I won’t keep it simple (and don’t call me sweetheart)

I had a professor in college who was a brilliant artist from Cuba.  He taught set design and created crazy installation art around campus.  And, as good teachers do, he said a few things that I found startling and confusing enough that they lodged in my brain and I can remember them even now *cough* several years later.  One of these was: “You must try to make your life as complicated as possible.”  At the time, I was struggling with some depression and anxiety issues, and this advice flew in the face of all of the self-help books I was desperately reading, which advocated seeking simplicity as the key to inner peace and well-being.  I don’t remember if I actually brought up this point to my professor, or if I just imagined doing so (my memory goes blurry at this point).  And if I did question him, I don’t recall his response.  It is his initial statement that has stuck with me over the years.  And, for better or worse (sometimes both) I seem to have followed his advice.

I am suspicious of simplicity.  It strikes me as dishonest.  If something seems simple to me, I find it’s usually because I’m missing something.  Or else, it’s just boring.

One morning in Torah study, this one guy  was talking about a passage from the Torah, and he kept saying “It’s simple!  It’s so simple!”  Another man interrupted at one point with “With all due respect…people have been arguing about what this means for thousands of years, so it’s pretty clearly NOT simple.”

The acknowledgement of complicated narratives (and the tendency to argue about them incessantly for thousands of years), is one thing that draws me to Judaism.  It fits my worldview.

When I write plays, I tend to seek out the thorniest, most confusing and complicated topics I can find.  I’m not particularly interested in connect-the-dots type plots, because they don’t ring true for me.  I like to write things that can be interpreted in more than one way.  I like it when divergent narratives play out simultaneously.  If I feel like I’ve figured things out, I lose interest in them.  I assume directors and actors and audiences would lose interest as well.  After all, if everything’s been figured out, if one thing leads neatly to the next, what’s left for them to do?

Acknowledging conflicting truths is actually more comfortable to me than attempting to simplify.  When something does seem simple and clear to me, and yet other smart and thoughtful people see it the opposite way, that is frustrating.  When I engage with those others, actually listen to them, and allow the complexity of the topic to seep into my mind, I get closer to understanding.  When I dig into my simplicity, the frustration just increases.

So thanks, Professor Soto, for giving me permission to abandon my quest for simplicity.  It was never my path anyway.

 

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Puppetness

On my way to DC to see a reading of my play Sonata for Four Hands in the Jewish Plays Project this past weekend, I had a long layover in Atlanta and was finally able to visit a place I’ve wanted to see for years…

The Center for Puppetry Arts!

I was totally that one weird adult who showed up alone and cried while looking at the puppets, which is to say, I had an excellent time.

I didn’t have time to see a performance (must return someday…maybe I’ll even bring my kids like a normal person) but I had a chance to gaze upon the many beautiful puppets from around the world.  At one point, I spotted a puppet across the room who looked familiar to me.  The character itself was not what I recognized, rather the style of puppet.  It made me feel all mushy inside and I wanted to give it a hug (they keep most of the puppets behind glass to protect them from weirdos like me).  I crossed the room to read the tag, and it was a Sergei Obratsov puppet!  I read a lot by and about Obratsov when I was in grad school.  I simply adore his puppets.  I also adore the word “puppetness,” which he is credited with inventing (kukolnost in Russian…however despite research by myself and my husband in both English and Russian, we were unable to find a primary source to verify his use of the word).

Recognizing the Obratsov puppet reminded me of one of my favorite things about puppetness…the openness and generosity of puppetmakers and puppeteers.  Several kind people took time to show me their methods of puppetmaking when I was getting started a few years ago.  One of them said something that stuck with me (I’m paraphrasing here): “Puppetmakers share.  Even if I tell you my exact technique step by step, your puppets will look different than mine.”  And it’s true.  As soon as I started making my own puppets, I realized I had a “style.”  I didn’t really work to cultivate it.  It just emerged from the process.  I don’t think of myself primarily as a visual artist, and my puppets are not nearly as beautiful as many I’ve seen.  But they’re mine, and they work for my shows.

