This week I was asked to direct a seated reading for the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, the annual showcase of original one-act plays and local actors. Directing a seating reading isn't as impressive as it sounds, as it's mostly a fuction of who you know, but the festival is a good opportunity for writers and actors who might not normally be noticed to get some much-needed publicity. Theatre directors and filmmakers in the city (such as myself) have been known to cast actors after seeing them in the festival and there's always at least one or two good plays, even in a bad year.
A quick note on the process: a bunch of writers send in their one-act plays, which are read by a panel of judges and the judges weed out the ones that are unsuitable. The plays then go to the directors, who read through all of them (roughly 50) and pick ten or so that they might want to do. Then, they all get together and try to figure out who gets to do what.
This might not be so difficult except that there are rarely ten plays worth doing. This year I count six. The rest range from the mediocre to the awful to the so awful they then become awesome (the one about a guy who gets a robot pregnant is priceless).
And this is not to trash the efforts of amateur playwrights all over the country. The mediocre plays seem to have qualities in common that may be interesting in comparison to the state of films today. Other than a shaky grasp of language, they seem to have one of two problems: they either fail to develop their story in any way, or they yearn to be important and prfound without having anything important or profound to add.
The plays with the first malady are really little more than an interesting (or not) premise stretched into a thirty page script, almost like an idea hatched at a bar then hastily written the next morning. In other words, they feel like the sort of bad studio movies you get when an executive has an idea and rushes it into production with little concern that they haven't go a script. They become filmed ideas, so empty and pointless you wonder why anyone bothered. This is always something I've chalked up to being a quirk of Hollywood, but if that's the case, then why are so many of the plays I read this week so similar to a form of entertainment that nearly every intelligent person in the world considers vapid? Since when does Hollywood's worst serve as a template for aspiring playwrights? I mean, it's one thing to write a play as a whim, a fun little excercise, or a class assignment, but it's another to submit it to a nationally known festival, thinking it'll actually make a good play. Hell, it even costs money to submit.
So maybe the Hollywood dreck isn't coming from focus groups and business-minded executives after all, but is rather a product of something else. Could it be that there's something inherent in our society that thinks entertainment such as this actually contains some artistic value? As far as I know, the majority of people who submit these plays are people who, for better or worse, consider themselves artists, so it can't just be that they think it might be fun. At some level they actually think this stuff is good. So, perhaps the studios actually think their product is good. I don't know for sure and this is a long way to get to a short thought, but it's interesting to me all the same. The test, I think, will come Monday when we see who takes what play. In other words, what do theatre professionals consider to be a good play (or, close enough to good)? Until then, I'll keep reading the robot play. It's always good for a laugh.