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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.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Theory and Practice

James writes an even-handed response to the discussion that's been going on regarding theory and practice here.

I'll say, after the extended comments section, that I'm certainly feeling a bit more even-handed myself. It's hypocritical of me to criticize someone else's process, to say the least. Let me see if I can sum up my response to all this.

For me, what it comes down to is personal experience. My process is project-based, intuitive and informed by my own taste. My work is happily influenced by a great number of other artists. If I have a theory at all, it's "be what you love." I feel I have a solid understanding of theatrical history, structure, the language of the stage...all of those things are important. For me, they're no longer on the surface, they arrive as needed. To create a work that self-consciously expresses a sum of information, of theory, of some knowledge I feel I've acquired... it just doesn't jive with what I see as my function as a writer.

I often use, for myself, the example of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan's work in music is the antithesis of a quest for originality. In effect, it's been a career of mimicry. As a young man, he changed his name to "Dylan" as a tribute to Dylan Thomas. He wrote songs and sang, initially, like Woody Guthrie. He transformed, not long after that, into an Alan Ginsberg knock-off, a Johnny Cash hillbilly, Born Again Christian, a gypsy, a rock star, and finally, an aging bluesman, writing songs that you might have heard on the radio in the 1930s. None of his musical styles were invented within him: he's filtered them into practice, and because of his own unique personality, they were flavored and reinvented as Dylan songs. The songs themselves, in the end, are canonical works. They are a part of a history precisely because they are meant to be, and precisely because he was able to combine influence with a lack of self-consciousness. Dylan has always done whatever struck him to do at the time... he simply followed whatever his instincts were, and they guided him to the creation of music that is timeless and uniquely American.

I admire this. My own work, therefore, has run the gamut of broad comedy, verse, historical and contemporary. By not focusing on what I thought "Theatre" should be, I've created plays that are their own, each one, and whatever resemblance they bear to one another is an afterthought. There are similarities, certainly, between Arthur and Genesis, between The Great Escape and The Most Wonderful Love and What To Do To A Girl. But Reasons for Moving, 465 and The Americans are entirely different kinds of work in tone and structure. So are my earlier experiments (I had a play called The Message produced back in 2000 in New Hampshire and it's a Pinteresque lark.) I've made little audio recordings that some people have kindly ignored, some likely thought were a waste of time, and some might have enjoyed. Who knows? Some of my work is less than an hour long, some of it runs somewhere around 3 hours. It's all mine, it succeeds and fails on its own merits, and it's often quite flawed. It's also work I'm proud of, would stand by, and know speak something essential from me to whoever graces me with their eyes and ears.

As of now, I'm still banging away at The Shadow, and now directing my focus on the old folk tale of Bluebeard, and working on an original television pilot. None of them bear much of a resemblance to one another. I've set aside two different projects for now (The Man Who Caught Death in a Bag and The Lower River), possibly because they felt too much like extensions of The Americans and my attention deficit can't focus on writing the same play twice.

I often find (and again, I share this to respond to the discussion at hand and also to express my own attitude towards the work we are all doing) that by allowing my impulses to remain undefined, and shifting, and open... that I find myself trying things I wouldn't if I had some particular litmus test for what makes theatre worth doing or specifically successful.

There are clearly many ideas about what makes a successful play and the successful path to writing them and producing them. There is, in fact, no correct answer to how this is done. No tried and true method. George, as far as I can discern, is simply trying to reconcile his own standards with what he's read and the sort of writer he would like to be: he's looking for a path to excellence and expression. It's unique to his own perspective, which is why I sometimes find myself irked when it appears expressed as a set of universal rules. I don't believe in universal rules, in universal truth, or, frankly, concepts in Capital Letters. I think we're standing on the earth, together, at this one moment in time, and each one of us only has two eyes with which to see. What is Tragic to one is erudite to another; what is Comedy to one is a mere trifle to another. That's what makes theatre as beautiful and broad as it is... it's an art form that is expansive, as opposed to reductive.

So, as George works through is process publicly, I will be interested to see how his theories become practice. In the end, that's what will truly bear them out. My personal inclination (to any who are wrestling with this type of work and looking for a variety of perspectives) is to avoid limiting my voice before I have spoken.

That's about all I can add. The rest will, hopefully, be on the stage.


Joshua James said...

Whenever I begin to take myself too seriously as a playwright, I always remember that, in addition to my serious plays like TALLBOY WALKIN' and THE BEAUTIFUL ONE, plays I'd like to believe are worthy epitahs for the work I strive to do, I'm also the author of SPOOGE- THE SEX & LOVE MONOLOGUES, which I wrote as a goof in two weeks, went on to get published and produced across the country, almost more than any other play - and it's a goofy piece of work.

But hell, why not? It's all fluid and transient, anyway - I work hard and I may as well have a few laughs at my own expense.

The Inspired Centaur said...

Here, here.

My writing mentor told me the best advice he was ever given by a teacher is "Just write".

Matt, your current posting has really inspired me. So with that I must change my name.

Clop, clop . . .clop, clop.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Woody Guthrie, you might be interested newly published lyrics on "Wonder Wheel" by The Klezmatics. Its a 2007 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary World Music Album and has terrific insight on Woody finding his spirituality and also, of course, opposition to war. These songs will resonate forever.