Review: Theatre of the Unimpressed by Jordan Tannahill

There’s a bookend at the beginning of your journey. You travel along the road, being transformed or maybe not. The other bookend arrives and your journey is finished. “Finished” is different from “complete.” There might have been many more possibilities during your journey, that worked out or didn’t work out matters not. You have to keep moving forward.

That’s what I remembered while reading Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill. The central question of this book is why theater is boring. Each chapter highlights the aliveness of the form. The book questions the criteria by which theater is judged. Tannahill provides examples of the good, some of which can be found on the Internet. It is a thoughtful, quick read. Once I picked it up, I kept reading. Sleep was my only obstacle.

Tannahill’s voice makes his ideas accessible. Rather than condescending to the reader, he writes as if he were sitting across from you at a coffee shop. That’s a marked difference from other theater writers who still are working hard to impress their college professors. 

What saddened me is how the book forced me to remember my days studying theater in college. I thought back to creating and performing a scene for a directing class. During our performance, I asked actors to work against me as I played the part of a director. I stepped loudly on platforms as I came down to “confront” the actors. It was an attempt to use sound to convey emotion. Then I began to cry. 

The teacher tried to stop the scene because he didn’t realize he was looking at a “scene.” The actors didn’t break character. They tied me a chair and left the room. It was in that moment of absurdity the teacher realized it was a “scene.”

The same teacher told me to read Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. Another teacher privately recommended Unbalancing Acts by Richard Foreman. It was a new book back in 1993, when all of this took place. I read the book, and I still have it.

These are the things I wish I had been able to build upon, but theater remained elusive after I graduated. Some of that was my own fault. However, there was also pressure as a playwright to write what Tannahill calls The Well-Made Play. He defines it as a story “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 just enough time for a satisfying catharsis.”

If you don’t write this structure, who will produce your work? As a playwright I needed to spend more time literally walking around a stage. Generally speaking, people have wanted playwrights to take a passive role in productions. If you submit your work, what do you learn? If you are sending your play thousands of miles away and you can’t see it up on it’s feet, what are you getting from that other than another notch on your resume? To break free from that idea, playwrights have to work directly with directors and actors. At least that’s how it was for me. 

I was bored with The Well-Made Play back then and I still am. He’s right. It’s one of the reasons why theater is unnecessary. Yet, there are fewer opportunities for plays that are not The Well-Made Play.

I also felt a twinge of jealousy while reading this book. I wish I had the ability to see the kind of theater he described. The good news for readers is that some of the groups and performances Tannahill references are on the Internet. Hopefully more theaters will see the benefit of broadcasting performances. Broadcasts will not replace live performances, but it is a way to document and communicate ideas about theater to a worldwide audience.

Whenever Tannahill referred to someone, I looked them up on YouTube to see if I could watch a performance. Hopefully theater will see the benefit of broadcasting performances and integrating the internet into shows.

Transitions

It’s a different period of time. On the one hand, I feel gratified that 25 years of work is finally coming together. Those failed attempts and false starts are paying off. It’s all being upcycled. The writing is fast and easy. I often visualize a large ring filled with keys, each being the missing piece of the story. As long as I follow my own intuition, everything comes together. 

Although it seems counterintuitive, it’s a good sign when I don’t update my blog. It means I’m working hard offline. Since January, I’ve experienced a quickening. The headline for this year is completion. The subhead is transition. 

My primary issue is pacing. Forcing myself to take time off is a challenge. If I don’t do it, I’m exhausted. 

As you can see, I’ve been working on this site as well. Some things might be wonky for the moment. Transitions can be a bit bumpy sometimes.

A New Podcast & Special Guest Appearance

It’s been a while. The month of November was a bit hectic and I wasn’t able to accomplish everything I wanted to do. But I did want you to know that a new episode of Gasp! with Laura Axelrod is now available. You can find it on most podcast platforms. For the first three episodes of the podcast, I wanted to explore authenticity. Now that it is over, I will move on to writing, the arts, books and retro things. I also think I finally got the hang of the podcast software.

Also, I made a special guest appearance on the Syncopator Familias podcast. Greg Richter and I discuss Santa Claus. You won’t want to have the kids around while listening to it. That’s for sure.

Gasp! with Laura Axelrod Podcast is Now Available

I’m happy to announce that Gasp! with Laura Axelrod is now also a podcast. It will be available at a variety of outlets, including Google PodcastsRadioPublicStitcherBreakeriTunes, Pocket Casts and Spotify.

Each podcast will feature a reading of a blog post, along with a discussion of the topic with a special guest. I will also include book reviews, interviews and a whole lot of other things. Maybe I will read some  of my work on it as well. The podcast will offer things not on the website and vice versa.

Why create a podcast when there’s a perfectly good blog? Good question. There won’t be room for comments on this site. Sure, it can drive up your page views. That’s nice but it comes at a cost. Comment moderation takes a ton of time. Weeding out spammers can be infuriating. After that, you might have a good discussion. Or you might end up with people who are abusive and lecture-prone. The Know-It-Alls of the world love to leave comments and try to make others feel very small. It’s the reason why I stopped including comments on other versions of Gasp. Who needs that nonsense?

As you can see, it’s been a while since I wrote in this blog. I’m hoping that things will become more streamlined as I get used to glitchy technology and all that. I’m still not sure of the frequency of the podcasts. Twice a month? Once a week? I don’t know. Much will depend on my schedule I suppose. I am presently gearing up for doing a bunch of writing in November, in connection with National Novel Writing Month. The thing is, I’ll be finishing up plays instead of novels. But they will both eventually be novels so I think that counts. If it doesn’t, don’t tell me. Oh wait, you can’t because I’m not allowing comments on this site.See? It’s all for the best.

