By Roz DeKett
“The problem we seem to have in contemporary American theatre,” says Jacqueline Goldfinger, “is that we have poo-pooed the way that storytelling is working in our society today.”
Jackie, an award-winning playwright and playwright-in-residence at Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre, as well as a theatre educator, is talking about one of the biggest worries for today’s theatres: finding ways to attract a younger audience.
When it comes to figuring out how to do this, many theatres seem to be staring into a dark closet.
“We for some reason have decided that how people think and talk and live in the world today is not something that we need to put on stage, or is not something that should affect our art form,” Jackie says.
“I find that bizarre. I haven’t seen this in any other art form except opera and ballet, and they’re struggling too.”
The idea that the problem for theatre is people under 30 can’t focus in a world fractured by smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, and a zillion other glittering distractions doesn’t hold water for Jackie.
“I think those are convenient excuses,” she says. “The fact is that people will sit down and watch a marathon for 20 hours of a television show. It’s not an attention thing. It’s the way that society has changed.
“We are much better at processing an enormous amount of information faster. We’re making connections faster.”
Which means younger audiences and critics would rather have a high quality, high impact 90 minutes or less with no intermission: indeed Soho Rep in New York recently produced debbie tucker green’s play Generations—a whole 30 minutes—to critical acclaim.
“That’s been one of the big divides,” says Jackie. “Not just in my work but in a lot of the work I’ve seen, and in the discussion about American theatre it is the older audiences and older critics who somehow feel cheated if something’s under two hours.
“So it’s really interesting, this divide in American theatre.”
Broadway, of course, is on the other side of the divide with its lavish productions and full-length plays: the average age of the Broadway playgoer is over 50. And in being what it is, Broadway may no longer be the ultimate goal for a contemporary playwright.
“It’s a whole different ball game,” says Jackie.
“Broadway is so commercial there has to be a potential for them to make millions and millions of dollars [from a production]. So it may never again be the place for original voices exploring dangerous things.
“I think divorcing ourselves from Broadway and saying that’s one way to succeed, but there are lots of other ways, is allowing American theatre to really breathe for the first time maybe since the twenties and thirties, when Broadway became the one thing you gunned for.”
Shrinking stories down and breaking the American myth
Jackie’s own plays reflect her viewpoint: less than 90 minutes in length with no intermission. In some ways that’s no surprise. When she was in middle school her English teacher told her that the short stories she was writing for class were actually plays—all dialogue, no narrative—and introduced her to classic American playwrights such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
But the short form is what seems to have stuck.
“To me, the reason that you have an art form that engages with the audience is to engage with contemporary society,” she says.
“So, in terms of shrinking stories down to 80 or 90 minutes, those stories are no less rich. The characters are no less important.
“It’s just that because of the way our society is telling stories outside theatre today, it’s going to affect how stories are told in theatre.”
Jackie has had a number of plays produced, to widespread acclaim. She’s working on a third play in her Southern Gothic trilogy, The Arsonists, as part of her Azuka Theatre residency. Azuka has already produced the first two as world premieres, The Terrible Girls, and Skin & Bone, which won Best New Play, Philadelphia Critics Awards. Along the way she’s written Slip/Shot, winner of the Brown Martin Award and the Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play.
“Skin & Bone is my kind of traditional couch or living room play, which I love,” she says. “There’s something about playing with the expectations of American theatre audiences, when you put the characters in that setting, then change the expectations up on them … it’s been a blast.
“And then Slip/Shot was more of a stripped-down version of American mythology: how do we tell an American myth in a very stripped-down way?
“Now my new play, The Arsonists, is how do we break the myth? We’ve stripped it down; how do we break it and shake it up and reassemble it, in an exciting but very stripped-down way language-wise that really gives the performers and the director a lot of latitude to play and put up something that has a more visceral theatricality to it.”
Jackie is also working on a play called Fresh. In it, she’s exploring the meaning of identity in today’s social media world, with the setting the story of a college rape.
“In Fresh we’re trying to figure out the new mythology, what are we creating,” she says.
“So I’m playing with two very different things right now but it’s a lot of fun. We’ll see where they go.”
© Roz DeKett
Photos © Johanna Austin www.AustinArt.org or Jacqueline Goldfinger.
About Jacqueline Goldfinger
Jackie’s original full-length plays include Trish Tinkler Gets Saved, Skin & Bone, Slip/Shot, The Oath, and The Terrible Girls. She’s also had short plays and adaptations produced. Jackie has worked with a wide range of educational organizations including McCarter Theatre, PlayPenn, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Arts, Philadelphia Young Playwrights, Rowan University, Disquiet International Literary Conference (Lisbon), and University of California, San Diego. She works with artistic organizations in the Philadelphia area to support emerging artists, including The Foundry, Director’s Gathering, and Orbiter 3.
Jackie lives in Philadelphia and somehow manages to keep writing even though she has two-year-old twins.
You can learn more about Jackie at her web site.