Features Published 26 March 2018

Exeunt’s (Mostly) Irrational Theatre Dislikes

Exeunt's writers get together for a cathartic collective airing of their long-harboured, but deeply petty theatre-related gripes.
Exeunt Staff
The company of 'The York Realist'. Photo: Johan Persson

The company of ‘The York Realist’. Photo: Johan Persson

The Elusive and Totally Pointless Table
When a set designer has chosen to have a bare stage I find it deeply annoying when the director insists on having a table come on and off stage to indicate a location change. WE KNOW YOU’RE IN A KITCHEN – YOU DON’T NEED A TABLE ON STAGE AND NOTHING ELSE. Especially irrationally irritating when the stage managers must continually walk on and off stage with the table in between scenes. Just leave it there or take it away forever PLEASE. (Eve Allin)

Real tea
The York Realist (pictured above) had a gorgeous naturalist design by Peter McKintosh. Lovely, necessary table. But oh, the amount of distracting slurping and clattering about with cups during every scene involving tea (of which there are arguably too many). And at one point, a cup tipped over and a mini deluge of brown liquid flooded one corner of the table, and the assembled tea-drinkers had to trudge through their dialogue while unsuccessfully hunting about for a real cloth to mop it up with. (Alice Saville)

Eating on stage
It’s not a dislike exactly, and it’s not irrational either, so maybe this doesn’t count, but: I get very distracted when there’s eating on stage, and even find it quite stressful at times, because I start thinking about how that performer has to eat that thing night after night, and maybe it was their favourite food two weeks ago at the start of the run but now they are just fucking sick of it, and then I start to worry about the waste – the volume of waste is one of the things I find most distressing in theatre – and how no one will want to finish off a half-eaten apple, or a stew that someone else has poked their fork into, so that food is just going into the bin, or at best compost, night after night, and sure, someone is eating, it reminds us they’re human – but do we need to see food going into someone’s mouth, and start worrying about whether it will give them indigestion, or they’re going to spend the rest of the show trying not to burp or fart, to recognise live humanity? (Maddy Costa)

The name of the show featuring in the actual show
Last night I met someone who genuinely worried if she couldn’t work out where a book got its name from (“the line was hidden away in the ninth chapter, I easily could have missed it – thank goodness I didn’t!”). Conversely, I honestly couldn’t care less why a show is called what it’s called (could we just assign a Dewey-style system of codes?) and do a little shudder whenever I see an unfortunate actor trying to deliver a line that includes the name of the show they’re in, as a vast invisible lightbulb flashes on in the brains of the entire audience. (Alice Saville)  

Blaming the audience for watching the play
Nothing sends me out of a show like the moment when an actor turns accusingly to the audience, and explicitly or implicitly suggests we are all bad people for sitting and watching the play. You made the play! Presumably no one involved would have been very pleased if every audience member had declined to attend! Of course it’s always meant to be about complicity and the ethical weirdness of spectatorship, but it always comes across as trying to fob off responsibility for depicting problematic images on the people watching them rather than the people who chose to make them. (Hailey Bachrach)

Working class character as detonator
I don’t think this is in any way irrational, but I really can’t abide the trope of the ‘working class character as detonator.’ It’s used with dismayingly regularity. You know what I mean by this. You’ve seen it. The character in question will have little to no emotional life of their own and will exists purely to generate chaos or, less egregiously, to hold a mirror up to the other characters – to shake them out of complacency, make them feel socially awkward or ill at ease, or to generate narrative tension.

