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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 19, 2007

Speaking of the practical

I am in Sarasota, FL, writing from a Holiday Inn. I just gave a talk, for about four hours, to a group of lay people and clergy about how to improve giving to their parishes. Sometimes, I think to myself, "How did I get here?" Other times I don't think about it too hard. It's exhausting and I don't want to ruin the silence of my hotel room with self-doubt.

I was flipping though my bloglines and blogs and all that jazz, to get a rest. Saw yet another Organum, this one a sort of compare and contrast between "Playground Theatre" (as yet undefined) and "Theatre Minima" (which I'm sure I should write out in lowercase like e. e. cummings). I had previously vowed to stop reading Organums. Now I'm seeing that they're increasingly asking for responses. They've becoming emboldened and increasingly vitriolic, maybe, due to a lack of response.

Anyone read this care to say what they think of it? I'm curious.

28 comments:

The Disapproving Centaur said...

What does that posting even mean? Maybe I haven't read it. What does "theatre minima" mean? What does "playgroud theatre" mean?

It seems like to me, who am ignorant of the term that, it means work that is in character with his website falls under "theatre minima" which is some how sacred, and everything else is "playground theatre" aka petty or less important/valuable/serious than the aforesaid "theatre minima"(Theatre of Preciousness).

It all seems a little "precious" to me. And that is when theatre is at it's deadliest. There should always be a healthy reverence and irreverence for the material and work that you do.

Alison Croggon said...

I guess I don't quite understand the hostility Goerge's posts seem to generate. They're provocative, sure, and I don't agree with some of his contentions: but they're no more provocative than other statements of artistic predeliction/intent. Brecht, for instance, on bourgeois theatre, or Brook on "deadly theatre", or Barker, who is way more abrasive than George. It's all highly arguable, but that's kind of the point. From my pov, anyway.

George does list sex farce among theate minima virtues, which doesn't seem especially precious.

Scott Walters said...

I think that sometimes it is necessary to define yourself according to what you are not, and sometimes that means creating straw men that can be easily knocked down (such as "playground theatre"). George is working through an aesthetic, which is a very difficult thing to do. He is trying to clear ground around him, which means he can'[t be inclusive and relative -- he must take a stand for something and against other things. While the type of theatre he is describing holds no attraction for me, the process of watching it being brought to life is fascinating.

Freeman said...

I'd be very happy to see concrete examples, I think. For example: what plays has George seen that are expressly what he is working in opposition to?

Creating "straw men" seems unneccessary in an art form rife with productions and scripts. I'd love to see, for example, what "theatre minima" does that Beckett doesn't already do. Or, say, whether or not Christopher Durang or Shakespeare fall into "Playground Theatre."

George Hunka said...

I don't want to cite individual plays because I don't want to invite debate into virtues or vices of any individual work or playwright; I should mention that (like all these other lists of oppositions, those in Brecht's essays and Barker's polemic) no play will be entirely one or the other, and I'm sure that somewhere down the line that would become clear. That should be needless to say, but I'm finding these days that there's nothing that's needless to say.

I really prefer to provide specifics of plays that have led to my exploration of this ground I'm trying to clear, instead of slinging mud or playing god by making lists of those who are blessed and those who are damned. I've written about dozens of those plays in the last few years. Honestly, I prefer to concentrate and describe and emphasize work that I enjoy rather than work I don't, instead of inviting yet more debate over this individual play or that, for which I have neither the time nor the inclination. I don't want to waste time destroying this theatre I call "playground theatre"; it is, I'm quite sure, indestructable, as it always has been. I only want to work and till the ground of my corner of the landscape, way over here, at the edge.

George Hunka said...

And if I do need to offer an example of these aspects of "playground theatre," I'll offer my own "In Public" as an example, since it seems fair to put down my own work rather than anybody else's. The last production of "In Public" was in a very traditional vein, with very traditional characters; it was largely an entertainment. It's not a bad play at all, I don't believe, but it is a boulevard, bourgeois play: I don't think it asked enough of the audience, because it remained firmly rooted in its own world rather than providing a path to another means of seeing. It was rather fascistic in its insistence in its own importance.

