Theatre Rules: To Break or Not to Break?

by John Ellis

Some people are born rule-followers. In the main, that’s probably a good thing. The problem, though, is that those types of people are prone to legalism, to use a theological term. Legalists believe that the rules and their obedience to the rules earn them salvation. Theologically speaking, legalism is a heresy that contradicts the Bible’s soteriology. While not containing nearly the same gravity as in theology, legalism in art can be the enemy of good art. Specifically, a devotion to theatre rules inhibits the actor’s ability to effectively tell the story. Break that news gently to art legalists, though. They believe that it’s the rules and their adherence to the rules that create good art.

The role of rules in theatre and the value of breaking those rules is something that I’ve contemplated for years. However, after posting a joke on Facebook about being freer to end sentences with prepositions when I’m writing sermons than I am when writing for my writing job, I was reminded that not everyone agrees with my belief that grammar rules are best sacrificed on the altar of effective communication.

For example, most of us speak in a manner that would earn us a page decorated with the red marks from an English teacher’s pen. However, writing speeches for English teachers will hit most listener’s ears weirdly. Instead, the effective communicator will write his speech to be heard by the audience he’s addressing and not for the English teacher who didn’t assign him the speech as a term paper. I frequently write “verbal clutter” – words like “um” – into my lectures and sermons. Public speakers should write to be heard and not to be read, which is a rule that asks for other rules to be broken, including itself.

Writers face the wrath of grammar Nazis if they begin too many sentences with “so.” And heaven forbid that a writer begin a sentence with “and” or “but” or “because.” Google, “can I begin a sentence with a conjunction?” and count the number of wags scolding those who dare cheapen the English language by failing to leave conjunctions where they belong (to be fair, you can find a growing amount of articles pushing back on limiting conjunctions to, well, conjuncting things within a sentence – to make up a word). Mercifully, Wilson Follett, who wrote the esteemed Follett’s Modern American Usage made great inroads in taking the wind out of the sails of grammar Nazis who insist on prohibiting sentences from beginning with a conjunction.

Theatre has its own version of “grammar Nazis,” those who insist, for example, that an actor should never turn his back to the audience or that downstage center is the “strongest” stage position. No doubt, theatre artists could compile a long list of rules that they have heard teachers, professors, directors, designers, et al. insist on but that are not nearly as sacrosanct as the proponent of the rule believes. And, if we’re being honest, most of us can probably add some of our own favorite rules to that list.

For theatre artists who are prone to rule-breaking, take heart. The greatest theatre artist on theatre’s all-time great list was a notorious rule-breaker, even inventing words whenever he couldn’t find one that suited his purpose. I would love to hear Shakespeare respond to a lecture on Aristotle’s Poetics. He’d probably write the professor into a play as the comic villain buffooned and eye-rolled in a mimicking verse structure that leaves no doubt as to Shakespeare’s opinions about the art legalist.

True, our theatre historians say that it’s highly unlikely that the Bard was familiar with Aristotle’s Poetics, but, still. Good luck finding adherence to the classical unities in Shakespeare. And write a paper attempting to shoehorn Rome and Juliet into Aristotle’s definition and rules for tragedy. You won’t be able to make that argument.

There are reasons why Shakespeare’s plays are beloved and performed and Aristotle’s plays are not. One man knew how to write plays, and he did. The other man foisted his opinions about the writing of plays on others even though he never wrote a play himself. Yet, the one man’s rules (the non-play writing man, to be clear) continues to be elevated to a position of unassailable by many teachers of literature and theatre.

That’s not to admit that I’m not aware that there are many teachers and artists who realize that Aristotle’s Poetics aren’t the end-all for theatre. Yet, even as they applaud theatre makers who challenge the rule, they still insist that the rules be learned and that theatre artists learn how to abide by the rules.

Frequently, the rejoinder to the urging of artists to ignore the rules is that the an artist has to earn the right to break the rules. Put another way, “you have to know the rules before you can break them,” many well-meaning people insist. Except, as I’ve already written, it’s highly unlikely that Shakespeare knew that he was breaking Aristotle’s rules.

Mick Napier, the founder of Annoyance Theatre and trainer of Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey, among other notable comic actors, included a few of his thoughts about rules in his book Improvise: Scene From the Inside Out. After listing the well-known 10 Commandments of Improvisational Acting (some lists have 11 commandments), Napier writes, “I don’t believe they work. That is, The Rules do not help one improvise well. As a matter of fact, I believe that they help one not improvise well. [The Rules] are destructive.”

Napier goes on to explain that rules in improv come about because people failed to recreate good improv and then asked, “What did we do differently?” They then took patterns of performance and codified them into rules. Napier then asserts, “Yes, there is a correlation between bad scenes and specific behavior, but it is not causal. The behavior is consequential. Scenes that are bad to begin with often yield such behavior, but the behavior itself does not cause the scene to be bad.”

Mick Napier believes that the good improviser will ignore the rules and simply trust himself and do something. He also argues that those who insist that actors need to know the rules before breaking them are merely trying to justify charging people money for taking their class. Acknowledging that many actors cling to rules out of a sense of comfort, he encourages actors to forget their fear. And that’s largely my point.

Rules often reflect the presence of fear.

At the top, I wrote, “legalism in art can be the enemy of good art.” That’s only partially correct. Because, as Napier would undoubtedly insist, legalism is a symptom of the true problem – fear.

I’ll never forget the moment I stepped into the room for my first performance as the Underground Man in Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground.

Being unable to afford Russian tea samovars, we staged the show in a coffee shop. Before each show, I would place a jacket on the backs of one of the chairs, ensuring that I knew where I would be sitting after I made my entrance. In case it’s not clear, I sat with the audience and spoke directly with them.

That first night, I momentarily paused by the door jamb separating me from the room of staring eyeballs. As a stand-in for the proscenium arch, it was everything I could do to force myself past my actor’s “safe space” and into the space occupied by my audience. I was afraid, but, thankfully, I moved past my fear, walked through the door jamb, and went into the audience to tell the story.

Fear keeps artists from taking risks. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of disappointing the director. Fear of turning off the audience. Fear of never getting your name in lights. Fear of never making enough money. Fear that it won’t work.

Our fear is why we cling so tightly to rules. And it’s also why so much of what’s produced in the name of theatre is dead and pointless. Much of American theatre is ruled by the iron fist of fear-driven rules. For the Christian experimental theatre artist, though, our art shares a similarity with our faith in that we are free.

Our faith tells us that we are free in Christ. We are free to pursue holiness in the full knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God even though we will frequently fail. In theatre, whether we realize it or not, we are free to fail. As artists, we are free to take risks as we explore what it means to be storytellers who are made in the Image of the Great Storyteller. Man-made rules hold no sway over us because we know that our great task is connecting with fellow image bearers, and that making those connections cannot be codified and caged in with prescribed formulas.

Make theatre that is not ruled by fear. Make theatre that is ruled by freedom.

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