Tuesday, February 12, 2013

After Dark, February 12, 2013

The Theatre of Meh
Is this THE enemy of theatre
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

It was one of those serendipitous days when this column did two great things: forced me to think about interesting ideas and virtually wrote itself. The day began with an article tweeted late at night here (early morning in GB) by Lyn Gardner, one of those nifty people who writes about theatre at that niftiest outlet, The Guardian. The title couldn't be more seductive: Why is so much theatre so dull?  I read the article just before bedtime and lost sleep over it. When I woke I went back on Twitter and saw that the piece was being retweeted all over the place and discussed, notably by American theatre pundit Howard Sherman who wondered if critics pulled punches. This evolved into a discussion of star-ratings systems. 

Later that day I had a back and forth with one of our own writers who mentioned that the last plays seen and reviewed were "meh". I wrote back, "I know 'meh' well." Then I realized that Gardner, Sherman, the twittersphere and our reviewer were putting their collective index finger on Enemy #1 of all arts: dullness. 

Among the worst offenders in this regard are those works which are rather ostentatiously advertised as "The world premiere of a Canadian work."

But what is "dull" precisely? I have grappled with the idea most of my four decades in and around the art. There are those who will tell you, flat out, that Shaw is dull; others will point to Chekhov. I have a list of writers I will avoid and over the years have pondered why. In several cases it is because the writers have a summer-theatre feel: jokes that don't make me laugh, plot-lines out of some mid-50s sitcoms. In other cases it is that the plot-lines keep you glued to your seat just so you can see the payoff - and you have to wade through lame dialogue and half-baked characters to get there (these may be the types of plays I hate the most). I also find some studied writers...well, studied. I feel I pierced Ionesco's secret - his pseudo-clever banality - a decade ago, and Jarry's charms faded for me soon after a first reading of the Ubu plays, and well before my third or fourth bitterly tedious production of them. There are plays of Shakespeare on my list, and many of Molière - do what you want with them, you will never convince me they're undull. 

What I find interesting, however, are two phenomena which seem to have risen at approximately the same time: star-ratings and audience politesse. Whether one drives the other is a discussion for the ages, but both seem to set a certain kind of theatre on a pedestal of humdrummery. It is not walk-out-noisily awful, scream-aloud offensive or delightfully dreadful; it is just there...stinking up the joint. You sense it in the audience around you: they nod when they don't fall asleep outright; they press buttons on their Timexes to light up the watch-faces (if you sit in the back you can pretend it's a summer night and the dark is lit by fireflies!); you can hear "tsks" at failed jokes or "humphs" for sophistry passed off as a bon mot. You can see waves of fidgets in a house where characters on stage are not so much wrong as simply unlikely. 

Among the worst offenders in this regard are those works which are rather ostentatiously advertised as "The world premiere of a Canadian work."  (I'll bet you dollars to Timbits that it's a problem in many countries' national houses.) The dullest plays I have seen fell into that category. Now I'm not saying that Canadian plays are dull, just that as much as we are supposed to get excited about a new Canadian work, we are also expected to go to a performance of it armed with a level of kindness we would not afford garden-variety dull theatre. For one thing, and this is especially true on opening night, the playwright might be sitting next to you when you "tsk" or "humph". Also, there is a certain missionary zeal and piety amongst those involved with the play - director, actors, publicists - because it is, after all, a national event! 

The problem here is that sometimes the play is being presented merely because it is Canadian. The above-mentioned zeal has not gone into working the play, cutting it, beating it into shape. Its performances are met by all the above audience reactions plus polite applause (or, on opening night, the obligatory standing ovation). Subsequently the show receives the famous 2.5 out of 4 stars rating (2 stars would be dangerously mean in the face of the missionary zeal, while 3 stars would clearly be too many).

So the #1 Enemy of the arts is a two-headed beast: not only are they ruining the excitement of going to a play but they may actually be ruining the flourishing of national cultural identity.


