The qualities of good theatre

07 May 2019 //

These days, it seems like you often hear about theatre’s inevitable demise at the hands of the internet, that it’s merely a luxury.

But I don’t think my love of theatre has any element of nostalgia or clinging to a dying medium. I fully believe that theatre is one of the most important mediums even in 2019, and can continue to thrive.

After all, theatre has been around forever. It’s one of the purest and oldest forms of storytelling. It was dancing around campfires under the stars, it was the formation of Greek democracy, it was the choice of the most prolific writer of all-time in the English language.

Things that have survived for this long usually have survived for a reason. They have something essential to them, are inextricably linked to our human condition.

But I also understand why people distrust theatre: because most of it is bad. In this age, television and movies are, on average, probably better.

So theatre must prove itself every night. It must offer something you can’t get anywhere else.

Because at its best, great theatre offers an experience that is totally unique. It is exhilarating and brutal and breathtaking and magical and communal. It is where we go to experience our collective unconscious lived out, where we see the mythos of our inner worlds laid bare, where we experience catharsis.

So what are the principles of great theatre? What follows is a list of ideas I’ve developed over the years. It is not at all exhaustive, but it is a start.

Principles

Great theatre makes you shake.

Pretty much all great theatre makes you shake in some way. It grabs you and moves you physically, whether that’s in laughter or horror or grief or discomfort. It leaves you feeling different than before, even in some undefinable way.

Great theatre is not boring.

There’s no more room for boring theatre. For the price of the ticket to one show, you can have months and months worth of unlimited movies and TV shows, many of which are better than most theatre. The opportunity costs are just too high.

So theatre needs to raise the bar by creating truly compelling live experiences. It needs to be wild and electric and alive and great, an experience that proves itself worthy of the investment in time and money. It needs to be more dangerous than anything you could get in your living room. And it can never, never be boring.

Great theatre is an event-ritual.

With the ubiquity of the internet, live experiences can differentiate themselves. Theatre is one such experience: immersive, lucid, and a jolt of light and energy.

Great theatre can often confront us and make us uncomfortable. But the discomfort we experience when we go to the theatre is different than the discomfort we experience when going to the movies. There is something to it that cannot be explained, and it’s to do with its event-ritual nature. Wesley Morris, a Pulitzer prize winning critic who writes primarily about film, has started recently writing about theatre:

But occasionally, a play ends and nobody really knows what to do, because it just took an audience to outer space, to the center of the earth, to this new electric zone that knows what’s wrong with this country and isn’t afraid to personify it, laugh at it, behold it. Even though the work may take place at hospitals or in the presence of a shrink, it doesn’t care about comfort. It’s haywire, rude, blunt, poetic, self-reflective, sexually unpredictable, emotionally catastrophic, exhaustively acted, intelligent, searching and unafraid.

Because theatre exists in one place at one time, it acts as an old fashioned ritual, with real live people. Why do people go to Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Burning Man every year? Because they hunger after these singular experiences. Watching them on your computer is not the same, and almost everyone recognizes this. We are after something more. They are rituals in the way theatre is ritual, where we gather together as human beings in a collective experience. They make us feel alive and human. They have always been a part of us. And they will never be replaced.

Great theatre is always now.

Great theatre does not belong in a museum. It exists in the moment it is created and then disappears into the ether in those same moments, a special, singular creation between audience and performers. It is an experience you would not have at any other time, and not from any other art form. You have to be there. In this way, theatre is the great art form of now.

The audience is always participating in the creation of theatre, because theatre only happens when the audience comes in. An audience, in the moment, fills in with their unconscious brains the metaphors the play is presenting. Which gets us to our next point.

Great theatre is metaphorical, not literal.

Literalism is the great enemy of theatre. If I wanted to see something literal, I would go watch a period movie.

Instead, theatre is an art form of metaphors. It is not a visual medium. If it were, you could just have a painter make a pretty stage picture. But that’s not what we’re going for. It’s through metaphor that we, as audiences, fill in the gaps. It’s through metaphor that we come to better understand ourselves, better exercise our empathy.

The possibilities in theatre are limitless when it is treated in such a way. Suddenly, every aesthetic limitation it seems to have is seen in a new dimension.

Great theatre considers three-dimensional space.

Great theatre considers every nook and cranny of the space, what the spatial relationships mean, how things move, and the visceral metaphors that can be explored through this unique trait of theatre versus two-dimensional narrative forms, like film and TV.

