Harold Clurman famously said that he doesn’t believe in complaining about bad theater. We need more bad theater–“Bad theater is the fertilizer from which good theater grows.”
A nice idea, but oh boy, do I disagree. Theater remains too much of a mysterious and dispensable art form in this country. The same audience members who comfortably critique film and music and television, even when they do not themselves make or study said forms, will still hesitate over expressing an opinion of a play. Generally, I hear audience members blame themselves: “oh, I’m not a theater person.” “maybe I didn’t get it.”
[theater = artistic, difficult]
Walk down Broadway at 10:00pm, right after the plays get out—you hear thousands of people furiously justifying the $90 they just spent on something that had failed to move, dazzle, amaze or upset them; two hours which didn’t provoke thought or feeling or, well, anything. “I liked that one speech at the end” “Oh, that one actor was pretty good” “Yeah…well, I didn’t understand it.” People don’t know what they should expect or what they deserve—so their standards aren’t very high.
[bad = good]
Hey, were you riveted, taken, manipulated, respected, rocked out for two hours? No? Then it wasn’t a good play—end of story. A play either works or it doesn’t, and I don’t care how many times you’ve been: you could easily have never seen a good play. Barely-adequate plays are rare, enough so that I have become relieved, shocked and delighted by the bare minimum.
[Bare minimum = overpraised]
When the vast majority of theater sucks, people learn to expect very little from theater. They stop going. They go only as a cultural checkmark, as a duty. Or they go without much in the way of expectations. Theater producers become frightened into safe choices, unchallenging programming. They will plug celebrities desperately into a play: the excitement of the live experience can only be accessed by actually seeing A REAL LIVE CELEBRITY UP CLOSE. The lack of demand for exciting work encourages theater artists to become, well, lazy hacks. It leads to pre-professional programs where the priorities are: 1. get students hired, even if they become hack-moes, 2. encourage students to aspire to celebrity above art. 3. um, see 1 and 2.
[good = whatever can get paid for]
The point being this past week.
1. Last Wednesday I watched a free dress rehearsal performance of 700 Sundays, a new solo show by Billy Crystal. Mr. Crystal is a charming, talented performer, with lots of neat stories from his childhood and a still-flexible physical and vocal instrument. He’s funny. His childhood stories warmed and eased us. The material is utterly inoffensive. The audience is predisposed to being charmed and delighted because he’s Billy Crystal. If he wasn’t Billy Crystal, we would have absolutely no reason to care about anything he’s saying. With this show, the Playhouse panders to a comfortable, upper-class Jewish subscription audience who are happy to feel like they’ve been invited into a celebrity’s living room.
[Billy Crystal, hell, any celebrity = great! meaningful!]
2. Embarrassingly bad theater this weekend, produced by an unashamed, unflinching institution. Me? I would have flinched. Most painful was watching how the audience (mostly members of said institution) have literally been trained to not demand more, critique more, push each other. When standards aren’t upheld by the people training so-called “pre-professionals”, we have a problem.
[Anything we put out = good, even when it’s not]
Bad theater always feels like another nail in the coffin of the entire American theater. Because every play seen and transmitted instructs potential new audiences of the possibilities of the form itself—it either helps guarantee or damn the survival of the theater. The bad theater I saw this weekend will not, I don’t think, convince anyone to come back. Bad = Bad