They say to never, ever read reviews of a show that you’re performing in until after the show closes, if at all, but as we theatre geeks say, that’s a rule more honored in the breach than the observance.
And so yeah, I was kind of miffed by various reviews of the show I’m performing in currently, Johanna: Facing Forward, the true story of an 18-year-old girl who survived being shot in the face by her boyfriend in 2007, that seemed mixed or outright negative in their reactions — the most common criticism seeming to be that the play comes off as “preachy,” as a “PSA” or “after-school special.”
And that’s fine, if that’s what the critics took away from it. Lord knows it’s a criticism I’ve made myself enough times — in fact, as an edgy angsty teenager growing up in a highly Christian community forced to consume didactic Christian media on the reg, for a long time it was by far my most common criticism of any media I disliked, just like my most common words of praise were for anything “dark,” “edgy” or “transgressive”. (Needless to say I was a huge Fight Club fan.) There’s nothing wrong with saying that you find a play boring because it’s too didactic, and that you find a play too didactic because it tries so assiduously to be informative about a real-life instance of a real-life social crisis. I get that criticism.
But I don’t feel it. On a purely visceral, personal level I’ve been more emotionally yanked around, knocked back and forth, and put through the wringer by this play than I have any other play I’ve done for a long time.
Yes, I’m a biased source — although it’s certainly not true that I’ve liked every production I’ve been in just because I was in it. (I try to avoid writing think pieces online about the ones I don’t, though.) But it’s not like I don’t intellectually understand what the reviews are saying. That was, to be honest, the thought in the back of my head when I first auditioned for this production— “What if this turns out to just be a story people think is ‘important’ because it really happened, even if it’s not actually good?”
But that’s a question that, more and more, I think isn’t really a well-formed question when criticizing any work of art.
It’s absolutely true that when Johanna gets standing ovations from the audience a big reason why is that so many Clevelanders who lived here in 2007 followed the real Johanna Orozco’s story closely in the media, and they know what they’re watching is a reenactment of real events, populated by characters who are, for the most part, all real people whose names still show up in the Cleveland news, like then-prosecutor now-judge Pinkey Carr and then-judge now-prosecutor Timothy McGinty. The best advertisement we could’ve gotten for our play is Rachel Dissell, the reporter who initially covered Johanna’s story and a major character in the script, doing a piece on how it felt to watch “herself” onstage.
Maybe for professional actors who live in New York and are used to doing “ripped-from-the-headlines” stories for Law and Order: SVU it’s old hat, but I found that acting when I knew I was portraying a real person, a living person, a person who lived in Cleveland, a person who had a good chance of coming to see the show — that I was way more self-critical of my acting choices than I’d otherwise be.
As an ensemble member I put on a lot of real people’s hats in this play — Gus Chan, the photographer from the Plain Dealer who worked with Dissell, CPD Sex Crimes Detective Michael Kovach, Dr. Tung Trang, the surgeon who initially saved Johanna’s life, Bob Duesing, Johanna’s high school history teacher — and I did it without ever getting the chance to meet any of those people beforehand. I had to make the arbitrary, idiosyncratic choices every actor does — how does this person speak? stand? walk? fidget? — but do so asking myself, “If this guy actually comes and sees the show how will he react? Is this choice I’m making right now a necessary, authentic choice or is it just some self-indulgent shtick I’m doing to make my job easier?”
I met the real Gus Chan — whose daughter was apparently a big fan of mine on Jeopardy! — and the real Bob Duesing on opening weekend. None of them looked anything like me or, as far as I could tell, acted anything like I did in the play. Both of them said they thought I did a great job and had no problem with how I portrayed them. It was one of the bigger sighs of relief I’ve ever breathed, though not uncontaminated with my nagging doubts about how exactly I’d feel about it if I were ever portrayed onstage by some actor and if I’d be able to honestly tell the guy if I were offended by it.
One thing that did bug me — the one character I play in the script who doesn’t have a name is the “Public Defender,” who shows up in the play’s courtroom scenes to represent Juan Ruiz, Johanna’s ex-boyfriend and attempted murderer. I was told that the Public Defender character wasn’t based on any specific person — Ruiz had been represented by multiple different lawyers throughout the trial — and, lacking any hook for the character other than his job, made him basically be the stereotypical “public defender” from a courtroom movie — nervous, high-strung, of questionable competence, prone to speaking just a touch too loudly when making a point.
Which led to an audience member after the show laughing as she told me, “You played my friend Jasmine!”
“Who?” I asked, and she replied, “Juan Ruiz’s attorney.”
Jasmine, she said, was a really cool person, who’d been a judge at one point, whom her friend used to get confused with all the time because “we have the same hair,” she said, gesturing to her own hair, dyed fire-engine-red.
Jasmine, whom I’d never met or even heard of, sounded like she was the polar opposite of the flailing empty suit I’d made the Public Defender into — and whatever her thoughts were on the justice system, her feelings at providing the most effective counsel possible for an attempted murderer, they weren’t in the script, for reasons of time and focus. Where she should have been in the story, there was me, a placeholder/cardboard cutout.
I didn’t feel guilty, exactly. Jasmine’s friend didn’t seem offended — it’s not like anyone could possibly have interpreted my performance as meant to represent her. It’s not like it’s possible in any dramatic presentation to be scrupulously accurate to each and every detail if you want a script that’s at all coherent.
But still, it bugged me.