Theatre, in a way, is the sculpting of energy in a space. As playwright Simon Stephens wrote: “I like hearing my plays in a language I can’t understand because it reminds me that our work is not in writing ideas but orchestrating energy.”

Great theatre has a reason for existing.

Why is this particular play being done right now? If a production doesn’t have an answer to that question, it’s dead on the spot.

For revivals, what was the energy of the first production? How can that energy be adapted to the present? And who needs to perform and see this play now?

Does this play mean something to the world we’re living in? Are people in the audience seeing themselves on stage? Can we reflect relevant ideas to the world?

A corollary: I believe great theatre exists for more of a reason than just politics. Theatre is inherently political, but if a play is made solely from politics, it’s often just boring. Worse, it preaches to the choir, instead of reaching a wider audience, like it could through a different medium.

Great theatre is uniquely suited to the form.

Why should people go to the theater at all anymore? With so many other means of narratives, what’s so important about this story being a play?

There are many new plays that simply don’t answer this question. They seem to have been designed to be bad TV, instead. They take the hacky parts of television and combine them with the stage, which obviously leads to dreadful theatre. Many of these plays continually gets produced because many of these are “Issue Plays”, i.e. plays that try to tackle a hot-topic issue (like race) and thus get programmed by clueless old white men who want to feel woke. (They are usually written by white people who want to be writing for TV.)

Theatre should not be something that it is not. If it tries to be television, it ends up being a pale imitation, existing in a netherworld of plays that aren’t quite sure what they are. In the words of theatremaker and critic Sara Holdren, these shows “neither take joy in the possibilities of their own form nor respect its demands.”

Great theatre reaches for the transcendent.

In some way, all great theatre reaches for the transcendent, the invisible. It often does this through metaphor, and through being uniquely theatrical.

We are looking for a bridge from the known to the unknown. From conscious to unconscious. From here to there. From sleeping to waking. Theatre can be this bridge. Through some miraculous means, it must reach beyond itself.

Great theatre is vulnerable and naked.

“The closer we move towards the true nakedness of theatre, the closer we approach a stage that has a lightness and range far beyond film or television.” - Peter Brook

True vulnerability on stage is breathtaking and dangerous. Performing is a courageous act, because it involves risk.

Raw life, in all its natural tragedy, is spellbinding on stage. Vulnerability, warts, intricate sadness, embarrassment. We are seeing actual, real-life human beings struggle, in all their bizarre complexity.

Many productions set actors up to act with quotes around them, which causes a barrier to go up between us and them. They act “Anger”, “Sex” and “Power”, instead of Anger. Sex. Power. Great theatre takes off the mask. 1

Great theatre cares about the audience.

Theatre should be rigorous and smart and complex, but great theatre never loses sight of its audience. It should be completely unpretentious in its ability to be enjoyed, understood2, and grappled with.

Would a young person who has never seen theatre enjoy this show?

Great theatre gives actors ownership.

As an actor, I am very skeptical when anyone uses the term “directors’ theatre” in a disparaging way. I tend to enjoy bold directorial visions.

But, simply put: the most important thing in theatre is the actor. They are the art form itself.

Everything else in theatre revolves around the actors, is serving the actors, so that they can have moments of pure existence on stage.

Theatre is the only art form that appears and disappears in the moment. So the actors must own every second of it, because it is they who are doing the creating of it in the moment.

When actors are given complete ownership, you get performances of raw intensity.

There should be no writer -> director -> actor hierarchy.

This isn’t to say actors can direct themselves, or that divas are permitted—only that great theatre takes its actors seriously, puts them on equal footing with the writer and director, and allows them to fly.

Great theatre is original.

The most important thing to remember is that there are no rules, including these ones.

Great theatre often creates its own genre. That’s what Annie Baker did: “Be incredibly vulnerable, but not necessarily confessional. Invent your own genre. Don’t try to look smart.”

So much of theatre is passed-down-upon wisdom, much of which is bullshit. There is no correct way to stage Hamlet. You don’t have to open with dry ice and a goofy ghost.

Great theatre is not easily summarized. A great, original show is more than just a byline. It is an experience that cannot quite be put into words, because it is something new entirely.


  1. This isn’t to discount Brecht. Some of my favorite productions are able to blend Brecht’s intellectual distance with the raw nakedness of emotion in theatre. 

  2. Understanding on a basic, intuitive level, at least. Audiences don’t need to understand every little thing, in a literal sense.