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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, September 22, 2008

In the Great Expanse of Space... Reaction

Before heading out for the weekend, Blue Coyote Theater Group was kind enough to host a reading of my new piece, entitled In the Great Expanse of Space there is nothing to see but More, More, More. Now that I've had a few days to sit with it, and process the responses I received, I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss it all a bit in this forum. It seems like there's some interest in hearing more, and maybe discussing it.

The play is in five parts, and features seven actresses. The first part features four voices (A-D) repeating several themes and occasionally breaking into monologue. The second part features another performer (E) onstage alone, listening to her own voice played over speakers, and occasionally echoing key phrases. The third portion features three voices (E-G), who repeat themes from the earlier pieces, this time primarily simultaneously, with various light accents or breaks. The fourth part features B, C, and F sitting alone onstage in silence for five minutes. The final and fifth part, features a reprise of the text from part one, with slight derivations, this time with all seven performers.

Some of the central text of the piece came from audio recordings I mixed with my own voice at home, a few years ago. I linked to those recordings on this blog at the time, for those with long memories. I'll see if I can do that again, if people are curious to hear them.

The themes of the piece linked to the phrase "I am ready to have cancer." Some of the links were loose, some very clear. The effect I'm after is essentially musical, but I'm doing this essentially by instinct... I've got very little in the way of formal musical training. I play a couple of musical instruments with mild proficiency, and that's the extent of it.

A typical pattern of the text would be:


She tells me I have cancer and in this way I start to count my blessings. Cancer is quiet. I am ready to have it. Cancer is something to do. I am ready to have cancer.


There is a hole in my body that makes noise.


She tells me I have cancer and I believe her.


I was full but now I’m empty.


I make a joke. What do you have for the plague? Everyone laughs.


The hollow


The husk


The hollow


The husk


The hollow. The hole. The hollow. The hollow. The hole. The hollow. The hole.


I am ready to have cancer.

This isn't a narrative piece and I spent far more time trying to create variations in the patterns presented than finding character. This makes the distinctiveness of each voice paramount. Not that each performer should treat themselves like a separate character, but to present their parts with a distinctive sound. Much in the way that a violin and cello might play the same theme to different effect.

The phrase,


The hole. The hole. The whole. The hole. The whole. The hole. The hole. The hollow. The hollow. The hole. The hollow.

Is spoken throughout the play. It's a repetition itself, and I believe this is repeated in excess of ten times. My hope was to allow an audience to move past their initial response to repetition and silence, and begin to listen for accents and differences. I hope that the difference between hearing "B" and "F" read the same monologue, for example, would pop out to an audience member. My hope would be that hearing "Someday, I will be looking into a bathroom mirror" at the beginning of the piece and later hearing "Someday, I will be looking into a bathroom mirror, eyes open" near the end would cause a tuned in listener to take note.

For example, late in the first piece, that same text becomes:


The hole. The hole. The hollow. The hole. The husk. The husk. The host. The host. The hollow. The host. The hole. The ghost.

The responses to the piece were pretty uniform in their either confusion towards or rejection of what I'd presented. Obviously, that's a risk you take when you try something new. I can't say it was personally very easy to hear the reactions, but I think at this point, there are a few things I've heard that will help to strengthen it.

What are some of the responses?

I was told that there was some effective writing in the piece that seemed muddied by the form.

I was told that it made people want to run out of the room.

I was told that I should focus more on plays that were more like my short pieces, which tend to be funny crowd pleasers, and that I shouldn't really waste my time with this sort of thing. That when I overthink, I move away from what I do well.

I was asked what if I had "heard what I wanted to hear."

I was told that the piece might be more effective with more to "see." That simply watching an extended poem that repeats itself needs some visual flair or actors engaged to make it tolerable or bring out the meaning. Or, well, impose some meaning.

I was told that hearing anything 10 - 15 times is simply not pleasant for the audience, no matter which way you slice it.

I was challenged on the subject matter: if I'd never personally had a cancer scare, and if it wasn't something I personally felt a deep connection to, why write about it? Now, my grandmother died of lung cancer, I've been an on-and-off smoker, etc. But it's fair to say that cancer is a theme that hits home with a lot of people and writing about it in terms of "turns of phrase" can seem cold. Replace cancer with AIDs and the whole piece could come off as sophomoric and/or insensitive.

