The Prism Theory: audience reception, and the effect it has on my own writing.

August 15, 2019

 

When I write something I like it to say something. That may, or may not, get through to the audience, that's sort of up for debate. Follow the Crows, for example, was all about isolation when I was writing it, but as evident by the reviews (I spoke about those last week) not everyone seems capable of extracting that information. Now, that doesn't make their viewing of the film any lesser, it just means they didn't take from it what I put in.

 

Of course, there have been reviews of Follow the Crows in which people do get the message. And Follow the Crows isn't the only thing I've written that tries to make some sort of... I don't know, "Statement" let's say.

 

In fact, most of what I've written is statement lead to one degree or another. The Door isn't so much about Brexit as it is about the way people will divide themselves when faced with a binary choice, but to deny the Brexit paralels entirely would be a straight up lie. After all, I wrote the play as a response to Brexit, and at the time of writing that was what was at the forefront of my mind.

 

The audience took The Door very much on that note. And I don't know whether it's because it was clearly stated within the text, after all, it is what I meant it to be about, or whether it was more to do with the fact that at that point in time Brexit was so much at the forefront of everyone's minds. Either way, it worked. ONUS, likewise, is very much a "political" movie in that sense. It's about something I felt was important when I was writing it. But even my work that doesn't have a, for lack of a better word, "political" slant is still about something I felt I wanted to comment on.

 

Maybe arrogance is at play here. The idea that people should care at all what I have to say about these subjects is arrogant in and of itself, but I'm not really saying them for an audience. It's more that writing is a cathartic experience and it helps me get my thoughts straight.

 

But, it does raise an interesting question.

 

How much of what an audience takes from a text is their own experience, and how much is that of the filmmaker? There are countless theories built around audience reception, from the Hypodermic Needle model of an author "injecting" their meaning into the audience through the text, to Stuart Hall's arguably more accurate (in my opinion, at least) take on the concept, in which their a three ways a text can be received.

 

Hall deposits that the audience can either take a dominant reading of the text, in that it they receive the meaning as meant by the author, a negotiated reading, which is kind of a mixture of both the author and their own interpretation, and an oppositional reading, which is... well, they just decide it means whatever the hell they want it to mean.

 

We studied Hall's theory when I was doing my degree and I found it interesting, but I always took slight issue with it. In fact, I always took an issue with most audience reception theories, and mainly because I felt it was far more complex that it had been made out to be.

 

I can remember pitching my own theory, which I'm sure is just covering ground laid out by others, but it stuck with me so I'll go over it again now. My theory was what I dubbed the "Prism Theory", and it basically works like this; the author of a text, whether that be a writer, a director, a producer, or all of the above, will imbue meaning within a work, whether they mean to or not. That work will them be put out to be received by an audience.

 

But the audience will receive it in their own way, based on their own lives, their own tastes, the weather that particularly day, what they had for lunch... you name it, and it'll likely influence they way they read something when it comes to them.

 

It that way, the audience are like a prism, and the text, as designed by the author, is the light that shines into it. The light that comes out, split into all the colours of the rainbow, are the audience's own personal readings. But, and this is the key part, those readings cannot exist without the original text, and the meanings as presented by the author. The audience are the prism, reflecting out the meaning into something new, based on both their own interpretation and that of the original text.

 

I mean, none of that really matters, and what I'm sort of trying to get around to saying is that whether they read it as how it was originally meant or in an entirely different way, it's all informed by both the text and the audience. In that regard, there is no "right" or "wrong" way to read a text, just lots of different ones, all of them equally valid.

 

But over thinking these things, like I just did, has lead me to a dilemma.

 

I'm so aware that my work has always bee "about something" that I fear writing anything that isn't. And while I have lots I want to say on a multitude of topics, recently I've found myself worrying about how to get it out there. Will the audience get it? Is it clear? Is it any good...

 

Knowing what I want to say is key to my writing process, I guess. Since that's how I've found writing the "easiest" and also the most enjoyable. Take my new play, Less, which isn't produced yet but will be within the new year. I knew what I wanted to get across and what I wanted it to be about. The same could be said for my other unproduced play, Sisters. Or even for my next feature, ONUS. In fact, by and large, all my work has been about something I've wanted to talk about. They have ideas and themes - at least, I think they do - and that's sort of what I enjoy doing; saying stuff with art.

 

But all of a sudden now I find myself at a stumbling block. Maybe it's just writer's block, I don't know, maybe it's something else, but I fear I can't quite get over it. I open up the document and star at the screen. I know what I want to say, but I find myself worrying that it'll either be a repeat of what I've said before, or that it won't really result in saying anything.

 

Do those things matter? Should I just fob it off and write whatever anyway? Sometimes I feel like that's the approach I should take. Other times I feel like to hell with what everyone else thinks, let's just write the thing I want to write and be done with it.

 

But none of those drives last quite long enough to make it through a script. What a nightmare... well, a first world nightmare, anyway.

 

In the end I'm sure it will all sort itself out. These things always do. After all, this is hardly the first time I've used this blog as a sounding board for my troubles with writing. But I do have a question for you - or those of you who managed to read this far into what amounts to nothing more than a personal rant - what do you guys think? Should art always have something to say? Does it matter if it doesn't? At the very least, should the artist making it having something to say, or does the audience extract meaning regardless? Does anybody even care?

 

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