When I write anything, I generally spend a fair amount of time noodling it around in my head before I begin the actual craft of stringing words together. Sometimes the noodling takes only a couple of hours, sometimes it last weeks, months, even years. With the help of writing workshops and play writing groups, I’ve been able to spend a little time outside of my comfort zone and try a more extemporaneous writing style. For the most part, however, I need to think the piece through a bit. This particular blog post was conceived at the end of May, on opening night of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the musical I recently directed at The Ridgefield Theater Barn, and it required the entire run plus a few weeks of noodling to get to today.
I will first begin with a little background about the show. It is an emo rock musical that is based on the life and presidency of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. When I first saw the show at The Public Theater in New York I, like most, knew very little about Andrew Jackson, with the exception of the fact that he was on the twenty dollar bill and that he was largely responsible for what is commonly known as “The Trail of Tears.” The musical cleverly utilizes emo rock and youthful angst as a mechanism for conveying the growing pains our Nation and a renegade political leader were experiencing in the early 1800s. It’s snarky, it’s littered with foul language and the humor is offensive. So, naturally, I love it!
Following our first performance, I overheard a friend expressing his opinions to another friend about his distaste for the piece and the casting choices that were made. Coming from someone who is usually very complimentary of the shows that I direct, it stung a bit. When nary a word was mentioned of the show on his Facebook the next day, something he commonly does when he likes a show, it felt like salt being rubbed in the wound. Within a day or two, I was able to shake it off. I get that this show isn’t for everyone.
But week after week the hits kept on coming. People blatantly didn’t clap during the curtain call, expressions of disgust were witnessed over the monitor and friends tried to be positive with phrases like “You’re brave!” or “What a monumental task that must’ve been!” Perhaps the most biting moment of them all was when I crossed paths with a patron as she was leaving the theater and she loudly proclaimed, “That was the most awful thing I have ever seen!”
My poor husband, who was also in the show, had to listen to me dissect and rationalize every comment and reaction. Over and over. Every time we had the conversation, it would end with some variation of “You either love it or you hate it.” And some people did love it. In fact, our worst audience reaction was followed the next day by our best, a performance where some people gave us a standing ovation and others gushed about how hard they laughed. Honestly, I’ve never been at the helm of a more polarizing show and, wow, what an experience that was.
Perhaps one of the reasons I found myself so affected by peoples’ reactions was because I had poured so much of myself into this show. Obviously, there was the hard work and time that went into putting a show together but it was more than that. There was a lot of emotional stuff happening during rehearsals for this show and any time I was angry or upset, I would channel that energy into the show. So when people didn’t care for it, maybe I took it a little more personally that I usually would. Like the lyric from the show says, “It represents how I feel. My pain transformed into art.”
I also realized that this is the first show that I have directed in a long time that didn’t have a string of awards, solid buzz or a fairly universal acceptance as “good theater.” While it extended its run at The Public, the Broadway transfer of the show only ran for 94 performances. Regardless, I was thrilled that the theater chose me to direct the production. I think it its a safe assumption to say that I am a director that is expected to choose productions that are risky, challenging, dark and different. I think it is also safe to say, at the risk of injury whilst patting myself on the back, that I do a good job when I tackle those projects. Some audience members who shared their opinion directly with me said that, while it wasn’t their cup of tea they felt that the direction, the performances, the band and the overall production were solid.
So, why does the criticism of this show hit harder than past less-than-effusive reviews? I think some of it stems from my own need for validation. “Do you like me? Do you really like me?” Every artist who puts their work out there yearns to be praised, to strike a chord somewhere and with someone. If they say they don’t, they are lying. I am constantly saying that we as a community need to explore new territory and take risks on original pieces by new writers. I took that risk and I was invested in it, so why is it that there exists this strange void? Why is it that my art has transformed into, if you pardon the metaphor, pain?
I think, then, of the trailblazers. Stephen Sondheim opened a musical about a vengeful blood-thirsty barber and it grew to become one of the most revered pieces of musical theater of our time. There are always haters. You have to risk being hated in order to find the one or two who love it. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t.
I have been told that one shouldn’t respond to critics. That we should believe in what we do, despite what they say. I am still perfecting that skill, always working at it. Do what you love, right? Well, I loved working on this project and the response to it, despite my pondering, has not deterred me in the least.
If I feel hurt, angered or confused by the feedback from the audience or if a patron felt appalled or elated by the production, at least collectively we felt something every time the actors, musicians and audience came together to experience the show. And that, really, is what good art does.
Good art makes you feel something. And feel something we did.