I love art museums. They have always filled me in a way that is simultaneously comforting and unexpected. I will go back to the same exhibit in a museum time and time again, just to feel that while the art itself has not changed, maybe I have, and maybe now it looks a little different than it did before.
That said, I’m no art expert. Far from it. I know only general information about broad-sweeping art movements, like, you know, that one called Impressionism where Cézanne painted the same mountain hundreds of times just to capture it in different light. Or that one about America, where painters crafted lofty portraits of far-reaching horizons and flowing meadows. And then the one after that about industrialism and concrete shapes. I’m blanking on the name of that one right now.
And yet, when I visit an art museum, I have a plethora of Thoughts and Feelings and Opinions. Am I qualified to have any of those? I’m not quite sure. Some would argue that I am, by virtue of being human. Others would assume that because I am no pro, I should reserve judgement for those who know more than I do. I disagree with that approach, because it can be a bit condescending.
Experts are important, of course. I see the Dramaturg as in pursuit of expertise when working on a play, similarly to a Director. I don’t take issue with that, because that knowledge serves the play and informs the decisions the creative team needs to make.
But all too frequently, I question my own Thoughts and Feelings and Opinions when they’re not shared or upheld by someone who I consider smarter or funnier or wittier or cooler or more cultured or more attractive than me.
I don’t think I’m alone in this.
As I was reading the introduction to Words at Play: Creative Writing and Dramaturgy by Felicia Hardison Londré, I stumbled across a passage that addressed these exact feelings – that apparent need for validation when approaching pieces of art, theatrical or otherwise. Londré detailed the climate of her theatre when she first began working there, and how “in the days before essays were included in the programs, some audience members would actually come to the theatre with the review, clipped from the newspaper, in hand.” She tells how some audience members would approach the artistic director after the production and, “in telling her what they thought of the show, would quote from the review without realizing they were doing so.”
None one wants to be on the outside of a popular opinion. No one wants to be “wrong.” But the fact of the matter is that we live and work within a highly subjective medium, viewed through a filter of perception that encompasses our past lived experiences and all of our private wants, desires, feelings, hopes, and fears. So why – and how – do we codify what is correct or incorrect in the interpretation of a piece?
I know what you’re probably thinking – but we don’t do that! We don’t, right? Right?? We don’t tell our audiences what to think! But we do. We broadcast it in our advertisement slogans. We tweet it at them. We show them billboards and program essays and then – this one is the kicker – we publish multiple reviews that all have more or less a similar interpretation and/or opinion about the piece. We do tell people what to think, and we do telegraph when what they’re thinking is wrong.
You don’t have to be upset by that. After all, we who Study Theatre and Work in the Business are the Experts. We dedicate our lives to this – of course we have strong opinions about it. But personally, I’m uninterested in telling audiences what to think and believe. I have a hard enough time solidifying my own thoughts about a piece, and I think about theatre every day. I don’t want to stifle my audiences the same way I feel stifled when I haven’t quite ironed out my Thoughts and Feelings and Opinions about a piece and then a canned, condensed statement is spat out at me.
I’m not yet sure what that means for my Dramaturgy. I think program notes are lovely and that providing necessary information is vital to an experience of the play. That said, how can I communicate my thoughts about the play without the audience feeling that these are The Thoughts they must also think and agree with? Perhaps my Dramaturgy will come more in the form of questions rather than answers.
I will continue to go to art museums. Maybe, eventually, I’ll learn a little more about art. But maybe I won’t, and that’s okay too. I still deserve to be there, and I am still entitled to my experiences within that medium. I am not and will not claim expert status, but I don’t want to be excluded because of that. I have a feeling our non-expert theatre audiences think a similar way.
But maybe they don’t! I’m not going to tell them what to think.