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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, April 03, 2006

Speaking Truthfully, Speaking Artfully

Recently reading Boo's blog... it occurred to me that it can be hard to make the distinction between theatre that speaks with raw honesty, and theatre that is artfully created and expressed.

I actually don't think this is a matter of preference... I think we encourage each other to speak with raw honesty, and then prefer the artful in practice. But that's, like everything, just off the top of my head.

Speaking truthfully and speaking artfully are not, automatically, the same thing (as I said in Boo's comments section).

Should they be separated?

Are they inevitably so?

Is art too coy and dry without the 'honesty?'

Or is honesty sometimes just another word for self-indulgence, and the only true art found in the 'craft?' Do we need to say something we believe in to create something truly beautiful?

Oh, and for the record...I have no idea.

I just know that I went to an acting school that encouraged quite a few of us to breathe and express the fire in our bellies and it made Pinter quite impossible to perform. I did, though, once tear up from hyperventillation.

I was praised for my honesty. That was many moons ago.

These might seem like rudimentary questions...but as they say

"The old questions, the old answers...there's nothing like them!"

What is this difference between expressing your feelings without any self-awareness and making good art? Is there a difference?

My comments section is yours.


MattJ said...

good question.

In undergrad I had a playwriting professor who thoroughly maintained that as a writer, you have to talk about that which is personal, emotional, and intense inside of you. But he held a strong conviction that you had to wait a long time to get critical distance from the emotion.

I don't agree with him at all. I view that emotional core as the raw material for the craft to do just that, "craft." Craft doesn't mean creating out of nowhere, it means taking already existing entities and shaping them into artistic expression.

I'll never forget this post by Zay Amsbury:

"Pull out that one thing you don’t talk about. That one thing that’s there, somewhere, in your personal history, your sexual fantasies, your family stories.

I’m serious.

Find it.

Your spot of total ignorance. Your absolute cruelty. Your perfect fantasy.

Write about that. Force your way through.

Do it now."

The truth is inherent in the raw emotional material and the craft is the art.

Anonymous said...

It's tricky, because there's a lot of wiggle room around the definiton of truth, especially when it comes to the expression of it. What's "true" for me (and for anyone else, I'll argue), comes through the veil of my experience and through the filter of my self-awareness. I can only express whatever truth I am aware of. And while we may encourage people to speak with raw honesty, how many of them actually do?

This relates shockingly well to the show I just finished doing, in which the character I played had limited honesty, or limited self-awareness (even though she claimed to be self-aware at the end of the play) and she could only express what was within her own limits. (for example, she talked about how her alcoholic father hit her one night, but it was ok b/c the guys she goes out with like the scar it gave her. Oversimplification of my point, but gives you a gist)

And it was up to me, as the actor, to find the raw emotion (or the truth) behind what she was saying. Not that it wasn't already supplied in the writing -- the playwright had structured it quite well. But in many ways, real honesty became the obstacle for the character, which then ratcheted the artfulness up a notch. (clearly, I'm not the one gifted with the language)

And while my playwright used astonishingly beautiful language, I think there's a danger to over-artful language usage (or overly intentional language usage). It becomes a style. And while styles work for certain playwrights, they don't work for all of them.

I guess my overall thought is that actors should be the fire-bellied creed, and the playwrights should give us the structure and limitations in which to play. Because for me, if I can't find the truth in what I'm saying, I can't justify saying it out loud in front of a bunch of people.

Alison Croggon said...

I think art should be truthful. But it really ought not to be sincere.

DL said...

Matt, I think a lot of people , esp. in our culture, confuse truth and emotion. People think that if we are being emotional , we are being truthful, which isn't always the case. And vice versa.

Like the other commenter said above, truth is a definition which varies greatly and it's vary hard for people to agree on one.

Do you mean honesty ? Or do you mean sticking to one's ethics ? or do you mean organic ? If you started by giving your own definition, it might be easier to have this conversation because you ask great questions here.

Anonymous said...

Why must this be a necessary Dichotomy? What about truth precludes it from being artfully crafted?

If you mean forcing an authentic emotion, thought or experience into a form inappropriate to its expression, then yes I certainly see the tension. But if the artistic craft finds the form necessary to express the truth than there should be no conflict.

DL said...

I completely agree with Lucas. Yes !

Freeman said...

This is interesting stuff.

To respond to Boo and also Lucas, I would say two things:

That when I say Truth I do so intentionally. If I were to say Honesty, I'm sure someone would ask me if I mean "truth." We often use these glitteringly general capital letter terms. They're fun, but often bring us into a question of semantics.

One might as Alison, for example, what she means by "sincere."

Also, I don't believe there is a "tension" between the Truth and Art.

What I'm more referencing, in my experience, is a tendency for acting classes, writing workshops and the like, to push performers and actors more and more inward and to try to make them uncover what they're hiding, break free of constraints, speak without hesitation, go for "truth" or "honesty" or "the natural voice."

This (in some programs and schools of thought) becomes a measure of success. An actor speaks a line and no one can find a hint of "dishonesty." Discounted, in that equation, is all talk of artfulness, size of performance, appropriateness in the storytelling...the craft of it.

To some, the craft is about accessing emotion and showing the depth of your ability to make a case that you are "telling the truth" and to be believed.

In an inherently false thing (actors on a stage) is this a realistic paradigm?

MattJ said...

a realistic paradigm: nope.

a raw, corporeal paradigm: yes

Freeman said...

For me, I think finding something true in any piece of writing and/or performance is, of course, important. But it's one piece of a larger puzzle, not the singular goal. There is so much more to the creation of any piece than that.

I always say, for example, that an actor can give a performance that speaks from their heart, that relates directly to their experience, that is as close to real as it's possible for them to get. If no one in the audience sees it or hears it (If they don't speak up and make sure they are blocked to be seen) the performance doesn't matter.

MattJ said...

and isn't that way we have a "craft" in the first place? Lucas is right, they do work hand in hand. This is what I was saying before with the raw material. Theatre can only work within a set of rules and limitations. And those rules are the reason why we can continue to teach a sort of craft. Of course, it is worth noting that this craft implies the consumer. Which is why so many of the avant-garde movements in the 70's and 80's were called "performance art," or "happenings," rather than "theatre." Because we didn't know how to talk about what we saw outside of the craft.

Anonymous said...

inherently false thing

The question of artifice is an interesting one. But even artifice does not preclude truth telling.

I was just talking with someone today about puppet theatre. There is a company in San Francisco Lunatique Fantastique that does puppet work about serious harcore subjects. The artifice of the puppets allow them to be more truthful than most actors on stage.

In the same manner that comic books can deal with an issue more directly than prose. Maus or Persepolis are both great examples of that.

But I think there is a way in which the kind of quest for authenticity that you describe can to an extent become inauthentic when it fails to recognize the artifice and parameters of the medium.

Duchamp's famous work is after all titled 'Fountain' and not "Toilet." Contextualizing the authentic, be it object or experience, is necessary for its inner truth to really shine forth.