After the first preview performance of THE BUTCHER, when the talkback was over and the audience had largely dispersed, a woman approached me. She was trembling a bit, but she waited patiently for a chance to speak with me alone. She wouldn’t take her eyes off me—her intensity was more than a bit intimidating—and as I perched on the edge of the stage, chatting with the last few well-wishers, I worried about what she might be waiting to say to me. After all, when you write a play about religion, you have to expect a few strong feelings here and there.
As it happens, that’s exactly what I got… but in a really lovely way. When she and I were finally alone, she asked me in a quiet voice whether she might just look into my eyes for a moment. I hesitated briefly, but decided to just accept whatever the world was about to give me. “Yes,” I said, “of course.” So she took my hands into hers, this older woman, and spent at least ten seconds not just meeting my gaze, but examining me. I felt like I was being questioned, deeply, even though she didn’t say a word. And then… tears began to roll down her cheeks—lots of them—and she finally spoke: “You’re an honest man. I can see that. And you’ve written a godly play. And I’m very, very grateful.” Then she set my two suddenly-limp hands back down on the stage and walked away, wiping her tears as she did.
Not bad, right? I was humbled to have had such an impact on her, and as grateful for her few words as she was for the whole play. There were similar reactions from several other audience members, too—one that stands out was a Christian woman who confessed to Kristen Coury, the play’s director, that her eyes had been opened and she’d never look at a Muslim person the same way again—but that intense eye gaze was unforgettable. It was just the sort of reaction we all hope to elicit from an audience member: thoughtful and full of feeling.
Another audience member, however, had a very different reaction, which he shared via social media:
“If you believe religion is evil, Christians are radical or idiots, and Islam is the best of the 3 major religions, then this is the play for you.”
This is a man, mind you, who attended the same performance and stayed for the same talkback as the woman who told me I’d written a “godly” play. They both had, externally, the same exact experience, but interpreted that experience in radically polarized ways. And I can only attribute the difference in their responses to one thing: their own divergent minds.
When we engage with art, I believe, a unique universe is created for each audience member: one that’s composed in equal measure by the art itself and by the mind of the person engaging with it. (We focus so often on the fact that a live theater audience experiences a play in groups, but we neglect the individual element of theater-going at our peril.) How that process works, I cannot say; no one can, in fact, and I think our ignorance on that front is heartbreaking, given how many neurological tools we have at our disposal. What I can say, though, is that neither of those audience members was “wrong” to experience the play as either godly or godless. They saw what they saw because they are who they are, and that’s that.
What I wish all theatergoers understood better is that what we see in a play should probably not be mistaken for the truth about that play. Rather than try to convince others that we’re right about what we’ve seen, furthermore, I wonder whether we wouldn’t be better off simply sharing what we noticed, at least at first, and asking others what they noticed as well. Starting a conversation, rather than making a pronouncement. Engaging, rather than judging. This is what I wish a great many more theater critics would do as well… but this is not, sadly, the era in which I live.
The other reason we ought to avoid equating our own perceptions with reality? We might just have blinders on. I’m thinking in particular of another audience member who attended a preview performance and sought me out avidly after the talkback was over. He couldn’t stop raving about the play as a whole, but he really wanted to talk to me at length about one long monologue with which he was completely smitten.
The character who delivers the monologue in question covers everything from pretense around the Thanksgiving dinner table to the definition of delusion in the DSM-IV to a chat with her rabbi before her bat mitzvah, but the one element he couldn’t let go of was her depiction of an interview she did with a radicalized cleric standing beside a mass grave. As a deeply conservative Christian, he thought her depiction was spot-on, and he really connected with it: so much so that he promised to tell everyone he knew to come see the play. “She was my favorite character,” he told me in no uncertain terms. “I loved her.” What he didn’t seem to have noticed, for some reason, is that she’s clearly an anti-religious atheist: someone he’d almost certainly despite in real life.
A play, to me, is a gift given to an audience… which means you can’t control what the recipients are going to do with it. The gift might be cherished, as THE BUTCHER seemed to be by the Iranian audience member who told me I’d depicted her immigrant experience with real depth and insight. The gift might be shared, as it was by the Israeli couple who promised to bring all their friends back to the theater later in the run. At the same time, the gift might be returned or despised, too, and there’s nothing an artist can do about that. All we can control is our own intention in giving the gift in the first place… and with THE BUTCHER, I know I’ve done the best I possibly can.