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A.R.T. And ArtsEmerson's Rob Orchard's 'Appreciation For Ambiguity'

The Swimming Pool (1952) in the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Jonathan Muzikar/MoMA)
The Swimming Pool (1952) in the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Jonathan Muzikar/MoMA)
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Rob Orchard was founding managing director and executive director of the American Repertory Theater from 1979 to 2009. He then became the founding executive director of ArtsEmerson. He left that post in January, though continues to work with the organization. The Boston Theater Critics Assn. is bestowing a special citation to Orchard at this year's Elliot Norton Awards on May 11 "for bringing the world's best theater to ArtsEmerson while nurturing the best of Boston theater." The ARTery asked him to expand on program notes he had written for "Needles and Opium" at ArtsEmerson. Orchard is a former winner of the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence for his work at A.R.T.

I think an appreciation for ambiguity is one of the most important values in life and art.

In life much of the information we receive through various media has a spin, a point of view, a particular bias. It's only natural. We are being influenced and our challenge is to find a truth for ourselves imbedded somewhere in the layers of information and tendentiousness. And the honest truth is often highly ambiguous.

In art we are privileged by experiences created for us through the imagination of an individual or group. The work can offer a particular point of view, of course, but more often it doesn't set out to convince but rather to inspire. And inspiration is deeply personal. It takes time to form. There's usually no right or wrong, and, therefore, it's also highly ambiguous. It's what I value most in the theater.

A recent production I presented, "Needles and Opium," by the internationally celebrated Canadian artist Robert Lepage helped me understand this dynamic further.

Marc Labrèche in "Needles and Opium" (Nicola-Frank Vachon)
Marc Labrèche in "Needles and Opium" (Nicola-Frank Vachon)

It occurred to me that Lepage provides yet another example of the difference between a tourist and a traveler — a difference that's instructive in art as well as life.

For Lepage, relatively simple storytelling is surrounded by complex, stunning, often mysterious imagery. Transformation, music, magic, landscape and surprise are as essential to his work as language.

Call it scenic writing.

But, how does an audience prepare for or process such an experience? Let me give you a recent, personal, example from a visual arts perspective.

Back in January in New York with a couple of unanticipated free hours, I chanced by an exhibit of Matisse's paper cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Largely abstract with impressive scale and color, the experience was utterly sensual. I didn't need to "get it," I just had to "feel it." It was deeply personal — more like a dream than a good dinner conversation.

Each time I entered a new gallery I was immediately drawn to a particular work. One piece would suddenly activate all my senses and take my breath away. I can't explain why. I didn't read the blurbs below the paintings or the short essays peppered about the walls. I wasn't being informed, I was being inspired.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from Oct. 12, 2014-Feb. 10, 2015. (Jonathan Muzikar/MoMA)
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from Oct. 12, 2014-Feb. 10, 2015. (Jonathan Muzikar/MoMA)

And this may be the best way to travel -- with many artists as your companion.

I admit it can be risky. These folks resist telling you what to think or feel much less where to go — here again a degree of ambiguity. The result is often profoundly meditative.

For the tourist roaming over such territory, a perfectly plotted journey can be illusive. For the traveler scanning the landscape free of guide book expectations, the trip has the potential to be more spiritual than determined. The tourist will try to capture the moment on a smartphone. It's not a snap shot for the traveler, but rather overlapping layers of images that take time to develop.

It's why I dislike intermissions in the theater. They break the spell. I'm still processing what I've experienced. And if that experience has a degree of ambiguity, I'm not ready to talk about it. I need time, maybe even a night sleeping and dreaming. The hell with the lobby bar, let's get on with the production.

Having produced and presented nearly 400 theater productions in Boston/Cambridge — the vast majority of which were new works — I've been privileged by intelligent audiences with an appetite for adventure. The audience is motivated. How great is that!

It's also true, however, that a segment of the audience can be frustrated at the end of a performance if they feel they didn't "get it." They are uncomfortable and impatient with any lingering ambiguity, and their initial impulse is to reject the work. That's a shame.

In truth, of course, many of our most powerful experiences with art defy any sense of "getting it," as if there's a right way and a wrong way to conclude the work. There are many ways, the most important of which is your way. Every time I see Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" (which was roundly rejected when it first opened) it's like I'm experiencing a new play. Such is the deeply personal creative scope Beckett provides an audience.

Gary Lydon and Conor Lovett in "Waiting for Godot" at the Paramount Theatre. (RosKavanag)
Gary Lydon and Conor Lovett in "Waiting for Godot" at the Paramount Theatre. (RosKavanag)

I once tried to demonstrate this for audiences by teaming up with a wonderful course in interpretive art taught at the Massachusetts College of Art. We asked the students to attend a reading of a play at the first rehearsal and then also the first public preview performance a few weeks later, after which in response they had three days to create a work of art which was then displayed in the commodious lobby of the Loeb Drama Center.

My hope was that the audience would observe some of these responses before the performance began, during the intermission (yes, that dreaded intermission) and while exiting the theater after the performance. They could literally SEE the variety of responses by these young artists based on the same production they experienced, thereby demonstrating the range of interpretations the work inspired — not just one "right" way, but many truly distinctive and obviously personal ways. Would this not, I thought, give them permission to take the time to find their own path — the freedom to resist the immediate need to get the experience "right"?

I'm not sure it worked. There were many rolling eyes and the staff was kind and patient with me over this harebrained idea. But it made me feel better for trying.

It goes without saying, of course, that this doesn't apply to all productions (or art in other forms for that matter). Some are designed primarily as entertainments, without exploring any intellectual or emotional depth. They are thoroughly enjoyable moment to moment, have an important place in popular culture and work hard at manipulating the audience experience such that there's no ambiguity. A good time was had by all and I am not suggesting that there's anything wrong with this. It's just that for me I want something more.

Maybe it's the German poet Novalis (1772-1801) who simultaneously makes it absolutely clear and thoroughly ambiguous for me. He said the job of the artist is "to make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar." This notion has been adopted by others including the painter Paul Klee and the playwright Bertolt Brecht.

In a sense, if as a culture we embrace life and art that pushes the boundaries of our perception by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, we are exercising our capacity to respect ambiguity.

And maybe, just maybe, this could lead to a world where through the shared experience of art we understand, cherish and celebrate (rather than demonize) our differences — where through tolerance and appreciation for ambiguity we find our unity.

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