April 28, 2009

Richard Nelson's speech

Read it here. (H/t Isaac at Parabasis.)

The whole thing is worth reading, but here are some gems:

  • The profession of playwright, the role of the playwright in today’s American theater . . . is under serious attack. Some who attack are simply greedy, some ignorant, some can’t understand why theater isn’t TV or film. But perhaps the greatest threat to the playwright in today’ s theater comes from . . . those who want ‘to help.’

  • . . . I am not saying that a playwright should avoid and ignore comments and reactions to his work . . . But I am saying that our mindset toward playwrights should be this: 1) the playwright knows what he is doing, 2) perhaps the play as presented is as it should be. So that the onus for change is not on the playwright but on others, on the theater . . . How to improve a play should be the domain of the writer, with the theater supplying potential tools, a reading say, or a workshop with clearly delineated goals. These are tools that should evolve out of a need, as opposed to being a given.

  • . . . I have watched actors and directors approach classical plays that have massive contradictions and address those plays not as works to be fixed, but rather to be solved. So I am arguing for a theater where the mindset is not to fix new plays, but to solve them.

  • Rules for writing plays. My god. One hears young playwrights being told what a play ‘must do,’ or ‘how a play works.’ One hears writers being told that a character’s ‘journey’ isn’t clear enough, or that the writer needs to determine a character’s ‘motivation.’ One hears how a play has to ‘build’ in a certain way, or how ‘the conflict’ isn’t strong enough. These are terms that seem to suggest a deep understanding of what a play is and how it is put together, but in fact they tell us very little. Perhaps a particular play might be helped by one of these suggestions, but they (and other ‘rules’) are too generally prescribed . . . The playwright doesn’t write out of ‘motivations’ but rather out of truth and reality, out of people and story and worlds he or she wishes or needs to create for us.

April 22, 2009

Theater and Immanence

Back in the main post and comments section of Beyond Religion 101, I contradicted the assertion in Isaac's Coherence, Theater, God post that a religious approach to theater hinges on the coherence of a performance or text rather than its aliveness.

I initially answered by saying that it's a difficult thing to communicate at the drop of a hat, and that the best way to understand the mystical experience of theater is to, well, experience it.

But after a few days to think about it, I have a more coherent (ha-ha) response to the idea that a religious approach to theater is more about what it means than about what it is or does.

When a lot of people talk about the purpose of religion or the God experience, they often talk in terms of transcendence. Going back to Isaac's post, the coherence of theater is closer to a transcendent religious experience. You know that point where we've figured something out, that we know what it means, that we see how all the parts fit together? That's what I'm talking about.

But there's another God experience that often gets overlooked: immanence.

The aliveness of theater Isaac talks about is more closely linked to the immanent religious experience. Have you ever experienced the fullness of a moment, that feeling of wonder at the simplest and most ordinary things, that feeling of being overwhelmed at the vastness of existence. This is what I mean.

The scope of this blog is insufficient for a full exploration of these concepts. Entire religious traditions have been built around them. But at the very least, I hope that I've opened up a way to explore a different understanding of a religious approach to theater.

April 15, 2009

I miss words now

I've been wrestling with this piece for a few months now, probably closer to a year, and I can't seem to progress, only write in circles.

In the meantime, I've been neglecting some other stories I wanted to work with, stories that use - gasp! - dialogue.

I feel that right now, my persistence is working against this piece. Perhaps I'm just not ready for this play yet, and I need time to work on other things first. Rather than force the play through (which results in the play feeling forced), I'm going to set it aside and come back to it later, when there's something I feel compelled to write with it. Then at least I'll be working with something real instead of something I squeezed from my brain out of sheer determination.

So don't be surprised if the next bit of writing is a bit different.

April 14, 2009

Beyond Religion 101

Over at Parabasis, Isaac posts Coherence, Theatre God. The gist of the post is summarized as follows:
Carroll, being both a novelist and a devout Catholic, sees the human aspect of theatre coming not from the liveness of the event but rather the coherence of the text, because in that coherence of moment to moment, meaning is created (or at least meaninglessness is denied).
. . . . . . . . . . .

