I’ve been reading Jordan Tannahill’s Theatre of the Unimpressed, and it has been hitting some chords for me. The main inspiration for writing this book is Tannahill’s observation that a lot of the people he talks to have sworn off ever attending the theatre. They went once, their experience made them unforgivably bored, and they vowed never to return. In the book, he essentially sets out to discuss what he thinks is happening to scare these people off, and why theatre of this type is so prevalent. I’m not going to give you a book report here, partly because I’m still only part way through, but principally because I’d just recommend you find yourself a copy and read it yourself.

As a critic, the most difficult thing isn’t having to be impartial about work by my friends and acquaintances, or navigating the fine line between being constructive and offending someone. The hardest thing I have to do is to review a mediocre play. To my mind, these are the same sort of plays that push the people to whom Tannahill talks away from the theatre; they are unrelentingly safe.

dilbert mediocrity

To borrow (unforgivably?) from the world of finance, the least risky investment will bring you the lowest reward. When a company elects to put on an unrelentingly safe play, it’s the equivalent of opening a savings account for their theatrical future. By that I don’t mean it’s a secure place to squirrel away their surplus and save it for a rainy day, I mean that if they put their money there, it will grow at a rate slightly lower than inflation, and when they turn around at the end of the run, it will be worth less than it was when they put it in. They sure won’t be seeing it make them unfathomably wealthy without warning.

There does seem to be an odd relationship between reward and musicals, but I don’t want to get into that right now. Tannahill talks about it at some length, so you could just go read that.

It’s my belief that theatre has such great affective power because when we walk into the space, we are open to a universe of possibility. We are looking to tumble into new insight about the familiar world through the portal of the stage; looking for what goes on in that darkened room to hit us in the head and the heart. The human body, voice, language, and imagination might be stretched to the limits of their capacity to make meaning with each new piece of theatre we make. The only thing that can’t be done (or suggested – and in the theatre, the line between these two is often extraordinarily blurred), is what lies outside our ability to imagine it. For critic and patron alike, mediocrity is the worst because it gives us nothing to grab onto as we attempt to make this play matter to us.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown explores the idea that the way humans build relationships is by sharing their vulnerabilities with one another. She characterizes human relationships as being about the degree to which we dare expose ourselves to the people with whom we are interacting. The way we build trust and relationships is through an exchange, a sharing of vulnerability (you can listen to her talk for 20 minutes about it on TED). The take away here is that it is profoundly hard to care about something that expends monumental effort to minimize its exposure to risk. Like a play that is so preoccupied with not doing anything wrong that it doesn’t allow itself any room for risk.

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The mediocre play is essentially one where there is no chink in the armour through which we gain access to a real human experience. There are actors on stage, they are being characters, they have stories and sometimes stakes, but we have no access to the heart of what makes these people matter to us. I’m not suggesting that relatability is the be-all of a theatrical piece. What I mean is that somewhere inside of that dark room, I need to feel moved. By an emotional, intellectual, personal, societal, (the list goes on) truth. Show me something true. Show me something about what it is like to be human.

As an example of this, I’d like to talk about a company based in Nova Scotia. Ship’s Company Theatre is a regional playhouse that operates exclusively through the summer months in the small town of Parrsborro, Nova Scotia. Think of Eganville, but two hours away from anything bigger than it, or Gannanoque an hour off the 401. What I’m saying is that it’s in a small town and draws on the summer tourist industry for a large part of its patronage. Last summer they programmed a new work by a young Nova Scotian playwright. It was his playwriting and professional acting debut. This play was the La La Land of the Nova Scotia theatre awards this year, except that it also took home the award for best production, AND it was by a person of colour (and Warren Beatty didn’t mess up the announcement).

That’s what I’m into anyway. When I go to the theatre, I am looking for an experience that moves me from one way of seeing the world into a different one. And when I’m writing reviews, the reason the hardest thing to do is review a mediocre play, is that it doesn’t move me at all. It shows me something I’ve seen before, without novelty, and I missed the experience that I love the most, which is to change, and examine the process of that change in myself and where it came from.

When I come out of a mediocre play, I often find myself in commiseration with my colleagues over a beer. We swap thoughts back and forth, usually in a sort of grump because there just doesn’t seem to be anything we can say about it. All our attempts to grab onto something to write about slide away like Wylee Coyote down a pane of glass. Eventually we come to some thoughts about what specifically prevented us digging into the piece, and that becomes the subject for the review.

When the piece is raw, even if unpolished, there is generally some clear directions to carry the conversation. And that’s one of the things I love most about theatre. Talking and writing about it

So every time the lights dim, and I enter into my pact of co-creation with the artist(s), I hope we can make something great together. I will do the work to understand and feel what they show me, but they must show me. That’s why it’s called a show. See you in the blackout.
Happy Monday.

One thought on “On Mediocrity in Theatre

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