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Problems With Contemporary Theatre

1. Artificial Dialogue

Unfortunately, too often in contemporary theatre we hear character dialogue that is artificial, particularly if it is intended to be naturalistic.

Dialogue that is naturalistic should follow the nuances of everyday speech, containing words and phrases spoken by real people in genuine conversations. Authentic speech patterns, appropriate vocabulary, and use of the vernacular are essential components.

In life, people rarely speak long monologues in natural conversations with others. We regularly speak short phrases and incomplete sentences. Speech is frequently interrupted by others around us.

Yet character dialogue in contemporary theatre often contains an unnecessary theatricalism. It is frequently heightened dialogue that contains inappropriate words and phrases with a certain refinement that gives it a grand(er) quality.

The truth is everyday conversations are often boring and uninteresting. The playwright is left with the difficult challenge of finding the right balance between creating dialogue that has purpose, propels the plot forward and develops character, while still sounding authentic. At the same time, we need to hear dialogue that doesn’t put us to to sleep in the audience.

Unfortunately, contemporary theatre audiences have come to accept character dialogue that is often somewhat awkward, unnecessarily heightened, sometimes stilted, and even unnatural. Since no one seems to be protesting loudly, the trend will continue.

2. Overacting

Perhaps partly as a result of character dialogue that is unnecessarily heightened, we see overacting in contemporary theatre time and time again.

Too often today we go to plays with actors who are overacting their role. No doubt, overacting has plagued the theatre since its very origins, centuries ago. Contemporary theatre is not immune. Over the top arms movements and hand gestures, caricatured facial expressions, and shouting for no apparent reason, are just a few of the examples of overacting in today’s theatre. I remember overacting myself … in my university drama classes, not on the professional stage. Nothing irks me more than overacting. Less is more.

3. Minimalist Sets

What has happened to scenic design in contemporary theatre? 

Set design should follow the intended theatrical style and directorial vision of a production. Yet scenic design in so much of contemporary theatre is bare and minimal.

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Gone are the days when a director interpreted a playscript with a single theatre style in mind. Eclecticism is part of the beauty of contemporary theatre, where a mixture of styles is evident in a single production. 

Yet surely this cannot be the reason for sets that are so minimalistic they barely represent the intended locale or setting for a scene. No, I’m not after a traditional box set for the drawing room scene, but a single sofa on a huge, sprawling stage with nothing else, doesn’t cut it either.

If the reason for minimalistic sets is tight budgets, then theatre practitioners need to get more creative and innovative with sets that can work in different ways for multiple scenes. Innovation and creativity should always remain at the very heart of theatre practice.

Not only do audiences feel cheated with scenic designs offering minimalistic sets (we’ve paid good money to see that sofa), but it also stretches the audience’s imagination too far in terms of believability and acceptance.

4. Pretty Costumes

A simple costume informs the theatre-goer about so many aspects of a character and the play, itself:

  • social status
  • personality
  • historical period
  • gender
  • age
  • symbol
  • theatrical style
  • location
  • relationships
  • situation
  • occupation
  • mood

I only have one beef with some of the costumes in contemporary theatre: they are too pretty. How often do we see a production of Les Miserables with historically accurate costumes for the aftermath of the French Revolution, but they are in pristine condition for characters of the Parisian underclass? Similarly, we frequently see dramatic plays with characters of low socio-economic status in costumes that are brightly coloured and freshly ironed! Mainstream contemporary theatre, big budget musicals in particular, regularly present characters on stage wearing sparkling costumes that dazzle visually, but simply do not fulfil many of the basic functions of a costume, listed above. The old adage from your high school Drama teacher “go outside and rub your costume in the mud” comes to mind! There’s little sense in designers spending countless hours ensuring costumes are accurate for the period, if on stage they appear too pretty to realistically suit the character.  

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2 Responses

  1. Teá says:

    “Not only do audiences feel cheated with scenic designs offering minimalistic sets (we’ve paid good money to see that sofa), but it also stretches the audience’s imagination too far in terms of believability and acceptance.”
    A recent production of Endgame comes to mind with this. I appreciate that Absurdism is always going to have limited props, but my students really started to switch off – contemporary designers do not have to stick rigidly to the style of the text.

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