Business Musings: The Upside to Crap

Business Musings free nonfiction On Writing

Those of you who follow me on Facebook probably have an inkling that I really love theater. I do write fiction about it, not as much as I would like, however, in my series about magical dramaturgs. (If you’re interested, the first is “The Scottish Play.”) Since I’ve moved to Las Vegas, I’ve gone to more professional theater than I have time for. I bought season tickets so that I wouldn’t miss, just because I was busy.

I’ve seen a few things that I’ve disliked (personal taste) and one show that deeply offended me politically, but for the most part, everything I’ve seen has been good, or at the very least, entertaining.

And then February happened.

Not only did I go to a Broadway touring company musical, I also went to an amateur theater production for the first time (I kid you not) in forty years. The reason why I went to the amateur show isn’t relevant here, but I will tell you I’d been dreading it.

A friend, who used to act professionally, decided to accompany me, thank heavens. It was her idea. I didn’t ask her to suffer.

I went alone to the musical.

Both shows were awful, each in their own way, and the second one—the amateur one—got me thinking a lot about art and being an artist and what it takes.

The musical was beautifully staged. A lot of someones had thrown millions of dollars (yes, literally) at this show. The production values were high, the stage was intriguing and functional and well conceived, especially for a touring show. The costumes were both creative and appropriate for the characters. The illusion of the setting worked beautifully.

Before I go farther here, let me say that I don’t read reviews of shows I haven’t seen before. I like to be surprised by the show, in all its glory, without arguing with reviewers in my head and without hearing much about what I should “expect.”

I expect to be entertained. I expect to have my emotions manipulated. I expect, at some point, to be breathless from all the theater magic.

If I can’t have that, I settle for a single great performance or a brilliant bit of dance or a moment that transcends the rest of the show. If I get those things, I also leave happy.

The problem with the musical started with the music. I went to a little talk before the musical (yes, theater geek), and that’s when I learned that the musical didn’t have a composer and lyricist attached. Instead, the producers hired a whole bunch of musicians you’ve heard of and gave them each moment in the book (script) to illustrate with song.

Uh oh, I thought, either this will work or it will be awful. Because for a musical to work, the transition between the spoken word and the music should be seamless. The music is part of the story, in other words, and it’s also part of the action.

If someone rode herd on the various musicians, then maybe this experiment would work. And, I figured, I was seeing a Broadway touring company show, so that means the show opened on Broadway and did well enough that a touring licensing company thought they could make money on the tour. (Invested millions, remember.) So, I figured, this will probably work.

The other red flag happened when I looked at the company. No name actors at all. All of the cast—every single one of them — had credentials, but they were chorus credentials or the starring credentials had been in regional theaters. None of the actors had starred in professional theater in New York or London, the centers of English language professional theater.

The show started. The cast gave it their all. They were all excellent performers, doing the best with the material they were given.

Which was…not there. The production had everything except a coherent story. There were in-jokes (this was based on a TV show) and some favorite characters and some lovely dance numbers.

But a half an hour in, I was yawning. As the thing wound its way toward the end of the first act, I was so bored that I kept looking at my watch every five minutes or so.

I left at intermission, along with a good half of the audience. We fled into the night, silently, like people doing something wrong.

Ten days later, I went to see the amateur production of a play I’d never heard of before. The set was awful and maybe dangerous, considering it was composed of stairs with sharp edges (which, according to the designer’s notes, was an artistic statement). In front of the stage was a pool of water, and above it a ring, like a shower ring, that dripped water on the performers as the script called for.

The play had musical numbers, including a moving old spiritual which no one bothered to sing. Of the four musical numbers, only one was sung, probably by the only two actors who could handle singing in tune.

The costumes had no consistency or coherence. (The best I can say about them is that the required water costuming was obviously water-proof.)

The actors clearly knew their lines (although they mumbled) and they also knew their blocking. I know this because one of the actors moved laterally when he realized he wasn’t standing precisely on his mark. But they didn’t know their characters.

The play, a one act drama, was not boring. But it was confusing. My friend and I had to lean in to hear. And midway through, we realized we couldn’t look at each other because the show was so bad, we would start giggling if we met each other’s eyes.

But the bones were there. The play is set in a mythical tradition that I’m only vaguely familiar with. I could sense—from the dialogue I could hear—the layers of meaning that would have brightened a professional production. There were metaphors, lots of things unspoken but important, and a true sense of movement that came, not from the production, but from the script itself.

Later, when I got home, I read the initial reviews of the first production of the play, and wished I had seen that. Because this play was tight, experimental, and probably brilliant, with a lot of emotional punch.

Bits of that tight brilliance came through the truly bad acting and the awful set and the unwillingness of anyone to commit to the production. As my friend said, this was a high-level play that required everyone involved to be spectacular, and it wasn’t fair to have an amateur company, filled with beginners, even attempt the show.

The beginners did not see beyond the words on the page. And in this particular play, only 10% of the show was the words on the page. The rest was interpretation and meaning in the staging (as in the phrase “they struggle” as a stage direction. A good director with good actors would set up an intense struggle, rather than the 20-second arm grappling that we saw).

