Features Dialogues and debatesNYCNYC Features Published 2 April 2018

Irrational Theater Dislikes: Our Critics Sound Off

Irrational though they may be, our critics share the big and small things that bug them about the theater.

Exeunt Staff

We love theater. We really do.  Except, all the things we hate about theater. Our critics share their mostly irrational, personal peccadilloes about stage devices, theater management, and design elements that make their blood boil. (Visit our UK sister-site for their complaints)

OVERUSED AND UNDERBAKED THEATER DEVICES

The Rockettes spreading their kick line teachings (Photo: US Navy/ Photographers Mate 2nd Class Gabriela Hurtado)

Kick Lines:  Audiences seem to love them—they tend to elicit a hearty round of whoops and cheers, which is perhaps why so many theater makers employ them in their dance numbers —but if I never see a kick line again it’ll be too soon. The Rockettes, I understand, need to keep doing kick lines to keep the lights on, but as far as I’m concerned, everyone else should give this corny trope the boot. (Jordan Teicher)

Pop Songs as a Substitute for Setting a Time and Place: Yes, I know, it’s shorthand and it’s fast and it’s a great way to trigger memory and situate audiences in a time and a place. But Nirvana is not a substitute for actually doing the work of building a world that feels like the early nineties, and no matter how much I love the songs you’re playing, it’s a very rare occasion when I wouldn’t rather see you do the writing. (Loren Noveck)

Denial of Props: Directors who think the shortcut to “experimental” theatre is depriving their actors of props, or giving them totally weird ones. For god’s sake, unless you have a really, really good reason, just let your Nora have actual macaroons; if someone has to chop something, give them a knife and something to chop; and if someone needs to write a letter, give them something to write with–something that isn’t your brilliant “concept” of what a pen might “represent!” Even in the current climate, most budgets can handle a few standard props and frankly, actors have enough to deal with without having to imagine they’re holding something they’re not (and when they’re literally holding nothing, having to remember when they are still holding that book made of air and/or what they did with it). (Alison Walls)

Sunset Boulevard. Spandex-unitard clad cars not pictured. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Pretending the People in Black Body Suits are Not There: Whenever there is an attempt in a show to try to “hide” human helpers by sticking them in a full-body black spandex unitard I cannot suspend my disbelief. I CAN SEE YOU PEOPLE. You are right there. In front of my face. I recall in Sunset Boulevard this sad attempt to make spandex’d people run around with headlights in their hands…and we were supposed to imagine they were vehicles?  I could not.  This is the outer limit of my imagination apparently. It is sad to discover my personal mental boundaries.  But this is surely one. If you need people to do something on stage, I would just prefer a stage hand wearing regular old black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a headset to quickly move on and off the stage. It reminds me of high school theater. Also it’s nice to acknowledge that there are humans working hard to make things happen back stage. And they have faces. (Nicole Serratore)

Literary Allusions: I get it, you paid a lot for Grad School, you read a lot of plays, your bookshelves are falling apart. But the characters in your play are not mere reciters of all the concepts and quotes you’ve grasped. (Charlotte Arnoux)

Guns: Guns! I hate when guns are shot on stage. They are so loud and I jump in my seat every time, making me look like a fool. As soon as a gun appears on stage my first thought is “Chekhov be damned: I hope they don’t shoot that thing and make me feel like an idiot for jumping out of my seat!” Troilus and Cressida in the park last year–so many dreadfully loud guns! Keep the noise down and get off my lawn, please. (Patrick Maley)

Random Movement/Dance in Otherwise Realistic Straight Plays: Unless they’re done really, really well, it always just feels like an attempt to make a naturalistic play feel more theatrical for no apparent reason. (It must be said I also have an irrational prejudice against unnecessary whimsy, so perhaps this falls into that category.) (Loren Noveck)

Long Monologues that Start with “When I was XXX years old”: One is all right. I get it: it’s an easy way to let an audience in on backstory. But by the second time a playwright decides to include a long, seemingly irrelevant tangent about an anecdote from the character’s past, I start to disconnect. This dramatic tool takes me completely out of the play into a world in which people are somehow able to psychoanalyze their current situations and pull out detailed memories from their childhood that seem to relate to the conflict at hand… it’s bizarre. (Charlotte Arnoux)

Pseudo-Audience Participation: I’m an actor, but when I’m an audience member, I just want to be an audience member, thank you very much. No singing, no dancing. In almost all cases, if you, the performer, are trying to get me to join you in it, I can assure you that you are much better at it than me. I especially don’t want to take part in anything that is pretending to be some free-spirited release of all my repressions, or join me in an emotive bond with anybody else in the theater. I will simply feel awkward, not free – and seriously, is there anyone who can really let loose while attempting to stand and sway in the tiny space between their row and the row in front?! There are two options: either feel like a dickhead as we all pretend that we’re letting go of all our repressions and freeing our artistic souls by replicating the kind of movement usually reserved for middle-school dances, singing off-key, and clapping out of time, or feel like a dickhead for being the uptight snob who stays resolutely in her seat. It is particularly irritating when these moments are randomly inserted into an otherwise conventional play. (Alison Walls)

