Friday, June 25, 2004

Never Stop Rocking Part II

Where was I? Oh, yes. Writing this shitty play.


There were two things that I thought would make this show work. The first thing was that Christopher Yustin, who would be voicing the puppet, had come up with a perfect voice. Deep, gravelly and hip, kind of like Rolph from The Muppet Show. Only a little more badass. It cracked me up the way he’d improvise bits of dialogue with the voice. When we’d go drink, he’d be saying shit like, “Who’s dick ya gotta suck to get a drink in this place?” “Aw, man. I’m so drunk I can’t feel my legs. (Pause.) Oh, shit. I HAVE NO LEGS!”

The second thing was that we could make this a real calling card. We’d solidify our cast base, and make everyone know about Nosedive and either a.) want to see as much of our stuff as possible, or b.) want to jump aboard.

Other than that, writing this shitty script was about as much fun as snorting barbed wire.


There were many reasons why writing “Never Stop Rocking” wasn’t a bit of fun. The first reason was that I felt like I had to accommodate far too many people. I never really thought I could just run with the concept and see what would happen (as was the case with “The Awaited Visit,” “Evil Hell Cat & the Liquid Lunch,” and “Jiffy Squid”). I had promised that the show would be too many things to too many people, and half of these promises completely conflicted with the other half of these promises.

Another reason was that the story itself was…well…schmeh. I wasn’t particularly wild about the story of Orpheus (no offense to the classics, it was just never particularly my favorite myth) and wasn’t too pumped to write basically a MAD Magazine parody of the tale.

Having everything mapped out (in part by other people) also sucked out any energy and enthusiasm I had. Just coming off the show “Ruins,” I was not as up for jumping right into a new play as I thought I would be.

I usually don’t write with an outline in mind until I’m about halfway through the rough draft. More often than not, I write the first scene, not knowing the title, the characters’ deals, or the story. I just have them interact, and based on that initial interaction, I get a vague, kinda/sorta idea of what sort of world/environment these characters live in. After a few scenes, I sometimes write the final scene (or a scene later in the play). THEN I outline the play, figuring what it is, y’know, about and where it’s going. The outline helps me fill the gaps I’ve created.

This isn’t the set-in-stone formula I use when I write, but it seems to work that way more often than not (it was certainly the case for “Allston,” “Ruins” and “Mayonnaise Sandwiches”).

With “Never Stop Rocking,” the outline was created first. There was no room to maneuver, no space to explore. So, by the time I decided to quit my internal bitching and write page one, scene one, none of the characters were characters. They were vague carbon-copy outlines of characters. From the getgo, it was all gimmick and no substance. All plot and no story. All zany without an ounce of funny.

Because of the very, very short time I had to write it, I had no time to, y’know, think about the show. It was all just color-by-numbers: have the characters say who they were, what they were doing and why they were doing it in each scene.

This wasn’t going to work.

But I had already told too many people that it would. And what was worse, they all believed me.

Later at a bar, Yustin talks to me in the Flazzum voice. I crack up. Fuck. Me.


I write the opening scene of the play (based on my very unwieldy outline). It sucks. The dialogue sounds nothing like me. It feels completely rushed, because it is. It has no creativity, no enthusiasm. It read very much like “okay, okay. Scene 1 done. Now onto the next one. Go, go, go!”

I ask Pete if I can push back the deadline (which had already been pushed back) another week. He says okay. I email him the outline to set his mind at ease.


Pete isn’t particularly calmed by the outline. He’s happy there’s progress to it, but realizes there’s NO WAY this can be done on a shoestring budget. There are too many scene changes. The puppet needs to walk around. The show requires extravagant costumes.

Plus, it reads like the plotline to a shitty MAD Magazine parody.

I write scene 3 and count the seconds before I’ve fulfilled my plotline obligations to the scene.


A couple sample outline entries for the play:

• Orf (lead singer of Orfanage) and Miss Kitty (his true love) backstage, being all cute and lovey-dovey; gives her a ring; she accepts (they’ll have Tom Petty playing at their wedding); interrupted by Flazzum in a wacky fashion.

