Sunday, January 31, 2010

On The Meaning Of What We Do III, Haiti Pt. 2

A few days ago I started ruminations on a project that's going on at my university about Haiti, and its tragedy. I wondered where exactly the difference between the historical and the present day, about the immediacy of the pain.

Scott Walters places the project in context:
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.
I can't speak to how Twilight was received and the emotional tenor of how people felt watching it in the immediacy of the Los Angeles Riots, because I was (I must confess) 4 years old at the time. By the time I reached the age to interface with Twilight, the Los Angeles Riots had become a historical event -- at least in the minds of the public. Attempts to continue performing Twilight, reading Twilight, etc. serves a different purpose: to return to the immediate something which is historical.

There is a good reason to revisit the past, to make the inaccessible accessible. See, today in 2010, the grief process has taken place over the Los Angeles riots and has left us at the end of the process: acceptance. To attempt to revisit the Los Angeles riots serves the purpose of the returning to the mind an event which may think is over, but is not yet over, to bring the lessons from that past event to the fore.

This is not, however, the purpose of the Haiti project. Scott is right to say that the aim of the project is to let "the words become us." But the question is, to what cause, let the words become us?

We don't have any lessons to share from Haiti. We still don't know what's going on. It would be like trying to tell Matthew Shepard's story while he's still in a coma. The only thing we know is the brutality and the pain of the event. Food is only just starting to be distributed. We haven't had the time to speak to the Haitians, to really understand -- we can only snatch bits of their screams and present that as something. (as I'm typing this, a Save the Children call for help ad is playing on Hulu again)

Which brings me to the question Scott presented me with:
By the way, I would sort of question an actor who was afraid of experiencing emotion too powerfully. Isn't that what you do?
Oddly enough, this brings me back to the subject of self-producing that's been in the air lately. When I first came to NYU, I was definitely not a producer. I was not yet a director or a playwright, I came to be an actor. But slowly I noticed something that really, really pissed me off: actors bitching about how much they hated their plays. It was seriously wide-spread. You'd see an actor auditioning for Tommy, and I'd say, "Oh, you want to be in Tommy?" and they'd say, "No, I don't really like that play." "Well why do you want to audition, then?" "Well, I need to do a musical" or whatever the reasoning was.

I didn't want to be in plays I had no passion for. I didn't want to just read the lines that someone else wrote, and perform the actions that someone else had put forward to me. I wanted to be part of the purpose of the play, and part of its creation. This doesn't mean I wasn't willing to perform or work on other playwrights or directors' shows, but I realized very quickly that the acting "industry" is just that: actors are often treated as disposable labor.

(don't get me started on cattle calls, and actors with numbers on their back...)

But I have enough friends for whom the creation and portrayal of emotions is the end-purpose of performance. One of my friends hated a drama she was in, but when she got a convincing cry onstage she'd feel vindicated. But why?

Well, okay, that's not an original question. I guess I should just point you towards the inevitable Aristotle (the goal of theater and therefore performance is emotional catharsis in-and-of-itself) versus Brecht (the goal of theater and therefore performance is to jolt the audience into new awarenesses). And I admit that I am very heavily Brecht-influenced on this and many other issues.

This may be my personal inclinations more than a global idea, which is why I am hesitant to out-and-out condemn this Haiti project. For me, emotional catharsis is not a positive end. It may, at times, be an effective means -- but just as often, the mitigation of catharsis can be equally or more effective towards those means.

The question isn't necessarily whether it is about the actor channeling the emotion too powerfully. The question is, what does it mean to have the audience channel that much emotion? Does it tie them any closer to Haiti than they are already are? Or is it just as likely to trigger defense mechanisms, bring up walls, irritate and enrage. After all, there's a lot of people trying to get at you through Haiti, and not all of them are benevolent. (As I'm writing this, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have just appeared on Hulu to ask me to send money to Haiti). Take the solar-powered audio bibles. And it's not because these people have poor intentions in their heart. Everyone sees this tragedy and they want to step in, to do something -- that's a human nature. If we're just living through this, what are we giving them?

But unless someone can articulate to me what the direction of this piece is, it leaves me more full of questions and doubts than certainty.