The critic goes into the theater with a detailed and educated expectation. They enter the performance area a self-described authority prepared to judge an artist’s ability based on rules about morals, text, style, and genre. How can you criticize something if not against a standard?
What can be done? The critical mind is a fascist mind bent on preserving a standard: aesthetic, moral, political. Audience members can be whatever they want to be. I’m asking critics to be more. I’m asking them not to be authoritarian critics, but to report on a play- primarily on it’s ability to be theatrical.
As we’ve already covered, theatrical action is unexpected physical, moral, or social actions. While Dramatic Action is simply action that asks a question of compelling human concern and answers it in a climactic moment. Theatrical Action uses conventional dramatic norms to establish and then exploit expectations.
When bad critics evaluate how closely a play meets their expectations, they are the prime enforcers of an anti-theatrical theater. They use criteria and convention to box off a play and evaluate it “properly”.
1. Moral critics
The lowest and most abhorrent critique is the moral fascist who states that they simply disagree with the artist’s premise. This confuses many things: truth with fiction, performance with education, and, um, feelings with agreeings. It’s not that they don’t like the way it made them think or feel; they don’t like that it expected them to think or feel in an unaccustomed way.
In her recent critique of “Invation!” by Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play at Silk Road Rising, SunTimes head critic Hedy Weiss has taken heat, NOT for supplanting her moral beliefs in lieu of theatrical criticism, but for having the wrong beliefs. The dialogue emerging is about the validity of the moral argument and not the quality of the work. (Proof of the theatrical work’s success but critics should be above this.) Counter-critics (like Eric & Andy’s Reviews You Can Iews! are just being fascists in the opposite direction by shutting down the opposing idea. They attack her character rather than criticize her inability to look past an issue.
*I am against racial profiling. This blog is about anti-theatrical criticism.
Hedy attacks the moral premise of the play, rather than it’s execution.
“But coming at the very moment the U.S. State Department found it necessary to issue a worldwide alert warning of planned attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia “by al-Qaeda or its affiliates,” a certain skepticism [within Hedy] met those cries.”
“But despite Khemiri’s passion, those still thinking of the horrific terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon might well be tempted to ask: What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?”
This type of critic insists that the realm of ideas are not the place for theatricality. In fact, outside of the physical realm (for which Hedy is also the SunTimes Dance critic), moral and social concepts are the only place theatricality exists. And as we’ve already covered, the only way to be theatrical is to defy expectations.
I might suggest that Hedy’s review caused a more theatrical reaction than the play itself, which sounds politically correct and well-meaning.
Note: I do understand what motivates the salaried critic:
Commercialism primarily judges a critic on how well their review matches audience reactions.
A critic who fights against the grain risks being fired for being out of touch. Predictability is the inherent enemy of the theatrical, yet the critic’s worth is their ability remove a layer of the unexpected. I presume that this is why Hedy also recounts (spoils) the majority of the play’s plot and surprises. She wants us to see it coming. She’s protecting us from this work.
In Red Theater Chicago’s production of Red Hamlet, we surprised the audience with a small, harmless dousing of water. I had to fight critics to remove this spoiler from their reviews. These critics felt it was their duty to warn the audience and remove the shock. Did they think the moment would be better if you knew it was coming? I suggest that they meant well, wanting to help others avoid the uneasy feeling of the unexpected: the theatrical.
The stage does not work like the screen, and our critics watch too much TV. We accidentally enforce the dogmas of one art form (private, comforting, alluring television) into another (public, challenging, exciting theater). It’s like marching band critic judging a jazz musician for failing to keep a regular meter.
In short critics mistake the stage for live television. They criticize it when it is at its best; when they are unsettled and must check their reaction against the audience’s; when they feel uneasy about their own supremacy over the artist or subject matter; when we upon the stage refuse their games and reject their expectations.
There is bad theater. There is a lot of it, and in part, the moral critics are causing it.
Ideas need to be challenged: that is exactly what theater is supposed to do.
2. Conceptual critics
I have often heard it said that audiences will forgive ONE thing in every show. One conceit is allowed. One adjustment can be layered atop the dramatic action and accepted. That layer must be consistent and focused on some didactic and easily digested theme. This layer is often called a concept, and once its presence is known, it must be as predictable as the action itself.
