I did a show some time ago, one I shall not mention to protect the innocent (myself included), that was somewhat challenging for me character wise. It was a demanding little piece of work, but fun and I found myself growing in the part as time and the rehearsal process went on. I was, you know, processing. We went into previews and I had still not quite gotten a handle on my role fully, but felt confident that once the audience was there I would navigate that delicate dance that performers and audiences do in the theater and it would, in fact, help me fill those gaps in my performance.
After the second preview I was growing in confidence and finding a rhythm. In the meantime I had a deadline to make in order to update my professional acting website and so I searched the internet for past reviews, quotes, images etc, to post. BIG MISTAKE. Because, of course, I came across a blog that actually had a full on review of our show! While we were still in preview performances! The reviewer dragged me through it, illuminating the same holes that I knew I was struggling with, going so far as to suggest alternate casting for the part I was playing. I was furious, felt as though the trust between critic, performer and audience had been severely violated. And I was embarrassed. But, the worst of it was that I let his words get to me. I allowed him to fill that space of joy that I needed to continue my creative process and turn it toxic.
Eventually...I got over it. Did an assessment of the situation and found myself vindicated by having reached the personal goals that I set for myself with that specific production.
And then, after the show closed and the noise died down, I thought to myself...what was that?!? That was an interesting journey. Let's delve into that relationship a little more. Criticism and its effect on the artist. For better or for worse. I began thinking about the Ben Brantley's of the world and their sway over million dollar investments, star making roles, scripts that (after years of development or, on the flip-side, was some one’s get rich quick scheme) have finally made it to the light of day. One good review from the likes of a Brantley or an Isherwood can mean the difference between an extension or the extinction of some one's life work.
But, here's the thing...we in the theater, if we can afford it, are used to taking notes and making changes. We really are. Actors, Directors and Playwrights negotiate feedback every day, it's our job. Do we change the work we create on stage completely based on some review? Not necessarily but...we could. (take the three week hiatus to improve Spiderman for example) I have seen good reviews effect actors to their detriment or elevation just as much a poor reviews. But, theater is this living breathing thing. You will never see the same show twice throughout the run of a production and actors try new subtleties with every performance.
So my question evolved into this: How far could this go? What if criticism made an artist...change. What if your artistic integrity, the precious collection of things you know for sure, is called into question by a critic? What then?
I don't know the first thing about visual art. Ignorant on all counts. So, of course, this is the world I chose for this play. This world seemed like the better place to test a theory on artistic integrity than any other art-form. All a visual artist has is her hands and her inspiration. Whereas an actor (in my world) must be an interpretive conduit of someone else’s art the visual artist says, "this is unfiltered 'me-ness' here on this canvas, on this wall or on this blade of grass. It is what I believe is most important in the world and these are my views on it and this is my mind and how it works." And it's final. Once it's on display it's unchanging until the next piece is revealed. It can be a very naked existence.
So, I took to the internet again to help get some insights into this world that I'd never visited. I came across a paper written by Dr. Claire Bishop (lecturer and author of Installation Art: A Critical History) entitled "The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents."
In it she argues, "The social turn in contemporary art has prompted an ethical turn in art criticism. This is manifest in a heightened attention to how a given collaboration is undertaken. In other words, artists are increasingly judged by their working process—the degree to which they supply good or bad models of collaboration—and criticized for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to "fully" represent their subjects, as if such a thing were possible. This emphasis on process over product (i.e., means over ends) is justified as oppositional to capitalism's predilection for the contrary."
I found this concept fascinating and wanted to learn more about the evolution of contemporary criticism.
I emailed her. Told her about the idea for the play.
She emailed me back! She didn’t think I was nuts for looking her up. Thank god!
We meet in a Cuban restaurant in Park Slope along with Joe Scanlan, currently the Director and a Professor of Visual Arts in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, and talked for hours over mojitos about the differences and overlap of criticism in our respective fields. And it was that afternoon when Naomi's the first monologue was written.
“In the mainstream theater, I guess I'd have to say that there is still a painful dearth of girl-on-girl action. There are lesbians in plays nowadays, but please, can we have some hot lesbians who are sexual and like to make out? Not to objectify dykes completely, but I would vote for a more public displays of sexuality.” - That's a quote from Moe Angelos, one of the founding members of the Five Lesbian Brothers, from an interview in GO Magazine back in Oct. 2009. I was actually interviewed by Kathleen Warnock along with Moe, Carloyn Gage, Sarah Schulman and others for a piece entitled "Dyke Drama: The Enduring Power of Lesbian Theater"
Now, a lot was covered in the article. And I am not saying that The Review (Or How to Eat Your Opposition) has this quote as its foundation, but it definitely has stayed with me throughout the writing process. Because if I unpack what Moe is saying here. She simply wants to see truth in lesbian relationships on stage. As do I. So my central characters help bring to life the ideas of artistic and personal integrity and happen to be gay. These women suffer moral dilemmas and power struggles in the same way that being asked to take out the trash on my way out is a lesbian act in my household. And, yes...there's sex.
About the playwright.
Donnetta Lavinia Grays is an actor and playwright living in NYC. Her plays include the cowboy is dying, The B Factor, The New Normal and Absence of Faith. She is a founding member of Coyote REP and currently serves as its Artistic Director. More at www.donnettagrays.com