If I were a performer, I wouldn’t read my reviews. All that crippling self-doubt and second-guessing? The conflicting, exaggerated demands of a short-sighted audience who just started thinking about my show a few hours ago, while I’ve been grappling with it for months? There’s a reason why comments section have a disable button.
And yet, constant audience review is precisely the motivating force behind the New York Neo-Futurists’ latest show, The Great American Drama, playing through February 5th at A.R.T. Theaters. Creator Connor Sampson and performers Nicole Hill, Katy-May Hudson, and Dan McCoy gathered nearly 500 surveys that gauged theatregoers’ ideal show. The survey asks participants to rank theatrical elements in order of importance, to state what would they pay to see, suggestions for making money as artists, and other questions to help make the best show possible. The performers try to satisfy as many of the audience’s demands as possible in 90 minutes (the timing’s definitely done right), attempting to create something that is crowd-pleasing in the purest sense of the word. At the end of the night, Sampson asks the audience and his co-stars whether the performance was a success. Audience members text a rating to an online poll, which gets projected on stage and gives the show a grade.
Now I’m left with the question of how to review a show whose greatest motivator (or its greatest undoing) is mass reviewing. I’ve grappled with the question of how to best use my voice to supports arts and critical engagement before, but this show in particular makes me incredibly self-aware of my position as a critic. What did I expect to see in this show, and how did those expectations impact the reality of what I received? How have prior theater experiences shaped what I appreciated in the show? What even constitutes a theatrical success, and who am I to deem it such?
One thing I love about the Neo-Futurists, and which is emphasized in this show, is that the performers never hide the effort that goes into creating and performing a show. This doesn’t just apply to the physical and emotional energy it takes to power the show, though that is certainly evident from the sheer amount of sweat and tears taking place over the night. What I’m more grateful for is that the means for their work are laid bare for the audience to see. At the start of the show, the cast openly states what the show means to them and the risks they took to get to opening night. Connor and Nicole had to quit their day jobs to meet the demands of the production. Katy-May had to postpone a visit to her native Australia to visit a sick relative. They project the money they’re earning from the show (just under $2000 each), the production costs, the total profits and ticket sales. If a performer ever feels uncomfortable and emotional during a segment, they note it. If they don’t think they did as good a job at the end of the night, they say it.
This transparency of feeling and effort and action are intricately linked with the American Dream, the show’s theme. We hide our anxieties and failures from each other, thinking they’ll make us seem weak. And in fact, those in power do tend to dismiss the emotional and physical struggles of success. We think that success comes to the deserving, and that failure comes from personal flaws, not from the structures that dictate success or from the inherent difficulties of finding it. One of Sampson’s goals for the production is to explore what success means to audiences and how best to achieve it in modern America. The show’s structure is built on some of the founding tenants of the American Dream—that if you work hard enough, you can succeed. That if you listen to your customer and collecting data, your produce will show gains. That the value of your work is dictated by the external needs of a social demand, and not by what you feel is true to yourself.
For one person, these ideals could lead to financial success and self-worth, and for another, they could lead to anxiety, self-negation, and economic failure. The transparency of the process is important for noting that these ideals and definitions don’t always find fruition, and that success, however you define it, isn’t nearly as formulaic as our society tends to believe.
At the end of the night, I struggled with whether to text “yes” or “no” on whether the show was a success. There were parts where I felt extremely invested in the show, and other parts where I felt disconnected and bored. There were lines that I could frame on my wall for lasting memory, and others that I’d comfortably forget tomorrow. But I felt my judgment was rendered useless. What I had taken in was not just a show but nearly a whole year’s worth of time, energy, and work that I’d conveniently consumed in 90 minutes. I resisted the idea of reducing the experience of the show in a simple rating. What could I criticize that these performers hadn’t already frantically thought of? Did it make a difference if what I liked or didn’t like was directly opposed by the hundreds of surveys? How could I translate my subjective experience of a show into an objective piece of data? And what ripple effects would my +/- 1 point make on these people’s very real livelihoods making art?
I just decided to accept what I had just seen. No judgment. No rating. Just the deep sense that what was put on stage for me to see and pay for was something effortful and honest. Even though Sampson and his team beg for reviews, the show itself seems to earnestly resist them. The Great American Drama is the sum of much, much more than a spreadsheet of survey results.