Robert Falls’ Measure for Measure was running in Chicago when I started writing this post. It had a layer (often mistaken for a “concept”) transplanting the play’s location to 1970’s New York City. It seemed to say, “the vice and virtue of this play is like those 1970’s movies set in NYC”. [In actuality a theatrical concept- as opposed to a theme or location or design- is translated into the theatrical action as it focuses the dramatic question.] No doubt, Fall’s had a concept!
Falls’ Measure concept was likely something closer to:
“No matter how pure or clever you are in this city, vice rules”.
Falls attempted to focus the second act around this concept, and used the Bard’s textual holes to inspire action. Falls’ surprise ending stuck a final knife in his concept’s exciting execution. I loved it. The audience walked away desperate to discuss what they had seen. Falls’ choice was courageous and effective, but mostly it was a theatrical action.
Famed stage reviewer, Chris Jones, commented on Falls’ full implementation: “That changed ending is, I think, a mistake, not because it changes authorial intent, although that will drive some folks crazy. The play has survived many auteur productions. The problem is more one of aesthetic consistency: It makes a drastic change in a wordless moment, which does not jibe with that which has gone before.”
Mr. Jones is wrong; that is exactly the world Falls has been giving us- Nothing rules but vice- it’s just not the world Mr. Jones feels is ‘correct’ for the play.
Falls’ ending is shocking. It leaves everyone talking as they exit to the lobby. It defied our expectations and makes us reflect on the action before it. It was a wonderful theatrical act. Enter the critics: it is their job to stifle it, referring to “authorial intent”, placing historical correctness above an artist creating a theatrical moment. Jones claims he’s not defending the Bard’s words, but Fall’s silent action is consistent with his play on the stage (not the words on the page).
Any critic attending Measure for Measure has already read and visualized the play; they’ve likely already seen a few productions; they’ve established an ideal of what the play should be. Their review will be directly related to the play’s ability to meet those expectations. Unexpected actions, such as Falls’ ending, will be marked as “incorrect” no matter how effective.
Time Out insists it knows best and writes, “Falls hasn’t found a satisfactory solution to the ambiguous denouement.”
Center Stage fails to wrestle with the action and writes, “But it’s the very end of the play where it falls apart, when Mr. Falls brutally kills one of the major characters (that Shakespeare had heretofore let live), leaving the audience stunned. Just because it’s possible to shock the audience for no apparent reason, doesn’t mean you should.”
Chicago Stage Review seems to understand how theater works: “Director Robert Falls has shockingly thrown convention by the wayside and in doing so, uncovered a more emotionally rich and theatrically enchanting Measure For Measure than one might believe to be possible. If you are a purist that pains at the thought of tampering with the Bard, then this Measure For Measure will be a nightmare of scandalous excess. If your mind is open to the magic of mixing stagecraft with depravity, then this Measure For Measure will be a dark deviation into delightfully resplendent debauchery.”
This is also why new plays often fair better with critics: they have only genre to force upon a play, and most playwrights are happy to comply. They are evaluating the execution of drama onstage. Any theatrical action is inherently a violation of the expected dramatic action. If you don’t know the dramatic action, the two are the same. If you “know” what is “supposed” to happen, then the outrage of the enforcers is sparked.
In short the ideal audience member is themselves. They need not put on the hat of an authority. They need not pretend anything. In fact, the struggle in the theater is to get most audience members to stop pretending they are important powerful professionals and realize that they are one of many beautiful and vulnerable living organisms that might hope to live well together before we all, one day, die.
Critics ARE people. They need to fight the good fight and write from a human place, not a place of authority. It’s not their job to defend Shakespeare or Brecht or political viewpoints. It’s their job to talk about how a play moved you and others and resist protecting people from being moved in ways that they might fear. Critics have to put their bias aside and be the best beautiful and vulnerable living organisms in the audience.
I’ll be making some posts to this subject. In short, I learned that the English have a knack for the theatrical- especially when it comes to tourists- while their hacky “art” (even from supposed masters) seems to fall into the same traps we find in Chicago.
Q: When is an audience NOT an audience?
A: When observers self-identify as individuals or lose “self” by transcending into the character/story.
