Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Open Here

Okay, you’re a writer. And it’s the Monday night for PlayGround and you’re sitting in the audience watching a show that does not have your piece in it. Yep, that’s right, this month, like many months, your 10-minute play has been passed over. And now you’re there to see what has been picked.

Depending on the kind of person you are, the kind of writer you are, the kind of audience member you can be, this will either be a good evening or a very difficult one. Because you will either sit there and ask, “I wonder what’s going to happen tonight?” Or you will fold your arms as a small thought burns through your mind: “I wonder what's going to happen tonight. Let’s just see.”

One way is the way of generosity. The other is the way of what I’ll call self-serving anti-curiosity.

And you don’t need to be a writer at PlayGround to find yourself at this fork in the road. You can just as easily be sitting in an audience at any theatre in the Bay Area, or the country, facing the exact same two choices - whoever you may be. After all, as an actor, you can be thinking: “I would’ve made better choices.” As a director, you might think, “I would’ve staged it in a more interesting way.” And, even as an audience member, you might think, “I could’ve thought of that myself.” And while all these things can always true, they’re quite simply unhelpful. And, for me, anyway, when I’m feeling that way, I usually need to do something else, because theatre is not for the unkind or the small-hearted.

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I have an MFA in playwriting. As a student, I was lucky enough to work side by side with 5 other very talented writers. We were taught using sense memory exercises based on Fornes' work. These exercises were done by all of us, every week. That is to say, in-class writing.

Honestly, when I learned this was to be the way of the program, I balked. I had a lot of professional experience already as a writer. I felt "writing in public" was a big waste. My reluctance wasn't helped by the dictum that we were to type exactly what we'd written down each week and bring it to the following class where it was to be read out loud by the playwrights before the next in-class exercise was started.

After just one week of it, I was ready to quit. It was only because I'd come such a long way to do the MFA that I decided to give it a try - and not just a college try. An honest-to-god "surrender to it" commitment to see if it would work. Or how it would work. Or what it would do. No preconceptions. No judgments until after it was over - which, in this case, meant sticking with it a year.

One of the ideas behind the exercise was, of course, to just get us writing. Another was to get us to trust our first instincts in writing. But along the way, there was an unintentional side-effect. I began to see how many different ways there were to solve a problem that differed from the path I took. Not that I always loved what I was hearing. But since we were discouraged from critiquing work in part due to its truly embryonic nature, I searched for ways to listen differently.

I found myself asking questions instead. Why were they doing that? What's happening underneath? What's the rhythm saying?

It lead to an openness that was useful when working in a collaboration class in which we were tasked with writing a short play a week and fully producing it the following week. The work was always wet and fresh. But it also came with a formal weekly critique. You'd think it would be a free-for all, but the professor, a director, created an atmosphere where questions were asked about how to discover the rules of a piece without overanalyzing it and trying to make it something it wasn't. And since I knew what kind of work this professor/director created, I also knew that there was plenty of work that she never would've made and that aesthetically rubbed her the wrong way. But it never showed. Never. And it became our job to arrive at the theatre prepared to experience, not as experts, but as participants who were privileged, honored, respected. It was a pretty amazing thing to be part of.

It was – and is – an openness.

It’s an openness that leads to more interesting conversations about the work than we currently get from the critics in most of the press where aesthetic opinions about what is good and bad is often being pushed. (Just take a look at any Isherwood review in the Times.)

It’s an openness to ideas and methods that are different from your own. An openness that requires understanding that if you have an idea of what you think theatre should be, you need to set it aside long enough to see what other people think theatre should be. (Or perhaps any piece of art for that matter.)

Theatre is very hard to do well, under even the best circumstances. It's a difficult way of life and a hard choice to make when everyone you know in law or technology or medicine is making 6 figures and buying nice coffee tables. But we shouldn’t make things harder for ourselves with ideas about what should be on stage and what shouldn't be. Or why we think it’s important to take stances against this kind of genre or that. Or feel we need to justify what we think is good by rejecting what is offered on any particular night.

Or put a little differently: I know I certainly need to do my best to remember that, whether I’m chosen or not, when I sit down in the theatre - any theatre, and the lights come down, the choice about how difficult or interesting the evening is going to be is as much my responsibility as anyone else's. Maybe more.

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