Stuart Bousel comes clean about the real reasons he ultimately walked out of Berkeley Rep’s “The Wild Bride”.”
Yesterday afternoon, a friend whom we shall call “Wagner” (all the names in this rant will be changed so I won’t feel bad about whatever it is I’m about to say), dropped me an instant message saying he had an extra ticket to see The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep that night, and since I’d heard some good stuff about this show (which is in its second incarnation) and I didn’t have anything else to do (which is a lie because I have so much else to do and I’m really enjoying David Wong’s John Dies At The End right now), I jumped on BART after work and headed over to the East Bay for an impromptu man-date, hoping to be blown away by a show the SF Chronicle deemed “The Best Show of the Year!” last year, and several friends of mine had waxed poetic about.
To say I was underwhelmed is putting it lightly – especially as this show was a creation of the British theater group Kneehigh, who were the folks behind the beautiful and moving Brief Encounter, a show that ACT hosted a few years back. Thankfully, I actually didn’t know they were the creators until I was flipping through the program and noticed the director’s bio. I say “thankfully” because I want to believe my opinions on this show are based on what I was watching, not just disappointment due to false expectations and artist loyalty. But what about all those good things I’d already heard from reviews and friends – couldn’t that have raised that bar too high? Honestly, no. One, because I hadn’t followed the reviews of The Wild Bride beyond the critics I regularly read and two, because I have learned to always take local buzz with a grain of salt. Frankly, I’ve been an active creator and appreciator of theater since I got here more than ten years ago (seriously, on day 6 after my move, I went to see – and greatly enjoyed – Shotgun’s Troilus and Cressida), and there is so much I love about this theater scene, but if I had a nickel for every show in the Bay Area that gets undeservedly called “genius” or gets a completely unwarranted standing ovation, I’d have enough money by now to move to New York, where I sometimes feel like the kind of theater I personally enjoy is more prevalent.
I recognize those are fighting words – particularly from someone who is as vocal (and active) in the local theater scene as I am. But what you’re ultimately going to discover is “the point” of this article, is not that I begrudge anyone their taste, but rather that I’m getting a little tired of being a complicit part of what another friend of mine (let’s call him “Valentine”) calls “the Yay-Bay”: basically the idea that as residents of the Bay Area (but particularly the Axis of Smug that is San Francisco, Berkeley and The New Republic of Oaksterdam), not only is our poop gold, but anyone else who shows up and takes a shit in our yard is automatically elevated to Golden Goose status so long as they tell us what we want to hear: namely that we’re edgy, smart, and nowhere near as disconnected from the harsh realities of the world as a great deal of the rest of the world perceives us to be.
From my own perspective, both as a creator and as an audience member with a critical eye, I will admit I have noticed there is a local tendency to respond, sometimes with real anger, to anyone who calls us on this, and to actively turn our attention away from things that would challenge us to be more thoughtful about our own lives, more considerate of perspectives “less enlightened” than our own, and more open to the possible rewards from letting ourselves experience the full range of intellectual and emotional experience- in art, and in our actual lives. My friend “Siebel” likes to say that the Bay Area is a terrible place to get your heart broken, because there’s a resentment of anyone who brings the party down; I know what he’s talking about (though most of my friends are amazing bastions of support in my low periods), and when it comes to the arts I tend to agree: this is not always a great place for self- or socially-reflective art about being in a bad situation, disillusioned, or heartbroken- unless that heartbreak is over Bush winning an election, in which case you’ve just pooped gold. See, we are allowed to be angry here, but preferably about stuff we can all agree upon. And yes, I feel like there is an enormous pressure for us all to agree here, or not speak if we don’t agree. Which is another way of agreeing.
I don’t want to imply that New York is some bastion of integrity in these regards because it’s not – it too suffers from an insular worldview that tends to place itself at the center of the universe and many New Yorkers I know are guilty of looking on the rest of the world as a place where handmaidens come from (any city that isn’t New York) and open space filled with peasants (any other place where people live). And New York theater is notoriously self-referential and a great deal of what is successful there follows the trifold agenda of 1) be about New York 2) reaffirm New York is the center of the universe 3) reflect the vast cultural and social diversity of New York, subtly underlining the idea that no one need ever come from anywhere else because New York, like Noah’s Ark, already has two of everything – and everyone. And I say this as someone whose favorite play, hands down, is John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. But the thing about New York is that for all its solipsism, it is a place where most people have embraced an undercurrent of constant change and aspiration and all the attendant fear and anxiety that comes with following your heart, while the Bay Area has often been pegged as being about attaining and maintaining a level of lifestyle best described as “laid-back, comfortable,” but detractors of the Bay Area see as “lazy and indulgent.” As a young local musician I recently had a drink with told me (we’ll call her “Margaret”), “In New York they ask, ‘What’s your passion?’, in Los Angeles they ask, ‘What’s your dream?’ and in San Francisco they ask, ‘What’s your pleasure?'” Not a bad question to ask, mind you, but if we accept this characterization (and I have to admit, I immediately agreed it was pretty accurate), then it is indicative of the heart of the problem I/we struggle with here: a certain culturally ingrained resistance towards anything that discomforts us or screws with our way of looking at the world.
