The Empty Seat

You look around your empty space and you wonder “Why aren’t they coming?”

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?

my music review of The Interrupters at House of Blues

my theater review of Cassiopeia at Boston Court

my theater review of Ruby Wax: Out of Her Mind at The Broad Stage

my film review of Me @ the Zoo now streaming on VOD

my film review of A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III opening soon

my theater review of King Lear at the Porters of Hellsgate


Filed Under: Featuredjason rohrerPonderings


Jason Rohrer About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.

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  1. Jen says:

    Yes yes yes and yes. Brother.

  2. D. Jette D. Jette says:

    OH THANK GOD FOR BITTER LEMONS. How else would I be reminded that despite the flourishing small theater community in Los Angeles, EVERYTHING IS AWFUL and all you dummies suck, and should SHUT UP. He is truly advancing the cause of good taste by reveling in his musky self regard, and by relating his extremely crucial story about leaving shows at intermission (as a matter of routine) to walk and sleep among the homeless, because he can truly see art’s redemptive and classless nature, because he is a genius.

    How else would we, the fame-obsessed 99-seat theater producer/performer/lighting-designer/publicist/whiners, face commercial reality if not for Jason Rohrer and his sage mathematics. His shrewd analysis – that because in the twenties, (when people rode fucking horses to the theater) there were four times as many openings than in the 2010′s, (without any measurement of how long these shows ran? 2 weeks? 15 years? what was the value of midtown commercial property adjusted for inflation? WAS TV INVENTED YET?), he concludes that theater has slacked off over the last century, and in his estimation, could use a good kick in the pants from an enlightened theater watcher like himself.

    Guys! This ain’t TV! Stop making plays I don’t like and/or could see on ABC family!

    If he didn’t take the time to write things like this then who knows if the empty houses would eventually speak for themselves? What would stop the droves of young/middle aged/elderly actors from producing horrendous one-woman shows? HOW WOULD WE PROVE OUR VALUE TO OUR MOMS?

    I just thank our lucky stars that Jason chooses to polemicize on our behalf, rather than making a contribution to a more informed and nuanced analysis of the theater that IS of value. By focusing on what he hates, which is almost everything, he frees me from having to hate it, give me time to hate myself.

  3. Colin Mitchell Colin Mitchell says:

    I’ll let Jason respond as he wishes to your Monday morning movement, but for what I know is your most sincere, genuine and heartfelt blessing upon the Lemon I say, shalom.

  4. Jason Rohrer Jason Rohrer says:

    to hold as twere a mirror up to Jette:

    Look, David, if indignation moves you to write, write. You make some good points that would bear expansion. I’ve read some of your blog posts and I liked them; we share at least a passion for Christopher Hitchens, which in a liberal indicates an open mind and appreciation of reasoned debate. You haven’t posted anything on sydiot since September, which is a shame, because you have ideas and talent.

    If you want a forum to write about theater, ask Colin. Then you too can enjoy snipes from the peanut gallery while remaking Bitter Lemons as you see fit.

    I’ve never seen anything at your theater, and I’d appreciate an invitation. But I don’t agree that what this town needs is more advocacy. Nor even this web site. Kevin Delin’s indiscriminate approval more than balances out my curmudgeonly gripes. I am convinced from your single comment above that you would at least advocate intelligently.