Jeff McMahon: Writing theatre, reflecting life

Jeff McMahon: Writing theatre, reflecting life

According to McMahon., art gives people a way of reflecting on things, especially in handling the immediate society. Photo: Eduardo Barraza | Barrizona Magazine © 2004
According to McMahon., art gives people a way of reflecting on things, especially in handling the immediate society. Photo: Eduardo Barraza | Barrizona Magazine © 2004

Barriozona: You are a performance artist, dancer, writer, filmmaker, and teacher. Why this combination of activities?

Jeff McMahon: It’s not really a conscious choice. I find that when I start writing, I write better when I’m moving. Movement affects the way I write; it creates a rhythm. It also tends to shake things out of purely intellectual perspective, literally embodying something, so it’s a back and forth flow form for me between movements. In film, I do two things: short pure dance films, and also a lot of work writing corporate media into scenography; pieces that deal with temporal issues and represent the past and the future through a projected image. I like to play with that. I think most of us, especially in this generation, is sort of bilingual visual literacy, textual literacy probably a little bit more visually than literacy.

Barriozona: How does the writer Jeff McMahon work with the performer Jeff McMahon?

McMahon: I write, or use to write, in my voice, my rhythm, with my sense of illusion and various associational thought patterns. I’ve also hired directors to work with me, people who take what I’m writing and rip it apart. Writers, performers, directors may say: “that was great, but try it from this angle…from here.” I try to write something that has my voice, but is not dominated by it, so that it can be performed by another actor. This is a huge issue in this field of solo work. Can someone else do your work? I think I want to make something that is transferable.

Barriozona: Can theatre produce a public discussion of vital social issues?

McMahon: It can’t produce it. It can engender it, promote it, and create a context for it. I am not sure it can actually produce it. It can certainly remind people of something significant. It can give it the impromptu of correct, which can be a valuable fact. I think there has to be a public dialogue on those issues outside of the theatre; you cannot trust theatre to tell the truth. “Honorable Discharge” is not a documentary about the Madrigal shooting. I based it on newspaper reports, so it’s not accurate nor balanced. Not that anything has to be balanced, but controversy in a good way asks, ‘what’s the contra of this, what’s the other side of this,?’ to get irritated, excited, or to want to get more details about something, and to also be aware that, yes, this thing is occurring, which they may have read about in the newspaper. You’ll seldom get emotional, for example, reading the New York Times. The emotional stuff might come in through theatre. Theatre based on a story brings in reflection.

Barriozona: How does theatre make a social contribution?

McMahon: I think it provides a space for people to explore the margins in between, what are considered to be clearly defined as black and white issues. It allows people to find the shadings and the new hues, and allows us to write spirited crossing over into somebody else’s experience, catharsis. I also think it allows us to be the other, and to experience it through someone else. If you do it right, with enough detail and clarity, people are going to be pulled into your experience. Art gives us a way of reflecting on things, especially in handling the immediate society. So I think theatre, and arts also, gives us a space that is completely not about politics. Only some of my work is politically focused; a lot of it is very personal.

Barriozona: Why is it important for you to present this type of social issues?

McMahon: I think, to be specific, about “Honorable Discharge.” I read the paper, and simply felt embarrassed, ashamed, and horrified by what the plight of three people –highly trained– did. When you read a story like the Madrigal case, here’s a case that’s so clear, and it’s mostly, because it involves someone young, who was obviously troubled. I’ve done a lot of work with troubled kids in New York. Kids who had emotional problems, or educational difficulties, or had become marginalized in some way or another. So I feel very sympathetic to that, and it just gives us a way of exploring or taking some charge of something that we can’t. I feel powerless against police, and at the same time, I am not anti-cop. Initially, when I first wrote the piece, actor Lance Gharavi said: “the piece is very one-sided; it feels like you’ve set up the cops as strong men to shoot them down.” With that in mind, I rewrote it. When you’re dealing with troubled people, when dealing with Saddam Hussein, it takes time and strategy. You don’t invade; you wait, wait, wait… it takes patience. I think that for me, it was just out of, ‘what can I do,?’ ‘why is this bothering me?’ I started writing in the voice of Mario Madrigal, Jr., maybe his mother, then his dad, and then maybe the cops themselves. I don’t go and interview all these people; it’s a way of finding new voices; it’s a story, and it was right there. I’m not great at making stories. I tend to be more of a style person than a narrative one, and there was a story, there was something I could kind of rip apart. I did deliberately make it clear enough, so people knew what it was about, and that they knew this happened here. I did want people to get angry about this issue.

Jeff McMahon is a performance artist, dancer, writer, filmmaker, and teacher. His live work is specifically concerned with the blending of text with movement, and has been presented in the U.S., Canada, and Europe and South America. He has performed at important venues, and his films shown worldwide. Since 1987, he has worked as a teaching artist in aesthetic education and creative movement. He completed a MFA Degree in the Writing Program at the School of the Arts, Columbia University in New York, in 1998. In 2001, he assumed the position of Resident Artist Fellow/Senior Lecturer in Theatre at the Institute for Studies in the Arts, at ASU. He is currently Director of the MFA Performance Program.

© 2004 – 2017, Eduardo Barraza. All rights reserved.