Friday, August 13, 2010

The bemoaned kitchen sink

I was just checking out LAStageblog this morning and saw this post by Greta McAnany about Psittacus Productions and their new show, A Tale Told by an Idiot. It made me want to expound a little bit on the post I wrote the other day about theater and TV.

McAnany leads with the following--
In a city pegged for its legendary film industry, it is easy for theatre to find its identity somewhat wrapped up in that of the silver screen. With over 500 theatres scattered about greater Los Angeles and near-by counties, plays often lean toward the “kitchen sink drama” of reality TV and sitcoms, showcasing the talent rather than the story.
A few things occur to me on reading this paragraph:
1) This writing contains a no-brainer of an organizing principle for a feature piece about an L.A. theater group that prides itself on being experimental, but I’m not sure I trust it to hold up to scrutiny.

2) I like the title of the LAStageblog post, "Psittacus: Searching for LA's Theatre Identity," but based on the article it sounds like their leaders think they've found it already. And they're not impressed.

3) I’m also not sure how the phrase “kitchen sink drama” applies to reality TV or sitcoms, or how “kitchen sink drama” showcases “the talent rather than the story.” If there’s anything reliable about kitchen sink drama, it’s the story.

4) It’s obvious from the first paragraph of this story that “kitchen sink drama” is really just code for “story driven conventional realism.” The subjects of the post go on to reiterate this.
The phrase “kitchen sink drama” is synonymous with “kitchen sink realism,” a name given to a movement in British drama in the late 50s and early 60s. It’s the whole John Osborne Look Back in Anger “Angry Young Man,” drama, very working class, very domestic, very much an extension of the mid-century Social Realism that was so prevalent at the time. It’s been a subject of parody since Pinter hit his stride (my understanding of The Homecoming was helped by viewing it as a wicked parody of these types of plays); its bad rap is certainly nothing new.

The only truly kitchen sink play I’ve seen in Los Angeles this year was The Subject Was Roses, (an American spin on the style from 1964), memorable precisely because of the working kitchen onstage. As old-fashioned as that show felt, even it seemed a modern, quietly poetic elaboration on the form. (And old-fashioned or no, I still admire that script.)

As for comparing television and film to kitchen sink realism, I certainly don’t see reality TV as an apt comparison so I'm not even going to bother with that. I imagine that sitcoms often get this rap because of the domestic scenes and three-camera format. But I only know of two (successful) three-camera sitcoms on the networks today, The Big Bang Theory and Two-and-a-Half Men. Anyone paying attention to TV over the past 10 years or so knows that shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock have all but made that format obsolete. And even the successful 3-camera shows I mention above don’t fit neatly into the domestic clichés these theater folk want to indict them with. There may be other clichés to mention, but I’ll let someone else write about those.

The best correlatives I can come up with for the kind of kitchen sink style of domestic comedy or drama on television (at least in sitcoms) are possibly 20 years old. Roseanne, perhaps? I think that just might be the most authentic iteration since Norman Lear, specifically because of its working-class bite. Twenty years ago, folks. And that was before the series got all crazy and Ab Fab at the end.

In short: kitchen sink drama is not a prevalent aesthetic movement, on stage or screen. It's not choking the life out of the Los Angeles stage, or any other stage, for that matter. This is a 50-60 year old (primarily) British phenomenon with very specific characteristics, some of which might’ve lingered on the American stage and screen, but I'd hesitate to suggest that it's fashionable even in the most conservative backwaters of the world stage. To describe all that is not experimental, or all that one perceives to be conventional, as “kitchen sink drama,” is imprecise, at the very least.

See below for more quotes from this article to get why I find this problematic--
Kitchen sink drama is exactly what we are reacting against,” says Psittacus Executive Director Louis Butelli. Just as Psittacus suggests, Butelli and co-founders Chas LiBretto (Managing Director) and Robert Richmond (Artistic Director) are spreading their wings and taking flight on a journey to give the theatre its own identity in Los Angeles.
Just as an aside, is it the author of the article or the artists themselves who make such a claim? Oh, never mind. Moving on.
Psittacus Productions began in February 2010 when Butelli, LiBretto and Richmond, who have a history of collaboration, decided they needed a distraction after their move to the West Coast. “In a city with so many artists it was surprising to us to find theatre was less theatrical….”
Substitute "theatrical" with "spectacular" and you've got no argument with me. You've even got Aristotle on your side. I'm just always disappointed to hear artists (or various other theater professionals) claim the adjective “theatrical” only for their own preferred style while dismissing or condescending to that which they find alienating for whatever aesthetic reason suits their arguments.

Lest anyone want to brand me as some enemy of the avant-garde, check here, here and here for my writing on the subject. I’m not interested in marginalizing work that seeks to defy convention – Psittacus’ show sounds exciting to me – I just bristle at easy generalizations about the theater. Or anything else, for that matter.


Anonymous said...

doesn't "kitchen sink" go back at least a few years before then, like early 50's? I've always thot of Come Back, Little Sheba as the model of kitchen-sink -

Kyle said...

Good point, Henry. I did a little more online research on this for clarification's sake. The term Kitchen Sink Realism comes from a British trend of painting, specifically someone named John Bratby and his painting of a kitchen sink. A British critic named David Sylvester coined the term in an article about the movement in art in 1954, referencing that painting as he wrote.

I suppose the term fits Inge well enough but Sheba predates it; Social Realism might be more apt, and is the obvious antecedent for the kitchen sink style of plays.

Long time no see!