Why American Theater Sometimes Annoys Me (with some unsolicited advice for actors at auditions)


Good Evening:

I attended a lot of auditions today for a lot of film and stage projects, and whilst awaiting my Sunday Night Acting Class (you call it Breaking Bad, I call it my Sunday Night Acting Class), I must–well, please accept my apologies, but I must vent a little. No, a lot. Again, my apologies.

I love theater.

Of my 25 scripts that been produced, 20 have been plays. Of the 218 acting jobs in my career, about a third have taken place onstage. It hurts to write this, but I might have learned why the average American doesn’t want to see theater very often unless the play is Shakespeare, or perhaps the kid is creating the role of an onion in the school play.

All too often, American theater doesn’t give a bleep about the audience.

This hypothesis came to mind during several hours of watching actors performing contemporary monologues from American plays. (Advice for Actors #1: If you make an appointment for an audition–show up for the audition. Please.) Time and time again, the auditors heard speeches from the works of Guare, Shanley, Martin, et alia in which characters would whine and moan about their self-doubts, neuroses and insecurities–self-doubts, neuroses and insecurities that frankly have nothing to do with the lives of most Americans. If you take Woody Allen after subtracting his best stuff, then add Anton Chekhov after subtracting his best stuff, what remains is too often the typical modern American play: two hours of narcissistic bellybutton contemplation that happens up there, on a stage, and does not reach out to the very audience without which theater cannot exist.

Specifically, this hypothesis came to mind during my own audition performance, for which I used not a contemporary American play, but a classical and classic French play from 1666, Le Misanthrope. You see, I’m also bored of seeing multiple auditions of the same speeches from the plays of Billy Shakespeare, the glover’s son from Stratford, and I wanted to experiment with something new. Alceste, the title character, has no doubts, neuroses or insecurities. None.

ALCESTE: No! I include all men in one dim view.

Some men I hate because they are rogues; the others

I hate because they treat the rogues like brothers…

(from the beautiful Richard Wilbur translation)

That doesn’t sound like someone unsure of himself. Not one bit. But if you think about it, very few of the great characters of classical theater are whiny losers moaning and groaning about their self-doubts, neuroses and insecurities. Oedipus is so determined to save his people that he will personally blind the bastard that murdered his wife’s previous husband King Laius (Oops.). Shaw’s Mrs. Warren has no insecurities about becoming the Ronald McDonald of European brothels–franchises everywhere and millions “served.” Nora doesn’t whine when she leaves her husband; she slams the @#$%ing door in his @#$%ing smug self-satisfied face. And wow, is Richard III angry or what? Lady Macbeth doesn’t have an obsessive-compulsive disorder about washing her hands; she is flat-out, all-out, bat-bleep bonkers.

(Advice for Actors #2: use monologues from bad-butt characters who want to kick butt bad; bad-butt characters who feel good about themselves because they want to kick butt bad. Bring back Lysistrata!)

My own audition piece went over well, even though I don’t expect it to score any roles for me; as I wrote earlier, it was just an experiment. My director and I were looking for actors for a stage reading of my new play The Land of Hope and Dreams, a play set in 1850 about an Irish immigrant named Margaret McGuinn who has just arrived in New York City with no money, no possessions, no friends, no place to go, no family because her mother has just died on the dock. The only person who even pretends to want to help Margaret find a cemetery is a Cockney London immigrant scavenger who secretly hopes to sell the mother’s body to a medical college because it “…has all ‘er teeth! They pay extra for that!”

Big problems affecting a woman for whom the audience cares.

Exactly what I don’t see at auditions. I do see a lot of audition pieces about characters who are actors who are worried about their audition pieces. In other words, narcissistic bellybutton contemplation. (Advice for Actors #3: directors, producers and auditors want to watch you create a character. We are not interested in your bellybuttons.) And I still don’t see much in the way of big problems or big needs in much of contemporary American theater, although I have some reason to believe that this is finally changing for the better (we are very lucky to have the Tectonic Theater Project). But for now, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why the classics continue to exert such a hold. They portray big problems, big subjects and make them relevant and real to the audience. The classics reach out to audiences: the performance becomes the audience and the audience becomes the performance to an extent no other art form can match. Sadly, too much contemporary American theater can match it, either.

End of rant.

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–Advice for Actors #4: when you perform characters who whine and moan about their self-doubts, neuroses and insecurites in plays that consist of two hours of narcissistic bellybutton contemplation, you appear to want directors and producers to think that you contain nothing but self-doubts, neuroses and insecurites and are inclined to narcissistic bellybutton contemplation. In simple English. you’re telling us that you’re not a fun co-worker. Bad-butt butt-kickers and the actors who portray them are much more fun.

PPS–People have asked me why I don’t write about myself. The simple explanation; I am blessed with the self-knowledge that I am boring.


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