Terror and Courage, Hope and Art
We can’t claim to engage our communities in important conversations if we run away from them
One of the plays to generate the most interest at our recent National Showcase of New Plays was Pluto, by the prolific and supremely-talented Steve Yockey. An alum of NNPN’s MFA Playwrights’ Workshop and Playwright-in-Residence initiative, Steve has already written two plays – Afterlife and Wolves – that have gone on to Rolling World Premieres, among many others. If you don’t know his work, do yourself a favor and get to know it.
Steve looks past the white picket fence where he imagines otherworldly universes, populated by mythical beasts and dangerous creatures alongside ordinary mortals. Their encounters result (often) in a treacherous dance that (often) ends by conferring a tiny, perfect gem of grace on the survivors – both onstage and off. Despite their tight construction, his plays unhinge the viewer due to the vast territory they traverse: love, death, fear, isolation, despair, hope… they require courage to write and courage to produce, because they ask uncomfortable questions about ourselves and our communities.
Though taking up 90 minutes of stage time, the action of Pluto occurs in a split second: the moment when Elizabeth Miller comes face-to-face with uncomfortable truths about her son Bailey. Like much of Steve’s work, it’s a wry comedy through its first forty-five minutes, populated with berserker appliances, shifting astronomy, and a very talkative new family dog that happens to have three heads. It’s also a deeply-rewarding relationship play about a mother and son finally breaching the chasm that’s widened between them. And it’s also sort of miraculous, managing to make us feel sympathy for a character who’s done something unspeakable.
You see, Bailey shot up a bunch of kids at his school, and then killed himself.
Pluto was read at our Showcase on December 2. The play was read again, at the Theater at Boston Court in California, on December 8. By the 10th, six professional theaters had signaled their strong interest in producing the play. And on December 14, Newtown happened.
Because of what happened in Newtown, every theater in the country devoted to serious community conversation should read this play and consider producing it. Signing petitions about gun control and writing to Congress and cross-posting on Facebook may feel good, but it’s also the easiest thing we can do; responding as artists is the hardest.
Ben Cameron, theater visionary and Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, wrote this week on Facebook:
We don’t get to have it both ways. We can’t say the arts change lives and then claim that films and media and more that glorify violence and a gun culture aren’t culpable in the surge of insane shootings in this country. So let’s decide once and for all: do we change lives or don’t we? Is what we do “only a play” or “only a movie”? We don’t get to claim power only when its convenient and disclaim it or hide behind upraised hands and shocked surprise when its not. We have to take responsibility for what we put into the world and for what we support. Don’t look for me at Quentin Tarantino films or purchasing video games that celebrate mutilation and death. And that’s my tirade for today.
I agree, and I’ll flip what Ben says on its head: if we believe our art changes lives, we must act accordingly, swiftly and decisively, and put on plays that respond to this national tragedy. If we shy away from that responsibility, then what are we doing as artists? Indeed, we don’t get to have it both ways. We don’t get to claim that we engage our communities in important conversations and then run away from them.
So yes, let’s have the conversation about gun control. Let’s have the conversation about mental illness. Those are the easy ones. The conversations Pluto wants us to have are much harder. And essential to addressing what happened in Newtown, and why.
Hats off to NNPN alum PW Sean Christopher Lewis and his company Working Group Theater, which has already whipped off a play, “New Town”, as a way to get conversations happening in their hometown of Iowa City. Sean and WGT are making it available to anyone who wants to use it for the same reason. Love that.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the National New Play Network site. We don’t normally do cross-posts here at 2amt, but this one is well worth it. It also ties in with a project we’ll be announcing in the next few days, TALK, as in “it’s time to talk about this.” This is a 2amt project that any theatre, any community can present. Stay tuned…