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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, November 23, 2009

The arbitrary choice?

You're watching a traditional play about something like politics. A politician is meeting with a journalist off-the record. The journalist agrees to call the prominent politician a "well positioned source" and commits to anonymity otherwise. Then, slowly it becomes clear that there's more than just fund-raising shenanigans involved in this story. This political champion appears to have done some truly terrible things.

Throughout the fun little scene, the actor playing the journalist keeps clicking her pen. It's looks like a nervous gesture at first, but the longer you watch, the more you realize it seems almost like a...signal? Or even something deeper. The actor is making a point of the pen's importance in the scene perhaps. You notice, with the clicks, what is written down and what, pointedly, is not.

What you don't know is why this is actually happening. Is it because the director believes that the pen of a journalist is symbolic of something or other? Or, did the director just say... "You know what would look cool? Click the pen. I dunno. Click it after each third word that you say."

Is it possible that an arbitrary decision by the creative team and a decision with some complex thought behind it...can look exactly the same? And does it make a difference, really, to the audience member? Does how a decision is arrived at inform what we see?

Can we sense the arbitrary? Or do we just assume that everything we see onstage was put there with a rigorous sense of purpose?

10 comments:

isaac butler said...

Good question, Matt!
When I use the word arbitrary when discussing a moment in a show, I always mean a moment like the one you're talking about that doesn't work for me. I don't think it's always possible to tell whether something was intentional or not, and sometimes unintentional moments are really quite wonderful. When I talk about something being arbitrary, I mean a moment that felt like someone just going with a whim and that whim not really working or having anything to do with what's going on.

Freeman said...

I would say that what you're describing is something that "felt arbitrary." I hear that. "That felt arbitrary to me." But if a choice that was arbitrarily made seems to work, is it less arbitrary?

It seems like arbitrary, in that case, doesn't really mean what the choice was. It's a derogatory term for a certain type of moment that feels "off."

Joshua James said...

It could just be fun with props ... some actors really love their props.

In the short video I just posted on my blog, the two actors are really into their bottles of beer and the cigarette ... to the point that they rarely look at each other ... the cigarette and beer seems much more important than need be.

Me, when I'm out, I rarely stare at primarily at my drink ...

But props are fun for actors.

Freeman said...

Josh -

Too true. Still, I was more trying to show that if you watch something on-stage, and you weren't privy to the process, arbitrary choices and ones made intentionally can look the same.

DPS said...

Now you're speaking my language!

A couple of years ago I saw a show staged in the Frying Pan -- the lightship docked out at Chelsea Piers. It was a creepy little play, and bits of the evening were punctuated by the sound of the ship settling, or by the waves tilting the whole space a little more violently than at other moments. I kept wondering if there were people up on deck actually manipulating this effect because quite often it fit well within the context of the scene.

Of course, we probably shouldn't be thinking these things if we're really drawn into the story (I'll admit, I wasn't.)

So I would offer that moments we perceive as being arbitrary tend to be those moments that pull us out of experiencing the story being told and into our heads, or into THE WAY the story is being told. And that COULD be an intentional choice by the creators, but if it doesn't pay off in some way in the bigger picture, then we can never know for sure.

Personally, there's nothing I appreciate more than having a reaction to something that pulls me out of that world -- "why is she doing that?" -- and then having a character, a split second later ask, "Why are you doing that?" It means that I'm in confident hands, for one thing. (Manipulative, but confident.) And two, it means that I actually bought it from the actor. They didn't telegraph it. I didn't see it coming.

In theatre, it's tough to work with those moments because you only get that experience once (usually). You can't go back a page. So there has to be some sort of indication of intent for an audience to really buy it. Or, you have to be someone who believes that much of life is arbitrary to begin with.

One of the things I love about David Lynch's movies is being able to go back over and over his films and find the meaning within what looks arbitrary. Although, that's a slightly different experience since he's creating what amount to living puns -- actions that have several different layers of meaning, depending on the context.

Ramble, ramble, ramble...

Joshua James said...

In the very first production of my play 2 VERY DANGEROUS PEOPLE SHARING 1 SMALL SPACE TOGETHER, which was done at NADA, there was an obvious mouse (or rat) rummaging around the apartment set ... added to the ambiance ...

Later in the run, someone pounded on the front door (at Nada, the set was at the front, so when a show started they locked the front door) and my actor goes "Who is it?"

"I'm looking for Harriet!"

"She's not here. Go away!"

Wasn't intentional, but I'm sure there were people in the audience who thought it was.

silent nic@knight said...

Hi Matt,

You keep rephrasing your question.

How about this:
As long as the arrow hits its target, does the archer even matter?

Anyway, I've been thinking about it.

Thanks for the thought.

Freeman said...

Hi Nick -

Thanks for the thoughts. Good stuff. I'm definitely elbowing my way through the question, and trying to figure out exactly what I mean.

Warfield said...

Here's poet-extraordinaire, Tony Hoagland weighing in:
(This is from a 2006 essay in Poetry Magazine on
what he sees happening in contemporary poetry.)

Check out the last line.

Hoagland writes:

Of course, dissociative doesn’t necessarily mean detached, or empty, or even hyperintellectual. “Prufrock” is one example of a dissociated yet passionate poem. In various poetic hands, the dissociated-improvisatory mode can represent vivaciousness of self, or uncontainable passion, or the fractured wash of modernity, or an aesthetic allegiance to randomness. The intention of the maker—if we can recognize what it is—makes all the difference.

-From "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment" http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=177773

Cristine said...

Thanks for the thoughts. Great stuff.....