Beyond the “Dead Playwright” Approach

by Mariana Carreño King

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

“I like working with dead playwrights,” a director once told a colleague whose play he was directing. The implication was clear: shut up and get out of my rehearsal; your job is done and now let me do mine.

Reinventing plays as a director is obviously a valid form of artistic expression. How many Shakespeare adaptations in all sorts of settings have we seen, from Joe Papp’s Naked Hamlet to the Reduced Shakespeare Company production of The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr? And living playwrights adapt “dead playwrights” all the time too: Luis Alfaro’s brilliant Oedipus el Rey and Electricidad or Tanya Saracho’s El Nogalar based on Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard come to mind.

But directors working on new work who prefer the “dead playwright” approach are missing out on the innovation achieved by true collaborations. The dialogue that goes on when everybody digs into the work, discovers new meanings and contributes to the creation of a new play.

And beyond the director and the actors, what a privilege to have the whole artistic team in the rehearsal room. A sound designer to figure out what to underscore or to suggest ideas that a director alone might never come up with. The same goes for set and lighting designers who can contribute enormously to create the magical world we all want to inhabit, at least for a fleeting moment.

Of course that’s difficult, especially in the real world of off- and off-off- Broadway theatre in New York, where the money is short and everything is driven by results. We need to get going: three week rehearsal, one week tech and previews and boom, done. Go home and write something new. Put pretty pictures in your portfolio and move on to the next interview. Audition for your next project. Theatre is ephemeral by nature and you have to move on.

But there are other ways to create new work. Pina Bausch and Robert Lepage are great examples of the importance of collaboration, of absorbing what  different artists bring to the table (or the stage) to create magical worlds. They can (Bausch could) afford long process that involve multiple countries and disciplines, and it’s worth noting that neither Tanztheater (Bausch) nor Ex Machina (Lepage) are based in the United States, where support for the arts keeps dwindling.

Bausch and Lepage are in a class of their own, but we can still learn from them. We can learn to listen and observe and absorb. We can learn to be open to the different opinions and techniques and disciplines of everybody in the room. Even with limited resources and time, we can strive to feed each other’s imaginations, to check our egos at the door and pay attention to the world around us. We live in a diverse, crazy world, and we not always take advantage of it. We’re blinded by our own limitations and prejudices, real and imagined.

There are many obstacles: the corporatization of theatre, risk-averse producers, lack of resources, the homogenization of culture in general. Women and artists of color have it even harder. It is a little depressing out there. But we can still try and help each other along the way. Listen to each other and not just keep yelling. Welcome more people into the room and not just shut the door.

Sure, we can learn a lot by reinventing dead playwrights, by honoring our ancestors. But there’s nothing like working with the living: multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary artists that push boundaries and create entirely new worlds that we can all inhabit, if only for a fleeting moment.

As Robert Lepage said last year at an award ceremony at MIT, “The survival of the art of theater depends on its capacity to reinvent itself by embracing new tools and new languages.” Amen.


Mariana KingMariana Carreño King is a writer, director and translator. Her plays have been developed at Mabou Mines, Intar, Labyrinth Theatre Company, Public Theatre, among others. She just finished a run of Dance for a Dollar, a collaboration with director and choreographer Daniel Jáquez, at Milagro Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Mariana is in the Advisory Committee for the Lark Play Development Center US/Mexico Playwright Exchange.