Month: August 2015

Seeing Bad Theatre, Reading Good Reviews, & An Audience In the Dark


One thing I find frustrating about being a director with an MFA and two other theatre degrees, and over 30 years of experience in the field, is accepting the assumption that the audience is always right. I know that may sound bad, but it’s really not as harsh as it sounds. You see, I accept that an audience can enjoy whatever they want, and that is their right. I simply question whether an audience always knows exactly what they’re seeing, and what the alternative might be. You see, in some areas, more often than not, an audience enjoys what we put in front of them, and they generally come away satisfied. That’s great! Every theatre company from big to small can feel good about themselves, and have their work praised and validated, and an audience leaves happy! And on its face, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with a theatre group feeling rewarded for their hard work. Because, let’s face it, every production takes tremendous time and effort, and everybody works hard. I don’t deny any theatre company that, no matter how poor I think a production is. But is hard work enough? The truth is, you can work extra hard, and still produce a failure of a show. If a show is terrible, but the audience enjoys it, is it possible the audience is wrong? Is quality determined by popularity? Surely there’s plenty of Oscar winning films out there that flopped, and movies like The Fast and the Furious franchise that have raked in over a billion dollars. Few people could argue the latter is worth calling high art, but it is very popular. Is it patronizing to think that an audience doesn’t know any better? If they like a show, isn’t that enough to call it a success? It’s not that I don’t think it’s valid an audience enjoy a play I think most would consider poor, only that I think if they knew how better choices could make it great, they would be blown away and enjoy it a hundred times more. I think we owe it to an audience to show them the difference between good theatre and poor, and demonstrate that both can happen at any level, whether amateur or professional. Great shows can come from anywhere…and so can bad.

Regardless of what level a play or film is at, we must hold it to high standards, and take responsibility for educating our audiences and holding critics accountable. We can’t rest on our laurels and accolades. True artists are never satisfied with their work, and continually challenge themselves to get better and refine their process. Many amateurs don’t possess that level of self-evaluation and labor intensive self-improvement. For some, the craft is a fun hobby, and nothing more. But no matter what level you are at, we can all benefit from evaluating our process and final product.