Which is the real reason I walked out of last night’s performance of The Wild Bride.
The fact is, if anyone ever should have loved this show, it is ME. I am sucker for three things in this world, and the number one thing is mythology or fairy tales of any variety. The second is folk musicals – those shows which incorporate music and singing into their stories while actively avoiding the trappings of mainstream musical theater in an attempt to create something widely appealing and accessible as opposed to glittery or virtuosic (not that there isn’t a time and a place for that). The third thing, however, that I am a sucker for, is human feelings. Put some emotion on your stage, from screaming teenage raw to drawing-room repressed – and even if I hate your story or hate your characters, I’ll probably still find something to like about your show because honestly, I go to the theater to feel, it’s that simple. As much as I like to be intellectually stimulated, if there is no emotional hook I don’t see the point – of anything really. I personally believe it’s our emotions, and not our intelligence, that actually set us apart from the lesser animals. Or rather, what I really believe is that our emotions, and our attempt to understand our emotions, are the signs that we actually are intelligent, and not just the varying degrees of clever that we see demonstrated by birds and snakes and other critters that have learned to bash their food against a rock or play dead when a bigger critter comes along.
For me, The Wild Bride lacked an emotional center that conveyed to me why the story was one this theater troupe felt a need to tell. Throughout the first act, despite the obvious craft and skill on stage, I became progressively aware of the math of the show, of what the artists behind it were doing, and less and less interested in what was going on in the world of the play. By the time the glowing pears showed up, I was thinking things like, “Oh, that’s cool-looking, wish I had thought of that, and hey, that actress looks like she’s having fun trying to get the pear in her mouth” and not, “Awww, the trees are feeding this poor broken woman of their own accord – it’s a miracle!” Which means the show failed for me. Look, I love highly theatrical ideas and design – I get why Kushner wants you to see the strings on the Angel, and as a guy who has been in The Fantasticks three times and still cries at the end, I don’t need or desire realism and I value meta-theater enormously. My own writing is highly satirical – I make fun of everything, particularly myself, and I think irony, surrealism, absurdism, symbolism and all the other isms all have their place. But for heaven’s sake, is it so much to ask that by forty-five minutes in I should care about something or somebody on stage? I don’t have to like them, I don’t have to admire them – but I should feel like I am invested in them. I ALWAYS know I am watching a play when I am watching a play, because I am not delusional (that way). For me, suspension of disbelief begins the moment I sit down in the theater because I am a lifetime theatergoer and I know that’s my part of the game we’re all playing. I have never done acid because I don’t need to – I have an overly active imagination as it is. The one thing I need, and then I’ll do a great deal of the rest of the work myself, is an entry into the story you are telling me – and for me, that entry needs to be human. Not a design element. Not a cool idea. Good design and good ideas are what elevate the experience, but if there’s no humanity there, there is no experience for me – good or bad. And frankly, non-experience is the only thing I feel isn’t worth my time because life is too short to not be engaged. To me, The Wild Bride felt as cold and distant and as if someone was standing center stage reading me the light cues instead of telling me a story that was important to them, about people they felt I should care about.
Maybe it was an off night. I kind of doubt it, because I know what makes a good script and little of that was there, but I also can see how in hybrid theater where the songs and movement are a massive chunk of the script (arguably more important than the dialogue), something can work better on nights when the cast is really selling it. Then again, maybe they were selling it and all they had to sell was a flat story with undeveloped characters and no real stakes. Or maybe it was the best performance of the best show in the world and it just wasn’t my thing. Any of these things could be true but the result is the same: I wasn’t enjoying it. Yes, I politely applauded the end of Act One (which was an astounding example of anti-climax), but when Wagner turned to me and asked if I liked it I said, “No,” then laughed and said, “Honestly, good tech and performances aside, I feel like I’m watching bad college theater. It’s all concept but no content. Or really, it’s more like children’s theater, only with children’s theater it wouldn’t have a second act and we’d know at the end of an hour what the moral of the story was.” My friend piped in with his own opinions, which were not as damning, but equally as strong and less than enthusiastic. And that’s when the woman sitting in the row in front of us felt a need to step into our conversation.
