by Gary Garrison
Article © G. Garrison (with permission from Heinemann Press)
I love a good meatball. But you can hardly find one these days. I mean, you can get a lot of things on a plate that look like a meatball, but rarely do you find the culinary heaven that was Davy Romano’s mama’s Sunday meatball in mud-thick tomato sauce. A couple of days ago I went to an Italian restaurant with a friend of mine and we ordered – what would you guess? – meatballs. My friend took a bite of hers, dabbed her lip with a shredded, paper napkin and proclaimed: “Too much ball, not enough meat.”
Our meatball problem got me thinking about the theatre, and how recently I’ve seen a lot of new plays that you know should make great theatre, but just don’t; there’s too much “ball” and not enough “meat.” And I wonder if some smart, savvy theatre God has figured that out, which explains why a lot of commercial theatre (at least in New York) has shrunk to under ninety minutes. Has it fallen completely out of fashion to tell a simple, engaging story with complex characters? Are we only comfortable with excess and the whole “if it’s bigger it must be better” syndrome? How does that happen? Where does it happen? Maybe more importantly, when in the process does it happen?
If we’re talking meatballs, and something’s amiss, you only have to look as far as the cook or the recipe. But if we’re talking the process of play development, where do you begin to look for what’s creating that bad taste in your mouth? Frankly, I begin and end with the playwright because that’s who the audience (literary managers, artistic directors, directors, other interested theatre folks) rests their opinions on. I don’t think anyone ever looks at a play and says, “Wow. That theatre (or director, or dramaturg) really over-developed that play.” No, they look at the individual writer as the recipe-builder; the dramatic chef, if you will. And if something’s under or over-cooked, the fault lies with the playwright. And that’s the way it should be, shouldn’t it? Yes . . . if only . . .
. . . if only it were just playwrights making plays in this day and age. But a lot of us have stopped creating alone; we’ve stopped trusting our own precious judgment and have loosened our position as God of our stories – the person who decides who lives and dies, when time should melt or the skies should change from auburn to bright red with anger. A lot of us have lost sight of the fact that we are the chosen and rightful authority on the world of our plays. We are too willing to listen to directors, actors, artistic directors, designers, producers, best friends, partners, girlfriends, husbands and next-door-neighbors who wrote a play ten years ago. Worse, we allow them to add filler to our play through their pointed suggestions and contributions all in the name of development. We are, in effect, re-designing by committee whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Maybe it’s all gotten too complicated. Maybe we’re over-thinking, over-processing, over-planning, over-changing and rearranging things too much. Maybe that’s our fault as playwrights, or maybe it’s the fault of a system where there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen. And I worry that we’re dulling our senses as dramatists because there are so many challenges to our creative process. I don’t know what the answer is, but it makes me long to go back to the basics with a simple recipe: an engaging story with compelling characters in dramatic conflict.