When I think of theater on screen, the two pop culture references I immediately reach for are Joey in the early seasons of Friends, dragging his friends along to another abysmal play in a dingy theater, and Ed Wood’s amateur L.A. theater troupe, huddled around the first print of their reviews, their director encouraging them to not be too dismayed at the poor reception. These are easy touchstones, but they feel doubly resonant with my own experiences of low-rent theater. I have had to deal with lukewarm reviews (jokes on you, student newspaper journalists, now I’m the critic), and I have worked really hard on crappy theater that my friends felt obligated to attend.
I’m sure a lot of people in front of and behind the camera had their own experiences making shoddy art, so I’m sure both these mockeries were in good faith, but such on-screen mockery is not limited to when theater is unwatchable. Expensive, glamorous, prestigious productions, from Broadway to West End, are, according to film, filled to the brim with divas, infighting, amorous trysts and betrayals. See How They Run continues the trend, but unlike the range of classic films that came before, shows a clear lack of interest in the relationship between the two storytelling mediums-despite centering on an attempted film adaptation of the London West End hit whodunnit The Mousetrap (now in its 70th year onstage!). “Isn’t all this fun?” it says with its fizzy aesthetics, its theater setting largely relegated to a backdrop. But theater is a lot more than a backdrop. It doesn’t matter if it does so in bad faith, with biting cynicism, or melodramatic characters—the camera can offer a perfect vantage point from which to interrogate the stage.
As a creative and critical writer for both mediums, I’ve noticed a range of the fixations film has developed with its artistic double. Is a theater troupe more intimate or insular than a film cast and crew? Do you have more opportunity for experimentation, as opposed to the rigidly organized filmmaking process? And what do artists think of their audience when they’re tangibly aware of their presence? See How They Run may not deign to answer these questions, but thankfully there’s decades worth of other films that have a crack at them.
The populist medium of film often sees theater culture as more elitist, resulting in a lot of comedic portraying plays and troupes as pretentious. Sure, a lot of theater is, but there’s nothing inherent to the artform that makes it more prone to pretension than film. What the majority of theater audiences will see every year is incredibly broadly pitched, and seeing as nobody ends up seeing the intentionally artsy, abstract stage work, it very much feels like we’re kicking it while it’s down. Two notable films about alternative, underground theater sidestep jabs at its inaccessibility, and avoid the low-hanging comedic fruit of “recreate terrible abstract theater that will never be as funny as the experience of watching sincere terrible abstract theater.”
Italian slasher Stage Fright, the best of the many horror films that have used the title, watches rehearsals for a funky musical get terrorized by a killer who adopts the identity of the fictional serial killer the musical is about: A man wearing an owl mask. (Remember: it’s abstract.) No salient points about the merits of theater as art are present here, rather it’s a physical space utilized commendably for murderous hijinks.
Contrastingly, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is concerned with the ethics of edgy theater, where an alternative theater troupe starts co-opting a young, mentally unwell actor’s traumatic personal life for their own artistic purposes. Decker’s thesis has little to do with the quality of the theater being created (it looks absolutely dreadful), and her narrative isn’t even restricted to criticizing theater. Without boundaries, the creative mindset these directors have will only lead to exploitation. It’s impossible to ignore the feeling of going too far with the drawing on of personal experiences, it’s just hard to vocalize your discomfort to a group of talented peers and authoritative artists that you idolize. Toxic power dynamics don’t just happen in the glamor of All About Eve—any creative process can be plagued with them.
Another trope films about theater love engaging with is The Audience, that vexing and nebulous mass that decides the merit of creative labors—or do they?! Sometimes audiences are nothing but dumb masses with broad tastes and simplistic understandings of art. In my experience, audiences are pretty discerning: I faced my most lukewarm audience at the end of a two-week festival run, where a couple hours earlier I had suffered a full-on mental breakdown, and the loudest laughs came exclusively from famed holographic doctor and Gremlin lover Robert Picardo. It was a surreal time.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gets points for its brazen engagement with theater’s thorny and contradictory views on audiences. Besides all the light-hearted, observant teasing at the limits of self-serious theater, the moment that bothers me most in Birdman is when Michael Keaton’s washed-up leading man Riggan suffers a psychotic break and genuinely attempts to shoot himself during a climactic moment onstage—something the audience, and a steely and traditionalist critic, go crazy for as a new, exhilarating form of theatrical realism. “Those fools!” Iñárritu’s film posits. “They didn’t know it wasn’t actually innovative and transgressive art! How conceited and misguided they are!” But the problem with staging a conversation between artists and their audiences within the work of art itself is that the artist controls everything their fictional audience thinks, so it almost always comes across as didactic and myopic.