It’s the laziest of devices and people who should know better are guilty of it – Nina Raine’s Consent is a recent example, April de Angelis’ Amongst Friends still makes me cross. But they’re far from the only offenders. It happens a lot, too often, and along with the character of the ‘wise’ cleaner, it sends a signal to audiences about the relative worth and value of the characters’ on stage. (Natasha Tripney)

Actors on stage when the audience enters
I’d like to say my hatred stems from empathy for poor actors having their evening’s work extended by a solid 20 mins. But I’ll be honest, it just find it embarrassing. Personally. I don’t like being observed from the stage before I’ve got my audience face on. Imagine plonking yourself in the front row of Lazarus and having a pretty loud convo with your mate about the fact you’d heard it was shit but it didn’t matter because the tickets were cheap. And then the two of you trying to decide whether you still had time to go for a piss. And then realising Michael C Hall is about a foot and half from your face. Hmmm. (Sally Hales)

No bows at the end of a show
I don’t *always* hate this – sometimes a show troubles the already paper-thin boundary between theatre and the outside world so potently that to have a curtain call would be deleterious or just plain unfeasible, but for the most time it’s just the most annoying thing ever. I can’t help but feel there’s something weirdly self-congratulatory about not allowing your audience to congratulate you. (Ben Kulvichit)

Compulsory standing ovations
This is going to make me sound like a total theatre grinch but I really hate standing ovations. Specifically occasions when I’ve been guilted into standing for shows that I don’t think deserve it – by the peer pressure of all the theatre seats around you tipping up, or by the actors. I still find musicals traumatic after Edna in Hairspray singled me out and gestured for me to stand up. I will be moved to leap to my feet by a life-altering show – pretty sure I initiated the standing ovation at Adam at the Traverse theatre. But shows like that don’t come along very often and so we should save up our highest theatre applause for them. And let people respond to shows in their own way, rather than making how much they enjoyed a show competitively performative. (Hannah Greenstreet)

Dressing up
If theatre is ever going to be the open, accessible, intersectional paradise we all want it to be, then we’ve got to get rid of the blazers and bow-ties. Going to the theatre should be as easy as going to the pub, and audiences should dress accordingly. Try it next time you go. Wear a football shirt and trackies, or a t-shirt and shorts. Wear flip-flops. Take your shoes off. Go, on. Be the change you want to see in the world. (Fergus Morgan)

[Editor’s disclaimer: Unless your feet smell like either a spring meadow or freshly baked bread, Exeunt DOES NOT endorse the removal of shoes in an enclosed space.]

Drooling when crying to demonstrate the intensity of emotion
More liquid does not necessarily equal more emotion. If it did, then I’ve had some frankly soul-searing wees. (Ka Bradley)

The strained face of dance-drama
Particularly prevalent in dance-led immersive theatre, this rictus of erotic agony is meant to convey the turbulence of a complex and sexy soul but more often looks like the person in question is about to fake-cry and fake-apologise while dumping someone they actually don’t like very much. (Ka Bradley)

Stage rain
For me, a suspiciously localized shower, often restricted to a very small part of the stage, either conjures up images of a tiny, floating cartoon raincloud with a sad face, or a plastic red bucket hanging precariously over the heads of actors, tantalizingly swaying with a string leading to the hands of a very vengeful stagehand (NB I am aware this is not actually how it works). Unless the play is an episode of Winnie the Pooh or is set on April Fools Day, these visions usually jar with the conventional brooding *atmos* rain is usually intended to evoke. More often than not, I just think it’s a last-minute attempt to pack in some vague meteorological meaning into a scene. Whenever these little monsoons pour forth, I can’t help rolling my eyes and singing ‘Blame it on the Rain’ by Milli Vanilli to myself. (Brendan MacDonald)

Scenographic tropes including…
I try to be nice about my irrational scenography dislikes on the whole as most of them are part of the larger issue of designers frequently not being included under the theatre maker banner e.g. too often a designer is seen as an unnecessary luxury, or a facilitator of an already established vision, meaning that scenography becomes something to be got around rather than an integral part of the show. This tends to be the explanation of most of my instant ‘oh no’ triggers including: mismatched off white ‘period’ underwear for whole ensemble, empty door frames and walking past with a calendar/clock to show the passing of time… So I will reserve my rage for things that aren’t actually bad but that I HATE.