Maybe this is just the misanthrope in me, but other people suck. Humans are selfish creatures, and most of the time being a self-aware audience member is not pleasant. We continue to master drama delivery system into ever-increasingly private and transcendent methods.
The theater is different! It’s so much better
What makes you be an audience member?
Causes: a teacher specifically calling on you for an answer (external interactive), a teacher asking questions of a class in general (internal interactive), a subject matter that drives abnormal passions in you (external subjective), or a full bladder before intermission (internal subjective)
What is an audience?
I argue that ONLY a group of people who identify AS a group of people while watching something. Often things we call audiences are not actually audiences, and it prohibits the theatrical experience (which requires a group self-identification).
HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Let’s go by degree.
1. A television audience is, in a sociological sense, an audience, but our experience is largely personal. It doesn’t feel like “we” are watching Game of Thrones as much as it feels like “I” am watching it. Prove it? Watch HBO’s The Game of Thrones with your Grandmother and little cousin. You will immediately become aware of the difference between “I” and “we”. Your sense of social relationships and responsibility is immediately heightened by the taboo of nudity and extreme violence.
2. A cinema audience starts out as an audience while popcorn and candy and late arrivals force the awareness during previews. Then, the lights go out and we are drawn into the screen. The journey can be violent (fast editing forces a submissive mind meld) or seductive (majestic cinematic romanticism draws the soul to self-identify in a character point-of-view). Some situations can have brief theatrical effects, but the main entertainment is drawn from individual experience. Our emotional experiences are split as we long for more privacy in sadness, but enjoy sharing the victories on screen.
3. Theater Realism turns out the house lights and attempts to draw the audience through the “screen” despite not having editing or camera angles to aid in the effort. An old lady coughs and you want her to die for breaking the spell you are attempting to maintain. Since the stage is inherently ineffective in this effort, the performance is largely intellectual. We enjoy judging their actions, pondering their philosophies, and being surprised by the twists and turns of the plot. Our emotional experiences are desperate as we teeter on the razor’s edge between great elation and fear the extreme boredom that drops into all but the most elite performances.
4. Shakespeare or juggling or a magic act is performed out in the park and demands the attention of the audience as themselves in the world they live in. Everyone is aware of everything, and we are captivated by the performance. The communication loop is also open when boredom sets in or the audience openly revolts, shares their disgust at the performer’s actions/worthiness to hold their attention.
Note: As in the Game of Thrones example, less homogenous audiences can actually identify first as a collective and second as individuals.
A later post will talk about the difference between a theatrical audience and a general audience.
Questions I have: Are a group of online gamers actively speaking to each other as themselves and playing a game an audience? A theatrical audience? If they do not speak but only interact through the game as characters? If they are only speaking but not playing?
Art is anything done outside of (at least perceived) necessity.
Aesthetics are the moral frameworks that guides art.
Style is an adverb. It’s action-based= the manner in which something is done.
If you build four walls and a ceiling, you have shelter; any interior walls you build after that are aesthetic (moral) choices.
Example: If you wall off a private bathroom, you’re making an aesthetic choice; the flair you use in going to the bathroom- that’s style, mamma!
So let’s talk about the hidden aesthetic: Realism.
Realism is NOW the default style of performances on both stage and screen.
Realism was an aesthetic movement in 19th-century theatre that valued “Truth” over entertainment in performance for the first time. It developed a set of dramatic and theatrical conventions confining text, design, and performances within the values of scientific observation to mirror real life.
*The above Realism definition is patched together from Wikipedia and my own experiences. I’m not going to separate it from Naturalism for the sake of this posting.
Within Realism, if the moment-to-moment cause-and-effect relationships are not believable or justified in a Freudian, secular, Darwinian framework; it is false/wrong. Good and Bad art were replaced with True and False art.
Realism’s inherent message is that, “If it seems true on stage, it must be true in real life.” This trap allows its playwrights and performers to be immune from attack: “If there is no falseness in the play’s performance, the thesis must be true. I am simply writing facts. I am not an instigator!”
