A friend and I went to a play last night. It would be beside the point to say who produced it and who performed it. Suffice it to say that it was an original show produced by one of Chicago’s many storefront theaters. It consisted of 8 separate short pieces by different authors, all with themes revolving around the Christmas season. They covered a wide stylistic range; from a relatively realistic scene about two couples at a dinner party circa 1945, all the way to a fantastical domestic scene between Mrs. Frost, her husband Jack Frost, and their daughter Snow.
A show such as this is almost unavoidably uneven, both in tone and in the quality of the writing, so I can’t criticize the production based on any of that. It is also true that, like many small theater companies, money is extremely tight, verging on nonexistent, so any technical niceties that would require significant amounts of money are not going to be seen in such a setting. Again, I can’t criticize a company for not having money.
You can probably sense that there is some beef I am nursing here; something I can’t excuse this company for doing (or not doing). Let me begin with this: lack of funds is not a valid excuse for lack of professionalism. It’s no excuse for lack of creativity. It’s no excuse for inattention to detail. These things do NOT cost money, but they do require a level of consciousness and a level of caring. In these areas, last night’s production failed greatly.
It can be extremely difficult to discern whether a specific moment in a show is the result of an actor’s choice, a director’s choice, or some other factor. That being said, there were moments when I could feel the lack of a strong director. There were times when I wanted a strong, committed choice to be made by performers, and the weakness of their choices was so pervasive that it seemed quite apparent that the director had never asked the actors to deliver on that moment. There are times when a director’s tools should be a wink and a smile, and there are times when his tools must be a scowl and a glare. A good director has a large kit of such tools and knows when to use them.
Perhaps the most obvious instances of shoddy preparation occurred during scene changes. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I know of what I speak here. I’ve been in a lot of little shows at little theaters, and a smooth, quickly run scene change requires little more than a commitment to make it happen. The changes last night tended to take twice as long as they should have. It was not due to the scene changers working lackadaisically; it was due to the director not making it a priority. These things need to be blocked and rehearsed just like any other stage action. The payoff is a little on the intangible side, but it results in a tighter, smoother running show that keeps the audience and the actors engaged.
There are reasons why this theater does things the way they do them. Reasons, yes, but not excuses; the difference between the two is vital. Some people might wish to excuse these shortcomings by saying things like, “Well, it’s just a little storefront theater with no money,” or “Well it’s not like we’re going to the Loop to see Wicked.” Such excuses leave me cold, because well, I’ve been there. I’ve been in little theater groups with no money where they did pay attention to these kinds of details; where the group attitude was “We are going to do the best show we can. We are never going to give our audience reasons to make excuses for us.” Now, in such a setting, one chooses one’s projects realistically, e.g., we’re not going to do Les Misérables in our 30-seat storefront on North Clark with no wing space, no budget, and no orchestra on a stage that can’t accommodate more than 3 actors at a time.
A great comparison to last night’s show is a play I saw a few years ago at the Stage Left Theatre here in Chicago. Stage Left is a storefront space physically comparable to last night’s venue. They did an original musical called The Secret of the Old Queen. They had little more than a keyboardist and a percussionist to accompany the show, but they had a polished and committed cast of actors and a technical design that used simple pen-and-ink drawings on the upstage wall to establish a whole variety of locales in a simple, consistent, and well-executed manner. The fact that it was a technique that cost virtually nothing to implement was of no matter to us folks in the audience; we were completely caught up in the fun of the evening because these choices were witty and imaginative, appropriate to the substance and style of the script, and smoothly implemented.
In last night’s show, though, I felt as if there were moments where the director was saying, “Now audience, imagine what this would look like if we had more money or more time or better performers.” I felt as if the director was letting himself off the hook because he didn’t believe in the show. Or perhaps he felt as if he’d expended all the energy he was inclined to spend on the show. Whatever the cause, it left me as an audience member thinking about things an audience member shouldn’t feel compelled to think about.
A careful reading of last night’s program revealed a few important clues to the mindset of this theater. It was founded 7 years ago by two people. One of them was the director of last night’s show and the other was an actor in several of the pieces. Even before I knew of that particular actor’s significance, I had perceived that she was a performer of some skill. But I had also found myself thinking that she was chewing up scenery rather shamelessly at times, as if she were in a huge proscenium house rather than an intimate storefront, and I was thinking that the director should have gotten out his whip and chair to direct her. She has talent, to be sure, but like all of us, she needs a director, and I’m not sure she really had one in this instance. Still, I suppose it’s better to see someone acting too much than someone who isn’t acting enough, so I don’t want to beat her up too badly. But it appears to be yet another in a long line of instances I have seen over the years – where a person who acts at their own theater tends to do so in a much more undisciplined and self-indulgent manner than they would at any other theater. I cannot actually convict this actor of that offense after seeing only one performance; I’m just saying that it appears to match a pattern I’ve had a chance to witness (and act with) on many occasions over the years.
This gets me around to something I have long thought – that I’d love to see a theater founded by a group of out-of-work techies. Most theaters are founded by a group of out-of-work actors, which no doubt contributes to the short shrift many of these theaters give to tech. Of course, one could make the argument that actors without tech can still perform a play, but techies without actors cannot. The problem with that attitude is that producing a play actually requires both actors and tech.
Still, I have some hope for this group. I might well return to see another production there. They do have some talented people there, and they might do a very good job with the right script. In closing, let me say that I cannot apologize if any of this sounds a bit arrogant or snobbish on my part. The fact is, I want to have standards*; I want them to be high; I want to live up to those standards. And while we’re at it, I want other people to have standards as high as mine. Better still, I want their standards to be higher than mine, so that I may learn all the more from them.
* As I have intimated before, I do not subscribe to the philosophy that all viewpoints are created equal; that one opinion is just as valid as any other opinion. I regard myself as open-minded and inclusive, but not to the point of rejecting critical thinking or willfully refusing to think.