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.