This HowlRound post made me feel more “understood” as a playwright than anything I’ve read in a long, long time. Please go read it and get to know me better. And then, if you want to know more, come back and read on.
I’ve read it twice now. The first time, I was so compelled by the beginning that I read the whole thing in snippets on my phone while building these enormous towers of blocks for my 21 month-old son to knock down. (Talk about disrupting narratives!) The second time, I read it more contemplatively, increasingly overcome by a sense of feeling deeply understood as a playwright, for which I cannot thank Polly Carl enough.
Stories serve so many different functions in human cultures. Some of those functions are, I think — whether we’d like to admit it or not — conservative. They conserve knowledge; they solidify or embody what we already (generally and widely) know about the world; they encode traditions; they teach us about (relatively) unchanging (or only very slowly changing) aspects of being human. And these are all, to some extent, useful functions.
Taken to an extreme, however, these conservative narratives tend to deify or cement certain worldviews and ideas. They begin to urge us to stop thinking or questioning. They reaffirm predispositions and prejudices and errors in judgment and outdated moral stances. They become stale. Even dead. For me, at least, the dysfunctional narratives Polly refers to fall into this category.
It is against these dysfunctional stories that disruptive narratives need to be set. Their purpose, at least to me, is sabotage and revolution. Where dysfunctional stories act like sedatives, disruptions are more like psychedelia: they liberate and reinvigorate the mind, setting the consciousness of those who encounter them whirling. They make us see things we haven’t seen and that we cannot un-see. Though I hate to use this word, because it’s been thoroughly “dysfunctionalized” itself, they are transformative.
But all that’s very unsettling for people. It’s like having your emotional and intellectual apple cart upset, which people naturally tend to resist. That resistance explains (at least to my satisfaction) why we do our utmost to avoid creating and producing too many disruptive narratives. We’re afraid that we’ll all utterly lose our centers and that civilization will completely fall apart. So we don’t fund or support or create the spaces from which disruptive narratives can emerge. We do our level best to suppress them: even us, the creatives of the world! We throw our efforts into conservation because, well, people will more readily pay us for it. I just wish we wouldn’t go SO far in that direction.
This problem is especially different here in DC. In a town that’s thoroughly drenched in power and authority (and the desire for both), we are terrified of all forms of disruption… which is why, I believe, we need it even more. In the 1980s, the punk scene here understood this, and it thrived for a good long while. (It still lives, in fact, to some degree.) I want theater in my city to find the same sort of truth-to-power (or “lit match”-to-power) energy. I try to write the sort of plays that will disrupt whatever I can possibly disrupt. It’s crazy-making at times — one’s own brain can only handle so much of it — but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Note: I submitted a version of what I’ve written above as a comment on the post, if you’d rather continue the discussion there.