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Getting the Details Right

By ROBERT BETHUNE
ART TIMES December 2008

YOU KNOW YURI, I recently got into hot water by pointing out that the scene design and publicity concepts for a local production of Leaving Iowa (by Clue & Manton) are built around the peaceful, bucolic image of a wheat field.

Well, Sasha, whatís wrong with that? The playís about Iowa, right? Heart of the Midwest, right? Midwestern culture, values, local color, right?

Quite right, Yuri—and thatís the problem. Iowa doesnít grow much wheat, and hasnít for decades. Iowa is famous for corn. You know, the Iowa Corn Song. The Iowa Corn 250.

Oh, come on. Why would anybody care about that? Why are you focusing on little tiny details like that?

Because details matter, Yuri. They really do.

Oh, come on, Sasha! If you do A Streetcar Named Desire, do you have to show the streetcar?

Read the play, Yuri! Blancheís first line is famous: ďThey told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemetaries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!Ē Thatís at the end of a long, detailed set of stage directions that are full of closely and accurately observed details, the details that pull us into the New Orleans atmosphere of the play and underline how Blanche is a wanderer far from her home in every sense: geographic, social, moral, spiritual. So yes, you damn well do show the streetcar—Williams does it for you, right in the text of the play.

Donít get upset, Sasha! Iím only saying, you know? Now really, do ordinary theater-goers care about that? I mean, that is who youíre writing for, arenít you? Ordinary people who just want to go see a play?

Hell, Yuri, I wish I knew. The flack Iím catching is from theater people. I donít hear the voice of the audience. Nobody does, as far as I know, except when ticket sales get better or get worse, or sometimes when somebody gets so worked up that they write or call. Are they really capable only of inexplicable dumb-shows and noise? I donít think so—but where would they speak out if they wanted to be heard? Nowhere that I know of.

I hear you, Sasha, I hear you. But let me get back to the point you were making. So do you think the audience needs those details to understand the play? Why? Whatís the point? Isnít the theater about universals?

Universals grounded in specifics, Yuri. Specifics! Not just writerís stereotypes, but concrete specifics. And the playwright and the production both need to take the time and care to get them right. Thatís why  Streetcar is a great play and Leaving Iowa is mediocre. The New Orleans flavor of Streetcar is genuine Creole gumbo. Williams knew his setting intimately and it shows, over and over again. The Midwestern flavor of Leaving Iowa is pure MSG. Itís all just vague abstractions and stereotypes. You wonder if the playwrights were ever there. If it werenít for the one scene at the end of the play about the marker at the center of the country, you could move the play to South Carolina or Arizona or Maine without changing much of anything.

So, Sasha, thatís why the wheat matters? I think youíre pushing it.

Yes, Yuri, you slow-boat, that is why the wheat matters. When you blow it on a detail like that, the air goes out of your balloon. Youíve let the fakery show. You arenít who you say you are, and you arenít doing what you say youíre doing.

Come on, Sasha, youíre making too much of this! Iím asking you again—who really cares?

Thatís a really good question, Yuri. It raises a really good point. Who is the play for? Itís been done at two theaters that both pride themselves on featuring the Midwest, theaters that are in fact in the Midwest. If thatís who youíre writing for, you can be sure that those people know—and should notice the difference. Ah, but Yuri. Do they notice? Do they care?

I wonder, Sasha. I really wonder. If it happened in a movie, I think they would. If it happened in a TV show, I think they would. But when it happens in a theater—I donít know. I donít hear those voices.

And you wonder if those voices are there, donít you, Yuri?

I do, Sasha. I do. When even the theater people who are picking the plays donít seem to worry about the difference between empty stereotypes and genuine, closely observed character in people and places—I think Iím right to wonder. They know better than you do what they can get away with.

Youíre right, Yuri. They do. And thatís what bothers me most of all.

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