Acting Lessons - Doing Shit Theatre | Beverly Hills Playhouse

Doing Shit Theatre

Okay, let me just ask it plainly: Why do so many actors involve themselves with such shit theatre projects? Because we’ve all been there, where we’ve gotten ourselves together to go see our Talented Friend in their play, and we are….. horrified. Right? About 20-30 hours a year at least go by this way. And we come up with something nice to say at the end, get in the car, and rip the experience all the way home, plus or minus what is by that time a necessary drink at a nearby pub. And the most common question is often Why did my friend purposefully associate him/herself with that shit?

Consider me  serious when I say I don’t mean to offend or diminish the efforts of the thousands of people every day who are trundling off to rehearse their latest play. I’m not trying to be cute. I truly respect the endeavor – it’s not easy, and much of the labors involved are motivated by a real camaraderie and enthusiasm.

But why….. why, oh, why….. ? Now this gets very tricky. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, right? I don’t think anyone goes to work thinking, “I’m gonna dedicate myself to creating a complete piece of shit today.” And certainly I’m vulnerable to the immediate comeback  – “Listen, I’ve seen some of what you directed and in my opinion it was shit.” So let’s hold on tight. I’m not talking about a group of primarily dedicated, experienced, professional people who set out to create a story and an experience, and for whatever reason it doesn’t work out  – and  obviously all is subject to Almighty Personal Opinion of the Beholder. No problem. Nor am I talking about a group of perhaps less experienced, less trained, not-quite-professional-yet people who are doing their level best, but that “best” is not yet developed. Beginning musicians still need to start performing at some point, and while it isn’t yet of a professional standard, you’d be an asshole to criticize the effort and thus shut down the possibility of encouraging further growth.

So let me rephrase: “Why do so many talented, professional actors, who should know better, involve themselves with what they know damned well is shit theatre, when they could be doing something else with that time and effort?” Because let’s say you’ve got 5 weeks of rehearsal, 4 hours a day at 6 days a week – plus 6 weeks of performances, admin, invitations, traffic, etc. – let’s add that up to a rough 300 hours or so of your life that will go into Play X. And in my humble opinion, for most of these really talented actors, who could easily be carrying part of a film or all of a good play or really making a difference in their career… That 300 hours is a waste. Now picture putting that 300 hours into training, or even into pure administration toward the film / television / theatre professionals with whom you really dream of working. Because I think if one of those industry professionals actually gets out to see you in this shit play, you’ll have done more damage than good. Even if you’re the only good thing in a shit play, I don’t believe that helps you – you will primarily be associated with a shit play, with amateurism. Better to hold off until you have a really good part in a really good play. Too often we have the spectre of Talented Person Z, doing Shit Play X, spending 300 hours on this thing at the opportunity cost of 300 hours spent on _______.

But how do we get around the subjectivity of it? How do you know a shit play from not? How is this whole entry not just an explosion of snobbishness? Well – again, this is directed toward talented, trained, professional actors – and I believe these people know. And they know early. They knew it was shit the first time they read the script. They know after one week of rehearsal. And then they double down on the bad investment. Why do I assert this? Because most have admitted the same to me on a million occasions when I’ve felt courageous enough to ask. If I know the person well enough, or they take extra effort to extract my honest opinion – I’ll tell them. And most often they know it, they admit they knew all along,  they are sheepish about it.

So it’s really not about an external, subjective, snobby viewpoint about my opinion of shit theatre. It’s about integrity. I believe the individual actor knows damned well they are diving into shit. But they somehow try to unknow this, or they use the ol’ “well it is acting work and all” justification, and I believe they brainwash themselves and violate their integrity for the next 300 hours of that play. So if you believe in the script, in this theatre company, in this opportunity – then go for it. Truly. That’s what we all do – we believe in something and then chase it. But if you know damned well it’s crap – then know it. Act on that. Walk away with the knowledge that better parts are coming your way, better scripts, and that your integrity is more important than this particular job. No one will ever have a shit-free career, but you can at least change the percentages. And when you stand up for your integrity – I believe that is part of this whole career advancement trip. (And shhhhhhh: You’ll act better.)

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4 thoughts on “Doing Shit Theatre

  1. Roz

    After I slept on it more I had more to say re: schlock. I agree wholeheartedly in what you just pin-pointed..Panic to get seen, to have something to promote. To get a chance to simply work.

    But here’s what I don’t get. I’ve seen some very weak shows here in LA (mostly small theatre) and the reviews are raves and the show doesn’t deserve it. Now, I’m happy for my friends who got good reviews but can these “critics” cannot discern between excellence and kakadoodledoo. I could tell you personally the shows but I don’t want to publish that and hurt others’ feelings:) xoxoox

  2. allenbarton

    xo – back atchya. “I get you totally,” as they say. I’m trying to get across the concept of opportunity cost – what else could be done in the time spent on awful shows? Also – I believe many actors reflexively commit to shit plays out of a sort of panic about work. Loyalty is certainly admirable, I’m just trying to include a loyalty towards the individual integrity of the actor. It’s not black-and-white, ultimately it’s a personal decision. Looking to address what could underlie the common experience, the many-times-a-year “Say whaaaa…?” moment as the curtain falls on a friend’s show.

  3. Roz

    I love you Allen..and I will say this…I’ve been to plenty of Broadway shows (been in some), shows at the Ahmanson that…pardon me…I felt were in the end…not up to snuff. Why does one stay involved in a non-optimum perhaps creatively sucky situation – no matter the level? Loyalty. That’s why I’ve stayed before. Loyalty to my promise to perform, loyalty to my “hope” of what could be, loyalty to the cast/creators and audience, and the loyalty to one’s career building and knowing that that director/creative team are building upon something more. That’s what I have to say and it’s been my personal experience. xo


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