A friend of mine who works for a well known video game design company recently posted a thoughtful article on violence in video games. Reading this got me thinking about responsibility in art making.
I’ve been contemplating grad school recently (another essay! Oh my god another essay!) and something that kept popping up in these info sessions was this idea of the artist who is responsible for their art. All these schools are looking for “responsible” directors. What is such a thing? It’s directors who, in the words of one prestigious New England based institution “are not afraid to take risks, and they take responsibility for the philosophical and political implications of their work.”
Yes, on some level, I know practically you can’t just make something and then claim no accountability for what you just said and did. But what exactly does it mean to take responsibility for the work we create? How much are we held accountable for what our audiences take away?
Everyone has had the experience where an audience member reads something into your work you never considered. Audiences carry their own valences of meaning that they place on top of the stories we tell. We can craft, but we cannot control. In my personal opinion, I think most theater works too hard to try and limit the take away of an experience to a singular narrative or idea. In my own work I have been trying to take some lessons from our compatriots in dance or visual arts about how we can let go of the need to make every moment bite sized enough for the audience to digest it easily. That’s what I feel like makes better art. But is it responsible to hand over so much of the meaning making in my work?
A quick detour.
Do you remember this horribleness with a woman who killed herself over a prank phone call to Kate Middleton?
I know, I know. I hate this crap too. And I would never bring the thing up except that a few days after this thing threw up all over the media I was listening to the radio, and some horrible commentator on NPR was going on and on AND ON about how terrible these two DJs were, chastising them and the station for this horrific prank, and how dare they, how dare they, they SHOULD HAVE KNOWN, and even if no one had died this would STILL be a crime because who thinks this is funny and it shouldn’t have happened ever ever ever, did you hear me ever.
And all I could think was “Lady, you are such a fucking liar.”
Twenty-twenty hindsight I say. Thousands, probably millions, of stupid pranks like this don’t result in tragedy. They end up as stupid pranks that some people laugh at. The higher caliber a famous person, a few more days floating around the internet. 99% of the time this is the outcome. It just happens to really suck for two people for whom it wasn’t. You can certainly argue whether the prank phone call these people made was “art.” (for the record I would argue a resounding no) but I think the point can still be made that artists can’t always control how people react. This lady on NPR really thinks NO ONE ELSE IN THE WORLD would ever think this is funny or would consider doing something like this to a public figure? Apparently this woman has never listened to a morning radio program on a major station. And if you read this transcription it is about the tamest prank phone call I’ve ever seen.
Asides now asided, to my point. People do things they think are funny all the time. People make art they think is deep and impactful all the time. Some people agree. Some people don’t. Some artists want to make their audiences happy. Some want to offend. No one wants something like this. If these two moron DJs (who from the transcripts, do sound like morons) had any conception of this as a possibility they would never have done it. I think it’s hard to imagine it would occur to anyone to predict such a thing.
The universe is an incredibly erratic, random and irrational place. Who knows how many millions of prank calls to millions of celebrities’ underlings narrowly missed a random series of coincidences in which their actions lead to tragedy? Two Australians happened to hit the shit storm bull’s-eye.
You can argue if they did something stupid.
You can bet they will never have a sense of humor again.
But does that make them responsible for what happened?
If the answer is yes, that sucks. That seems crazy. It makes me nervous to invite people to my plays because I disagree with my audiences often. The critics are the most obvious and public responders, but there have been countless times I’ve been chatting in a talk back or after a show and thought “What the hell play did YOU see?” after a viewer talked to me about their experience. Even the simplest of my works never mean just one thing. My GOAL is for them to mean LOTS of things.
Is taking responsibility the same as accepting blame for every person’s response to what I make? Am I accountable if someone sees my depressing play and gets really depressed? What if they get so depressed and quit their job and stop eating and hide under a blanket for a year?
If you produce a playwright’s play do you have to stand behind every word written in the script? Every reference or allusion in the text? What if that playwright has written another play, incredibly offensive, that has nothing to do with the one you want to put on? What if that playwright simply happens to public espouse opinions you find odious?
And what if someone reads something into a scene I never intended. Is that still my responsibility?
I once saw a production of a Shakespeare play in which the production’s sole black actress in the cast was hanging laundry for the ruling (white) lady of the house. The costumes, the staging, the text’s emphasis on difference in class all added up in my mind to a pre civil rights-era black servant. The choice was jarring and threw the scene into strange contrast with everything else the director was doing with the production. I believe this was unintentional, just a random choice to use an African American actress in a 50’s style cleaning outfit and a haughty white woman yelling at her without thinking about the historical implications it might engender. I don’t know for sure. And I don’t know if that makes it better or worse that the person might have had no idea.
I know there is no single answer. It has to be a spectrum. And there’s not much to do but try and use your best judgment about what is okay and what isn’t.
But where do you cut the line?
Are there things that people think I’m doing that I have no idea about?