  1. I don't know if there's a way I can agree enough with this article.

    Although I try to keep an open mind about all productions I see, there is no point to producing, staging, or ultimately seeing dull work. If you didn't make me feel strongly one way or the other, you've failed.

    "If I just wanted to be entertained, I can look at cute cat videos on YouTube for free," says Lyn Gardner, and that's exactly the point. Television has mastered comfortable entertainment: you can be at home, you can eat & drink during the show, and you can just let the program wash over you.

    Theatre needs to make you sit up, not sit back. Canadian theatre has always had to contend with the "regional vs. national" debate as an obstacle to drawing big crowds, but as you've already pointed out, it is by producing mediocre work that we are hurting ourselves the most.

    Thank you for an informed and important article.

  2. Gaetan,

    Your argument lacks coherence. You implicitly acknowledge the subjectivity of your perceptions before wondering why some companies mount boring shows, as though - contradicting your earlier acknowledgement - dullness were an artistic flaw on the nature of which we can all agree.

    It isn't. A show may bore you. It may stultify that paragon of critical niftiness, Lyn Gardner. Yet others may be moved and enlightened and excited by the very same show. All you have is your opinion. That, to a large extent, is all anyone has when it comes to assessing artistic merit. Which is why the rumination on possible threats to Canadian culture with which you end your essay is, frankly, nonsense.

    There's something worse than incoherence here: there is a failure of imagination. It astounds me that you have, by your own account, spent four decades "in and around art", much of that time writing criticism for outlets decidedly less prestigious than the Guardian, and that you've been so often bored. That is truly sad.

    Forget Lyn Gardner. Read the writings of John Lahr in the New Yorker. He's older than you are. He's seen more plays, among them plenty that he didn't find successful. But his writing never communicates boredom, because he manifestly loves the theatre enough to find something to engage him (even if he doesn't like it) in everything he sees.

    You run your own website, Gaetan, and I'm pretty sure you don't do it for the money. So here's an idea. Do something more constructive with your time than bemoan your ennui. Try making art instead of criticizing it.

    You often write of your past achievements as a young theatre creator. Try being an old theatre creator.

    Be warned. You may have to endure mean-spirited comments from a critic who would rather score points than express his (or her) love of an art form - let alone appreciation for your efforts. Such a critic may well have a failure of imagination and call you boring. You know what? It will do you good.

    Because you'll be out there. You'll be doing something you love. And you - old, bored Gaetan Charlebois - may rediscover the reason why, for some of us, theatre is never, ever dull.

  3. Despite loving the art form I often find the theatre incredibly dull for many of the reasons Gaetan cites. There's no denying that much of what we see in theatre, like much of what we see in entertainment and the media in general, is tedious, overstated, badly written and ineptly produced. Perhaps if we had more interesting people running our theatres this wouldn't be an issue. Perhaps if theatre creators were willing to take actual risks in both content and form things wouldn't be quite so lame- and I included critics in that desire as much as creators. Nonetheless, I think this article hits the nail on the head.
    Brad Fraser

  4. I'm reminded of the old comic line: "I love humanity. It's people I can't stand."

    I'm a little surprised that Brad Fraser - THE Brad Fraser? - is so dissatisfied with the people who run Canadian theatres. I find them, on the whole, generous-spirited and passionate about the art form. I don't always agree with individual choices. But choices must be made and universal consensus is impossible. That's life, no?

    Theatre creators - and critics, for that matter - don't set out to be risk-averse or inept or dull. They do their best. Trends come and go. Tastes vary. What do we say about ourselves when we retreat into dismissiveness?

    The existence of this web site testifies to an abiding love of the art form - a love that is, in its deepest essence, the very opposite of boredom. For that, Gaetan, I honor you. Let's see vigorous debate on this site about productions in every theatre in this country. Let's vent our emotions. But let's not claim the art has gotten dull. We're better than that.

  5. I couldn't agree more with article. And I for one am grateful that there are still some critics out there who will make statements that might be difficult to face. It isn't mean spirited at all! Quite the opposite it's meant to challenge the theatre community to do better. We need to take more risks! I think a personal attack on Gaetan is totally misplaced and ridiculous. He is taking a risk and doing something constructive with Charpo. Critics can be artists in their own right who create a dialoge.

