I just finished reading the book Respect For Acting by Uta Hagen and watched a documentary on actress Charlotte Rampling, The Look. The book and the documentary remind me that actors can be serious artists and not just attention whores who want to stand in the spotlight. It is important to realize that. What a serious artist ultimately wants is nothing more than recognition. It is necessary for a playwright to find serious artists in the theater or there can be no recognition. You can be cynical and imagine that the theater only exists to aggrandize actors and make them into stars. The writer can only be an underpaid servant of such a superficial enterprise. Fortunately I think writers and actors have the same goal, to explore humanity. As serious artists they are peers.
Not everyone is a serious artist with a genuine interest in exploring humanity. There are writers who are writing just to be writing, with nothing really on their mind and no artistic aim whatsoever. Obviously serious theater artists don’t want to be bothered by such writers. Then there are actors who just want to achieve fame and fortune on the stage and screen. They care nothing about the intellectual and artistic aims of the plays and films they are doing. A movie star will often trample all over the screenwriter’s script to the extent that you have to become a director to retain any control over your vision.
So how does a serious artist gain recognition from other serious artists? Obviously nothing I write will ever come to the attention of actress Charlotte Rampling. It easy to evaluate the body of work of an established and highly successful theater artist. What you have to do is find the serious artists who have yet to become highly respected and successful because these people are still approachable. Theater companies expect writers to do this by reading their Artist Statement and evaluating their body of work. Unfortunately artist statements are often brief boilerplate pieces of writing that tell you nothing and by the time it is apparent that a theater company is comprised of serious artists, they will already be beyond your reach or swamped with submissions. Finding your true peers at a point in their career when they are approachable is actually a very difficult task.
It is equally difficult for a new theater company to find the playwrights who will make their fame. Established playwrights won’t want t0 waste their new work on a small theater without much of an audience. David Mamet is not going to submit his new play to a community theater or an amateur theater company. What a new theater company really wants to do is find an emerging playwright to nurture so they can be associated with the discovery of America’s next great playwright. The writer just wants to find a theater with serious artists who can grasp what he is trying to achieve and provide the necessary talent to bring his vision to life. An ambitious theater company doesn’t just want to do proven masterpieces of the stage. They want to get credit for discovering talent. They want to make a contribution. They want to give the world great new plays that they developed.
Unfortunately discovering talent, the serious artist waiting to be discovered by his peers, seems to be a haphazard process that depends on sheer luck. Theater companies don’t have clear, well-written artistic statements so you can tell where the artistic director has his head at. So the serious writer can find it very difficult to evaluate a theater. It is hard to say if an unproven theater company would appreciate your work or give you a shot. Meanwhile theaters get swamped with scripts that they don’t have time to read carefully so it is sheer luck if they come across what they are looking for.
Part of this problem could be solved by writing a detailed artistic statement. This would help other serious artists get some sense of what is important to you. Obviously not everybody has the time to write a well thought out essay and nobody has the time to read a lot of detailed artistic statements. But there is clearly an advantage if you are the rare bird who bothers to write an essay.
There are a few existing writings on the theater which describe an aesthetic you can reject or enthusiastically accept. It can be very revealing to read somebody’s thoughts on these texts. For example, The Dramatic Imagination: Reflections and Speculations on the Art of the Theatre by Robert Edmond Jones was much admired by Marian Seldes, a serious theater artist. Other theater artists dismiss the book for its purple prose and mysticism. This reveals an attitude which is against the pursuit of high ideals and too lofty aims. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the premise that theater should pursue a spiritual aim, something greater than life. Maybe you think theater should only hold up a mirror to life without aggrandizing any aspect of reality. I think a reaction to this book is very revealing and I would prefer to work with people sympathetic to Robert Edmond Jones’s vision.