Thursday, April 1, 2010

Boring Theatre

I have seen quite a few amazing shows this year but for every amazing production I have seen, at least double that amount have been boring theatre.

What do I mean by boring theatre? I mean those productions where I’m sitting there in the audience and I am literally thinking to myself “what is the point?” Yes, it may be beautifully designed. Yes, the acting may be superb. But, if by Act II, I’ve literally stopped listening because I’ve fallen asleep with my eyes open then my question remains “what is the point?”

Isn’t the point of theatre to engage the audience not just talk at them for 2 hours. Because this is what I feel like when I go to see boring theatre. I feel like I am being talked at rather than engaged with.

And maybe, I’m crazy. Maybe my idea of what constitutes good theatre is completely different than what most people think is good theatre. Because, when I go to see a production that made me want to leave at intermission because I was so bored yet the entire audience leapt to their feet giving the show a standing ovation, I think to myself I must be crazy. I mean, I must be totally off my rocker because I obviously didn’t see the same show that these people just saw.

And, I’m sorry but a great performance is not enough for a standing ovation. A cool set trick is not enough for a standing ovation. If I give a standing ovation I want it to be because I was so moved by the ENTIRE production that I was compelled to leap to my feet.

I am so tired of boring theatre. I find it frustrating and more than that I find it insulting as an audience member that I am being pandered to. I am being spoon fed what is supposedly good for me. It’s beyond frustrating and it makes me want to stop going to the theatre, if every time I go, I just end up bored and frustrated. And I Iove theatre. Could you imagine what a non-theatre-loving average joe that goes to hockey games and eats wings at the bar would think?

So, this is what has been rattling around in my head as of late, but I still wasn't able to quite articulate why these productions are so boring. Then I read this blog post today from Ken Davenport regarding a memo on writing by David Mamet:





And, this is when the light bulb went off in my head. Yes, in the post he’s talking about television but the same principles apply. These shows, this boring theatre, is doing exactly that. It is communicating information rather than drama. We are being talked at rather than engaged with. The actors are communicating information. There are no stakes. This is what makes boring theatre.

As the post goes on to say:


What do you always hear in theatre school: raise the stakes! So if there are no stakes, no drama, then why would I be interested?! I wouldn’t. And after about 30 minutes of information I tune out. I get bored.

I want drama. I want stakes. I want to be engaged. And, if this means that I’m crazy and I’m the one person in the audience who remains seated during an opening night standing ovation. Then so be it.

I’d rather be crazy then bored any day of the week.

~Sabrina Evertt
Artistic Producer


  1. Re-reading this I think this is the very reason people this artists are elitists.

    What is Mamet saying? What "information" plays is he talking about? Without examples (or examples from yourself Sabrina) it makes it very difficult to comprehend what this post is about.

    Are you talking about shows that are light comedies? There's certainly drama in a British farce like Boeing-Boeing. Sure it's silly and campy - but there's drama in it - or in a play like Noises Off. Hell, even the Love List at the Playhouse right now has what I would call comedic tension. Does that make them bad plays because they are not about prostitutes and cops engaging in sex acts on stage? One man's trash is another man's treasure.

    Going back to The Love List - I think it's a perfect example of theatrical snobbery in Vancouver. Is it trite? Sure it is. Does that make it unwatchable? Not to the people going to see it. For many people theatre is an escape from the mundane, from the every day life, and a light comedy is always welcome for them. Some people might say that this is a small percentage of the population. I beg to differ, I actually think that people enjoying a Mamet or Labute play constitute a smaller percentage of the population. Is it pandering to put on a show that people want to see? And if you're feeling like you're being pandered to, then don't go see it - it's as simple as that. I don't think anyone walks into The Love List or The Producers thinking their lives are going to be changed -- and if they are, well then they haven't done their research.

    If you want edgy, just see shows at the Havana. There's a reason smaller companies are producing Labute and yet he hasn't graced the stage of either of our major theatre companies (or even at the Cultch for that matter) -- it's because his appeal is limited - no matter what his appeal to artists, it is limited.

    So again - maybe I'm off the base as to what you're talking about - but if you're going to complain about 2/3's of the theatre in this town (according to you, "for every amazing production I have seen, at least double that amount have been boring theatre,") you'd better have some examples to back it up.

  2. eye am going with david mamet on this one (re his book: true and false)... had the acting been superb, you WOULD have been engaged... respectfully, zo valentine.

  3. As a theatre artist and producer, I find LaBute insufferable and overrated. For the record, we've produced Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, David Mamet, Daniel McIvor, Sean Reycraft and others. And on the academic side, I've also taught farce.

    Nothing in Sabrina's post mentions comedy or farce as being less than drama. There is a refreshing lack of finger-pointing there. And there's nothing about a play having to "change your life." It is simply and purely a matter of plays that tell vs. plays that show. Escape or no, if you're not engaged, you're bored.

    "Run For Your Wife" is not "Noises Off." One is trite, repetitive, sound and fury that goes nowhere. The other is a brilliant deconstruction of the form using the structure of the form. "Wife" is chickens running around with their heads cut off. "Off" is carefully constructed and well written. And you don't need to know or see what Michael Frayn's doing, you can enjoy it at its most basic, farcical level and appreciate it when it gets more complex with each act. "Wife" is tired within fifteen minutes.

