“The best thing you can do as an artist is disturb.”
- Liza Minelli
Recently I was treated to a performance of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma! It was staged by a regional theatre guild, and while it’s true I had a vested interest – the Resident Teenager was one of the cast - I was truly, thoroughly impressed. The singing, dancing, and acting were all at a high standard, and the cast members were enjoying themselves to the hilt.
Particularly impressive was the character Jud Fry, who was played with great depth by a highly trained triple-threat actor. I was pleased to see him bring out the humanity in this despicable character; it made it hard for me as an audience member simply to detest Jud when I was sympathetic to his painful life, his frustrations, watching him unravel before my eyes. His actions were no less dispicable, but my response was complicated.
It brought to mind a lecture that was given last summer at writing camp. We were reminded that it is best not to judge the bad guys in the narrative; not to betray them; to see the humanity of both the victim and the corruptor. As writers, we have an obligation to all our characters, even the victimizers.
It’s not easy to pull it off, opening one’s heart to a murderer, a pedophile, a bully; not any easier than it was for the actor in question to bring out the painful qualities of Jud’s lonely, angry life. But his doing so added a certain richness to the production.
I’ll not soon forget it.