I rarely see theatre that is truly exceptional, either exceptionally bad or exceptionally good. Whatever we want to tell ourselves, most is by definition average. Average doesn’t mean unsatisfying, unstimulating or unintersting, but it’s rare to see a piece like Mies Julie, and even rarer to walk out to discover that the world has changed in a way that makes the play all the more exquisite and timely.
So much for good theatre. What about the bad? My Facebook feed at the moment is full of complaints about last night’s Sound of Music Live!, and internet critics seem to agree. Lyn Gardner also published an article on her blog at the Guardian about the pain of sitting through an intolerable performance, quoting a friend who said of a performance, “After the first half-hour, it felt like someone was sticking needles in my arms and legs.” So why is bad theatre such a bad experience? Gardner hypothesizes that it may be because it is a live event and we as audience members feel bound to stay, or because we cannot let our minds drift as during a bad concert or dance performance, and because we cannot physically move. She also notes that she finds bad musicals and pantomimes more disturbing than bad straight plays, and wonders if “maybe it’s because, at the former two, you know you are supposed to be having a really good time, and the harder and more desperately the cast work, the more it exposes the gap between expectation and reality,” which makes sense to me; the more we are aware of failure, the more painful it is.
But I guess the larger question is, what do we do with this? How do we take theory, information and audience reaction into creative practice? As an audience member, my biggest fear is being bored. Later, at home and on my own time, I can decide if I liked it or not. I’m beginning to think I shouldn’t even have time to think about my opinion of a piece while I’m experiencing it; I enjoy being consumed by the piece and what it has to offer, unaware of what is beyond the theatre, or at least not not emotionally aware. Don’t make the audience think. Or if you do, make them feel too.