Scott Adkins Assesses Writing and Theater in America

Writing needs better teachers while theater just needs more stages.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Is there enough focus on teaching the humanities? 

Scott Adkins: I think there is a problem with fostering writing in the educational system. I have two kids. One’s eight and one is turning six in June and what I see right now in the lower grade levels is such an incentive to provide high stakes tests, and performance on these high stakes test, that it negates the purpose of education in general. And testing is useful, however when so much pressure is put on it, it becomes in my mind negative, it has a negative impact.  You squelch the creative environment in an odd way and that makes it very difficult for teachers to operate. I think teachers do an amazing job in the New York public schools system in working with these high stakes tests and trying to create an environment but it’s extremely difficult. I don’t know what that means for the upper grades yet, I’ll find out. I do know what it means for students coming in to Brooklyn College, for example. My wife teaches English 1 there and playwriting. And she sees a vast array of students coming in and my father taught English for about 32 years and he saw a traumatic downturn in students’ abilities to actually write on their own and it is nerve-racking and scary and it was very frustrating for him and it’s frustrating for my wife as well to have students coming in who are really smart and intelligent people but they don’t have the ability to think as well as they should. So it becomes a double challenge in the humanities area of trying to teach critical thinking and take that critical thinking to the page. 

I see so many writers at the Writers Space. We’ve served over five hundred writers and they’re all amazing and the kind of work that they’re putting out is incredible. My community of playwrights is huge. It might not be visible, but there is a really, really strong community. The master’s programs seem to be getting more aggressive and more alternative. I happen to go to the Brooklyn College MFA program for playwriting and studied with Mac Wellman where, what he taught me was not how to write because the assumption is you know how to write when you come in, but he taught me how to think. He taught me how to follow a passion, how to follow a path, how to open up a book and find the nugget inside that book and research it, and continue working with it until I could use that as the fuel for my work in the right place.And there’s a lot of new writers coming out of those programs, the fiction program is incredible over at Brooklyn College as well. 

I also feel like blogs are inspiring writing as well. There’re a lot, even though it’s a freer form, it’s more of a journal, a public journal. There’s a lot of writing going on there as well. They’re not always good but practice makes perfect and so if there’s more opportunities to practice, more opportunities to write, the better you will get. That’s proven over time. 

Printed matter?  What’s going happen to printed matter? That’s a big question. We’ve seen the music industry suffer. We’ve got the Virgin Megastore shutting down in Time Square maybe because of the recession, likely because people are downloading more music so what’s going to happen to printed matter and the brick and mortar bookstores and that sort of thing. Are people going to actually read more online? Are they going to be able to read long pieces in electronic format, that’s questionable as well. But I don’t feel like, I don’t feel like writing is suffering, I feel like there’s more opportunity for writer’s now than there were in the past. Maybe this is an ignorant or a naïve perception but it feels like in the old days, writers were independently wealthy. And now writers aren’t necessarily independently wealthy, they’re able to actually create their work and maintain a freelance lifestyle for their income until they can get paid for their work. I think one of the major changes in this recession though is the expectations from publishers right now. The thing I’m seeing over at the Space, is they’re looking for 30 to 60 percent proposal of a book versus 10 percent. That’s a huge, a huge strain on a freelancer when you have to dedicate six months to creating 30 to 60 percent of a book before it’s even considered for publication. That’s a lot of time and you got to be able to be able to bank that time with some sort of income versus before, five years ago, writers were getting paid sizable advances, enough for them to live on based on shorter, much, much shorter proposals and even thirty-second pitches, that sort of thing. That’s a big change right now and so, yes, we’ll probably see some, some impact there. Fewer writers will be published because they won’t be able to support themselves while they put together these long proposals.

Question: What is the current state of theater in America?

