What is a successful theatrical production? In what ways is success measured? If one takes the history of theatre into consideration, the survival of the best plays and the establishment of a ‘canon,’ it becomes clear that different criteria are applied in different contexts. Literary criteria are often applied and just as often rejected while it is largely acknowledged that the judgment has a great deal to do with the audience.
Critics often take their cue from audience response since theatre is a relationship between performance and audience. Playwrights write for and always seek audience approval and some feel satisfied that they have had it because the house is sold out. Other more serious dramatists measure it according to the ovation − the critical response. The audience is the factor too, for producers and theatre managers. In the cinema, Hollywood measures success only by the box office. In the big, professional and commercial theatre capitals like Broadway (New York) and the West End (London) a string of poor houses quickly determines the future of a production. If it is panned by the critics it might still survive, but if it does not sell tickets they close it down.
But these are very old, very traditional and very sophisticated theatre communities where most stakeholders know what they are looking for. Big commercial ‘successes’ will dominate and win acclaim on Broadway or the West End, while artistic experimentation plays it safer by performing on Off-Broadway (New York) or on The Fringe (London). And the question posed here is really, when does one call a production successful in Guyana? The answer is, Guyana is not one of those big sophisticated communities, but the criteria are not much different from anywhere else. In Guyana too, the audience response is often used as a measure of ‘success.’
One of the latest offerings on the Guyanese stage, a production called Nothing to Laugh About written and produced by Maria Edwards Benschop and directed by Henry Rodney, struck it good in the box office. From its opening performances at the Theatre Guild it was sold out solid, and even when brought back in the much larger National Cultural Centre it had multitudes rushing for tickets and a large crowd unable to get in. Many producers dream hopefully for that kind of response and many others would ask what was responsible for such immense popularity?
The first assumption would be that it was a good show whose success on the stage drew the crowds. But in the popular theatre success is not always equal to dramatic excellence; there are other yardsticks. The very title of a play and the way it is advertised help to make it attractive to a mass audience. This one declared that it was “nothing to laugh about,” which is enough to suggest that it has plenty of laughs. To confirm that, the advertisements were also carefully selected to highlight the most hilarious items with transvestites parading about. Besides, there is no better advertisement than the very news that the show sold out. This feeds the assumption that it must be great entertainment. In the popular culture large crowds attract large crowds. In addition, there would be some curiosity surrounding this new playwright.
Nothing to Laugh About is the kind of popular theatre that has a good deal of appeal. It is not a play, but a collection of skits about “real everyday issues.” It looks at the funny side of these issues and promises to be entertaining and hilarious. It is a version of, and the same kind of theatre as the Link Show which still remains the most popular production in the history of Guyanese theatre.
There is little mystery then, about the immense popularity of this production by Maria Edwards directed by Rodney who also wrote two of the skits. It is easy to understand why it drew the crowd, but was it a success? There are many ways of judging this. The settled consensus among contemporary dramatists and critics is that good theatre is not necessarily literary excellence and it greatly depends on how something works in the theatre and how it communicates with its audience. These, however, will still have to include the quality of the script, the directing, the stage management, the acting and the reception by the audience. These criteria may be used to judge Nothing to Laugh About. But even when we allow audience response to be the most important criterion and the final arbiter, we find that success does not end with the sale of tickets; once inside the auditorium, the audience must get something from the performance.
First, the script. Edwards describes it as “the satirical genre of writing.” It was not. Laughter alone is not satire (in fact, some satire is not even funny) and one does not create satire simply by writing a hilarious script on a topical subject. Satire makes social or political commentary and very often uses it to disturb the audience and instigate change, not merely to amuse. Precious few of the skits in Nothing to Laugh About met any of those criteria. The two best pieces for satirical content that actually worked were Free Speech and Loyalty. Others, notably The Trial, had a recognisable intention but were so badly written and performed that they hardly worked.
Free Speech took a good laugh at the fact that groups of protesters championing the cause of free speech are themselves intolerant of others with opposing viewpoints. This one worked well for its irony. Loyalty was well performed by the actresses and presented good irony commenting on those who strongly defend government, party and country while criticising America, but the moment the visa comes through they immediately fly off, rushing straight to what they have just decried. The Trial could pass; it had its moments in portraying the high profile bandits who kill off witnesses before they get to court.
Others failed in all respects, such as attempts to comment on rivalry between President and Opposition Leader, City Hall, and mini-bus culture. Boom Boom Vibes failed because what seemed to be a take-off on the folly of mini-bus behaviour turned out to be really a cheap joke about sexual infidelity. This topic was repeated in no less than four other skits. Many of them suffered from the major fault of ‘much ado about very little.’ Over-lengthy drawn out action led to limp or inadequate punch-lines, while others depended not on wit, but on camp and slapstick to invoke laughter.
They were in marked contrast to the other really good ones, like Joe Grind, another on marital infidelity, and The News, about HIV. While those worked because they were sharp, witty and effective, the majority faltered. Some obviously had satirical intent but were derailed by other elements such as low farce that could more easily evoke amusement. Some were lampoon but weakened by innocuous content while others were just jokes.
The production as a whole was badly directed. Several skits were laboured, amateurish and atrociously coordinated on stage. The sets were awkward and ineffective in terms of staging and seemingly innocent of very rudimentary knowledge of stage use. The acting included some good but much uninspired while seeming apprentices did what they could. It came alive when roles were hammed-up, slapstick or camp with men playing female roles in low farce to the screaming delight of the audience.
So the audience laughed a lot, but even they were equally loud in their reaction to many other things that highlighted the poor quality of the show. It began by starting some 40 minutes late. The repeated ironic applause and slow hand-claps seemed to have hastened the playing of the national anthem and the lights up for the first scene, but they were not really ready. It was another five-minute blackout before the first skit eventually started. That characterised the whole production, which was an unending series of false starts and lengthy black-outs which were occasionally longer than the performed sequences themselves.
An impression given was that the performance was under-prepared and unfamiliar with the stage. The lengthy intervals in the black were perplexing since the set was simple and mostly played on a bare stage. Whatever changes of set or costume there were ought to have been better managed to allow a more fluent presentation. It was poor quality, amateur work. Sound projection was inconsistent, a combination of the unevenness of the amplification at the cultural centre and the failure of some actors to project effectively. The audience voiced their dissatisfaction by often calling out for “volume!”
Finally then, if audience response measured the success of this production what was the verdict? Without any doubt, the usual strategies of mass popular appeal attracted the imagination of the audience and brought large crowds to the theatre. They had a good share of laughs, sometimes rocking the auditorium with explosions of merriment. But when they did not quite get it from the stage many provided their own entertainment through shouted one-liners and running commentary.
Unfortunately, these were often at the expense of the performance. They commented on the gaps and blemishes. They made jokes of the flaws and errors. They protested at the delays, the false starts, the unreadiness, and having to sit for prolonged periods in the black. Those were the loud responses of an audience game for fun, a good time and their money’s worth; who were ready to laugh at anything, but who were very vocal, very critical of an unsuccessful production.