Monday, January 22, 2007


UPDATE: Matthew Freeman has posted some of his thoughts over at his blog, giving some added insight to his take on theory and practice.

UPDATE #2: Talk of the Walk-Up author Dan Trujillo has posted an excellent entry with his take on theory/practice over at Venal Scene, shedding some light on his writing process.

"Filmmakers generally make movies about movies. Rarely are they inspired by their own lives or real life in front of them. They can never describe their film without immediately in the next sentence making reference to other films or other types of media. They're all making homages to someone other than themselves, and I cannot stomach that. It makes me want to vomit."

-Mark Borchardt

Congratulations to the cast and crew of Talk of the Walk-Up for putting on such a fine, fun and bizarre show. It really is unique. For those of you who haven't yet seen it, you've got two more chances (tonight and tomorrow). Reserve your tickets by calling (212) 501-4751.

There seems to be a big to-do about theory versus practice going on in the theatre blogosphere right now, which you can check out here, here and here.

After seeing Dan and Isaac's show last night, a number of us went to the local bar for some obligatory post-show drinking. Joanne had asked me what I had thought about the idea of incorporating theory into playwriting (she was specifically curious to know how the process of writing for the stage worked for me) and I don't think I provided her with a very coherent answer (go figure). I had said that I didn't give much conscious thought to theory (or Theory) while writing for the stage, but that didn't mean some things weren't rattling around in the ole' noggin (you can't really escape some degree of literary pretension if you're a "former student of English").

Of course, saying I don't think about theory implies a.) my interest in writing is only to entertain (it isn't), b.) it's purely intuitive (also not true) and c.) Pete and I are just throwing some not-fully-baked concoction from my brain a la David Lynch out on the stage and leaving it up to the audience as to what the show is all about (definitely not true).

I am hoping, when I write something, that I can find at least a few audiences to be on my wavelength with the work; to have them relate to it, see their world/life in a new light, cast some light on something that doesn't seem quite right in the world, dispel some cliches, end world hunger, save the world, be one with nature, get closer to God, all that. (Yes, there's much more to it than that, and I'm sure at some point I'll get into greater detail but for the sake of this entry this very short answer will have to do.)

Personally, I do see there being a danger of writing creative work based solely on theory (and, more specifically, another author's theory), because it can stifle your actual "voice" and you run the risk of either writing term papers for the stage or writing "Beckett-lite" or "Brecht-lite."

Having said that, I'm not against a writer being intellectual or theoretical with his or her work. Whatever works for you, works for you, right?

I think this may be just a difference between inductive and deductive trains of thought.

Yeah, you remember learning about "The Scientific Method" back in sixth grade, where you first come up with a theory, then create a hypothesis, then create an experiment to test the validity or invalidity of that hypothesis, then come up with a conclusion, right? That's deductive reasoning; or, "Top-Down" thinking. Inductive reasoning is "Bottom-Up" thinking: you make observations, detect patterns, formulate a hypothesis and then come up with your theory.

When writing for more than just the need to entertain, when writing for the need to get to "the bottom of things," make discoveries, pry open your (and the audience's) proverbial third eye, expunge untrue clichés that we take for granted, I'm more of an inductive (rather than deductive) kind of guy, but that in no way means I'm disparaging of deductive thought.

My best guess is someone like George thinks about things in a deductive way (the theory comes first, the work comes second). [George, please correct me if I'm way off on this.] I think about things - and write about things - in an inductive way, where my ideas for my plays come first from observations, then noticing the patterns, then halfway through (or a third of the way through, or three-quarters, whatever..."at some point before the rough draft is done") guessing where the patterns come from and why, then finishing the play based on theory and - in case this entry isn't as pedantic and pretentious enough for you guys - having it factor into my personal theory on life.

But that's just my theory.

Just a waste of space,

James "Bottom's Up!" Comtois

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Anonymous George Hunka said...

I don't think it possible that it's not the same voice that operates in my essays as it does in my plays: I'm not schizoid. They're products of the same continuously evolving perspective, and one wouldn't be possible without the other. In so far as Shaw's thoughts on theatre, Brecht's, Beckett's, even Barker's, preceded their plays, they preceded them only slightly: parallel tracks to the same destination. Or (to use another metaphor) one feeds the other. Sure, this means it takes a longer time to write a play. But, you know, that's all right.