Scott Adkins: Completely flexible. Theater is not something that should be taught, theater is something that should be done, and you can create a teaching environment for that by doing.  It’s more of a practicum than anything.  You can work with form and structure and try to rewrite plays within a certain form and structure, but that’s only one way to do it.  Theater is an experiential, communal entity. It’s people coming together in a live environment, and having a common experience together.  It’s unlike any other form. It’s not literature.  It is performance and experience. It’s a visceral thing.  And so, I think probably one of the problems with theater which—I hope you will contact Mike Daisy about this because he’s currently writing an open letter to a regional theater and his point is that theater has failed America.  He’s got this amazing piece on that and the reason is because it’s become corporatized and artists need to be paid and theater artists need to be paid: writers but also the performers and they need to be paid appropriately, and because of the corporatization, they aren’t being paid appropriately.  And so that’s how he believes that theater has failed America and that sort of model, that sort of conventional model I think is a not very helpful, not very helpful at all for creating new work.  There’s no incentive to produce new work.  The incentive is to produce work that isn’t new and it also forces expensive tickets.  Ultimately theater should be free.  That would be wonderful.  But we’re looking at downtown theater now.  I think the base ticket price is $18 or $20.  That’s unbelievable!  That’s a lot of money and I can hardly afford to go see shows and so I don’t go see shows very much.  I go see shows that are produced by my friends, and sort of my community which becomes an insular bubble in a way, but those are the shows that I know I’m going to like and it’s low risk.  But it’s difficult for me to think that spending $65 on a ticket is right, that’s so much money. 

The theatre model is broken right now, and the canon should not be taught. I think that to continue teaching the sort of conventional model of how to make theater and do theater is not productive as far as creating new voices, as far as creating new instigations, new questions, new ways of thinking, impacting more people in a wider audience.  Inherently, theater has a small audience.  It only has so may shows, it only has so many seats, and it’s not like movies.  And theater should not be written like a movie.  Movies should be written like movies.  If you want to write a piece of theater like a movie then go make a movie.  You’ll have a much bigger audience and it won’t be a waste of time for the people sitting there.

Question: Which independent theatre companies are succeeding? 

Scott Adkins: Nature Theater of Oklahoma.  They’re totally resisting the corporate trend but they’re in the—what would the model be called?—the elevator repair service. There’s the Wooster Group. These are independent groups that create a piece of theater over a long period of time. So they really, they really stew inside of it and then they take it on tour. Their market is not in America, it’s Europe. 

So I guess in terms of resisting the corporate model, they’re resisting—well they’re not resisting.  They’d love to be able to tour America indefinitely but it just doesn’t happen that way. So they are resisting the corporate model in terms of regional theaters just won’t take them all the time.  I think other groups that are doing that are ClubFEM and 13P. 13P—my wife’s part of that, started by Rob Handel and a group of twelve other playwrights.  And they’re a collective, and so that’s a collective of playwrights and they produce their own plays, and they produce it every, every year and their, their motto is “We don’t just write plays, we produce plays.” 

And that is a complete about face from the corporate model. And so this sort of fits into the model of the Writer Space where there is power in numbers. And if you have enough people, everybody benefits and so 13P gets a lot of attention. They have a great fundraiser every year, they raise enough money to produce the next show and that also works well. There’s a group that I’m in called Joyce Cho. We’re not able to pay ourselves anything but that’s not the point. The last show we did was back at the Prelude Festival at the CUNY Grad Center and someone asked the question of what would we do if somebody gave us  a big check and the response was we’d buy health insurance and so that—even though I’m anti-health insurance so I can be a hypocrite right—and so basically the concept behind that is using the money for something that’s a little more humanitarian versus spending it on the wiz-bang lights and sounds and this and that and the other.

Technology in our environment has been a huge help, coming up with technological solutions, making stop animation videos that are actually theatrical and eliminate a piece of theater or it allows us to present something in a way that help us juxtapose against the live performance also happening. Sound is a lot easier to do. All these things could be done on laptops so it’s reducing the model of having a huge budget. Big budget does not necessarily mean wonderful show.  Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it’s pointless.

Recorded on: April 24, 2009