Chances are it’s you.
Oh, your mom comes, and the friends who didn’t make it to the last one (“So busy! Sorry! TOTALLY be there next time! xoxo”). But if the show were for them you’d do it in your living room. It’s society you’re trying to impact, remember? The whole culture. Not the people who feel guilty if they let you down.
I saw a poorly-attended bad monologue the other day and was glad the house was so empty. Not schadenfreude glad, but glad of the discouraging message sent from a barren house to the creative team. The performer made some digs at the size of her crowd, and the size of her stage comparative to the Large House next door at the fancy arts complex that hosted her. She mocked the “expense” afforded her small production, envying the more capacious budget of the show next door. Her bitching was all in fun, sort of, maybe. The fact is that she was a star of British television, while the star of the show next door got famous on American television, and both performances took place in America. Duh. And if her solo show had bowed on the larger stage, her audience of twenty-five heads would have looked even smaller than it did in the ante-room where it had been shunted.
It’s hard to find a good show these days. In the 1929-30 season over 230 shows opened on Broadway; in 2012, fewer than 50. In my student days, I routinely left bad shows at intermission to wander the blocks radiating out from Times Square; row upon row of shuttered theaters, scores of them, with homeless encampments sheltering beneath blank marquees. Some will argue that the real tragedy here is that the empty theaters were insufficient to house the homeless; perhaps so. But I’m a believer in the redemptive and spiritual power of art, and I’m not entirely sure that more theater wouldn’t result in fewer social ills.
I think that since we’re down to about a fifth of the big-time productions we used to have, we’ve got about a fifth of the big-budget, high-hopes opportunities to experiment, to take chances, to find a new way to communicate, to give opportunities to forms we haven’t already done to death. I would so much rather see a failed but daring attempt than a successful safe bet! One of the reasons that one-woman show comes off as so banal and robotic is that it aims at a target so frequently hit that when she throws jokes and commentary at it they often sail right through the holes.
If you’re doing a show because you think you ought to, listen to that inner voice and determine its origin. Is it your desire for fame talking? Silence it. Is it an urge to be of service to a needy community? Remember that your show must be a show first and an act of charity second. Is it your knowledge that you would be really good in that part, or that you’re so well-suited to direct that one scene? Think about the big picture. First off, you’re not going to get famous from a single role or directing gig. Yes, it happens but it almost certainly won’t happen to you because it almost never happens, period. What makes careers is solid, consistent devotion to craft, and choosing stories that need to be heard, and being fortunate enough to know how to assist the telling of that particular story. And that classic text you want to mount, because you haven’t done that one yet: remember, every production lives in the context of its time, and no production – none, ever in history – has properly served its text without a thorough analysis formulated into a thesis.
Nobody wants to leave the comfort of his home and pay to sit in hard chairs looking at something he could watch on television. Read the fucking receipts already: stop producing the sit-com-structured “message” show; stop producing the all-spectacle-all-the-time juke-box musical. You’re killing the whole medium with that shit. Just absolutely smothering it by convincing theatergoers that there is nothing different or better, so why should they bother looking?
What if theater surprised you? Because comfort food’s already in the freezer at home, what if theater actually supplied something missing from your diet? Would asses come fill the seats then, maybe?
About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for stageandcinema.com, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.