April 30, 2008

Beyond Aristotle

Devilvet brought up something interesting in the comments on this blog. He said:
"Skill" and "trust" are codifications meaning the artist will adhere to Aristotlean Dramaturgy and that if any real "challenge" is issued to the audience rest assured it will not be a challenge to notions of content or narrative. I may challenge their notion of who is a worthy protagonist or an audience's preconceived notions of situations so long as the narrative form is adhered to.

Implied with this is also the idea that to experiment with or disregard Aristotlean Dramaturgy is ulitmately a betrayal commited between artist and audience.

That to do anything other than ArisDram approach is disrepectful.

That one can not attempt to innovate or have an auteurish POV without implying that their audience is beneath them.

The idea is that anyone who doesn't acknowledge "skill" level must have an inherit disreagrd and contempt for their audience...

In short it becomes the demonization of the avant-garde.
The quote was taken from a conversation about another matter altogether, but it does make me wonder. As a budding avant-garde playwright, this means quite a lot to me since many of the so-called rules of playwriting (and even script format) hails from that Aristotelian perspective. I think enough ink and bandwidth has been used to discuss why Aristotle's ideas work and why relying on Poetics to judge a script or a performance can harm rather than help. What I don't see discussed so much is how, in the absence of Aristotelian "rules," we can evaluate avant-garde texts and performances. How do we determine was is and isn't "stage-worthy" when a piece has a style and content that is anything but An American Family in Crisis (Let's not get into works that have some far-out ideas about character and plot)?

Speaking of myself as a playwright, I've been more often dismayed at my peers' lack of sensitivity and imagination than any shortages in budget or time. When I say sensitivity, I'm not talking about playing nice. It's more like an openness, a receptivity, a heightened awareness of what goes on beneath the surface of things. I mean an appreciation for mystery, a comfort with ambiguity and paradox, the ability to enjoy the stillness between movements and the silence between sounds.

Let me give you an example. At my local playwrights' group, I presented a draft of a scene I'm working on. These are the kinds of comments I got: my scene should be a screenplay; there's not enough dialogue; it would be very expensive to produce; etc. With the exception of the two people who picked up on the Noh and dance-like elements, nobody got it. I can deal with that. What unsettled me most was that nobody asked me any questions before going into critique mode.

I. Hate. That.

If there's something that makes me want to grind my teeth to the gums, it's when people don't understand something and refuse to admit it. When it comes to art, especially writing and performance, I know a lot of my impressions and reactions are subjective. Being a misfit and outcast has taught me that a lot of things are matters of taste. I usually don't think something is good or bad. I only like it or don't like it. Then I think about why something attracts or repels (or worse, bores) me. From there I might even expand my horizons and seek out different things to read or watch that does more of what I like or "corrects" something I didn't like. It's how I found my way into a lot of interests. I have a tendency to collect things I like, not intentionally, but it just happens that way. So when I come across a text or a performance, I often have a frame of reference, but when I don't . . . I admit it.

When it comes to theater, I must be some sort of mutant because I assume two things:

1. Theater is not a passive medium. As a member of the audience, it is incumbent upon me to engage with and understand the material on its own terms. I need to let go of my biases and assumptions to truly appreciate what I am witnessing on the page or up on stage.

2. The artists know what they're doing. If I'm confused or alienated it's because I'm not paying attention. It is my responsibility to understand the work, not on the artists to shove it down my feeding tube. In a feedback environment, I must endeavor to ask more questions and make fewer statements.

But getting back to my point: What can we do to improve our receptiveness to avant-garde work? How do we critique avant-garde pieces? Aside from the ubiquitous money and space issues, how to we choose which ones to perform?


  1. "How do we choose which ones to perform?"

    The answer is both easy and hard. The answer is to do the piece that speaks to you the most. The answer is that without a rule set so ingrained into the collective psyche that it appears almost essential and organic, there is not so much opportunity for consensus.

    The answer is a fair dose of patience with those who dont get it or dont get you...not patience out of a place of higher moral standing (as some half baked critics will allude to...see comments on Scott Walters post yesterday)...but the same sort of patience you extend to someone with whom you want to share something or communicate. Watch observe and learn how to let go of the folks who just want to ostracize you and the folks who really dont get it but want to...they are out there.

    In the end, remember that even if you were to suddenly abandon your avant aspirations...it very well might not make your journey any easier. The feelings you have are the very same ones all artists have...hell even the most successful ones. All artists at one time or another feel misunderstood or marganialized.

    So, find what you like...figure out why you like it...and then pursue that sort of creation whilst being as open as possible to as many people as possible.

    I'm going to say something that sounds like i'm eating crow (I'm not)...Scott talks about "skill" and "trust"...I issued warnings about those notions...that doesn't mean that they are totally absent from the avant landscape. It is just they are harder to find in the avant landscape, and once one thinks they have it, they cant always get someone else not on their same path to agree (i.e. that whole notion of "That's all fine and well for you, but deep down in the bowels of my soul...I know I'm more caring, sincere, and respectful of the common man than you self serving avantists could ever be"

    (To Devilvet, in whiny voice)
    But that's haaaaaaaaaard.

  3. To live is to suffer...at least you can suffer at something you love


  4. First of all, I just wanted to say hi, and I'm enjoying reading you. I think you ask some excellent questions!

    Secondly, to address this particular post...
    But getting back to my point: What can we do to improve our receptiveness to avant-garde work? How do we critique avant-garde pieces? Aside from the ubiquitous money and space issues, how to we choose which ones to perform?

    I think a very Aristotelian idea can still be applied to avant garde work: that of purgation. You mentioned that you know when something attracts or repels (or bores) you. In the simplest possible terms, my feeling is that a work that attracts or repels does so because it draws out a particular emotion, it gets at that idea of the audience's "purgation." The work that simply bores, that's my first clue as to choosing what avant garde work NOT to do. Because it doesn't have that element.

    All art is subjective, and I, personally, sometimes even notice my feelings about a particular work changing if I get a chance to read more about it, or even better, to discuss it with someone else. One of the artists, the curator/producer, another audience member... The people who dismiss all avant garde work out of hand without taking the time to process an individual work aren't contributing to our creative landscape. I frankly wonder what they're doing in a playwrights' group at all. They might be much happier (and more productive) if they instead formed a book club to read and discuss the classics. If it weren't for the brave souls willing to put new and different stuff out there, we as audiences would still have nothing to see except the same repertoire Aristotle was watching back in his day.

  5. Laura,

    Welcome to my blog!

    You do raise some interesting points. I really like the purgation concept, but to go a bit deeper, to what extent is it possible to distinguish between the quality of the script, the quality of the performance, and the receptivity of the audience?

    BTW, I took a peek at your blog. How intriguing!

  6. That's a tough question, because art appreciation is all so subjective. I still think the best place to begin is your immediate gut reaction - as dv says, "Do the piece that speaks to you most." Because ultimately, if you are committed to a piece, your heart and soul are more likely to show through, and heart and soul is always more contagious than sheer skill without personal engagement. At least, that's my personal opinion. I think at least the quality of the performance can be judged on the merits of commitment. Quality of the script and receptivity of the audience are more difficult to determine no matter what you're producing. I think you just have to make your best educated guess based on what speaks most effectively to you, and what you have seen succeed with audiences in the past.

    I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and I just read a section about how people can sometimes react negatively to the unfamiliar in the moment just because it's unfamiliar, but then discover that they actually love it. I'll just quote here (he's using the Aeron chair as an example): "With the Aeron, the effort to collect consumers' first impressions failed for a slightly different reason: the people reporting their first impressions misinterpreted their own feelings. They said they hated it. But what they really meant was that the chair was so new and unusual that they weren't used to it... The problem is that buried among the things that we hate is a class of products that are in that category only because they are weird. They make us nervous. They are sufficiently different that it takes us some time to understand that we actually like them." He mentions that the same thing has happened in marketing testing for food products, musical artists, and TV shows like "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." So I think this could apply to theatre, as well.

    Maybe the best we can do is to follow our own instincts as artists, give our best, and try things out. Throw anything that moves us up against the wall and see what sticks. Agnes de Mille said, "The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark." Most artists fail most of the time, but their occasional brilliant moments are the ones we remember.

  7. Laura,

    I think that's interesting, and it goes hand-in-hand with a lot of artists who are "ahead of their time" when it comes to their work.

    Alas, I think that may be the case for me, although "hopelessly out of touch" or "just plain weird" would describe me better at the moment.

  8. I'm working my way slowly through your posts.

    You wrote:

    "But getting back to my point: What can we do to improve our receptiveness to avant-garde work? How do we critique avant-garde pieces? Aside from the ubiquitous money and space issues, how to we choose which ones to perform?"

    I found one possible answer in your post:

    ". . . nobody asked me any questions . . ."

    Talking to the author, and to anyone involved in other productions of the work, and asking questions, might be a place to start. You might even ask "What questions would you like people to ask?"

    Now I'm asking you, what questions would you like people to ask about your work? Or what questions could I ask, that might help me appreciate your work?

  9. Jim,

    Thanks for the thoughtful feedback. You might want to take a look at this post to get a better idea of what I'm going for.

  10. Thank you, Bard. That will help a lot.

    Meanwhile, I've thought some more about the questions raised in this post. Here's another idea: to improve your receptiveness, choose some of the pieces you're most tempted to discount, and try them out, in make believe. Act out the process of producing them. Go through the motions of finding performers and whatever else you do, and act out the performance, playing each one of the characters in turn, preferably on a real stage or in whatever environment where it might be performed. Then act out being in the audience.