I have come to accept that part of living in the Bay Area is that strangers feel they are allowed to talk to you whenever they want. You have to understand that this is not an easy thing for me to grasp – my parents are from New York, where strangers only talk to you because they are lost tourists or potential muggers, and I spent my formative years in Arizona, where there is a strong culture of “stay the fuck out of my business unless I invite you in.” In the Yay Bay, we have a lovely climate of friendliness and perennial smiles that when I first moved here actually confused the shit out of me because like a lot of newbies, I kept thinking I had made all these friends only to realize “friendly” and “friend” are not the same thing (my dad, as New York as they come, would frequently say, “when are you going to realize that nice people are usually liars?”). It took me two years, more or less, to understand that people here are people just like they are everywhere else, and some are good and some are bad and most are just trying to get through life, but because so many of us are comfortadores here (thanks Joss Wheedon, for coining the term), boldly on the lookout for our next good glass of wine and/or casual sex partner (and I am not saying that’s a bad thing), we have cultivated a culture of “it’s all good” and many have internalized it to mean “there are no boundaries” and that is bullshit. I have boundaries. You should too. One of those boundaries is that if I am not talking to you, and you don’t know me, then you ask to be part of my conversation. You don’t just walk in. I mean, the women in the row behind us were talking about their low blood sugar and how cold the theater was. Did I turn around and tell them there were cookies and possibly more heat in the lobby? No. And maybe I should have. But I didn’t get the impression they were sharing their woes with me and I personally consider it rude to rush in to help unless someone is bleeding on the sidewalk and nobody has called an ambulance.
This woman in front of us, however (we will call her “Martha” because I don’t know her actual name), obviously had no such sense of boundaries. Never mind that our conversation is in a different row – which to me is like a different table at a restaurant, where the idea that each conversation is an island not to be breached is inherent to good service – or that it is intermission and so we’re hardly disturbing the performance. Never mind that we’re talking about the play we’re watching and thus attempting to make the most of our night at a disappointing theatrical experience. Never mind that for all she knows, we’re actual theater critics, or agents, or potential producers, or students, and this is our job or in some other way we’re obligated to have an opinion and to articulate that opinion. Never mind that as normal audience members we have the right and the obligation to respond to the show as honestly as we can, so long as it’s not screaming our thoughts aloud while the actors are on stage. For some reason, Martha feels she has every right to turn and say, “Hey guys, please continue your conversation at home. People can hear you.”
At another point in my life I would have told this woman to go fuck herself and learn that being polite means not listening in on someone just because you can technically hear them. At another point in my life that wasn’t that point, I would have told her that it is our duty to express our opinions of the work as audience members, and doing that in the theater during intermission is perfectly fine as that’s kind of what intermission is for (contrary to popular belief, it’s not to get snacks or pee – in the olden days, people did that all throughout the show) – a moment to process what you’re seeing and to do so socially, as in theory that should heighten your enjoyment of the next act. At still another point in my life, I would have probably apologized to her, certain I had done something wrong, even though I hadn’t. But in the last few years I have started to follow the advice of a friend of mine (let’s call her “Gretchen”), and whenever these moments happen I now hear her voice in my head saying, “Is this your hill to die on?” And 90% of the time now, I say “no.” So, instead I turned to Wagner and said, “On that note, I’m out.”
“Yup. I don’t need to watch the second act, and I definitely don’t need this pretentious Martha’s attitude, and it’s a long BART ride home.”
“Oh, well, I’m not staying by myself.”
And that’s why two men in their early 30’s, perhaps the theater community’s most coveted demographic after two men in their mid 20’s, walked out during the intermission of The Wild Bride.
So here’s the thing… if Martha had turned and said, “You know, I really like this show,” I would have been taken aback (boundaries!), but I also would have probably said, “Well, to each their own… hey, why do you like it?” And maybe she would have responded and maybe we would have had an awkward conversation and maybe we would have ended up having a drink after the show to talk more. But instead, she basically tried to shame me for having an opinion, and for expressing that opinion, and that infuriated me so much I walked out on a show that I was otherwise willing to see through to the bitter end because I have only walked out of three other shows before in my life. My friend “Mephisto,” who is also a theater maker with much stronger and much more vocal opinions than I, likes to talk about how theater is dying predominantly, in his opinion, because people feel it’s a duty to attend and not a joy, that it’s exclusionary and not inclusive, and because you’re not really allowed to react to it but instead expected to act like good little boys and girls. Now I don’t quite agree with all that, or with some of Mephisto’s attempts to solve it (like, say, having vegetables thrown at the actors), but at moments like this I do see his point. I mean, honestly, if I’m not allowed to have and express a dissenting opinion at the show, no matter how much the local literati like something, then there really is no reason for me to bother showing up to a live performance. Because the fact is, the only reason to see something live is to have that “in the moment” response – be it joy, laughter, tears, or anger. Hating something is another way of enjoying the experience of experiencing it. Ironically, what Martha made me realize is that I didn’t hate The Wild Bride, but I was hating the lack of experience that was watching it. I was bored. Which is a legitimate response, and I was processing it in substantive way. But Martha, in full Yay Bay fashion, doesn’t want to hear anything that’s gonna harsh her buzz, and since I can’t prove otherwise, I kind of take it that it’s less that she cares what I think, so much as she objects to me expressing it.
