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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.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Helen Shaw on the Amish Project

Helen Shaw, a regular contributor to Time Out New York (who, in the interest of full-disclosure, has given me reviews that made me duck and cover), gives a review to The Amish Project that I think warrants some thought. It's insightful and complimentary towards the work and the performer, but takes center aim at Jessica Dickey's disclosed liberties with her subjects.

The question is a very good one: is Dickey being unethical or taking shortcuts? Or are all paths to good drama justified? Shaw herself says that Dickey's craft made her "weep" and that The Amish Project "artfully asks serious questions about our limited capacity for charity, an exercise that spares us from the piece’s unremitting sadness." But Shaw doesn't let her reaction to the material keep her from asking key questions about how the piece was made.

It's at moments like these that I find star systems so frustrating. The review is three stars, so incredibly reductive. Shaw here says "This work is moving and powerful, but its origins make it suspect." I'm trying to think of another work that's got similar ethical issues. Or if it would have been preferable for Dickey to remove ALL real characters and fictionalize the entire event. Or if the blending of real and fiction is somehow truly experimental. Or if it is, at its core, a way to have her cake and eat it too: a trick of the playwright to fill in the holes in her experience with her the force of her imagination.

I think about theatro-journalism like Anna Deavere Smith's work, but wonder... isn't there control of the material there too? Even though the words are exact, the imitations perfect... the editing of this one-person documentary style is a form of control? What we see is carefully and certainly politically constructed. But if Smith added, even with total disclosure, a single fictional character into the work, wouldn't the entire enterprise fail? Or would it, in a way, allow the voice of the writer to be less tricky, less hidden? Perhaps what Dickey's done is just remove the pretense of objectivity. Or unlocked her ability to comment on the material by refusing to marry a play to a literal re-telling of the facts.

Has anyone reading this seen the production? If so, were you troubled by what Shaw makes note of? What concerns you about the mixture of truth and fiction? Or is there a limit? Is the use of both, in equal measures, more challenging than a completely new fictionalized world, or the pretense of pure objectivity?

Personally, I find the idea of cracking open history with fiction exciting. I like the idea of putting the audience into a place of discomfort this way. But, I can't be sure Dickey's trying to actually cause discomfort, or simply pave the way to an emotionally powerful work, by adding elements that serve her purpose.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Kyle said...

I can see how the word "project" in the title could be misleading at first glance, but I don't think there's any intention to misrepresent the origins of this piece. I do think Ms. Shaw is putting too much emphasis on dramaturgy at the expense of writing. I think the "liberties" that Ms. Dickey supposedly takes are more properly understood as "license". That's not a sleazy dodge around the facts; it's part of what art is. If this were the news instead of the theater, then journalistic standards would be relevant. But since this story happens on a stage, there's no way Ms. Dickey can mis-tell it by using her imagination, or even inventing details and characters completely.

I saw "Amish Project" last week -- for the second time. (I also reviewed it for NYTheatre.com when it played in last year's Fringe.) I'm on the record as being a fan of Ms. Dickey and Ms. Sunde. The show is great and deserves to be seen. Now, get out there! Go!

DPS said...

I think the only reason there's a question of Dickey being "unethical" is because the events she's examining are the recent past (2006). Was Shakespeare unethical in portraying Lady Macbeth as a murder-mongering monster, or Richard III as a self-made villain? Some historians think so, but it isn't so much a matter of ethics when there are hundreds of years in between.

To me, it seems as though Dickey is exploring the universal humanity in the events themselves. Isn't that what we hope art will strive for?

James said...

I've written an article about Jessica Dickey and her creative process in creating "The Amish Project." You can read it here: http://www.simsscoop.com/blog/archives/654.