• At the Threshold, a sucky club, Miss Kitty mingles with N’Suck while listening to Limp Dipstick — Miss Kitty asks someone when closing time is; she’s told The Land of Suck Never Sleeps

I know, I know. I’m as embarrassed and as unimpressed as you are.

You have got t’be freakin’ kidding me.


How do you write cool scenes for those descriptions? How can you make anything worthwhile with this crap? I didn’t know. But I was already four weeks late with the rough draft; I couldn’t rewrite the outline. I mean, I really couldn’t. I had promised the actors certain things that I couldn’t get out of.



I’m at a bar with the Nosedive crew, pissed at hell with myself for having only written about a third of this play, which was boring as hell. Not funny, not fun. Just dry and full of low-brow puns (N*Suck and Brood being the most “inspired” and “scathing” parodies in this useless piece of shit). I ask for another extension, and provide some mock enthusiasm to set their minds at ease. Pete is still nonplussed at having the puppet walk.

I try to change the subject as quickly as possible. Yustin starts doing the Flazzum voice. He’s loving the idea of this play more and more. My heart sinks.

Pete (or someone; I can’t really remember) reminds me that we have to include another element (some character we talked about early on). Oh. Fuck. I had completely forgot. He wasn’t in the rough draft. He wasn’t in the outline. I would have to add him in (if the script is this late, I felt the need to accommodate EVERYBODY).

I said (with mock confidence): “Oh, yeah, dude. He’s totally in the script. Just you wait.”


What was making things worse was that my mind was drifting to other projects. This idea for a novel, an idea for another play. Both actually got the creative juices flowing, both made me enthusiastic about writing. But I felt too obligated to work on “Never Stop Rocking.” I couldn’t work on anything else UNTIL I finished the rough draft. I had a pantry full of pudding but a plate full of broccoli that had to come first. And the broccoli had gotten unpleasantly stale. And I think there were worms crawling around on it.

I knew I was doomed. I was trying to push back the deadline for this thing because I realized that the Nosedive gang would not like it. I mean, at all, folks. Or worse, they WOULD. And on the flip-side, the longer I waited, the more anticipation the Nosedive gang would have. Expectation for this thing grew with each week I pushed back the deadline.

And, the longer I pushed back the deadline, the longer I had to wait before I could write something that interested me.

I was really not liking this whole writing thing.


Two of the actors offered parts in this show started losing interest. I don’t blame them, of course, because you can only wait around for an Off-off Broadway theatre company that doesn’t pay you for so long before you try to start looking for work elsewhere.

It was just as well. I realized that, as this was the first script that I was writing for specific actors, that the roles were decisively NOT for these actors. The more I try to write FOR Yustin, the less the character resembles anything Yustin is like as a person or as an actor. When I don’t give (say) Christopher Yustin any thought during the writing process, he plays the role perfectly, as if it was written for him all along. Don’t ask me why this is; it’s just part of my chemical makeup as a writer, I guess.


In June, I throw in the towel. A bunch of us are at The Raven again, and I tell Pete it’s not going to happen. It’s the first time (with Nosedive) that I failed to deliver on what I explicitly promised. My job in Nosedive is the most clearly defined: write the damn plays. And I didn’t. On one hand, it sucked. But on the other, it was a huge relief. I mean, HUGE, folks. I would never have to finish this shitty play and I could take it out in a back lot and shoot it.


The other fun thing was having to explain (over and over and over again) over a series of days that this project—that we’ve been boasting about and promoting for months now—was not going to happen. Not in the fall, not in the spring, not in the ever. It took months for me to convince Yustin that I wasn’t just going to “sit on it” for a bit and return to “Never Stop Rocking.”

It was the only script I’ve written that I’ve deleted from my computer. Nobody has a copy of that incomplete draft. Thank Christ.


Amidst feeling relief and regret from abandoning “Never Stop Rocking,” a bigger problem arose: what the fuck were we going to do for our next play? There was nothing written.

So, in about four weeks, I wrote “Two Parties,” our fifth (and possibly weakest) production. It was two to four months behind schedule (we like to have shows go up every six to eight months. “Two Parties” got staged 10 months after “Ruins” closed). Many Nosedive members were VERY disappointed (they were expecting a zany puppet show and instead they got “Ruins”-lite). But hey, at least I finished the fucker.