What is it about Realism that makes it the best aesthetic it to express anti-establishment ideas? Realism’s use of an oppressive Fourth Wall tells the audience to be quiet. “We may be stating blasphemous, riotous things on this stage, but you MUST REMAIN QUIET!” Realism acting styles further limited themselves to mundane behaviors, becoming mere vessels for the playwright’s words. “Who me? I wasn’t saying those things. It was the playwright!” The entire aesthetic attempts to wrap itself defensively in “truth”, daring the audience to find the false moment. Its implication is that, if the audience cannot find a false moment, then they must accept the thesis!
Example: A Doll’s House = “Women: leave your husbands!”
Realism is an inherently ant-theatrical aesthetic in service of a theatrical thesis. It’s two major pinnacles were when it was used by communists to show a progressive thesis highlighting social inequalities (Moscow Art Theater, The Group Theater). Its performance is forgettable by design; we are only to remember the Primary Theatrical Action..
Primary Theatrical Action: The action that describes the Central Dramatic Question and Answer.
Example: Romeo and Juliet=
DQ: Will they be able to be together?
DQ: Yes, in death.
PTA: Two star-crossed lovers kill themselves to stay together.
In Realism, the playwright’s Primary Thesis is also the Primary Theatrical Action:
1. If the thesis is no longer inciting/ if we already agree with what it states- “Women should have the right to vote!”- the trite morality play has only historical value and should be performed in museums.
2. If the thesis is offensive (Pinter)- “Women should support a house of men through prostitution”- the play is theatrical because it is viewed as immoral. Originally, A Doll’s House fit into this category.
3. If the thesis is contained on stage- “This specific character must get over their personal hang-ups to live a better life”- the play is a movie. Or more properly, the play’s central action is not theatrical.
Note: #3 is a Morality Play-, one of the three impulses toward theater in history- and it deserves its own post.
Modern Realism is in crisis. We have all seen (tens of?) thousands of hours of film and television, but most playwrights are lucky to have seen hundreds of hours of theater. We no longer understand what it means to be theatrical- and how Realism’s anti-theatrical aesthetic was a necessary evil.
Modern plays that ask audiences to care about an individual struggling with their personal demons have no empathetic power (sharing as oneself, the feelings of another). Modern Realism often asks for a sympathetic response (caring for someone else as an “other”). We can bicker over semantics, but the difference is self-involvement in the fate of another.
“This is not good for me” (theatrical empathy) vs. “That’s too bad for them” (cinematic sympathy)
If a character experiencing their first kiss finds out they have bad breath (and it’s presented theatrically), you will feel bad with them. You will want that character to do better so that you also do better.
If a character experiencing their first kiss finds out they have bad breath (and it’s presented cinematically), you will feel bad for them. You will evaluate their actions as a scientist. You will apply the lesson to your own life. You will buy Scope mouthwash. If the character is not likable, you will view it as a History lesson- “This is why WE (unlike that guy) buy mouthwash.” If the character is likable, Realism dictates that the character will learn from their error. You will view it as a Morality lesson- “This is why WE (like that guy) now always buy mouthwash to avoid terrible things.
Realism CAN be theatrical if the audience is having an intense reaction AS THEMSELVES. It is very possible to have plot revelations cause theatrical responses; each new bit of news causing vibrations in the audience. In these cases, theatrical theater is alive and well! Little is gained by limiting the production to Realism’s constraints, but theater can be made in spite of them. In many ways, this is a theater that hates itself: forbidding itself from the indulgent pleasures offered by full theatrical interaction. It’s a flash of ankle, a perverse pleasure that matches certain elements of a Puritanical society.
Today Realism has become a fascist tool of our capitalist donors. No longer are our Morality Tales about people who are victims of society’s structural ills. Modern stories are about how we bring about our own downfall, or how the flaws of certain specific people attack others unjustly. Would today’s Walmarts be more likely to promote a story about the necessity of unionized American jobs? Or about how a lowly worker pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to become a happy, wealthy executive? About how they worked hard but were unable to send their child to college? Or how they brought about their own demise at no fault of an ultimately just society?
The failure to ask and answer a Central Dramatic Question is the biggest failing of most productions- and the biggest way directors can help a playwright.
Central Dramatic Question: A Central Dramatic Question is asked at the start of a play (intrusion/inciting action) and answered at the end (climax).
There are often many smaller dramatic questions and answers throughout a play or even moment-to-moment: “Will the drunken waiter spill the water? Yes!”
