Monday, March 08, 2010

My Life in Theater, or Notes from an Audience Member

[As my readers know, before I left for SETC, I invited my wife, Laura, to be a guest blogger in my absence. Unfortunately, she was unable to do so, but today she wrote the following post, which I am pleased to share with you.]

Why do I go to plays? Because I'm The Prof's wife. That would be the easy answer. But not the true one. Or rather, only the partial one. I grew up in the small town of Lexington, VA. My parents had to work with a group of parents to bring a dance teacher in from Roanoke, 55 miles away, so that a handful of little girls who were interested could take classes in tap and ballet. We had two colleges--but both were men's colleges, one of which was VMI. It was not an arts-rich environment. Nonetheless, I had a grandmother who was a drama queen. She had wanted to sing opera when she was younger, and after her children were grown she did a lot of little theater work. She was a diva with all the mental illness that the name implies. One thing she did, though, was give me the sound track for My Fair Lady for my birthday, and send me her old copies of American Theater. I think she had appointed me theater diva to follow her, but alas, my mental illness ran in the opposite direction. Painfully shy, I was never going to be the self-promoter that one needed to be in the arts. I feared putting myself "out there" for others to judge and possibly scorn (thanks, Don Hall).

When I became an adult, I noticed that my parents had become theater-goers. Who knew? They lived in a larger Virginia town by then, Lynchburg, which had a very active and innovative Community Theater. My parents went to many, many plays whether they "got" them or not. They just went. For a few years they lived in Northern Virginia where the opportunities for theater were greater. They often shared with me what they had seen and what they thought about it.

Then, I moved out to Normal, IL with my first husband and two small boys. That same first husband was pastor of a large Lutheran church, across the street from which was an interesting castle-like building that was home to the Illinois State University-sponsored Shakespeare Festival. They used our church for parking. It was hard to miss. It was hard to avoid. After living there for about 5 years, I finally started to buy tickets. I took my sons to a show here or there. It was magical. Shakespeare done well, under the stars. Who cared if the loud car drove by or the occasional plane went overhead? I was finally seeing and understanding Shakespeare live, spoken well. We loved it. After the first husband left, money was extremely tight. Sometimes food stamp tight. But every spring when the flyer came I scraped up money for 3 season tickets in the cheap seats and I and the boys would go. During that hard time, it was something that kept us together, that provided relief and respite. It was something to look forward to.

Then my oldest son tried out for -- excuse me, auditioned for -- his school's production of Superman. He was a fireman. He was cute. But his school was kind of unique and it would have been unusual for a child NOT to have auditioned. The next year he auditioned for Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He was 13. He got the role of Joseph. I was stunned. I didn't even know he could sing. He was off to the races after that and theater became a much larger part of my life.

I met my current husband and the writer of this blog at a little league baseball game. Getting to know him had nothing to do with theater. I was as surprised as the next person to find out he was Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Festival. He was surprised to find out that I was an audience member. Thus began a long and interesting marriage that involved going to plays with people in it whom we knew, then going home, pouring a glass of wine and talking about that play. That is as much pleasure as the show itself. But the motivator for going is that someone I know is involved with it. I've gone to very little theater where this was not the case. I'd just rather stay home.

So what theater do I go to? Theater with which I have a connection. Theater is not competing with film or TV for my time. I rarely go to movies and I don't have a TV. I don't rent movies, either. I'm interested in people I know, people with whom I have a relationship, people I care about. If they are involved in theater, then I'll go to their show. I am not seeking adventure, so being "challenged"--a euphemism, more often than not, for "insulted"--is not my idea of fun. I experience it as a slap in the face--and it hurts. I've commented on this blog twice--both times when I thought that audiences were being either insulted or let down. Don Hall has insulted me both times. I'm using the word "insulted" a lot. What I'm trying to say, I think, is that I am real person out there beyond the lights. I bring a lot of hope and joy to the theater. I come because I know someone or have some sort of connection to the show. I am not part of an amorphous mass that can be categorized. I am smart, funny, interested. When I am disdained or disrespected by the playwright or the director, I know it and it hurts, and it makes me loathe to take that risk again. I come with hope and joy, and I share it with all my heart from my seat. Can you feel it? I'm in there with you. Really. I'm not your enemy.

