I see a lot of theater. I’m currently the artistic director of a theater, and as such, seeing theater is important for my job – knowing what’s happening locally is an important aspect of what I do. It helps me with casting, it helps me with choosing a season, and it helps me with keeping up-to-date on the trends, not to mention it helps me stay involved with the theater scene (because it’s tough to encourage people to come to my theater if I never attend anything at theirs!) Luckily, I also love seeing live theater. Given the choice, I’d see a live theater production over almost anything.
I’ve seen many productions over the years. Some stand out as amazing, even years later. I still remember the version of The Glass Menagerie I saw in high school, performed by a touring semi-professional theater company, which made me realize that adults could, and did, do theater in my area (and do it well.) It gave me hope that I could continue on with theater past high school (and I did, obviously.) I still see productions at that theater when I go home in the summer. I plan my vacations around their summer schedule, actually. I’m very loyal, and it wouldn’t be vacation without seeing some amazing theater on one of my favorite stages.
I’ve seen New York City productions, both on- and off-Broadway; productions throughout London, West-End on down to a brilliant production of Amadeus staged in the basement of a pub; and productions in each of the cities and towns I’ve lived in over the years, from high school productions to touring Broadway companies.
I’ve only walked out of a couple, honestly. I have a short attention span for almost all things in life, but I can sit through most theater productions. I see it thusly: if the cast and crew (and playwright and theater staff and board of directors and everyone else involved in the production) have put in the time and effort necessary for the show to go on, the least I can do is sit and watch it. The two I can remember leaving were one that was four hours long and starred two characters arguing, using about four words, for the first two hours (at intermission, my friend and I noticed a bar across the street and decided it would be a much better use of our time to have a few drinks than to sit through two more hours of what promised to be the same thing) and a musical revue of the music of one of my favorite composers which was so poorly staged, and the narrator so grating, that I had to leave at intermission so I didn’t say or do something that I’d regret. (I also was very crabby that day – it wasn’t like me to give up that easily.)
All of this to say, when I walked into what would be the worst theater experience of my life, I didn’t see it coming.
Now, if anyone local is reading this, please be assured – this play was not local. Do not read this and try to figure out who the actors were, what the play was, who the crew was – it’s an exercise in futility. It didn’t happen here. Honestly. I wouldn’t be writing about it if it did. I’d make an awful theater reviewer; I can’t hurt other theater people’s feelings. I know how hard we all work to put on a good show, and what Herculean effort goes into a production. You won’t see me panning other local theater group’s work here. I just couldn’t, no matter what I think about them. This was years ago, and it wasn’t local.
I was invited to a production that a group I’d been affiliated with in my past was staging. It isn’t a show I enjoy, I’ll say that up front. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so I guess that makes me an illiterate moron, but I find the play overly full of itself, trying too hard to be edgy, and dull as dishwater. I was, however, interested in seeing what the group was up to – it had been years since I’d seen any of their work – and I’m always up for a night at the theater.
The show was in a beautiful old building with huge ceilings. We went in and I was immediately hit with a wave of heat. Not just “you’ve gone inside from a nice summer evening” heat, but “something’s wrong with the HVAC system” heat. It had to be over 100 degrees in the building. There were no fans, and the building was too old for air conditioning. Someone had opened a couple of windows, but there was no breeze. And the stage lights were about to come on. This didn’t bode well.
The show started. We sat in the front row, and about fifteen people comprised the audience. It’s a small town, and I’d questioned, going into it, producing something this edgy there. Nothing against the local intelligence level, but the shows that do well tend to be dinner theater (preferably with a mystery) or broad comedies. This was a drama where the actresses changed roles between the two acts and time had no meaning. Worrisome.
About fifteen minutes in, after I had already wilted due to the heat, finished my water and could have easily downed another gallon or two of it just to replace what I was sweating out, and dealt with the person in back of me who thought the back of my seat was there for kicking, I started to take notes on my program. I still have the program. I look at it sometimes, to remind me, when things aren’t going as planned, theatrically, how much worse things could be. How very, very much worse.
Selected tidbits from my notes:
The actors don’t know their lines.