I had a friend say he found the piece hateful and agressive, as if I was being cruel to the audience on purpose. Certainly not my intention!

So, as you can see, not the easiest responses to hear I can't say that I didn't take it too personally at times, or that I didn't feel angry in private moments. That's, I think, pretty natural.

There are other creative artists who may read this, here's how I'm essentially responding to this in a way I feel could be constructive. Nothing too carefully thought out, some some thoughts.

- I think it's worthwhile to accept that the play has flaws and that I certainly heard them too. And that trying something for the first time is an exercise in seeing what works and what doesn't work. That's obvious, but it always bears repeating. I had hopes that this would soar, and it crashed a bit. All that means is: back to work.

- If I want an audience to seek and enjoy the musicality of the language, I have to respond to the question of narrative. Because of the choice to present the play with women's voices, and because there is some cohesion in the themes, it's only human to seek out the thought processes and storyline within. The idea that this piece is a mediation on a woman discovering she has cancer is something that organically grew out of the themes I was presenting. I can either let that be true purposefully, or remove that if I don't want that to distract from other effects. I don't feel inclined to back away from what the text seems to make reference to, I just need to balance my other intentions against how seductive narrative can be.

- The final piece is too long and doesn't present anything distinct or revelatory. By presenting text that is essentially the same as the first piece, simply with more voices, I don't take advantage of the opportunity to reach a crescendo or use the many, many more sounds available to me.

- I think five minutes of silence was too little. I loved watching that. There are people that didn't. That's one place that I have to stick to what I love to watch, and hope others find a way to see what I do.

- The next edit has to more actively use repeated phrases as a tool to produce a specific effect, as opposed to just repetition as an end onto itself.

- Add a little more fresh text to the later pieces, instead of relying so much on the older text being heard in new ways. As of now, its hard to expect spoken voices to carry the burden of freshening the repeated phrases.

- Think about the presentation. It was suggested that I might want to put an audience in the center of a stage and put the actors in places surrounding them, so that when the text comes from a different place, it does some very actively. The reading had seven actresses lined up on stage, focused on their books. That creates a static experience, certainly, and there was ways to ease up on that without undermining the piece by adding unneccessary visuals that would lessen the impact of the words.

- Accept that, no matter how I adjust the piece, there are certain tastes that just won't enjoy this sort of thing.

- The piece runs one hour and twenty minutes. Personally, I think that's not too long. But if the piece were to remain in its current form, it would have to be cut down by at least twenty minutes, it seems. If I made adjustments where some fresh text and something more expansive closed out the piece, I could probably justify the extra time. I'm sure there are people who heard it that would argue that 45 minutes is probably about as long as it should be. I'm not sure about that, but I figure its worth trying ways to keep it at length and MAKE it effective, as opposed to simply cutting to make it digestible. Part of what I'm after is to create something that does demand an active listener with a lot of patience, and rewards that patience with something beautiful. To reduce the intensity level too much is to surrender my original intention entirely.


There are a few scattered thoughts for public consumption. Much more to say about it. If you have questions or comments, it'd be fun to have an open discussion about my creative process with this piece.


Aaron Riccio said...

Sounds like you've been reading Beckett and Kane. I'm sorry I missed the reading, as I'd love to support your work more actively, though it sounds like the sort of distanced work that I tend to most dislike. Then again, from what you describe, I think there's plenty to be said for using silence, which has a quite cancerous effect, and I think you did get some good aesthetic suggestions -- I like the thought of the audience trapped in the middle, and it plays well both with your title and with the mood the play seems to be projecting. I wouldn't give up on that intensity, and I share your frustration that people prefer you to stick to something you're good at, but keep breaking through to what you want: as long as YOU have a reason for what you're doing, then it's worth it.

Freeman said...

I may have read Beckett. I won't deny it.

Thanks for those thoughts.

I definitely think it's worth doing. Writing this play is not a rejection of writing other kinds of plays. It's just something new to explore and communicate.

Jigsaw said...

Only a few quick notes, which would be extended had I more experience with the piece.

-It seems you are already asking the right questions of yourself, tackling the right issues of content and form. Personally, I doubt very highly that you would be able to get away with more than an hour of this sort of presentation without introducing some sort of narrative structure. Keeping it to an hour also prevents cruelty to the audience, as I'd guess this thing is only effective without an intermission.