“Never Stop Rocking” was extremely informative for me and my writing. First of all, it is now an article of faith at Nosedive Productions: Never Again. True, I love the collaborative form of theatre, but collaborative in that you bring many people in to Do Their Thing. I don’t (and can’t) collaborate on scripts. I can’t write parts for specific actors. And if I try to write something specifically populace and crowd-pleasing, it becomes anything but. Oddly enough, the two plays I wrote primarily for myself (“The Awaited Visit” and “Mayonnaise Sandwiches”), when I didn’t think ANYBODY would get it (they just being two big in-jokes between myself and I) ended up being the most audience-friendly and reviewers’ fave.


After we closed “Two Parties” (in March 2003), nine months after I threw in the towel with “Never Stop Rocking,” Aaron Epstein, the photographer Nosedive hires, asked me, “So, when are you guys gonna do that play about Orpheus with the puppets?” I nearly punched him.

Writing for commission,

James “Pinocchio” Comtois

June 25, 2004

Friday, June 18, 2004

Never Stop Rocking Part I

The following is a series of retrospective journal entries (i.e., written recently about shit that happened a couple years ago) on trying to write a crowd-pleaser for audiences, something Nosedive could possibly tour with, or hit the Off-Broadway stage, and written specifically for members of the company. It was called “Never Stop Rocking,” and it was the fucking bane of my existence. It took a while (staging “Jiffy Squid,” actually) before I could get acquaintances to stop going, “So, James. Whatever happened with that show with the puppets?”

This is a series of snapshots the way I remember it, so dates, the order of events and the bars in question could be a bit off.

Right. Here goes.


Shortly before staging “Ruins” in April of 2002 (so this would be…January or February of aught-two), a couple of us were at a bar called Recess on Spring Street (Pete, I believe Patrick, maybe Ben and myself). We were talking about an idea for the next Nosedive show. After “Ruins,” the backlog of Jimmy plays would be all used up, and I needed to write something pretty soon. Since “Ruins” was (is) a three-hour downer, we figured it was time to write something short, fun and funny; preferably something pandering and compromised. We wanted to take a whirl at doing “That Idea.” You know what I mean. “R&J”: “Romeo & Juliet” with men. “Spooky Dog and the Teenage Gang Mysteries.” “MacHomer” being “MacBeth” done with impersonations of Simpsons characters. Take a classic and modernize it with a gimmick. Something easily pitchable in a sentence (something I’ve never been able to do; trying to describe what any of my plays are about is about as interesting as watching paint dry). Make it fun for the whole family. Something easy to transport (read: minimalist set). Plus, we would give all our recurring actors roles specifically designed for them.

This would work.

We just needed That Idea.

I thought Shakespeare had been tapped out. So we probably needed to go back to the Greek myths. And by “we,” we meant “me.”

We decided we’d think of something. And continued to drink ourselves into an obligatory stupor.


I had always wanted to do something with puppets. Tell a fairy tale (of sorts) with the narrators being these two, mildly horny puppets (tentatively named Spizzim and Flazzum). Something fun enough for people who had never been to a Nosedive show and (more importantly) who didn’t know me or Pete. But also, it would be…I guess…“blue” enough for our regular audiences so they wouldn’t be bored to tears. I had written a couple scenes years before with these two puppets, with no story, no framework, no title, no premise, just them fucking around. I put it away.


A month or so after our “meeting” at Recess, the Nosedive gang went to The Raven (our, well at least, my, bar of choice; on E.12th & Avenue A). We talked about “Ruins,” about production shit, and the subject of “That Idea” came up again. It should be a fairy tale. Or a retelling of a Greek myth. I added, “With puppets.” Everyone ate it all up.

“So, what’s it going to be?” Pete asked.

I had no idea.


This shit went on for a while. We couldn’t find the framework. Often, when I’m writing something…wait, no. Scratch that. ALWAYS when I’m writing something, I don’t ask for suggestions. I don’t seek guidance or input when I’m writing the rough draft. I don’t ask people what it should be about or where it should go. Since this was becoming such a group effort (something I was encouraging), I was giving no thought on my own what the play should be. Since I had this intellectual crutch (i.e., the other Nosedivians), I subconsciously thought that I didn’t have to think of an idea. So I didn’t. It never occurred to me when I was by myself.