The Prayer of St. Francis and Being Yourself in a Different Culture

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.”

  • Prayer of St. Francis

I’ve learned many things living in rural Alabama, and other things I’ve had to relearn.

I was raised a New England Catholic, so I’m familiar with the Prayer of St. Francis. I never really studied it though. Then one night, as I recall it was Year Three into my culture shock of moving to Alabama, that it came to me I should seek to understand rather than be understood. I needed to stop expecting people to care about my positions or feelings. Instead, I needed to work on finding out more about them without trying to change them.

It was revolutionary on personal and professional level. With this new perspective, I had a reason to be in my situation. I was there to observe, understand and document. Occasionally I still fell into the trap of feeling responsible for something that was way beyond my power. I was never going to change anything, especially with my northern accent. But I could humanize people who have often been stereotyped. My time in Alabama has taught me that people are more alike than they are different, but that also doesn’t negate the differences.

For the past two entries, I’ve focused on authenticity. I’ve lived in a variety of places and I’ve tried to change who I am in order to fit into those regional cultures. Maybe I was doing it wrong. I tried to fit in rather than considering whether something was a good fit for me.

Alabama has given me so much. I would not be the writer I am today without the experience of living here. I’m also stronger, more aware person because of it. As this period of time draws to a close, I now have to think about my next step. The question isn’t who will I be. It’s what do I want to experience next.

Writing in Rural Alabama: Ten Years Forward

If you are living life correctly, you don’t stay the same person. You grow, change, empathize more – maybe. Or you can sink into the world you inhabit and become dogmatic, rigid, judgmental. I turned 40 while living in rural Alabama. Many people become fixed in their ways at that age. They believe what they’ve always known. As the years progressed, I watched my former acquaintances back in the city become less curious and more unyielding in their perspectives.

And so, I’m grateful for the abrupt change, though I realize it came at a cost. I have no doubt that had I been able to stay in New York, my writing career would look quite different at this point. Sometimes, I try to imagine what it would be like. Having access to resources and the ability to network in person, I would likely possess a souped-up resume. I was already heading toward historical dramas, but could I have gone to Austin for a year of research at the LBJ Presidential Library? I don’t think so. How would I have seen the 2016 presidential election? Probably just like almost everyone else in New York City.

The truth is, I wouldn’t have been happy under those circumstances. I would’ve had the resume, but something would be missing. And my awareness of that would leave me unsettled and frustrated.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been curious about the country. I wanted to know what it was like in other parts. I’ve crossed the country four times by Amtrak. Whenever I passed little towns along the way, I wondered who lived there. How did those folks spend their day? What did they think? What kind of jobs did they have? When I lived in New York, I felt trapped. Everything was expensive and I worked hard to survive. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to think or process.

Pretty soon, I was a writer writing about writing in New York. It’s easy to forget the world when you live there. The world is a big place, but when it comes to you, it has to come in acceptable packaging. It loses something when it conforms to your specifications.

I am quite a different person than I was back in 2006. I get to be who I am now because I know who I am.

An Introduction

Writing the first post for a blog is daunting. I’ve been through this before. Gasp started on July 7, 2003. I titled the initial post “First Entry” and complained how it took me four hours to put it all together- the design of the site along with the post itself. That sounds about right. I was working off a template and I had a difficult time making color decisions. In that introduction, I promised readers I wouldn’t abandon the ship.

Since Gasp was part of a blogging community, I knew I would eventually get readers. But when people starting coming to my site, I felt scared. It seemed like a violation of some kind, but it was also exhilarating. Blogging was new and we were all delightfully innocent. I had no idea there was such a thing as doxing. I had yet to have an argument online or be trashed by complete strangers.

The only thing I knew back then was that a semi-famous comedian wrote a blog for her site. She would give weekly updates on the growth of her career. I thought it was the coolest thing. You could see how her hard work paid off, and I wanted that for myself as well. And it seemed like the best way to have a writing practice. Gasp became a reality.

The second version of this blog started when I became a theater blogger. Before Gasp 2.0, I gave details of both my professional and personal life. The second version focused more on professional experience, opinions and analysis. Everything about the site was sleeker. My old audience was gone. The new readers consisted of industry people. I felt a lot of pressure to be serious and theatercentric.

In hindsight, I lost a lot by doing that. My original intention for Gasp 2.0 was to write about the creative process, performance art and free speech. Instead, I quibbled, argued and pontificated. I was so worried about fitting in with my colleagues that I forgot who I was. Once a writer or artist loses herself, it all becomes mush.

The touchstone of Gasp 3.0 is authenticity. I get to be who I am now. It is what I tell myself before I go to sleep at night. The purpose of my life is to express myself fully through the work I’m writing now. As I look back through the years, I see the roadblocks in the form of authority figures or pseudo-authority figures telling me who they wanted me to be. No more. Not only has the #MeToo Movement empowered women in terms of reporting sexual harassment, we also get to be who we are without having to put up with patronizing and condescending behavior. I don’t have to tolerate or ignore it anymore.

Restarting Gasp, for me, is an act of faith. Whether or not I find a community of like-minded folks or swim in this sea alone, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that I want to do is be true to myself and my work.

It’s going to take a while to find my legs with this version. I will post updates on Twitter once I feel like I’m in a groove. But if you are out there and have stumbled upon this entry, welcome.