-Have you considered STARTING the piece with five minutes of silence, then including a longer (ten minute) silence later on? It could be a really wonderful way to set the tone of the piece. Also, starting with a single actress in the first silence, and introducing one or two more in the second, could also be incredibly compelling.

-Putting the audience in the center and making them turn their heads every time something else happens is a good way of giving your audience a sore neck. Unless you seat everyone on swivel chairs, I think it's best to be mindful of the audience's physical comfort, and not punish them too much.

-Is what you want to do with this piece primarily theatrical, or are you more interested in it as a sound piece? Would it make more sense as live radio, or an audio installation, or as the soundtrack to a dance piece? Of course, no wrong answer here, just trying to help focus your intentions a bit by… confusing them. Or something.

Forgive, no caffeine yet today. Must remedy.

Freeman said...

Hey Ben -

All good thoughts.

- I think right now, there are narrative components already in the piece. It's a tough balance to fight against narrative while using components of narrative to create some color. It's sort of like a painting - there's a character, maybe, some action, but you don't get the whole story. You might be as moved by how it's made as what you see. You may, though, impose some narrative on it personally.

Then again, you only look at a painting for a few minutes. Most of the time.

- The reason I put the silence where it is, is because I wanted the moment of climax to be the silence. It's not a bad idea to, though, maybe shift around the order and see what happens. If I started with silence and then expanded to all seven voices, for example, that's a dramatic shift.

- That's a good point. Certainly wouldn't want the audience to feel like they had to keep looking. I think the point would be, under those circumstances, that each performer wouldn't have to be seen.

- Which brings me to the idea of an audio piece as opposed to theatrically presenting this. My hope is to find a way to make this effectively theatrical, if not traditionally so. That might simply work against where the text sits naturally. But I could see this going back into the world of sound and staying there, if I can't pull it off on stage.

Chance Muehleck said...

This sounds fascinating and I wish I'd been able to attend. As someone who is looking for new ways to write for (and think about) theatre, I echo Mr. Riccio's comment that you should "keep breaking through to what you want." In that endeavor, perhaps you'd be served by collaborating more closely with a director, designers, and performers. I think readings achieve very particular results for very particular kinds of plays. But if you learned something by hearing it, that's all that really matters.

RLewis said...

I still have not figured out if you want to talk about your work or not, but I just want to say that I found this post insightfully interesting. It's not just hearing about your process, but hearing about what you think of how the process is going. I'd say - keep it up.

The first thing that this post did make me think of is how "context, context, context" is like "location, location, location". Both vitally vital. Like, I wonder if the biggest problem with this work is your calling it a play. Keep in mind I'm a performance art lover, and this work sounds more like that than something I'd call a play.

And my next thought was that it appears to me that you're getting feedback for a play, and wonder if that is really serving you well.

My mom is currently between chemo' and radia' treatments, so the C word is like a new noisey neighbor for me. I'm very interesting in what's going on over there, but I don't really wanna know for sure. So, for everyone who isn't into this topic, there's a me who is fearfully attracted to this mortal flame.

Then I wonder what tools in your toolbox are being employed with this piece. Is it really about cancer or is cancer a metaphor for some big societal ill? Conversely, maybe if you want to open a dialogue about cancer, then how about making the play about fireworks or worms or anything that serves metaphorically without scaring or depressing those you wish the piece to communicate to? (Quills is still my favorite contemp' play for just that reason.) Symbolism, allegory, suspence, character, plot, metaphor - what's working for you and what isn't?

Lastly, the visual or physical comments really got me, because I found the feedback to be very inside-the-box. To tackle the visual part: what if the piece were performed in a hospital or cemetary, or some place that is exactly the opposite, a ballroom or arcade, just to highlight your theme.

What if you got creative with the physical movement? Maybe each section takes place in a different room, and the audience has to move from room to room, so you get a unique physicality with out changing your text. Maybe the scenes happen all at the same time and repetedly. The audience is split up into groups, so no group sees the sections in the same order. Different actors for each staging area, different sounds moving from space to space, different shows depending on what order each audience groups sees them.

ok, I'm just brainstorming out my site-specific butt, but I think you get where I'm lookin' - keep working on the text, but really play with your concept. You may not have a great play, but you may have the best tone poem ever written. good luck with it.

