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Are theatrical readings necessary?BY: Dan Rottenberg 01.20.2009
Behind BSR’s recent controversy over critics who review theater readings lurks a more fundamental question: Why do theater companies hold readings and previews of unfinished works in the first place? And why haven’t other artists— like, say, Beethoven and Picasso— followed suit?
The Hairy Ape as a work in progress:
With arts people, you never quite know when you’ll strike a responsive chord. Two weeks ago our contributor Jim Rutter wrote a review of a reading of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room at the Wilma Theater, which BSR posted. Three days later Blanka Zizka of the Wilma asked me to withdraw the post because, she said, the script that Rutter reviewed was merely a work-in-progress. Rutter and I both asserted our right to free expression, but I withdrew the post anyway because, to my mind, reviewing a work-in-progress is a waste of time.
The related correspondence generated the largest cascade of letters in BSR’s three-year history— from directors, playwrights, critics and ordinary theatergoers. (See Letters.) Most questioned whether it’s right for a theater to swear its audience to silence, or conversely whether it’s right to blow the cover on an unfinished reading or preview. But a few raised a more fundamental and (to me) more interesting question: Why do theater companies hold readings and previews of unfinished works in the first place?
Blanka Zizka contends that developing a play is a “tricky and delicate process” in which “we need to hear the text out loud together with an audience” in order to bring out the best in a playwright’s writing.
Why InterAct gave up readings
But Seth Rozin, founder of InterAct Theatre, says his troupe largely abandoned public readings of plays-in-progress, “primarily because the audience response often proved unhelpful, misleading or damaging.” In his experience, Rozin explains, “Audience responses at play readings tend to be either overly positive (forgiving much of what doesn’t work) or overly negative (lacking the imagination to see how the play would work in a full production). More often it was the former, leading the playwright to resist rewrites.”
I know just what Seth means. When I was a magazine editor, I once had a writer who, before submitting an article to me, attempted to influence the process by circulating copies to his friends. When I suggested changes in his manuscript, he invariably replied, “Everyone else liked it just the way it is.”
The Wilma boasts a well-earned position on the cutting edge of theater not only in Philadelphia but also in America, so I presume Blanka Zizka knows her business. But I’m less persuaded when she invokes the “long tradition in the American theater of public readings.” American history is full of long traditions— like slavery, racial segregation, gender inequality and homophobia— that we can manage without.
The New Yorker’s approach
If directors and producers truly searched their souls for a justification for readings and previews, I believe they’d find that this “long tradition” has less to do with nurturing creativity than with public relations (i.e., building a groundswell for a coming attraction) and financial concerns (charging admission to an unfinished “preview”). Great theater— not to mention great art, music, literature, philosophy, whatever— usually derives not from audiences but from brilliant and creative artists. As Robert Gottlieb, the former New Yorker editor, once put it, there are two ways to edit a magazine: You can find out what the audience wants and give it to them, or you can “go public with your own enthusiasms.”
To be sure, Shakespeare didn’t work in isolation; but he and his collaborators solicited feedback from each other, not from focus groups and theater groupies. If O’Neill and Ionescu had subjected their works to open readings, The Hairy Ape would have been watered down to The Cuddly Monkey, and Rhinoceros would have wound up as Rubber Ducky.
“Fallingwater,” without the water
Orchestras and operas do indeed hold open rehearsals— but not to elicit feedback (rehearsals are a useful way to reward favored supporters). Beethoven’s Fifth triggered an angry riot at its opening performance; so did Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And aren’t you glad the composers and their patrons paid no attention to the audience?
As for moral and political leadership, the mind boggles to imagine….
William Jennings Bryan: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold! At least, that’s my opinion. What do you think?”
Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. All in favor, say ‘aye’.”
The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, but you may feel differently. So before we start a war over them, please fill out these audience reaction questionnaires.”
Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…. Gee, do you think the average listener will grasp my meaning? Is there a pithier way I could phrase that? Can you help me out here?”
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