So when Patrick mentioned at one point, “How ‘bout retelling the story of Orpheus with puppets?” that was it. That was where we were going to go with this. “That Idea” had been found. And I would be right to work on it.

At the time, I of course mistook all this for genuine inspiration. Because I’m an idiot.


The name of the play would be called “Never Stop Rocking,” and it would be the story of Orph (Garrett Blair), the lead singer/lead guitarist of the heavy metal band “Orphanage,” saving his true love (Samantha Turk) from the Land of Suck, which was this shitty night club that only played shitty music (Creed, Knickelback, The Who). His best friend and roadie, a puppet named Flazzum (Christopher Yustin), would relay the story to boys and girls who would listen.

It had a whole slew of colorful characters, including Swagger the Insane Cowboy (a guardian of the threshold), Metallica-esque headbangers and groupies hot for puppet action. You know, Joseph Campbell-meets-TV Funhouse kinda shit.

This was gonna rock.


During more talks of this play, someone suggested (I can’t remember if it was me or Pete) that it should only be one puppet, not two. And the puppet should look like our newly adopted logo, the monkey (taken from our first play, “Monkeys”). Not only would it be a funny in-joke, but we’d be able to make our next big tourable crowd-pleaser itself product placement and name-brand loyalty. Hell, this would be killing five birds with one stone. Next stop, the West End.


During the run of “Ruins,” we started telling everyone in the cast the idea. We also started casting it. We knew who people were going to be, and I would try to cater each role to each actor. So, I tried to figure out what type of role they preferred (slapstick comedy, broad farce, quiet subdued roles).

In the program for “Ruins,” we had at the back: “COMING SOON: ‘NEVER STOP ROCKING.’”

In the curtain speech, I’d announce to the audiences, “Our next show will be ‘Never Stop Rocking,’ which is going to…well…rock.”

In our press packet for reviewers, we announced that our upcoming fundraising show would be done with puppets, primarily to promote our “silly mock rock opera done with puppets.”

It was on.


The deadline for the rough draft was supposed to be in by the middle of May. I’d write the rough during the run of “Ruins” (which was in April), and have two more weeks of tweaking, and send out the scripts. We also decided on having the cast participate in the workshopping process, creating their characters and me being a sort of mediator on what went in and what got cut out. This would be a good challenge for me. I had always said I never write for specific actors in mind, and maybe this would be a good experiment, to broaden my strengths as a writer. A good exercise. I was in.


It wasn’t until halfway through the production of “Ruins” that I was in no shape to be writing something new. The month-long production (“Ruins” being the first time we ran for four weekends) was taking too much time and energy to be noodling with a new draft of something. So, I asked if the deadline could be pushed back two weeks (the end of May). Pete seemed fine with that. I felt relieved.


Upon starting work on the rough outline, I realized: “Oh, wait a minute. I don’t give a SHIT about the story of Orpheus.” That was a bit of a setback. Not a big one, but one to make me just go, “Uh-oh.”

How did we decide upon this story?


In mid-may of 2002 I tell Pete I’m almost done the first draft. This is, of course, not just a little white lie. I hadn’t written a single page of dialogue. However, I wrote “The Awaited Visit” in a night. I had written “Evil Hell Cat & the Liquid Lunch” in four days. I still had 14 days to give them SOMEthing. I wasn’t too worried.


I was realizing, looking at the blank page and a handful of scrawled notes, that this was becoming a daunting task. The two plays mentioned above were plays where I had a vague idea of where I was going, and were based of stories of my invention. I had such a delight just jumping in feet-first with those plays. With “Never Stop Rocking,” everything (EVERYTHING) had already been mapped out. So there was no place to explore. It would just be transcribing minutes from a board meeting for 30 pages.


People in Nosedive were kind of, y’know, expecting something. A rip-roaring ride of some sort. Pure zaniness. Camp. PUPPETS! I couldn’t find any sense of fun when I sat down at my computer or notepad.

Regardless, I decided to get up off the mat and start writing the damn thing.

That was when I realized I was in hell.