The thing is, an audience’s default is pleasure and satisfaction, but that’s often because they don’t always know the alternative. Most viewers aren’t savvy in filmmaking or play production, and don’t understand how movies and plays are crafted. They may be impressed with bad choices, because they don’t know what good ones look like. More informed choices often come with seeing a lot of different types of theatre, and being exposed to high quality work on Broadway and various regional theatres. It means being exposed to a lot of good and bad productions, and learning to tell the difference. Many have only seen bad shows though, and they literally may not know what they’re missing.
Imagine an art lover who had only seen the amateur oil paintings of George W. Bush and stick figure sketches. To him, Bush must seem like a Picasso, but compared to Rembrandt or Vermeer, Bush might as well be painting fences. I would argue that many audiences eat up inferior shows because they don’t know what a good production of those plays would look like. It’s easier to accept what is in front of you, than compare it to a theoretical production in your mind, or even a wonderful production of a different play you saw in New York last year. People in an audience see what’s in front of them, and take it at face value, failing to compare it to other shows they’ve seen, even far superior professional ones. People generally want to be kind, and look for the best in what they see. Since they don’t know how to evaluate or articulate the bad, it’s easiest to latch onto the good. People are very forgiving, and easily dismiss things that might have been confusing or bothersome. The fact is only compounded by the fact that many amateur or small town professional theatre audiences are made up of family and friends. As one might expect, these people are built in fans, and they’re most likely going to enjoy whatever they’re watching. Yet, audiences that have seen high quality plays AND poor plays should not hesitate to compare the two. Although they’re at totally different levels, audiences should be weighing the pros and cons of both productions. What worked about the professional show that isn’t working in the amateur one? What makes the one more effective than the other? How is this amateur show better than the last professional show you saw? It works both ways.
If I find the sometimes hollow enthusiasm of audiences to be frustrating, I find local theatre critics to be even more infuriating. Often, they surrender all credibility when they enthusiastically recommend every show, and haven’t a bad or critical note to give. Every review is glowing and serves the theatre company and ticket sales, but does a disservice to the viewer and the artists. Audiences go in having read wonderful reviews, and their expectations are fulfilled. They are primed and prepared to enjoy the show, and they are exempted from having to think about it critically. The overly generous reviewer doesn’t want to offend anyone, and chooses to applaud every choice he or she may see. In small towns or big cities with tight theatre communities, everyone is friends, and they all travel in the same circles. They may think it’s best not to rock the boat, but it’s unfair and dishonest, and it does more harm than good. An actor needs to hear what didn’t work in their performance. A set designer needs to hear why the set wasn’t functional. A director needs to read why certain choices they made come off silly and ineffective. Critics are the people that keep us theatre people honest. I’m not going to lie and tell you it was always easy to read bad reviews, but they were almost always helpful in some ways. It holds artists accountable for their work, and allows them to change their mistakes, and make better choices next time. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and theatre critics are part of the final phase in creating a work of art. They are the evaluative phase, and are often overlooked, at the artists own peril. We need critics and reviewers who have the courage to stand up and give honest evaluations. Not cruel or unhelpful ones, but honest constructive criticism and valuable feedback. This false praise is everywhere, and I’ve found it in small towns and big cities all across this country. It does a disservice to the work, the artists, and the audience.
I rarely go to see shows or films I’m uncertain of these days, for the very fact that I’m often disappointed. Sadly, having enthusiasm, passion, and dedication aren’t enough to make good plays. You also have to have talent, technique, training, skill, and ability. It actually takes a lot to produce a good play, or to direct a high quality film. It means making risky and artistic decisions, and not just settling for childish and amateur choices. Great art pushes the boundaries and asks questions of its audience, and doesn’t seek easy answers. It attempts to look at the world in new and unusual ways, and always aspires to be new and original, while also paying homage to everything that came before. Amateur shows can often be about saying lines, getting the blocking right, and having fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what most school and community theatre is all about. But filmmakers claiming they’re creating high art, while making cheap and disingenuous hack jobs, and theatre troupes lavished with praise for mediocrity, do a disservice to those of doing quality work, and with years of training and experience. Why? Because many people will accept that a mediocre play is as high quality as a good one, and not be able to recognize the difference. Naturally, if the two were compared side by side, anyone could tell the difference. As it is, amateurs are sometimes lumped in with professionals, and the high quality work is seen as no better than the inferior work. This is insulting to those of us with degrees and decades of experience in the field. There is a difference in the work. There’s nothing wrong with a community theatre doing amateur work, and being proud of that. It’s when they think that it’s more than that, or critics and audiences praise them as being at a level perhaps higher than they’re at. If they’re doing high quality work as good as a professional company, then they should absolutely be praised for it. They should also consider going professional, if they’re that good. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. We can watch our kid’s Little League game and think he did a great job, but nobody thinks his team could play the Red Sox at Fenway next week. It’s important to praise all the good we see, but always put it in context of all that we’ve seen before. The important thing to remember, is that the professional theatres aren’t always doing the best plays and the amateur companies aren’t always doing the worst. Sometimes they will surprise you. Some of the best plays I’ve seen in the past five years have been community theatre shows. Great art comes from great artists, wherever they may be.
In some ways, the audience isn’t always right, and it’s not their fault. If all that they’d ever eaten was chuck steak, they wouldn’t have any idea how much better filet mignon is. I don’t necessarily blame an audience for that. If more people want to see some mindless action movie over a more artistic and well written drama, I understand. My argument is that that action film doesn’t have to be mindless. It could be like the Bond film Skyfall or the thriller, The Usual Suspects. Both films are action packed and thrilling, but also artsy, intelligent, and moving. We can show the audience that there is a better way. Unless an audience has the experience and savvy to be able to tell good theatre from bad, we must hold even the most intermediate artists up to higher standards. That doesn’t mean hold a community theatre play to the same high standard as a Broadway show, but recognize that the amateur show is just that, and try and evaluate it more appropriately. That also means that reviewers need to actually do their job, and honestly evaluate the effective and poor choices the company made. That’s the only way they’ll grow and learn. When we permit bad theatre to remain unchallenged and celebrate its mediocrity and amateur choices, we are doing it a disservice, and not raising the stakes for them to improve and get any better. With the exception of maybe a grade school play, no show should be exempt from constructive criticism and honest feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but that’s how artists grow and evolve.
Just as actors and theatre people need to learn how to make better choices and more artistically viable decisions, an audience needs to learn how to be a discriminating audience. Sure, the number one goal of any show should be to entertain. By that measure, most any play performed succeeds in that. But a piece of art should be so much more. They may find a play amusing, but are they seeing a play at the funniest it could be? The scariest? The most thought provoking? We’ll never know, because art is subjective, and it’s not always easy to choose what makes one show the “best” if that’s even possible. However, it is pretty easy to put two shows next to each other, and choose which one is better, because one makes better and more effective choices. You can compare the show Breaking Bad with the some other poor quality show about drug abuse, and instantaneously see that BB is artistic and clever, whereas the other is contrived, cliched, and tired. You can see all the design choices in BB are inventive and improve the overall quality of the show. Every choice seems to be cohesive and serve the overall vision of the show. A good play does that too. Having a serious play interrupted by a silly or ridiculous costume or prop completely erases all the good will you had built with the audience, and wipes away any prior good choices. Inexperienced or inferior companies will make random and arbitrary choices, which often conflict and don’t serve the cohesion of the play. This is often because they don’t know any better. Audiences need to be educated in what makes a good play or movie, and it’s helpful for us professional theatre artists to help them by leading talk backs, publishing articles, giving backstage tours, promoting critical reviews, leading panel discussions, providing lecture series, offering classes, and generally producing high quality shows so that there is a proper measuring stick.
No matter what level of theatre you are at, we can all benefit from better theatre and more accountability. No one deserves a free pass, and we can only make theatre more enjoyable and credible, when every production is held to high standards.

