Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Criticism: The Arbitrary Choice

Matthew Freeman at On Theater and Politics has been returning to the "On Theater" of his "On Theater and Politics" after a while of being, understandably, excited/disturbed about the "On Politics" half of his mission statement. Today's post was a short but interesting one:
You're watching a traditional play about something like politics. A politician is meeting with a journalist off-the record. The journalist agrees to call the prominent politician a "well positioned source" and commits to anonymity otherwise. Then, slowly it becomes clear that there's more than just fund-raising shenanigans involved in this story. This political champion appears to have done some truly terrible things.

Throughout the fun little scene, the actor playing the journalist keeps clicking her pen. It's looks like a nervous gesture at first, but the longer you watch, the more you realize it seems almost like a...signal? Or even something deeper. The actor is making a point of the pen's importance in the scene perhaps. You notice, with the clicks, what is written down and what, pointedly, is not.

What you don't know is why this is actually happening. Is it because the director believes that the pen of a journalist is symbolic of something or other? Or, did the director just say... "You know what would look cool? Click the pen. I dunno. Click it after each third word that you say."

Is it possible that an arbitrary decision by the creative team and a decision with some complex thought behind it...can look exactly the same? And does it make a difference, really, to the audience member? Does how a decision is arrived at inform what we see?

Can we sense the arbitrary? Or do we just assume that everything we see onstage was put there with a rigorous sense of purpose?

I've heard this come up a lot whenever there's analysis going on. We ask a lot, whether it's a book of poetry or a political speech or a theater play--what in here is what the creator intended, and what is a byproduct of the creation? (I suddenly want to take that as an analysis of the Bible... I wonder if anyone has ever looked at creation that way.... anyways...)

I'm also going to skate right on by the question of who made the decision. Did the Director say "Hey it'd be cool if you clicked your pen," or did the Playwright have a vivid image in his mind of the pen going click-click-click or was the Actor sitting with the script going "Holy Hell what am I going to be doing during this scene?"

One of my friends, who did an excellent production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, is one of the few people who is comfortable acknowledging how much of his direction he discovers through trust in the arbitrary. It's difficult for me to explain how, when he makes arbitrary decisions, it somehow pays off--he usually finds a way to very clearly relate it into everything that's going on, but if you tried to consciously tackle why one choice worked and another one did, you might have trouble.

If you buy a choice, you can explain why the director was being brilliant in that moment. If you don't buy a choice, you probably won't be able to defend it.

Once the artist's intentions become fixed in the work of art, the work of art is all we have to go by. It's not just about arbitrary vs. deliberate; it's also racist vs. understanding of race, reductionist vs. minimalist--any interpretation is drawn from the audience from the work regardless of the artist's intention.

The job of the artist is not to make brilliant choices in every moment. They should try, but it doesn't particularly matter to me whether or not they "meant" to do X or Y. A work of art is successful when it gives you room to create more, to expand. Whatever was the original intention of the work, a vibrant work sparks new ideas out of the audience, not just the transmission of original ideas.

For example. Take the Old Testament. When The Old Testament was written, did they imagine the creation of a New Testament? The Kaballah? The Hagadah? The Koran? The King James Bible? King James' Daemonology? Paradise Lost? Dante's Inferno? The Screwtape Letters? The Chronicles of Narnia?

In other words, the arbitrariness or deliberateness of individual moments really doesn't wind up being that important. If a choice doesn't work that's a different story--it doesn't matter if the choice doesn't work because the director didn't fix something, or doesn't work because the director made a deliberate mistake.

But to Matthew's last question: I don't think we can sense whether any individual choice was arbitrary or deliberate, but I think we can often get a sense of the show overall--if the show is a grab-bag of strange and hit-and-miss choices that don't seem to have patterns, we can safely assume that a lot of it was arbitrary (this is good shows as well as bad shows--The Lily's Revenge is doing quite well, and it seems to me to have so many arbitrary choices, most of which were AMAZING). And if the entire show works together like a well-oiled machine (like TEAM's Architecting or the work of Elevator Repair Service) then you can be confident in saying that the choices are very deliberate.