Not only did it become painfully evident, about five minutes in, that the actors were not completely off-book in this very wordy, very dependent on being letter-perfect, play, they weren’t aware what to do in this situation. One actress was obviously the “mom” of the cast. She didn’t seem to know her own lines very well, but she was in charge of correcting others when they didn’t know theirs, or when they got them wrong. On stage, in front of an audience, twice, she whispered a line to the actress on stage with her, rather than ad-libbing to help the actress get back to where she belonged. (Granted, the ad-libbing might not have helped. When the actors didn’t know a line, they would stare off into space with their mouth agape.) And when they got a line wrong, she would helpfully correct them, and then they would repeat the line again, correctly. (This same actress, when one of her co-stars stood in the wrong place for her blocking, grabbed her brastrap through the back of her dress and physically hauled her two steps back, hissing “That isn’t your SPOT!”) The play was already very long, when done correctly. It was promising to be a delightful evening.
The actors do not understand what a theater interrupt is.
I’m sure you’ve all seen, at one point or another, in a script or screenplay, something like the following:
BOB: I don’t think so. I think that…
SALLY: No. You are wrong. And I’ll tell you why. Because…
BOB: You always argue with me. You always think you’re right. You…
SALLY: You’re a doody-head, Bob.
If you see these, you understand (I think) that the lines are meant to be overlapping one another, as in regular conversation with regular people.
In theater, one of the first things you learn is that in a situation like this, you have to make up further words in the sentence. If you are Bob, you have to be willing to finish that first sentence (i.e. “I don’t think so. I think that you’re awfully quick to judge.” etc.) It’s Sally’s job to cut you off as close to where the ellipsis in the script falls as she can. The words flow, and it seems to be a fluid, realistic argument. I learned this in high school. It’s basic theater knowledge.
These actors were not aware of this.
This scene, as interpreted by these actors, would have gone exactly as it’s written above. They stopped at the ellipsis. Then they would pause for an interminable period of time, until the actor picked up their next line. It was as painful as oral surgery without anesthesia. (Which, coincidentally, was something, at that point, I would rather have been doing.)
The actors are speaking like robots.
There’s no explanation necessary here, really. They. Talked. Like. Robots. From. The. Planet. Mungo. They. Cut. Off. Each. Word. With. A. Full. Stop. For. No. Good. Reason. They. Showed. No. Human. Emotion. Please. Make. It. Stop.
No one is participating in the scene. They are looking for their friends in the audience.
Another basic bit of theater knowledge is that, except in the few plays where you break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, or in dinner theater, you pretend they’re not there. You’re in your house, in a garden, in a hotel room, in a castle – you’re not in a theater. You don’t acknowledge the audience until curtain call. The actors, when they weren’t the ones speaking (and, sigh, sometimes even when they were,) kept looking out into the audience – I mean, not little peeks (because come on, who hasn’t given a surreptitious peek now and then?) but full-on staring at them, looking around, squinting to see past the stage lights to see who the audience was. That’s a little jarring. Stop looking at me. You’re probably wondering what I’m doing; I’m writing notes about what YOU’RE doing in my program. What YOU’RE supposed to be doing is attending a woman on her deathbed. So how about doing that, instead of concerning yourself with what WE’RE doing? Just because I’ve given up on this play doesn’t mean you should.
The sound person left.
At one point there was a boom from the back of the theater. I didn’t know what it was. Then there was supposed to be a sound effect – I think a phone ringing. It didn’t happen. The actors didn’t react to that well – ad-libbing? What is this ad-libbing of which you speak? They stared with their mouths open into the audience for 3-5 minutes. The boom happened again and the phone started, abruptly. I realized what it was – the door to the sound booth. The sound person had left, missed his cue, then returned, realized what was happening, and turned on the cue. I don’t even know what to say about that. I mean, I’ve missed a cue before, but it’s usually for a good reason, like the equipment froze up. (Once I was texting, granted, but my lighting guy saved my ass. Thanks, Adam!) I don’t think I can think of a single time, in my years of doing it, I just gave up and left the booth when I had a cue upcoming upon which lines were dependent.
Oh, oh no. No. Did that just happen? No, please no.
The play isn’t meant to be funny, but there are a few humorous lines. About half an hour in (which, in that room, seemed like six hours in) an actress said a line that made one of the people in the front row to my right laugh. Not a lot, just a polite chuckle. The actress stopped talked, turned to him, said “Thank you!” and then went back to acting. Sorry. “Acting.” I wasn’t sure what had happened, for a minute. Then I realized – she had thanked him for laughing at her joke. She had talked to an audience member while onstage. In a play where the script didn’t call for it. If I wasn’t completely dehydrated I would have pissed myself or cried.
