Searching for awful theater

Audience

Watching bad movies is a time-honored tradition. Is there a similar niche for transcendently terrible theater?

As I write this, I’m halfway through watching Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, a low-budget film from 1966 about the epic summit described in the title. As you may have surmised, it is a bad movie. I devote a lot of time to watching bad movies. I’d even call it an obsession of mine.

For years now, I have been actively seeking out and enjoying the grim detritus of cinematic history. I don’t do it for ironic purposes, or to subject said films to Mystery Science Theater 3000-style mockery. Maybe it started out that way, but it’s grown into something much more meaningful. I’ve learned that even the most abominable attempts at cinema usually include some redeeming, even illuminating, features. Take Andy Milligan, for instance. The man behind Torture Dungeon, Guru the Mad Monk and The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! is one of the worst directors in movie history by nearly any standard. Still, I adore his films because they’re alive with the kind of passionate, intensely personal vision that seldom gets a chance to shine through in more professional productions. The annals of bad cinema are rich with similarly beautiful weirdos who worked damn hard to share their bizarre obsessions and narrow skill sets with a wider audience, and I love being able to reap the fruits of their labors.

For as much enjoyment as I get out of bad movies, it’s an experience I haven’t been able to replicate at a live performance. For one thing, transcendently bad theater isn’t easy to find. A terrible movie is a permanent document, while a terrible play is likely to simply close and be forgotten, or undergo revisions to fix the problems that made it awful in the first place. Then there’s the factor of every performance being a work of art unto itself. No matter how many times I revisit a movie like Evil Brain from Outer Space, it’s going to give me the same cavalcade of Japanese monsters and sci-fi insanity that it did on the previous viewing. On the other hand, a subpar play can be elevated by innovative direction, exceptional acting or any number of factors, while even the most revered theatrical property can be rendered unwatchable by an incompetent production.

I could almost picture a theatrical work catching on in the style of Tommy Wiseau’s modern movie anti-classic The Room, an earnest attempt at art executed in a way so divorced from recognizable human behavior that it becomes compelling viewing. But The Room took several years to build a cult following, during which time Wiseau savvily embraced his failure and turned his labor of love into a moneymaking sideshow. It’s hard to imagine a theatrical director doing the same. Even setting aside the hurdle of artistic ego, as soon as the production was slapped with a badge of “ironic entertainment,” it would inevitably be marred by self-conscious efforts to keep up that good old badness.

To be clear, I’m not talking about intentionally bad art. Self-aware meta-theater and over-the-top camp are everywhere, but neither is really my thing. (While I dig the trashy paranoia of the original Reefer Madness, for instance, I have little desire to see the winking musical adaptation.) I demand some sincere ambition from my debacles. There are a few venues I’m aware of that have tried grappling (admirably, I might add) with the subtleties of bad theater, notably the Bad Theater Festival in New York and the Neo-Futurists collective in Chicago, but these efforts tend to approach badness from a knowing, high-minded angle.

Perhaps the biggest factor preventing a cultivation of bad plays is the intimacy of theater. It’s one thing to sit at home or in a movie theater marveling anonymously at the missteps of artists who will never know the difference. It’s quite another to watch a disaster unfold in real time. For all but the most sociopathic among us, watching someone’s noblest ambitions die onstage is a painful thing. (There are exceptions, of course – the nation’s collective schadenfreude over Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark comes to mind, as does Billy Ray Cyrus’ recent Broadway foray into Chicago-land, but those high-profile fiascoes aren’t quite analogous to, say, a direct-to-DVD action flick starring Casper Van Dien.) Sure, you might crack wise with your buddies in the parking lot about a local theater company’s anachronistic costume design or the lead actor’s grotesque Southern accent, but openly mocking those things during a performance would be unthinkable. Similarly, the idea of organizing bad theater outings seems far crueler than having friends over for a bad movie night. It's hard to delight in awful art when you're faced with a constant reminder that there are living, feeling people involved.

Maybe that’s another feather in the cap of theater people. In an era where Flickr abounds with gleeful “Bad Public Art” galleries and people proudly “hate-watch” TV shows for the express purpose of complaining about them online, theater remains a bastion for patrons polite enough to at least remain respectful while the actors are on stage. I stand by my belief that there’s plenty to learn from and even cherish about bad art, but it’s reassuring to think that there’s still a sector where basic human decency reigns, even if it is largely by necessity.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s high time I found out whether Jesse James falls prey to the macabre machinations of the fetching Madame Frankenstein.