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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.

Friday, January 25, 2008

What I've seen recently

Have you ever been in a conversation that went like this?

"I just saw this play. I loved it."

"Really? I didn't like it. I was disappointed in it."


"The last scene from the end...I just thought it didn't work."

I have conversations like that all the time. From both sides. I assume you have as well. I think I'd like to avoid having conversations such as these for as long as I am able.

I've just recently seen two entirely different and much heralded productions: Happy Days with Fiona Shaw at BAM, and Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll on Broadway. I've also seen Cloverfield and There Will Be Blood at the movies. A whole lot of very different work, with very different goals, to take in and respond to.

In thinking about how to share my responses, or even if I should, with those that read this blog, something a little more important to me personally has bubbled up.

I've noticed that I approach almost everything I see as a sort of amateur critic or reviewer, even when I am under no obligation to respond with that narrow a lens. I'm not paid to reduce my emotional responses to something communicable to an audience (even those who read this blog); I'm not arrogant enough to think I am providing critical feedback to other artists who will benefit from my advice; I am not functioning as a consumer advocate.

So why, when I think about plays and films I've seen, do I often sound like I'm writing a list of their pros and cons? Why do I tend to say "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." Why do I say "It was good" or "It was bad?" Why do I even use that scale? I have a four star rating system embedded in my brain, and it I feels like it's crippled (in some ways) my ability to involve myself with what I watch, and worse, explore what I've seen after the fact, when the real exploration takes place.

For example... it would be easy to say Happy Days is marvelous and give it a cursory seal of approval with all the trite expressions that go along with it. The flip side is that it would also be possible to discuss it from a distance, to "weigh in" on its merits, to assess it. (Was this 'as Beckett intended it?' Was it too funny, not funny enough, how did you like the sound design, etc, etc. )

The truth is, while watching Happy Days, I got that feeling that always drew me to Beckett's work to begin with. I felt as if I were sharing a secret joke with someone, and as if in each moment, the joke would transform. In one moment, I'm looking at a woman whose husband is having a sort of half-witted experience with his own genitals, and she's buried from the waist up. Cruel, unfair, typical. I'm seeing a portrait of a certain type of marriage, maybe. Then, I'm seeing general plight in any life... the rituals, the self-restraint, the lack of control, the inner strength that you have no choice but to find.

Then, I'm hearing the increasingly painful and, somehow, inspiring humanness of Winnie. How she finds certain impossibly unfair things...wonderful. How I'm pitying her and falling in love with her and I'm laughing at her and feeling a sense that somehow, I will be her or her husband or someone I know will be, or that I am already.

And I thought about global warming.

And I thought about Iraq.

And I thought about my grandmother, and how she died, in her attic.

I was also sitting in the balcony. I was with one of my oldest friends. It was cold outside. It wasn't the first production of Happy Days that I'd seen, but it was the first time my friend had seen it. All of this factored into my personal experience while watching Shaw play Winnie.

Anything else, the merits of the approach, the set design, only matter insofar as they affect how I was feeling when I watched it. What it gave to me as a piece of art (that is to say, an expression of something true and beautiful, produced to inspire in me feelings that I do not have when I am not watching it) is all that matters in the end. The rest is vanity or "making conversation" or trying to sound expert or imitating the newspapers.

I have seen productions that did not make me feel all the things Happy Days, as a play, is capable of making me feel. This version, at BAM, was evocative of what I've described. That's about all that I need to focus my attention on.

I guess what I'm after is... I am trying to give myself permission to not externalize my responses, and also, when externalizing, to not couch my responses in terms of criticism or review. It's a bad habit, and worthy of breaking.

I hope that makes some sort of sense.

Onwards and upwards.


Anonymous said...

But other than that, what did you think of the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

isaac butler said...

i just wanted to say this is one of my favorite posts you've ever done.

Jaime said...

I like this post a lot. There's a lot of theatre I come out of with a "That was good" or "That was bad." But the best theatre is the stuff I can't, and don't want to, reduce to explanation.

August Schulenburg said...

This is all true if you view criticism as an act of giving feedback to artists; or as consumer advocacy; or as a reduction of your emotional experience in order to make it communicable. I am more inclined look at that critical impulse as part of our growth as artists in a community of other artists. It is a less a question of good vs bad, and more a question of how and why something works. It is thrilling to me when a critic, blogger, or friend reveals something about our shared experience of a play that I'd felt but not articulated. Being able to articulate parts of that experience doesn't diminish the experience of the whole, and when I share that with others, I do so assuming I am the authority only of my experience of the play, and not the play itself. While no one should feel an obligation to 'review' everything they see in the traditional format of a review, the act of critically engaging with a play you're passionate about is as much an act of love as simply declaring you love it; and attempting to articulate how a good play works, and communicating those thoughts to others, seem to me an essential part of growing as an artist. But maybe you're talking about the need to find things wrong with a play you've seen, and that I can agree with. Wrong or right are boring. How and why are interesting.

Freeman said...

Folks -

Thanks for the thoughts. August, I certainly think you make an excellent point. I would say that interacting with the work, discussing it and thinking about it, is important. What I'm after, to refine a bit, is precisely what you're saying... stop thinking in terms of a final verdict (good movie, bad movie, good play, bad play, liked it, didn't like it) and start allowing myself to have a reaction that excludes that sort of language. Just, if for no other reason, than to flex some new muscles.

Zack Calhoon said...

Bravo. What a wonderful post and inspirational way to challenge oneself to try to be more open to performance. Because it is only through openness to it that, the form will be truly allowed to evolve.