Sunday, November 05, 2006

my own intent

A reader wrote in response to this piece (in which I am skeptical that we can ever know an artist's intent). He wondered if, when I direct plays, I care whether or not the audience gets my intent. He also wondered whether actors might confuse an audience if they played their characters as confused. For instance, if an character is groping to try to figure out his next word, mightn't the audience think that the actor playing the character has forgotten his lines? Here's my response:

You asked whether it's important that, when I direct plays, audience understand my intent. I assume you're asking whether or not it's important to me -- not whether or not it's important to various audience members. I'm sure it is important to some of them, because many people care about intent. If I felt like confronting them, I'd say, "I'm sorry it's important to you, because you can never know my real intent. Not even if I tell it to you, because I might be lying (or, more likely, I might be mistaken)." Of course, I would never actually say this, because I want people to enjoy themselves. If someone cares about intent and thinks they know what mine is then more power to them!

One of the reasons why I mistrust the idea of mining intent from other people's work is that when I direct plays, I'm not always aware of my own intent. If someone pinned me down and demanded to know my intent, I might tell them something, and it would probably be an approximation of the truth, but I can't really read myself well enough to tell the whole truth. And -- who knows? -- I might just try to say something witty or smart, something that would make me look good, perhaps, but wouldn't help anyone understand what my actual intent was while I was directing. Also, all this talk about intent assumes that the artist has one fixed intent. But during a long rehearsal period, my intent might change from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday (to later in the day on Wednesday).

Maybe people cling to intent is a desire to simplify human psychology. People really want to believe that they can pack someone's motivations into a nutshell or boil them down to a simple sentence. I fall prey to that desire. It's one of the reasons I direct. You can do that -- to some extent -- with characters in plays, but I think characters (even really complex ones, like Hamlet) are sort of toy people: simplistic models of real human beings. That's not a criticism. I think it's a major reason why we find fictional characters appealing. (It's also why we like plots: even the most tangled ones are never as tangled as real-life plots.)

If an actor takes a character and boils his psychology down to some simple statement of intent, that will help the actor grasp the character and be able to make decisions on stage. But since the actor is a real human being, his creation will necessarily be more complex than his decision. Little random bits of the actor's behavior and psyche will creep into the character. Paradoxically, I think this is another reason we like enacted stories. We like seeing the actor's personality clash a little with the character. What pops out the other end is often very interesting and nuanced. (Though if either side wins, the result is boring.)

Years ago, I read about frustrated hackers who created a calligraphy program. They spent hours analyzing letter-forms and came up with an application that spat out perfectly-rendered letters. Trouble was, they were too perfect. They were so perfect, they looked fake (like much computer animation). To "fix" the program, they made it introduce tiny errors: they type made by even the best human calligraphers. This made the output more aesthetically pleasing, and more seemingly the work of a human. I've heard that the same problem plagues computer-generated music. Programmers have to add auditory glitches, the type that real musicians make (even super-talented ones), or the result sounds cold and mechanical. I'm not musically gifted, but I once heard a sax player say something really interesting. He said that unlike older instruments -- the French horn, say, or the trumpet -- the saxophone was never really perfected. So part of what you hear, when you listen to a musician playing the sax, is the sound of him wrestling with the instrument, trying (and failing to some extent) to get the sax to do what he wants it to do. And it's this struggle that arouses us when we hear a sax. True or not, this is an apt metaphor for what actors do: they struggle with their characters, in real time, in front of us, on stage. We may not be aware of this consciously -- and in fact, I think it's much better if we're not -- but it's what makes great acting seem complex, conflicted, nuanced and endowed with hidden depths.)

Anyway, back to your question. Is it important to me that the audience gets my intent? Well, to avoid your question for one moment longer, I'd say -- given my view that it's impossible to really know someone's intent -- if it is important to me, I'm out of luck. Important or not, it ain't gonna happen.

Now I'm a human being, and humans like to communicate, and when we do, we often are trying to communicate our intent. Directing is a form of communication, so -- yes -- if I think a scene is about revenge, and the audience watches it and afterwards several people tell me they loved the "revenge scene" ... sure: I'm pleased.

I'm also a little disappointed. It's been so many years since I embraced the notion that people can't know intent. And whereas I find this really shocking and tragic in real-life interaction (my mind can never truly touch your mind), I find it liberating in art. My real goal is to plop something very interesting in front of an audience and let them mine whatever they want -- or whatever their mind wants -- out of it. If they mine exactly what I intended ... well … that's a little boring. What's really exciting, and what often happens, is that people come up to me and tell me things about my own show that I didn't know. That's awesome!

And note that some of these audience interpretations are better and more profound than my thoughts were, while I was crafting the play. Hopefully, I am better at directing plays than the average play-goer, otherwise I should hand the reins over to someone else. But assuming I am a good director, that doesn't mean I'm necessarily an insightful critic (especially of my own work). It doesn't mean that what I have to say about my own work is better -- more interesting or more meaningful -- than what someone else says. Often, it's not. So that's another reason I don't care about artists' intents. Other people may -- and often do -- have much more interesting things to say about the work than the artist himself (though hopefully the artist is the best person at creating the art). I think people confuse brilliant artistry with brilliant insights about art, but these are two very different talents.

I also think that, just as people want to simplify psychology, they often want to simplify art. If we can't trust the author's statements about his intent -- or our own notions of what his intend might have been -- what can we trust? Where can we look for the ultimate, definitive guide that will tell us what a work of art means? I'd say, "no where." Art is interesting only when it can't be pinned down in this way. But perhaps this elusiveness makes art frightening (or frustrating) too.

