Thursday, February 01, 2007

What Makes Theatre "Good"

Recently, we had a discussion in my Theatre of the Oppressed class about the question: what makes theatre "good"? What are the characteristics of a theatre experience that makes it "successful"? One of my students, Mark Shell, wrote on his blog some of his thoughts, and he suggested that I post them to my blog and encourage the other students in the class, and (he hoped) anyone else who might want to join in, to contribute their insights. I am happy to oblige, and you will find Marks' thoughts below. Please feel free to contribute to the comments!
Realizing that it has been an eternity since my computer has pinged the address that is the existence of Live Journal, I was in class today and we were discussing: What Makes Theatre a Success?

I have my own ideas of this, as everyone does, but I feel bold enough to post them to the world. Although, frequently whenever I express my viewpoint and opinions to the class, or the world for that matter, I feel somewhat idiotic. So what? Here goes nothing.

1.) For theatre to be successful, it must have an appeal to the audience.- A personal example of this consists of back before I ever transferred to UNCA, before I even stepped foot into the world of theatre as I know it today, I was in the world of "home". This small, industrial furniture and textile based community is nestled snugly in the upright and rigid ideology of the Bible belt. Touring thru this community was the musical, "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." A witty title, and daring plot, this musical put the audience uncomfortably on their toes. With every other word from the Sheriff's mouth an obscenity, the audience consisting mostly of the retired work force began to become offended and made no effort to stay to see the rest of the show. I myself was a bit uncomfortable with the content of the show.

However, now looking back, and knowing what I know now, I can say that the show was a success in the fact that it was technically sound. The actors, lived within the given circumstances of the plot, made dynamic and often stereotypical choices of southern characteristics. The house was packed, and despite the people who walked out, the show went on. Later, letters of complaint were sent to the establishment where the musical performed, but now that the show had moved on, I feel that it was a waste of paper.

To counterpoint, earlier in the year, another traveling show came thru- The classic "Fiddler on the Roof." Again selling out to a packed house of a nearly identical audience, the audience enjoyed every second of this show. Why? Most likely because of its content. It was less offensive than that out of the sheriff's mouth, or any of Miss Mona's scantily clad girls. Yet both shows were a success. Not in the opinion of the audience, only one gets a vote from them to be the success. It is my opinion, that my hometown...consisting of low income, government assisted industry workers, or to the Cadillac and Lincoln driving well to do Retirees, to the average middle class families, I believe that where I come from, the only reason people ever come to see theatre is strictly (and respectfully) for the sole purpose of entertainment.

2.) The theatre must be unified. - I feel that the theatre must be unified in all its areas of production. The set, the script, the acting. If all three (and who is to say that there are only three) of these elements are sound in the process of the production, I feel that the audience will accept the show as the "world" or in this case as I would call it, the contract that the show presents to the audience is believable. If something is not pulling the weight is should be, then some other aspect of the show must make up for it. In this circumstance, the show must be careful to not over-do it. If there is too much spectacle to make up for the not so hot job of acting, then the audience would most likely become bored.

3.) Believability- Someone made the comment in class today, how children wholeheartedly pretend. They become so fully immersed in their imagination they act "truthfully under imaginary circumstances." I find it humorously odd, that as theatre artists, actors specifically, that when we grow up, we loose this imagination, or rather, we depend on it less and become completely absorbed within the circumstances of the here and now. Then as adults when we try to re-master that creative imagination. We spend money on classes, learn techniques, and do everything we can to get back to being a kid again. Ironic? Just a bit.

4.) Simplicity- Simplicity works. Plain and simple. The grandeur and spectacle of a fire breathing dragon in the opening of Wicked looks great. It's one of the things that makes theatre "magical". But is it needed? I don’t think so. Last spring, TheatreUNCA acted as a community project and produced several community outreaching events which we called "Stage Left". I had the opportunity to participate in one of these events. I, along with several other class members, took children's story books and adapted them to the stage, then toured in public and private schools. Because we were touring, our set pieces consisted of about anything you could fit in the bed of a pick-up truck. A few cubes, mats, pool noodles, and various other set pieces. We took these simple items and used them in a fashion to where we could make an imaginary pirate ship, houses and monsters. Everything costing less than $100 total came to look like it was worth much more. I was taught in a drafting and design class to be creative. Use what's around you and if it's free, it's even better. That's exactly what we did. We took simple objects and endowed them to make these set pieces. Simple? You bet. Did it work? Indeed. Granted, these were children we were touring for, so their imaginations could be taken to that place where they saw a pirate ship. But who is to say that adults lack the capacity to believe the same thing? Mime Marcel Marseau has used nothing but a curtain and several of his students to work on a show, and the audience was enchanted.

