On Sunday (homework day), while reading Mark Lord’s “The Dramaturgy Reader”, I spilled 16 fluid ounces of sparkling water on my laptop.
Black screen. Dead. No pulse. No hope.
The journey to the Apple Store was wrought with self-reproach and frustrated grunts. And when the man at the Genius bar (who, I assume, is accustomed to giving bad news), informed me there was no way to retrieve anything on my hard drive, I burst into tears.
You see, I fancy myself a writer. Granted, a new writer, but a writer nonetheless. My first thought was that everything I’d ever written was gone. All of my “firsts”.
Baby’s first playwriting exercise, Baby’s first “piece”, Baby’s first ten-minute, Baby’s almost-done-but-not-quite first full length play. All gone.
Frantically, I came up with any solution I could to retrieve my lost work. There was email sifting, Drop-Box searching, and perhaps — if it came to it — rewriting from memory. It was only after a new computer and my stint with fanaticism that I realized the blessing in disguise this disappearing act was.
While reading Mark Lord’s essay (a second time), I was taken by a phrase:
“Our theatre is not vital to our audiences … these individuals are so completely occupied by imagining their survival into next year, next week, tomorrow, that they haven’t time to imagine theatre that is better than what we make” (93).
I was taken out of myself and reminded of why I love to write — why, I assume, many others love to write too.
We are searching for what is new and what is relevant and what can speak to our peers. Constantly. However, it seems that we have fallen into artistic complacency. We know what’s been done and we know what works. Right?
The desire to recreate what’s been done is safe.
In the theatre, I see the same plays performed time and again. I see Shakespeare and Chekhov and Ibsen and Miller. I venture to think that I will never find myself desiring more of those plays to be produced more frequently.
And then, I look at the shows that are being done in New York. While it’s not the be all and the end all, it is the mainstream. I see revival after revival. There’s no end. Because instead of creating something original, we look to what we love. Books that can (kind of) easily become films that can (with a few tweaks) become plays and can (it’s a stretch) become musicals. And then the sequels come out.
Look, being an artist is like being an cartographer. We must venture into new lands and note what we see. We must be brave enough to explore. I think we have become too enamored with our own shadow and too fearful of the vastness that exists in front of us.
I, too, am afraid to leave behind what has been lost. I am too in love with what I’ve done and not in love enough with what I could do. That must change.
I urge us all to acknowledge our accomplishments. Love them, respect them, and let them inform you. They’ve served their purpose.
Let us be constantly searching for what is vital now.
I enjoyed reading this. I hope your computer was OK. I appreciate very much your suggestion that we think of ourselves as cartographers. With my students now, at The Headlong Performance Institute (www.headlongperformanceinstitute.org), I often suggest that we are cultural researchers, performing for our culture as scientists do: conceiving the most essential experiments we can, performing them, and publishing the results. As in science, failure is common–and crucial to our learning. To incorporate your useful metaphor, we are frontierspersons, scouting and mapping the terrain of What It Feel Like To Be Alive Right Now.
Reading this article, and a lot of the other articles on the blog, I found there is a discussion lurking between this post and one on a Shakespeare performance in England (https://dramalit.wordpress.com/2013/09/13/artistry-history-or-gimmick/). It raises the question of whether it is worth it to stage a historically accurate period performance to get the feeling of what it was like to watch the play when it was made. Isn’t it our duty as artists thinking dramaturgically to not just look back at our own ‘shadows,’ as you aptly put it, but look toward the light in front of us casting that shadow? Or as in some very beneficial cases, if we wish to look back, why not play with the light, warp the shadow, and see what might lurk beneath the surface of works we only THINK we know? Think of many of Brecht’s versions of plays, like “Antigone,” or Tom Stoppard’s “RGAD,” or Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” and “Passion Play.” We can look back thoughtfully, so long as we’re not mirroring ourselves, but challenging what we see and casting new light on it. Sometimes the way forward is found by looking critically at where we’ve come from.
I think both embracing and challenging our past is an important part of imagining our future. We can learn what has changed since Aeschylus, whether we agree with Aristotle’s valuation of the Six Principles, or if the list should even stop at Six. What has worked, what hasn’t, and what haven’t we tried yet? Mr. Lord’s scientist metaphor is one that I think is surprisingly apt in a profession where we so often think art and the empirical process are worlds removed. Scientists and dramatists share the same motivations; we seek to learn, to grow, to discover, and to challenge the world around us. Our history, the works and dramatists that cam before us, form the Null Hypothesis, and our job, then, is to challenge it. In doing so, we cannot fail, because even if our experiment crumbles, we’ve simply found one more way to NOT make a lightbulb.