De Materie sheep (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Puppies: Don’t try to manipulate me with small, fuzzy, helpless creatures. Yes they are cute and most of the audience will lose its collective mind the minute the puppy is on stage.  Audiences cooing at puppies also makes me irate. I am fuming at your cheap attempt to squeeze a sentiment out of the crowd that you have not otherwise earned. If this makes me a monster, SO BE IT. In the spirit of the irrational, I will however accept all your stage wild fowl and livestock. I once saw an opera, De Materie, just because it had sheep in it. No regrets. 5 star sheep. (Nicole Serratore)

DESIGN GRIPES

Onstage seating in Good for Otto. (Photo: Monique Carboni)

Onstage Seating That Servies No Dramaturgical Purpose: The birth of the contemporary pop-rock musical. The modern fascination with outrageous anachronism. The mature career of Lea Michele. I associate several questionable theatrical phenomena with the original production of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening in 2006, but perhaps none more than the birth of the onstage seating movement. Granted, it was hardly the first show to put audience members in the thick of the action — Equus used the device in the 1970s, and historical precedence dates back to the Renaissance — but even to my not-yet-cynical college student brain, the device seemed little more than a canny way for a sold-out show in a small theater to sell twenty extra seats a night. The stage seats followed the production from the Atlantic to Broadway, and within a year or so it felt like every third play was doing it, whether it served the show or not. The most egregious recent example I can think of is The New Group’s production of Good for Otto, which puts the truly intimate act of psychotherapy under constant surveillance for no discernible reason. What’s next? A few extra chairs at the Tyrone breakfast table in Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Let’s keep the audience where they belong: on the other side of the footlights. (Cameron Kelsall)

Small Stages with Big Sofas: There’s nothing worse and more distracting than actors trying to shimmy around too big or too much furniture on a small stage. Many a time, I have sat through a play redesigning the set to give the actors room to act and not look in danger of toppling off the front of the stage. In fact, sofas in general take center stage way too often and are plonked right in the middle and treated like a buoy in a harbor for actors to cling to as if they are escaping a shipwreck. This is pretty irrational because, of course, the actors have to sit somewhere! (Juliet Hindell)

Bad Use of Video Projections: Ugh, video projections used to define the set in naturalistic plays. (Molly Grogan)

Obstructed Views: I’m sorry, do directors and set designers not get advance notice on what theaters their shows are going to play? Can they not create a set and stage a show for the entire theater to experience? While it’s theater policy to inform the audience member when they won’t be able to see the full set, I remember watching Hello, Dolly! from a box seat and not being able to see Bette Midler’s entire performance. Can you imagine paying an obscene amount of money to see a legend perform and not being able to see her full grand entrance because the set design and staging completely cuts her out from where you are sitting? No, my ticket did not say obstructed view as it should have. Set designers and directors do better. (Ayanna Prescod)

THEATER EXPERIENCE WOES

Wishful thinking on running times: Just because that one time you did the show in 95 minutes and it seemed you could still tighten it up a bit, that does not mean you can bill it as 90 minutes no intermission when really it’s an hour forty-five and you’re going to start twenty minutes after curtain time anyway because there’s no late seating. If it’s ever, even once, run more than two hours and there’s not going to be an intermission, I need to be properly warned or else by minute 97 I am going to be growing increasingly frustrated even if I was previously rather enjoying the show. (And double that if it’s one of those theater with really wide rows and no center aisle and I’ve been given a nice center seat with delightful sightlines, which is great up until the point when I have to try to get out past the sixteen people between me and either aisle.) (Loren Noveck)

Late Seating Policy: Nothing grinds my gears more than being fully-engaged in the opening sequence of a show and then having an usher blind me with their flashlight to seat multiple tardy people into the row. Not only do I have find a way to quietly get up from my seat but also try not to block the people in back of me. God forbid it’s winter and you have a coat, scarf and bag to also gather before you can actually get up. Can every Broadway theater follow Circle In The Square’s strict “no late seating” policy? I mean, you paid a lot of money for these tickets, the least you can do is get to the show on time. (Ayanna Prescod)

Though she is not of this world, applaud Laurie Metcalf at the end of the show (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Entrance Applause: Oh, and applauding a celebrity just for walking onstage… (Alison Walls)

Broadway Drink Prices? Honey, No: Look, I am a gay playwright of Irish-Italian descent, it is in my blood that Baby’s gonna love a sip. I don’t like rolling up to a show (any show anywhere from HERE all the way up to Spongebob Squarepants the Broadway Musical) and after deciding to splurge on a drink, find myself in a moral quandary about whether or not to walk away from the bar when the barkeep quotes me $19 for a 5-ounce pour of a buttery Chardonnay. Like, no, how dare you. The ethics of wine selling are lucky enough in this city; at most restaurants, the cost of a glass of wine is more than enough to cover the full bottle plus tax at wholesale price. I shouldn’t have to ponder the irony of a Roy Cohn cocktail EMPTYING MY BANK ACCOUNT! At a certain island-set show (and it is NOT Come From Away, let me TELL YOU, Jenn Colella), they should be GIVING AWAY MARGARITAS, much less charging $54 for a few of them! Whenever I feel like having a finger or two of bourbon at the theatre, I should not feel like I have to go to confession! Fuck my Catholic upbringing, fuck guilt, and fuck Broadway drink prices! (Kev Berry)


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine