Thursday, January 28, 2010

On The Meaning of What We Do III: Haiti, Pt. 1

Okay, so as basically everyone knows, on January 12th a 7.0 earthquake hit Port-Au-Prince in Haiti and displaced 1.5 million people. (By the way, when I googled to get references, I saw that there have been three 4.0+ earthquakes in the last 48 hours). I wasn't going to blog about it at the time because there seemed nothing to say. There was a huge devastation, there was some actually passionate reporting going on, and that was the fact. A huge wave of death and destruction.

The first On The Meaning Of What We Do post was a response to Scott Walters and his response to Tom Laughlin's post Trivial Pursuit. What does what we do matter?

So I put up a defense of our craft in general and I moved on with my life. But it turns out there's another big thorny issue in the room, and I only stumbled across it when I returned to school.

Yesterday, one of our professors began our speech class and told us what we would be doing for the first half of the semester. We would be listening to recordings of survivors from Haiti and trying to find a way in to the tragedy through our voices. He began the project by sharing with us a quotation from Brecht (which unfortunately I can't find verbatim right now) which said something like 'I will show the world who I am and what my life was like, rather like holding up a single brick and saying This Was My House.'

He tried to lead us into the moment, and we tried to explore for a few minutes what it would be like to face a pile of rubble, listening to hear if there was some quiet, nearly fading sound of life underneath it. He tried to lead us to engage with the sounds of human grief.

Needless to say, within ten minutes of hearing this project the class had devolved into figuring out whether this play was... acceptable? Responsible? Ethical? Now, as the debate unfolded, it turned out that there were a number of strains of dissent about the project. I've broken up the different strains of debate into multiple posts, simply so that I can focus on them.

The first line of debate: "Theater is about events in human history. And that history is now."

It brought to mind a lot of anxieties that come out of dealing with current events (particularly contemporary tragedies) as opposed to history. The concept of creating a work of art around the Holocaust is not, in and of itself, controversial. If someone said "and my play is set in the Armenian Genocide," very few eyelids will bat. But people -- including myself, had a strong negative reaction to the idea of doing a play directly in the wake of one of contemporary society's harshest tragedies.

And it doesn't have to necessarily still be going on. You can do a play about 9/11, for instance, but how you represent it is going to be deeply scrutinized. I get very upset and angry when I see a play that simply invokes 9/11 in passing, or tosses out the phrase "Hurricane Katrina" to remind us that shitty things happen.

Yet, at the time, the Holocaust was just as deeply effecting as 9/11. Even something like the destruction at Troy should have that same horror and trauma behind it, although it doesn't.

One of my classmates put his finger right on the pulse. He said, "Everyone's in a different place in Haiti. I've already gone through my grieving process. I've cried my eyes out already about it. And now I've moved on. But I understand for people who are not, this is too much."

The core concept behind this project is to use the empathy of the theater to try and take on others' experiences and pass them along. But when this project was presented to us, many of us seemed to feel that we wouldn't be adequate to that task. That we might be too emotionally frail to serve as a proper conduit for the current moment. One of my classmates protested with the obvious: "Too soon, too soon!"

We usually think of the "Too soon" charge as being just one of those ways in which people with conservative tastes try to tut tut the edgier section of society from having their fun -- I think mostly of South Park and their line-crossing. I also remember the bated breath about who would make the first film about 9/11; and the strange anti-climax when United 93 and WTC came out. What were we expecting?

At any rate, this is an open question to me. When there's such a deep wound -- whether personal or global -- what is it about the historical that makes it acceptable? Is it just the sum collection of society's grief process taking place? To what degree should we wait until the grief passes?

1 comment:

Scott Walters said...

If you want to look for the precursor to this assignment, look no further than Anna Deavere Smith. She was interviewing people in LA not long after the riots. And what you are being asked to do, I suspect, is what Smith describes as her technique in the article "The Word Becomes You," and interview in The Drama Review, Winter 1993. Her belief is that if you listen and listen to someone speaking, and gradually begin to imitate them fully, that "the word will become you" -- that the emotion is contained within the words, the inflections, the phrasing and can be sort of channeled powerfully.

By the way, I would sort of question an actor who was afraid of experiencing emotion too powerfully. Isn't that what you do?