On Theatre

MCMULLEN VS. NESTRUCK: Innovation through Debate

Nestruck challenged me that if I want to measure the success of my artistic merits through audience response that I should set up a refund policy on my art… So I did.

mcmullen_vs_nestruckMy apologies for the delay in my response to J. Kelly Nestruck’s criticisms in his article in the Globe and Mail entitled: “Stood There, Applauded That” (February 21st). You see, I was busy creating theatre so that the critics have something to write about. Now, I find it seems I have some time to catch up on less pressing issues like whether or not a theatre critic disapproves of my intentions regarding audience involvement in the work I produce.

Let me catch you up to date. In early February I had the privilege of being in the audience for a hyped up Canadian production that (I felt) fell flat on its face (as they tend to do)… I wrote about it and it sparked a conversation amongst theatre critics in Toronto about how it seems that every production that graces the stage receives the inevitable “Canadian Compulsory Standing O.” I got to thinking about how I, as a theatre creator can go about rectifying this disturbing phenomenon. I came up with a rather underdeveloped idea of placing an insert into the programmes of the productions I produce that reads: “To help us better understand your level of satisfaction with our presentation please: give us a standing ovation if you are incredibly satisfied, a seated applause if you are satisfied, and complete silence if you are rather indifferent … and (dare I say…) a vocal ‘boo’ if you were unsatisfied.”

While this idea needed refining, I felt that it was, in the very least, a feeble attempt to un-do the mentality in our Canadian audiences that standing ovations are compulsory. Through this idea, I want my audiences to know that they do not owe us anything in the way of a collective response to our work; we are not looking for approval, but for honest to goodness feedback.

I elicited J. Kelly Nestruck to chime in with his response to my idea. I specifically picked Nestruck to strike up this conversation because I knew that he would loath the idea and in doing so provide me with some very critical feedback in its regard. I was right and through our twitter debate and his article where he quotes my programme-inserting intentions, I have been better able to round out my thoughts.

I believe that it is through debate and perhaps confrontation as I experienced with Nestruck, (I.e. “any artist who chooses to mount the overdone, overrated math melodrama Proof should not be determining the benchmark for underwhelming.”) that an idea can become a good idea and a good idea can become great. In fact it was through this debate and Nestruck’s closing argument that caused me to adjust my intentions of this “rating-system” and put my money with my mouth is. Nestruck challenged me that if I want to measure the success of my artistic merits through audience response that I should set up a refund policy on my art.

And this is exactly what I will do. For every show Mnemonic Theatre produces, we will offer a full-money-back guarantee at intermission, starting with Proof by David Auburn (Vancouver, June 2013).

When I announced this to my associate producers, one commented, “But, don’t we run the risk of losing a lot of money?” To which I replied, “Only if we do shitty work, so let’s make damn sure we don’t.” This, my friends, is called STAKES.

Thank you, J.Kelly Nestruck for your unabashed criticisms and insightful recommendations.

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Caleb McMullen

Written by Caleb McMullen

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheatreisforSuckers.com

There are 3 comments

  • Jane MacFarlane says:

    It is not just a Canadian phenomenon. When we used to live in the US, we were amazed that people just leapt to their feet. I rarely think it is warranted but it is also a tricky line, telling audiences how to react. And I have certainly sat in shows where people whose opinion I respect loved it and I wanted to stick pins in my eyes. Personal taste is part of the equation.

  • Michael Dale says:

    Broadway also has an automatic standing ovation problem. Those of us who don’t believe the show deserves one, but who are blocked from seeing the curtain call because of people standing in front of us, give a standing “novation.” We stand so we can see, but stop applauding.

    There’s also the tricky matter of not being able to separate applause for a performer from applause for the play. Standing for James Earl Jones’ bow doesn’t mean you think the play was any good.

  • Melba LaRose says:

    May I suggest that instead of full money back guarantee at intermission, you try half off coupon on another production. After all, sometimes a show is better in the second half, but they are not giving it a chance. There are shows I have walked out on at intermission on Broadway and I would have welcomed this kind of discount on trying another show. I absolutely knew these shows could not make up for the disastrous first half (Tarzan). If you give the show a chance by sitting through the whole thing, you deserve a full coupon on another show — maybe even a great seat. But, I would not give money back. There are people who will take advantage. Also, if they really hated it, you may lose them forever. This, at least, gives them an enticement.

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