I often find myself saying that American theater in general, and playwriting in particular, are enjoying something of a creative renaissance at the moment—one that has outpaced the capacity of our institutions to handle it. Whether this is true or not is subject to some debate—any generation has its share of talent, much of which goes unrecognized, and even in the best of times producers tend to be risk-averse (to put it kindly). This is, I should add, not the best of times. There have been worse, to be sure—but prohibitive production costs driven by an overheated real estate market, a dearth of arts funding, a mediocre critical establishment, and an environment of cultural and political cowardice all still linger. As with much of the rest of the culture, however, we thankfully seem to be trending away from the bad old days of the early 21st century. Many larger institutions have of late taken an active interest in new work by American playwrights and are making a good faith effort to produce it (we’ll see how it goes).
Of course, no large institution, artistic or otherwise, ever propels itself out of inertia—it is pushed. For this, much credit is due to the small companies and DIY’ers who kept the faith in hard times, the people who saw the recent proliferation of new talent as an opportunity as much as a crisis. Two of them—Clubbed Thumb and Playscripts, Inc—have joined to publish Funny, Strange, Provocative: Seven Plays From Clubbed Thumb, a book that hopefully represents a trend in new play anthologies. Clubbed Thumb was founded in 1996 by Maria Striar and Meg MacCary to produce a handful of plays at the now-defunct House of Candles on the Lower East Side; since that time, they have produced over 60 plays. These include pieces by such well-known downtown stalwarts as Wallace Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg, Mac Wellman, Charles L. Mee, and Jeffrey M. Jones; additionally, Clubbed Thumb was among the first to introduce audiences to such notable writers as Sarah Ruhl, Jordan Harrison, Rinne Groff, Erin Courtney and Sheila Callaghan (full disclosure: I am currently discussing a possible play commission from the company). Playscripts, Inc., founded in 1998 by Douglas and Jonathan Rand, was one of the first to take advantage of the print-on-demand capabilities of Web 1.0, producing and licensing acting editions and binder books of hundreds of new plays overlooked by existing publishers.
The resulting book, edited by Striar and Erin Detrick, is a handsome volume, befitting the seven plays in the collection—Adam Bock’s The Typographer’s Dream, Sheila Callaghan’s Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), Erin Courtney’s Demon Baby, Lisa D’Amour’s 16 Spells to Charm the Beast, Rinne Groff’s Inky, Ann Marie Healy’s Dearest Eugenia Haggis, and Carson Kreitzer’s Freakshow. The title refers to Clubbed Thumb’s mission statement, and indeed describes all seven of the plays. While each of them contains the authors’ unmistakable style, they all have in common a rich sense of whimsy and humor and contain a magic realist’s mixture of classical narrative structure with avant-garde elements. Notably, they’re all short—Clubbed Thumb has, as much as anyone, contributed to the proliferation of the 90-minute play, for better or worse (mostly better, if you ask me)—and they all contain good roles for actresses, something that probably speaks to Striar and MacCary’s original motivations for founding the company.
There is much to like here—The Typographer’s Dream combines an astute ear for human communication with satisfying flights of intellectual fancy; Crumble is a terrific, funny/sad riff on female adolescence and mother/daughter relationships, featuring (among other characters) a malevolent apartment; Demon Baby uses the language of surrealism to address the commonplace oppression of domestic anxiety; 16 Spells transplants the lush, aristocratic language of D’Amour’s native Louisiana to an imaginary New York, creating the general effect of Tennessee Williams rewriting Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and The Beast while on psychedelics; Inky takes the naturalistic domestic drama and skews it by adding such stranger-than-fiction elements as a Slavic nanny obsessed with Muhammad Ali; Haggis uses the language of old-timey cliché and Minnesotan repression to create an atmosphere that is simultaneously goofy and menacing, and might feature the only forged-letter-and-motorized-toboggan murder plot ever to appear on stage; and Freakshow uses the conventions of the midway and the carnival to explore sexuality and identity, combining theory and narrative in a more imaginative fashion than anything save perhaps for the work of artist/novelist Shelley Jackson.
While it is to their credit that Clubbed Thumb identifies the book as a collection of their own work, rather than as a compendium of “downtown” or “alternative” theater, it is undeniable that their preferences in style have influenced contemporary playwriting to a great degree. It is unfortunate, then, that like the recent New Downtown Now anthology (also favorably reviewed by me in these pages), the selection of writers lacks ethnic diversity to any great degree. This speaks more to downtown theater in general than to the intent of the editors of either book, and it’s not a question with an easy answer—identity politics plays and by-the-numbers diversity don’t seem to have gotten us very far, and aesthetic choices (as in style, not quality—there is no shortage of excellent writers of color) should always come first. However, it is a necessary conversation, one that I have been having with my colleagues at Soho Rep for some time, and which I hope they are having too. Still and all, this is a worthwhile and excellent book, a necessary addition to the library of anyone who cares about contemporary theater. I hope it is the first of many.
Funny, Strange, Provocative: Seven Plays From Clubbed Thumb is available from Playscripts.com and in bookstores. Clubbed Thumb will host a release party event on May 21 at 5PM, hosted by The Public Theater—visit Clubbedthumb.org and Playscripts.com for details.
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.