Maybe the most damning comment made about it was that it would make a good (i.e., marketable) film. I agree. That's its problem as a piece of theatre (and if I may just add that Isaac did his damnedest to theatricalize the thing, and succeeded more often than not; my own comments here are directed entirely to the text I created, the director, designers and cast were all spectacular). But the text itself didn't offer enough opportunities for exploration of the various drives of desire and fear that ran through it, or take advantage of the means that only theatre provides for that exploration. It remained a surface work textually. It's a comedy, and a good one. It was an easy play to write -- too easy, which suggests that it didn't contradict itself enough. But it's playground theatre.

My point here is that if you think you're doing "playground theatre," you probably are.

Beckett as example, not as endpoint

Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

MattJ said...

I think one common misconception about "theory's" (whatever that means) relation to practical work in the theatre is that the disconnect is historically so high that there is basically two completely separate fields that exist. (Theory) (Theatre).

I think a lot of this has to do with academia, which does very often fall into this trap, and therefore basically continuing to place Theatre in a category which includes all literature. This is why more and more college theatre departments these days are being couched in English departments. Which is artistically debilitating and financially strapping.

But who do we think of, those of us that work in theatre, when we think of a theorist of the theatre? We think of Artaud, Foreman, Barker, Peter Brook, Jerzy Grotowski, Brecht, etc. Let me know if I've missed a highlight.

All of these folks were/are theatre practicioners, usually auteurs, whose work helped them to articulate the direction they wanted to go artistically, and very often, this conceptualization was inextricably bound to a "political" view. I have found much difficulty developing any kind of "aesthetic" for myself based on artistic ideals (having tried for a little while on my blog). I think this may just be my style. But what drives me much farther forward is a political gaze towards not just all "other" art, but other people, and the way we want to live.

By putting our theatre, and how we write about it, in a place which keeps its eye on the world, and on each other, rather than just on itself, we can begin to open up the possibilities of the theatre, which we are so skeptical about these days in America.

The point here, though, is that theory and practice in the theatre have very strong historical connections, and I think it's important to draw a line in the sand between the kind of things George is writing and traditional academic scholarship.

carter said...

The "Organum" thing strikes me as fairly pretentious. Which is unfortunate since they seem to have some interesting ideas in them.

But then, I guess, the guy is working something out, so my reaction doesn't really matter.

Joshua James said...

Hmm, well I never got too worked up over any of that stuff . . . not that I would ever say that no one should put forth whatever theory works for them, but for me, doing is more interesting than theory . . .

Freeman said...

I appreciate George's sentiment by offering up "In Public" as an example of Playground Theatre. I would say, though, that there are a fair number of Playground Theatre descriptors that do not apply to In Public, and a fair number of Theatre Minima descriptors that would apply to it. Like, I would say, most plays.

I wouldn't say, for example, that "In Public" was uniformly representative of "the casual" (it's rather erudite) that it's a play that represents "the day," (either literally or figuratively), that it captures the spirit more of the "stadium" than that of "chamber music." Then again, it certainly was built around a fair number of gags, and had it's imitations of casual speech, etc, etc. It's far from cut & dry, even in this example. That's why I'm curious about the list and how it was constructed, if all plays fall into One Camp or Another?

When a piece of work exists to fall within a particular theory, in my estimation, it limits its scope without purpose. If placing limits on something will define it within a genre purposefully, in an effort to inspire creativity, so be it. But much of the best work I've read and seen enjoys both the sublime and the base, appeals to its audience as a mass and appeals to the individual as well. Krapp's Last Tape is stunningly sad and poetic and still, but it also has a bit with a banana peel. Many great plays are, shall we say, HARD to categorize. That might be why Martin Esslin named certain writers Absurdists. They did not label themselves. It's hard for me to see how categories are helpful to creators. They can be, on the other hand, excellent guides for observers.

