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.