The applause fizzles and the curtain falls; creaks of chairs and rustles of coats begin to sound throughout. You shuffle back to the foyer and pick up a programme on the way out, nodding at your fellow audience members. Your awaiting friend waves and approaches with the simple query: “Was it good?”
No hard feelings for those who hesitate. As with most art forms, theatre is brutally subjective and therefore it is perfectly natural to question what constitutes ‘good’ theatre.
You may be thinking, “well, it’s all just gut feeling, isn’t it?” True, but how do we put that into words, much less a rating?
…set design, costumes, music…
Something to think about is how the performance works as a whole. Imagine the production as a recipe: a meal wouldn’t have that wonderful taste if one essential ingredient had been omitted from the pot. Even worse, what if a combination of opposing flavours had completely offset the taste? This translates to the stage in the form of set design, costumes, music, and so forth; unless they all fuse in perfect harmony, the whole production can be a disaster.
As with any recipe, there is always a visual factor involved. Consider this; are the creative choices of the director and designer appropriate, of decent quality, and captivating? Or is it just a mish-mash of late-night espresso ideas thrown onto the stage at the last minute?
…the mood you’re in when you see the play…
Needless to say, nothing matters more in a meal than its taste and in theatre, this can be interpreted as the audience’s emotional response. As Wesley Enoch, artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company, puts it:
Different plays talk to different people in different ways. Your experience, your life, people you know, the plays you’ve seen before, the mood you’re in when you see the play – can all affect how you receive the play being acted out for you.
…not every show must be awe-inspiring or life-changing…
Sometimes your reception of the production is simply physiological: for a comedy, did you laugh? For a horror, did you feel scared? Then comes the more complicated emotional question: did you feel moved or provoked? It’s entirely plausible that you felt a combination of all these responses, no matter what the genre.
However if you did not feel any emotion other than, perhaps, boredom or impatience, then usually we can state that the performance’s intention was not achieved, so you rate the performance as ‘bad.’ Of course, not every show must be awe-inspiring or life-changing. Sometimes the most powerful plays can be realised using a bare room and some chairs, as long as its purpose is successfully received, judged from the audience’s response.
…a powerful gut reaction can help…
The moral of this story is that because every show is different, every reviewer and audience’s individual reaction is even more unique. It is difficult, therefore, to pinpoint the specific qualities of good theatre, apart from the reception of the dramatist’s intention – which is ultimately, the audience’s response. Oh, and a powerful gut reaction can help too.