Novelist Harold Brodkey, in his fine collection of essays “Sea Battles on Dry Land,” writes that a mature work of art must contain a relationship between at least two real people. I take it that his point is that the hallmark of maturity itself is the ability to recognize and deal intelligently with another consciousness, with the stubborn reality that other people perceive, feel, and think differently from us. For a work of art to be mature, it must also embody this principle. Works which Brodkey deemed “dreamlike” are those that share the solipsistic quality of dreams: everything in the world of the story is an expression of a single consciousness. A (highly ambiguous) example of a “dreamlike” work might be the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” which clearly resembles a dream in which the character Dorothy works out her feelings of frustration about her limited and isolated life as a girl in rural Kansas. The movie is full of characters, both friends and enemies of Dorothy, but they are all projections of her own ideas about the people in her life, rather than being living, breathing, autonomous persons whose minds and wills she must confront and negotiate with.

On one level, I completely agree with Brodkey’s idea, and I have the same constant hunger for the complexity, the danger, and the sophisticated consciousness of works in which a character must maturely maneuver his way through a world of real, other people. One could even expand upon this idea, and say that the root of most social problems in the world comes from a lack of this mature ability, a lack of the ability to perceive and acknowledge the reality of how other people think, feel, and perceive the world differently from us. (Think, for example, of the failed attempts to respond to the conflict between the Western capitalist world and the world of Islamic fundamentalism.)

My problem with this idea is that I have always been in love with the quality of “dreamlike” plays, books, and movies! I adore “The Wizard of Oz” and “Alice in Wonderland.” I am drawn to most stories that are surreal. I’m fascinated by my own dreams, and other people’s dreams. It is true, as Brodkey says, that the Primary Process thinking which is unleashed full force in dreams is incapable of maturely grappling with the reality of another person. However, the dreaming mind is fundamentally different from the waking mind. It is often true, as Brodkey writes elsewhere, that the waking mind seems to function largely to “tidy up” reality for us, to make for ourselves a neat and palatable and flattering explanation of who we are, so that we can feel more comfortable with ourselves and with the messy raw reality of experience. But the dreaming mind often has an unparalleled ability to go straight into deep emotional conflicts, conflicts which are controlling our waking lives, and examine them in fresh and insightful ways. The dreaming mind is also unparalleled in its creative ability; the ability to generate endless images and narratives which express complex, inaccessible states of being. As an artist, I refuse to give up my fascination and love for the world of dreams, simply to make my work “mature.”

I realized, while reading Brodkey’s books, that this is precisely why my work has always centered on making improvised performances and films. In the poetic, surreal duets I perform with other actors in my stage pieces and films, I feel that the work operates with precisely the same mechanisms as a dream: the improvisation unleashes a flood of creativity, in which images and stories are allowed to spontaneously form themselves, springing from a large body of interconnected, deeply felt emotional experiences. The crucial difference, however, between the improvised duet and an actual dream experienced while asleep, is that in the improvisation, two people are having one dream collaboratively. The two duet partners are working together as a team, moment to moment, intuitively feeling their way and navigating collaboratively through the scene. They share the tumultuous, organic process of allowing the feelings and images of the scene to unfold and present themselves to the audience. And this sense of teamwork, of constant collaboration, is precisely what gives the work its maturity. The duet does not, like a real dream, run unopposed through a world of images and feelings, never having to stumble across the resistant reality of a separate consciousness. Rather, the duet embodies a constant exchange, a constant making and remaking of connections between the two actors. As an improvising actor, every time my scene partner says something on stage I am forced to deal with, and to incorporate deeply into my own emotional state, the irreducible reality of another person’s very different mind. Indeed, this constant interchange between two minds becomes the overwhelming subject matter of the work, and the chief center of the scene’s energy and interest.

Improvisation fascinates because it presents an arena where the dreaming mind and the mature waking mind can coexist.