Guest Post by Stuart Bousel – “I’m Not Sorry I Hate Your Play”

It’s almost midnight, or maybe just past, and the after-party at the bar is winding down. “So…” the playwright sidles up to me, beer in hand, sly smile on her face, “tell me how much you hated it.” I take a sip of my own beer, and when I lower the pint I’m smiling back at her, making sure the grin extends to my eyes. Of all the battle skills an artistic director needs to possess, I have long ago come to realize that this is the most important- smiling with your eyes- and that the principal field in the war of remaining cordial with your colleagues is any place where alcohol is served and you can be backed into a corner.

For four years now I have been running a commission-based new works festival where playwrights send in proposals based on a list of topics I have picked, always drawn from the bottomless well that is Greek mythology. Based on the proposals, I select writers for the festival and commission them to spend the next year writing a play that receives a dramatic reading on one of the 13 nights that make up the San Francisco Olympians Festival at the Exit Theatre. I make no bones about being a selection committee of one and in return for retaining absolute control in this regard I let the chosen playwrights pretty much write whatever they want. I don’t censor and I don’t critique drafts. I show up to their reading as blind as the audience, and as ready as they are to see something new. I and my staff  help connect each writer with a director and a cast, and we take care of the marketing and administrative side of the festival. I introduce each show and close out each evening and 95% of the time I do it with a smile on my face.

But that doesn’t mean I love 95% percent of what I see during the festival.

Stuart Bousel

Stuart Bousel

I probably love about 40%, and enjoy about 80%, but for me to gush beyond that would require one of two things to be true: either the festival would have to be 95% to my taste, or I’d need to be the kind of guy who loves 95% of what I see. Neither are, however, the case, and that’s a mark of pride for me. I like having my own taste, cultivated from years of seeing, creating and studying theater, and I consider my taste to be impeccable and informed. I also like running a festival that is not just a reflection of me and my taste. For me, it’s another mark of pride that I recognize the difference between knowing what I like and thinking I know what’s best for other people, let alone what’s best for “the Art.” It takes effort to keep that in mind sometimes. Especially when I have to smile at an audience I suspect hated the play as much as I did. Or worse, when they loved it, and I still think it’s a piece of crap.

Every year, at our directors’ orientation meeting, where incoming directors are given the lay of the land, I always say, “We will have at least one disaster show this year!” It’s a statement I make in jest, but I also mean it, and when pressed to define what I mean by “disaster” I always make the definition as broad as possible because the truth is we will actually have more than one disaster show but just how many qualify, and just which ones, will be entirely in the eye of the beholder and I get nervous when I feel like I’m telling someone else what they can and can’t like. It’s probably true (see how I constantly caveat like that?) that some shows might be more “objectively” bad than others. Some may suffer from clumsy staging and poor pacing, some may reflect a lack of effort/organization on the part of their creators, the majority of shows that are, for me, “disasters” fall into a third category that is harder to hold against an objective checklist: bad scripts that aesthetically offend my taste in every way.

I don’t mean interesting failures, which I kind of love, but flat out poorly written, poorly conceived, poorly thought out crap. Sometimes these come from good writers who just didn’t bring it this time, but usually they are from writers who are just not (yet) good or even decent writers. “By whose standards?” is the question that makes that statement so complicated- and it’s a legitimate one. The fact is, my standards are both high and specialized. But does that make me the most qualified person to pass judgment? Maybe. You could also argue it makes me the least qualified since I’m hardly “the typical audience member.” Inarguably, however, it does make me the most qualified judge of what works for me.

Lately I’m seeing a lot of debate online about “good” vs. “bad” theater, often connected to who should and should not get grants, patronage, awards, attention, audience and livable wages. I find this debate both amusing and fascinating for the same fundamental reason: it’s a debate that will never die, and it’s also one anyone past their freshman year of college knows is pretty much a pointless debate. Yes, to some degree, you can probably evaluate the skill with which someone executes the objectives of his art, but first you’d have to be really sure that you knew what those objectives were, and the older I get the more I come to realize the ridiculousness of “author’s intent” arguments. The more experienced I’ve become,  the more I realize it’s virtually impossible to separate what we think is “good,” from what we like, because while I absolutely believe that I know “quality” when I see it, I still also know that what defines “quality” is based in my own value system and that value system is not a checklist where all parts are weighed equally.