On the BART home, Wagner confesses he has already seen the show once and doesn’t like it – and that it’s a relief to know he’s not alone (note to self: he fears the backlash of the Yay Bay as much as I do). In fact, the whole reason he asked me is that he wanted to see the show again, but also to have someone to talk about it with. Which is precisely the point of this epic rant: we go to the theater, or really any live event, to engage, not exist in a bubble unto ourselves. We have our living rooms and streaming Netflix for that. The thrill of witnessing a performance or even a film is due, in large part, to the energy of the people around us – and our inability to control that energy. I have been in the audience of a show that people hated knowing that I alone was cheering it on – and grateful for that experience. I have also sat in the audience of a show where all of us were taken in by that special magic that sometimes emerges and brings everyone together. Both experiences are valuable. Both experiences are what make going to the theater such a crapshoot, and so exciting.
My dear friend “Helen” has an awesome story about being the only person laughing at a comedy performance she genuinely and heartily adored (these weren’t pity laughs), while a bunch of stone-faced couples sat around her refusing to give the performer anything more than the occasional smile or titter. At the end of the show, the audience, practically silent the whole time, gave a standing ovation that mystified Helen. She had liked the show – a lot – but it was, after all, a light comedy. Afterwards, as the audience was filing out of the theater, a woman near her (“Lilybeth”) turned and said, “I can’t imagine how the performers could concentrate with you laughing like a hyena all night long.” Helen replied, “I think it’s a shame to come see a show and not express your enjoyment of it.” Lilybeth responded, “You are mildly retarded.” Yes, that happened in San Francisco. Yes, we still laugh about it. To this day, Helen refers to herself as “mildly retarded.” She now remembers that part of the evening more than she remembers the show itself. The irony of this is that the woman who probably thought she was defending these poor put-upon performers, has in Helen’s memory, managed to completely upstage them. But then, being called retarded by another adult who doesn’t approve of how you laugh is a pretty hard act to follow.
A few years ago I adapted and directed a stage version of a book of stories by Peter S. Beagle called Giant Bones, a show that, for the record, had reviews that ran the gamut from glowing, to telling me I should never put on a play again. We had a night of the show where literally half of the audience walked out at intermission, and we also had nights when people couldn’t stop gushing to us afterwards. But that’s not why I bring it up, the relevant part is that in Giant Bones there is a city where theater has been banned, and the main character of the play, who is the director of a traveling theater company, talks about how on the surface, everything in the city is good, life is calm and orderly and dignified, and no one seems to really have any objections to the way things are done. It’s an exceptionally comfortable place to live, known for its lovely gardens, its thriving markets, its good food. “But as for what its people really think or feel?” he asks, with a shrug. “Well, that’s what the theater is for” says his lead actress, and the implication is that the theater is not just a place for the artist to tell the truth, but for the audience to do so as well. Both about what’s happening outside the theater, and in the theater itself.
Any theater company worth its audience knows how valuable audience discussion is, and they know it starts in the theater. At Theater Pub, we close every show telling the audience to stick around and talk to us, and I have maintained from the beginning that it is precisely that element of Theater Pub, the part where the audience can so directly congregate afterwards to discuss what they’ve just seen, that has made us a success. I’m sure many theater companies wish they had such a built in salon so readily attached to their productions, but most of them don’t. For most of them, the one moment they really have to foster audience discussion before everyone races out the door, is intermission.
Unless you happen to be sitting behind Martha Yay Bay, in which case… is this your hill to die on?
Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Franciso Theater Pub, and a prolific writer and director. His website, http://www.horrorunspeakable.com, will tell you all about it.
You’ve said so many true things here I’m going to try and close my slackjaw, and then read this again.
Damn. Miss Martha would have hated me at “Ghost Light.” The final line of Act One is “We’re not going anywhere.” To which I replied – loudly – as the lights went to black: “Speak for yourself!” Superglue couldn’t have kept me in my seat for Act Two. And a muzzle couldn’t have kept me from speaking.
Martha and her cohort are exactly why I refuse to go to Berkeley Rep ever again. I got shushed for laughing at The Pillow Man, looked at like I condoned child-murder even though I was clearly, hugely, ready-to-drop-it-in-the-aisle pregnant myself. That’s when I walked out with my husband.
But oh. Geesh. I love this post. You’ve struck on so many things I’ve been feeling lately.
I almost walked out of a show recently before the curtain speech ended. It was just clear to me that it would’t go any further from there. There would be no emotional connection, no intellectual connection, there was nothing for me. Not only did I want to walk out, but it made me so angry that I wanted to yell at it (which is perfectly acceptable in Melbourne Australia, but here, not so much). I made myself stay and behave and sit through it all and I’m glad (because now I can articulate why I reacted so strongly), but I also regret that I didn’t walk out. I felt like someone took a crap in the theater or the “Theatre.” Actually I would have preferred that because at least that would have been honest and I would totally have been connected to that. Anyway, I should go write my own rant. Thank you!
