Saturday, August 31, 2013

Theatre Feature: 'Golden Age of the Playwright' by John Demers,

From a new on-line magazine aiming to cover all major metropolitan areas in Texas:

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Playwrights Given a Big Voice on Texas Stages

by John Demers August 29, 2013

For lovers of Shakespeare and Molière, Ibsen and Chekhov, Miller and Williams, declaring our time a new Golden Age of the playwright might seem delusional, or at best, a flourish of hyperbole from some theater’s marketing department. But if you ask the artistic directors of some of the most respected ensembles in Texas, they’ll assure you such claims are hardly ridiculous.

“This is absolutely true,” offers Ken Webster of Hyde Park Theatre in Austin, one of the Texas companies that has enjoyed the greatest success staging new works by playwrights like Will Eno, Martin McDonagh and Annie Baker. “The proof is in the great work being put out by playwrights. The last eight years have been a glorious time for artistic directors in search of great new plays.”

Though no one announced the start of an official golden age eight years ago, the signs have certainly been there in front of audiences across the state, especially in Austin, Houston and Dallas. For one thing, printed show programs have granted more and more space to the man or woman who created the plays, in addition to the men and women directing or performing in them. For another, plays are increasingly marketed and seasons are increasingly built around new works by this or that playwright with a following in New York or Los Angeles, here in Texas, or of course, in all of the above.

“Golden Age of the playwright? Bring it on!” responds Houston’s Philip Lehl, a veteran actor with Broadway credits who, with his actor-wife Kim Tobin, has founded not one but two innovative stage troupes. “The theater is becoming one of the few places where audiences can have a communal experience. As TV and movie audiences splinter and head to the Internet, people wanting to gather around a fire with the tribe to hear stories that shape their lives, head back to the theater. The playwright, of course, benefits from this and becomes what he was at the beginning: the high priest – the great tribal storyteller.”

On any given evening, if you go looking for this “great tribal storyteller,” mathematics dictates that you’ll find him (or her!) more often on small stages, among the less-known, more militantly-thoughtful actors, rather than in the major houses as nothing is more likely to fill lots of seats than the safe, the established, the predictable. And that would hardly be the realm of most playwrights attracting attention these days.Today the deepest, darkest visions of human existence – delivered with a laugh as well as a groan – are making their way onto Texas stages: Not because everyone embraces the message of the play, but because more and more of us embrace the playwright.

In Austin, for instance, Hyde Park has produced three plays by McDonagh (The Pillowman in 2007, The Lonesome West in 2008 and A Behanding in Spokane in 2011), along with three by Annie Baker (Body Awareness and Circle Mirror Transformation in 2010, plus The Aliens in 2012). Eno, certainly a darling everywhere, has found a special place at Hyde Park, thanks to his Thom Pain (produced twice in 2007 and again in 2013), along with his Middletown in 2012.
“We are the sort of Off-Broadway of Austin,” says Webster. “The fact that we have such a small seating capacity allows us to bring Austin audiences the work of new playwrights the audience might not be familiar with yet. We think it is important that Austin audiences have the opportunity to see these new works.”

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