For instance, I love characters and I love stories, but I kind of love characters more than stories and I love ideas more than both, and content weighs in heavier for me than style. Which means I’m much more likely to be forgiving of a work that meets my standards in one regard, but perhaps not in another, and less forgiving of something that may score high in criteria I consider of secondary importance. My favorite plays are those that hit it all: a good story with good characters, presented in a unique style, executed with grace and sincerity, imparting some kind of intellectual nugget for me to take home. I can point to dozens of plays that fulfill all these desires. The trouble is, I bet at least half of the things on my  list wouldn’t be on yours. And I promise at least one thing would be something you think is total shit. And good on you for doing so. We’re not all supposed to like the same thing, we’re not all supposed to have the same values and standards, and contrary to popular belief, good taste isn’t about conforming to the idea of “good taste” but developing your own taste via informed exposure and being able to articulate why you like what you like.

As an artist, I’m not making my work for you, I’m making it for me, and while I hesitate to speak for any other artist, I suspect that is a general truth for anyone who is in this because they have something to say, and not because they thought it would be fun to make some art (or worse, because they thought it would be a good way to make money). If I accept that  fundamental truth, I implicitly also accept that my work is going to alienate some people, but I believe my audience deserves my honest work and not some phony garbage I am engineering on the ridiculous premise that I know what they like and how best to serve it up to them- or that they should dictate what I get to make regardless of what I like. If I’m gonna be all idealistic like this I need to recognize, when I am an audience member, that I can’t require an artist to please me any more than they can require me to be pleased. All we can ask of each other is to be open and honest in the course of the experience that is creating and witnessing Art.

As the Executive and Artistic Director of a new works festival, particularly a commissioned-based one where the odds of “anything can happen” are substantially amped up, my standards set the standards of the festival, and while I recognize why some ED’s and AD’s decide that fact justifies heavy curation to ensure the “quality” of the work, I made a decision early on that I was more concerned with the quality of the experience- first and foremost for the writers, then for all the other artists in the festival, then for the audience, and last of all for me. Not because I am a martyr of some kind (though I will confess, at least once a year I am up in the lighting booth, listening to the show, just wishing someone would drive a spike through my head and get it over with), but because as a writer myself, I know the value of, and desire desperately, safe places to experiment and the freedom to fail. What is a new works festival if not a place to take a risk and watch it crash and burn- or soar?

All of which is why I created the festival and none of which has anything to do with whether or not I like the work of each artist I bring into the festival. To put all my cards on the table, if I did like everything in the festival that would be worrisome to me. It would be a sign that I was no longer doing what I, personally, consider to be my job. When I pick proposals each year, I factor in not just the worthiness of the idea, but also the experience level of the writer, whether or not the work they have proposed will challenge them and the audience, and how the festival as a whole balances out and represents diversity of thought, style, skill and background. As someone who believes in the value of new work, it’s my duty to make decisions with an understanding that “new” often entails unrefined, untested, risky, and, frankly, bad- or at least not to my taste. Almost everybody who is “good” starts out “bad.” Almost everybody who becomes “good”, still occasionally does “bad.” And  what exactly is “bad” anyway?

Back at the bar, I tell the playwright, “I didn’t hate your show,” even though I kind of did, and then for a few minutes we talk about what elements I liked more than others and I end with, “If you want more in depth feedback, I’m happy to give it.” Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we walk away friends, and sometimes we walk away politely despising one another. Or, not so politely. Frequently, I walk away realizing I actually liked her play more than I thought I had, which is the best feeling. It means I’m doing my job, and the playwrights are doing their job, and the festival community is doing its job, and all of us are growing, even if one of us wrote a really, really bad play.

*****

Stuart Bousel is a playwright, director, producer, actor who has been working in the Bay Area theater scene since 2003. He is the artistic director of No Nude Men Productions, a founding artistic director of the San Francisco Theater Pub, and the founder and executive director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival. He also runs the hospitality desk at the San Francisco Fringe, frequently collaborates with Custom Made Theatre Company and Wily West Productions, and was recently proclaimed Best Ringmaster of Bay Area Theatre by the SF Weekly. His work can be followed at www.horrorunspeakable.com.

Note:  You can still catch the last week of the San Francisco Olympians Festival at the Exit Theatre, including Stuart Bousel’s own play THE HORSE or “See Also All” playing on the final night of the festival, November 23.  -skf

Share on Facebook

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *