Putting a Face on Theatre
Not long ago, I chanced upon a Tweet from a woman—I’ll protect her reputation by keeping her anonymous—extensively deriding a piece of work as a “well-made play.” I realize that historically speaking, the term “well-made play” has been used pejoratively during certain periods… but the more I think about that, the more foolish and short-sighted that seems to me.
Before I go any further, let me set forth the definition of the term on which my argument relies: a well-made play is one that relies at least primarily on a traditional plot-driven dramatic structure: introduction, rising action, climax, etc. I’m not referring, to be extra-clear, to a play that has literally been made well—a play that has smoothed out its rough edges and feels, to its audiences, neat and tidy and wrapped-up… though I do think those qualities are typically true of well-made plays.
Okay: there’s the definition. Now, the question: what’s wrong with well-made plays?
When I inquired of the woman in question, she seemed to suggest that well-made plays were passé and that their time had come and gone. My theory is this: they may be passé for her, and perhaps for other theater practitioners, but you can be damn sure they’re still the best game in town for most of America.
In fact, I suspect that most Americans—the ones who aren’t going to theater, though we wish like hell they were—really LOVE traditional dramatic structure. That’s why they watch television and see movies, both of which serve up one well-made story after another. Audiences know how to “get” that format.
We Americans expect traditional structure, and when we don’t get it, and we have to adapt to the rules of a more non-traditional storytelling style, theater can often (but not always) begin to feel like work.
Theater should not be work… at least not most of the time.
The problem is this: we’re all clambering all over one another to try to make more and more inventive plays with more and more experimental styles, and all the while we’re getting farther and farther away from the audiences who might be seeing our work. We blame them for not taking an interest, but what’s really happening is that we’re not telling the kind of stories they want to hear. Sure, maybe they could stretch themselves further from time to time; couldn’t we all? But they don’t want to have to do that every time they walk into a theater.
What this means to me: most of the plays we make should still rely on traditional dramatic structure. When they don’t, we should have a good reason for deviating. We should meet our audiences where they are, then carry them forward into new territory from there. We should be making theater for the people who aren’t watching it at all, not simply for each other. If we do that, we’ll have a great many more well-made plays, not fewer.
Whatever your artistic impulses, though, one thing is clear: there’s no reason to deride other artists for the choices they’ve made. If you don’t care for well-made plays, fine; we do still need experimentation, so please, experiment and discover new territory for all of us. I do it myself from time to time, and it’s exhilarating and wonderful. But I’m not “better” or morally superior for trying something new, and neither is anyone else.