    "Off" is brilliant in that its first act is plain farce, pure and simple. Each act builds on that, adds complexity and layers of jokes upon jokes. By the end, even if you don't have the Cliff's Notes, you see what Frayn was trying to say. By contrast, Ray Cooney's "Wife" doesn't say anything. It just shouts at you for ninety minutes. It fails even on the level of plain farce.

    It's also possible to take a good script and make it a bad play. A while back, I saw a production of "Doubt"--not in Vancouver--which is a very good script. The production--a co-production between two major regional theatres--is one of the worst I've ever seen. Because there wasn't a single shred of doubt from the first word of the show.

    There were other issues with that production, to be sure, but not one character had or left any doubts throughout the show. That directorial choice sapped the play of any tension, any interest, because it wasn't a story, it became a screed, which is not what the playwright intended. (I'm not a big fan of John Patrick Shanley, but that is a well-balanced, nuanced script.) And because the director wasn't interested in the debate or the tension, neither were the actors and neither was the audience.

    Sabrina doesn't say anything about pandering to the audience, doesn't say anything about light comedy, doesn't imply anything about elitism or snobbery. She's merely reiterating Mamet's point, which is that talking can be boring, basically. Don't spend ten minutes telling us you'll go through that door and you don't know what you'll find. Go through the damned door. Now. Plays are built on action. Show, don't tell. Simple as that.

    To take another quick, light example, "The Producers" is a brilliantly constructed, highly entertaining and engaging piece of work. Mel Brooks' follow up musical, "Young Frankenstein" is long, boring and thoroughly unengaging. (Which is depressing, because I find the movies to be the opposite.)

    It's possible to see a brilliant production of Neil Simon and a horrible production of David Mamet. Nothing elitist about this at all. And considering the clamor for "Glengarry Glen Ross" and other of his plays when we've presented them, I'd say there's a healthy audience for his good plays.

  4. Brava! What is boring to me are plays that spit on the audience in their contempt for them, or plays that could be movies, or plays that could be a sitcom on tv. Yes I want stakes, drama, and I want a play that cannot be anywhere else in any other form but a theatrical one. But that's just me...

  5. "Does that make them bad plays because they are not about prostitutes and cops engaging in sex acts on stage?"

    Whoa. Where did that come from? There's no comparison here to one style of play over another, just good plays vs. boring plays. Somebody's spoiling for a fight.

    The issue that Sabrina is discussing here is a very real one, and an important one for us as an industry to discuss. We have an inherent responsibility as practitioners to keep the question of quality in the air, and that starts by defining what exceptional work is. Or isn't.

    We're beset by cheerleaderism here - and from what I understand this isn't a problem unique to Vancouver - where independent theatre is always given a pat on the head and a blue ribbon just for showing up. "Good for you" can't be what this industry is about if we want to be a viable, progressive theatre city.

    Obviously, this is a touchy subject, the important ones always are. We're not going to get anywhere by pointing fingers and saying "that show sucked, and that other one sucked too", hurt feelings will get us absolutely nowhere (despite your behest to name names, anonymous), this isn't about individual companies and knocking other artists down, it's about the health of the community as a whole. Discussing those aspects of theatre that we see that needs improvement. Loudly supporting those co's doing exceptional work, encouraging as many people as we can to see them, and keeping the standards as high as possible. In whichever genre we choose to work. Boring is boring no matter what label you stick on it.

    If the professionals with informed opinions keep their mouths shut at the risk of appearing 'elitist' we're going to stay right where we are. With too little money and too little audience.

  6. In the past few months, when I've been unengaged during a show, instead of pretending that I'm on a bus and an hour away from my destination, I have started to look at whether the characters are reacting to each other, what the stakes are, what they want. This ties in with Mamet's notes, which he is passing on from Stanislavski and Meisner. I've found that when I'm tuning out, it's often because the actors are tuned out to the stakes as well.

    Richard Foreman has talked about how, even in his thoroughly obscure show, these guidelines apply -- the play is constantly about the tension and relationship between the characters, and sometimes between the characters and the audience, and sometimes between the characters and the significant objects onstage, like the tin can in The Lonesome West.

    Without the tension, you're left, at best, with a sunset. And, like a sunset, if there's enough perfect rhythm and sensory delight, then that's fine as well, though rare.

  7. Thank you to everyone for your comments and discussion of this topic.

    I think, like Simon, it is important to be discussing these exact things as we look toward creating and re-branding the way we look at and think of theatre.

    Most of you have already said anything I might've have wanted to say and have probably said it more eloquently than I could have.

    The only thing I want to add is this:

    This wasn’t an attack on a specific genre of theatre or on anyone's personal theatrical tastes.

    Boring theatre can happen across the spectrum and in all genre’s of theatre.

    I have nothing against light comedies. One of my favourite shows from last year may be considered a light comedy and it was called The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood at Carousel Theatre. You can read my post here:

    And as far as I can remember there were no prostitutes or sex acts of any kind in two of my other recent theatrical highlights, Nevermore and Elephant Wake. Again you can read my posts here:

    and here:

    In fact since I started writing this blog I believe Fat Pig may be the only Labute or Mamet in the bunch. And even then, it wasn't necessarily about the play itself, it was an overall excellent production (in my humble opinion).

    So, my only further comment to Anonymous would be, if you are going to infer that I am an elitist or theatrical snob who only likes theatre that was penned by the hand of Labute or Mamet, then you better have some concrete examples to back it up.

    Thanks again everyone!