To be continued,

James “Puppet Fucker” Comtois

June 18, 2004

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Wrong Field

When I studied at Boston University, I decided around my freshman year that I wanted to go into playwriting. Not as a career necessarily, it was just my idiom of choice. I liked writing them and thought I was decent enough at it to not torture any reader or audience member.

At BU, there was this annual…well, they called it a “festival,” but that’s not the right word. Festival implies lots of people and some sort of grand party atmosphere…let’s just say, “thing” called the Play Ground (the Boston University Playwright’s Festival). Students could write and stage plays in a very small, experimental environment, usually in a large rehearsal or art studio in front of the public. There was no acceptance or rejection process with the Play Ground; if you sent in your script on time, you were in. I participated twice: once, during my sophomore year, with my first play, simply called “The Show.” People seemed to like it. It was a bad play, but what do you want from me? It was my first, and I wrote it when I was 17.

I wrote a few plays afterwards; some I never finished, some I did, some were awful.

In between my sophomore and junior year, I wrote “Monkeys,” Nosedive Productions’s debut play. I basically consider it my “first” play, even though I had written scripts before. It was, for me, the first play that felt like me, like my writing voice, not a knock-off of other movies or books. For good or for bad, it was the start of me writing in my own voice. It has also been, to date, the play that was the most fun and easy to write.

I was really proud of it. Still am, actually.

My junior year, the Play Ground had set things up a little differently. This time around, professors from the School For the Arts would read the submitted scripts and give written evaluations. Their evaluations still had no bearing on whether or not you got in; again, if you sent in the materials on time, you were in.

So, one fine day, I went to the SFA to see if the evaluations of the plays had come in, and they had. I was really enthusiastic; I wanted to get some feedback and constructive criticism on my play, and was looking forward to analysis by professionals in the field. One professor (someone I had never met) had evaluation forms available on a bulletin board. They provided a space for comments, and a scoring system at the bottom (1 – 10, 10 being highest) for characters, dialogue, setting, drama, theme and overall value. I found the one for “Monkeys,” and my eyes went straight to the scoring at the bottom.

All zeros.

Underneath the scores was a note, which read, “Why would ANYBODY want to watch this?”

His comments above were all letting me know that the script was uniformly awful. I had written about something completely uninteresting, and had written it poorly.

I leafed through the other plays’ evaluations, and the average scores were in the 7-8 range. The low ones were in the 4-6 range. No one else got straight zeros. Or even 1’s or 2’s, for that matter.

Feeling awesome, I went to the part of the bulletin board where another professor (also someone I had never met) had typed up a two-page document giving a 3-4 paragraph critique of every script.

Every script except mine.

His comments for “Monkeys” were only two sentences: “I don’t have anything to say about ‘Monkeys.’ Didn’t interest me.”

I was in no position at this time to have any defiant “me-against-the-world, they’re-all-just-idiots” attitude. I had failed, and failed huge.


As I had left the building, I saw on another bulletin board an announcement about the winner of the 1998 annual Boston Playwright something-or-other award (I don’t remember what the award was), and the winning script was written by a young Indian man about an Indian-American man’s struggle with his Indian immigrant parents and trying to be as American as possible while struggling with his ethnic heritage.

That was almost it for me. I really believed at that point that I was in the wrong field, an untalented idiot barking up the wrong tree.

I don’t remember the name of that winning script, but I was fairly certain that “Monkeys” bore no resemblance to it. Not that I thought the style and subject of this award-winning play was good or bad, but just that it was a concept I could never in a million years write or want of write. This is what was considered good drama, and it was nothing (I mean, NOTHING) like what I was writing. And what I was writing was not only not getting awards, it wasn’t even being considered passable as theatre.

I still remember that day. It sucked. It really, really sucked. I really believed I was a misguided failure, trying to work in a field and idiom I was completely unsuited for.


I showed “Monkeys” to a few of my friends afterwards, and the overall reaction was—although not as harsh as the professors—not overwhelming. With one exception (my friend Nate, upon reading it, looked at me, gave me a decisive “thumb’s down” gesture and raspberry noise), the general consensus was, “Huh. Well…uh…don’t have much to say about it. I think you can do better, dude.”