You have made my day.
Stuart here: Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth. Don’t know how I missed this before, but I did. Anyway, I appreciate your experience, and can obviously relate to it, but I do want to state that I don’t expect Berkeley Rep to tell their audience how to behave and so I hardly hold them responsible for Martha’s actions. As an institution, I recognize that they are people putting on a show and doing their best to serve a community. My argument lies more in contemplating how that community functions, or dis-functions, and what some of the side effects of that may be. But this could have happened anywhere, at any theater, any show, you know? I only own what the show was, and where I saw it, as a way to provide context, and not because I mean to put Berkeley Rep itself up on any kind of chopping block.
It’s true. I have experienced the same kind of behavior at other theaters and public places (cafes, museums, bathrooms – truly it can happen anywhere). I certainly don’t expect Berkeley Rep to tell their audience how to behave. I’m sure my “Martha” felt that she shouldn’t have to watch a show with a person who laughed at all the inappropriate humor in a play she was enjoying in her way. It’s the assumption that “her way” was the only acceptable response and that she was within her bounds (boundaries?) waving a disapproving finger at me (really) and shushing my laughter. The side effect here is that after having accumulated a series of similar encounters at say “theater y” or “cafe z,” I don’t hold “theater y” or “cafe z” responsible, but I eventually decide I don’t need to go back, which in thinking about it, is my own version of “Yay Bay.” What’s always excited me about an art experience or any experience in a public space is the potential to realize we share more in common than we realize (while recognizing and respecting boundaries – if that’s the contract of the game). We live in a time when we expect curated experiences and we don’t want to (feel maybe we shouldn’t have to?) encounter anything or anyone whose experience or views run contrary to our own. I was in NYC recently and I didn’t feel this tendency in the audiences I encountered. There was an incredible diversity of experience and I was amazed at times by the audience members’ generosity towards each other and towards the performers. I don’t know what the answer is, but wouldn’t this make for a lively pub talk?
Dude, this put a smile on my face. 🙂
I can’t recall having walked out of any plays, but that’s just because I can’t recall. I have walked out of about 12 films. That isn’t a lot considering how many films I see in a cinema over a single year, but I will say that I haven’t regretted a single one of those walk-outs.
Stuart here: I just want to point out (and I hope this is already clear, but just in case), in the end, this post isn’t about “The Wild Bride” and me walking out on the show- I actually had no intention of doing that until Martha crossed my path. It’s really about Martha. I only posted my thoughts on the show itself to create context for the rest, but this isn’t and never was intended to be, a review. It’s a discussion of why, I think, it seems to be so hard to tell the truth about what we think and feel, even though ironically we are supposed to be inspired by expression to express ourselves- but can we if we’re only allowed to express ourselves a certain way, or there are only a handful of acceptable sentiments to express? The truth is, if my run in with Martha had happened anywhere else, at any other play, it probably would have been just as significant. The specific example of “The Wild Bride” is fairly incidental.
Those “you’re harshing my buzz” people are all transplants, moved here based on the stereotypical notion people have about the Bay Area (and Bay Areans)—most of us who are from here are cynical, argumentative mofos, the west cost parallel to attitudinal NYers. These fragile, dippy, floaty “Bay Aryans” can’t be allowed to represent us.
As to the rest of your post here, thank you. I actually did find a lot to move me in Wild Bride (the first run), but it simply has to be okay not to like a show, even if everyone else loves it; even when a show is in all objective ways “good,” it still might just not be the right play for every person in the house. More importantly, we need to stop creating “snob hits” with witless bowing down to shows that are so-so or worse. Of course we all want everyone to love all of our shows, but if we can’t be honest with the producers/directors of a show—which in an ideal world we would be—can we not at least be honest with our fellow audience members? There is a huge difference between supporting a company in its artistic experiments (because all plays are in essence experiments), including failed experiments, and rah-rahing them into irrelevance. We owe it to ourselves as a theater community to be honest about what works and what doesn’t. That is the only way we can become better. We each need to grab hold of a few people we really love and trust to tell us the truth. I’ve had that in the Bay Area at moments, but I know I wish I’d had people to push me harder. I’ll bet a few other people who could take it too. How do we start to find the vocabulary of and appropriate outlets for constructive criticism of our community?
Stuart here: Erin, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for your comment and I’m glad you liked the show!
I very much enjoy this post. And the point carries through to other art venues as well. I’ve only ever been outright scolded by the guards, but I frequently get the side-eye when I’m at museums and galleries and I talk about the art. I once got a haughty, deep sigh and a serious eye roll from a stranger who overheard me telling my museum companion that I thought a painting’s frame was gaudy. I didn’t even criticize the painting itself and I got eye rolled; and it’s not like the painting cared. But talking about art, curation, and the museum itself while still in the museum is typically frowned upon.