That being siad, and to get to the heart of the matter... what would be the difference between mythologizing one's personal taste, and 'working through an aesthetic?'

That's not a rhetorical question. I'm willing to take at face value that the goal is to come to some unique perspective.

George Hunka said...

The Organum is a means of answering the question of what I believe it's important for theatre to do, and why I believe it's worth doing: to see how it was done in the past, and what remains. If any art is to be more than mere self-expression (whatever that means), then it is incumbent, necessary, and responsible to ask what it is that's being expressed, how it's being expressed, if it can be expressed, if not then what is being expressed, and why. A theatre that doesn't ask those questions of itself is, of all theatres, surely the most deadly (for it doesn't know why it exists, and doesn't want to know), and suicidal besides -- no surer path to irrelevance. If such questions are boring, or pretentious, or precious, or not useful to you: well, nobody's holding a gun to your head; you needn't ask them. But these are basic, essential questions -- questions that should be asked in the first five minutes of the first session of any Intro to Playwriting class. One needn't be held to the answers to those questions for the rest of one's career. But if, as Socrates put it, the unexamined life is not worth living, how can an unexamined art be worth making?

Alison Croggon said...

I was thinking of Socrates myself.

Theory's just a scaffold. It can be useful or not. Its use is stimulation, questioning. George is obviously making it clear here that his argument is primarily with himself. And since he's a playwright, I don't understand all the mockery about not "doing".

I'm a little shocked, I do confess, by your dismissals, Matt - and others here - is theatre really only about "getting it on"? What's the difference, then, between putting on theatre and - say - freelance journalism or any other job? One of the things I love about theatre is that it's a practical art, sure...but that doesn't absolve it from thought. Neither are these things - practical necessity, aesthetic speculation - mutually exclusive.

Joshua James said...

I wasn't mocking George, Alison, nor do I believe I've ever responded to anything he post with hostility.

Nor do I accuse him of not "doing", I attended his last show and quite liked it. Those who know me know I'm not the type to say I liked something unless I truly liked it.

I merely stated that I find the "doing" of the thing more interesting than talking about doing the thing.

That doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with talking about doing the thing. Just that I'm not as interested in it as some folks.

That being said, there was an implicit challenge in George's last comment and in the Organum in general.

The idea that one has to have lofty, heavenly aim in order to write a good play, otherwise it's not art or something . . . it's a very challenging statement. It's not difficult to understand how some might pick up that glove, as Matthew has.

That being said, there's nothing wrong with making challenging statements. I make my own all the time.

And Matthew makes his.

I believe a writer can write a play that transcends without being aware of the preceipts of Socrates or the Organum.

I think that in the writing of a good play, one addresses the questions George posed in the comment above and in the Organum, whether one is aware of it or not, if they've written well.

But it never hurts to ask big questions . . . I don't think ill of anyone who asks the questions George has . . . so I slur neither George or Matthew here.

Me, I believe one is either doing a headstand on the edge of a cliff or one is not (as per Grotowsky) and you know when you see the headstand, not when outlining it in theory beforehand.

Not that there is a damn thing wrong with doing that. There are many routes to Valhalla.

I've met writers who do talk up the "theory" and then you see the work and it blows. I've met writers who talk the theory and they kick ass. I've met writers who don't talk the "theory" and they also blow. I've met writers who don't talk up the "theory" and they also kick ass.

See why I'm more interested in the doing rather than theory? The proof of the pudding is in the eating and while comparing recipes can be fun, you never know until you take a bite whether someting tastes good.

On a side note, if I can share anything as a guy that's been doing this playwright thing for 12 or so years . . . it's important to have a sense of humor about this . . . I mean, we are getting paid to create make-believe, after all, as playwrights and actors and directors.

Don't get me wrong, I take my work seriously. Ask anyone that has worked with me.

