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January 06, 2009


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Paul Rekk

My favorite quote regarding meaning and interpretation comes from Andre Gide:

"Before I explain my book to others, I expect them to explain it to me. To claim to explain it first is to immediately narrow down its reach; for if we know what we intended to say, we do not know whether we said only that. - One always says more than THAT. - And what interests me most is what I put in without knowing, - that unconscious share, which I would like to call God's share."

I think the problem is in the talkback setup, which does not encourage dialogue, but rather seems like more of a lecture model. If I can engage an audience member or two or three in a conversation about meaning, it's a whole different game, but the talkback encourages a handful of outspoken members to spur the artist into an explanation with utter disregard to the silent members, who certainly have entirely different approaches to the work.

And then again, there are times that I absolutely do not want to share meaning. I have a piece I wrote that has very specific personal symbolism for me that, outside of an very close to the chest inner circle of two or three friends, I have not and will not share with others, even if their interpretation hits that symbolism dead on (which it has on occasion). I will gladly discuss their interpretations and how they work within and affect the intricacies of the piece, but my meaning is my meaning. I know it's there and that's good enough for me. I encourage any one else (directors, actors, audience members) approaching the piece to embrace their reading and assume that it is correct. Because it is. Regardless.

So I see both sides, I guess? I respect any artist who doesn't want to discuss meaning, so long as they respect that the result of that decision is that there is no such thing as misinterpretation. Of course, I work on that assumption as an audience member anyway, so I suppose it's six of one, half dozen of the other anyway.

malachy walsh

I like Rekk's Gide quote and agree that the talkback setup is a "lecture" mode.

Reading Paul's response, I wondered if anyone's tried allowing the artists to ask the questions instead of the way it's currently done.

Another thought I had while thinking about the post relates to my experiences in a few organizations which have people speak and then invite "sharing" based on a subject of the speaker's choosing.

No questions are allowed. No direct commenting is allowed. You are asked to restrict your share to your direct experience of what the speaker said and/or their chosen topic.

Obviously, a system like that doesn't always work and can veer off "topic" - but it keeps people from looking for answers from the leader of the group, instead just using the kickoff speech as just that.

Here of course, the play is what is what the author is speaking and sets off the "conversation."

Does that make any sense?


I wondered if anyone's tried allowing the artists to ask the questions instead of the way it's currently done.

I have, and it's wonderful!


I wouldn't know where to begin if I was ever asked the meaning of my work. Anyone could state it better than I can. I can't see meaning from where I'm standing. I'm in the middle of things. I'm at the place where the sensations and thoughts and feelings flowed together--a malestrom, a confluence of rushing waters. Meaning can best be glimpsed by stepping back, getting a bit of distance. I can't do that, any more than I can see my own face (assuming there was never such a thing as a mirror or reflective surface). So if my work has any meaning (and I'm not saying it necessarily does), you're going to have to point it out to me.
The Gide quote actually says it all much better than I can.


For me, since I am usually directing the pieces I write... I very often am forced by necessity to discuss meaning with the actors and technicians so that we can present something unified.

I find that by the time the show opens I am more than prepared to discuss its (intended) meaning. However, I try to bite my tongue as much as possible so as to see what the audience perceived before hearing any post show justifications.

I think a post show talk back would be a great opportunity to relish in the existence of the play/performance for those who enjoyed the experience. Or those who were captivated enough to invest more time in it that the required viewing time. Every show should have a post show discussion with or without the director/actor/what have you. I think it would be excellent at the end of every show, if the lights we raised and Phil Donohue came out and asked audience members what they thought without requiring confirmation or coy shrugging on the part of the playwright/director/artist


Fascinating discussion, Isaac. Sure, work has meaning, but rarely (if it's at all interesting) only a single meaning. In post-show Q&As, as in interviews, artists often seem reluctant to discuss their work, I guess for fear of being pinned-down, or of the work seeming reduced. Unfortunately, what can happen is that the work is trivialised, because they feel more comfortable discussing anecdotal or factual matters than meaning. And what's worse, the audience loses a sense that the work truly matters to the people who created it.

I'm a critic, so I would say this, but I equally don't believe that the artist is the guardian of a work's meaning - or than anyone is. Once it has been released into the culture, it's out there and it's up for discussion and debate. Again, I can imagine that an artist might feel defensive or plain appalled by the process - but if a work has real value it must be strong enough to live and jostle in the world.

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