Saturday, April 3, 2010

Welcome to Bad Theat-ah...

The state of theatre in this country is just awful.  Honestly, I don't know why people go.  This is just a guess, but I'd say that of all the theatre I've seen in the past, say, thirty years, since I've had a discerning eye, that is, ninety percent of it has been just terrible.  Some of it almost unwatchable.  And geography has nothing to do with it.  I've seen some godawful stuff in NY, Chicago and LA.  So why go?

It has, in many cases, turned into a friends and family kinda thing.  Especially among the small theaters, the 99 seaters.  What I always feared has come true for the most part: Theatre has become the horse and buggy of entertainment.

I have worked all over the country, from coast to coast, from LORT A to 47 seats, and I have seen some staggeringly bad work.  Bad acting, bad directing, bad design, bad music, bad everything.  And the awesome thing about all this is that the people involved hardly ever realize how bad their stuff is.

Every time I see bad work it scares the hell out of me.  Because everyone in that theatre is watching the same bad work that I am and chances are they haven't seen nearly the amount I have.  So it's a good bet they're not going to come back and give it another shot.  Why should they?  They just payed 20 or 30 or 50 bucks to have two hours taken out of their lives that they'll never get back.

A few years ago I saw Streetcar Named Desire, one of my favorite plays, in The Raven Theatre in Chicago.  Full house.  About three hundred people or so.  Gorgeous new space.  And watched  a bunch of performances so bad I was twitching by the end.  How many of those people will never go the theatre again because of that production?

I really think we need to own up to what's happening.  Are people not going to the theatre because they'd rather spend their entertainment dollars on movies or netflix or blockbuster? No.  They're not spending their money because they've been burned too often.

I have been IN productions that are bad.  Many of them.  Was in a production of Servant of Two Masters years ago in Rockford, IL.  Horrible.  Everyone was horrible in it.  The direction was horrible.  I was horrible.  What was meant to be a fluffy, farce-like, very funny two hours of work was mind-numbingly unfunny and slow and filled with bad actors.  Of course, at the time, none of us could own this.  We desperately continued to think we were in a funny show,  if for no other reason, in the hopes we'd get hired back sometime to do another horrible show there.

Another was You Can't Take it With You in Roanoke, VA.  Just terrible.  Unfunny, slow, telegraphed work.  I was bad.  The play was bad.  Looking back on it, just embarrassing.

Another was The Music Man in Pennsylvania.  I was Harold Hill.  God in heaven, was I bad.  And the show was even worse.  The musical director couldn't even play the songs.

Has theatre always been this way?  I don't know.  Is it a lottery?  Audiences paying big bucks to see something and hoping that THIS time it will be worth watching?  That's not really good business sense.  One doesn't open a carpet store with 90 percent of the carpet stained and torn and dirty.  And yet that's what theaters all over America do every day.

Broadway learned this lesson.  There's hardly anything there now except for big, splashy, tech-heavy musicals.  They KNOW that will sell.  At the very least those shows are fun to watch.

And Shakespeare.  I can hardly bear to get started on this nonsense.  Of the one hundred or so performances of Shakespeare's work I've seen, only two stand out as worth watching - Ian McKellan's Richard III and Kevin Kline's second Hamlet.  That's two percent.

It's a sorry state.

What do we do?  First we can fess up to it.  My first acting teacher, the brutally honest Howard Orms, once said, "Ninety eight percent of the actors in this country are unemployed.  And ninety eight percent of THAT ninety eighty percent DESERVE to be."

Now.  Having said all that, now and then I've seen some extraordinary things on stage.  Orphans, a Lyle Kessler play that I saw in 1985 at NYC's Westside Arts Theatre, was a life-changing experience.  I was stunned.  I can't even begin to tell you how immediate and urgent and exciting that play was.  It was a Steppenwolf transplant.  In some ways, I've spent the last twenty-five years trying to match that experience.

Sunday in the Park with George with Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin.  My God, what a piece of beauty that was.

I have two plays about to be produced:  Praying Small and From the East to the West.  I am terrified they will both be just another boring play.  I was very excited last year when I found out Praying Small was to be staged Off-Broadway in NY.  A few weeks later I got the DVD.  I can't possibly imagine why anyone payed to see it.  Slow, turgid, unfunny, self-conscious, didactic, self-important.  I could barely watch.  There was one moment I counted thirty-two seconds between scene changes.  Just a bunch of people sitting in the dark.  And they payed to do it.  Unpardonable.

Another time I saw the same play done in Chicago.  It zipped right along, thank God.  But the problem was it was peopled with mediocre actors.  Actors acting for Uncle Fred and Aunt Becky.  The work was, well, simply dull.  And worse, there was a sense of "look, mom, I'm acting" feel to it.

None of this surprises me.  I mean, why pay twenty-five smackers to see a talky, exclusive, artsy-fartsy, preachy, badly-acted play when one can pay ten bucks to see Avatar?

Very cynical post today and I apologize for that.  But it's necessary to look at this purveying of plays business with a clear eye.  Otherwise I'm just adding to the bullshit.

I can say this: I will do everything within my power to keep the upcoming productions of Praying Small and From the East to the West exciting and urgent.  Surprising and exciting.  Emotional and genuinely funny.  It appalls me to think my work will add to the general malaise of the ticket-buying public toward small, professional, live theatre.

And on a completely different subject, I got engaged to be married yesterday and I'm really happy about that.

See you tomorrow.