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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thinking about Thinking about Thinking

Think of me as a monkey with two buttons in front of him. One says "Self-Righteous" and the other says "Food." The Self-Righteousness button sends me pleasant electro-shocks, so I'll keep pressing it and forgo food for ages.

It's my fatal flaw, but at least in the fifth act, everyone will get a good speech before I die by my own sword.

That being said, there has been more than a little head-scratching at my responses to MattJ's "What is Text?" entry, Scott Walter's entry into the fray, and then George Hunka threw in with his usually odd mix of high-mindedness and modesty.

I figure I should try to discuss a little more of what I was trying to express, albeit clumsily. I certainly won't stop with the "Fuck Bush" posts (sorry, George) because it is, after all, my personal space to express myself in any way I see fit or find satisfying; but I don't mind trying to raise my level of discourse a bit and take things a little more seriously for a minute.

The fact is, I'm not against thinking deeply about any subject, or exploring art, or being interested in theory. All of these things have their place. And I completely identify that my tone has been a little harsh, when it certainly doesn't need to be. I am obviously not making myself clear about what, exactly, I was objecting to.

I do not believe that the quality of theatre, by and large, as an art, in its entirety, is what interests me. There is theatre that is breathtaking. There is also a great deal of garbage, covered in sugar, that is fed to the waiting public on great big stages in major cities. So be it. The garbage, by and large, is more visible than the expressive and experimental. So be it. I'll rail against the garbage and throw my arms around the good stuff, because that's what people do.

That's how these things go.

That being said, I hear, in the blogsphere, two sentiments.

One is that theatre's quality is in dire shape, and that we must approach theatre as a doctor does a patient, remake what is seen on the stage, and if we improve the quality, the audience will re-emerge, as if it has been hibernating. Those with this sentiment tend to quote a great deal of theory, talk about the history of theatre, in an effort to shame current artists out of their complacency and act as cultural professors. George calls them "strategists."

Elsewhere is the belief that it's not the quality of the theatre, but the interest of the audience, that has waned. The belief that we are in danger of being overlooked by better advertising, easier access, and an increasingly isolated population with less and less free cash and more and more instant gratification. Those with this belief (I would count myself often as one) are less concerned about whether or not theater is getting worse, and more interested in making it seem appealing to an audience that is increasingly difficult to reach.

I believe the first sentiment is blaming the victim for the rape. It seems to say that the audience is gone because theatre drove it away. That the market is dictated entirely by quality, and that quality is what anything that does not find an audience lacks. This is, in my view, naive.

I believe the second sentiment is often blind to the quality issue. It seems to think that if we put a bigger bow on a package that includes lousy Broadway musicals and people covering themselves in paint and running in circles, we will be able to sell it to an audience full of suckers. It is a rather cynical view, to say the least.

BUT...the important unity between these two perspectives is the desire to rekindle interest in the theatre. We are a team of activists and advocates and artists, in the midst of the decline of our art's importance in American culture.

Therefore, when I see long posts about "post-modernism" and questioning the very meaning of words like "text" my spidey-sense tingles. This is the sort of collegiate, insular, dull-as-a-box-of-nickels snore that leads us as far away from anything of import as possible. It leads theatrical discourse up into the clouds, where no one but the few and the pristine bother to chase it.

It can be fun to break down language to prove it has no meaning, or twirl words around on the eye of a needle. But talk like that has no jelly in its eyes and no meat in its stomach.

It is ethereal, and it is rarefied, and it continues that terrible trend of treating art as an exercise, a sort of series of experiments. It seems to say if we can just figure out how to do it "correctly" we will all acheive a sort of "good grade" in being playwrights or directors.

Academia and art are not the same. They have entirely different goals. Academia is a study of something that already exists, and artists are the creators of what did not exist before.

For academia to become an arbiter of taste or a means by which to achieve good art seems digesting ones food without chewing it or tasting it. Art is creative and impulsive and based entirely upon personal expression.

One can hone the ability to express himself or herself (gain technique in painting, learn sense/memory, learn the three-act structure) but one should not mistake study for technique, or mistake knowledge for ability. Whenever art is made to conform with or please any type of overly considered theory, it is sacrificing voice for thought, and in my estimation, that is a sacrfice no artist should be led to make.

That being said, it also leads artists to less think about what they would like to say to their audience, and more what will please the insular community of academia.

We are in this entirely for the audience. They are who we exist to touch, expand, fail or please. We are creating this work for them. And we are losing them, each year.

We must think about theater's success in many ways. We should ramble about plays and wrestle out about quality. We should make each other laugh and defend ourselves.

But I get, I'll admit it, a bit defensive and concerned when I hear us defining terminology and breaking down four letter words into even longer sentences and bigger words.

It has nothing to do with creating art for the audience we so desperately need.


MattJ said...

Much more to say than a comment section can allow, but I posted my response here: http://theatreconversation.blogspot.com/2005/12/questions-questions-questions.html

devore said...

i like to write plays.

Scott Walters said...

You write "one should not mistake study for technique, or mistake knowledge for ability." I agree. But one should also not mistake the lack of knowledge for ability, nor the lack of study for technique. Too often, artists hold up ignorance as proof of their artistic purity. The value of a gut intuition is contingent on the richness of the gut!

Dorothy said...

That is an awesome clarification. And I must say that I am with you 100 percent.
I don't even know what art to make right now. I am so down with our whole society...

kirabug said...

I can't even describe how funny it is to see two men I respect arguing essentially opposite opinions on the subject of academic-style criticism within days of each other, the chief difference being the form of art they specialize in.

I wonder on your opinion of this essay especially the parts regarding Colridge's opinion of criticism :)