Playwriting Teachers Must Be Advocates for Playwriting

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This blog was originally posted on June 5, 2015.

In a blog post titled, “We Need More Crappy Plays,” theatre scholar Scott Walters makes a claim that should be obvious:  healthy theatre requires a healthy dose of new plays.  Walters lauds the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for declaring that it will produce four world premieres as part of its 2015-16 season.  As he wistfully states:  “Imagine if every regional theatre in the country devoted half of its mainstage productions to new works . . . .  What would be the result?  An American Renaissance in the theatre as our stages became [sic] once again to be relevant and vibrant.”  Unfortunately, the field of theatre—especially professional theatre, which often makes conservative choices in the name of increased ticket sales—is not always eager to support new work.

As teachers of playwriting, we must realize that we and our students are part of a community of artists.  Whereas writers in other forms—poetry, for example—can imagine that they operate exclusively in a world of writers, playwrights have no such luxury.  Their work depends on a vast network of artists – actors, designers, stage hands, etc. – who are not primarily literary.  Whereas the decision makers for the printed genres (for example, editors of creative writing journals) can be presumed to have a literary background, decision makers for theatre (for example, artistic directors of professional theatres) may have found their way to the profession through any number of fields unrelated to writing.  For this reason, they do not always see playwriting as important.  It is up to us, then, to insist that it is.

Scott Walters points out that popular music does not rely on covers of past hits, nor does the motion picture industry confine itself to remakes.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that our most vibrant contemporary art forms—popular music, stand-up comedy, video, and, to a lesser degree, movies—are predicated on originality.  Of the arts, only classical music shares theatre’s obsession with re-creating works of the past.  In contrast, visual artists must create afresh, and poetry and fiction become mere book-making without original contributions from today’s writers.  Puzzlingly, theatre is an unwitting oddball in its preference for works of the past.

What we have today is a karaoke theatre, where contemporary artists recreate yesterday’s hits.  While karaoke is entertaining, no one thinks of it as high art because it lacks the ability to further the field.  No one looks to karaoke singers to define what art and culture will become.    Regrettably, theatre today is largely karaoke theatre and satisfied to remain that way.  It excludes the contributions of today’s writers; paradoxically, amending this exclusion could be the solution to many of contemporary theatre’s problems.

Playwriting teachers must be aware of the issues facing the theatre community and must be prepared to make cases like I have made.  If teachers do not advocate for playwriting, there will be no need for the playwrights that we train.

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About the Author
David J. Eshelman teaches at Arkansas Tech University, where he is the founder and artistic director of the Arkansas Radio Theatre. His plays include Vim and Vigor, A Taste of Buffalo, Bathysphere, and The Witches’ Quorum, which had its professional debut at the Magnetic Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina. His essays about playwriting and his plays have appeared in Theatre Topics, Text and Performance Quarterly, Ecumenica, and Liminalities.