Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Boy Who Cried "Awesome!"

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Joe Mathers.

I’d like to hear from the OOB world about something – and it’s a touchy, nasty, unpleasant subject that I think most of us stay away from. 

We are our own community most of the time.  Very often, when there are multiple projects all happening at the same time, we are torn between which ones to go see, which ones to spend our money on, and which friends we can possibly support.

That can be stressful.  So, what usually happens is that we turn to reviews to help us decide.  Given one night to see two different shows, and all things being equal, one assumes we’d select the best show based on our interests, and whether or not it has been reviewed favorably.  Marketing a show lets us know it’s happening, and the reviewers and good word of mouth get more folks in the door!

The other thing we do is something I’ve gotten a lot of people to admit to over beers, or walking home from rehearsals, late nights on the train, but a lot of those people won’t admit to this “in public.” 

We ask the friend in the show, “Is it good?”

Invariably, they say “Yes!” 

Then we say back, “Dude, seriously, is it good?  Like, GOOD good?  Or good like ‘I have to say it’s good so people come see it good?’”

And they say, “Welllllll… it’s OK.  I mean, it’s fun, but it’s not great.  It’s not the best thing ever.”  Or, “The writing is a little odd, and the director is sort of blah.”   Or  “I’m kind of feeling ‘meh’ about it and we only run for five shows, so it’s not, you know… whatever.”

Whether or not we’ve actually had a similar conversation, I know a lot of theater artists who have felt that way about a project they’re involved in.  I know I’ve been there.  How do you handle it?

For me, personally, I try to “fix it” whenever I feel like something’s off.  I’ve met with success and failure in that arena.  Often it depends on the show and the writer and director and how they work.  I approach the subject along the lines of “I think this could be so much better than it is.”  Sometimes I get lucky and I’m part of a team that is amenable to making changes and we come out with something I’m proud to be a part of. 

But sometimes it doesn’t materialize, and the show becomes an unpleasant weird lurching hunchback of a production (I can say that hunchbacks are unpleasant, weird and lurching because – little known fact – were it not for nearly 4 years in brace, I'd be an unpleasant, weird lurching hunchback myself).  

What do you do then?

How do you face your friends and “fans” with a show some producer/writer/director passionately believes in yet you think is best burned, the ashes scattered among various sealed vessels, each buried deep in sanctified ground so that it may never rise again?

Why, yes, I have done that with a script or two in my time.  Yes, it works.  Can we move on?

I admit, I sometimes lie about it or politely decline comment.

Why?  Is it out of kindness?  Is it out of political necessity – to stay “popular” in a very small world?  Is it simply economics of producing a show?

I think it’s a combination of many factors, but I wish we didn’t have to lie when we don’t like a show.  Even if we’re in it.  It’s OK to not be super psyched about every project we do.  Sometimes we expect that things will be one way and they turn out another. 

Do I want people to come see the final week of Dear Ruth?  Yes, yes I do, because I like the show, it’s warm, it’s fun and the people who produce it do good work.  I’m not lying.  Did I want people to come and see some of the other shows I’ve done in the last few years?  Not necessarily.  I didn’t think they worked. 

Is Dear Ruth for everyone?  No – of course not.  My brother probably won’t be coming to see it, simply because he’s not into fun, charming rom-com’s of the 1940s.  He does however like... well… I don’t what he likes.  He watches a lot of Law & Order.  Maybe I can find a procedural drama to be in that he’ll come see…     

My point is this:  not every show we do is going to be a shining work of high art.  Sometimes it’s a steaming pile of poop.  I’m not saying I should ever attack the people who may have produced what I think is a steaming pile of poop, but we shouldn’t have to be obligated to cheerlead for stuff we aren’t so excited about simply because custom demands it. 

Cheerleading for a project you don’t believe in is a risky proposition – I call it “The Boy Who Cried ‘Awesome’ Dilemma.”  Proclaim the magical goodness of a project too often, and you become incapable of being trusted to discern which productions are actually widely regarded as good.  On the other hand, if you don’t self promote to a certain degree, no one sees when you do make something awesome.
The obvious solution is to not get involved with projects you aren’t in love with, but that doesn’t always work either, and we can’t all drop out of projects when they aren’t working, right?

I don’t know – this is something I struggle with from time to time.  And my close friends know I can be pretty vitriolic about a show I’m not digging.  I’m putting this out there – how do YOU deal with the “Boy Who Cried AWESOME Dilemma”?  Write a comment or two, or assault my Facebook page – I’m asking for some opinions. 

After all, opinions are what art is about – and my shining symbol of artistic vision is probably being scraped off the bottom of someone’s else shoe right now.  Possibly Tim Errickson's. 


  1. I often feel like I have the opposite problem. I feel compelled to be honest about the show I'm working on because I don't want to waste my friends' time and money, and because I don't want to be showcased in a bad light. Or I just keep quiet about the project all together. The result is that very few people have seen much of what I've done, and I regret it. I worked hard on all those pieces and was proud of my work, imperfections and all. It was work that deserved to be seen and - though I don't want to accept it - the day I work on a show that is OMG THE BEST SHOW EVURRR and I know I've done it complete justice is the day I'll probably retire. I think there is something "crying awesome," and having faith and pride in your work even if, honestly, you're “kind of feeling ‘meh’ about it and we only run for five shows, so it’s not, you know… whatever." And I've totally been there.

  2. This is also a sticky situation in 1-act festivals... what do you do when you're really proud of your piece but you don't want to make your friends sit through an hour of dreck for your ten minutes of awesome? It's a toughie.

  3. I have a few friends who, if they're in a show they think is bad, just don't invite any of their friends.

    And a couple friends who, when I mention that I'm coming to see their show, have warned me to stay away.

    I wish all my friends were so kind.

  4. Interesting - I like that there seems to be a sense that we have to be honest about our own work here... any other thoughts?

  5. I take a cue from Martin Denton, who sees tons of OOB theater and some of it (I'm sure) is bad. He is honest about what he sees and will say when things aren't up to par, but he also tries to see what the purpose or intent was. He gives credit to the elements that work, praise for the things that are noteworthy.

    Likewise if I'm in a production I'm not 100% on, I'll say to friends, "Well, the script is unfocused, but so-and-so is really giving a great performance." or "I think the director really got lost in this piece, but the design elements are fantastic."

    I'm not going to lie, but in every production I've been involved with there is at least one or two things that I find interesting or worthwhile.

  6. After just working with (albeit on the sidelines) with Joe Mathers, I can honestly say that "he is NOT a load of shit!" He is right on! And I mean about what he has just said. But let me add one more comment, and that is in regards of his performance in DEAR RUTH: I have seldom seen an American actor (from OOB to OB to B itself) achieve such period style as he did. He was "awesome" to watch boy! And on strike boy could he wield a hammer and screw gun.
    Jack Hilton Cunningham, Designer/Playwright