I see a lot of plays. As a theater lover/nerd, a friend of many actors and a professional critic, I see tons of community theater productions, professional shows in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York, and touring productions that stop at Overture Center as they criss-cross the country. I also take my son to children’s theater, and occasionally check out high school and college productions. The interesting shows I can’t see, either due to geography or finances, I frequently read about through online reviews and buying/borrowing scripts.
I also read a lot of new plays, since I judge contests, from ten minute plays to full scale musicals. As a friend of playwrights and a playwriting teacher, I also read many works in progress and offer feedback.
I preface what I’m about to say with this resume summary because I don’t want anyone to think my theatrical “oh please god no” list is not well-considered. It is. I’m not saying I’m right, or that others should automatically agree with me, but simply that I have formed some strong opinions over the years. . . and I have compiled a list of things I no longer have any wish to see onstage. And I mean EVER.
For what it’s worth, please don’t take me to see. . .
- Plays about a dinner party gone wrong, where two couples meet to chat and have some wine, and then by the end of the show they are yelling, screaming, kicking, and violently dragging each other towards their most primal selves. I love Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf — it’s perfect. No need to further explore the genre. I’m looking at you, God of Carnage. Please take your name calling and your vomiting and exit stage left.
- Plays that complain about the sad state of theater. Seriously? You’re going to get me to pay money and sit in a darkened auditorium and listen to your characters ramble on about how theater is dumb? No, Christopher Durang in both Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them and Vanya, Sonya, Masha and Spike, and Donald Margulies’ in Time Stands Still, and a hundred others, including Chekhov’s The Seagull. Take your in-jokes and go home.
- Plays that feature the author as a character, especially when he/she can’t figure out how to write the play we’re seeing. Oh stop it, My Own Wife. Writers are not all that interesting and no one cares that you found it hard to do your job. Get out of the way of your characters and let them do the talking.
- Plays that are set at a forced family reunion (weddings, funerals, holidays) where by the end of the evening, “secrets are revealed and lives are changed forever.” No, The Humans, I didn’t think that was an interesting Thanksgiving dinner. August Osage County is probably the best this genre is ever going to be, so find a more interesting and original reason for people to come together.
There are more. . .but that’s enough for now. I keep this list not just to be a grump. I keep it to remind myself that originality is the key to great plays. (Hamilton, anyone?) There’s no need to tread on creative ground that’s already well worn. As writers and audience members we should be searching for the stories that are shockingly new, that put traditions and expectations on their heads. Life’s too short to see another crummy play about people not getting along. Gotta make art that wakes people up. That’s the stuff that’s gold. That’s what matters.