    It's all well and good that those of us working in theatre can find something in every production to appreciate. Unfortunately that doesn't work for attracting new audiences. I can't tell you how much my heart sinks when I see a group of high school kids on a school sitting trip in the audience of tired, old play that isn't even being done in a new way. You know the kind of show I'm talking about, the actors are doing it for the pay cheque, the large sized theatre is presenting it to keep the subscribers comfortable. And those kids who might have grown up to be theatre lovers, yeah they're never coming back. And really why should they? Theatre is not entitled to an audience.

    It goes without saying that there are lots of companies out there who are not falling into the trap of dullness. They're taking risks, trying new things and even if they're working with a classic they are bringing something new to it for example Sleep No More plays off of Macbeth. Truly I salute these artists. But this type of work is not the majority. The major house are usually present the tried and true. Often when I look at different theatre's seasons I am reminded of an old english prof of mine who often challenged us with "so what?" So what? Which to me always meant why is what I have to say important? Is it something new? I am excited to work on it? So what?

  6. Perhaps we approach dull theatre from a futile angle.
    I don't think that theatre is any more or less dull than it has ever been, but this medium of storytelling is often in direct competition for our time and money with television or movies, both of which are now in a position to tailor their offerings to increasingly specific demographics (I don't have to explain to you how this works). The fact is, theatre's not getting boring, we're getting bored with theatre because the alternatives are much more accessible, better funded, and way more ubiquitous.

    These are things we can't change. But people enjoy theatre because they love live performance, the hush of the audience when the house lights go down, the classic plays that haven't sifted through the hands of time. It's the same reason people go to see the orchestra.
    Seasoned theatre critics who write that theatre in general is dull just needs to consider the following:

    a) Who goes to see theatre? High school students (more or less forced into the position), other actors or people who generally work within the theatre industry, friends, family of the cast and crew? Theatre reviewers?
    b) What types of theatre are more successful? Musicals, definitely, more so than ever (every teenager girl and their moms have seen RENT or Wicked - very tight demographic with a Hollywood partnership), Shakespeare festivals, plays with big names attached, humm...
    c) How much federal support is doled out for how much of a return?
    d) How many talented, successful playwrights stay in Canada?

    It's not difficult to see from a patron perspective why theatre is dull - people are putting on shows for an audience that is mostly obligated to attend (for academic or social reasons), companies are losing sight of their audience and defaulting on "Hey, we're in Canada! Let's put on a Canadian show with Canadian themes and a Canadian sensibility because you know who we'll attract? Canadianszzzzz", and on top of it all, there's no money in the pot because there's no way to guarantee a return.

    To that point, I will say this: Canadian theatre needs serious rebranding, or it needs to shut up and play the classics.

    But there is an upside: Theatre-goers are few, but loyal. Which is why, to match Arthur Holden's point, Gaetan can vent all he wants about how dull this all is, but he'll still be watching plays and editing reviews. There are some good ones out there, the ones only worth watching in a dark room surrounded by strangers, where you can see the spittle flying out of an actor's mouth in the direct shine of a spotlight. And luckily, theatre-goers will put up with a lot of crap to get to that good one.

    All this is to say.... don't worry about it. There's crap in every medium, hours of dull crap stretching bandwidths and wasting daylight hours on a box that has been meticulously designed to be able to play/pause/rewind/skip crap, crap movies starring beautiful people featuring expensive explosions (and the producers of this crap KNOW it's crap). The only difference is, as Lyn Gardner writes, we can turn it off.

    In theatre, we can't. But we hold it in, buy another ticket to another play hoping it'll be better, and sometimes it is and sometimes it's not. We do it because a really good play is way better than a really good movie. And, of course, you can't buy Leonardo Dicaprio a drink after the show (whereas you DO have a slim chance with the lead, considering the geographic proximity).

  7. Apologies for the novel of a comment.


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