Continuing Education

Playwriting: Is It Prolonging the Death Throes Of A Dying Art?

"Theatre is dead!" It's a refrain we hear echo across our culture on a regular basis, but the funeral march never actually plays. In an age of all-encompassing digital entertainment, why on earth would we Imagebother to support a primitive artform seemingly designed to consume more than it could ever profit? CE Playwriting and the Art of the Short Play instructor Dan Tarker  wrestles with the argument and explores why it's part of human nature to keep exploring those Big Hairy Ideas through theatre.

Why learn to write for a dying art form?

It’s a good question everybody should ask before they enroll in a playwriting class.

There was certainly a time, even less than a hundred years ago, when playwrights like Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams could not only make a living off their work, but their work could also significantly impact the culture.

However, recently Tony Kushner admitted that he can’t even make a living off his plays despite being one of the most successful living playwrights in America and so now relies on film work to pay the bills.

And while his plays Angels in America Parts I and II certainly did have an impact on the culture in regard to the AIDS epidemic, one wonders if it had the same impact as Miller’s The Crucible did thirty years before.

So why write a play?

Why not do something that speaks to the national culture? Design a game or a mobile phone app. Write a spec script for a cable TV show. Heck, audition for a reality TV series.

The truth is that theatre as an art form continually goes through cycles of death and re-birth. It’s Dionysian that way – and not just in the pagan ritualistic sense, either. Throughout history, the monetary and cultural value societies have placed on live performance have fluctuated and theatre has changed accordingly, adapting to each new Zeitgeist.

From our Western lens, we can begin to trace the peaks and valleys of theatre with the Greeks, in which it stood on a pinnacle as high as Mt. Olympus with huge state sponsored festivals introducing the world to masterpieces like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

We can then follow the theatre down into the valley of the Dark Ages where it was shackled and banished like some heretic – only allowed out of the dungeon once in a while to perform religious Mystery Plays. Being tortured on the rack would have been preferable, but at least performing the holy propaganda kept the art form alive.

Theatre in the West doesn’t resurface again in a major way until the Enlightenment — but even after that, the theatre saw its popularity and legality challenged when an outbreak of the plague caused many playhouses to shutter their doors.

The Restoration, named for the period when the playhouses re-opened after the plague, would mark yet another re-birth — one so significant politically and artistically that it’s earned its Imagevery own designation as an important episode in theatre history.

Entering the Twentieth Century, the theatre goes through an unprecedented gambit of changes because the Twentieth Century just seemed to accelerate everything. We moved from the Melodrama being the dominant form of popular theatre at the dawn of the century to Realism taking the mantle as we headed toward the mid-point.

Yet, the Twentieth Century theatre found itself in constant rebellion against itself. When an avant-garde form like Realism became popular, a new counter form like Expressionism would soon rise to challenge the status quo.

This continual tension gave birth to innumerable styles of theatre during the century – the Theatre of the Absurd, the Theatre of Cruelty, Improvisational Theatre, The Great American Musical, Postmoderm Theatre, Feminist Theatre, Queer Theatre, Viewpoints, and countless others.

In the end, theatre is always dying and being reborn as something new.

Even now.

We are certainly at a crossroads where the non-profit regional theatre model that swept across the United States during the 1960’s and kept contemporary theatre vibrant and accessible is certainly in a precarious situation — and this will have an impact on the artistic side of the industry including the craft of playwriting. There is less money. Some say there is no money. So we are entering an age where theatre artists need to learn how to do more with less.

Audiences are shrinking; their attention diverted by an unprecedented explosion in media content thanks to the Digital Age. So theatre artists must also begin to think about how to differentiate the live experience from other dramatic content like television or movies or web series. What can theatre do that none of these other forms of media can do?

Ideas and sensibilities are evolving as we become a more multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-sexual, multi-gender, multi-religious, and multi-ideological society. So playwrights must learn how to juggle this multiplicity of human experience if they are truly going to hold up a mirror to the world.

In the end, what makes a play important, what makes it last, what makes it cherished…is one simple thing — the big idea.

The plays that last despite revolutions in style and taste and politics are those that aren’t afraid to wrestle with big, hairy ideas. Have you looked around and seen a shortage of those lately? It might seem like it in a world increasingly defined by a swarm of vapid sound bites, Imagetwitter posts, and hashtags. But the big, hairy ideas — the ones that lead to some truthful revelation about the human condition — are still out there. You just have to dig for them or even discover them through the tension that comes from the process of writing a play.

As playwright Tom Stoppard once said, he likes to write plays so he can argue with himself. And one may extrapolate from this – he thereby hopes to figure out what he thinks about the world – and discover some truth about it.

So why learn to write for a dying art form?

We are not in an age where it will earn you fame. It will certainly not earn you money, either. And it will definitely not ease your soul. Most likely, it will just irritate and awaken your inner demons.

However, through the process, you may just discover some truth about yourself and the human experience.

And then you get to watch with sadistic glee the beauty of an actor on stage wrestling with that truth and those big, hairy ideas you’ve unearthed.

It may be sadistic, but it’s sadistically electrifying. 

Learn more about Dan Tarker's class, Playwriting and the Art of the Short Play.

All photos courtesy of Dan Tarker.