I attend quite a lot more theater productions than, say, your average person. I often want to leave at intermission because after the whirlwind (or often toilet swirl) of the first act, I find that I don’t have anything I’m concerned about; nothing is driving me to stay. I don’t care about the characters. I don’t care about what’s causing the unexplained intrusions or why they playwright keeps flashing back to an earlier time.
In the dramatic arts, there are different kinds of dramatic questions, and it’s a problem when we translate stories from medium to medium.
A dramatic question is a question that touches the human condition in a way that we are naturally concerned with the answer.
1. What is 6 x 45237?
2. Will the crippled third grader be able to solve the math problem and win a scholarship that will change their life forever?
The first is clearly not a dramatic question. I suppose the second is up for debate.
There are different ways to phrase dramatic questions, and each phrasing is best within different dramatic mediums.
Dramatic questions begin with: Who/What/Why/How/Will
TV asks “Who?” and” How?” better than any other medium. Procedural dramas like CSI or Law & Order show you a disturbing event in the first 30 seconds and then ask “Who?” (mystery) and “How?” (method) questions the rest of the hour. “Who was the murderer?” or “How did they do it?” Plot is the primary driver when these questions are enacted, and the camera is ideal for framing up very specific bits of information a piece at a time.
“What?” and” Why?” are only worthy of B-plot seasoning in most circumstances in live performance. They mostly motivate exposition delivery, providing point/counterpoint to the actual plot questions. “What just happened?” or “Why did they do that?” tend to alienate live audiences; we bookmark the event and wait for an explanation as other dramatic questions drive us forward (hopefully).
“What?” lives best in documentaries- “What really caused the Second World War?” or “What is causing our school systems to fail?”
“Why?” is best in novels because the form lets us dig deepest into the thoughts and perspective of its characters. “Yes, I killed him, but you would have too if you really understood why!”
“Will?” is the only workable question on stage. A playwright’s Central Dramatic Question should be converted to Will whenever possible.
Hamlet is best if the audience is truly wondering if Hamlet will get revenge. If a production sells out the end, we plod through a pseudo-intellectual hell as Hamlet shows us How he will appease his father or Why he feels the need to do so.
Romeo & Juliet make us hope that they Will get together much more so than we might wonder at How they might pull it off or analyze Why they like each other. A documentary might break down the How of their life events beautifully, and a novel might beautifully dive into a Juliet syndrome etc.
By thrusting the audience into the future, we keep them participating. By establishing and then breaking their expectations (theatrical energy!), we keep them engaged. Will implies knowledge (killing What and Who), perspective (killing Why), and creates desire. Imagine two characters holding guns. “Who will get shot?” you wonder. Notice that Will is the operative word for potential action; the play changes greatly if we ask only “Who got shot?”
Many playwrights suffer from the misnomer smart sounding quotes stating that theater is about memory. It is not! The theater presents past events in a present context. In the most intimate and immediate medium, we are presented with who we were so that we are forced to ask if we WILL be that today. If the audience is being asked to pretend they are not themselves, today, alive, now- the theatrical loop is broken. We can’t be surprised because we are not ourselves. At best we can have false tolerance for, say, the ingrained bigotry of a character we are supposed to like or muster false outrage over the violation of a social contract we have long since overcome.
*more on “Audience as self” in a later post.
The audience will start asking its own questions like”
Who is this play for?
What am I supposed to care about?
Why am I here?
How can I leave at intermission without my friend knowing it’s not their fault, but the fault of the playwright and director?
Let’s talk about sex; or more specifically let’s talk about the theatrical act and how it’s like a sex act.
Theater originates in humanity from three places:
1. Historical: the campfire stories told about why we are who we are.
2. Sexual: the crazy trance, drugged, rain dances appealing to the gods forlifeandfertility.
3. Moral: the ministry’s stories about how you should live to please authority (not how to best live).
Later blog posts will deal with ministers and campfires.
This is the sex posting.
Now, it’s been a while since I’ve been to a strip club. My first experience was around my final year of high school after losing at the State Baseball Tournament. Some teammates and I piled into a car and entered the unknown. It was frightfully thrilling as I entered the club and my ears filled with the bass beats of the music; I saw the (near) naked ladies dancing; my physical and psychological reactions were overwhelmed.
A list of the theatrical energies at play:
What I was doing was taboo! (moral) The dancers were moving in ways I’d never seen before! (physical) My fellow teammates were pressuring me to partake in a lap dance! (social)
This was great theater! Thirty minutes later all tensions were gone. I wanted to leave, but my teammates’ interest lasted longer than King Lear.
*For the benefit of my wife I’ll state a truth: nothing scandalous happened
A few nights ago I watched a play that was impressive with its use of language; the fight choreography was musical and beautiful, and the actors committed fully to the emotion of the scene. We were engaged as hell during the first minutes, but after a while the audience didn’t care. People were fidgeting and uncontrollably falling asleep while the actors yelled and pretended to beat each other. This production was heralded as one of the best in Chicago, and if you intellectualize the experience- rather than remember the actual experience of watching- it was impressive.
It felt like I was back at the strip club.
Stay with me here.
All too often, the stage is a strip club with no possibility of Hamlet taking you into a back room. Absent an… important something, performers do little more than make the sounds of the playwright and move their flesh under lights.
Bad theater is like a strip club; good theater is like romance.
The theatrical energy is a tension between audience and action, and it’s a lot like real world sexual tension. When two people experience sexual tension (“Does she know I like her?”) our senses are heightened. (“Did he brush my hand on purpose?”) We are more easily pleased and offended, (“I can’t believe he would say something like that!”) and our self-worth is suddenly dependent upon the proceedings before us. When faced with the theatrical nature of real sexual tension, we care! We are alive in the moment and as ourselves! We feel this way because our self-worth is tied to the events.
The sexual theatrical energy must engage us in this way. Rather than offering intercourse and companionship, the stage offers a connection to god/truth/purity. The theater challenges us on moral, physical, and social levels to reawaken our souls. Why ask god, “Why?” and consider new moral codes.
*The thesis of Jonathan Haidt’s TED Talk would suggest that this is an inherently liberal theater (while historical theatrical energy will be conservative).
The theatrical trick is to know and respect audiences enough to interact with them (as themselves) in a way that involves their (real) self-worth. (If that woman doesn’t find a way to live happily in her marriage, my own relationship seems in doubt!”) Cheap tricks of insult comics and exotic dancers can work for a while, but sustaining theatrical energy longer than a few minutes takes real artistry. If the work is not a part of the zeitgeist, it will fail. If it cannot connect to a human question, it will fail. Only by asking a dramatic question worthy of the concern of each audience on each night will a play find success.
Future posts on audience identity (as a group vs individual) needed.
Also on Dramatic Questions and Answers
Artists who believe in anti-theatrical action state: “If the actor feels it, the audience will feel it.” Artists who believe in theatrical action state: “if the character feels it, the audience doesn’t need to feel it.”
Here’s a little test:
You’re in the theater. The play’s just begun, and an actress is playing with a doll. An actor comes up and steals the doll. The actress cries her eyes out; she does so intensely and believably. You will feel nothing for the actress but contempt.
Start of the play: the actor steals the doll. She breathes in sharply. She possesses the same emotion, but does not express it. We feel it for her.
In both cases you were aware of yourself watching the action on stage.
If, later in the play, this same action were to occur after you had come to self-identify with the actress; you think as she thinks; you feel as she feels; you breathe when she breathes. She loves that doll; you love that doll. You both hate that man. You are not you; you are that girl.
And then, the thing you’ve both feared most happens: the doll is stolen. It’s gone and he took it! You can barely handle the emotional devastation.
The actress cries. She bellows like there is no tomorrow, and you’re grateful. You can’t get enough. You experience this catharsis, and somehow that doll represents to you everything you’ve ever loved and lost.
She doesn’t cry. She holds it in, right when you need It most. You’re unsatisfied. You feel cheated. You’ve invested in this character, and now she’s not paying off. She sold you on the importance of this doll, and now that it’s gone she doesn’t seem to care anymore. You’re abandoned. The play has failed you.
In both of these cases, you are not feeling the moment because the actress is feeling it. You are feeling it because you have become the character. You have projected your sense of self into the play. You are feeling vicarious and circumstantial emotion.
The first example is the theater. The second is the cinema. Both art forms are capable of expressing themselves as the other, but it is always a masquerade.