Matthew Lopez, Part 3: Is sweetness a risky trend in the American theatre?

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There does seem to be something that the DCPA is going for in terms of what it believes are the stories that its audiences want to see right now,” Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow Matthew Lopez says. And maybe what they want to see right now is families not tearing each other up all of the time. Photos by John Moore.

The American theatre is in love with hate.

OK, so that’s hardly a new development – or even a remotely American theatrical trait. From Medea butchering her kids for spite, to mad man MacBeth’s bloody murder spree, to those gloriously soused bickerers from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to Martin McDonagh’s hilarious Irish cat-implosions … the history of world drama has been fueled for centuries by shocking tales that never run out of new ways to show us how we can hurt those we ostensibly love.

When it comes to tone in the live theatre, straight plays and traditional American musicals have peaceably co-existed – in opposite galaxies. While composers want to leave you tapping your toes, playwrights tend to go for your jugular.

The past 40 years in American playwriting has been a particularly cynical and cruel period. Think Sam Shepard and his Buried Child. David Mamet and the blatant gender violence of Oleanna. Protégé Neal LaBute’s father casually looking on as his infant suffocates under a bed sheet. And now, of course, we have the new gold standard for family barbarism: Tracy Letts’ instant American classic, the gleefully vicious August: Osage County.

The most celebrated playwrights in the contemporary American theatre at the moment are best known for their savagery. Consider Stephen Adly Guirgis, who writes proudly profane stories of inner-city violence (including a notable one about a Catholic nun who drinks herself to death). He just won the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award and a cash prize of $200,000 to go with it.

But there seems to be a changing emotional tide on the theatre horizon. And one need look no further than Broadway – or the Denver Center for the Performing Arts – for evidence of what seems to be a wholly organic, emerging trend away from domestic stage cruelty. 

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Last year’s five Tony-nominated plays included three unapologetically sweet stories: Casa Valentina (Harvey Fierstein’s borscht-belt comedy about heterosexual cross-dressers in 1962); Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons (about the changing definition of the American family); and Outside Mullingar (an unexpected Irish romance from John Patrick Shanley). The fourth – Act One – adapts a backstage memoir by Moss Hart; and All the Way (by Robert Schenkken, author of the DCPA-bound apostolic musical The 12) is a historical look at the LBJ presidency. Nothing you could call remotely barbarous.

Playwright Matthew Lopez, who is spending part of his year serving as the DCPA Theatre Company’s first-ever Playwriting Fellow, also points to rising playwright Annie Baker, whose Circle Mirror Transformation, The Flick and The Aliens have been described as heart-rending, gentle and extraordinarily beautiful.

And here in Denver, the DCPA Theatre Company seems to be in a stretch of plays that bucks the mean trend — the recent children’s classic Lord of the Flies notwithstanding.

“There does seem to be something that the DCPA Theatre Company is going for in terms of what it believes are the stories that its audiences want to see right now,” Lopez said.

And maybe what they want to see is families working through things together once in a while.

Last season’s The Legend of Georgia McBride (written by Lopez) and Shadowlands, along with the upcoming world premieres of Appoggiatura and Benediction, might seem to have little in common – save for the biggest thing of all: Their big, beating, searching, thoughtful hearts. It’s not that these stories are without conflict – that’s the lifeblood of all drama. Appoggiatura pairs two mourners who dearly loved the same man. Benediction traces the final days of a father who has done irreconcilable damage to his relationship with his son.

“There is certainly rancor in those plays. There is disappointment. There is bitterness. There is sublimated mourning,” said Lopez.

They just aren’t carnal about it. They are warm and vulnerable indications of the changing American family. Which makes them not the kinds of plays that have been in vogue for the past two score with theatre producers from Denver to New York.

So, does it take a particular kind of courage right now to write sweetness into a new American play?

“That’s a hard needle to thread,” Lopez said, “because the answer is both yes and no. It depends on who you are as a writer. It depends on what theatre is. It depends on the happy accident of those two things meeting each other.”