But one thing I've learned is that it's risky to take myself too seriously . . . We can strive and act like we're curing cancer, but at the end of the day we traffic in pretend.

For the record, I accuse no one here of inflated self-importance or anything . . . I merely offer up my experiences and what I've worked out and learned from playwrights senior to me who I've admired and been fortunate enough to meet . . . take it for what it's worth.

But I mock no one here. Unless someone decides to stage yet another version of MacBeth (there are four running here now) - if so, prepare for some serious mockery . . .

Freeman said...
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Freeman said...

It's not necessary for you to confess shock, Alison, at my dismissals. This conversation is the opposite of a dismissal, as far as I'm concerned. If I was happily able to dismiss the Organums, I wouldn't have written about them or opened up the topic for discussion.

And I wouldn't say that George has made it obvious that his argument is primarily with himself. In fact, when I read -

"If any art is to be more than mere self-expression (whatever that means), then it is incumbent, necessary, and responsible to ask what it is that's being expressed, how it's being expressed, if it can be expressed, if not then what is being expressed, and why. A theatre that doesn't ask those questions of itself is, of all theatres, surely the most deadly (for it doesn't know why it exists, and doesn't want to know), and suicidal besides -- no surer path to irrelevance."

- I don't get the impression George is arguing with himself. And the Organums certainly set themselves in opposition to all sorts of things (not in the least, if I remember writers who use Microsoft Word and have MFAs...who are somehow lesser than those who write...blogs).

Perhaps it's more shocking to read the phrase "mere self-expression" from a person who is spending a fair amount of his personal time expressing his own thoughts and feelings and conclusions in a public forum that can be found by anyone with a web browser. It seems that an endeavour like Superfluities (a title that is increasingly disingenuous, wouldn't you say) would have a great deal of respect for "mere self-expression."

Alison Croggon said...

Matt, nothing personal here. I was just surprised that George's speculations generated so much animus from artists. Why be so defensive about taking one's own work seriously?

Me, I'm with Jack Spicer - you talk to keep it out of the art. His muse says: "Talk all you like, honey, and then let's go to bed."

For the record, I don't think art is just about self-expression either. And this is me speaking as an artist, not a critic.

George Hunka said...

Actually, Matt, that paragraph you cite that begins "If any art is to be more than mere self-expression (whatever that means) ..." is precisely the argument I had with myself 13 years ago, when I stopped writing plays: I couldn't come up with a response that satisfied me. I started again when I could.

The writer is really an instrument for a perception that passes through her; that perception is not tied to her identity, or self, its origin is far too slippery and prior to consciousness for that. The self copes with and shapes the expression, the self isn't the origin of it. When it occurs it needs to be shaped, made communicable. Such a theory requires a knowledge, deep and nuanced, of the history and technique of the form of expression. Study, thinking (silently or out loud), discipline and practice. We expect this from plastic artists, composers, poets: the Met is filled with students copying the techniques of Daumier and Rembrandt, composition students write counterpoint in the manner of Bach (if without his inspiration), musicians spend eight hours a day at their instruments for years before performing in public; famously, Ezra Pound wrote a sonnet a day as a means of sharpening his young talent. Theatre's status as a "democratic" art seems to have rendered this discipline superfluous. Not that I find the high art/low art distinction useful any more myself, but when we set the sights for our plays, we do tend to look below or at the horizon rather than above it.

Josh is right when he says that you can write a play that "transcends" (there's that word again) without thinking about any of these issues; but someone once said that this is much less likely without this thought and study, and that someone was right, too. So far as being "paid to create make-believe," well, all I can say is that this make-believe is only a small part of theatre, something it shares with so many other forms. And I grouse a bit myself when I say that nothing of it has "paid," at least not me. But that's just my inner landlord talking, and we know what he's like.

Joshua James said...

"but someone once said that this is much less likely without this thought and study, and that someone was right, too."