Interestingly though, as a native Californian and Oakland-dweller who loves New York like crazy, I actually feel like strangers talk to each other way more there. The Yay Area tends toward the passive-aggressive, like the sighs and the eye rolls. Of course, Berkeley has it’s own special breed of NIMBYs who really, really will tell you to get the hell out of their back yards, but I feel like I get the “no, it’s fine, just keep saying awful, terrible things about my favorite sculpture/play/symphony/coffee/burning man camp/dispensary, I don’t mind, I’ll just be over here in the corner, sulking like a decent human being” more often then an outright “shut up.”
Stuart here: Thanks for the comment. We all, of course, have our own experiences of a culture and how the cultural norms of a given place manifest themselves is going to be as subjective as our reaction to them. I will say that my parents, who are far more New York than I am (we left the New York area shortly before I turned 13 and have only been back a handful of times since) are distinct product of New York of the sixties/seventies/eighties- a brand of New York probably harder to find now post Manhattan’s yuppification, and yet… the last time I was there (2009) I was struck by how much the culture doesn’t really change and rather just seeps into the people there. I don’t mean to imply that New Yorker’s aren’t friendly because they are- they just strike me as more respectful of boundaries with strangers, and more likely to eschew the passive-aggressive response which you identify, and just go for the outright aggressive response when at last compelled to react.
And what, regarding museums… if ever there was a place you should be able to chat with someone over the subject material, it’s there. I mean, what’s the point if you can’t stand in front of visual art and say, “Wow, look at that!” whether you mean it as “Wow, how terrible” or “Wow, how incredible!” I understand not bursting into a tour group and cutting off the guide, or yelling your feelings out to the whole gallery… but a conversation is a conversation! And museums are, like theaters, are venues supposedly designed for conversations begun by artists!
I agree with both parts: didn’t care for The Wild Bride and don’t think strangers should tell you where and when to have a conversation if you’re not interrupting the performance. Demanding everyone around you reflect your experience is a symptom of a personality disorder.
Truer words have never been spoken. The bay area “Arts Community” is pretty arrogant, out-of-touch and poisonous… Lucky enough there’s lots of great art being made well outside of that bubble.
Stuart here: Hey Brendan, thanks for the comment.
I don’t know if I would go that far, but then again that’s because I belong to said Arts Community, and I think there is a lot that’s being made here, and everywhere, that’s good stuff, interesting stuff, worthy stuff- and that includes a great deal of stuff I personally don’t like or care for. As a guy running a new works festival, every year there are some plays that I don’t like- but I’m glad to have them in the festival because I want that festival to represent as many of the voices in our community as it can, not just the voices I personally favor. I think a lot of the people I have met in this community share a similar vision, and one of the strengths of the Bay Area in general is that there are lots of talented, well-intentioned people here eager to get involved and make stuff happen.
The problem, from my perspective, lies in how we talk about what is out there, and how encourage our audience, which includes fellow artists, to feel like it’s okay to voice a dissenting opinion (in the negative or in the positive) and react naturally to what we do. It’s about how we admit and own our short-comings, preferences, perspectives as a culture, as people, and then try to find ways to mitigate those things or turn them into strengths.
Ok, so I had to take 24 hours to think about this, and I don’t think about that many things for 24 hours before I respond to them, so props to you, Stuart.
Hard to know for sure what motivated Martha. The “people can hear you” is the kind of thing my friend says to me when we’re watching something and I let out an impetuous “Ugh!” – and it’s usually because she’s worried we might be sitting behind an actor’s spouse/mother/roommate. And I don’t usually save the “Ugh!” for intermission, it just comes out like I have Tourette’s, so she’s right to shush me in those occasions.
Martha also might have been told she was supposed to love Wild Bride, and wasn’t loving it, and didn’t want to feel like she wasted her time and money, and putting her fingers in her ears and going “LA LA LA LA LA!” didn’t seem to be an option.
But most likely, Martha’s problem was a cousin of the problem Mark Jackson wrote about on HowlRound a few months ago, which was focused on theater artists in the Bay Area and how hard it is to get honest criticism of new work. Nobody wants to say anything that can be perceived as negative, even if it’s constructive. Everyone wants to cheerlead and be a booster and, for God’s sake, don’t marginalize or minimize by suggesting something sucks. It’s a disease of dishonesty and it’s disturbing that our theater world, where we should be learning something about human nature and the world, is infected.
