Wednesday, July 18, 2007

My critical problem with theatre.

Over on Jaime's blog, there's a nice little write up of Beau Willimon's show at SPF. One of the things that Jaime marvels at is how much she liked a 90 minute, intermissionless two-hander. So used to being bored by this type of play (often called an "elevator play" since you get on with two characters and then stay in the same place with them until everyone exits), she was quite taken with Beau's writing (he's a Columbia grad) and how well it moved.

She prefers less naturalistic work, overall.

Later, in the comments section, she said when something's bad, she'd much rather be watching something that's bad but less realistic than something that's bad and realistic.

It got me thinking about how I approach theatre pieces and particularly work by others that may be very very different from an approach I might take.

I used to be quite adamant about what I wanted to see on stage.

I still can be.

However, as a student at Columbia, I was lucky enough to work side by side with 5 other very talented writers. The way Eduardo Machado and Kelly Stuart taught, sense memory exercises (based on Eduardo's work under Fornes) were done by all of us, every week. That is to say, in-class writing.

I balked at first - having had a lot of professional experience already as a writer I felt "writing in public" was a big waste. My reluctance wasn't helped by Eduardo's dictum that we were to type exactly what we'd written down each week and bring it to the following class. The work was then read out loud by the playwrights before the next in-class exercise was started.

One of the ideas behind the exercise was, of course, to just get us writing. Another was to get us to trust our first instincts in writing.

An unintentional side-effect of this program was to show me how many different ways there were to solve a problem that differed from the path I took. Not that there weren't weeks when I hated some of what I was hearing. But since we were discouraged from critiquing work in part due to its truly embryonic nature, I searched for ways to listen differently.

I found myself asking questions instead. Why were they doing that? What's happening underneath? What's the rhythm saying?

It lead to an openness that was useful when working under Anne Bogart where we were tasked with writing a short play a week and producing it the following week. Again, work was wet and fresh but this time we recieved a formal critique of the pieces every week. Yet Bogart herself created an atmosphere where questions were asked about how to discover the rules of a piece without overanalyzing it and trying to make it something it wasn't. And since I knew what kind of work Anne created, I also knew that there was plenty of work that she never would've made and that aesthetically rubbed her the wrong way, so that was a pretty amazing thing to be part of.

It's an openness that lead to more interesting conversation about the work and what it was than we currently get from the critics in most of the press where an aesthetic opinion is being pushed.

It's an openness to ideas and methods that, in the corporate world I got my chops from, is rare. In advertising, anyway, things "suck" or are "brilliant" immediately. Being curious is not always rewarded. Experimentalism is only considered worthwhile when it's funny or bought. Formulas (believe it or not) are generally frowned upon (though everything may end up there after battling clients and others, most creatives stay away from work they've already seen).

It's an openness that required understanding that you had an idea of what you thought theatre should be and setting it aside long enough to see what other people thought theatre should be. (Or any piece of art for that matter.)

Going to see shows in New York, I tried to apply this openness to seeing work. To be sure, it was harder to do in places where I was being charged more than $25 a ticket. For some reason once this financial barrier was crossed, a "prove to me this was worth it" visor came down over my eyes.

This "prove it to me" attitude could also strike if somehow the theatre - or the presentation of the theatre - made me feel like an outsider being taught what good theatre was supposed to be. (There were a few downtown theatre companies that I never felt welcome in, and so no matter how good or interesting the work was that they did, I was always wary of going to their shows.)

I discovered similar feelings could be stirred up by productions done in rep where I felt I was seeing technical skills but not much heart.

Occasionally, jealousy stepped in the way, too.

This weekend, however, I was asked by someone about a show I'd seen here in LA. They had recommended the show and then were amazed that I'd actually gone to see it. Maybe this is partly LA. But I know that it also had to do with the fact that the show was not of the same kind of professional standards that other shows might be. The troupe was mostly made up of non-actors. The writer had worked in the community over a year long commission to create the text.

My friend, the recommender, asked me, point blank, did I like the show?

Looking into his eyes, I saw he was not just really wondering, but also showing a little fear. Fear of being wrong for recommending the show. Fear of liking something.

I also was fearful of saying I liked something that wasn't perfect, but was interesting and heartfelt and worthwhile. A show that was introduced by an artistic director and managing director to the audience in a way that made me experience it that way, rather than the easier-to-do arms-folded-across-my-chest way.

Theatre is very hard to do well, under even the best circumstances. It's a difficult way of life and a hard choice to make as a way of life when everyone you know who went the way of law or technology or medicine is making 6 figures and buying nice coffee tables.

I'm not sure why we tend to make things harder for ourselves with ideas about what should be on stage and what shouldn't be. Or why we think its important to take stances against this kind of genre or that.

I was taught something early on in my advertising career that I've unfortunately not paid well enough attention to: When you don't like something, don't say anything about it. Let it go its own way.

An unusually sensitive piece of advice from an ad guy to a future theatre person.


Jaime said...

Thank you for using my easy stock answers about realism as a jumping off point for something so thoughtful and important. There's a lot of wisdom in what you've just written.

Adam said...

Great post!

Johnna Adams said...

I loved this post. Really engaging stuff.

J.D. said...


Joshua James said...

Great stuff . . .

I actually prefer realism over any of the other experimental stuff, simply because my experience is that too often if there's no idea behind what's happening onstage, then it's far easier to hide it under, let's say, a fog machine or a giant cow coming up out of a bucket . . .

But that's just me . . . but asking questions, in any form of theatre, questions about ideas and big things, even if one doesn't get the answer or the show one wants, that's always admirable . . .

A. Bogart rocks . . .

Bixby Elliot said...

this post rocks. you rock. (repeat) you rock.

Malachy Walsh said...

I rock?

I don't about that, but it's nice to know these thought struck people.

This stuff makes a difference.