Playwriting and Recession

Journalist Rachel Swan asks, “Is financial prudence inhibiting art?”

Local playwright Lauren Gunderson takes it as an article of faith that theater is, by definition, big, strange, extravagant, and epic. That’s the line she preaches to students at the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, where she teaches a writing class called “PlayMath.” “When I talk to writers, I tell them, ‘Your concern is to write the big, and the beautiful, and the true,’” Gunderson said, explaining her pedagogical credo. It’s a reflection of her roots: Gunderson said that in her MFA program at New York University, professors advocated pretty fiercely for big and strange plays.

But lately, Gunderson has been balancing that line of quixotic idealism with a more pragmatic argument: If you want your plays produced, you have to write small. Gunderson knows this firsthand. Last year, Marin Theatre Company had planned to mount a production of her play Silent Sky, which was originally commissioned by the Los Angeles company South Coast Repertory. A historical work about 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, it called for six actors, a few period costumes, and a “dreamy landscape” with optional video. To Gunderson, that didn’t seem too complicated.

But Marin Theatre Company pulled out of the planning process, even after announcing the play to its subscribers. The official line from Marin spokesman Sasha Hnatkovich was that this version of Silent Sky had a different script than the South Coast production. But Gunderson said that Marin gave her a different explanation: Silent Sky was just too expensive.

This is an interesting repercussion of a downturn in the economy I had not directly considered, but makes perfect sense. Those who are producing ensemble-based art must necessarily reduce the ensemble and the means whereby the ensemble reproduces the art for consumption.

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