Publish? Perish? Does Anyone Care?

by Eliza Bent

in American Theatre magazine

Post image for Publish? Perish? Does Anyone Care?

(Photo: Benjamin Privitt. Pictured: Mark Jackson and Peter Ruocco in the 2009 Shotgun Players production of Jackson’s Faust Pt1, published by EXIT Press).

In the age of the internet, does anyone care about printed plays anymore?

A recent panel discussion and performance at the Martin E. Segal Center was titled “Publishing Performance in the 21st Century: Ugly Duckling Presse.” The theme of the evening centered around ways of archiving performances that may defy the usual methods of preservation. “How do you notate a dance?” one of the panelists, dance critic Claudia Larocco who founded the Performance Club, asked. Another panelist, playwright Sylvan Oswald who, along with playwright Jordan Harrison, publishes Play A Journal of Plays on a poly-annual basis, proclaimed he felt oppressed by the traditional ways in which plays appeared on the page, which led him to publish a journal of his own. Literary agent Antje Oegel, who co-edits 53rd State Press, argued for the importance of engaging the audience with the text. The panelists continued a convivial debate led by Matvei Yankelevich who publishes both Ugly Duckling Presse and Emergency Index, a nascent annual artist-driven publication of performance documents (the deadline to submit tid bits of your own is Jan. 3 2012). Later in the evening three artists, Jim Findlay, Julia Jarcho and Aki Sasamoto, responded via performance to reviews they had received about earlier performances they had created.

It was all very meta-theatrical and left me thinking about small presses American Theatre has covered in the past. (See “Publish or Perish” Mar. 2011.) One of those publishing houses, NoPassport Press recently released Popular Forms for a Radical Theatre, a collection of interviews, articles and essays exploring populism, theatre practice and radicalism. Playwright editors Caridad Svich and Sarah Ruhl have included essays by such theatre luminaries as Todd London, W. David Hancock, Diane Paulus, Aleks Sierz, Will Eno, Jonathan Kalb and Michael Friedman. There are also interviews with Eugenio Barba, Dijana Milosevic, Nina Steiger, Scott Graham, Richard Maxwell and Brian Mendes.

Much as I am titillated by the idea of reading words by such heavy hitters as these, I can’t help but think about what mutli-disciplinary artist Jim Findlay said in the panel discussion that followed the meta-performances. “It’s been 10 years years since I’ve read a play,” he declared, almost proudly. Then, waiting for comedic effect, he added, “And 20 years since I enjoyed it.”

What do you think? Is it important to document performances? Do you read plays? Who cares?

Eliza Bent is associate editor for American Theatre magazine. She is also a playwright/performer currently pursuing an MFA in playwriting at Brooklyn College under Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney. Bent’s plays include She of the Voice, Blue Dress Reduction, (both undergroundzero festival at PS 122), Pen Pals Meet (the Brick’s Iranian Theatre Festival), Public Proposals, or smile crying (Independent Actors Theatre, Columbia, Missouri), and Trumped (Solo Nova, PS 122). Upcoming: The Hotel Colors (Bushwick Starr, Nov. 7), and Toilet Time with Eliza Bent (Dixon Place’s Little Theatre, Dec. 12).  Bent is also a regular performer and company member of Half Straddle. Upcoming: Toilet Time with Eliza Bent (Dixon Place’s Little Theatre, Dec. 12) and Gonna See a Movie Called Gunga Din with Van Cougar at the Bushwick Starr (Jan. 2012).  Bent is also a regular performer and company member of Half Straddle.

  • David Lawson

    Great article, especially given that this is something I feel strongly about.

    I fell in love with theatre
    through reading plays. Growing up 13 miles outside Washington, DC as a teenager, while YES there was plenty of theatre in town, I didn’t always have the time/resources to see shows. Even today, I probably read four shows for every show I see…and I see a lot of shows.

    I very very very much care when plays are
    published so I can read them. I also love that the NYPL has a ton of new
    plays available to borrow.

    -David Lawson

  • Dan O’Neil

    I do read plays.  I also buy plays.  Maybe it’s the result of submission culture (in that those of us who are readers for various theaters or opportunities get quite good at reading a play in one sitting, trying to visualize and experience the thing as an audience might,) but I am very comfortable and happy to be reading a play, especially if it’s the kind of play that is unlikely to get remounted anytime soon (for whatever reason.)  

    And as to the weirder plays out there – So long as there is a textual score, it can be published and experienced by future collaborators on the page.  The play reaches more people when it is published.  This makes the play happy.  Plus, anyone who teaches a college course on playwriting will buy these things over and over and over again.