Charles Lewis III, celebrating the mistakes and the mistaken.
“Let’s have a toast for the douchebags
Let’s have a toast for the assholes
Let’s have a toast for the scumbags
Every one of them that I know
Let’s have a toast for the jerk-offs
That’ll never take work off”
– Kanye West, “Runaway”
Recently I was watching a review wherein the critic commented on what a colleague had recently said to him, that something “good” can be measured by its lack of anything “bad”. The critic argued – and I’m inclined to agree – that “good” should be measured by “the presence of a defined positive, not the lack of a specific negative”. After all, how many times has each of us eaten a meal, taken a ride, or experienced a piece of art that was by no means bad, per se – there was nothing to make you swear it off ‘til your dying day – but left no impression for you to recommend it? It was serviceable, but not toe-curling – like having mediocre sex just to avoid taking out the trash.
It was with this in mind that I recently began pondering how much I truly appreciate the bad theatre I’ve had to sit through over the years. I don’t mean “so-bad-it’s-good” material, in which the cluelessness of the creators makes for a transcendent experience. No, I mean the truly bad shit – the shows that made me want to throw myself in front of a bus afterward; the shows I was cast in that made me want to burn down the theatre a week into the run; the shows which I and fellow audience members discuss as if we’re coping with PTSD. The REALLY bad shows.
I’m grateful for each and every one. Why? Because they provide the hurdle over which all the good (not merely serviceable) shows must jump. I’ve mentioned before that I value the necessary role of the art critic – even when a particular critic pisses me off – because I recognize the fact that they’ve made a professional duty out of what is really a human instinct. If we didn’t have a bar to be raised, we’d never find greatness to celebrate. Life’s too short to spend too much time experiencing or reminiscing about something bad, but you’re going to come across it eventually. But something terrible can occasionally be as valuable as something wonderful, if not more so.
It’s times like this when I like to raise an invisible glass to the folks who’ve created some of the truly terrible theatre I’ve seen and/or taken part in over during my 35 years on this Earth. Without them I wouldn’t have a clear idea as to what kind of theatre I don’t want to make.
Every show I’ve seen about mental illness that reduced it to a series of “adorable” neuroses.
Every actor who got physical with me on stage because the concept of “boundaries” eludes them.
Every artistic director who overstepped their bounds because they thought they were the actual director.
Every producer who licenses a show and then makes changes because s/he thinks the rules of licensing agreement are just suggestions rather than something that could wind up in court.
Every producer who decides to pre-cast instead of availing him/herself of an amazing, every-expanding talent pool.
Every male and female actor in their 40s who insist on playing the young heartthrob and ingénue.
Every director, artistic director, and producer who decides to personally stage a musical in spite of the fact that s/he “fucking hate[s] musicals”.
Each and every single White actor who’s taken on a role meant for an actor of color and justifies it by saying “What really matters is how the character is portrayed”.
All the above have been used to describe shows I’ve seen but wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and these are just a few I can think of off-hand. Yet I learned something from all of these obvious train wrecks and feel a bit richer for having sat through each of them. Not just for the sake of schadenfreude (though there’s that, too), but also because it gave me mental checklist of things I’d like to avoid when I write, act, or direct. I can think of two specific shows I acted in that left my theatre colleagues thinking “There but for the grace of God…” and I’d like to think it inspired them to make some of the great work they produced afterward.
So as much as I love to praise good shows to the high heavens, I’d like to take just one moment to salute those that made sitting in the audience a living hell. I hope that my bad shows have inspired you to improve as much as yours have inspired me.
Charles Lewis III was tempted to make this piece about all the bad Tennessee Williams productions he’s seen, but there are too many to name.