I really don’t know why I decided to keep going. I guess it was in part because a.) I felt so good about my script that I wanted to see it to the end (don’t ask me why; I still thought my play was good), and b.) There was one person whose opinion I respected who had a very positive and insightful reaction to it. In other words, he didn’t just go, “It was good!” he explained his take on the play (a take that wasn’t explicitly buttressed by the lines).

Plus, I guess I’ve always had enough of a “spite-and-revenge-as-motivation” personality to make me want to keep going.

So, I staged “Monkeys” at the 1998 Play Ground. And…it worked. I know, I was amazed myself. People showed up. People laughed. Audiences got into it and were actually eager to talk to me afterwards.

That whole experience helped shape my attitudes toward theatre and my own writing. It coalesced my contempt for Theatre People (no, no, Dish People; you’re cool, sort of) and forced me to evaluate my work for myself. Basically when you decide to go into something and you’re immediately met with negative reinforcement, if you keep going, every other obstacle seems, well…tit.


On our last show, “Mayonnaise Sandwiches,” we didn’t get much in-depth feedback from audiences the opening weekend (barring the noncommittal and pleasant, “Good job!”), except for one acquaintance, who emailed me this four-page letter explaining why the play was a failure and it wasn’t drama, and wondering why I thought anyone would want to watch this.

Shortly thereafter, I leafed through a recent copy of Pete’s “American Theatre” magazine and came across an article about the Hottest of Hot New Plays and Playwrights, an Arab-American playwright writing about Arab-Americans’ struggles with their Arab immigrant parents and trying to be as American as possible while struggling with their ethnic heritage.

Yes, on one hand, my mind did regress to that reptilian-stem part of my brain (as most people who relive childhood traumas do), but on the other, I had at least started to hone my, “me-against-the-world, they’re-all-just-idiots” attitude and thought, “Wait. We’re still on this shit?”

It is interesting enough that, like “Monkeys,” “Mayonnaise Sandwiches” ultimately had a positive turnout (good audience numbers, generally well received), and we even got a freakin’ award for our troubles.

You never really can tell. For now, I guess I’ll write a few more plays until I get that official Green or Red Light that let’s me know if I should drop playwriting and go into automotive mechanics.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I still don’t know if I’m in the right field.

And I guess this may be why I’m so wary of audience feedback.

Should Have Been a Plumber,

James “Monkey Wrench” Comtois

June 16, 2004

Friday, June 11, 2004

Pigs and Pussies

“There’s a fallacy…the ol’ ‘The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to go this deep. Poor us, we’re marginalized because of TV, the great hypnotic blah, blah.’ Of course this is bullshit. If an art form is marginalized it’s because it’s not speaking to people.

“Part of it has to do with living in an era when there’s so much entertainment available, and figuring out how fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way that other kinds of art and entertainment aren’t. And to figure out how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been formed by pop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop culture machine. It’s unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but it’s neat. I think it’s the best time to be alive ever and it’s probably the best time to be a writer. I’m not sure it’s the easiest time.”
—David Foster Wallace

Fine, I admit it. I’ve never read or seen any plays by Brecht. So sue me. I’ll get around to it some day. Let’s just get that out in the open.

Regardless, I do want to talk a little bit about Brecht’s concept of calling theatre audiences “pigs.” Brecht scholars, am I right about this? If not, fuck it. Let’s just talk about that concept: thinking of theatre audiences as pigs, placid cattle, stupid, passive and worthy of contempt.

This concept perpetuated by theatre-makers needs to stop, and stop soon.

This is why people hate theatre.

I won’t say the name of the play I went to last night, but suffice it to say that show showed that contempt (“Audience as Pigs”) with gusto. As Pete said to me afterwards, “I’ve never seen something that showed such blatant contempt for its audience.” Physically uncomfortable (we had to sit on the floor despite there being plenty of comfortable chairs in the theatre; my neck, feet and back were in knots), with audience participation (in other words, we got kicked by the actors a few times) and a message to the audience which, from what I understood, was, “Fuck you, scum!”

This is why people hate theatre.

The other concept that I’m sick of is kind of the reverse; I’m sick of watching theatre being made by pussies.

