Playwrights as Reporters: Re-Thinking How to Make Theatre, and How to Make Theatre Relevant

An interesting project being done by some friends of mine in Seattle keeps getting more interesting. Last year, Seattle-based playwright Paul Mullin (whose 2001 play Louis Slotin Sonata is currently playing to strong reviews at Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre, through Oct. 24) launched NewsWrights United to help stage It’s Not in the P-I: A Living Play About a Dying Newspaper.

A little backstory: in March 2009, after nearly 150 years of publication, one of Seattle’s two daily newspapers, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (or P-I) ceased publishing and went online-only with a skeleton staff. It was part of a wave of closures and newsroom decreases sweeping the traditional media, which continues as publications struggle to adapt to the lower ad revenues of the digital era, and it induced a great deal of handwringing in the press locally and nationally. In response, Mullin conceived of staging a “living newspaper” play examining the history and legacy of the P-I and the impact its loss would have on the community. Living newspapers were a theatrical concept developed in the early days of the Soviet Union wherein theatre companies would stage actual news stories for workers in factories and whatnot in order to inform (or, more accurately, propagandize) them.

The piece was a collaborative effort between Mullin and several other playwrights, who switched from their usual approach to theatre and tried donning journalists’ caps, doing actual interviews and reporting and then figuring out how to stage it. At the same time, Mullin–who is an occasionally combative arts advocate–was trying to create a dialogue in the city about the creation of new work (Seattle’s theatre scene has been fairly stagnant through most of the ‘Aughts), and It’s Not in the P-I was a case in point. Despite his and his collaborators’ relationships with numerous theatres of virtually every size, they were unable to find a single institution prepared to support the project, and ultimately presented it at a local community college with student actors, produced by its theatre program.

The show was by and large a huge success, attracting a level of genuine interest from the media (including a profile on NPR) that most theatre can only dream of. Since then, Mullin & co. have been working on developing It’s Not in the P-I‘s follow-up. The New New News, set to premiere in February 2011, expands to explore the issues we face in the post-professional journalist era of bloggers, “citizen journalists”, and so on. (I won’t even begin to touch on them here, but if you want a nice overview, check out “The Intellectual Situation” from the current issue of n+1).

What strikes me as particularly interesting about the project is the sort of work it requires from the playwrights who are largely driving the project. Writing a couple weeks ago about the state of political theatre, I pointed out that many plays have a very activist bent, in which the playwright essentially drafts an essay arguing a point, which will likely be seen an audience already in agreement with him or her. NewsWrights United, in contrast, consciously forces the playwrights to abandon their authorial authority, and instead try to engage a complex set of topics by asking questions as a (good) journalist would. In fact, they’ve gone so far as to offer up one scene of the new play to crowd-sourcing: the “WikiScene” is hosted as an open Google document, which anyone can edit and contribute to according to certain guidelines.

All in all, I think it’s a pretty cool idea. It’s a non-traditional way of making theatre, but not one that places novelty above all else. It pushes writers and other theatre artists to re-think how they make new work, and also what their relationship to their audience is, while proposing all the while that the theatre can be an antidote to the era of digital media, a medium in which we can step back and examine the rapacious pace of technological innovation and the attendant social change wrought but the contemporary era. It’s a fine a defense of the importance of theatre as a relevant art form that I’ve heard of in quite a while, and I’m curious to see how it turns out for them, as well as if anyone else around the country is exploring similar ways of using theatre to address the issues facing their communities.

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