NEW YORK CITY | Yes. And?
In the theater, as New Dramatists artistic director Todd London reminds us, the difference between critics and artists is the power of Yes. A critic is the spirit that says No. An artist is the spirit that says Yes.
The golden rule of improvisational theatre holds that the improviser must always say yes. No matter how off base or lunatic or cliché your partner’s impulse, you must accept it and you must use it. “No” stops the scene. It interrupts the flow of active ideas and kills the trust on stage.
The publication this month of London’s The Importance of Staying Earnest: Writings from Inside the American Theatre, 1988 – 2013 reminds me of the unique position he serves in the nonprofit theater. He is a kind of double agent. Although both London and I are the both recipients of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism (our country’s highest award for dramatic criticism), compared to his body of theater writings, I am reminded that I am actually the worst dramatic critic in the world. Because my instinctive impulse has always been to say Yes. London, in this collection, occasionally reserves the right to say No, even as he protests that he is “frankly over-identified with his subject [American theater].”
That privilege to say both yes and no is on display in this book. He himself avers that his own “perspective is anything but consistent. Charitably, it could be said to evolve. But then, when it comes to the lack of perspective, there is never any lack of it. You hold proof.”
Do please hold proof. Meet him 6 p.m. Thursday February 28 at the Drama Book Shop in New York. He will read from his book, participate in a Q & A, and sign his book. Hear him speak Friday March 1 as the keynote speaker at “Dreaming the Americas: Staging New Theaters/Challenging Hierarchies,” a one-day NoPassport theatre alliance conference at New York University Gallatin.
London’s book is the first collection of criticism published by NoPassport Press. Normally the press publishes collections of plays and single-edition texts. Because he has led New Dramatists for some 17 years and because he is not a playwright, this book re-views him in a different light: as a theater critic and scholar. Because he is not a reviewer of plays and musicals, London is, by default and achievement, our country’s leading dramaturge. He represents the American variant of the German strain of dramaturge, a field whose patron saint is the philosopher, literary critic and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Which means that instead of writing plays, as Lessing did, London writes studies and surveys of the field, as well as appreciations and tributes of playwrights.
The American dramaturg is a practical creature, rarely a philosophical one. At New Dramatists London has personally encountered the growth and developments of playwrights firsthand. He is not a reviewer or a critic for a publication, so he does not affect the fortunes and destinies of playwrights, as, say, the New York Times critics do. London does not have the burden of airing his true feelings publicly. It is in his interest to advocate for playwrights. And to encourage them by saying Yes in public, though perhaps saying No in private. This position frees him to take an altogether new path in his critical writings, a third road as the Buddhists would say.
The Importance of Staying Earnest is a record of criticism as that essential advocacy — a lively document of in-house dramaturgy as a public occasion. The book is, in fact, a series of illuminating occasions. Formally it begins with “The Shape of Things to Come,” the lead essay of a package of articles on new-work development published in November 2002, a special package of American Theatre magazine that I was privileged to have been charged to oversee and prepare. A majority of the pieces were written for benefits, conferences and tributes.
Unlike the artists with whom he over-identifies, London has always reserved the right to say No. Readers of The Importance of Staying Earnest will most clearly glean this strain in “Mamet vs. Mamet,” in which he criticizes, admonishes and anatomizes Mamet’s “passion and dogmatism.” The thesis of London’s critical attack is that “Mamet the playwright seems lately to be in the grip of Mamet the director and Mamet the theorist, whose reductive thinking has the opposite effect: that of making less out of more, until it appears that he has turned against himself. The plays are getting the worst of it.”
London’s stimulating book has already received advance praise: Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of Ruined, says, “No one writes about the beauty, import and frustration of theater with the eloquence, warmth and depth of Todd London. In his collection of essays that span a quarter century, he audaciously interrogates and celebrates the medium in equal measure, unafraid to undress our notions about the art and business of theater. This is a collection long in the making, and reflects the wisdom and possessiveness of someone who has dedicated his career to safeguarding the legacy of theatre artists.”
The Wildean title of London’s book deserves a brief comment. Let’s let London explain it himself:
Playwrights are slippery and they teach me freedom, but not because they are free—they are not. Playwrights are, like all writers, plagued by bitterness, which is the real enemy and which threatens even the most talented and enthusiastic. The poet Robert Kelly put it perfectly: ‘Bitterness has killed more poets than neglect and poverty combined.’ I wish our playwrights release from bitterness. They aren’t free because they’re forced to spend so much time thinking about money. They aren’t free because the double whammy of neglect and lack of resources breeds envy, and envy fuels that killing bitterness. I wish them release from envy.
If this grand Tony Kushner-like benediction intrigues and engages you, as it intrigues and engages me, then I hope you will follow the artist’s way. Say Yes. And?
And buy London’s daring book The Importance of Staying Earnest. It is an energizing, up-to-minute record of a critical thinker who has seen inside the belly of the American theater beast. He has lived to tell about it. He has emerged wanting, with all his heart, to foment nothing less than radical change. — randy gener, in the theater of One World
THE IMPORTANCE OF STAYING EARNEST:
WRITINGS FROM INSIDE THE AMERICAN THEATRE, 1988-2013
by Todd London
6 X 9 paperback, print on demand
Dreaming the Americas Series
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