As I work on a couple of new puppet projects, the heaping dose of puppetness from this magical place in Atlanta was a welcome gift.

Honestly.

I’ve decided to use this blog to share some of my deep and not so deep thoughts on theater and life (the two are hopelessly tangled together for me).

First, I wanted to write about the concept of honesty, because my thinking about honesty and truth has a lot to do with the way I write plays.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I began to realize with some horror that I lied fairly easily.  I would have the unsettling experience of hearing myself say something, then realizing it wasn’t true.  This would send me into a spiral of negative feelings: guilt, paranoia that my lie would be discovered, and a feeling of being trapped and hopelessly committed to the lie, because I couldn’t un-say it.

Let me be clear: these were usually small lies without far-reaching consequences.  I didn’t really gain any advantages from them, and didn’t even know why I said them.  Maybe that was the most unnerving thing about it: I was doing something that I objectively considered to be wrong, and I didn’t even know why I was doing it.  For example (I’m making this up, but something similar to it probably happened), say I meet a female friend for lunch, and complain to her that my ex had just come over to get some of his things from my apartment.  I tell her how he wanted to have a deep emotional conversation but I just wanted him to get out of there and leave me alone.  I hear myself say this to my friend, and then realize that I’ve just mischaracterized the situation: in fact, I willingly participated in the emotional conversation, and even told the ex we may be able to work things out in the future but I just needed some space to think.

As an actor at the time, I thought I was pretty good at teasing out a character’s motivation, so I attempted to use that skill on myself (why would Bridget say that?   what does she want?).  The best I could usually come up with was that I wanted people to think I was a certain kind of person (fun, confident, tough), or, relatedly, I wanted them to not get a certain impression of me (vulnerable, needy, crazy), and the lie was intended to distract them.

So lame.  So pathetic.  What an annoying character.

I decided the lying must stop.  I would only say things that were true.  Especially when it came to expressing my feelings (the area in which I was most prone to lying), I would make sure to be 100% genuine.

I soon discovered that I had a much bigger problem than lying: I had no idea what I was  feeling most of the time. I discovered that it was easy for me to run on a sort of emotional autopilot, acting and reacting and speaking without taking any time for introspection, and this was resulting in the dishonesty. I discovered that when I did force myself to stop and think, my feelings were far more complex than I’d imagined. There would be a “surface emotion/motivation” (in the previous example, it would be wanting my friend to verify my independence), but then there would be all kinds of deeper stuff lurking under that surface. Maybe I thought that’s how my friend would feel in a situation with her ex, and I wanted her to think we were similar so that she’d continue to be my friend. Maybe I was regretting the way I’d acted with my ex and thought I could rewrite history. Maybe I actually was drained and exhausted from all the emotions and drama with the ex, and was voicing a sentiment that was emotionally true (in that it reflected my feelings) but not actually true (in that it didn’t properly describe what happened).

I discovered that speaking honestly about my feelings was difficult not only because it required introspection, but also because some feelings are nearly impossible to articulate in words.

Sheesh! This honesty thing was harder than I ever imagined. I’ve been on this quest for more honesty for about a decade now, and although I’ve made huge progress, I don’t always feel I’m quite “there” yet.

Which brings me to playwriting. In readings, actors sometimes point out inconsistencies in my character’s lines (“in the last scene, she said she wished she could get out of this town, but in this scene, she tells her boyfriend she wants to buy a house here with him”). Actors point these things out because they are smart and pay attention. But I have no interest in writing only consistent, introspective and articulate characters. For one thing, there are very few humans who actually behave that way. Also, I think everyone (actors, directors, and audience) becomes more engaged in the process of theatermaking when they have something to wrestle with and untangle.

And yet, I believe one of the strengths of theater is to find ways of expressing those messy, complex, and indescribable feelings.

In his poem Ars Poetica, Archibald Macleish writes:

A poem should be equal to:

Not true.

Similarly, I believe good plays are full of honesty and also full of contradictions. Good plays are emotionally “equal to” our life experiences, but they are not factual re-enactments. Good plays try to find the right words to allow space for truth between the words.

What do you think?