Matt Freeman has an interesting post up asking about arbitrary vs. intentional choices in theatre:
Is it possible that an arbitrary decision by the creative team and a decision with some complex thought behind it...can look exactly the same? And does it make a difference, really, to the audience member? Does how a decision is arrived at inform what we see?
Can we sense the arbitrary? Or do we just assume that everything we see onstage was put there with a rigorous sense of purpose?
It's an interesting series of questions question that provokes some interesting comments. I suppose my answer to the penultimate question is "sort of". We can notice things that feel arbitrary, but we're not hounds snuffling out rabbits here, we can't ever really tell if we're on the right scent.
What I've realized in thinking about Matt's question is that it really depends which department of a creative team you're talking about. Oddly enough, this realization came while reading the latest issue of Kevin Huizinga's GANGES, in which Glenn Ganges tries to go to sleep and his mind wanders all over his neighborhood and consciousness. There was a point in it where I thought to myself "Anything could happen in the next panel,". Anything, that is, that can be drawn. Huizinga is the artist as well as the writer. He has complete autonomy on Ganges. There are no collaborative cheques or balances. If he wanted Glenn to die halfway through the second page and make the issue suddenly about Wendy, he could. He's messed with this sort of stuff before-- Glenn has a kid in one book, and is childless in the next, the plots of most of Huizinga's Ganges material have little to do with each other etc.
Anything Huizinga wants to happen could, there are no rules other than the ones he creates, and he doesn't even have to follow those. Some comics artists, in fact, pointedly don't follow the rules they set down for themselves. Grant Morrison's Invisibles was completely illegible to me because of the lack of and perceivable rules. At any moment, any arbitrary thing could happen, and thus nothing that happened had any stakes and it was impossible for me to ever get my bearings in the series. (Other readers think The Invisibles is mind blowing, as my dad would say, "a difference of opinion is what makes horse racing").
Theatre is not comix, however. Creators don't have sole control. First off, you can't do literally anything on stage. I mean, you could have someone come out and read a stage direction that a dragon comes in and eats everyone and expect the audience to use their imaginations, but I don't think that counts as actually doing it. There's this whole cheques and balances system that exists due to the nature of collaboration. Some of this comes from positive social conventions about how collaboration is supposed to work, the need for mutual respect etc, some of this comes from implicit threats inherent in the process-- the writer can always pull the rights to the piece, the director can always walk off it, the actors can always not do as they're told once the play is in front of an audience and so on.
Anyway, the question of arbitrary choices changes depending on which part of the production team you're talking about. An arbitrary-feeling choice in the text is very different from, say, there being a pointless dance interlude right before Hal says "I do. I will" in Henry IV, Part One, which is also different from an actor doing some pen-clicking schtick that may or may not relate to their character.
Some of what we do is art and some is craft, and quite a bit of the art part (at least on my end) is guided by instinct and taste. That's the dirty truth of it. To paraphrase DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect 5, "I only know one way to work a case, and that's through instinct and hard work". I'm not one of those directors who plots out the blocking in advance or who knows immediately upon stepping into the rehearsal room exactly what they want (nothing but love for those who do). For me, the rehearsal process is really a process, and as much work as I've done leading up to first rehearsal, the first pass of blocking is largely instinctual. When did the actor want to move? Where is my attention flagging? What blocking image feels right? Etc. It's only after first run-through that the craft part, the "hard work" part kicks in, just like how in writing an essay the first draft is feeling one's way through the material, thinking aloud on the page and the second draft is when it gets its shape.
The revision step is also where the choices that don't add anything, or don't work get taken out. But the ones that remain have fairly instinctual/arbitrary reasons for being there in the first place. They might not have completely arbitrary reasons for staying in, but they're origination is as much instinct as anything else.
When I hear the term "arbitrary" used, and when I use it myself, it's only ever meant as a negative criticism. It means a choice whose relationship to the moment/play/text/production cannot be fathomed and detracts from the overall experience of the show. And i only ever use it to describe directorial choices.
In reality, though, there's a satisfying sweet spot between the rational and the inspired. When art is too rational and over-crafted it begins to feel schematic and suffocating, but when it's completely based on what an artist wants to do, with no rules surrounding it, it's generally a bewildering experience. One of the first things I do in a rehearsal process is try to create some rules for myself so I don't go completely off the rails. Whenever I personally discuss "concept" (ugh that word should be stricken from the theatrical language) what I mean is the set of rules I'll be obeying to keep myself in check. The audience's perception of these rules isn't really the point. That volume of smoke, for example, is performed by a group of ghosts retelling their stories was far more important for me in thinking through design and blocking choices than it was for the audience in understanding Clay's text. Similarly, with MilkMilkLemonade I didn't care that the audience understood the play to be a nightmare the main character was having after eating some bad chicken one night. I don't think I even told the actors that's how I thought of the play, but it helped me navigate my choices in it. One run through, for example, Josh and I looked at each other afterwards and said "everyone is being too nice to Emory right now". I was able to arrive at that because of the nightmare rules I had made up for myself. They didn't allow a version where people were overly nice to Emory, even if I could see how that version might work in a different production.