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

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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.

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