Schlepping at the Arts House Part 1.

So I’ve just emerged from a week at The Arts House 10th Anniversary, which is overstating my actual involvement in the thing. I was mostly there to drink gala night wine, schmooze a bit, watch a play I’d written and bitch with friends.

I wrote a short play, Hotel, for the proceedings, part of a multi-site-specific thing conceived by Chong Tze Chien that created a fictional history for The Arts House. So the conceit is that it is now a Book Shop, though it was once a boutique hotel, and for some reason there’s a really combative couple in one of its remaining suites. Are they ghosts? Are they stragglers? Did they miss the memo? Who knows?

Anyway, I won’t say much about the play except that it was phased through three different directors, each with their own casts and idiosyncrasies. It’s an unusual process for me because, somewhat brattily, I tend to edit on the fly during rehearsal, which was made difficult when there were three ongoing productions of the same play.

I say bratty because I’ve been told by numerous dramaturgical authorities that a good playwright troubleshoots before any life is breathed into the script. (Potentially long tirade here on whether playwrights are writers or wrights, whatever). Additionally bratty because not everyone has the luxury of writing/wrighting towards a production, and we can’t all sit around waiting for an actual performance to start editing the damned thing. I suppose I’ve been fortunate enough to have had lots of opportunities to workshop my scripts on the floor (nothing like it!), though it’s also reached a kind of stalemate where I tend to need the promise of that process to finish anything at all.

But anyway. Unusual process, yes, yes, because three different scripts emerged, eventually. Based on my involvement in each director’s process, and each director’s relationship with me, there were at any time three versions of the same script floating around, each essentially the same as the next, though minor, cosmetic cuts and shifts in dialogue were made to some of the versions that weren’t made in others. So it’s one of those things where I can pompously declare that there’s no definitive version of the play-text.

The really cool thing is that, minor differences in the scripts notwithstanding, three completely different plays happened, each one harnessing different nuances, different discoveries and dynamics, each with a different level of interest in the rhythms, sounds and language of the text, and different relationships with the overall thematic material. See, this is the best way to make the point that plays are living, breathing things, like microbial cultures (I use this example because of current efforts to grow lactobacillius in a jar in my bedroom, for the purposes of indoor composting, more on that eventually; the essential point to note is that depending on the kinds of agents one introduces to the medium, the end result can be anywhere from bread, potting mix or septic biohazard).

And I think it’s definitely an experiment worth repeating, maybe this time with more of a curatorial or poncy dramaturgical angle. It’s not so much, as some reviewers of the play have put it, about harnessing the possibilities of the “written word,” as much as it is about the infinite possibilities of collaborative dynamics. The play-text-as-medium is actually fairly inert, to my mind; the only thing that it provides is the pesky voice of the playwright, which depending on your level of adherance, is very hard to escape from. It’s a done deal, and thoroughly un-creative in that respect. In that sense, the written word is actually terribly limited in its possibilities. Directorial ingenuity and sensitivity, as well as actorly generosity, intelligence and intuition, create far more substance than the playwright ever can.

I think that’s the experiment worth repeating and showcasing: making direction–to some extent actorly choices– palpable and detectable to an audience through repetition. I’ve noticed that in the way many people appraise theatre, direction is almost always the missing element in the trinity of theatre-making agents (director, actor, playwright [and the omission of tech and design here is another rhetorical oversight]). I’d like to say, quoting Atomic Jaya, that actors do the work, playwrights get the credit and directors get the blame, but more often than not, because directors usually disappear from the equation, playwrights end up taking the credit and blame for directorial choices. This sounds like me whinging, but it’s really not. I think the best kind of direction is often the sort that disappears into the weird zone between text, space, movement and speech, like the Holy Ghost, or the Force, and most of what people like in my plays usually tends to be the product of good direction, anyway.

But I think it’d be generally fun, intriguing and educational to call attention to the direction that’s tried its best to disappear, if only so we can emerge more sensitive to the creative interplay at work in the theatre. Also ‘cuz we really need to re-examine the belief that “good direction” is about doing things to the work, which isn’t so much “interplay” as it is “bullying” texts into submission. As David Mamet, writing on directing, says (and tentative “hmm” here about how good his directing actually is), if you have to do something to the play, then fundamentally you don’t understand it. Then again, all’s fair in a post-structuralist world; imposition and misinterpretation are equally valid and productive layers of meaning. Unless it’s accidental. Then it’s just a long, sweaty cringe till curtain.

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