August 4, 2009

Form vs. Function, Structure vs. Content and other false dichotomies

More from Director of New Work Lisa Timmel:

Joyce Van Dyke’s Deported/a dream play dramatizes the Armenian Massacre of 1915 and its repercussions on a survivor by drawing on the rich tradition of expressionism in writing that came out of the traumas of the birth of psychology and the horrors of the 20th century. That is a nice little thesis, isn’t it? Is it correct or true? Maybe. Anyone can have a theory about or an opinion on a piece of writing; the crux is what to do with it. I want to write a little bit about the legacy of modernism in theatre with regard to the choices writers have to make in crafting a play.

Modernism very broadly speaking taught us to look at the structure of things as originating from content; that form should follow function. Yesterday, I posted a bit about the function of a reading in terms of new play development. By implication, the content is a bit beside the point. As with most things, it’s more complicated than that. Dramaturgs and directors have spent a lot of time coming up with creative ways of making readings more communicative to an average audience about what the end result would look like (trusting product over process?). Deported/a dream play has been through several readings and workshops recently. Director Judy Braha and the actors have been working with Joyce for about two years developing the piece, which has a stylistically expansive dramaturgy. There are songs; there are dances; there are objects and images of great symbolic importance. None of which I allowed in yesterday’s reading because I had the sense that the text was getting lost in the development process. Did I have any proof? Nope. It was a just a hunch. In any case, I needed to hear the text and I have yet to figure out how to listen to projections.

Ultimately, I believe it’s sometimes important to pay attention to the established structure and ignore the demands of the content as part of a development process. On the one hand, theatre seems like an almost endlessly pliable art form. It truly is whatever you want it to be, from guerrilla street theatre to Broadway. On the other hand, the satisfaction granted by an engaging, disciplined and familiarly drawn narrative is impossible to deny. Herein lies the rub when approaching the content of Joyce’s play. How do you write about a generation of survivors who steadfastly refused or simply did not have the ability to translate their experience into narrative? To tell the story of her ancestors who were shamed into silence about their own horrific experiences, the writer has to find a storytelling form that is neither glib and easy, nor inaccessible to the audience who does not carry this culture memory. How do you tell a story that could not be told until after it had been superseded by ever more efficient atrocities? What is the structure that can allow for the content of this story and when does the style of piece interfere with the substance?

What I love about all those modernist mad men creating new forms of theatre and writing manifestos while Europe burned around them is that they bequeathed to us an almost bottomless bag of tools for storytelling. But a creative life with out boundaries is hard to navigate. Joyce, a fiercely intelligent writer, is clearly up to the task of finding the balance, of synthesizing the competing impulses at play in her current work. I can’t wait to see where she takes us next.

Tonight: Lizzie Stranton by Lydia Diamond.

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