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.
- 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.