Arts & Culture

The hunger for live theater

5 min read

After a dramatic, comedic dedication of the New College Theatre, playwrights talk

Harvard President Drew Faust was about to cut the giant ribbon stretched across the stage of the New College Theatre when a shrill voice called out from the back of the audience:

“Stop! Stop!”

Heads swiveled toward a figure in a clinging red sequined dress with a slit up one thigh, abundant blond curls, and a huge feathered headgear that matched the dress in color. Teetering on high heels, the figure staggered to the stage and greeted Faust and her companions, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith and Office for the Arts Director Jack Megan.

“Hi,” the red-garbed apparition said breathlessly. “I’m David Anderson.”

We were, after all, in a theater, and there could have been no more theatrical way of reminding us of the history of the building whose reincarnation we had come to celebrate. The Hasty Pudding Theatre, built in 1876, beloved venue for generations of cross-dressing farces as well as more serious presentations, was acquired by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 2000 and transformed from a genteel wreck into a state-of-the-art theater building. Only the façade remained unchanged.

Or so we thought until we saw Anderson come tripping down the aisle to interrupt the proceedings. Harvard could wave its wand and change the Hasty Pudding Theatre into the New College Theatre, but exorcising the anarchic spirit of Hasty Pudding was another matter.

It was difficult to tell whether Faust had been tipped to this interruption or whether she was playing along in the good-natured tradition of scores of celebrities who have come to the theater to collect their pudding pots, but play along she did, graciously accepting Anderson’s substitution of a giant, red-handled scissors, which he assured her was more appropriate for the occasion. Smith did his part by allowing himself to be crowned with Anderson’s feathered headdress.

The dedication having been duly performed, it was now time for the weightier main event, a discussion by four practicing playwrights on the subject “Does Playwriting Have a Future?” Moderated by Robert Brustein, founding director and creative consultant of Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), the panel was composed of John Guare, Melinda Lopez, Adam Rapp, and Paula Vogel.

Guare, the author of “House of Blue Leaves,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and many other plays, expressed confidence that playwriting did have a future, but warned of competing forms of entertainment that seduce talented playwrights away from live theater. He spoke of promising students of his who had gone to Hollywood to write for television, hoping to earn enough to pay off their educational debts.

“They’re lost. These are valuable voices who will not be heard from again.”

Lopez, whose first play, “Sonia Flew,” won the 2004 Elliot Norton Award for best new play and who teaches theater and performance at Wellesley College, spoke of the competition serious playwrights face from extravaganzas such as the soon-to-open Broadway musical based on the Disney film “The Little Mermaid.”

“It’s understandable that people want to go see productions like that. It’s a relief to know what you’re getting when you spend your $200 for a ticket.”

Nevertheless, Lopez believes there is something in humans that makes them crave the experience they can only get from plays that grapple with serious, complex issues.

“What playwrights offer is a human connection, which can never be obliterated. Whether it’s people coming to a theater or gathering around a campfire to hear a story, it’s imprinted on our DNA. We will never not have it.”

Rapp, whose plays “Nocturne” and “Animals and Plants” had their world premieres at A.R.T., remembered the moment Brustein called to say he was interested in producing his play. Rapp, who was “totally destitute” at the time and sleeping on a friend’s couch, said he was astonished to hear Brustein’s voice.

“It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The fact that that could happen to me makes me hopeful about the future of other playwrights.”

Rapp too expressed concern about competition from television, videogames, and other “cultural analgesics” as well as the aging of audiences accustomed to theatergoing. In order for theater to survive, he said, theater producers must be more courageous and more willing to take risks on untried writers.

“Playwrights must be allowed to fail because if not they’ll never be able to tell us what’s wrong with our civilization and what’s beautiful about it.”

Vogel, whose play “How I Learned to Drive,” won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize and who teaches playwriting at Brown University, said she was “an incredible optimist” because, as a teacher, she finds “fantastic plays by 20-year-olds.”

She agreed with Rapp that the most important thing is to give young writers the opportunity to see their work produced.

“I know there is an incredible supply of young writers, but what they need is someone to say, ‘Here is a stage — Do it!’”

The situation is a challenging one, she said, because subsidies for the arts have been cut repeatedly since the 1980s.

Guare agreed and said that unless steps are taken to support serious theater, the result may be catastrophic. In ancient Rome, he said, the government shut down theaters because it considered them politically subversive. That ban persisted into the Christian era, Guare said, and until the Renaissance little significant theater could be found in Europe.

“That 1,700-year period when there were no plays could happen at any time. We have to realize how fragile the theater is.”