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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, April 29, 2009

Only a vessel

Scott Walters, on his blog, shares with us his recent lecture to his students here.

In it, I find this passage:

So the theatre is a process of invocation: “To call upon a god or goddess to ask for their presence.” And also invocation is a form of possession which I’m using in its neutral form to mean "a state in which an individual's normal personality is replaced by another.” Plato writes about poetic inspiration in his dialogue Ion: "God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his ministers...in order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these words of great price when they are out of their wits, but that it is God himself.”

Wearing a mask, the actor as an individual is erased and replaced by that of another. This is important to understand, because it is an orientation that informs all of the arts that we have studied this semester (Greeks to Spanish Golden Age) And it is the orientation that is most difficult for us, as modern artists, to get our heads around. The play, the performance, is not about the artist themselves. The artist is a conduit through which a story is spoken. In other words, it’s not about you.Whether you are an actor or a playwright, it’s not about you. You are a conduit, a vessel through which the gods speak. Your job is to make yourself transparent, to offer no resistance to this possession.
I know there are plenty of people that are going to find this inspirational. It's intended to be, and in parts, I think it's a striking vision of theatrical history. If you read my blog often, you know that I don't usually write much in the way of grand sentiment about what I believe about theater. I'm not someone who believes, most of the time, in there being one way to look at the arts, or one way to make them happen.

That being said, what I find in this passage a scolding idealism: a sense that theater is beyond the artist, more powerful than an individual's voice, and that an ego-less artist becomes a conduit to gods. The argument is a seductive one because it offers the reward of a transcendent experience. What artist wouldn't love to find himself or herself speaking in this mythical, mystical way; in a way that is bigger than his or her personal experience can express?

I have, to say the least, mixed feelings about this. I'm certainly not a person who believes entirely in the supremacy of the rational: I'm a lover of the spiritual and the unknowable. I don't though, like the idea of illusion as practical guide. To discount the importance of the individual and replace it with the importance of submission to a higher purpose seems a bit more like Abraham and Isaac than makes me comfortable.

What I read above is a veiled attempt to corral the ego of creative people. When I read about God "taking away the mind of these men and using them as his ministers" I can't help but wonder why we, in the modern era, would prefer mindlessness to active thought.

This isn't to say that there haven't been moments that I've seen on stage that didn't feel inspired by something greater than the sum of its parts. We've all felt, I would imagine, something that seemed otherworldly. I've found, though, that 9 times out of 10, those moments are the product of equal parts craft and inspiration. Craft, hard work and knowledge are not replaced by inspiration: they are the tools by which inspirations are communicated.

When reducing the talk to its basic message, Walters states: it's not about you. He implies that all around an artist are important things. The culture, the Gods, the society at large, history. The artist is, on this list, not present. In Walters' view of how artists should be (i.e. humble vessels) he leaves them at the mercy of greater forces. They are choice-less, inactive, voiceless, and somehow, through this process, become divine. In this vision of theatre, that is their best state and true purpose: to be spoken through... not to speak for themselves.

I'm sure some of this is his reaction to the worst excesses of ego. We have all seen theater that is self-indulgent, inaccessible, poorly constructed, or off-putting. I don't believe, though, that the cure for the occasionally incompetent artist is to prescribe, like medicine, emptiness to all artists. Here, a collective's sense that it is more important than the individual, the 'Collective Ego' maybe, is perfectly justified. The Gods, and the society that they watch over, must be served and spoken for by the lucky few ministers open enough to be chosen.

I believe in the importance of the individual human voice, seen and heard as unique, in the face of great institutions, religions and communities. If an artist believes in something divine, then he or she should speak with and for that. If they imagine themselves reaching out into the ether to pluck strange poems, then let them. But I hope that this process will always lead them back to something true in themselves. We have plenty of voices for God, plenty of voices for Culture. What we need is the voice of one person, even at its most irrational and seemingly useless.

Walters' lecture tells us that we are not enough: that one person who assumes that his or her own voice is important is committing the sin of pride. His message is that to speak for yourself, to speak about your own experience, to reach inside yourself and find something that is only yours is folly. Worse, it's unwanted. This is a massively distrustful statement. He doesn't trust human beings to know what to say. He asks us to outsource our voices.

Human beings are flawed. We fail. We inadequately express ourselves. We have limits. We have, though, in my estimation, proved no better or worse than anything 'divine' at creating beauty and truth. At our best, we show our generosity when we share our secret, wicked, monstrous and gorgeous selves. Our best work is created when we, as individuals, have a conversation with our own experience, with our beliefs, and share that conversation with others. We're not vessels for voices beyond our control, we're giving the idea of singularity credence. Artists are, at their best, evidence that humans, all by themselves, are whole and sublime. I don't hold much faith in the idea that it's best for artists to 'not exist' in their work. Instead, we should exist as fully and uniquely as we are able.

There are many roadblocks to creating good work. Creativity is mysterious. It can feel like it comes from outside of us. It can also feel like the product of hours and hours of labor. Maybe somewhere between the two is what's true. But I would never go so far as to believe that it is human beings themselves, something inherent about self-expression, that is the problem.

Is all art 'about you?' Perhaps it's not solely 'about you.' But it also is about you. About one human being expressing himself or herself, as fully as possible. That's the theater I want to see, the theater I want to make, and the theater that I would encourage any student, peer or even hobbyist to strive towards.

That's why the study of literature and art is called often called The Humanities. We have been godless and we have been faithful. We have believed in Zeus and we have believed in Jesus and we have believed in the free market. Behind it all, it's always been us. Just us.

And we're enough.


Paul Rekk said...

Helluva thing here, Freeman. Thanks.

Also, my word verification was 'artout'. Weeeeeeeird!

macrogers said...

Voice of reason stuff always appreciated, Freeman. I do think Scott's thoughts point generally in a good direction, but he doesn't have the subtlety to thread the needle; he goes straight to the extreme every time. Still, I think that makes him a valuable read. There's gold to be mined at the extremes.

Scott's piece, for me, endorses a good operating methodology for a writer. Any play you write is going to be personal. A lot of "about you" is going to be in there. You don't have to try for that part, so I think it's worth pushing against it, trying to make something that gets outside of yourself and reaches out. For myself, I discovered when I stopped writing personal plays (which was Mac-Code for "exhibitionist"), the plays stayed plenty personal but they improved a great deal in quality.

Scott Walters said...

First, I'd like to gently remind you that I was speaking about an age before the Birth of the Individual (although Bloom indicates that Shakespeare was creating the individual through his writing), and trying to make something portable for students to take away -- a single, final metaphor that would encompass as much of the period as possible. And I was attempting to make the past have something to say to the present, something that might be reclaimed.

In the case of that time, the vision of artistry was of possession by a god. But there is no reason to reject that metaphor if you happen to not believe in a metaphysic. Many, many artists -- actors, playwrights, painters, novelists -- will tell you that at a certain point they "lose control" or "lose consciousness" of their work. The actor comes offstage and doesn't remember parts of the performance, the author finds the characters speaking for themselves, the painter finds the brush moving on its own. They have transcended themselves and tapped into something different -- some different level of consciousness, or perhaps a collective consciousness. Pirandello's "Six Characters" is a play entirely about that experience.

That doesn't mean abandoning craft or hard work. It means that the craft and hard work allows you to transcend to that different level. And I would argue that at that level is where some pretty incredible stuff is. And it is the place where you transcend self.

As far as Mac's comment about subtlety, the lecture was written in two hours filled with interruptions, and for delivery in an undergraduate classroom. Again, the goal was portability.

But Matt, if you want to view it through the "Scott doesn't trust/like artists" lens, then I can understand how your would react as you did. But I would protest that it is you who have created that lens through your interpretation, not me.

Austin Barrow said...

As I was reading this post, Scotts comment, or more specifically the first paragraph of his comment was coming to mind. What seems to be missing from your interpretation of his lecture is the context with which these students have been studying for a semester. Also being a college professor, I find that when I begin to prepare for a class you set yourself in that mode of study and sometimes it is easy to misunderstand the context.

Having said that, I have been reading both of your blogs now regularly for about a month and the "lens" that Scott is referring to might be part of the context that I did not account for in my initial reading.

Scott said...

Often, when one reads Western criticism of Zen Buddhism, the practitioners are lampooned as attempting to become mindless, blank, empty-headed, or the like. As anyone who has actually practiced Zen meditation would tell you, that doesn't really cover it. As the saying goes, "First, there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is."

When one begins meditation, the world exists, with its attendant problems. As one continues, one realizes that what we call "the world" is not a "thing", but a series of processes that have no inherent permanence or reality of themselves, but only in relation. The "problems" we percieve are seen to be functions of our mind, which also has no permanence, and is also not separate from the world. Once this is percieved, then it is possible to relate to the world in a very ordinary way, seeing the beauty that is in all things. There are still things that must be taken care of, but they are no longer seen as problems, but just as the way the world is.

What are we talking about when we talk about emptying ourselves? Grotowski, in relation to acting, talks about removing all the impedements to a given character or action. This does not preclude our own coloring of the action or character. Indeed, it's impossible to do otherwise. The metaphor here might be, to use a Sufi saying, "polishing the mirror." There's no way of getting rid of the shape or coloration of the glass, but we may be able to make it as clear as possible. Really, the ego can't be destroyed, or left behind. The most we can hope for is that it doesn't get in the way, with it's petty demands and sense of entitlement.

Actually, a healthy ego is necessary. It lends shape and focus, tensile strength and backbone. But the light that shines through us is not of our own making.

On another note, I don't think that anyone even remotely familiar with history would suggest with a straight face that humans are "whole and sublime". They may become closer to that ideal, perhaps, but not without a lot of work. The hard labor of craft is often one way people lose their selfishness and learn to focus outside of their narrow selves.

Really, "you" are the only vessel of expression that you have access to, the only one through which the universe will express those particular thoughts and feelings and perceptions that you have. On the other hand, most people's definitions of themselves, particularly in Western culture, are terribly narrow, selfish, and small. Many people need to hear exactly what Scott Walters is saying in order to get outside themselves, and see their part in something bigger. When so many people just want to be "stars" without knowing why, a little corrective might not be the worst thing.

Freeman said...

I don't think Walters is talking to "stars." He's talking to students, and his advice to them is oppressive.

I'd love to meet the artists that need to think less about themselves. These artists that we're advising to become vessels and Zen Buddhists. The assumption here is that artists are, essentially, too interested in themselves. Artists, in my view and in my actual day-to-day experience, are extremely generous with themselves. That's a very good thing.

I think that's silliness, to put it bluntly. It's a stereotype about artists, here expanded to here into some sort of faux artistic philosophy.

I'm not going to argue with anyone's personal spiritual beliefs...but in my view (and it's likely a key one) the light that "shines through us" is entirely of our own making. If you disagree with that, you'll likely disagree with me. Fair enough.

Scott Walters said...

Wow! "Oppressive"! Really, Matt? Doesn't that seem a bit...strong?

Scott said...


I get where you're coming from. You're very fortunate to work with the type of artists you describe, and I think it's a reflection of your talent and integrity that you're surrounded by people like that. The artists I've worked with have about the average amount of self-centeredness and wish for stardom, which is to say entirely too much. I feel pretty safe in saying you probably wouldn't want to meet some of them.

I'm not particularly advocating anybody become anything, Buddhist, Sufi, Christian or Jew. I'm just saying that there are parallels in philosophy and religion that might illustrate the point more clearly. But something about this particular point seems to make you pretty angry.

Your reaction does seem to me to be a little allerigic, in the sense of an overactive defense system. That's fine. Often such defenses are built in response to violations of one sort or another. I've experienced the quashing of my own individuality by many an authority figure, and it's made me pretty sensitive to bullies and the lies they tell to justify themselves. So I understand some of the virulence. I'm not saying that that's what happened to you, I'm just saying what I see.

I'm definitely not "enlightened" enough to not be a little stung by such words as "faux artistic" and "silliness", but I'll get over it. Nobody is attacking you, here.

I can tell you I'm not much for beliefs, myself. I only know what I've experienced. If your intent is to foster dialog, you might want to think about how you discuss states of consciousness with which you aren't familiar. It's a bit like having somebody who is temporarily color blind tell me that those grey strawberries sure look unappetizing. I mean, yes, I hear you, but... well, I guess we'll just disagree. But really, you don't have to take my word for it. People have been sitting Zen (for example) for hundreds of years. I hear if you're dissatisfied, they refund 100% of your ego, no questions asked.

Scott said...

And just to clarify, I mean that if you're really interested in debunking the myths, you should try the techniques. See what happens. Worst case scenario, you end up exactly the same as you started.

Freeman said...

Scotts -

Maybe you've noticed (or maybe you're new to here) that I pretty rarely take this much issue with anyone's arguments. In fact, I'm basically a pretty easy-going guy and generally sit pretty fairly in the middle of most debates that happen around the blogosphere.

I do not believe Zen Buddhism or Mediation are silliness. I certainly don't take issue with anyone else's spirituality. I do, though, take a very firm and unequivocal stance against the idea that artists own personalities, own ambitions, are problematic at their core.

I mean to state these things strongly, because I so firmly disagree with them. To teach students that their own selves are hindrances; that their highest form of expression is speak for unseen forces? Yes, that is oppressive.

Scott Walters said...

Just checking:

1. Unreasonably burdensome; unjustly severe, rigorous, or harsh; as, oppressive taxes; oppressive exactions of service; an oppressive game law. --Macaulay.

2. Using oppression; tyrannical; as, oppressive authority or commands.

3. Heavy; overpowering; hard to be borne; as, oppressive grief or woe.

Yes? So seeing oneself as in service to a Greater Good, of serving as a conduit for a collective conscious -- that's oppressive? Humility is oppressive? Service is oppressive?

Freeman said...


Scott Walters said...

Wow. Well, OK.

Freeman said...

At the end of the day, Scott, you and I see the role of artists in a fundamentally different way. I don't think it's simply a matter of your being outside the process and me being actively engaged (although that's likely a part of it). Simply put: you see the artist as a servant, and I see the artist as essentially valuable by speaking for himself or herself. I have no bone to pick with spirituality. I don't believe your post or lecture is at all about spirituality. It's about suppression of the individual in favor of surrender to your definition of a "greater good." And it's about humility.

Humility has no direct correlation with being a better artist. How humble was Andy Warhol? How humble was Pablo Picasso? How humble is David Mamet? How humble was Arthur Miller? There are humble artists and artists that have inflated sense of their own importance. That's true of all people. That's true of college professors, of baseball players, of politicians, of priests. There's nothing special about artists that makes them need the message, "Be humble."

You believe in service and humility on general principles. Fair enough. But in terms of artistic achievement, it's beside the point at best, and a condescending directive at worst. It is oppressive in the way that all social directives are oppressive. Be this way, you say. It is the right way to be. It will make you a better artist. As if being a better artist were synonymous with being more like a person you'd approve of personally.

I think that you may honestly believe that artists are at their best when they are humble servants of the Greater Good (whatever that is). You see evidence of it in theatrical history. I don't. It's a difference of interpretation maybe. Or of belief. We'll never meet on this point, I'm afraid.

Scott said...


Please don't lump me in with a belief system I don't actually agree with. As I was trying to make clear (and which I obviously didn't make clear) I think both you and Scott are mistaken.

Emptiness without form is a mess. Form without emptiness is a lump. I'm not interested in belief systems. I can only tell you what I've seen.

I've seen too much bad theater that can't see outside itself, that takes every solipsistic half-baked idea as gospel (if you'll forgive the term), that lacks even the most basic passion except in it's own regard. That's one extreme (which I am, of course, not accusing anyone here of promoting).

I also have seen milky-white passion plays and preachy political garbage that claim to be working for the greater good. Nobody here is advocating for that either, I'm sure. Or, for that matter, howling abortions of supposed artistry that are "all about the energy, man." No one believes we need more of that.

I'm saying, I said (poorly), that the individual vision is necessary, essential. But that that vision alone is not enough.

I am also saying that the spark, which you will maintain, both hands over your eyes, is only from within the individual creator, and not from anywhere else (and which cannot be found with both hands and a set of calipers anywhere at all, but which anyone can identify when it's missing) is essential. But which alone is useless and an excuse for the worst of excesses.

That's all I meant. Sorry to have mis-communicated. Thanks for keeping a blog where people can talk about ideas like this, even if you don't agree with them.

Freeman said...

Glad to have as many voices heard as possible. Thanks for your perspective.