We’re giving Claire Rice a turn at the Thursday slot, and she comes out with guns blazing.
Pretentious theatre is a glass gun. It is a beautiful and fragile place holder for a truly dangerous and terrifying thing. It has no potential. It has no use other than to appear to be something it is not. It may look like it is capable of havoc, but only an idiot would wield it with any intention of trying to use it.
If someone says to me “Look it’s a glass gun! Isn’t it a fun bit of kitsch? Isn’t it a lovely piece of craftsmanship? Isn’t it an interesting idea?” Sure, I could agree to all that. I can put it on my shelf as a conversation piece and it’ll be fun to bring out at parties. If someone says to me: “Look at this glass gun! I’m going to shoot it at things I’m angry at! I’m going to change the world with it!” I’ll dare them to shoot me with their pretentious glass gun and laugh when they find their hand to be bleeding.
Pretentious theatre is almost always boring but usually with an inescapable quality. Normally, when I’m bored at the theatre I’ll let my mind go somewhere else. I don’t really have a meditative “happy place” that will enable me to rise above my present state and transcend whatever unsatisfying plot line is plodding out before me at that moment. My “somewhere else” usually includes one of the following: 1) Sex. Preferably with one of the actors on stage, that way I can continue to look interested and entertained even as I completely lose track of the action. 2) Death. I’ll think about suicide usually, or something accidental or possibly heroic. I’ve never thought about murder. So far I’ve never seen a play that bad. 3) My life choices. There’s nothing like an unhealthy session of self-doubt to keep me awake through third act doldrums. Pretentious theatre won’t let you go away like that.
Like a car accident, you can’t help but watch pretention drift uselessly around the stage. There is no sex fantasy that can overcome the handsome solo performer pretending to shoot heroin into his arm as he mounts himself on a cross. There is no time to think about death as the doctor holds the doomed child and reveals the moral of the play too late for anyone in the play to hear it. Obviously, whatever myself doubts may be, at least it wasn’t me who decided when Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane it should come as pale drift wood. All of this done with an air of great import.
I don’t feel like boredom in and of itself is enough to propel me out of my seat and out of the theatre before the conclusion of the performance. “Walk out” is both a literal description of the action and a pair of words so full of history and unhappy meanings that it can’t help but feel profoundly negative. You walk out of negotiations. You walk out in protest. You walk out on your marriage. It can be a casually neglectful kind of abandonment, a declaration of general apathy, and a willful disregard of other people’s time and energy. You don’t just leave a theatrical production, you walk out. You abandon your seat. In full view of the performers and the other audience members you stand up and gather your possessions and, in a declarative statement of your priorities, leave the premises. I don’t, in general, walk out on plays.
As a theatre artist, it feels almost like a sin to admit to being anything less than fully supportive of just the act of putting something on stage. The eternal optimist in me says that, at any moment, the action could turn around and I’ll find myself enthralled or at least vaguely amused. And there is a voice in my head constantly telling me that just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that the boring theatre I’m watching isn’t good. My personal aesthetic is built out of my history, interests, snobbery, desires, fetishes, hopes, dreams, morals, education, and assumptions. “Good” and “entertaining” are relative. So I sit and think about sex, death, and life and wonder if the world is still spinning outside the theatre. Also, boring is a temporary state. I’ll stick around for “just plain not my style” today and find that it sticks around in the mind and even grows on me like the taste for Brussels sprouts or olives. Pretentious theatre, on the other hand, is good wine gone vinegar.
Pretentious theatre doesn’t want to entertain me and doesn’t care if I walk out. It’s even proud when I do.
Theatre like that tells you that this is how real life is, and then it smears dirt on a twenty something actress and tells us she’s homeless. Theatre like that literally masturbates on stage to an original song by its lover played backwards. Theatre like that pees on stage for real just so the audience can have the sensory experience. Theatre like that has a rape scene, talks about child molestation, carries a knife around for the fun of it, brings up racism at the weirdest times, then cries in a corner while the lights go out and doesn’t take a bow. It’s above that kind of shit. Theatre like that gets headlines and then sometimes a place in history as being the great thing that came before the thing that really changed everything.
I mind the ineffectualness that is a glass gun. I mind being so bored I can’t be present for the hard work on display in front of me. I mind feeling like I might be better off if I didn’t come back after intermission. I mind that whatever I’m seeing is supposed to be good, but I’m just not getting it. I mind all that. But I hate ineffectual theatre that thinks it has transcended the form before the show even starts.
I don’t have solutions. I just want you to know: if I walk out it’s because, whatever you think you are holding in your hand, it isn’t a gun. And I don’t have to pretend it is.