I Get It, Your Show Is Edgy. But Let’s Aim Higher

I think we can all agree this scene in Titanic was necessary to the plot.
I think we can all agree this scene in Titanic was necessary to the plot.

One of the best things about doing theatre in Chicago is that what ever you want to put up, you can. You snag your friends, plan everything over a few laborious coffee meetings, launch a kickstarter, post your audition notices for free at Theatre In Chicago, roll up your sleeves, and get into the dirty work. It’s a beautiful thing.

But just how dirty is too dirty? I’m not a prude. Sex and violence have a well-deserved place in every art form because they are the two most primal human engagements. That is also why almost every script ever written includes or is directly about one or both of those things and that’s great. I have seen, though, in the three years I’ve lived in Chicago, so, so many storefront, grassroots, and student shows where it’s just mayhem. “Let’s kill the naked chick! Somebody gets a violent blowjob! Someone is being brutally murdered, maybe more than the script intended!” Sometimes it’s necessary to move the plot along. Usually it’s not. Usually it’s there for shock value, and for some reason lately I feel like everything I see operates under the impression that shock = ART.

Not every play needs to rival a Tarantino film  for gruesomeness (even though those are fun) and they certainly don’t need the dick-out pretension of Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny. I get that especially here a lot of theatre companies are run by actors and as an actor, you always want to play the most extreme human circumstances. You want the most visceral reaction you can squeeze from your audience, especially if you’re a tiny new company of starving artists doing the show in a blackbox, which is basically everyone here. But I’ve been wondering–isn’t shocking the audience, grossing them out, or constantly presenting an apocalypse kind of cheap? Isn’t that often (certainly not always) letting the script, regardless of its quality, do the work for you?

I want to be moved by theatre. I do. I want to go in and not know what to expect and I want to see really good actors working with really good material. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be violent. It just means–violent, I feel, should be something a play also is. As in, “That play was heartbreaking, and that lead actor was unbelievably good–and the show was violent and a little unexpected.”  Not “It is a play about violence where people get murdered and the blood effects looked pretty good.”

The same goes for nudity. I have seen too many shows (some of which the whole point was that Everyone In This Play Is Naked…why? no one actually knew, it was just a gimmick) where somebody takes their clothes off and as soon as that happens, the audience is yanked out of the story. Sometimes they can get right back in, but in my experience that doesn’t happen very often. Chris Jones wrote a column about it for the Chicago Tribune not too long ago after someone on Twitter said “Chris Jones Doesn’t Like Sex in Theatre” or something like that. Mr. Jones kind of agrees with that statement but he clarifies that the reason sex and nudity work so well in film and not onstage is that in a theatre, you are immediately privy to the reactions of every other audience member. Should that kid be seeing this? That old guy looks super uncomfortable. How far are those actors actually going? How are they faking the sex? Or worse–that sex is obviously very fake, and now nothing in the play seems real. In film you can frame things, add music, work outside of real time. Onstage, you can’t. You have to be brutally honest. You can’t just put nudity in your show and go “Look how brave and artistic I am!” That’s cheap.

Of course, actors who appear nude onstage are brave. But is it in service of the story? Maybe? No? THEN TAKE IT OUT FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE.

Probably there are a lot of people who enjoy both of these things for their own sake. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I, personally, am just so incredibly bored by shows using them as a crutch. Or scripts that resort to extremes just to have something big in them. A good play does not have to be big. It does not have to make the audience sick or uncomfortable. It can, and still be good. But I think the real test of a good show, or at least one that I want to see, is how ordinary circumstances can be presented in a powerful way.

I know this comes off as a little rant-y. It’s been on my mind this week. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.