The reason I put months into a production, and the reason I go over a scene over and over again, is NOT because I want to be sure some point flows across the footlights. It's because I'm trying to "polish the machine." I'm trying to craft something so perfect, nuanced, entertaining, provoking and sensual that the various people in the audience will all react in some way (maybe each in a different way). I don't care how they react. I just want them to react.

I take that back. I don't care how they react, as-long-as they're reacting TO THE STORY. I'm disappointed if they're reacting to ME. I don't want them to think, "Interesting choice. What a brilliant director!" (And, of course, I don't want them to think "Terrible choice. What a horrible director!) I don't want them to think about the director at all, because I want them to be totally immersed in the story. And the director is not part of the story. Stanley Kubrick isn't a character in "Full Metal Jacket" (though an "authorial voice" may be a character) and Alfred Hitchcock isn't a character in "Vertigo."

(Oops. Yes he is. Even though most people think they're great fun, I hate those Hitchcock cameos. I revere Hitchcock, because he was such an immersive storyteller. Everything he did seemed an attempt to get you to believe in his storyworlds and to forget that they were fake -- except for those damn cameos. They are glitches -- maybe fun glitches, but glitches all the same -- in otherwise perfect worlds. I suspect he left them in because they were so much fun for him (and for his audiences), but as Hemmingway (or Falkner or whoever) said, "You have to kill all your darlings." Darlings are those fun, clever things that are, nonetheless, gratuitous. They don't further the story. In fact, they detract from the story or highlight the fact that it is a story.

A more complex example is the red-coated girl in Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Though I'm not generally a Spielberg fan, I love "Schindler's List." I think it's a brilliant, almost perfect film. It's shot in black and white, but in one scene, there's a little girl wearing a red coat. She moves around all the black-and-white people, and she's impossible to miss, because she's the only one in color. In her scene, the Nazi's are massacring a Jewish ghetto. There's much violence and confusion, but the red coat lets you follow the little girl and see her fate. It's a clever (and even poetic) device, and I think I'm the only person on Earth who hated it.

I hated it, because up until that point, I was totally immersed in the movie. I was feeling the storyworld so intently that it might as well have been the real world. Then all of the sudden, the red coat appeared, and I thought, "How clever. Spielberg made a really interesting choice!" And at that point, I was thinking about Spielberg the director (and his choices), which means I was suddenly very aware that I was watching artifice. I could talk about how well-meaning and "artistic" the artifice was, but the truth is it was no longer affecting me as strongly as it did before I became aware of the artifice. I was now less immersed. A dream is more powerful when you don't realize it's a dream.)

That's the closest I'll get to a statement of intent: I love the story of whatever play I'm working on, and I want to share that love with the audience. I want them to love it too. I don't care how they love it or what they get out of it, but I DO want them to love it. I can't make them love it, but I can do whatever is in my power to make it compelling, and my slight grasp of human psychology tells me that people usually like compelling things.

You're right: there's a danger that the audience will mistake character stutters for actor stutters. I've actually seen that happen, and if it happens, it's a problem. But it's a very rare occurrence. If the audience thinks, "that actor just made a mistake," then it means they're thinking -- to some extent -- about the actor, and not the character. It means they realize that what they are watching isn't real. And it's probably a sign that there's a deeper problem. There's something profoundly wrong with the production -- something that's not allowing people to engage in it fully.

(It also might be a flaw in the audience member. Some people -- for whatever reason -- can't (or don't want to) really engage with a story. But as a director, I can't control that. So I ignore it. If my story doesn't engage someone, I find it useful to take responsibility for their lack of engagement, even if it's "not my fault." If I take responsibility for it and try harder next time, I will mature as an artist.)

I know what I've written sounds a little nuts. Surely, people always know that what they're watching isn't real. Well, that may be so (though, I think, at least for short periods, people do tend to forget that fiction is fiction: think about when you've been really scared by a horror film). But I'm not chiefly concerned by "knowing" on an intellectual level. Whether or not people know they are watching fiction, I want them to FEEL like they're watching real life. I want them to be emotionally engaged with the characters as-much-as they would be if the characters were real people. I try to stamp out anything that will keep them from this state. That -- as I see it -- is my job.

This is another reason why I rehearse for so long. Step one is to get the actor to really feel he is the character (I don't care whether or not he "knows" he's not the character). He has to get deeply inside his character's skin. He has to know his character intimately. This sometimes leads to confusion in rehearsal. We'll be talking about some tiny bit of psychological nuance, and the actor will say, "But how will the audience know that I'm feeling this?" (Actors are just as wrapped up with intent as anyone else.) I have to explain that the audience may not know, and it's fine if they don't know. The point isn't to get them to know. The point is to create a rich characterization. If you think about the really great performances you've seen, I'm sure you don't know what's going on in the character's head in each moment. But you know that SOMETHING is going on. You know that there's LIFE IN THERE. And that's what compels you. And you're free to read whatever you want into it.

Too many artists are egoists. They want to convey some idea to their audience and that's all they care about. But I don't think that's why people like art. I think people like art because art helps them learn about THEMSELVES. It helps them feel their OWN feelings -- not the artist's feelings -- and have their own ideas. It helps them sense! As an artist, what I most want to do is to help people engage with their own sensuality. Not with mine

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