Freeman said...

I do think that maybe hearing the text non-traditional settings might be a good step with it. I'm wary of using the text as a template for something else, though. I think it might be too easy for this esoteric text to feel superfluous when other more dynamic layers are put on top of it, like movement or heavy design. Then again, if the text can't live within those things, then maybe that's a problem.

I don't think there's much metaphor here: cancer is cancer. Someone asked me if it was about the Bush Administration. (Isn't everything?) but no. I wish I could say what I thought this was about beyond an instinct that the pieces should fit together properly.

There are parts of the play, about particularly brutal death, or a long joke told about an old professor, that are only loosely connected to the rest of the piece, but feel "of a piece" of the tone.

I do think there's no shame in pulling back from places where the repetition goes to far, but I also think that's sort of a sign that I'm using repetition where I'm NOT using a specific thought. That's where the repetition feels like placeholder, and that's pretty deadly. I think that's something I got specifically from hearing it read.

The performers in the reading, by the way, the work done by the director to construct an interesting reading were top-notch. I think the text provides real difficulties inherently at this point, no matter who is working with it.

Mac said...

I'm still thinking about it.

bfuqua said...

First off, as a friend, fan and reader of your blog I'm impressed you' ve put yourself out there like this. From what I've gathered it's not the norm so I applaud your bravery , not-to-mention the sac to attempt something as challenging as this play.
Now, as someone who had a very visceral reaction to it (not entirely pleasant), I felt compelled to comment further because I learned a few things after reading your comments . And let me preface by stating I lack any background whatsoever to offer writing advice; I wouldn't recognize a Beckett or Kane work if it bit me in the ass (hell, I go kicking and screaming to Shakespeare, for chrissake ). Admission aside, I DO believe human emotion and connection should be the basic prinicipal of any theatrical endeavor (enhanced by the written word, aesthetics, blah, blah, blah). Simplistic, yes, but that's what I respond to, and the reason I felt your play impenetrable.
These are my thoughts: - Structurally, the repetition at the beginning was curiously fascinating, yet when "cancer" is uttered a distinct tone is established and I think it's fair to say audiences will be expecting some kind of emotional pay-off. My personal expectation was that we were about to take a journey with this woman (which I was up for) and the initial repitition was a flash-forward device that would occasionally transition into narrative; I would get to know her, as well as be at her side from diagnosis to storing piss in the fridge to ultimate acceptance to, perhaps, death.
As someone who was misdiagnosed with "The Big C", it's obvious everyone's initial reaction is different (mine was probably similar to Bette Davis' in "Dark Victory") - that's why I think your play has potential. But whether you're receiving the news as a dry-eyed intellect or drama queen, it's still heart-wrenching, and as I sat there yearning to sympathize with this woman it just became emotionally colder. In fact, I felt like your goal WAS progressive disconnectedness, as each deviation seemed to distance us more from the character and ultimately connecting with her and her plight. By the time the ladies sat there staring at us in silence, it really did seem like a scornful dare and, admittedly, I wanted to flee.
Yet, after reading your blog I think your intent is intriguing.
Firstly, the musicality of the words: I think many people may have been confused by the repitition because they literally couldn't relate them to anything tangible (I couldn't, at least) like, perhaps, a chemo treatment or loss of weight. Also, Kyle told us at the beginning there was going to be music. Where was it? What if your lead character was a professional cellist and we sat watching her practicing chords and she started reciting along with the notes? Not only would it make the repitition more accessible to me but as a whole lend more overall resonance. And there's your nice, plaintive soundtrack!
Secondly, you already know how I feel about the silence (especially without meaning), but what if your character just stood looking into the mirror, which is already part of your text. I'd certainly be more drawn to that, as she realizes life as she knows it is ending. Indeed, I'd probably be a mess.
Lastly, I think populating your play with only women is bold. I just wish they were actual characters (e.g., doctor, nurse, friend) instead of A, B, C, D, etc. who orbit the main character on occasion (in addition to being part of her psyche). I would have welcomed the interaction and they may offer the origin for some of the more confusing aspects.
Okay, I'm done. Thanks for giving us a better understanding of what you were going for as well as letting us share our thoughts.
Love you, man! B

Freeman said...

Thanks for the good thoughts, Brian!