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?

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