Bored with the Well-Made Play
Jordan Tannahill’s Theatre of the Unimpressed
A few years ago, Jordan Tannahill and his friend Amy went to go see some Shakespeare-in-the-pub in their hometown of Toronto. “I generally see theatre out of obligation,” Amy confessed. Tannahill, a young playwright and director who has made everything from dysfunctional-family dramas to scrappy queer performance, had heard that line before. At intermission, they shared that look—you know the one: eyes poised to roll, mouth trapped between a grimace and a God-help-us faux-grin—and they bolted. “I expected to hate it,” said Amy. “It’s like we’re resigned to being unimpressed.”
On a hunch that he and Amy weren’t alone, Tannahill launched an investigation. He talked to audience members, artists, administrators, his barber, and the wallflower at a Craigslist orgy about why they did or didn’t go to theatre. He wanted to find out why, despite all these “nice plays” being “well-plotted, well-acted, well-designed, well-intentioned, [and] well-received,” he and many others were “bored by almost all of it.”
“Theatrical realism now feels like a fax machine”—Jordan Tannahill
From these conversations, along with his own research and experience, Tannahill wrote Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama, published by Coach House Press in 2015. It is a hundred and fifty pages of thoughtful, provocative (and, yes, manifesto-ish) theatrical criticism for the era of smartphones and Netflix. It’s written for a modern theatregoing audience, one which has “a supremely intimate and agency-fueled relationship with narrative” and little patience or interest in paying “four or five times more to watch not-quite-a-film rather than a real film.” (All quotes are from the text.) Chapters alternate between interviews with artists, administrators, and critics; and examples of companies and productions from around the English-language world who are making vital, live performance—and almost none of it is realism.
“Theatrical realism now feels like a fax machine,” says Tannahill, “a device that persists despite the existence of superior technologies that largely fulfill the same function.” Film has once and for all surpassed theatre as the best medium for representing reality. However, theatremakers (and the institutions that support them) are clinging to the sunken ship of realism, rather than seizing the moment to experiment with form.
The possibilities of a theatre freed from the burden of verisimilitude are vast. Tannahill notes that exploring those possibilities means dumping the Well-Made Play: a classic dramatic construction “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 us just enough time for a satisfying catharsis.” Popularized by that oh-so-well-known nineteenth-century French playwright Eugène Scribe, the Well-Made Play was (and still is) an easy way to bundle up middle class problems in a dramatically convenient, audience-pleasing, and lucrative package.
“The well-made play,” writes Tannahill, “has become so ubiquitous that the programming of North America regional theatres, for instance, seems to suggest that this is simply what theatre is, how plays are meant to be.” In other words, the English-language theatre world is trapped in a playwriting hegemony dictated by regional theatres and a French dude who died 150 years ago.
What’s the solution to breaking the “tentative and trepidatious” cycle of writing and programming that privileges the Well-Made Play? Tannahill explains that boring theatre, especially the WMP, is missing:
1) a dedication to risk;
2) an embrace of failure, and
3) liveness above all else.
Tannahill holds up theatre’s absolutely unique status as the only art form that is incomplete until the very moment of its being witnessed.
Tannahill has seen an impressive amount of theatre, from Ottawa to Berlin, and he fills Theatre of the Unimpressed with examples of dozens of plays which point to a thrilling and vital twenty-first century theatrical culture. Few shows get as risky as Cliff Cardinal’s solo play Huff, wherein the lights rise on Cardinal “with a plastic bag duct-taped over his head and his hands bound behind his back, prevailing upon the shocked audience to intercede.” The moments of intentional failure in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon and Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy—when the playwrights realize mid-show that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew—are the most gripping and unnerving moments in these plays. And on the Thousandth Night…, Forced Entertainment’s six-hour roundelay of interrupted extemporized stories, “needs to be live”—it’s “an event,” a “slightly impossible, insane thing [in a room] with a group of strangers.”
Shows like these, Tannahill writes, constitute a “Theatre of Failure”—work in which “artistic risk and its attendant failures dismantle the status quo of artistic and political thought.” It is “Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd for the Western internet generation, raised on the fragmented narratives of YouTube and Vine loops.” It is “not only a refusal of the ideal of the well-made, but nothing less than a renunciation of perfection as a tyranny imposed not only upon theatre, but upon society at large by capitalist hegemony.” Ideas like these are what make us feel that Tannahill’s book needs a wide audience. Right now.
In a culture that values growth, “the win,” and economic prosperity over all else, Tannahill embraces the inherent humanity of failure. Tannahill holds up theatre’s absolutely unique status as the only art form that is incomplete until the very moment of its being witnessed. And when the liveness, risk, and immediacy of watching, say, an actor attempt to balance a fig on the head of a pin (see page 31) is more gripping than a rote touring production of Wicked, he (and we) believe it’s a sign our art form is in crisis. (If you think the rote touring production of Wicked is the best we can do, Theatre of the Unimpressed may not be for you since you are already impressed; and that’s OK, it really is. But for those of you reading this who are like, “God, you are right, theatre can do so much more, we can really use it better”...please read the book.)
We believe that Theatre of the Unimpressed joins the small shelf of Essential Books on Making Art in the Twenty-First Century, joining the likes of David Shields’ Reality Hunger, Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, and Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write (the latter a key intertext of Tannahill’s book, along with work by Sarah Garton Stanley, and Sara Jane Bailes). In the thousand words of this blog post, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what Tannahill has to say.
We know what theatre can do when it’s really being theatre, which makes it all the more disappointing when it misses the mark. We’re tired of being unimpressed, and we’re ready to fail.