Looking Forward

I‘m not good at party conversation – the kind of innocuous, “been cold lately” talk that’s safe in large groups. On New Year’s Eve, someone said, “Are you looking forward to [our local high school’s] show? The kids are so excited!” I answered the first thing that came to mind, “No.” Which isn’t exactly right. Unfortunately, it was New Year’s Eve, it was noisy, and I’d had too many drinks to explain what I meant.

I’m in charge of the lighting for the show. Stage lighting is on the short list of things I’m better than average at, and I take it super seriously. I know I’m going to stress about getting everything done on time (last year, I spent several nights until 3 AM writing cues.) While there’s no place I’d rather be than in a theater, I’ll be away from my comfortable chair by the fireplace for a few weeks, in the dead of a northeastern winter. That might have been what I meant.

I might also have meant that I’ll be training a student crew that only gets to work in their theater twice a year. That’s just not enough to build up basic skills to the point where they can contribute as much as any of us would like. My dream is that each student designer would “own” a few numbers – work out the requirements, collaborate on the instrument plot and focus, then write the cues for their parts. The best way to do that would be to allow the students to work tech on the dozens of concerts and assemblies in the space, gaining the basic experience that would inform a bigger job.

So both of those might have been part of the discussion about why I’m not looking forward to the show, but here’s the deep down reason. “The kids are so excited” goes hand in hand with “As long as they’re having fun…” Theater is fun, but my goal in creating a work that an audience will pay to see had better not be my own enjoyment. The creators had something to say when they wrote the piece, and hopefully those of us presenting their work have a similar goal. I’ve seen way too many shows where the performers clearly prized their own enjoyment over the audience’s – but why wouldn’t they? They were told since middle school that their excitement is what counts, their enjoyment of putting on a show. Once that’s the goal, they’re deaf to criticism – the point is to have fun, they’re having fun, therefore success.

The best criticism I ever received was after a high school production of Grease I’d appeared in. We’d gotten universal raves, sold-out standing ovations every night. On Monday after the run, I asked my English teacher what she’d thought. “I felt like everyone on stage was having a better time than I was.” That burned. First of all, I didn’t expect a negative response when I asked someone what they thought – it’s why I still dread meeting friends after their shows, because I don’t want them to ask me the question and risk being wounded. Much later, I realized she had a great point, possibly the best point there is. She was right – I’d had a fantastic time doing Grease, so I expected nothing but a positive response. I didn’t give much thought to WHY we were doing the show, WHAT we were trying to say, WHO we were trying to reach. I didn’t think about the audience – I wanted them thinking about ME. Obnoxious, narcissistic, pointless theater – the performer whose aim is self-pleasure is just masturbating. (There’s nothing wrong with masturbation, by the way. But I won’t pay to watch someone do it.)

Sports teams practice and are coached to improve – the main concern after a loss isn’t “at least the kids had fun.” Marching bands and mathletes and the debate squad practice and compete. Theater is one of the few educational activities that’s measured by the enjoyment of the participants. I want to shift the bar. I want the kids to think about what a piece of theater is trying to say, and what they’re saying with their presentation of it. I want them to work for the audience’s genuine pleasure, to communicate something as clearly and effectively as possible. I want to help them develop the tools of a craft and discipline that will carry over into other walks of life. That’s something worth getting excited about.

I guess I am looking forward to the show.