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Review: Theatre of the Unimpressed by Jordan Tannahill

Theatre of the UnimpressedThere’s a bookend at the beginning of your journey. You travel along the road, being transformed or maybe not. The other bookend arrives and your journey is finished. “Finished” is different from “complete.” There might have been many more possibilities during your journey, that worked out or didn’t work out matters not. You have to keep moving forward.

That’s what I remembered while reading Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill. The central question of this book is why theater is boring. Each chapter highlights the aliveness of the form. The book questions the criteria by which theater is judged. Tannahill provides examples of the good, some of which can be found on the Internet. It is a thoughtful, quick read. Once I picked it up, I kept reading. Sleep was my only obstacle.

Tannahill’s voice makes his ideas accessible. Rather than condescending to the reader, he writes as if he were sitting across from you at a coffee shop. That’s a marked difference from other theater writers who still are working hard to impress their college professors.

What saddened me is how the book forced me to remember my days studying theater in college. I thought back to creating and performing a scene for a directing class. During our performance, I asked actors to work against me as I played the part of a director. I stepped loudly on platforms as I came down to “confront” the actors. It was an attempt to use sound to convey emotion. Then I began to cry.

The teacher tried to stop the scene because he didn’t realize he was looking at a “scene.” The actors didn’t break character. They tied me a chair and left the room. It was in that moment of absurdity the teacher realized it was a “scene.”

The same teacher told me to read Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. Another teacher privately recommended Unbalancing Acts by Richard Foreman. It was a new book back in 1993, when all of this took place. I read the book, and I still have it.

These are the things I wish I had been able to build upon, but theater remained elusive after I graduated. Some of that was my own fault. However, there was also pressure as a playwright to write what Tannahill calls The Well-Made Play. He defines it as a story “in which most of the story takes place before the onstage action, the action itself is a series of plot twists adhering to an Aristotelian narrative arc and the play’s climax comes at the eleventh hour, leaving just enough time for a satisfying catharsis.”

If you don’t write this structure, who will produce your work? As a playwright I needed to spend more time literally walking around a stage. Generally speaking, people have wanted playwrights to take a passive role in productions. If you submit your work, what do you learn? If you are sending your play thousands of miles away and you can’t see it up on it’s feet, what are you getting from that other than another notch on your resume? To break free from that idea, playwrights have to work directly with directors and actors. At least that’s how it was for me.

I was bored with The Well-Made Play back then and I still am. He’s right. It’s one of the reasons why theater is unnecessary. Yet, there are fewer opportunities for plays that are not The Well-Made Play.

I also felt a twinge of jealousy while reading this book. I wish I had the ability to see the kind of theater he described. The good news for readers is that some of the groups and performances Tannahill references are on the Internet. Hopefully more theaters will see the benefit of broadcasting performances. Broadcasts will not replace live performances, but it is a way to document and communicate ideas about theater to a worldwide audience.

Whenever Tannahill referred to someone, I looked them up on YouTube to see if I could watch a performance. Hopefully theater will see the benefit of broadcasting performances and integrating the internet into shows.

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