While I agree in principle, I don't know that there is any empirical proof to your above statement, George. I like to believe it, but I've met too many people who spend too much time on theory and not enough time on practice. And as a result, they stink.

In other words, more important than thinking about the theory behind writing a play is actually writing a play. Those art students are practicing craft while sketching, not theory.

One has to practice the craft consistantly in order to succeed. Does it help if one puts right thought behind the action? I believe so, yes. But one can do it without it.

Another writer told me that I can learn a lot more by writing ten plays than any theatre degree.

That, I agree with.

Joshua James said...

"Why be so defensive about taking one's own work seriously?"

As I believe I mentioned, Alison, there's an implicit challenge in George's post - in other words, if you don't do it THIS way, you're not taking the work seriously . . . so can you see that people might take issue with it?

I didn't have that reaction, myself, but it's not hard to see how folks might.

Again, not taking anyone's side here . . . just explaining why folks have slammed down the beer glasses and raised their voices . . .

Freeman said...

George, this is the first time it's occured to me that what we're talking about is a case of 13-year writer's block.

It's statements such as these that I often find suspect:

"The writer is really an instrument for a perception that passes through her; that perception is not tied to her identity, or self, its origin is far too slippery and prior to consciousness for that. The self copes with and shapes the expression, the self isn't the origin of it. When it occurs it needs to be shaped, made communicable. Such a theory requires a knowledge, deep and nuanced, of the history and technique of the form of expression."

This is a focus on the process, and if there is such a thing as deadly art, in my experience, it's art that is more interested in itself than its audience.

I think another thing that occasionally strikes me as presumptuous is the use of the word "we" to describe an attitude you assume in others. "When we set the sights for our plays, we do tend to look below or at the horizon, as opposed to above it." Does we include...me? I certainly don't feel that's what I do. You may say that a reader shouldn't take these things personally, but as a peer of yours, and playwright, its hard for me to accept the presumption that I have low standards for my work.

My experience is that you need to get your "landlord" or Judge as far away from your own work as possible. If you wrap yourself in theory, it hinders the creative process. If you want to wrap yourself in the work of other writers you admire, or go and see a play for inspiration, I think that can be incredibly moving and helpful. But to corner yourself (set limits on your own self-expression, judge its worthiness, locate its place in theatrical history) before you actually write a play seems like a truly suicidal impulse.

George Hunka said...

It's a peculiar case of writer's block that produces more than six hours of plays in the past three years, along with everything else. (I pay for these productions myself on the rare occasions when I can afford to.) If that somehow indicates that my focus on process has been unproductive, well, then I don't know what to say.

Freeman said...

I was referring to the 13 year period wherein you didn't write plays at all. Perhaps I was misreading, but it seemed as if you were implying that you didn't write for 13 years because you weren't satisfied to the answers to theoretical questions.

Joshua James said...

Funny, as we have been having this conversation, my buddy Warren over on his site, Screenwriting Life, posted a quote about art from the great playwright and screenwriter Paddy C - check it out here DEAR Screenwriting Life… as that I think it has some application to our discussion.

Paddy is, of course, one of the greats. In my opinion.

George Hunka said...

Indeed that's true, Matt, but the answers continue to evolve along with the work I write, and they evolve in parallel. Hardly dead, they grow and grow in life. For me, at least. And (I can only hope) for my audiences, too -- to whom, by the way, I've always paid attention, from the very first paragraph of the very preface to the Organum.

Jamespeak said...

I've posted my obligatory and slightly tangential "two cents" over at Jamespeak...

The Disapproving Centaur said...

All this theory is making my head hurt.

I shall return to mu home in the Mystic Forest, until the conversation changes to something less meta-theatrical.

This centaur believes that theatre that entertains is just as valuable as theatre that inspires. Both should have their place.

P.S. Speaking of meta-theatre. Go see "A Spanish Play" by Yasmina Reza. It's wonderful. Until next time.

clop, clop . . .clop, clop . . .clop, clop

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