But here’s the thing: I’ve been thinking about that show off and on since I’ve seen it. A year from now, I won’t remember that I saw the million-dollar production.

There’s some theater lessons here, of course. A brilliant script can’t hide, even when performed badly. A bad script can’t hide either, even when performed well.

So the two shows got me thinking about foundation in art. If the art has a good foundation, it peeks through, even when the final product is poorly done. If there is no foundation, then it doesn’t matter how well you dress it up, it won’t work.

What does that mean when translated into prose? A good foundation means being able to tell a compelling story, starting with a character with some kind of conflict, existing in a very real setting. The character needs to try and fail and try and succeed, and ultimately, we will read the really bad story to see what happens next.

A bad foundation means that even if the writer has everything else—lovely prose, good description, well-spoken characters—the reader will leave if they don’t care what happens next.

That’s all very fundamental.

What isn’t is something else that I realized.

I had gotten comfortable going to professionally done shows. I had done so partly because I’m a theater snob, partly because I lived in Oregon (where professional theater was rare), and partly because I had gotten so sick. When I did make it to the theater, I wanted the show to count, so I would go to a professionally produced production, where my chances of seeing something good rose exponentially.

The difference here in Las Vegas is that there is so much entertainment, so many opportunities, that I could see three productions per day, and still not see everything. And I’m healthy, so worrying about taking a risk with a production doesn’t mean I’m sacrificing anything but time. (Which can be a sacrifice, but that’s another story.)

Those productions reminded me of a lot of things.

First, it made me thankful (yet again) that I’m a writer. When I screw up on the page, I lose my audience too, but I don’t do it in real time. I’m not watching people leave. I can only imagine how it felt for those young Broadway performers to come back after intermission to see the theater half empty.

And I know that happened night after night, because of something one of the young performers said at the talk before the show. A member of the audience asked what the reaction to the show has been so far, and the young actor said something like the folks that stayed through curtain really loved it.

I thought he meant that the people who stayed all the way through curtain call (where the performers bowed) loved the show as well as what happened at curtain. (Lots of shows have an extra treat for those people who don’t immediately flee to their cars when the lights go down at the end of a show.)

Nope. He meant that a lot of folks left at intermission. Night after night after night. How dispiriting.

We didn’t have a chance to leave the amateur production. It was 90 minutes without an intermission. Leaving in the middle of something like that is just tacky. Most people who go to a small production like that won’t leave, unless the production is truly offensive in some way. Then leaving is A Statement.

It was clear, though, that a handful of audience members liked the show. All of them were young, and probably hadn’t seen a lot of professional theater. They were reacting to something that came from the foundation of the production, that sense that something important was happening, just out of their reach.

As a jaded theater goer and as a longtime reader, I find that sense frustrating. But I remember having it at a college production of Cabaret in my freshman year. The production was as bad as the amateur production I saw the other night, but I knew something profound was going on. And when I finally got to see Cabaret done professionally, I realized how much I had missed that first time—and how much I caught. The bones were visible, even when the trappings sucked.

When I teach writers, I read manuscripts closely, looking for the bones of the story. A lot of writers become professionals because the bones of their stories are spectacular. One of the writer’s stories out of ten, say, manages to put all the pieces together. The rest are frustratingly mediocre.

The writer is frustrated too, not knowing why some stories sell and others don’t, why a few of their self-published novels get 5 star reviews and the rest provoke bad reviews —or worse, silence.

It’s because the writer still needs to learn their craft. Just like everyone involved with that amateur production needed to learn theirs. The actors needed to learn that acting is more than reciting lines and following blocking. The set designer had to facilitate the story, not endanger the actors. The costume designer had to put some thought into what they were doing, and enhance the story, not detract from it.

When you work in theater, you rely on others to bring their A game. When they don’t, it doesn’t matter how good you are, they’re going to detract from the storytelling.

But when you are a prose writer, a fiction writer, you’re in charge of all of the elements. And it’s up to you to learn how to put them together.

However, whether you’re in a theatrical production or writing a series of short stories, you need to practice. You need to be one of those terrible actors, reciting lines and measuring blocking, before you can become an actor who can maybe—for a subset of people—save a musical like the one I saw earlier this month.

We’re very lucky as prose writers. We can market our practice. We don’t see the reactions to it in real time. We don’t need to. That “performance” is done. We can move on.

And if we think of what we do—each story, each novel—as a performance, then we can leave it behind, just like the actors (and stage designer and costumer) will leave that amateur production behind when the show closes. We don’t have to rewrite our early works as some professional writers do, which is something I find really insulting to the readers who loved those works as they were.

If we look at everything we do as practice—not as AHHHH-RT—then we can get better.

But we also need the attitude of the professionals I saw in the touring company. They gave every inch of their hearts and souls and abilities to make that production work. They did the best they could with what they had.

That’s what we need to bring to everything we do: Our best, right now. It might not be our best ten years from now, but it’s the best we can do at the moment.