-- Laura Sue Walters


Jess said...

Thanks, Laura. I enjoyed reading that.


Troubador said...

...I am not seeking adventure, so being "challenged"--a euphemism, more often than not, for "insulted"--is not my idea of fun. I experience it as a slap in the face--and it hurts...

That comment made me think of this Howard Barker poem that George Hunka posted some time ago.

They brought a woman from the street
And made her sit in the stalls
By threats
By bribes
By flattery
Obliging her to share a little of her life with actors

But I don't understand art

Sit still, they said

But I don't want to see sad things

Sit still, they said

And she listened to everything
Understanding some things
But not others
Laughing rarely, and always without knowing why
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed
And in the light again said

If that's art I think it is hard work
It was beyond me
So much of it beyond my actual life

But something troubled her
Something gnawed her peace
And she came a second time, armoured with friends

Sit still, she said

And again, she listened to everything
This time understanding different things
This time untroubled that some things
Could not be understood
Laughing rarely but now without shame
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed
And in the light again said

That is art, it is hard work

And one friend said, too hard for me
And the other said if you will
I will come again

Because I found it hard I felt honoured

Andy in Germany said...

I'm with you on a lot of your thoughts: I'll go to a theatre production if I know someone involved, but the last one I went to was a bit of a disaster for the reasons you describe and put me off going again, so ironically I'm stuck as a theatre director in a small theatre that looks very similar to what Scott describes, and yet I don't like going to other theatres because I feel insulted -good word- by what I see.

Scott Walters said...

Troubador -- I enjoyed the poem a lot, even though I disagree with Barker's message that "difficulty equals honor," something that Barker regularly asserts to explain his particular dramaturgical slant.

But I think, in this case, the poem is missing the point of Laura Sue's post. First, she has two master's degrees -- this is not a woman who doesn't "understand" art, nor is she someone who objects to "sad things." What she is saying, Barker to the contrary, is that when artists use the word "challenging" what it usually means is "insulting."

Adam said...

Can you give an example of what you found insulting? I've been annoyed at the theater before for various reasons but I'm not sure if I've felt insulted.

Can you explain that a little more?

Bo Blackburn said...

Laura Sue, if you've been insulted, you probably saw bad theater. I grew up in rural Kentucky. I too went and got a good education.

I don't get how you are insulted? If the message didn't reach you, there are only three possible solutions. The play was bad and the message was DOA. The play was good, but you were not receptive to the message. The play was bad AND you were not receptive to the message.

If the play was bad, you have every right to be insulted. You spent time and money and tried to invest in a piece of junk. If the artists still disdain you because you didn't get it. So what, they will only be artists until they realize no one cares for them. Then they will become telemarketers or salesmen.

If the play was good, and you were not open to them message. Well, then you insulted the artists. You came in with expectations that were never going to be met and you kept your eyes and ears closed. My wife doesn't like horror movies, you know what I don't do... take her to horror movies. Waste of time.

If the play was bad and you didn't like the message. Let's just call it a wash, but no reason to get insulted. Everyone seems to be at fault here and had skin in the game.

I have a wife who likes John Hughes movies. I get that they bring her joy and comfort. For my part, I like John Hughes movies, too. But just because she doesn't like being challenged/insulted by "Precious" or "Nightmare on Elm Street". That doesn't make them bad movies and it doesn't mean the artists were insulting her. It just means she was not the audience for those movies.

You seem to have found theater you like. Hooray. Support it and make it grow. We need as many Richard Rodgers as we need David Mamets.

Troubador said...


I posted the poem because it offers a point of view that I'm more sympathetic to than Laura Sue's, in particular, that plays (as she wrote in her comment last week) that might appear to her as "incomprehensible and self absorbed", (i.e. plays she doesn't understand) may be an expression of a playwright's respect for their audience and not their contempt, regardless of whether they're any good.

And in regard to your statement: "she has two master's degrees -- this is not a woman who doesn't "understand" art" , I'd suggest that the level of prejudice implied in that statement is unworthy of you.

I'd also remind you of what Laura Sue said about herself in that original comment:

"So that your commenters know who I am, I am an audience member. Period. That's the only qualification I have in the theater world."

