Just off New York’s Times Square, with Hurricane Sandy permitting, an intriguing new festival is entering its second and final week. It’s only minutes from Broadway, but conceptually Bad Theater Fest is a million miles away from the multimillion-dollar glow of its slick neighbours.
Don’t be put off by the name. Here, ‘bad’ isn’t a byword for wilfully awful work, although it is intended to be provocative. Bad Theater Fest is about getting writers, performers and audiences to think about what constitutes success or failure in theatre – and enjoy themselves along the way.
Writer, comedian and co-founder Shawn Wickens explains that his own failure gave rise to the festival. “I shot a pilot for a competition. I thought I had something really good, but it didn’t even make the next round.” So he and performers Starr Kendall and Michael McFarland created the festival as an opportunity for people to realise their ideas in creative and commercial freedom. To this end, it is hosted by The Tank, a non-profit venue that provides free rehearsal and performance space.
“A lot of times, theatre fails because people are trying too hard to be good,” Wickens argues. “It’s not that I want them to try to be bad. I just want them to let the piece happen, to be themselves and have fun with it.” Correspondingly, the programme is an eclectic mix of stand-up, improv, film and theatre by established artists and first-timers. Between eight and nine shows will play at 7pm and 9pm over the next three days.
Inevitably, some of the pieces I saw last Tuesday and Wednesday couldn’t avoid evoking the conventional meaning of ‘bad’. Either they outstayed their welcome, fell back on tired clichés or simply weren’t as funny or as shocking as intended. But the thin line between creative freedom and indulgence is at Bad Theater’s core. It runs through it like letters through a stick of brightly coloured (if oddly shaped) rock. And the advantage of the ‘anything goes’ approach is that it throws up as many gems as it does duds.
In Our Town, a lovely improvised piece, talented comic performers acted out the daily life of a town they created from scratch, while two beret-wearing artists painted it in the background. And Jenny Beth Snyder’s caustically funny A Man of My Word managed to say more about life and art in 20 minutes than plays twice its length.
And behind it all, there’s something inherently joyous about the randomness of the festival’s assortment of shows. It’s hard to imagine another occasion when a Shakespeare mash-up could share programme space with an oddly moving short film about mournful fingers at a funeral.
As an audience member, what Bad Theater Fest leaves you with is the sense that failure is only an absolute when we are conditioned to expect perfection. From the outset, proceedings lack the sheen of a more formal setting. Music plays in the background as The Tank’s staff bring in crates of beer. It feels like a party. This lack of polish continues throughout the evening: the short films are YouTube videos that sometimes get stuck buffering. Masks don’t always stay in place. Occasionally the sound cuts out.
Wickens hopes that the festival will “free actors from worrying about getting criticism.” But the experience is liberating for the audience as well. It’s a reminder that our relationship with the stage can at times be unrealistic or adversarial. We either ignore mistakes or we wait for them, casting a production into the wilderness when they occur. But here, stripped of the veneer of a more stage-managed event, these no longer feel like fatal cracks in the façade. We’re all in it together.
If the weather improves in time, if the giant screens in Times Square give you motion sickness and the jaunty music blaring out above posters of grinning Broadway stars gives you a headache, the refreshingly different Bad Theater Fest might just be for you.
Bad Theater Fest is at The Tank until 31 October. For tickets, see:http://www.badtheaterfest.com/home/
First published by The Telegraph