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Responses To Really Terrible Theatre

September 13, 2007

How do theatregoers cope with suffering through really terrible theatre? Readers just put books back on a shelf if they dislike them. People walk out of movies all the time. But what do you do when you're stuck in a small, black-box theatre watching a performance so hapless that it makes you want to head for the door but you can't because, well, that would be rude?

I have a variety of coping mechanisms, the most important of which is to focus on drinking. If a show is really terrible, I just think about which bar I'd like to hit as soon as the curtain comes down. I figure out how I can get out of the theatre as quickly as possible and without being seen, how long it will take me to run to my chosen bar and what I'll order once I arrive. By the time I'm through working out the finer details of my post-performance drinking plan (sports pub, designer bar or wild west saloon? On the rocks or straight up?) more often than not, it's time to make a break for freedom.

Other strategies I'll employ during a show are to practice my yogic breathing techniques, stare at the ceiling and sit on my hands so I resist the temptation of slashing my wrists.

A friend of mine told me a funny story about her reaction to a terrible show she attended recently. She spent the entire first half of the three-hour torture session doodling. She didn't have any paper, so she drew all over both of her arms. By the time intermission came around, she was desperate to get out, but couldn't because she had friends in the show and to leave would have been exceedingly bad form. During the second half things got worse. She was forced to start in on her legs. By the time she staggered out of the theatre that night, she was tattooed like a sailor* (which included, I imagine, quite a few curses scrawled on her skin in ink.)

At the end of the day, laughter is the best anecdote for really bad theatre. Whatever you can do to make yourself smile or giggle hysterically is key to making it out alive.

*ASIDE: I wonder if sailors' tattoos are also a symptom of being trapped in unpleasant circumstances with no escape? Being shackled to an uncomfortable theatre seat and forced to endure a terrible performance might feel similar to being stuck out at sea on a ship for months on end.


  • Chloe, this post made me laugh out loud!

    By Blogger Kristin Tieche, At September 14, 2007 at 9:24 AM  

  • Damn, this is a funny, yet insightful post. But i do think we need to re-evaluate why we just don't walk out on bad theatre.

    The pretentiousness of "artists" is ridiculous. Just because an actor acts in a show, does not mean we are obligated to sit thru that which does not appeal to us.

    Actors are notoriously sensitive, as if what they do is so special, that it should never be condemed, and should only be praised because it is "art".


    The Cool As Hell Theatre Podcast

    By Blogger Unknown, At September 15, 2007 at 1:32 AM  

  • My general rule is: if I cannot stay actively engaged with a performance, even if being actively engaged means sitting there and making a mental catalog of everything I despire about it, I leave. Mind you, I don't know if I can think of a time in the recent (or even distant) past when I've walked out of a performance while it was in progress (and I can't imagine I would be very likely to do so), but give me an intermission and, boom, I'm out of there if I can't stay present for it, in the metaphysical and physical senses of the word "present".

    Plus, as a theatermaker, there's very nearly always something I can learn from everything I watch.

    Other techniques to add to the rep of ujayyi breath, drink orders, etc, and ones that are a little more "art brain" centric, I think, are:

    what is the architecture of the space like?
    cracks in the walls?
    light coming in?
    what is happening with the other people in the audience (if you are in a position to observe them without being disruptive)?
    what happens if you close your eyes for a minute and just listen?
    what happens if you put your fingers in your ears and just watch?
    what if you just look at the pure physical forms of the actors on stage?
    what if you make up games for yourself (every time someone says a certain word I will repeat my own small gesture of touching my wrist or whatever...)?

    In other words, you can potentially "Viewpoint" your way through an otherwise uninspiring experience as an audience member.

    In a sense, these are all ways of engaging with the piece, even if they're not the ways we're "supposed to" as audience members. The thing is, that doesn't happen to me very often.
    with sensitivity and pretense,

    By Blogger D, At September 15, 2007 at 7:02 AM  

  • sorry, I just realized that I made a typo in that last ramble...

    the last sentence before "with sensitivity and pretense" belongs after the word "present".

    does that make any sense whatsoever?


    By Blogger D, At September 15, 2007 at 7:07 AM  

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