– Big bit of fabric waved around to represent a large body of water. It was perfected in The King and I but that was 1956. Let’s leave it there along with Yul Brynner in yellow face.
– Leafy gobos and green light = forest. Have you ever been in a forest? Was the light green with shapes of cut out leaves on the floor? Nah didn’t fucking think so.
– Masks unless it’s the Oresteia. Don’t @me
– Bubbles in Fringe kids shows. If you are relying on soap to make your show magical, you need to think again. Plus it’s horrible for your venue tech to clean up.
– The ‘dark fairytale’ aesthetic. I have seen enough stripey tights and rip-off Scissorhands make up to last me a lifetime thanks.
– This isn’t the makers’ fault BUT… designing for Beckett under the draconian rules of the Beckett foundation that requires every production of Godot must look the same until the end of time because apparently it was perfect when Beckett did it, so no touching. Despite the fact that Beckett was a fantastic collaborator with fellow genius, designer Jocelyn Herbert, whose innovation for Happy Days led Beckett to actually change the text to reflect her work.

Apart from design, that ‘jiggling up and down with one armed raise to show we’re on the tube’ move has to die a thousand fiery deaths. (Francesca Peschier)

Puppets, in shows that aren’t designated puppet shows
I find it incredibly, irrationally disconcerting if someone gives birth to a puppet baby in an otherwise naturalistic play. The awkward jointed limbs. The uncanny blank eyes. It’s probably a failure of imagination on my part but any immediate emotional impact will be lost as I muse on the actual HORROR that will ensue as this sinister puppet changeling grows to full adult size. (Alice Saville) 

Invisible animals
I come to the theatre to escape my miserable, catless reality, to enter a world peopled by strangers who will be, in some way, my friends; to be plunged into a different reality where hearts are hammered on strange new anvils. When I see a performer petting the air and cooing at the space under their hand, that escapism is shattered. None of us have any nice cats to play with or stroke or offer Dreamies to or put a small hat on. The fourth wall is shattered – I see the stage for what it is, a raised platform dotted with grown children spurting memorised words into a void – I can no longer connect on any emotional or psychological level with the story that is before me – I really, really wish I had a cat. (Ka Bradley)

Dogs that are only onstage for like ten seconds
Don’t just show off that you were able to get your hands on a dog and then get rid of it!! Let us look at it!!! (Hailey Bachrach)

White Pants
The only thing worse than bad theatre is bad theatre involving the revelation of man performing in his WHITE PANTS. My visceral horror relates specifically to the WHITE PANTS – their whiteness and grossness and their overall hideousness. The appearance of them instantly plunges me into an existential crisis in which I repeatedly ask why the fugliest design of underwear became the bottom-hugging choice of semi-naked performers. I’ve never known a man in real life favour grim WHITE PANTS (and if they did I would make an especial point of never knowing what lay beneath). WHITE PANTS immediately make me think of Woolworths school section, I can see them hanging up next to some smelly rubber daps and a polo shirt. Is this the point? Is the idea to deliberately choose the least erotic version of underwear created to prove your mind is on loftier things than nice undies; it’s about creating Art? Because art gets it wrong too, you know. In fact, in the National Gallery, there’s a painting by Piero della Francesca from way back in the 1450s showing a man stripping off to get baptised by John.

Detail of 'The Baptism of Christ', 1450s, National Gallery

Detail of ‘The Baptism of Christ’, 1450s, National Gallery

And you know what he’s wearing? WHITE PANTS. Those same disgusting WHITE PANTS that appear to be endorsed by Equity. For centuries, humans have been making this same WHITE PANTS mistake. When the Lord can’t save you from save you from bad fashion choices, you need to rely on theatre critics. BURN THE WHITE PANTS. (Rosemary Waugh)

[Editor deletes entire email thread and runs howling into the distance]


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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