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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.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Innovation for Innovation's Sake

Scott Walters and George Hunka are once again inspiring the best in each other. Scott posted this and George follows up here.

As the vulgar, low-brow artist of the pack, I'll try to put this all in a nutshell:

Scott, who teaches a class in Modern Drama, concludes with this:

"So I can't agree that the theatre has somehow been stuck in a formal rut for 150 years. It seems to me that it has been just as revolutionary as any of the arts, if perhaps a bit slower at times. Now if you wanted to argue that we haven't had an advance in the theatre's means of production since the Victorian era, I'd be with you!"

And George responds with a bit of "well, sure, maybe Scott's right about this-and-that BUT" and then goes on to belittle what he views as the current popular mode of playwrighting. He swings his bat pretty wide, going after Nicky Silver, Magical Realism in its entirety, absurdism, irony, Avenue Q. Then he makes the following statement:

"...there's very little in the work of our contemporary playwrights that suggests even a familiarity with the innovations of modern theater over the past 150 years, let alone a coming-to-terms with them."

Then he goes on to define the "next major project in theater" as "to reintegrate the lyrical, minimalist text with the Grotowskian body, to reintroduce eroticism and tragedy into a dramatic form desiccated by facile irony, totalitarian ideology of the left and right, and absurdism. Obviously, while narrative is welcome to stay, it will be a different sort of narrative than the one that our traditionalist playwrights conceive, and popular culture and magic realism will have very little to do with it."

Now, I actually was having a conversation in a bar about this very thing, or I think so, because I had a few beers. I have, in my life, certainly talked disparagingly about the cage of narrative that we often fall into. Also, to be fair, I'm working on plays that are rife with irony, magical realism, absurdism and popular culture. But I'll try very hard not to take exception to Mr. Hunka's decision that I'm 50 years behind the times at the age of 30.

That being said, I'll give George the benefit of the doubt and assuming he's playing the role of provacateur here. The idea that "minimalist eroticism" is going to create some inherently better theater than that informed by "magical realism" is generally ridiculous. Is it possible that magical realism is traditionalist and "eroticism and tragedy" are not? Or that all contemporary playwrights are just incredibly lazy by not paring down their writing to the bare essentials, and then presenting it carefully out-of-order?

The fact is, the success or failure of a play depends entirely on execution, not on the seed ideas themselves. One can be a smashing, miserable bore while blowing away traditional forms, and can be amazing at writing the most paint-by-numbers kitchen sink drama. I'm sure we've all seen examples of both.

This is not to say that I don't love and seek innovation, and that I am against shaking things up, or screwing with narrative, or trying to throw out traditional narrative entirely. It is to say that judging any writing based on a checklist of "-ians" (Grotowskian?) and "-isms"is, as they say in old movies, putting the cart before the horse.

The best innovation comes when we want to make a particular kind of statement, and find ourselves unable to with what we have available to us. Innovation based on rebellion in generally hollow. Innovation based on necessity is built on something far more firm.

If what I hear is "we need to put aside what is being done today" the important question is"Why?" I'm simply not convinced that magical realism, absurdism, irony, and even narrative create inferior theater to non-narrative, minimalist, Grotowskian, erotic tragedy. I'd like to see any of these, mixed and matched...I don't care.

Just make sure it's honest.


George Hunka said...

I never meant to say that this theater of erotic tragedy would be "better," and of course what you say is true: that no sort of formal effort guarantees good art (or bad art, for that matter). I do want to point out, though, that it would be different, and that the traditional form carries with it a risk of perceptual and emotional authoritarianism. (The playwright: "This is where you laugh. This is where you cry. This is what I mean, and the way you should feel." Instead of saying: "Should you laugh or cry at this? It depends on how you look at it. And I can't tell you want it means, I scarcely know myself.") That it's dressed up in swanky fashionable clothes just makes it even more dangerous.

Freeman said...

I can certainly agree with that. It sounds like you're just asking writers to give the audience a little more wiggle room, be less manipulative.

George Hunka said...

A big word, that "just." Bigger, I believe, than many people want to think.

Freeman said...

Maybe so.




Dorothy said...

I think you nail something there for sure.
I would say that regardless of style or form, the best theatre I have seen came from a place of truth for the writer, the director and the cast.
I think that's the bottom line. Writers who try to write outside of their heart and/or around it, usually fail.

Also I don't think magical realism is passé at all.
I think if we can make more theatre look like the tv series Firefly , we'll get somewhere...
I am not a tv fan but I watched the whole thing recently and it's making me think a lot. The movie is another thing ( not as good and layered in my opinion ).
The right mix of fantasy, poetry, interesting storytelling and layered characters.

MattJ said...

"I can certainly agree with that. It sounds like you're just asking writers to give the audience a little more wiggle room, be less manipulative. "

and not just give the audience more wiggle room, but also the director, designers, and actors. Tight, focused, well-written plays with great ideas AND a multitude of possibilities for differentiated interpretation stand the test of time. As well as leaving the work more open for production in unconventional spaces with lesser resources.

there's no specific key to success in art. But a kinetic energy towards contradiction and open-endedness is to be valued.

Devilvet said...

Is is possible that we're not always given the audience wiggle room, but rather insisting they adapt to new presentational paradigms that they don't have familairity with and are ill equiped to navigate?

Are we leading them to the deep end of the pool while instructing them how to survive in the water, or are we just throwing them into the deep end and if they swim great, if not then (shoulder shrug)?

It seems to me more often than now that we aren't asking playwrights for wiggle room, but just the opposite. We the artists are asking the audience/market for wiggle room regarding form and content and they are saying no.

When it comes to the content and form (and we step back to look at the forest and not just a few trees) One could argue that the audience in a gestalt sort of way end up deciding the course of a medium.

I'm just devil advocating here.

Scott Walters said...

Wiggle room? Wiggle room??? We are giving an audience a firm surface that they can use as a leaping off place for their own ideas. We're not trying to "control" the audience, we're trying to allow them to see the world through another person's eyes. Isn't that the definition of art -- a representation of the world seen through a personality? How in the world do you provide a theatrical experience without doing this? By being intentionally contradictory? You're just suggesting "This is where you laugh, this is where you cry" with "This is where you try to figure out what's the point." It's just as "controlling" as what you are revolting against. If you are an artist, you must believe you have something to SAY. If not, why bother to waste my time and ticket money? Argh! I'm gonna have to write another post! ;-P

Joshua said...



Damn that coffee, it always hits and the most inopportune time . . .

Freeman said...


I'm sorry... you're entirely right. You're the vulgar one. I'm who keeps flicking his lighter, but never lighting his cigarette. I'm the vaguely annoying one.

Scott, you just got all pissed off. Fabulous, killer.

Scott Walters said...

I'm calm now. Back to my mild-mannered professorial demeanor.