Monday, March 01, 2010

metaDRAMA: That Which Shall Not Be Named

Okay, I lied. The name of the worst play that I have ever seen, currently running at the Frigid Festival, is Uncorseted. Masochists, get your tickets now.

There's nothing constructive I can say about the show; I mention it by name to make a larger point: the theater community has a responsibility to ensure that work like this is not supported. Something this doddery and self-indulgent is likely to convince audience members not only to avoid future work by DC's Shark Tank Players, but to avoid the other offerings from the Frigid Festival, and by association, Horse Trade. And that would be a mistake, because Frigid's mounted great shows (like this year's Legs and All, or, two years ago, the Great Hymn of Thanksgiving), and Horse Trade's been a great home for consistent work like The Pumpkin Pie Show.

When I started covering the downtown scene four years ago (mainly because there was so little coverage of it), the big question was "Why don't audiences come out?" That question is still being asked, and the answer still boils down to the same thing: publicity. Either they don't know about it (and with young, unestablished companies and playwrights, how could they?), or they do know about it (read: there is such a thing as bad press). So far as the former goes, that's what I hope to do here: covering the shows that you may not have heard of. But so far as the latter goes, that's on the  community.

And I get it. I've been there--you want to work with people in the future, or you're friends with them, so you come to their show, and you say good things about it. But there's a price for that dishonesty: audiences who have their respect for theater eroded because it's not "real" enough. Or audiences who attended a show because of misleading marketing, and are chary about genuine offers in the future. It's the worst sort of Pyrrhic victory, because the company that "wins" by knowingly putting up a poor show is burning a lot of bridges for other struggling companies. Note: I'm not saying that you can't put up a sub-par show, but you should be honest about it--perhaps don't hire a publicist, and invite only the friends who will love you anyway. Or target audiences who enjoy seeing bad work: they are out there. I'm also not saying that every show needs to be a masterpiece (we often learn by trying and failing): I'm saying that there needs to be a bottom line.

Anyway, I don't mean to go on and on--I'd just like to see better curated festivals and some higher standards among those I generally trust. Because I honestly have no idea how such an ill-prepared company, one that genuinely seemed uncomfortable even to be on stage, manages to mount a show at all, if not for the good-will and support of their friends.


RLewis said...

I've heard some folks say that the work of indie theater should be on the edge, daring and risk-taking (of which Failure is part-n-parcel), and that non-curated, lottery festivals like Fridged are the way to go.

This post makes me wonder if we are obliged to embrace this bad with the good. Do you think this is just something indie theater has to learn to live with, and that being a place for All will insure its continued reputation as quality's bottom?

Aaron Riccio said...

As I tried to communicate, failure is important, and I'm all for bold theater. If we could lead people to associate "risk-taking" with "Indie theater," there'd probably be more butts in seats. (Ken Davenport's on top of the whole "branding" issue:

Equally important, however, is self-respect. It's hard to muster up passion--on either side of the theater-going relationship--without it. I don't mind seeing a bad show if the *cast* is at least excited to share it. But when the actors look uncomfortable (or grow apologetic), and when they've got nothing to actually say--just lines on a page--then it's just indulgent.

Musicians talk shit about one another all the time. So do artists. Authors. And so on. Perhaps that's why they're able to grow--they weed out the people who don't belong, or force those "outcasts" to find a new outlet to market themselves under. But I rarely see people in the theater challenging one another, and my point is that all this unearned support might be eroding and spoiling the theater from the inside.

Metaphorically, this is Hellen Keller Theater: they're blind and deaf to those around them, and spoiled by their "parents" (who will love them no matter what) into mounting the same selfish works over and over again, unable to communicate. What they need are some theatrical Annie Sullivans, people who can help them reach out to the audiences they are chasing away.

We should absolutely embrace the bad. But only so as to make it better.

Emily Owens PR said...

One of the things that sets FRIGID apart from other festivals is the fact that its uncensored. Artists are given the means to produce their show no matter the form, content, or style. Because of this you sometimes end up with shows that still need some work but you also end up with some amazing shows that you may never have had the chance to see outside of the festival. You're kind of rolling the dice every time you walk into the theater, and I think that's what makes FRIGID so exciting. You never know what you might see!

Aaron Riccio said...

Emily, I agree to an extent, but perhaps part of the reason some audiences--especially older ones--are reluctant to come downtown is because they feel as if they're gambling too much. To use another metaphor, stepping blindly into the unknown is exciting in the same way that ChatRoulette is exciting--except that one of the great charms of the Internet is its lack of intimacy, which allows one to quickly skip to the next thing. Perhaps Frigid would be better served if each show provided a one-minute teaser for the site, so that the risk is more managed.

Instead, it's bundled together for the same reason that television channels are: because otherwise, some shows would be avoided like the plague. I'm just not sure that's ultimately a wise decision: the easier it is for audiences to find a show like Legs and All *without* hitting a show like Uncorseted, the more often they'll come. I'd be curious to study the average Frigid audience (that is, excluding other Frigid participants, family members, industry, and press) and to find out what exactly they're hoping for.

Emily Owens PR said...