Stuart Here: And it’s important to point out you can have the reverse of that too, Barry, and I have definitely seen stuff needlessly trashed, particularly fledgling projects that are obviously still being developed, or stuff that’s clearly being done just for the fun of it (i.e. there’s no reason to go to a sketch comedy show and then get pissed when it’s not Eugene O’Neil). There is just as much to be concerned about in regards to killing something new-born while it’s still in the crib, as there is in putting it up on a pedestal for no good reason. Additionally, critics are not infallible, impartial judges, they have tastes and preferences like anyone else. The better critics (and the better audience members) understand that there is a way to admire the craftsmanship or execution of something that isn’t something you necessarily like or isn’t done the way you think it should be done, but that said we all have our limits; I, for instance, need to be emotionally engaged. It’s not something I can do without when watching a full length show, and if it isn’t there, I’m probably not gonna be won over. Yes, that’s kind of my blind spot. Or you could see it as my personal taste. As long as I’m aware of it, that’s the best anyone can really expect of me.
My personal experience is not the same as Mr. Jackson’s, I’m guessing, because my work has habitually divided critics and audiences, so this problem he identifies of everybody being afraid to criticize is one I obviously agree is a problem, but personally haven’t experienced. No one ever seems to be afraid to tell me I suck. I don’t know that I’ve ever put a show out there, as a writer or as a director, that didn’t get at least one person crowing to the heights my brilliance, and one person wondering how to have me removed from the gene pool. Usually at the same time. I’m going to give the critics of the Bay Area the benefit of the doubt that most of them are evaluating what they see honestly, to the best of their ability, in the time and space they are alloted to do this, usually for less than livable wages. That said, they also do have an obligation to both drive the local arts community, and support it, and so I understand the rational that trashing something out right is not going to support the community- though it can. I have definitely had people show up at something I have done because they read a scathing review and thought, “Man, I need to see that train-wreck for myself!” In the end, it’s impossible to predict what reaction will best support or hinder something. Which means you might as well just tell the truth, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the old addage of bad press is better than nobody talking at all. Or rather, a strong reaction either way means that something is going on. But it’s strong reactions, and dissenting opinions, that I feel like are what is most declasse in the Bay Area in general, with the Theater/Art world being symptomatic of that larger cultural truism.
It comes down to this: we have to always, I think, find a balance in how we evaluate what we watch, recognizing that part of finding a balance is occasionally going to extremes- there will be things we really hate, things we really love, and most experiences will fall somewhere in the middle. That’s why five star rating systems are my favorite, because most stuff is going to be in the two to four star range, and there’s no shame in three stars and some thoughts on what didn’t work, combined with some praise for what the artist nailed right off the bat. We have to be open to that conversation, we have to encourage that conversation, and we have to recognize that on some level, we don’t get to control when and where that conversation happens, and if we could or tried to, it would eliminate a great deal of the validity and authenticity of that conversation. As artists, we have to develop skins thick enough to let negative criticism that doesn’t resonate slide off our backs (and as an artist, I know how hard it is- but that onus is really on us) and when it’s our turn to be audience members and/or critics, we have to remember that and do our best to be respectful, but a big part of respect for our fellow artists are telling them to the truth because we think they can not only handle it, but also deserve it. And when we do that we have to be prepared for them to say, “Thank you for your feedback, but I don’t agree.” ‘Cause that will happen too.
Anyway, thanks for sharing your continued thoughts on this. I’m glad you found it stimulating. Thinking about this stuff, whether we agree or not, is the first step towards change.
Like you, I don’t have Mr. Jackson’s problem either. People either love or hate my work. There’s never an in between. But I do share his concern about how we talk about our work here because it’s important not just for my work, but for our entire arts making ecology. It’s not enough that we have critics to do the evaluating for us (although they’re a key element in the equation), it’s having a venue and a structure where we can safely and constructively talk about the work that’s being made. Many communities run into the same problem – ie. NYC makers run up against the same barrier. And a large part of it comes from the fact that we’re talking about a relatively small community (no matter where you are) and the person you criticize today, may be the person who stands between you and your next job tomorrow.
Thank you for taking the risk of putting your experience out there. Getting this dialog going is a great step to addressing the issue.
Stuart here: Elizabeth, I think you make an excellent point: this is not unique to our community. I suspect it’s true everywhere, and particularly everywhere in the arts/theater world, which is always a subset of the larger world, and thus automatically claustrophobic, automatically incestuous, and automatically political. Sometimes the arts community feels like an amazing family that opens its arms to you in a gracious display of generosity and love, and sometimes it feels like a combination of the worst office you’ve ever worked in and a place at court with the Borgias.
Thanks, Elizabeth. It’s something I’ve talked about for years, as I struggled with feeling like my integrity was often the price I was being asked to pay for whatever modicum of “success” I was achieving. Especially as I would watch people with far less scruples (from what I could see) get farther, faster, sometimes using my blood, sweat and tears as a stepping stone without bothering to say thanks or offer a hand back. I kept silent until I finally realized that so many others felt the same way- that some of them probably even saw me as part of the problem (and I’m sure that at times I have been- we’re all probably part of the Yay Bay in one way or another), and at some point I decided that money wasn’t going to pay for all the days I lived awake but half-asleep, you know?