If having two masters degrees gives her greater insight into the nature of art, then the above statement has a hollow ring to it, If not, why mention them at all?

(I'm assuming of course that her degrees are in subjects unrelated to theatre.)

Don Hall said...

LS -

I think an interesting theme is developing (Scott won't post this, but perhaps will pass it on.)

Just because you don't like a play does not implicitly mean it is a bad play or one that treats the audience with contempt. Much in the same way that just because you feel insulted does not mean you were insulted.

The first time you felt insulted by me, it was because I disagreed with you and signed my name (Donny Ray). If that's insulting, I'd suggest you see a therapist. If you've witnessed how brutal Scott and I have been with each other in the past, you can infer that THAT was not intended as an insult and, if it was, was pretty weak at that.

The second time you were insulted, you put your caustic and angry opinion online, Scott lied by omission about your relationship, I pointed out the fact in an unaggressive manner, and then disagreed with you.

Again, no insult.

My advice?

If you're going to throw out comments like this:

"And while playwrights are sitting around at "convenings" whining about how audiences don't appreciate them or understand them, we're trying to tell you. Your plays suck. They are incomprehensible and self-absorbed. Write good plays and we'll come. Who the hell are you writing plays for? Each other?"

...then don't cry when you get the same tone back. Or go ahead and cry, I guess - it's a free country.

Laura Sue said...

Troubadour, I loved the poem. I didn't think it had anything to do with intelligence. Theater is more about experience, I think. It goes by us at the speed of life. We can go back and read it to get more clear, but that's not the intent. The intent is to experience it in the theater, at the speed at which it comes to you.
I have been thinking a lot about the plays that I have seen and what I meant by "insulting" or what plays, in particular were insulting. Thanks for asking, Adam. Here's what I came up with, so far.
Of course the plays that throw garbage (literally) at the audience and are designed to demean the audience are insulting. They try to be. There aren't a lot of plays like that any more, so they don't need to be discussed.
As for Mamet and others who show mean people being mean to each other with no overarching message other than, "People are mean to each other," I just don't like those plays. I don't find them insulting by definition.
So, what do I find insulting? I believe that plays are meant to be understood. I am very willing to work hard to understand a play. The more, the better. Really. While I enjoy Richard Rogers, I also loved Marisol, despite its problematic and awkward ending. Chesapeake was terrific. Stones in his Pockets. There are more, but while the images of them are vivid in my head, I'm bad about remembering the names of them. I try very hard not to blame a production if I don't "get" the play. And I will work really hard to get it. There are plays we saw years ago that we're still talking about, chewing on, trying to "get."
But here's the deal. I'm married to the guy who wrote the book on Playscript Analysis. And there are some plays that require that level of professional analysis for anyone to understand, not just me. I think that's a problem and signals a play that is not very well written. Really, that's the main reason I would point a finger at the playwright and is what I was saying about Naomi Watts' Trestle over Pope Lick Creek. It didn't have to be as obtuse as it was.
What I dislike the most, though, usually has nothing to do with the playwright, but with the production. Again, the reason I would be insulted by a production is not that it is bad--I've seen lots of high school and college theater that was bad and still enjoyed the play--but that it was made obtuse and inaccessible by, usually, the director. I really hate it when a director messes with the play, won't honor the intention of the playwright, or, worse, messes with the words. More often than not, though, it's some concept that's been laid on top of the play in order to express some artistic something or other of the director. And, okay, if I just don't like it, well, then so be it. But we're talking about what is insulting. The worst example for me was a production of Miss Julie where Jean and Miss Julie would be talking, Jean would turn to go out a door and suddenly, out of nowhere, everything was in slo-mo. Wha? I never understood what the director was doing. There was more, but I was so confused, I couldn't tell you what was Strindberg, and what was the director. Fine, so I didn't get the concept. But what was insulting--getting back to the theme--is that because of that business, I was unable to understand the play. In other words, the director made the play inaccessible. That I find insulting.
I guess if I could sum it up in a sentence it would be, "I don't want to be fed the theatrical version of formula. But please, don't make it shoe leather, either." Okay, that was 2 sentences. Again, thank you for asking. It has been very helpful and clarifying to be able to "talk" about it. And it makes me more interested in theater to be able to do so. In that spirit, we have tickets for "True West" on Friday.