Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pragmatic Aesthetics II: Reality Keeps On Knocking

Matt Trueman in the Guardian's theatre blog has an apt criticism for some theater:
Time and again, I find myself watching a production that is a shadow of the show it wants to be. Props and furnishings stand in not for their fictional counterparts, but rather for the props and furnishings that would have been bought had the funds been available. Actors, too, are widely miscast – often the wrong age or physical build – in the hope that we'll see through them to the ideal cast and beyond to the characters. It feels unfair to name and shame, but recent symptomatic examples include an Ikea-heavy noughties living room for a play set firmly in the 90s, fancy-dress maid's uniforms worn by the staff of a glossy five-star hotel, and the fluffy halo and tulle angel-wings combo used as a travelling player's costume, despite the play's 1936 setting.

In short, far too much fringe theatre begs our leniency and forgiveness. To do so, however – to apologise in advance – is inexcusable. Theatre cannot make excuses for itself, no matter how tight its budget or how short its rehearsal process. If materials don't suit the aim, either change the materials or change the aim. Find another way.
When the artist's focus is the work of art itself, then dreaming big may seem like the right strategy. After all, the theater-going audience will, sometimes, suspend their disbelief and use their minds to give you the props, special effects, etc. that you need. They see what you're trying to do, imagine it being done, and see whether they think that would work. And when a play is in development hell, this is an ally; this is what allows a staged reading to attract people's attention to the play's potential.

In play development, the focus of the event is the play itself. And that's why play development workshops and play-readings tend to be an insider thing -- because they're invested enough in arts to want to spend their time watching a play that isn't ready yet.

But for the average audience, they want to be effected, directly. They want the artist to do their own work. And therefore, when you're creating a work for the real audience, not the insiders-there-to-help-you-make-that-work-happen, the focus should be on the effect the play has on the crowd.

If you focus on the goal of the work rather than on the work itself, you will be forced to, rather than gesturing at the solutions you wish you had, think creatively of solutions that still work towards your goal. I get it; you can't set off fireworks in your 99 seat black box. But there are a thousand ways to fill in for that act. You have to choose the one that most effectively works toward the original goal in that moment, rather than the one you think would be most effective when the work is fully realized.

There's no reason why a bare-bones production can't be effective; but if you try to evoke a form you can't fulfill, the audience will simply desire to go see a work that can fulfill its desires. When you present a work to an audience, you're trying to transmit knowledge and experience to them. But in order for that bridge to be formed, they have to trust you. You need to have legitimacy (an idea which is very important to me).

The problem with unfulfilled work is not that it asks the audience to imagine -- you can get a lot out of asking the audience to imagine. The problem is that you ask them to pretend that something is true that isn't; you're asking them to pretend your work is fulfilled. Asking the audience to accept an untruth will make the audience more skeptical of the truth of the other knowledge and experiences you're putting forward.

Jon Stewart once said that the reason he likes Obama is that whether or not they agree on everything, he gets the sense that Obama isn't bullshitting him; "He doesn't tell me that it's not raining when it's clearly raining outside."

Don't tell your audience it's not raining. Given rain, figure out how to make the rain work toward your goal.

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