Why I don’t like the theatre and why I’m a camel

I’ve been asked now and again why I don’t write scripts – plays and what have you. I’ve never tried for the simple reason that I don’t really like the theatre. Never have much.

I will go now and again – mostly when my beloved drags me to god-awful musical theatre productions when we visit That London for romantic weekend breaks. I feel a mounting sense of dread as we approach the West End and then I sit through interminable hours of boredom and annoyance as people mug and grimace and moon about on stage.

The last time I went we were up in the gods, my legs lost all feeling after five minutes, I got bored and frustrated after ten and at the interval I made my excuses and left – telling my Mrs I’d meet her in the pub at the end. As an aside, it’s strange how the character of Soho changes when you are a bloke on your own – within five minutes after I poked my nose out of the door of the theatre unchaperoned by my other half I’d been offered two lots of hard drugs and the opportunity to come upstairs to meet some ‘lovely young girls’. Crikey.

Of course – that’s musical theatre – lots of men dislike that right? It’s not really aimed at us. But I dislike other types of theatre too – I can sit through a serious play by a serious author if I have to and if it doesn’t go on too long – but the only types of theatre I’ve watched with any degree of enjoyment over the last few years are Shakespeare and pantomimes.

Why do I dislike theatre so much? It is after all a harmless thing, a pillar of the arts and aimed only at bringing people joy. I think basically it’s because I find it embarrassing. When I watch people on stage I feel embarrassed not only for them – but for me as well. I squirm. What are they doing up there – pretending to be other people, right in front of us? It’s not natural.

Film’s ok, and TV – those people aren’t really there. I expect I like Shakespeare and panto because they are the least ‘real’ types of theatre, their artificiality reduces the squirm factor for me so I feel comfortable watching them. Also, Shakespeare’s the boss isn’t he? Never trust a writer who doesn’t like him.

So that’s why I don’t do scripts, which is a pity really as it might open up that whole world of writing for television and so on which might actually make some money. The truth is though, if your heart’s not in it you are better off not doing it. The only honest reason to write fiction is because you feel you have to – that’s the reason you start and the reason you continue. The opportunity to make significant money doing it doesn’t come along for most of us, and even if it does you have to weigh things up and decide if you are being sent in a direction you really want to travel.

I know a writer for example who has written serious plays, very successfully. As a result she became attached to an agent, and that agent immediately set about offering her work writing scripts for Eastenders and other similar television soap operas. She said no. It wasn’t what she wanted, not where her interests lay. Economically that was probably an unwise decision but I really respect it.

In my own small way I’ve also tried to be true to what I am about as a writer. From time to time agents have shown an interest in me – on their own terms, not mine. What they tend to say is: “Write us a thriller – a conventional one, obeying all the rules – give us something we can easily sell.”

What I say to them is this: ‘You’re looking for a horse to enter in the Grand National – and I am a camel.”

The way I see it, rather than trying to become the race-horse they want I’m better off trying to be the best camel I can be.

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14 thoughts on “Why I don’t like the theatre and why I’m a camel

  1. I’ve had a similar experience in my genre – my agent sent me a proposal from a publisher wanting to bring out a new YA series – it was soo prescriptive, even down to the colour of the main protagonists’s hair, that I declined it on the spot. You are right, Integrity is all – and as we know from all the ‘clones’ that follow a successful book, camels in horses clothing are all too easy to spot.

    • Yes – I don’t think it’s even about being ‘noble’ or true to your art – it’s just about being honest about what you can do well and what you can’t. As a rule of thumb I think if you are considering writing something you wouldn’t read yourself then perhaps it’s time to ask ‘am I the best person to write this?’

    • Suspicious – that’s a good word for my relationship with theatre. Also awkward. I’m getting some stick for this on twitter now though. Perhaps next week I’ll say I think painting is crap and see how that goes down.

  2. I am smiling as I write and respond. I agree that you must remain true to your own art and style. But I find it interesting your comments about these actors onstage pretending to be other people and expecting you to believe it. But they are in effect telling those very stories that you are creating for your book, yes? And as a reader I am expected to believe in your characters as well. I see that it may be an unfair comparison as I read your book in privacy with no one around to see me believing you. But there is some irony here. But at the end of the day I respect storytelling in whatever form it takes. Thanks for the blog. Interesting thoughts.

    • I hate it when my grumpy prejudices are countered with well ordered logical argument. As someone once said ‘well, you can prove anything with facts can’t you?’ My dislike of live acting is probably deep rooted in psychological trauma – maybe I was frightened by an actor as a small child or something.

  3. I’m not a theater-goer, so I have no dog in this hunt, but your comments remind me of something Poe once wrote about the American drama:

    “The fact is, the drama is not now supported for the sole reason that it does not deserve support. We must burn or bury the old models. — We need Art, as Art is beginning to be understood: — that is to say, in place of absurd conventionalities, we demand principles of dramatic composition founded in Nature, and in common sense. The common sense, even of the mob, can no longer be affronted, night after night, with impunity. If, for example, a playwright will persist in making a hero deliver a soliloquy upon the stage, such as no human being ever soliloquised in ordinary life, — ranting transcendentalism at the audience as nothing conceivable ever before ranted, short of a Piankitank candidate for Congress — splitting the ears of the house, and endangering the lives of the orchestra, the while that a confidential friend who holds him by the shoulder is supposed not to overhear a single syllable of all that is said; — if the playwright, we say, will persist in perpetrating these atrocities, and a hundred infinitely worse, for no better reason than that there were people silly enough to perpetrate them four or five hundred years ago — if he will do this, and will not do anything else to the end of Time — what right has he, we demand, to look any honest man in the face and talk to him about what he calls ‘the decline of the drama?'”

    The more things change…

    • I’m delighted to align myself with such a well-balanced commentator as Poe. He doesn’t say there whether he likes panto though. Just goes to show there’s no such thing as a new opinion.

  4. I tend not to admit I’m not a theatre lover – people seem genuinely shocked! – so I’m glad someone else has had the balls to say it what I feel. When I lived in Scarborough years ago I’d sometimes go and see an Alan Ayckbourn comedy at the Theatre in the Round, and they were okay, but it was in front of a small audience and quite cosy, and not so cringey somehow. You’ve hit the nail on the head for me by mentioning the embarrassment factor – it just seems odd to me to see people behaving like that on stage, and I can never get past the fact that they’re ‘acting’ – odd really when I love a really good telly drama.

    • I know – I feel mean for saying it too as most people involved in the theatre seem really nice, and are definitely kindred spirits of authors – but it creeps me out and that’s all there is to it!

    • It’s only live theatre I have a problem with – no kind of broadcast – that’s all fine! I don’t expect others to agree with me on this by the way – it’s just my personal, and admittedly odd, opinion!

  5. I used to love theatre in my twenties but then I think it got spoiled by the digital age, too many huge screens and easy access. I get fidgety too in theatre seats . Watching a play seems like hard work, like climbing stairs when I could be in a lift. I feel guilty because I ‘ve seen some wonderful acting in my time. I’m hoping I’ll fall in love with it again when I’m very old.

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