It matters because so much of what makes the play work is the knowledge that it is accurate. That the words I’m saying are taken directly from interviews and court transcripts.
Many of the elements of the play that got criticized matter because they’re authentic. Yes, it does matter that much of the play’s dialogue is in Spanish, with projected supertitles for the translations — because those are real quotes of things Johanna’s Spanish-speaking relatives said. Yes, it matters that for the debut performance of this play they did it in Cleveland, with local Latino actors, many of whom live and work in the same neighborhood Johanna and Juan grew up in — and no, the play would not, therefore, be improved if done with imported New York Equity veterans.
And yes, it matters that Johanna’s real-life younger brother, Kevin Orozco, a member of Teatro Público de Cleveland, runs the lights and soundboard for the show and is up there the whole time, watching every move we make, that everyone knows that for every performance there’s someone who’s watching us and seeing his sister, his grandparents, his high school, the events of his own life.
When I was younger I used to call this kind of thing “cheating,” and to sneer constantly at “Lifetime movies” and “based on a true story” stories. Of course you can create pathos by invoking real life at every turn, I’d say, and of course that compromises the ability of your story to stand “on its own.” It’s “cheating” when people cry watching a play about AIDS because they know someone who died of AIDS; it’s “cheating” when people get invested in a movie about the Vietnam War because they were invested in the conflict over the war in real life; etc.
I was really into edgy, experimental artwork for the sake of its being edgy and experimental — the more “non-representational” it was, the better. I even had a manifesto written up about how the ideal exploration of art would be all form and no content, would somehow evoke powerful emotion through “The gostak distims the doshes”-style story structure that referred to nothing in the real world at all. (Science fiction and fantasy writers flirt with doing this in experimental fiction, sometimes to great artistic effect, more often leading to a self-indulgent mess.)
As I get older I increasingly think this is dumb. Form doesn’t exist without content. Stories don’t exist without a storyteller, an audience, and a venue in which the story is being told — all of whom are specific human beings who exist in a specific place and time.
So yeah, in line with my fellow postmodern hipster social justice warriors, I think trying to divorce any text from its context is a huge, misguided waste of time. Yes, it does matter who wrote something and to whom they wrote it. (And yes, it matters that so much of what we have in our culture is written by white men to white men.) Yes, the reason we were moved by Spielberg’s Lincoln is that Abraham Lincoln is a real guy who occupies a specific place in our culture, and if you made the exact same movie about a green Martian named Lzgorp — or showed the exact same movie to green Martians who’d never heard of Lincoln — the film would lose most of its power. So what? That does absolutely nothing to change the fact that in reality the film is powerful because of what it’s about, as is every film, no matter how abstract or experimental.
Everything we watch or read refers to something in the real world. Everything has meaning only because of what it attaches to in real life. Game of Thrones’ “fantasy world” only matters to us because it reminds us of the real medieval Europe; Star Wars because it reminds us of cowboys, samurai and World War II gunners. Even something as basic as watching an orange triangle commit an act of violence against a red circle in an abstract surreal animation only has meaning to the degree that the animated shapes interacting remind us of people interacting.
And yes, that means that the facts of the world we actually live in will always determine what a work of art means. It means that that a white person making fun of black people is a fundamentally different act from a black person making fun of white people, and that portraying violence by men against women is fundamentally different from portraying violence by women against men.
And that critics who think any work can exist in some kind of cultural vacuum, context-free, are really really annoying, and the fact that their nonsense dominates discussion of gaming is one of the biggest barriers to games ever being considered art.
I’m not saying that critics who think that Johanna’s real-life resonance fails to make up for whatever they find its technical and artistic flaws to be are wrong. Their experience is their experience. But I am interested in how different my own experience is, and how I’ve changed as an audience member, critic and artist over time.
It has never been possible for me, throughout this production, to avoid thinking about the fact that we’re doing a script that deals with rape, and that the specific rape survivor our story is about had read the script and was coming to see the show. That the way we told the story had to honor that knowledge, be based around it.
Compare how many people treat the reaction of real rape survivors to depictions of sexual violence in art as an irrelevant footnote, who say that how the fictional act connects to and reflects on the real act doesn’t matter because it’s a “fantasy world.” Compare the “It’s a fantasy world” excuse used to dismiss people of color’s concerns about their representation, or lack thereof, in the media they consume. Compare people dismissing the success “issue” films or games as being somehow illegitimate if the power of the work has any demonstrable connection to the real-life relevance of the issue.
Well, there are no “fantasy worlds” disconnected from the real world because there are no fantasy worlds that aren’t made up by real human beings in the real world for reasons deeply rooted in the real world. If your take on rape doesn’t take into account that rape happens in real life and that real rape survivors are going to watch your “fantasy” TV show, your take on rape is garbage.
When I was younger and into formalism and New Criticism and all that noise I would’ve qualified my love of my experience with Johanna: Facing Forward by saying, “Well, I mainly like the play because the whole time I’ve been doing it I’ve known it’s about real people, and if I didn’t have that knowledge I have no way of knowing if I’d feel the same way.”
Well, I’d still say that today, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Whether you’re willing to acknowledge it or not, that’s true of literally everything you like, for whatever reason you think you like it.
Art is in the world and of the world, and “activist” art that’s conscious of this and seeks to be aware of how it affects the world and is affected by it isn’t some lower form of art. It’s the highest, most responsible and most aware way for an artist to think. And it’s the mindset on which I hope to build my own artistic career.