Although I feel the list can continue, I will stop here, and let those who actually may stumble across this blog soak these things in, and I graciously welcome your additions and amendments.


Kate said...

Point Number One: Not necessarily. Some of the finest theatre the world has produced has made its audience very uncomfortable. If it's all just straight appeal, it's not going to give them much to think about. Now, do I think all theatre has to be about thinking? No. A play can be successful and "good" based strictly on the merit of being highly entertaining, too.

I'm reminded of something you taught me in my first directing class, actually - that saying tragedy is superior to comedy or vice versa is stupid; the piece should just be the best example of what it is. (I still tell that to the kids in my composition classes now, actually.) So I suppose that's what I'd add: good theatre is as perfectly what it is as possible. Perhaps that fits with that idea of Unity?

Anonymous said...

What makes theatre successful and what makes theatre good are two different animals. There is a plethora of horrible but very successful theatre out there today. There are plenty of bad plays which fill theaters to capacity. So the question is what gives theater, or let's say a play, its lasting quality? What makes it art rather than just entertainment?

First of all, the story has to keep the audience focused so there needs to be some kind of plot, even if the action is mostly relational. So there is an entertainment factor - keep the audience engaged.

Secondly, there must be great characters of depth. Even a farce, if it's a really good one has characters of depth.

Thirdly, it has to touch the part of us that is foundational, not just cultural. For example, even though The Glass Menagerie is set in the 1930's, the overarching theme of being trapped in an unkind existence is a concept which transcends period. Also, the concludtion that selfishness doesn't bring freedom, only guilt is an ethic most can understand.

It needs to be truthful and skillfully performed. A goal for anyone involved in a production should be excellence in every area. Do the best with what you have. I saw a production of Streetcar Named Desire performed by a local community theatre. Now I happen to think that Streetcar is one of the better plays written in the 20th century and I have seen it performed brilliantly. However,this cast and director completely butchered the production. It was torture sitting there listening to great words being ham sandwiched. I've seen the same thing happen to Shakespeare (on many occasions). No one seems to want to do Shakespeare in the period he wrote it for some reason. I saw a dreadful production of Twelfth Night where everyone was a mob person from New York City. So the magnificent language of Shakespeare was spoken with a Bronx dialect...badly. Ugh! Interestingly enough, this was a successful production - well attended, that is. But believe me when I say that it was the worst production of any Shakespeare I had EVER seen. And I have seen a lot. The literature itself transcends the production. But to have a great theatre experience, one has to have both great literature and a skillful production.

Next, and this is a bit old fashioned in this day of postmodern everything, I think great theatre needs a beginning, middle, and an end. There is nothing less satisfying than having no end. When a piece leaves the audience hanging, it may cause discussion but it's ultimately an aggravation. Of course, there will always be exceptions and hanging endings can be done with great success - just look at some of the stuff Chekhov did. But for the most part, give me a decent denouement.

Lastly, beautiful words, words, words and good construction of dialogue, relationships, plot, and tension. You can have all the disgusting, vile verbage, and pornographic stories. Those won't last. They are fodder for the current low-brow culture of today-- Very popular but far from great theatre.

There's more of course but I've blathered on long enough.

Anonymous said...

Of and of course I forgot - in a musical...great music!

Anonymous said...

what makes a theatre good is that they ask the pubblic what they want to see it tells you facts and history about it it appeals t all ages not just the shows my parents work in a theatre and it is great because you participate to tell them what is good. they keep prices low, offers high quality food and afterlistening for a while they introduce a movie showings so that people can see different varieties of thing that is what makes a theatre good not its shows.

Anonymous said...

Is the last comment a joke? It doesnt matter how good your mums pre show noodle soup is; if the show is bad people will still walk out of that theatre.

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