What to do When Theatre Makes You Angry

I see a lot of theatre of all kinds, from professional to college productions, plays and musicals, cabaret and even (if begrudgingly) performance art. If I over-simplify, I have three reactions to theatre: YES!!, meh and WTF?! Sadly, I see a lot more meh and WTF?! than YES!!

I once saw a show that was so filled with (white) privilege and vanity that I found it morally reprehensible. Beyond its self-serving nature, it was actually harmful to the living people represented. I spent that weekend stewing in the juices of my contempt for the creative team, who were clearly blind to the disservice they had done their characters and the audience. “How does shit like this get produced?!”, I asked my colleague. I’m used to seeing poor craft, but this was a whole other bucket of you-know-what.

Righteous indignation was not serving me well. I knew I couldn’t vomit on social media – you have to be careful about what you say to whom in this industry. So, what to do…

To channel my energy into something constructive, I wrote this little list to remind me of how to keep things in perspective.

It’s Only a Play

While art is incredibly important, it is not in itself a miracle cure for anything. At the end of the day, it’s better to form an objective eye that can put even the most dreadful of shows in a proper context. As one of my friends is fond of saying, “Hey, manure makes stuff grow.”

Given this, it might be helpful to ask yourself some basic questions. What did you learn about what not to do? What about it worked (there was bound to be at least one saving grace, be it an actor, the direction, scenic design…)? Why did you get so angry (oh boy, is that an important one…)?

Over time, I discovered the piece I disdained suffered more from poor craft than the writers’ inflated ego. The characters in the musical just sang about their feelings rather than having interactions. Because the piece was autobiographical, I took it to be self-serving. Now I more clearly see the problem.

As for why I got so angry… I believe our job as dramatists is to serve our stories. When writers put themselves first, making the show about them (i.e. – the “Look what I can do?” show), I take it personally. Too personally, perhaps.

Hate the Show, Not the Writer

Writers never set out to write a bad show. Sometimes they do it in spades, but it’s not their goal. As a writer of things that didn’t work, I can attest to how hard it is to actually get things right. You fix one thing and ten others fall apart. Someone gives you advice about one section and three other people say, “No, that’s not the problem at all.” The writer does their best to synthesize as much information as possible while being true to their vision. Sometimes it seems it would be easier to teach a walrus to sing…

So, why would I think a writer was purposely trying to annoy me? If a theatre piece isn’t about the writer(s), it’s certainly not about me. I may not like the show, but I’m going to remind myself to check my ego when I turnoff my cell phone and unwrap my cellophaned candies.

Critique the show, but leave attacks on the writer out of it.

Write an Angry Letter. Then Throw it Away.

One of my favorite books is Nicolas Slonimsky’s The Lexicon of Musical Invective. If you’re ever angry at someone or feeling bad about yourself, take a stroll through this scathing collection of reviews of classical pieces, like this one about Franz Listz’s ourvre:

“Turn your eyes to any one composition that bears the name of Liszt, if you are unlucky enough to have such a thing on your pianoforte, and answer frankly, if it contains one bar of genuine music. Composition indeed! – decomposition is the proper word for such hateful fungi, which choke up and poison the fertile plains of harmony, threatening the world with drought.” (p. 111)

Ouch, right?!

Next, write an invective of your own to the author(s), director, theater, etc… Get all that bile out. Here’s part of what I wrote after seeing the show I mentioned above:

“As a theatre artist, I found [Show Title] to be uncomfortably self-congratulating. I am annoyed that this story, which had so much promise, was maligned by your creative team to serve their needs… Where is your sense of social responsibility?”

Then read it out loud, a la Julia Sugarbaker (Yes, I’m dating myself, but Dixie Carter knew how to land those acerbic monologues like a scud missile). Ring every bit of satisfaction you can out of that sucker. Read it to friends not in the theatre. Praise yourself for your wit.

Finally, rip the letter up into a million pieces. Burn it even. How gratifying to do something with a mild form of physical violence to purge the last bit of anger. Leave the negative feelings behind and move on. Gladden your heart around something you love: a good show, a favorite piece of music… find good craft and celebrate it, recognizing that you’ll see it again. And, oh, how well-earned that moment will be!

Do it Better

You didn’t like the show you saw? Do it better! Show them how it’s done.

The show I disliked  actually taught me a lot about how I want to approach a new show I’m working on that similarly has a strong social message. I saw some pitfalls I’m afraid of falling into myself and I’ve found some alternate routes around them (in my head at least). I’ll try to improve on the mistakes I saw this production make. I’m sure I’ll make more than a few of my own in the process.

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So, that’s what I’ve got. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Look for what you can appreciate and let go of the rest, knowing you’ll have a chance to see or create something that’s better. The good news is you’ll more than likely forget all about it, leaving room for something that’s worthy of the brain space.

P.S. – To the reader thinking this was about your show: it wasn’t.

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