You raise a good point, and I think this speaks to festivals in general. When you're looking at 30 or more shows to choose from with only a blurb and photo to go off of, it does make it difficult to find the gems. I imagine that the New York Fringe and a number of other festivals have this same issue. But isn't that part of what a festival is all about?

Erez said...

I have had the misfortune of being one of the 23 people in total that actually sat thru Uncorseted and was very happy to find out the following day that they will not be making the trip up from DC for their remaining performances. That show was embarrassing and painful, but it seems they did figure that out and take the only possible recourse, even if they did it a few performances too late. This is not a show that should have happened.
That being said, the benefits of having a non-curated festival here in NYC far outweigh the downside of having to sit thru a show like this once in a while and I fully stand by the model that this festival operates on. For each Uncorseted that comes thru we get a couple of shows like Legs and All, The Bike Trip, T-O-T-A-L-L-Y, Crack’d, Kill The Band, Bonne Nuit PooPoo, Legoland, On Second Thought, The Surprise, Great Hymn of Thanksgiving, Recess, Freedom 85, and I could go on.
As for Uncorseted, the community was loud enough in their post show slinking out of the theater and just general absence that it appears the company got the feedback they needed.

Aaron Riccio said...

Fair enough, Erez--I wasn't aware they'd canceled the remainder of their performances, only that they'd falsely hyped up their own show in interviews with places like and poorly represented themselves with Frigid itself, facts which led me to write this initial post stressing the danger of wholly unsupervised theater.

If we can trust in companies to withdraw from performing a show that they must know--deep down--is not ready to be seen, then I really do agree with advocates like Emily and yourself that festivals like this are important. And I didn't mean to imply that curated festivals are necessarily fail-proof: much as I love Mark Russell, I've seen stinkers at his Under the Radar Festival.

The main point, which I stick by, is that artists have a responsibility not to abuse opportunities like Frigid simply because they can. It's the same thing which American Idol's judges warn against, week after week--when you squander opportunity, people tune out. But whereas on American Idol, audiences can target the people they want to get rid of, with theater, the only recourse some dissatisfied audiences have is to abandon certain ventures entirely.

RLewis said...

I hope it was okay to serve up this softball, but I think it's something the community needs to discuss more often (not that diversity and new play issues aren't important). And thanks to each of you for the inteligent discussion.

I do think that this is more of an issue than it was when downtown tickets were $5 and a burger or beer afterward were even less. "rolling the dice" as a $ gamble is only going to increase as we get further away from Free, which we should do, and that's why this post is a good one.

Emily Owens PR said...

I'm not sure that "rolling the dice" is downtown theatre specific. Aren't you rolling the dice every time you go see a Broadway or off-Broadway show too? Just because they offer celebrity casts and established playwrights does not guarantee that the show is going to be good. Really aren't you taking a chance any time you go see theatre or even a movie?

RLewis said...

Yes, Emily, I think you are correct, but with Bway and other big shows there is almost always a lot of information out there for you to hedge your bets. And if the show sucks, at least a saw a star fall on his/her face, or I'll be able to tell my friends that I saw X show, and they'll know what I'm talking about, etc.

When I go to an OOB show it's almost blind betting, cuz there is usually so little on which to base my decision to attend. There is a big difference, but I'm sure you already know this.

Aaron Riccio said...

I don't think anyone here thinks that "rolling the dice" is specific to downtown theater. My concern, as always, is that fewer and fewer people will go (and now, with the ease and support that texting-in-the-theater is getting, will engage less and less with it when they DO go).

But many of the tourist-friendly shows on Broadway have been playing for years, and as RL says, audiences *do* know what to expect, especially if they've already memorized all the music from "Wicked." Or if they're one of the million Twitter followers of "Next to Normal." We see a lot of revivals and British transplants because producers know what to expect (and are shocked, as with the Neil Simon flop, when audiences *STILL* don't show up).

Also, this isn't about looking for a guarantee of good work--it's simply looking for a bottom line. I eat at cheap Chinese restaurants all the time, and I don't mind getting what I pay for. However, I take offense when I get food poisoning. Health inspectors don't force everything to be five-star dining; they just ensure that you don't get sick of eating out.

Emily Owens PR said...

Obviously that's one of the major issue's with indie theatre, getting the word out there and marketing the show in a way that audiences feel informed enough to take that risk. Without the large advertising budgets that major Broadway shows have that usually leaves us with social networking and press. What are you idea's for helping the indie theatre audience feel more informed before they take that risk and purchase a ticket?

Aaron Riccio said...

Emily, I actually think that social media helps with this. Seeing production/rehearsal photos, reading blog posts from the crew, things that re-enforce the fact that what you're about to see is NOT just a slapdash production, and that real passion has been invested in it. Flux Ensemble, for example, makes a real attempt to connect with its audience. Doesn't guarantee that their shows will be good, but it guarantees that they're *working* at it.

I also think that if a company were more active in writing--to an audience--about their process, they might be more perceptive about show-killing flaws in their work, things that might lead them to cancel or postpone their show in respect of the greater good. It's one thing to lie to yourself about the quality of a project; it's another to lie to an audience. (It's a lot harder, too.)