“Is This Something?”

I’m stealing this title from Jerry Seinfeld’s new book. It’s 450 pages of his best standup routines over the past 40 years. I’ve never been a great Seinfeld fan and rarely watched the TV comedy series but this book is very therapeutic for those of us that would, during these times, occasionally and otherwise, choose to hurl a heavy object at the television. You will laugh, regardless of your beliefs. His description of the new state flag of Florida will resonate with anyone who has spent any time there vacationing or visiting aging relatives: “The state flag of Florida should be just a steering wheel with a hat and two knuckles on it. And the left turn signal is on from when they left the house that morning. That’s a legal turn in Florida. It’s called an Eventual Left. You can signal this week and turn any following year.”

The book jacket says this question is one standup comedians ask each other about new material. “Is this something…..at all funny and worth pursuing. Something that will work onstage?” The questions could apply to theatre criticism as well. Ben Brantley, long time theatre critic for the New York Times, is retiring and his departure opens the possibility to re-think how we look and experience theatre performance. My grad school tutor would regularly ask the students across all disciplines (design, tech, management, acting, and directing) about performances or art work they had seen or attended. Whenever the term “interesting” was voiced to describe an event, he would insist – gently at first, but as the term progressed, he became increasingly demanding – that the student who used the word “interesting” explore their experience far more deeply and articulately. Brantley remembers as a child “I couldn’t get away with saying at the dinner table that I simply liked a play. My parents insisted, gently, that I had to be able to say why.”

Interesting can mean most anything, positive or negative. It’s a way to avoid critical thinking, not enhance it. COVID is interesting. A Trump debate is interesting. A blind date is interesting. How can we become more discerning audience members and be able to critically evaluate an artistic experience; artistic experiences being inherently subjective? Over the course of my two years in grad school, I attended performances at least two to three times every week; probably close to two hundred in total. Theatre is inexpensive in New Zealand compared to the urban USA and for theatre arts students, free tickets were frequently available. I’ve looked over my first attempts at evaluating what I was seeing and hearing and many of those fall into the “like it,” “hated it,” and “interesting” category.

God, this seems like a lot of work while watching the high school musical. “Don’t you ever want to just sit back and enjoy it?” is a question Brantley says he is often asked. He responds that his apparently cold and clinical detachment is an approach that makes him feel more vital, more connected, more grateful. “I am hyper-aware of all the moving pieces that make up a production, and that a part of my mind is assessing how successfully these elements cohere. Paradoxically, this ‘objective’ assessing perspective enhances the pleasure of my unthinking self — the part that responds viscerally to a work’s beauty or fearful symmetry, and feels elation or pity and terror.” My thoughts exactly: when we, as audience members, have a focus and critical understanding of what works for us, it allows the emotional appeal of a performance to shine through. Then we’re really engaged – “interested” – in all or many of the elements that create a successful or unsuccessful production. If we’re paying attention then we can enable a visceral response. If we’re just passively sitting there, like a slab of meat in a chair, we’re losing interest and not connecting with the work in any meaningful way, emotionally, intellectually, or physically. It’s boring and there’s nothing enjoyable about this lost time you’ll never get back.

For me, this is what makes Zoom performances so challenging. The language and plot may be compelling – we may want to know what happens next; we may love the sound of the words. But there’s no spectacle or imagery that’s stimulating in any way. We can’t see how the actors are engaging or relating with each other and finding physical meaning in the language: it’s just so many talking heads. To paraphrase Brantley, the physicality is the attraction of live theater, after all. We’re in this together, sharing the experience between audience members and between the audience and the actors. Those people up there need us as much as we need them. He’s looking forward to the day we can reconnect when live theatre performs. He will do so as an active critic, paid or not, allowing his mind to engage so that it can be overwhelmed by his gut response. It’s a worthy wish, prayer, and goal for all of us.

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