And that’s the other bit of perspective the amateurs gave me. They were doing their best, right now. Their best wasn’t that good, because they didn’t have a lot of experience.

They were gaining experience, and in their craft, they need experience in front of an audience. The audience’s job wasn’t to critique the performance to the company. Our job was to react in real time.

Audiences don’t lie. If they leave at intermission, there’s something wrong with the show. If they don’t laugh at the funny bits, then the bits aren’t funny. If they surreptitiously check their watches or phones, then the show is dull.

It might be impossible to fix those things at that show. Or even during the show’s run. But the artist—whoever they are—can choose to work on one of the problems with that show for a future show. Maybe design a set that the actors can walk through instead of climb across. Maybe speak up when saying your lines.

Little technical things sometimes make all the difference.

But if you—the perfectionist—has all the technical things down, and the audience still abandons your story in the middle, then look at the foundation. Is it there? Can you tell a good story?

Because if you can’t, then you’re never going to rise above mediocre.

I got one other benefit out of watching the amateur production, though. It reminded me just how hard it is to make a living in the arts. I always say that the strongest trait an artist—be she an actor or a writer—needs is persistence.

And the amateur production reinforced that. That play was too hard for the theater company to stage, even though they were reaching for the stars. And I’m sure several someones in that company will give up theater at some point, because it’s too hard.

The ones who go on, who remember that experience fondly (we had a good crew) and with a jaundiced eye (we weren’t ready to tackle a show like that), will have long careers.

Yep, it’s hard to be an artist. Each day is a learning experience. Each production, each story, a chance at greatness. When we do our best, and take a risk, we will, often as not, fail.

But we will also inspire.

And, a handful of people, the right people will stay all the way to curtain, and will love what we have done. And that handful, they’re important. Because they’ll return, and as we get better, they’ll bring friends who will bring friends.

Even if both productions were brilliant, they wouldn’t have satisfied everyone in the audience. Art never does. If you do it right, half of your audience will be offended and the other half will love what you’ve done.

The worst thing you can do is be mediocre. No one will remember what you’ve done. Even if it is beautifully staged. Especially if it’s beautifully staged.

We like rough edges. They’re filled with possibilities.

Which is why, my friend reminded me, seeing crap can be worthwhile.

It’s fun to glimpse the possible.

It’s good to see the promise.

It’s necessary to remember how art really works.


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“Business Musings: The Upside to Crap,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / jjspring.


4 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Upside to Crap

  1. As I got into your article, I was thinking, “Oh, no, that’s why my novel isn’t selling that well. I’ve paid a lot of attention to production values— syntax, SPaG, editing; cover, formatting, graphics— but maybe the story isn’t there. Oh, no, maybe it has no bones!” But towards the end you said

    They did the best they could with what they had.

    That’s what we need to bring to everything we do: Our best, right now. It might not be our best ten years from now, but it’s the best we can do at the moment.

    And that’s the other bit of perspective the amateurs gave me. They were doing their best, right now. Their best wasn’t that good, because they didn’t have a lot of experience.

    So maybe my best isn’t that good, not yet. But I can keep trying. So thank you for the reality check, and for the encouragement.

  2. Reading this, I realized that I had been spoiled as a kid. My hometown, Lakewood, OH, was for years the site of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Theatre (performed in the main auditorium, quite large).

    We experienced 2-3 plays a year, from 7th through 12th grade. These were professionals, working with excellent facilities and good direction, lighting, and sets (and well-trained people to move them around). What a treat Shakespeare was to us!

    Later, I saw other amateur productions – some good, a few excellent, but, most at least passable. I’ve seldom seen productions as painful as you describe (almost all of them of the pre-K to elementary type).

  3. Going to acting workshops made me realize that others were responding to the way actors looked without necessarily listening to the words, which were often painfully weak to me. Half-baked writing/dialogue/plot hurts me the way out-of-tune music hurts a musician’s ears.

    To me, that’s what’s so great about a writer becoming a performer: you know how to write, and if you can figure out how to act, you’ve got it made.

    ‘Course I realize that amateur acting may hurt a professional’s aesthetics, but that’s life. We’re all learning. We each bring something to the table that might offend or invigorate others.

    It also reminded me how I enjoyed interviewing a beginning writer because I’d forgotten that enthusiasm. Everyone else is talking about Amazon algorithms and has forgotten to have fun.

    Thanks for this article. It made me think.

  4. I left at intermission, along with a good half of the audience.

    That reminds me of The Producers with Zero Mostel where people left after the first act, then stayed to have the musical become a hit, and the guys went to prison for having a hit.

    In high school, we watched the courtroom scene from Inherit the Wind, and the kid playing Clarence Darrow was scary good.

    After high school, during the summer before University, I was in a local children’s theatre group. The production was, My Sister the Dragon. My sister played the dragon, and I played the Lord Chamberlain. The local PBS station had us on to tape the show for broadcast. Sadly, all those local productions were never saved. In a way that’s good, because my performance can never be used against me. All I can say is, that the costume, with the green tights, were not kind. HA!

    Essentially, I left the Stage to save the Theatre.

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