A Novice’s Guide to Successful Theater-Going

Ever sat through a bad play? Afraid you’re about to? Never fear: we have tips to make the theater-going experience fun, no matter what appears on the stage.

by JIM JOHNS, guest writer
There are two ways to look at going to the theater. The first way is to condemn yourself to the evening and hope you’ll get home in time to do something you enjoy before the day is out. This take on theater is absolutely justified: you’ve probably seen, or heard your friends talk about seeing, bad theater.  Bad theater saps your energy, wastes your time, takes your money, and leaves you with either the numb sense that you didn’t understand or the idea that theater simply isn’t enjoyable.  This type of theater is abundant, and to be avoided, if possible.

The second, and more enjoyable way to go to a show, involves three steps:  educate yourself, set yourself up for success, and be willing to explore new things. The best way to have an enjoyable theater experience is to see a good show.  This may require you to read some reviews, ask around to see if anyone you know has seen anything worth seeing, and/or read about upcoming performances on the theater’s website.

Once you’ve found your show, forget about it until the day of the performance.  On the way to the theater, take a few minutes to read about the play.  The Wikipedia is a fantastic source for the plot summary, autobiographical information of the playwright, and other tidbits that make the play notable. This can be done in the car or while you’re setting yourself up for success (more on this below).  Also, it is critical you read the program once at the theater. Generally, there is a note from the director about the show; this is the treasure you seek.  Other information, like upcoming shows and blurbs about the actors, is optional reading.

To set yourself up for success, you only have to do a few easy things.  First, be on time.  Tardiness can weigh heavy when you are going to an unfamiliar place to experience an unfamiliar thing.  I find the best way to be on time, is to be early enough to get a coffee, drink, or dinner before the show.  An establishment within walking distance of the theater is ideal.  This is also a great time to check the Wiki and learn about the play.

Once at the theater, find the restrooms before heading to your seat.  Bathroom trips during a performance are less excusable than in a movie. Once in your seat, read the playbill. You’re looking to learn about the play in general (see above) along with information specific to this production. What is the estimated run time? Is there an intermission? Is there anything especially interesting about this theater company’s production of this play?

As show time approaches, remind yourself that you are an adventurer going deep into the playwright’s imagination. Theater is a window into an exploratory realm where ideas and situations intersect in an effort to further the understanding of human-ness. What you will see onstage is a microcosm that focuses on a specific idea or aspect of being human. In a play, you have the opportunity to see a situation (realistic or otherwise) from the character’s perspective; your voyeurism into the character’s world is a chance to gain new understanding about how other people may think and act given their environment.

Keeping in mind what you have learned about the play, playwright, and production, you are now ready to experience the show. As the curtain goes up, be relaxed and attentive as the story unfolds.

At intermission (if there is one) and in the car afterwards, talk about the show. Get beyond the simplicity of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and talk about the show based on what you have learned. Is this particular production bringing out the themes you read about? Are the actors bringing their characters to life, or do they seem like they are simply reciting memorized lines? Do the lights and/or music contribute to the show, or are they simply there for technical purposes? Does the audience have a common theme (young, old, male, female, etc.) and if so, why do you think that is, based on this play?

If the production is good, and you enjoy the play’s message, you’ve done well for yourself; it’s easy to watch a good play. If the production is flawed, there are still ways you can enjoy the show. While talking, you can imagine how you would have done things differently. Would you have cast different actors? Build the set differently? Used more or less music and/or lights to emphasis plot points? Keep in mind that many people worked very hard to put on this show. You don’t have to love the show, but be kind and realistic when criticizing other people’s work.

In the direst of circumstances – when there is no hope of redeeming a production – you have two choices. First, you can make fun of the show. (Be sure to do this quietly, since you never know who is affiliated with the production.). It can be fun to mock the show, and in fact, you can watch in awe as the play disintegrates into an indescribable mess.

The second option is to leave before the final curtain. Leaving early has two particular flavors. If the show has an intermission, you simply seize the opportunity to leave then. If the show is horrible, you won’t be alone, and you can follow the crowd out the door.

If the show does not have an intermission, you have a choice to make. Are you going to get up, coat in hand, and leave while the actors are performing? No matter how bad the show, I do not recommend this. The people involved in putting on the show are, after all, just people. They have feelings, and walking out during the performance is an unnecessary insult. For the remainder of the production, you can daydream. You’ll get your revenge tomorrow, when you tell people how bad the show was.

The single caveat to this policy is audience abuse. Audience abuse happens when a play’s content or direction is dangerous to your mental health. A play that stages excessively violent and gory scenes that are not necessary to the plot is audience abuse. A show that is counter to your personal beliefs and has no room for respectful disagreement is audience abuse. A show that runs over 2 ½ hours with no intermission is audience abuse. In these instances, walk out without a thought to how it affects the people involved in the show.

You now have the tools to feel good about your evening at the theater. In the case of great and mediocre shows, you’ve participated in a cultural event that helped you better understand your own humanness. In the case of the rare abusive show, you’ve stood up for yourself, and let the jerks running the show know you won’t put up with their poor choices. Either way, whether the show is great, mediocre, or abusive, you can take pride in having a successful, enjoyable or even enlightening theater experience.

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One thought on “A Novice’s Guide to Successful Theater-Going

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