This is, incidentally, why The Producers, a film about producers zealously convinced they know how a theater audience will respond to their intentionally terrible art, works. While they correctly predict that it’s not a good show, they fail to anticipate how its terribleness will come across as calculated and intentional…which, yes, it was, but not in the ways the audiences understand. The producers think so little of their audience, they don’t realize how much goodwill they’ll generate for their terrible art.
If you’re not keen on this cynicism, try the gentle earnestness of Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman, a mockumentary about a tiny town’s musical showcase to commemorate their history. The film takes its time showing the whole performance, and even though its shoddiness is a great source of amusement, the local audience is entertained by the sincere, full-hearted celebration of their history. Maybe this town isn’t the sharpest, most discerning critical audience, but who among us can disregard the genuine warmth they receive from art that’s made exclusively for them?
Waiting for Guffman, by parodying community theater, evades a common obstacle in movies and TV about theater: It can be really difficult to convince us that an in-universe play is any good. The strangely watchable but undeniably garbage series Smash was pressed upon me at university by my musical theater friends performing its bland, contextless songs at cabarets, and it’s validating that—now that I’m finally watching the series—they’re all equally uninteresting in the show they were written for. Basically everyone involved in its Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell either hates or wants to fuck each other, to the extend that six episodes in, the main cast could be divided into “involved in a romantic tryst,” “window dressing” or “Angelica Huston.’’ Regardless of the discourse surrounding Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, it’ll have to be pretty terrible to compete with Bombshell.
Funnily enough, John Cassavettes’ Opening Night made less of an impact in my student theater circles, but it stands polar opposite to Smash by featuring an original play that the characters admit is hot garbage. Gena Rowlands plays Myrtle, an alcoholic actress who leads a very shouty play where the main characters are seemingly asinine observations and male violence, and the film builds methodically to the play’s opening night in New York, where Myrtle turns up offensively late and catatonically drunk. She’s carted out on stage regardless, and the play starts as terribly as you’d expect. What makes the final act so transcendent is how the on-stage actors stop prioritizing their lines and cues, and start rallying around Myrtle in her time of need, going completely off-script and engaging in some affecting, meaningless improv. The play would be totally unwatchable were the leads not so clearly filled with messy, burning love for each other, and the point becomes clear: There is catharsis to be found in ruining a performance, and it’s always ethical to hijack lousy writing.
Compared to Peter Bogdonavich’s farce Noises Off (which, counter to Smash, at least admits how preposterously impractical it is for an entire cast to be sleeping with each other), Opening Night is on a completely different wavelength. They both play the tension of a play going wrong, how the audience will react and how humiliating it is for the players—and anyone who’s witnessed or been a part of a play going belly up can immediately relate to that pit-of-your-stomach terror when things veer off script. (I once didn’t learn some lines because I thought they would be prompted, so I spent two minutes of a dress rehearsal mumbling “shit” to myself onstage. It was Shakespeare.) But the onstage/backstage slapstick of Noises Off is built on this sole tension, and always stays just clear of the play ever going horrendously in order to land a satisfying ending. Opening Night pushes this tension into overdrive, shattering that anxiety by illustrating how pointless the performance of human emotions is compared to actually experiencing them with people who need your love.
But the best films about theater have nothing to say about audiences at all. All About Eve barely features them except as a uniform mass to extract adoration to fuel the ego, and last year’s melodic, patient Drive My Car imagines a rehearsal process that on the surface seems pretentious, but in fact clearly opens up closed hearts to the power of connection. Rehearsals are used as a way to flush out the pains that plague us so that, when the grieving director is forced to play the part his late wife helped him learn, the performance acts as an emotional exorcism. We see the audience, but only focus on his driver, with whom he shared a geographical and emotional journey to confront their shared guilt and grief. She’s the only one who truly knows what the director’s performance means, and she might as well be the only person watching.
The lasting memory I’ll have of my theater-making days—at least before I am dragged back into a dusty black-box theater to stage yet another play where actors circle each other, yell and point fingers for an hour—is being able to stare into the faces of the audience. It’s terrifying to scan a crowd’s faces to watch if a joke landed, if they felt the suspense, if they thought the inevitable bit where I made one of my friends fall over was anything. That feeling was, at its core, drama, a vein of tension and pathos that filmmakers have mined since film’s popularity first challenged the stage—although like most send-ups, it helps if you love the thing you’re mocking. Maybe film is better suited than plays to unravel the context and presence of the theatrical medium because it inherently possesses a level of distance from it. And yes, if your story engages with theater sincerely and thoughtfully, you get a free pass to make fun of it as well.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.