If any one word has defined my life, at least for its first thirty-two years, that word is "privilege."
For obvious starters, I belong to the most privileged race, sex, and nationality on Earth. Just by being born, I had it better than most of the people on this planet.
Less obvious: I grew up in an upper-middle-class family with two phenomenal parents who raised me with every opportunity, who nurtured my ideas and ambitions while carefully challenging them at the same time.
Even less obvious: everything I have has in some way been handed to me. Every job I've ever had was directly or indirectly acquired for me by a friend. Every theater group I have worked with included someone who made all the introductions for me.
Less obvious still: most of my limited success in New York theater has been largely made possible by my co-producers, Sean and Jordana. Sean's strength and Jordy's organization have saved me from my slovenly weakness time and again.
What I'm saying is: while I don't have any false modesty, and am proud of many of the things I've done, I am also aware, simply as a fact, that none of those things would have been possible without all of the advantages I've had and the people who have brought me along. I was born on third base, and the people in my life have carried me half the distance to home plate. It's not amazing if I get a home run; it's more like it's ridiculous when I don't.
"Privilege" is also a word that occurs to me when I consider a couple recent disputes in the theater blogosphere. One involves Isaac Butler's provocative ideas about authorial intent and the (non)primacy of the script in the artistic process (I'm not sure where to link, maybe here, here, and here?). The other involves George Hunka's Organum and the seemingly aggressive nature of his theories.
My privilege in this particular arena is more specific and geographic. I live in New York City, move in some of the same circles George and Isaac do, and have been allowed to be involved, to one degree or another, in their work.
I just completed a run of Dan Trujillo's Talk of the Walkup under the direction of Isaac. When Dan and Isaac approached me about acting in the show, I accepted because 1) I liked the script so much, 2) I thought I had something special I could offer the role of Teafoot, and 3) I just love acting so damn much. So while those were the main reasons, I also had a more deep background reason: I knew I could observe Isaac's theories in practice and get some sense of their validity.
See, to some extent I think any discussion about the relative power of the playwright and the director in a production process is unavoidably tainted by private agenda. Both directors and playwrights are afraid of having their power and their credit stripped away, and they'll fight to protect their turf and acquire new turf in the process. I don't consider myself an exception to this.
In a theatrical context, directors have more turf to fight for. A play is first and foremost associated with a playwright, and the playwright's name will be most closely associated with the play's success (or failure, as the case may be). I imagine that many theatrical directors look at their counterparts in the film world and wish they had that level of association with the plays they directed. I know I would hate to lose my place of primacy in the (in my case extremely limited) public perception of my plays, and not for any good reason except that I like it. And it's this undercurrent of power-struggle that often prevents us from discussing this genuinely difficult issue with cool heads.
Having completed my first rehearsal process under Isaac (I think the Rapid Response Team shows are sort of a different animal), I'd like to say something to the bloggers who disagree with his ideas: keep it theoretical. Don't make it personal. Engage him, sure, but don't build up Isaac Butler in your heads as the guy who wants to usurp playwrights and rewrite all their scripts and bury every story under a mountain of concept. That's not who he is.
From what I personally observed, he and Dan had a tight rapport. They were huddled on every break, working through every problem together, and I never saw him ignore or disregard any of Dan's input. He was constantly running ideas by Dan, and they seemed to have a thoroughly open dialogue. As an actor, I never felt like I was caught between feuding parents. I always directed my questions to Isaac, but Isaac created such a relaxed and collaborative atmosphere that I never felt confused or conflicted when Dan participated in the answer.
What I'm saying is, by all means challenge any of Isaac's ideas about the primacy of the script (an idea I still believe in) or authorial intent, but please don't make him the poster-boy for directorial megalomania. He doesn't deserve it.
But what about authorial intent in the context of Talk of the Walkup? Well, I gotta say, I'm not sure we ever talked about it. Isaac's history of blogging on this topic meant that his presence in rehearsal frequently made me think about the issue in the practical terms of what we were trying to accomplish, and I realized I've always felt the same way about it: Authorial intent only counts inasmuch as the author has articulated that intent through the script.
While I was developing Teafoot, I didn't spend much time wondering what was in Dan Trujillo's head. I spent a good deal of time, however, scrutinizing what was in Dan Trujillo's script. If a playwright writes a scene in such a way that it can be legitimately performed in several different ways, then to my mind they're leaving the option open. And that's a big part of playwriting. Some things you write so there are no options, so that they must be done in a specific way. Other things, within the same play, you deliberately leave grey, as mysteries for the ones who come after you to solve. To write a good play, you have to deliberately decide not to know everything about it. Playwriting is a balance between setting some very specific parameters while at the same time leaving room inside those parameters for your colleagues to stretch and discover. If you know everything about your script, you've written a Neil Simon play.
If Isaac had ever asked me to go against something indicated in Dan's text, I would have been gravely concerned. But he didn't. But at the same time, we never began rehearsal by asking Dan how he imagined a certain scene should be played. And I never heard Dan say, "You know, I always pictured it would be more like this other way, rather than how you're doing it." He trusted the strength of his writing to keep us on target and was secure enough to let us stretch our legs and play. If that's what Isaac means by "collaborating with the text," than I think I'm for it.
I have a lot of trouble reading George's Organum installments. I never developed an ability to read academic writing during my ignominious undergraduate career, and so am desperately behind most of my peers in comprehending this sort of material.
Like Matt Freeman and Isaac, I too have noted the more aggressive tone taken by recent Organums, particularly the one that took the form of a chart. It's not pleasant to think that one might be part of what another perceives as a wave of triviality or mob mentality, and I understand the heated discussion that followed.
Two things cool me down. One is that I remind myself that George is a blogger, and a blog is a means of thinking out loud, not for making absolutist statements. George is trying to work something out here; he hasn't arrived at the answer yet. So he throws out a theoretical to see where it goes. And he publishes these on a blog enabled with comments, so people can respond. The blog, by its very nature, is never a be-all end-all.
The other thing is that I remember that no one would need to make theater if they weren't to some extent discontented with a lot of the theater they go to see. If I saw fully satisfying plays most of the times that I went to the theater, I could just become a fan and relax. But I don't, so I have to try to make what I don't see. Just the act of stepping into the public sphere as an artist presupposes a dissatisfaction with much of what is already available. If I wrote as candidly as George about my dissatisfactions, I might incur the same sorts of responses.
On Freeman's blog George recently cited his own In Public as one of the "Playground" plays he is reacting against with his theatre minima endeavor. This is a helpful clarification for me, since as one who happily watched In Public three times and considers himself one of the foremost authorities on it, I'm fairly certain that it's not, for example, an expiation for the sin of being born. This suggests, then, that the first stage project to grow out of the Organum has yet to be mounted.
But here again is where my privilege comes in. I live in New York, almost certainly the site of the next two theatre minima projects, Her Own Land and States of Exception. I don't need to be able to fully understand the Organum, because I get to see the work resulting from them as soon as it appears.
I'm not saying I'm going to plop down on the front row with my arms folded muttering, "Okay, PROVE it!" These plays are going to be the first steps, most likely, in the aesthetic George is working out for himself, so it would be astonishing if they were unblemished embodiments of his theories. But the cool part is that I'll start to have a better idea for myself of what theatre minima is, and, most importantly...
... which parts I'll want to steal.