By Isaac Butler
Had an interesting discussion with a theatremaker up here in Minneapolis today. He's made a career out of making (and shepherding) challenging work all over the country. And we were talking about the whole theatre artists saying they want to make challenging work, and he said "well, it depends on whose definition of challenging you're using. What community is being challenged? And by whom? And how do you define what is challenging?"
I think these are all good, thorny questions. I'm sure you have your own answers for them. He brought up (As a negative example) a well known experimental playwright whose position is, essentially, if they leave in the middle of the show because you offended them enough, than you know that at least they were paying attention.
He thought-- and I agreed-- that this was a pretty facile perspective. Basically, it's waaaay too easy to get people to walk out of your shows. And then he put it quite well:
"Abuse people's humanity enough and they'll get angry, and do it even more and they'll walk out. I mean, I could do a show in which I kicked a puppy on stage for two hours. People would probably walk out of that."
This, ultimately, is my problem with a lot of theatre that gets put under the challenging umbrella. I actually don't find being abused all that challenging, except as an act of endurance. And when it exists as its own end, it just gets really tiresome.
Anyway, he just helped sum up for me what infuriates me about work that is mistaken for challenging but is actually abusive. And of course, the lines on which we draw this are up to us. I think the work of Sarah Kane is abusive, not challenging. I know a lot of my readers disagree.
Where do you draw these lines? If you're an artist who thinks of yourself as making challenging work (or an audience member who enjoys challenging work) how do you define what is the "challenge"?