I’m afraid to agree with you on so many points and be Yay Bay! Which I am not, since I am from the Boston area where we are very dour.
I stopped going to the Berkeley Rep because I was tired of shows being delivered to me in such a rapid-fire slick fashion that I couldn’t feel any emotion and neither could the “people” on the stage. The shows I loved best at SF Olympians were absurd, mythological, and…had genuine emotional themes–which may or may not be linked to the political.
My director (the great David Ford) says people go to see solo shows to see you have their emotions for them. They’re tired. They want you to go all out and feel and express the things they are afraid to feel and express. And when I go to theater, I want to be taken out of myself that way too. (Don’t get me started on shows that demand audience participation. I paid the money, you do the work, thank you very much. (I don’t count clown shows, where you should expect to be abused–especially if you are foolish enough to sit in the front row.))
I think the Bay Area lacks irony. And also has cultural influences that are about saving face, overcoming difficulties stoically, and hiding one’s feelings in daily life. So many people struggled to get here that they don’t dare complain once they achieved their dream of a mediterranean climate. Only my European and Jewish and East Coast friends are willing to say, “I feel like crap. My day sucks today.” And listen to me when I say the same.
I do disagree with you on one major point though. I find New Yorkers are always willing to talk to strangers, no matter their “station” in life, and in the Bay Area everyone ignores each other politely. Maybe they just ignore me…
Stuart here: It’s interesting, because we all have a different experience of any given culture, I suspect, and yet at the same time, there is a cultural character that many of us will feel characterizes a place. My experience of New York and New Yorkers is that generally speaking, they tend to walk with purpose and not stop to smile at stranger, they tend to respect privacy and have strong boundaries particularly in public, and expect to have those boundaries respected. The contrast, I have often found, is when when you get them one on one, in someplace quiet, they are quick to tell you their whole life story, listen when you talk, and you’ll probably walk out of the conversation with a lifelong friend. In the end, though, even if you agree with me, I’m still describing my dad, my relatives, my friends, etc. If you’ve had a completely different experience in New York, I probably sound like I’m crazy.
The danger of talking about any group of people always lies in crossing the line between recognizing trends or tendencies, and stereotyping. A lot of what I purport to be a common conception of the Bay Area is true, but is it true of everyone who lives here? Absolutely not. For one thing, I live here! And since I generally consider myself in opposition to this mentality, I’m clearly not suggesting that sheer geographic location determines an individual personality. Furthermore, in many ways, I am a “typical” Bay Area resident- I love a good glass of wine, I’ve got a very progressive attitude towards sex, and I eat my weight in burritos probably every month. In my opinion, it’s less about if you do or do not fit a stereotype, so much as your awareness of what cultural norms or expectations you adhere to without being conscious of them, and to what extend you let that collective consciousness do your thinking for you.
Hi Stuart, thanks for writing this. I really enjoyed your perspective. I feel like disagreement is rapidly becoming a more personal issue, and that applies to politics and culture as a whole. People tend to equate disagreement with contempt. Given that, I’m pretty sure Martha heard your comment as “I hate this fucking company, I hate this fucking show, these people are goddamn assholes, AUUUGHHH!!!!” which would have been a mildly rude and certainly rash thing to say in a room full of theatergoers, sure. But given that you didn’t actually say that, or even anything approaching that, her reaction was bizarre and I’m glad you wrote about it and reminded me that disagreement is not necessarily the same thing as hatred. I think we could all use the reminder.
[…] Every once in a while I get pointed to a blog post that is well outside my usual RSS feeds, but strikes a chord with me. Today, while I was trying to convince myself to get back to work a chain of links starting from one of my e-mail messages ended me up at Stuart Bousel’s recent post Theater Around The Bay: Please Continue Your Conversation At Home. […]
[…] couple few three months ago, Stuart Bousel, whom I don’t know, wrote this piece about being critical of theater in your own community. A lot of people I know in the bay area […]
[…] thank Stuart Bousel for voicing his frustrations about what he calls “the Yay-Bay” in his post Please Continue Your Conversation at Home. The Yay-Bay is a general attitude and the resulting behavior Bousel describes […]
[…] thank Stuart Bousel for voicing his frustrations about what he calls “the Yay-Bay” in his post Please Continue Your Conversation at Home. The Yay-Bay is a general attitude and the resulting behavior Bousel describes […]
[…] other bloggers take similar steps after garnering a great deal of reaction. Stuart Bousel followed “Please Continue Your Conversation A Home” with “You’re Never Going To Work In This Town Again” . Melissa Hillman followed “A Common […]
[…] thank Stuart Bousel for voicing his frustrations about what he calls “the Yay-Bay” in his post Please Continue Your Conversation at Home. The Yay-Bay is a general attitude and the resulting behavior Bousel describes […]