Homeschooling & Religious Indoctrination


I was recently contemplating the infamous Duggar family, known for their recently cancelled reality show, 19 Kids and Counting, all about the conservative Christian couple and their household of 19 children. All of the children were/are homeschooled, and the Duggars adhere to a Christian homeschooling program, complete with a healthy dose of Bible study and Christian lessons. This compelled me to finally write my personal objections to homeschooling, and why I not only think it’s bad for children, but bad for America. We need to do whatever we can to raise and educate young people who are cultured, socialized, tolerant, educated, and well-rounded. In my honest opinion, I believe the best way to truly produce those types of individuals is through the public and private school system, and not through the limited scope and reach of homeschooling. The more diverse people and broad range of ideas a child is exposed to, the greater potential for that individual to grow up to be a moral, fair, and just global citizen.

Forgive me if I’m skeptical the Duggar clan received stellar educations through homeschooling — a notoriously uneven method of teaching children from the comforts of home. Uneducated parents with no degrees, certifications, or familiarity with pedagogy are teaching out of books and online, and are often poor resources and arguably clueless instructors. Who’s asking the critical questions, if the parents are shaky on the concepts? How in depth can such superficial instruction be? The last time a traditionally schooled child is taught by one teacher — teaching all the subjects — is typically 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade. Why? Because the subject matter is rudimentary and simple enough for one person to master the various content areas. They likely studied ‘Elementary Education,’ rather than a content area like Physics or Creative Writing. As children grow, their brains crave more complex subject matter, and the classes divide up, and teachers focus on one or two specific subjects, which they are presumably experts in. So how can a parent be expected to teach advanced high school courses like Calculus, Physics, Music, English, and History with any degree of effectiveness? The answer is, they’re not. More often than not, homeschool kids don’t take courses that advanced, and invariably get less rigorous educations than their peers in traditional schools. Working out of a book or online is fine some of the time, but it’s missing a key component in education — class discussion and the socratic dialogue of a teacher and student. Good teachers ask a lot of questions of their students, and ask provocative questions designed to spur critical thinking and force a student to craft arguments and use data and evidence to back up their arguments. In short, homeschooling often neglects the socialization that every student needs to build confidence, find their voice, and articulate their thoughts. Homeschooled adolescents are often noticeably more shy, uncertain, and sheltered than their peers.

In the case of the Duggars, the curriculum is already planned and laid out by the Christian company that makes the materials. The courses are simpler and more intermediate than the courses offered at school. One striking deficit homeschooling has is not having access to the various fonts of knowledge each individual teacher has. There is a combined wisdom that homeschooled students miss, if all they have access to is a parent. Many of the homeschool houses are made up of devout Evangelical Christians, who see public education as evil and corrupting, with its lessons in global warming, environmentalism, Evolution, sex education and contraception. To many, public schools are a governmental trap, in which tax payers pay liberals to indoctrinate young people in the virtues of Socialism and marriage equality. I am not speaking of every homeschool family, nor every Christian family. I am targeting a very specific group of evangelical Christians, who shun perfectly acceptable school systems, in order to make sure their children are learning ONLY what their religion allows, and that they aren’t exposed to any other opinions. You see, diverse opinions are dangerous to those whose faith is so absolute and inflexible, they fear their children could be enticed by the easier path of the wicked. It’s no wonder so many of these people have trouble fitting into the real world, and playing nicely with those who may be different and hold opposing views. They were brought up in an insular echo chamber, where all they ever heard was their own beliefs and the sound of their own voices. Homeschooling tends to have that affect.

Despite its obvious drawbacks, homeschooling is conspicuously absent the incentives and initiatives that come in a classroom full of learners. When children engage in healthy competition, it helps them learn more effectively, and builds confidence and self-esteem. As if it’s not bad enough having one sole teacher, who is really more of a facilitator than a knowledgeable instructor, but that person is most often the parent of the student. Generally, it’s not fair or wise to have parents teaching their own children. There are two problems that can arise. Firstly, a parent teacher is naturally biased, and may show their child preferential treatment and be more permissive than a teacher who was unrelated, and naturally more objective. Secondly, the parent could be just the opposite, and be the scourge of the classroom, pushing their child hard and having rigid and inflexible standards, too high for any child to reach. This kind of parent may push their child excessively, and may invariably drive their child away from their education, and also engender bitter resentment and mistrust along the way.

As I alluded to earlier, one of the most dangerous and reckless consequences of homeschooling is not allowing children the natural and necessary chance to mingle and socialize, and learn from their peers. Many homeschoolers are shy, timid, insecure, uncertain, introverted, and socially awkward. They come across as sheltered, and are often uncomfortable around joking, sarcasm, sexual situations, competition, and other similar scenarios. By robbing a child the opportunity to interact with their peers or engage in the back and forth dialogue with a teacher, a student may not learn invaluable lessons in body language, signposting, verbal cues, non-verbal communication, politeness and etiquette, humor, and many more life lessons.

In the final analysis, I must simply argue that MOST (not all) homeschool students generally receive an inferior and subpar education, when compared to their peers in traditional schools. Having a single and untrained parent as an instructor is crippling, and frankly insufficient to properly advance through subjects and levels. It’s reasonable to assume that before long, the subject matter and level surpasses the education and knowledge of the parent, and that figure becomes obsolete and ostensibly unhelpful. The lack of socialization, critical thinking, social interactions, spirited debates, having to defend and support arguments, and answer the questions of teachers is a catastrophic loss and not reproducible in the child’s home. Not having access to a wide variety of instructors, with varying levels of education, knowledge, and teaching styles robs the student of the chance to build a diverse base of knowledge, upon which they can build and expand learning. Another drawback to homeschooling is the obvious lack of classes in the arts and extracurricular activities. Although many homeschooled students have the access to participate in after school activities at their local schools, many choose not to. It can be awkward to not know anybody or have to suffer the looks and judgements of those who don’t approve and/or would ridicule homeschooling. It can often not be a very welcoming environment. In most homes, parents aren’t talented or equipped to teach visual art, theatre, photography, dance, or any of the other myriad art classes, that are not only offered in most public schools, but required for most students. No matter what they may want to be when they grow up, a child should be introduced to a wide array of subjects and hobbies. After school activities like drama, a sport, or the debate team are great ways to further socialize, and excel at something they love. It is great to work as a team, and learn good sportsmanship and collaboration, and also learn something about conflict resolution, and overcoming adversity. Children should be allowed to succeed AND fail. Activities are great ways to learn those lessons. And yet, many homeschool children will never have these unique and invaluable experiences, because they are shut up in their homes, and isolated from the real world around them.