But your own remarks aren't at all a waste of space, Mr. Comtois -- quite well put, however much we disagree. Thank you!

3:14 PM  
Blogger AstrologyEXPLAINED said...

I also agree that your remarks are not a waste of space. I think they are an excellent way to waste time at my precious day job.

3:39 PM  
Blogger MattJ said...

Great stuff James. There's so much science in what we do isn't there?

It's really interesting to tie something so earth-bound and empirical like science to metaphysical notions of philosophy. I think that's one of the major reasons why I love working in theatre.

3:46 PM  
Blogger TJ (Joshua) said...

So . . . you're saying you're a bottom ;)!

Actually, I agree with much of what you wrote . . . I think too often it can get into a turf war, this theory thing . . .

I do think George is drawing a line in the sand on a very public blog with regards to theatre (playground vs minima) . . . it's his right to do so, of course, why not?

But it's still a line, all the same, and people on the other side of the line are always gonna say something about it . . .

Especially if they, as I do, believe that there really is no line . . .

4:13 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Bah, crap. With all the talk of "top" and "bottom," I really did set myself up for that one, didn't I? Ah, no sympathy for self-inflicted injuries, I guess...

4:31 PM  
Blogger Freeman said...

Hey there...good thoughts all around. Linked to this discussion with some thoughts on my blog, of course.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Brecht said theory followed practice. In my experience, this is largely true; but I've found they twine around each other, each boosting the other along. They employ different parts of your brain. Great critics (Octavio Paz, Yves Bonnefoy, Giorgio Agamben, John Berger, Muriel Rukeyser) have really mattered to my own practice.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

They do. I’ve often found that what I’ve “learned” through the process of writing and staging one play instructs the next one. I don’t read a whole lot of formal theatre criticism, to be honest. I mean, I’ve read Martin Esslin, C.W.E. Bigsby, various manifestos of other theatre artists and companies, and current theatre reviews, but I don’t think any of it has really “stuck” when writing for the stage (my writing is admittedly very “hodgepodge;” i.e., some trends I’ve noticed mixes in with some mood I’m in mixes in with some Weezer song that’s been stuck in my head mixes in with some movie I just saw mixes in with some weird thing that happened to me two years ago ends up equaling the play). I’ve read the previously mentioned authors, manifestos and reviews to understand the work they’re talking about and get their "take" on them, but I don’t think it ever instructs my writing (i.e., I’ve read Esslin to learn more about Beckett, Ionesco and Albee; I've never read him to learn to write like them).

3:17 PM  
Anonymous George Hunka said...

I’ve read the previously mentioned authors, manifestos and reviews to understand the work they’re talking about and get their "take" on them, but I don’t think it ever instructs my writing (i.e., I’ve read Esslin to learn more about Beckett, Ionesco and Albee; I've never read him to learn to write like them).

Nor should you, writers develop their own idiosyncratic voices. But even that historical criticism like that of Esslin's and Bentley's isn't meant to be an instruction book, but a means of informing yourself about the various stages through which theater has passed in the over 2500 years of its history. It's a long tradition, and we're obliged to make ourselves aware of it, if only as a gesture of respect to the art, craft and discipline of theatre.

The criticism that Artaud, Barker, et al. practice (what we call "theory," a word which appears to set the hair on end and the head to nodding) is quite a different thing, an encouragement to discover the source and craft of one's own voice in respect to that same tradition -- where the individual stands within it, where she diverges from it (and instantly Eliot springs up again). As such it can prove inspirational both to write and to read. At the risk of muddying already unclear waters, one might call this a "practical criticism" rather than, say, an "academic criticism" that writers like Richard Schechner, Patrice Pavis and Terry Eagleton produce.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

This is true, although what you’re talking about here seems to be a slightly different thing: being aware of theatre history, something that I think most playwrights would do well to be at least a little bit versed in (i.e., how can you be so sure your play is so original if you remain willfully ignorant of the work that came before you?).

Or am I wrong? Is this what we’ve been talking about all along (to be as reductive as possible, being aware of theatre history)?

We are obliged to make ourselves aware of it, if only to see how we match up. I do think it’s a good idea to look at those works that serve as the “cream of the crop” in your eyes and be as brutally honest with yourself as to how your own work compares.

11:04 AM  

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