Costuming was apparently an issue.
Problems included two buttons missing from one of the actresses’ tops, so we could see her completely non-period (and inappropriate, and ill-fitting) bra, and a light-blue sundress on another actress with black undergarments underneath, under glaring stage lights, so her foundation garments were highlighted as if they were the point of the costume. Vaguely porny! It did not make the play more watchable.
There was a surprise entrance at one point. I’d read the play, so I knew it was coming. The audience wasn’t supposed to know about it. The actress who was supposed to surprise everyone was waiting in the wings to enter – but didn’t wait far enough back. She was actually visible to everyone in the audience. But she wasn’t aware she was. She was mouthing along with the other actor’s lines, grimacing when they made mistakes, picking her teeth – apparently, she thought she had on Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.
Another handy theater 101 trick – if you can see the audience, they can see you. Unless you are peeking through a tiny hole in the set, or a curtain. She wasn’t, so she was visible. For approximately five minutes. When she burst on and everyone was surprised (or, in robot speak, “What. Are. You. Doing. Here. We. Were. Not. Expecting. You.”) we weren’t.
At preshow and intermission, the actors were begging for compliments.
It wasn’t as much of an issue, pre-show, as I didn’t know who they were then. I just thought they were oddly-dressed patrons. But at intermission, the actors went backstage, then trooped out and started mingling with the audience. “How’s it going so far? What do you think? Great, right?”
No. You do not do this. Afterwards, yes. (Although you don’t ask for the compliment – you wait for it to come to you. It’s just polite.) But what are people going to say, “This is the worst thing ever?” I ran out the side door so I wasn’t trapped by one of them. I couldn’t even imagine what I would say. I’m not good at pretending. “Um. I think. Um. There are many words! And they have syllables! And the set has a bed on it!”
A major plot point was the death of one of the character’s husbands. Who, according to this actress, died of “prostrate” cancer. The cancer might have prostrated him, but it wasn’t cancer OF the prostrate. I can assure you of that. This word was said often and loudly and wrong each time.
Time to run the gauntlet!
After the show, and the curtain call, the lights went out for a long time. When they came back up, the actors were in a line, blocking the exit. (And they’d learned my trick of escaping through the side door – it was now blocked by a folding chair and a “Do Not Exit” sign.) You had to go through them to exit the theater. Now, I’m all for congratulating people on a good job. Trust me on that. But I don’t like being forced to do something, and I especially don’t like being forced to glad-handle someone who does not deserve it. Listen, you cannot convince me any serious work went into this show. I work in theater, so I have an idea of what happens behind the scenes. Lines weren’t learned; acting wasn’t being done; no one was taking anything seriously; and now you expect me to tell you good job? No. Because it wasn’t one. I’ve seen grade-school pageants with more passion than this.
Everyone in front of me started their congratulations (I’d like to say they were false congratulations, but I don’t know their hearts. Maybe they really liked it. I don’t know.) It came to my turn – and I said nothing. I faced forward and walked out of the theater.
Bitchy? Perhaps. But don’t come begging for compliments and expect one, not from me. I give compliments when they’re deserved and warranted. I believe they mean more, then. I don’t like the taste of a false compliment in my mouth.
I realize I might be coming across as a theater snob here. And sure, I am, a little. Let me tell you a story. Years ago, a friend and I watched a movie about the Rat Pack where Ray Liotta starred as Frank Sinatra. After we’d been cringing at it for a while, she sadly turned to me and said, “It’s like Ray Liotta isn’t even trying.” That became our catchphrase when something was going wrong for lack of effort: “Ray Liotta, you’re not even trying.”
That was the problem with this play. Ray Liotta wasn’t even trying. And when I realized that, that’s when I tuned out. I can sit though just about anything, if it’s done with passion. I might not enjoy the final product, but I can’t fault the work and effort that went into it. But Ray Liotta was just not trying, here. And that insulted me and the rest of us who paid our money and spent our free time watching the show.
Also, stage lights are unforgiving. Choose your undergarments accordingly.