People have apprehensions about going to the theatre, and for good cause. Despite theatre being unable to compete with film and television, most plays and productions try to do just that. This is why you end up paying money to sit in uncomfortable seats to watch a carbon copy of a third-rate sitcom (which has higher production values) you wouldn’t watch for free in the comfort of your own home.

This is why people hate theatre.

When I hear Theatre People lament about dwindling audience numbers, lack of funding, lack of support, I can’t help but think, “Well, duh.” Of all the ways to spend your Friday night (reading a book, seeing a movie, going to a bar, watching TV, having sex, doing drugs), theatre is the biggest gamble with the worst odds for payoff, and it’s either made with hostility (where audiences are treated like pigs) or made with cowardice (where audiences are treated like children). Sometimes (oh, joy of joys) it’s made with both.

With all the options people have for their free evening, we, as theatre-makers, have no right to refer to audiences as pigs. Maybe back in Brecht’s day, when there was no “Must See TV” or “Spider-Man 2,” one could say something like that. But now, no. We should be honored by those who decide to see our shows, and not treat them like scum.

But there’s the danger of going the extreme opposite; to apologize to those audiences, to hedge our bets and say, “We know, we know. You would be having much more fun at a bar. Or watching Conan. Or seeing the latest Ashton Kutcher movie. I mean, hell, the season premiere of ‘Six Feet Under’ is on; THAT’S a much better way to spend your evening than this show!”

This is why people hate theatre.

It’s not a mystery, folks. There’s no big surprise and there’s no big corporate or governmental conspiracy. Theatre isn’t rotting from the insides out because of the drop in government funding or arts grants. It’s not because the audience is stupid. It’s because when we (as audiences) go to theatre, we’re treated like shit. It’s become an endurance contest, an obligation, a chore (and a chore that’s not even worthwhile—installing your air conditioner is a much better use of your time). In short, it’s becoming insulting.

Maybe I’m just grumpy because I’ve been seeing a lot of this lately (translation: for fucking YEARS): mediocre, middlebrow theatre being made with either such extreme cowardice or extreme arrogance. Regarding the audience with two sides of the same troika (“You passive scum,” / “You poor fool”).

I went to see your show. I decided (for some unknown reason) to set aside some time to see a play. I’m not a pig. I’m not scum. Don’t call me that.

I went to see your show. I decided (for some unknown reason) to forgo watching the season finale of “The Sopranos.” Don’t remind me of what I’m missing. Don’t actively convince me that I made the wrong choice.

This is why people hate theatre.

A Big Pussy,

James “Oink Oink” Comtois

June 11, 2004

Monday, June 07, 2004


The most consistent complaint I’ve received about my playwriting is that I’m not very responsive to audience feedback. The plays produced by Nosedive Productions don’t go through workshops, don’t have public readings and don’t offer “talkback” sessions after private readings.

This is because I hate audience feedback. Or rather, I think the value of audience or dramaturgical feedback is far, far, FAR overrated.

And I despise staged readings with feedback sessions.

When I say this, it’s not that I don’t want to hear the audiences’ opinions, learn their thoughts or their feelings. I would like to hear what Real People think and feel about a particular show, and I would like to hear advice from Theatre People. But there is too much emphasis on audience feedback (i.e., audience members acting as co-authors or editors) as a means of improving a play.

I think the word “feedback” is fitting. As in, that awful high-pitched squealing noise that happens when you aim a microphone into an amplifier. When I think of feedback in terms of “talkback sessions,” it’s identical to my mind (and ears) to amplifier feedback.

From my understanding, Blaise Pascal believed that illumination and wisdom came from solitude and introspection, not community. In other words, if you looked at (say) a tree, and saw the sublime beauty that came from that tree, you lost that sublime beauty once you tried to describe it. The beauty you saw from that tree will be ruined by the other person’s nattering.

Friedrich Nietzsche believed the opposite; illumination and wisdom came from interaction and community. In other words, truth came from having to, you know, articulate your viewpoint and “put it to the test” with an opposing viewpoint. Wisdom isn’t wisdom unless you share it.

