Monday, September 22, 2008

Pragmatic Theater: Responsivity IV [Fallacies]

The point I've been building to is this: these fears and anxieties that the artist feels regarding responsivity in art need to be addressed, or they influence the work negatively.

Two examples of this:

1) I saw a production of a show which promised to use "technology" to bring an interactive twist to Puddinhead Wilson an excellent short-story by Mark Twain. At certain junctures, the audience was asked to text message a choice to a certain number, and that choice would determine the outcome.

Why did that fail? Well, the night I attended, very early in the play, we were given a choice: should the main character kill themselves, do nothing, or take a bold action (swapping her baby child with her master's child to save her baby's life from slavery). Clearly, this "choice" is already stacked: anyone who has a basic understanding of theater knows why neither of the first two choices make for good theater.

Almost every audience chose for the child to be swapped. My night, we chose to do nothing. To our great surprise, the cast came to the front of the stage, and sat there, staring at us. For several long, long minutes this continued. I was thrilled. Fantastic. I didn't know where it was going but the fact that the play was going to be completely disregarded because of our choice thrilled me in a way that only the most grievous errors on stage usually do.

We started getting text messages that said, "Why is it important to tell the story?" Clearly, the people behind the production wanted to defend the production: implicitly, they are assuming the story is important. But that early in the play, my only reaction was: why is it important to tell the story?

If I hadn't been surrounded by people who knew me, and by the uneasy atmosphere that tipped me off that my opinion wasn't welcome, I would have asked the questions of the actors themselves. Why is it important to tell that story? I didn't know yet.

Then the actors addressed us. "We've had enough of that," they said. "Now which do you want to do: kill herself, or swap the babies?" That stung. The actors (and by extension, the production) was telling us that we had chosen wrong, which is not something you're supposed to hear when you have a choice. There's a scene in The Simpsons Movie where the head of the EPA presents the President with three plans of how to deal with a natural disaster: the President chooses A, the EPA man says "No, try again," the President chooses C, the EPA man says, "No, try again," the President chooses B, and the EPA man congratulates the President on his good judgment.

We took a vote, and we voted to have the character kill herself. We had not been convinced that it was "important to tell the story."

The actors, frustrated as well, disregarded our vote and swapped the babies. They'd lost the audience. From the point of the choice to that point in the production, they were in conversation with us. But it had been a bad conversation: a conversation with a friend who doesn't listen, who knows what's best for you, who talks when you're not interested and steam-rollers over your opinions. Like that friend who refuses to hear that you're not coming out with him tonight, or like a family member in deep denial of a lifestyle choice you've just confessed.

The real tragedy is that this episode, and similarly pointless episodes of "interactivity" in this production (as well as an equally mindless modernization), obscured a beautifully written story and some very powerful performances. It was as though the director did not know that she was working with a talented writer and talented cast, and just said, "I guess I have to pull all the weight on this production."

If the production was not going to commit to being Remixed (like a choose your own adventure play!) then it should have remained Read-Only. To have the latter pretend to be the former was insulting to the audience's intelligence and dignity, which makes for very bad conversation.

2) Required reading for this post.

So, as you can see in the comments section of this "Overstimulation Roundup," a very interesting experiment was being performed. A play was being told in the comments section of a blog. And just as the unanswerable question of the last production was "Why is it important to tell this story," the unanswerable question of this production is "Why did you want to tell this story in this format?"

You can see the frustration from certain comments by bystanders. But the most astute comment comes from mike, who attempts to participate and then notes such: (here)

mike is right; it's taped. It's not theater, it's video. It's a book. There is no room for response.

Imagine, if you will, the same dramatic situation. Imagine a bunch of people going online, creating characters and a whole world, and inviting the audience (the blogging community) to question the witnesses. To examine the facts themselves. And see the gap between that sort of responsivity, and this kind of hollow show.

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