When I co-founded Boston Public Works Theater Company, and then chose Turtles to be the play that I would produce, I know there was a part of me that wanted to shake up the Boston theater scene, but only in an empty egg kind of way. I certainly don't think the traditional, mainstream theater should be abolished (proscenium stages and fourth walls separating the audience and the actors, people quietly sitting in rows, $8 glasses of crap Chardonnay) but I did think that there was a whole lot of room for a different kind of theater event in Boston.
But the more I sit in the rehearsal room, the more I act as artistic director and producer of my show, the more I sit up nights when I can't sleep and read Richard Schechner's book, Environmental Theater, evilly slipped to me by director, collaborator, and partner-in-crime Jeff Mosser, and now this morning's dream, the more I realize my alter ego was the person in the dark, throwing an egg at Shakespeare.
Boston Public Works is more than just playwrights producing their own work. It is a radical departure from the way things have always been done in the traditional theater, starting with the playwright acting as the artistic director. Just like environmental theater strips away the barriers between the audience and the performers, the playwright as artistic director pushes away any real or implied loss of voice playwrights might have had in the traditional theater model, and gives authority to an artist that in the last part of the 20th century at least, was relegated to a very small role during the production process. It takes an incredible amount of trust for theater artists to shift to this model, and I can honestly say I don't know if it would work for everyone, including other playwrights. The older I get (and just yesterday was my birthday as a reminder that I am getting older) the more I see that horses will run back into burning barns, and people will return to situations that aren't working simply because it's all they know, and it's what makes them feel safe.
Me, acting as an artistic director under the umbrella of Boston Public Works, shows what a theater might look like if I ran a theater, and it's not necessarily what a theater would look like with any of the other BPW playwrights as the artistic directors. But this time, let's say there's a theater named, oh, I don't know, Alley Cat Theater, named after my two daughters, Allison and Kathryn. The theater would do just new work by Boston playwrights. It would employ only Boston theater artists, of all ethnicities, genders, and ages, who are devoted to new work. We would work collaboratively, but with loose boundaries between our areas of expertise. I wouldn't tell a director how to direct or an actor how to act, for example, but we would all listen to each others' responses to the work and our art. The work would be challenging, for the artists and the audience. I realize how demanding Turtles is to put onstage, and also a departure from plays normally staged starting with its subject matter. After writing it and seeing it getting up on its feet, I feel like Vincent Van Gogh painting peasants or Toulouse-Lautrec painting prostitutes, while all the other painters are painting the bourgeoisie.
Putting a playwright in the role of artistic director may seem like a small point or an insignificant change. It's not even a new idea. Young Jean Lee started her theater in New York to have control over her work. But it's a huge change, comparable to moving a decimal point one place in a number. Or the difference between an empty eggshell, or one with the yoke still inside.