January 6, 2009

What does it mean? What does it MEAN?!

Why are we so reluctant to discuss the meaning of our work?

We have conversations about the meanings of art all the time while making it and yet... we get reluctant to share these conversations with our audiences.

Some of this reluctance is understandable to me. You don't want to dominate someone's understanding of the work, and culturally we are trained to accept an artists' interpretation of their own work as paramount. Also, audiences/viewers can themselves chafe at the dominance of the artists' viewpoint. I am particularly hostile to directors notes that tell me how to feel think and respond to what I'm about to see. But surely there's a difference between telling someone before they see something how they should respond to it and discussing it with them, right?

Which gets me back to an old saw, one i deploy all the time and I see my fellow artists deploy: I want to make art that asks interesting/difficult/meaningful questions rather than giving answers. Which is something I do agree with, but at the same time as artists, certainly we come up with at least a few answers to the questions posed by the work we do, even if we don't put those answers into the work itself.

I think the sticky wicket is this: How do we discuss our own interpretation of a work in a way that invites others into the dialogue, to have their own interpretations of it, to approach it in their own way and derive meaning from it, even if we (strongly) disagree with their interpretations or the meaning they derive from it? How do we lead those conversations? How do we use our expertise (we are experts in our own art, after all) without becoming dominant authorities?
Oh, just load it up while you're at it, why don'tcha, Isaac?

If I'm quite honest with myself, my reluctance to talk about meaning in my work is simple - I really don't know.

There, I said it.

I don't know what my work means. If I did, I'd rather just write an essay or something and get right to the point instead of dancing around it and being deliberately obtuse.

But the fact of the matter is I'm more interested in creating an experience instead of choosing or laying out an interpretive thrust for the play. To be frank, that's why I write for theater. I know I'm supposed to spend my energy on story and character and what not, but I'm afraid that's just not what I do.

This current play attempts to create a sense of enchantment - a sense or intuition of a deeper, richer reality than is apparent on the surface. It's a pretty nuanced thing to go for, so I'm not sure if I'm explaining it right. But there it is.


  1. Yes, richer. I would have said that, too, if I had thought of it.

  2. You are so right on about this, RVC.

    If you create a work that means something - that resonates in one direction only, to the exclusion of all other meanings and interpretations...

    Well, than that's just gonna be appreciated by one person, isn't it?

  3. I would like to know whatever you can tell me about how the idea came to you for a play about Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc., and how ideas come to you about what to put in it. Can you tell me anything about how it it started, and how it evolves? Do you look for ideas, and if so where? If they just come to you without looking for them, do you have any ideas about where they come from? Also, did you look up and read various versions of the fairy tales after you started working on it? Were you already familiar with less known versions, before you got the idea for the script?

  4. I'm not sure how I came up with the idea for my play. I believe he first flash of inspiration came after watching "The Banquet" in Shanghai.

    As danio can tell you, my works don't so much evolve as undergo metamorphosis. Each permutation drastically changes from the ones before it.

    I don't actively look for ideas because I've found that the result comes off as artificial. When I allow myself to be receptive to whatever promptings erupt from my spirit or subconscious, my work has a richness that I enjoy.

    I was familiar with the lesser-known versions of fairy tales, but I still like to refresh things every now and then. I also like reading up on "updated" versions of the tales, especially as told by Angela Carter and Anne Sexton.

  5. I've always been fascinated by your "that's just the way I write" assertions. Do you believe you have no choice -- that your approach is fixed, unchangeable? Or is "that's just the way I write" an assertion of will, or stubbornness, of an unwillingness to allow other voices into your self-ness? I am asking these questions not as bait, but out of curiosity, because you seem to think so much differently than I.

  6. Scott,

    I'd probably say it's a bit of both, although probably more the latter than the former. At this stage in my life, taking in too much input hampers the process rather than advances it. Sort of like how you need a filter to keep water pure, or clearing the hearth to make a fire there. At this point in my life, it's more about honoring my own voice and vision rather than letting in too much noise. In the past (and sometimes even now), I tend to undermine my own uniqueness by focusing too much of my energy on what other people are doing. This doesn't mean I ignore everyone else, but when I'm in the creative phase, I tend to be hermit-like. Only later, once I see what I've come up with, do I go outward to see what I have in common (or what makes me separate from) others.

    It's not just writing either. It's also about work, life decisions, and even what clothes I wear.