Matthew_Lopez_Fellowship_Part_3_400But three-time Pulitzer nominee James Still, who wrote Appoggiatura, believes he has gone out on a limb with the play – and the DCPA Theatre Company has joined him on it.

“I think it takes enormous courage right now to approach a new play with that kind of deeply sweet quality,” said Still, “because sweetness is risky.”

Still was speaking specifically about Appoggiatura – the time-bending tale of a family that travels to the romantic city of Venice to heal their wounds. But he also could have been talking about Georgia McBride, which had its world premiere at the DCPA’s Ricketson Theatre a year ago. That’s a gentle comedy about a young father who enters the world of drag to support his growing family – and comes to find that he loves it. It is a testament to acceptance and theatrical fabulousness.

But as a world premiere, and because of its subject matter, Georgia McBride was a risk for the host DCPA Theatre Company. No one could have known how audiences would take to Lopez’s world of drag in the Florida panhandle. It turns out, they took to it so well that almost every seat for the entire run was sold.

“I know that I love a good, sweet story. I love kindness and hope in the theatre,” Lopez said. “But of course that has never ultimately driven the live theatre. We have eye-gougings and murders and incest and all kinds of awful things happening to us. I mean, when you think about the greatest American plays — they are probably all downers, right?”

Double-downers. In 2010, The Denver Post surveyed a national swath of theatre insiders and audiences to determine the 10 most important American plays. The Top 5: Death of a Salesman (failure and suicide); Angels in America (the AIDS epidemic), A Streetcar Named Desire (booze, delusion and brutality), A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (drug abuse in a disintegrating family) and Virginia Woolf (wedded un-bliss).

“I mean … that’s pretty grim,” Lopez said with a laugh.

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Lopez said his experience in bringing Georgia McBride to life in Denver “was entirely positive.” But he then went straight to the Hartford Stage to open his latest new play,  called Somewhere. It’s the undeniably hopeful story of a family of dancers and dreamers who triumph in the face of unrelenting poverty, dislocation and economic powerlessness. Audiences loved it. Reviews were rapturous. The Los Angeles Times called it “ebullient and charming.”

“It was by any metric a success, whether that metric be commercial, artistic, critical or audience-based,” said Lopez. “… And I just can’t get it to New York.” 

So if Lopez can’t get Somewhere to somewhere like New York, how does a nice play ever get produced?

“I don’t know what the recipe is,” Lopez said. “I think it is really a strange alchemy that does not have a formula.”

At the end of the day, he added, “I think it takes guts to write a play, period. It takes guts to tackle the really big issues, and to attack them with gusto.  

“And so I think playwright’s obligation is to write the stories that you are meant to write. You tell the stories that must be told, because they are just going to burst out of you if you don’t.”

As an audience member, Lopez has a simple metric, and it is not whether the story is happy or sad; sweet or crude. “I just want to be told a good story,” he said. “At the end of the play, I want to know that something has happened. I want to have had a unique theatrical experience. I want to leave having felt something that I previously had not encountered.”

So Lopez ultimately believes that it is insufficient to just assume that audiences are necessarily craving sweet stories at the moment.

“I think audiences crave good stories,” he said.


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Check out our complete photo gallery covering Matthew Lopez’s Playwriting Fellowship in Denver, above.

MATTHEW LOPEZ IN DENVER: THE  SERIES TO DATE:
Part 1: Why take the Playwriting Fellowship? The hunger for new work
Part 2: Lopez to students: Be citizens. Be informed. Have opinions.
Part 3: Is sweetness a risk in the American Theatre? (today)
Part 4: Lopez’s role in the 2014 Colorado New Play Summit

AMERICAN THEATRE WRITES ABOUT THE MATTHEW LOPEZ FELLOWSHIP:
Paying Playwrights More Than Play Money

SELECTED PREVIOUS COVERAGE OF MATTHEW LOPEZ AT THE DCPA:
Matthew Lopez named DCPA Playwriting Fellow for 2014-15
Matthew Lopez’s trip down the straight and fabulous
2015 Colorado New Play Summit expands to two weekends
‘Georgia McBride’ team: ‘Subtlety is our enemy’

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