know I probably won’t stop writing about violence in my work despite these questions I have. In my current play, Soldier’s Heart, a mother points a gun at her own child. It’s integral to the action, to the theme and the whole point of the play. I’m not going to take that gun out of her hands. Despite Chekhov’s rule, though, the gun does not go off, so maybe that’s progress?
“The Lieutenant of Inishman”
At Point Park University where I teach, the Cinema and Digital Arts Department has a “no weapons” policy for its Introduction to Screenwriting and early production classes. It is explained as a way of providing parameters for screenplay assignments, but it also addresses a “production and liability/risk management issue,” according to chair and screenwriter, Nelson Chipman. “With such prevalence of weapons in current fictional shows, reality, news and gaming we look for ways to help students create work that is more ingenuous, creative…tasked with creating a story without any weapons…students create more meaningful work, and actually get much more creative with violence and its repercussions.” My students balked at this rule at first and found myriad ways to hide all manner of weapons in their scripts, reminding me of a story a friend told me about her toddler, who faced with his mother’s strict no toy gun policy, bit his peanut butter sandwiches into the shape of pistols. But my insistence (points off for weapons) led them to discover that while guns can easily complicate a moment, create tension, lead to their climax, shock an audience, they are not necessary to good storytelling and in fact can limit the deep, surprising, complex and original conflicts that emerge in their work, finally. Without the guns, they were forced to imagine something new.
I read somewhere that after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Bertolt Brecht went back and revised the plays that came before. He felt it wasn’t the same world anymore, and that his plays, even the ones already written had to reflect that new reality. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary has done that to me, it’s altered my view of reality. I’m not Bertolt Brecht, so I won’t be revising those plays with guns in them, but going forward I’m going to be more mindful of what Brecht also said, “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The gift of imagination that the writer has been blessed with is sometimes a curse, but it can also be a tool. We as writers can reflect society or reshape it, but we also have the opportunity to more completely re-imagine it. And in that re-imagination, I believe, lies all of our hopes.
Tammy Ryan is a playwright. Her plays have been produced or developed at such theaters across the country. “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” was developed at the New Harmony Project and was a featured play at the National New Play Network and will be published by Dramatic Publishing Company this year.
Saunders conjured 10 imaginary readers, and assumed for the sake of argument that three or four of them were already hooked on his work. Two of them, he reasoned, were lost causes that would never come around to it.
But, he continued, “If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”
Saunders, a thoughtful and gifted fiction writer, has yet to be disabused of his populist notions about literature. Thankfully for literature.
His idea – that an artist is never finished building an audience, never through striving to extend his reach to include a slightly bigger swath of humanity with each new effort – ought to be a lesson for every curator, artistic director or film festival programmer. For those struggling to strike a balance between publicly supplied revenue and artistic quality, Saunders’ words are a reminder to send out more invitations.
Saunders’ thought experiment isn’t good blanket advice for artists, who should be free to create work without even thinking about an audience if they so desire. But it’s great advice for those of us charged with building pathways to that art or uncovering its meaning.
Saunders’ idea – to try harder – sounds remarkably simple, and it is. But its repetition is necessary in a cultural landscape densely populated by those who hold the opposing view. Take, for instance, a blurb in a recent issue of the New Yorker by dance critic Joan Acocella of a Philadelphia Art Museum exhibition about Marcel Duchamp and his American followers.
“Duchamp’s nude descended a staircase a hundred years ago. [John] Cage sat down and didn’t play ‘4’33’ sixty years ago. [Merce] Cunningham stuck his foot into [Jasper] John’s ‘Numbers’ fifty years ago,” she wrote, ticking off some of the landmark moments in modernist art, music and dance of the 20th century. “Most of the public is never going to like such things. Most of the public doesn’t like modernism. Let it be.”
The idea of giving up, of allowing the audience for Duchamp or any other living or dead artist to remain a tiny, circumscribed elite is antithetical not only to the goal of public museums and of criticism, but to the work of many of those artists. And yet it persists, born of a notion of artistic elitism rooted in a distant era.
The mention of concerted audience-building is met with cynicism or viewed wrongly as a de facto assault on artistic quality.
But we can never merely “let it be.” We must, as Saunders’ so wisely suggested, cast an ever-wider net.