The way I see it is of course from both ends, although if push came to shove, I’d side with Freddy. You do need other people to achieve insight. But it’s not always with words. Monet was able to communicate the sublime and intangible found in his backyard in his painting “Nympheas” (water lilies). Shakespeare was able to convey profound regret, bitterness and loss with “King Lear.” Understanding and illumination can be—and is—conveyed through an artist’s creation and audiences’ participation.

But not through feedback.

To put it another way, sex is the interaction. The “pillow-talk” is the afterthought (often full of clichés and lies). Theatre-makers are spending way too much time judging their prowess, performance and ability on the pillow-talk.

To me, audiences are always plural. Each individual watching a play is an audience. So, each performance has audiences, not an audience (unless there’s literally only one person watching). Individual points of view, opinions, emotional responses.

For good or for bad, community is brought about by the creators and the audiences. The company presents the play, the audiences watch it. During that time, we each know our respective places. I’m not presuming to be an audience and you’re not presuming to be the writer. I need you, you need me (that is to say, a play isn’t a play without audiences, and audiences aren’t audiences without a play).

During talkback sessions, this communal activity is destroyed. The noise-to-signal ratio with people giving good suggestions (rare in such a forced setting) and people imposing shitty story ideas on the writer (as common as weeds in an unkempt garden) makes any value in feedback sessions useless. Not that I’m blaming the audiences. But, say I’m reading a book, and someone is hovering over me the whole time I’m reading. The very instant I put the book down after reading the words “THE END,” that person asks: “What confused you? What was the best chapter? Why did the main character go to the bar instead of the drug store when his mother was sick?” Whatever enjoyment I had from that book is erased, whatever comments I could provide would be inarticulate and unhelpful. And why is “audience confusion” the worst thing imaginable? I mean, if something’s a bit confusing, wouldn’t that make the audience, you know, think a little? Be a bit more attentive? More engaged?

The reason people see and put on plays, or any form of art, is that there is an understood trust. Trust from an audience that the writer knows what he’s doing, and trust from the playwright that audiences will understand what he’s trying to say. With feedback sessions, a mutual lack of trust and respect (i.e., I don’t know where I’m going with this script, and I don’t trust you idiots to get it) is brought front-and-center.

I still don’t get why we have staged readings for audience feedback; it should be “audiences’ feedback,” and rewriting based on multiple points of view is impossible, not to mention stupid. I mean, I do get it, but it’s still such a weird practice. Musicians don’t show off their sound-check to audiences, nor do they ask audiences which chord to play next (“Instead of A minor, why don’t you do C major?”). Painters don’t present half-painted pieces and ask viewers what color they should paint with next (“Rather than a house, why don’t you paint a horse?”). Independent filmmakers don’t have test audiences to make sure they’re reaching everyone (studios do, yes, and that’s because they’re made up of businessmen and need to sell tickets in New York City and Gainesville, Florida).

There are two plays Nosedive has done in particular (“The Awaited Visit” and “Mayonnaise Sandwiches,” but I’m sure this has happened more than twice) where two audience members sitting next to one another had polar opposite opinions of the show. I mean, POLAR opposite. The person on the left thought it was useless trash. The person on the right thought it was the best play he had seen all year. Which one do I listen to, and which one is right? Well, the answer is, “They’re both right, and I listen to neither.” I can give you the play, you can take it or leave it. Aside from the occasional, “Dude, it’s spelled ‘affected,’ not ‘effected,’” and “You have a character in the New York scene when he’s supposed to be in Chicago,” any feedback on where the story is going and what the characters should do is irrelevant.

And it’s not fair for the writer to force an audience out of his or her role as audience. What if the person loved the play, and felt that nothing should be changed? You wouldn’t be getting their input at feedback sessions, or taking it seriously. What if the person despised everything about it, and felt that nothing could be done to fix it? Why bother getting that person’s detailed account of how it’s hopeless to change it?

And what are theatre-makers so afraid of? That they’ll put on a play and not every single person watching will love it or see the same through-line? That audiences will walk if they’re not consulted first? Feedback sessions are such a form of bet-hedging, teeth-pulling and revealing a desperation not to offend.

There’s just no place for Mass Consensus in theatre (or art).

Screeching on his guitar,

James “Bleeding Ears” Comtois

June 7, 2004

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