Although there are families from all walks of life who choose to homeschool their children, a large number of people come from conservative evangelical Christian households. Many of these people are fearful and disgusted with the state of public education, and view schools as being dens of iniquity, spreading a liberal agenda, and polluting good Christian minds. They object to the high degree of sexuality and kids having sex before marriage. They object to sex education classes and the teaching of contraception and female reproductive rights. They object to the way history is taught, and to the idea of multiculturalism. Some may not like how racially diverse schools are, and the presence of LGBT students and the tolerance and encouragement of groups on campus. Many conservative parents strenuously object to the way science is taught, especially teaching Evolution, global warming, the Big Bang Theory, and how old the Earth actually is. Many of these concepts directly contradict the teachings in the Bible, which is the absolute literal word of God, to these fundamentalists. Many are upset that most teachers are liberal and pro-union, and teach in a style that is permissive and promotes a liberal agenda, where homosexuality and gay marriage are considered acceptable, gun control is a priority, environmentalism is embraced, immigration and amnesty are encouraged, businesses are over-regulated, and all the other many beliefs most conservatives object to.

The problem with ultra-conservative Christians homeschooling their children is that often, they don’t do a very good job. Some look at the world and see nothing but sin and depravity, as they wait for the End of Days, and ensure their place in the rapture, all while shutting out the profligate world around them. They isolate their families in their homes and in their insular churches, where many of the flock are just like them, and hold all the same beliefs and values. These homeschooled children have very little contact with the outside world — just their homes and church — and are rendered helpless out in the real world. The problem is that these families are producing young adults who are sheltered, scared, wrathful, contemptuous of the sinful world around them, naive, inexperienced, inflexible, unable to see more than just black and white, bigoted, prejudiced, intolerant, self-righteous, pious, untraveled, uncultured, provincial, ignorant, anti-science, anti-intellectual, biased, unworldly, and generally short-sighted. Their educations are often not very rigorous because education and intellect are not high priorities. Their blind faith and the love and unquestioning devotion to the Bible is what drives these people, and quite honestly, Calculus and philosophy aren’t always high on their list. What’s more, over 80% of evangelical Christian homeschooled students do NOT go on to earn an advanced degree. College is simply not a priority, and holds little interest for them. For one thing, as bad as public K-12 schools are, American universities are viewed with even more scorn and contempt. They are notoriously liberal and atheist institutions, and most of these people wouldn’t be caught dead in such sinful places of learning. Many of the jobs they pursue are in the church itself, or in other trades that don’t require college degrees. A good number of them go on to study at Bible schools all across the country, earning certificates, but no formal degree.

In the course of this essay, I’ve cast a wide net, and as you might expect, a whole lot of people got caught up in it. There are a lot of groups who choose to homeschool their children, and I believe people should have the right to choose. In this essay, I undoubtedly had a bit of an axe to grind, and unmistakably took direct aim at some evangelical Christians who almost all exclusively homeschool their children. I maintain that my generalizations are based on anecdotal evidence and common knowledge, but to be clear, in no way is it meant to represent all evangelical Christians. As with any group, these people are relatively diverse. I was targeting a very specific group of evangelicals I especially take issue with. I don’t mean to suggest that ALL homeschooled kids are receiving poor educations, or that the parents who teach them are all unqualified and ineffective. There are undoubtedly many homeschooled students who are receiving exceptional educations, and perhaps, even more rigorous and ambitious than the average traditionally educated student. I know there are parents who insist their children participate in at least one after school activity, and enroll them in an art class to expose them to culture. They also may take trips to art museums and visit the ballet from time to time. These parents are the good ones, and have taken it upon themselves to fully educate their child, and offer the most substantive and diverse education they can. At the same time, I still stand firm in all the many drawbacks and deficits I believe homeschooling has. In general, I always believe the more diverse people and opinions a child can be exposed to, the better and more well adjusted person they will become. They will likely grow up to be tolerant, cultural, curious, responsible, moral, and more. They will be good neighbors and compassionate global citizens. They will know about the world outside the walls of their home or church. This is why I generally don’t believe in homeschooling, and advocate all children should learn amongst their peers and be exposed to as many new ideas and different teachers as possible.