I was at a party recently and a friend of mine paid me a (sorta) compliment about these Bitter Lemons posts that also managed to be (sorta) confusing and (sorta) dispiriting. She said something like, “I really like those things you’re writing. I know it’s you because they’re so angry.” Compliment because she likes them, so that’s great. Confusing because, “I know it’s you…”? Like, did she think Bitter Lemons was lying? That some other dramaturg had by some massive coincidence adopted Dylan Southard as a pen name? And dispiriting because apparently angry has become my calling card.
This last one hit me in the bread basket because it confirmed a fear that had been growing in me, a fear that all my talk about theater was simply variations on the same theme, that I was now the Debbie Downer of the L.A. theater world or worse that it had all become some Boleroesque exercise in repetition and that eventually, like Ravel himself, I would be reduced to a madman, babbling atop my digital soapbox, on and on about how theater is dying and no one cares and everyone is living in this fantasy world and am I the only one who sees what’s going on, goddammit?
But I don’t know what else I can write about. It’s a crisis, this slow sink into irrelevancy, and I see people who pretend that it’s not or pretend that that’s okay and I don’t know how to feel good about that. I don’t know what’s a win anymore. I don’t know if it matters if we win anymore. I don’t even know if it’s okay to talk about art in terms of wins and losses. Suffice to say, I’ve lost a little perspective. And so I didn’t write anything. And then I agonized, telling myself that I should be writing more, that maybe if I did and enough people paid attention and liked them on Facebook and shared them with others, then maybe one would get shared with somebody of importance and maybe that person would decide to pay me to write about theater. And this is a stupendously delusional hope because I think at this point there are like ten people in the country being paid to write about theater and nine of them are perpetually paralyzed by the fear that they’re about to be fired. And then I beat myself up more because theater isn’t supposed to be about getting paid or the admiration of semi-strangers on Facebook and what happened to the pure being of light that I once was, the one who did theater because it was important and necessary? Where have all the flowers gone?
And so, this would usually be the time in the post where I make the big turn, where I reveal how it is that my colleagues and I live with the doubts and the obscurity and the irrelevancy, where I talk about the need to give everyone a voice, or the unique beauty of live performance, etc. etc. and how that allows me to get past all this crass fear and find nobility in the struggle and keep on keeping on with the good fight. And when I started to write this, I really intended to very purposely avoid this move, to let this end with an air of desperation and resignation, to let it be my resignation letter from theater even if it never truly could be because I’ve been doing theater for too long and I’m honestly not good at anything else, at least not professionally, and there’s no turning back now, the only way out is to keep going down. But I didn’t know if I had the nerve for that. Wouldn’t that be the angriest of moves? Faced with such questions, I turned to my solace. I turned to sports.
I watched the Wimbledon final on Sunday and, like most, I was pretty well riveted by Andy Murray’s post-match speech, where he struggled in vain to keep his emotions in check and eventually ended up thanking his family and his countrymen as he choked back tears while also making pithy, totally charming jokes and essentially coming off as just about the most likable runner-up in the history of tennis. But for me, the most fascinating part wasn’t his speech but the ten minutes that came before it, as the Wimbledon crew scuttled around preparing for the trophy presentation and Andy Murray sat in a chair with his head tilted to the sky and the most inscrutable look on his face. There was this intense collision of emotions going on in his head, this chaos of pride at having played fantastic tennis against arguably the greatest who ever played the game (and a man who was hitting drop shots on Sunday like Picasso painted pictures) and having an entire country, his country, rooting for him, still rooting for him after he lost and then deep disappointment because he had lost, because his best wasn’t good enough, because he had let so many people down. And how was he supposed to express all this? He knew he was going to have to, he had been in this situation before and and he knew the interview was coming, the one where they asked him how he felt, the one that would be beamed out live to millions of people. He was going to be on this huge, bare stage. How was he supposed to perform this?
Andy Murray made me think about a play I had read a few days before. It’s about a young man who is deaf, but the rest of his family can hear fine. And this family has worked out a way to essentially pretend that this young man is just like them. But he’s not like them and it’s only when he finds his own way to hear and to speak that he can acknowledge that fact and tell them that and actually begin to grow and so the play is about what a beautiful, sad thing this expression and this growth is. It was riveting and as I read it, I wasn’t preoccupied with the kinds of things I usually think about when I read plays; wondering how it was I was stuck with another crappy play, wondering how it was we could have let this writer believe they had done something good and exciting and necessary, wondering if I could read this fast enough that I would still have time to watch an episode of Mad Men or Breaking Bad, one of the stories that has a true impact on our culture, before I had to leave to go to work at the restaurant, the job that actually pays me a (semi) respectable income. I didn’t care about any of that.
This isn’t the turn, I swear. But I am thinking about Andy Murray and this kid in this play and how crazy difficult it is just to tell someone else what’s it like to be you. What a crazy trip it is to unpack that material, to try to recreate it, how it can turn you into a madman. The only way out is to keep going down, to keep digging down, to keep digging deep.
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.