The Playwriting Collective was formed to present work specifically from artists who come from the lower economic classes. Part of their mission mentions that much of the work in the contemporary theater is made by people from the middle and upper classes, while poor artists are left out in the cold. Has this long been the case in American theater or is it a new development? The earliest American theater movements were at a time when performers and theater practitioners were considered low class. Grease paint, show girls, vaudeville, music halls, these were the purview of those who were a delight to watch, but unpalatable to the socialite set who ruled the upper crust. Opera singers were invited to perform at evening events for government officials and elites, but the artists themselves were not invited to dine with the gentry. Members of The Group Theater were trained by the great Russian actor/director Stanislavski, but this did not gain them entry into the middle and upper classes. In fact, they performed for the working class works about the liberation and experiences of the working class. When exactly is it that theater practice and its practitioners became so palatable as to attract the daughters and sons of the middle and upper classes, even to the exclusion of the lower classes?
My guess is that is had something to do with the rise of the regional not-for-profit theater movement and the rise of theater as an academic pursuit, a university sanctioned art form. I was at a panel some years back at NYU, with Olympia Dukakis and Diane Wiest and another actress whose name I don’t remember but who said that when she was coming up as an actress, broke, underemployed, wanting to make art, she apprenticed. She went to a theater where artists she admired were working, and asked if there was work she could do. She learned, she worked, she studied art at the side of those who were making it. She said that now (that was almost 10 years ago) an actor can’t get a job without a graduate degree. The university classroom, she said, had replaced the apprenticeship. In today’s theater, there isn’t even any room for an apprenticeship. One must endure graduate school, suffer through unpaid internships, and hope to get discovered well after having been ground like wheat under a millstone.
Is it any wonder that our emerging theater artists write stories of the middle and upper classes and those that are specifically designed to be palatable to those in that strata? America packages it’s artists for sale and then wonders why there’s not enough racial, gender, and, as The Playwriting Collective reminds us, economic diversity. University study is the great equalizer. Graduates are given middle and upper class sensibilities, and they emerge into that realm, regardless of income, holding tight to the standards and expectations of those classes.
Founding member of The Playwriting Collective, author Joshua Young’s Who Mourns for Bob the Goon? does not suffer from the tired tropes and structures foisted on the work of graduate students in playwriting. With more twists and turns than a Rocky Mountain switchback, the play appears at first to be the story of Bob (Alex Teachy), a who is in group treatment because he believes that he’s an obscure comic book character. Soon it becomes clear that while the play may be about him, it is not really his story at all, but that of Langly (Alicia Goranson), a new, and disruptive member of group, who believes herself to be an anime character, and takes a shine to Bob. What she most reminded me of was Hilda in Ibsen’s The Master Builder, who comes along and screws up his whole life by seeming to care for him the way no one else ever had, driving him straight to his own destruction.
Josh is telling many stories at once, fully exploring the backstory of each member of group therapy, their therapist (John Carhart), the stories of their comic book alter egos, and the story of how these people ended up in the same group therapy. Stand-out moments are Sybil (LaGina Hill) taking on the persona of Spiral, and Alison’s spin as The Dazzler (Jolynn Carpenter). There’s alot to get across in this play, and director Lucia Bellini handles the tumbling storylines deftly, weaving them together with style and assisted by Jenny O’Donnell’s great costume design. James Ortiz’s set and puppet design and the exceptional projections elucidate the world these characters in habit, on the edge of a town that seems to have nothing more than some sketchy apartment complexes, a V.A. hospital, and an amusement park.
With all of this craziness, it would be easy for the play to take on the atmosphere and feeling of a comic book itself, and while in some very intentional ways it definitely does, as in Matt Mingle’s portrayal of Artie/Mr. Gone, it addresses those questions that bring me to the theater and to art in the first place. Is a person more than the sum of their actions? Can a person move forward if they don’t know for real from whence they came? Early on in the play, Jim (Phillip Christian), tells us “rules are what make our realities palatable, Bob.” And he’s right. We need boundaries, whether we latch on to those that have been prescribed for us, or learn to create our own. Joshua Young and The Playwriting Collective have created their own rules. I’m glad to see the form of theater shaken up, and many of its rules redefined.
(Side note: It took me a moment to place Langly’s defiant chin, but it wasn’t too long before I recognized Alicia Goranson as the first Becky in Roseanne. I watched Roseanne with my parents, and me and the first Becky were about the same age. Whenever Becky would do something that got her in trouble, my parents, sitting on the couch while I lay on the floor, face propped in hands, would tell me exactly what they’d do if I behaved like that. The one where Becky runs off and gets married… I stayed frozen on the floor for the whole episode; I felt like I’d run off and got married, and like Becky I didn’t quite know if it was the right move, but it was the move I’d made, even though really she made it, and I learned then: once action is taken, there’s no undoing it, there’s no going back to who you were, what you were before. My parents looked at me strangely that night. For a few minutes, we all believed I was Becky, that there was action I could take that was mine to take alone, that I belonged to myself more than I did to either of them. I remember my bed felt smaller that night, because I, myself, took up all the space. Thank you first Becky and Alicia Goranson for the lesson of self-determination.)
If you go (you should go):
Who Mourns Bob the Goon?
By Joshua Young, directed by Lucia Bellini
Part of the SubletSeries at HERE
145 Sixth Avenue, NYC
Featuring: John Carhart, Jolynn Carpenter, Phillip Christian, Alicia Goranson, LaGina Hill, Matt Mingle, and Alex Teachey