How do you describe a performance that absolutely rocks? The kind that picks you up by the scruff of the neck from the moment the performers appear before you, and keeps you engaged till the bows at the end? They don’t come around all that often, so you won’t find any University courses that only ask you to deal with performances of this calibre. Whether you are studying Theatre Studies, or Performance Studies, when they send you out to attend theatre performances so that you can analyse them, you won’t be asked to write assignments accounting for the over-arching strategies that resulted in such fine work. You’ll be asked to comment on different elements – for example, the lighting, the use of the space, the director’s vision – and you’ll be asked to explain what was done, and how.
The result of this kind of education in theatre arts has the effect of denying that there are qualitative differences between productions, and between methods of using the various elements. I’m not saying that these courses should only be training theatre critics, I am proposing that critical rigour should be an element of the training.
Imagine a literature course that expected its students to read any three books published in a given period, with no idea as to whether the books concerned were well written or not. Even limiting it to books by certain authors, or from certain publishing houses is no guarantee of quality.
But as I said, there just isn’t a lot of really finely made theatre around, so you couldn’t expect the theatre/performance/drama 101 courses to wait until there were enough excellent productions available to study.
And perhaps this accounts for the fact that theatre text books, and journal articles about theatre productions can talk about shows that were, frankly, pretty poor, analysing their socks off without a hint that there was just nothing better to talk about.
And perhaps this is why we don’t seem to have a formal terminology to discuss different qualities of work. Or to be able to say when, and how a performance DID hit the mark, and what bits of it did not.
And there’s no use arguing that such things are ‘subjective’, because all observations are necessarily subjective. I might argue that the lighting effects at one moment created an atmosphere of fear, and you might argue that it created a calming effect. The marker would credit us both, because we noticed the lighting effect.
How do we describe the lighting effect that was so effective that we didn’t notice it?
Or how do we describe the acting that was so sublime that we didn’t notice the voices providing us with the language of the text?