For me, it strikes me as an acutely religious (or spiritual anyway) understand of the dramatic art.
. . . . . . . . . . .

To me, part of what is beautiful and ennobling both about being an atheist and about being an artist is that we get to create our own coherence and thus meaning.
I was tempted to reply in his comments about how his whole line of questioning is suspect and and just how fucking wrong he is about the meaning of faith and belief, as well as the difference between faith, belief, and dogma.

Then I thought better of it and decided to post my thoughts on my own blog.

I'm going to come clean about something so that people who have religious discussions with me can actually get somewhere. Here it is:

I am not interested in Religion 101 discussions. Does God exist? Is the Bible literally true? Is homosexuality a sin? Let me make it easy for everybody . . .

I. Don't. Care.

Those types of grade school-level ontological questions bore the fuck out of me. The discussions they produce always go in the same circles and never reveal anything new. And I'm fucking tired of talking about them.

Just like I'm not thrilled about making well-made plays, I'm not interested in talking about who believes what. I'm far more intrigued by the cutting edge of contemporary religious thought (particularly with how people experience and/or express God), and you don't get that when you're dealing with people whose religious education consists of what's spoon-fed to children. The religious avant-garde (and I don't mean New Age) approaches our experience of God in a way that's deep, subtle, and complex. This appeals to me far more than rebutting the gross misrepresentation of faith in public discourse.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Religious-Secular Divide conference at The New School early in March. Why? Because I get to ask shit like this:
  • To what extent do the intersections of religious and secular identities - for example, queer Black Jews or transgender Latina Catholics - play into or resist the compartmentalization of selfhood as lived through individual experience?
  • What are some strategies for: developing new definitions for religious and secular that are nuanced, subtle, complex, and rooted in lived experience; taking the public discourse between religion and secularity away from academic and media strongholds and into other areas of public discourse (including but not limited to blogs and other social media); and bringing religious ideas and values into the public discourse for addressing secular issues facing people today?
(Side note: I have to gloat here. I fucking stumped the people on the panel - people with motherfucking PhDs in this shit. This is how I know I'm PhD material. Fuck a Master's.)

(Note to educated White folks: Read that last part a few times before you start talking down to me - about anything. Chances are that whatever comes out of my mouth goes way over your fucking head. Do me a favor and acknowledge that then let me explain myself better instead of assuming that I don't know how to fucking communicate.)

Back to Isaac's blog post.

In the comments, Tony asks a couple of really good questions:

In practical terms, does a religious writer necessarily have a overtly different type of coherence in a work than a non-religious writer?

Does having a different way of seeing how our world is created automatically equal a different way of creating a work?

I think that helps steer conversation in a better direction, but it doesn't go far enough for me - doesn't go far enough in addressing the implicit and problematic assumptions behind Isaac's post or far enough in opening the discussion to genuinely different points of view.

Let me address the implicit assumptions first.

I'll be fair and acknowledge that Isaac doesn't want to offend anyone and apologizes in advance for doing so. Fine. But to prevent future offense, I feel compelled to explain the source of the offense in my case.

I frankly think the way Isaac presents his post (particularly the part quoted above) is kind of a set-up. It presumes a lot about my reasons for calling myself a person of faith or the role religion plays in my life. It also presumes a lot about how I experience God, especially how it undermines the depth and complexity of that experience to one or two cliche variables. And from there, I'm forced to engage with the discussion on those limited grounds (limitations that don't necessarily apply to the people involved) or not engage at all. So, even without meaning to, the way he frames this discussion excludes and marginalizes the very people who could enrich it.

As far as opening the discussion to divergent points of view, it's simple: ask more genuinely open-ended questions - questions that overtly assume nothing or are at least open about the limitations of those assumptions.

So, rather than linking a religious response to theater as by necessity rooted in the search for a predetermined meaning or coherence, why not come out and ask us how religion interacts with our experience of the aliveness of theater?

That is a far more interesting question than whether aliveness or coherence is the predominant mode of a religious experience of theater.

And to answer the question I really want to answer, it's really difficult to describe in words. Like most things that are truly profound, it has to be experienced.