Why is theater intimidating?

Cringeworthy tales of getting into theater—just in time for Philly Fringe 2019

5 minute read
Opera Philadelphia’s 'We Shall Not Be Moved,' an opera about the MOVE bombing, could've been a performance I overlooked if it weren't for my partner. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Opera Philadelphia’s 'We Shall Not Be Moved,' an opera about the MOVE bombing, could've been a performance I overlooked if it weren't for my partner. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Four years ago, I had no idea what the Fringe Festival was. For most of my life, theater felt like a medium I couldn’t access. Or it just plain didn’t want anything to do with me. Theater was intimidating. I always thought it was something only rich folk went to on the weekends, whereas I was out here with family and friends going to the movies on 69th Street on Saturdays. I had plenty of context for movies. But for theater? Nah, son.

My first time

I didn’t get my first brushes with theater until college. And here is where I’m going to tell you some cringeworthy stories that I don’t tell anyone. Because discovering new art can be a painful, discouraging, and confusing endeavor, and I want people who don’t know theater to know that theater is as much for you as it is for the wealthy weekenders you might have imagined in the audience.

In 2004, I auditioned for a college play. Leading up to the tryout, I made a big deal out of it with one of my friends. What was my monologue? Al Pacino’s speech from Devil’s Advocate.

In 2005, I went to see another friend perform in another college play called A Saint’s Plays. I had no idea what was going on, but the mood and the tone left an impression on me. That prompted me to immediately change my major from journalism to—not theater! Film. Because theater was still too intimidating.

“How we gonna pay?”

In 2006, I went to the Merriam to see my first big-time play: Rent. I got invited by a few friends who had a spare ticket at the last minute, and I jumped on a whim. Back then, I didn’t really know what Rent was about. I just knew people talked about it, in the same way that Wicked was hot stuff in the early 2000s. And what did I do from the balcony seats? I took a picture with my little pocket PowerShot digital camera. With the flash on. The usher was not happy, and surely all the people around me were rolling their eyes.

I took a playwriting class in 2007 and penned some of the most awful narratives I’ve ever written. I also skipped that class quite often. I managed a B+, but still, it never clicked.

Later, I started as a freelance contributor at Philadelphia Metro. Some of the first things I got to write about there were the BlackArts and the Philadelphia Asian American Film festivals. Plenty of film-centric things. But then my editor wanted me to cover a theater production. And I said sure! Because what budding writer ever says no to their editor?

I freaked out.

Finding the questions

I’d never written about theater. Luckily, my partner works in theater and she’d introduced me to some great performances prior to this. But I was just a casual, still-awkward theatergoer. I consulted her on what sorts of questions I should ask an artistic director (that’s what they’re called, right?). I knew I’d be in over my head, but jumped in anyway.

For my first theater preview, I covered Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s 2016 All’s Well That Ends Well. I scheduled an interview with artistic director Dan Hodge and felt like a deer in the headlights. Were my questions good enough? Would readers notice what a novice I was? How uneducated and inexperienced I was in theater?

The line to see ‘Rent’ on opening night at the Merriam. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)
The line to see ‘Rent’ on opening night at the Merriam. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

I handled it pretty well. My editor complimented me, Hodge accepted my friend request on Facebook (which was me trying to be all network-y), and I even got to talk with a few of the performers after the show (again, me trying to be all network-y and cool), my partner by my side.

First impressions

For a dozen years, theater and I got off to a clunky start. Now, here I am, helping lead BSR’s coverage of the Fringe Festival. I still wonder, who am I and how am I qualified to talk theater?

But today, that’s my point. When I talk about things I know well, like books, video games, and music, I don’t assume other folks know them as well as I do. I can talk about that stuff as if my companion is as uncertain, lost, and intimidated as I was when I first got into theater. So now, as an arts journalist, it’s natural to bring that same openness and accessibility to my work in theater.

Patience with others’ inexperience is pivotal, especially these days, where we always want the best experience and are quick to abandon new things we try. We might not fall in love with something on the first try, and we may need a little help figuring out how to love it. I’m still learning about theater, and while I may never know it inside out like celebrated theater writers do, I’m happy with my personal experience—and as with any field, nascent knowledge can open unexpected windows and inclusive new angles.

Just go

If you’re new to theater, go to a show! The Philadelphia Fringe Festival and (new this year) the Free Fringe are excellent opportunities to explore the unexplored, and the Fringe is easier to discover this year than in the past. You might not like it. You might love it. Or something in between might happen. If you’re not new to theater, find friends who haven’t tried the scene and take them to a show.

Theater is for everyone. Don’t let one (or several) experiences say otherwise.

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