Rule #1: Don’t create good theater. You must intend to create GREAT theater. We don’t need any more perfectly good productions of perfectly good scripts. You are setting out to do something great or it’s not worth doing.
Rule #2: Set that thought aside. Don’t worry about the end product or whether anyone says how great or horrible your show is. Create the show you believe in. Become consumed with process, not product.
Rule #3: Create your own show. Whether you are writing, directing, and performing a wholly original piece, or working with an extant script, make it your own. Don’t bother with trying to hold true to an author’s intentions – you’ll never know them anyway. Make the show true to yourself and what you have to say now.
Rule #4: Know why you are creating this show. The piece you create must be the expression of something about which you feel very deeply. Setting out to make “good theater” is not enough. Take a strong stand – personal, political, social, artistic, – and challenge yourself to express it. Include your performers in this aim.
Rule #5: Make form fit function. Once you have identified why you are creating this show, find the perfect theatrical form to express your beliefs. Whether it be a puppet show, a dance piece, an environmental installation, street theater, sequential art, a guided tour, audience interactive, non-verbal, bare stage, site specific, proscenium, etc., don’t be restricted in your form. Mix and match for specific moments throughout the show.
Rule #6: Know your performance space and use it. Whether you are performing in a five hundred seat proscenium, a black box, a barn, or an alley, make the show intrinsically linked to the space in which it will be performed. All theater should acknowledge, utilize, and endow the space where it is performed.
Rule #7: Know your audience. Have some idea who you are creating the show for. Firstly it should be for yourself. But secondly it should have some target for who will be in the audience – children, teenagers, punks, the rich, the old, Liberals, grad students, women, gays, a specific ethnicity, etc.. Theater “for everyone” is bland theater.
Rule #8: Contradict those assumptions of the audience. Don’t cater to your audience and what you think they would like to see. Draw them to the theater with something that will attract them, but then, once they are in their seats, challenge them and make them think and feel. Never back-pat or condescend to your audience.
Rule #9: Cast good people above good actors. Someone you can work with will always be more effective than the greatest actor in the world who happens to be a prima donna asshole. Work with people you know and respect as people.
Rule #10: Use the performers for who they are. Let the performers express themselves and their lives and experiences in the show. Include them in the creation process. Give them the chance to speak from their heart.
Rule #11: Create true theater. A show should never fail to answer the question “Why is this theater?” Theater is live performers in front of a live audience. Never forget this. If your show can be put on television or turned into a movie without losing something, you have failed.
Rule #12: Do not suspend your audience’s disbelief. Involve the audience. Make sure you remind them that they are watching live theater. Q: Why do people go to the theater? A: To have a visceral connection with live performers. Take that ball and run with it. If you want to suspend the audience’s disbelief, make a movie. Movies accomplish this much more successfully.
Rule #13: Make sure no two performances are the same. Always include a section of the script where the performers respond to the immediate truth of the moment. Encourage them to keep this perspective throughout the show and accept that whatever happens, happens. Make sure the show is a live, unreproducable event – this is what people have come to see and what makes an evening in the theater life-changing.
Rule #14: Insure tonal variety. Never create a show that can easily be categorized. A piece that is primarily comedy should have deadly serious moments, and a tragedy should have elements of high comedy. And the audience should not be unified in this response. Collide the personal with the abstract, the intellectual with the philistine, the hysterical with the gut-wrenching. Keep the audience off balance and contradict their expectations.
Rule #523: Include a surprise. No one should be able to know what’s coming next, including the performers. Surprise keeps theater a live event. Multiple surprises make great theater.
Rule #16: Create a gift for the audience. The show should include a personal gift for each member of the audience – either material, emotional, or experiential. Make sure everyone in the audience has an individual experience of the show to take out of the theater and share and discuss afterwards.
Rule #17: Change the material world. A small part of the world should be somehow altered by each performance. Something should be destroyed, consumed, built, adorned, or the space itself should be newly endowed by the end of each night of the show. Leave the stage a mess.
Rule #18: Use the elements on stage. Every production should include the four natural elements, especially fire and water. There’s nothing cooler and more immediate than throwing water around or watching something burn on stage. It immediately invokes theater’s ritual origins. If the powers that be don’t let you do this, do it anyway.
Rule #19: Put the backstage on stage. Don’t hide the mechanics of the theater. Let the audience share in the actors’ challenge. For instance, always include a Hikinuki – an on-stage costume change – for at least one of the performers. It’s always great to share a transformation with the audience.
Rule #20: Play with size. It’s always great to incorporate a shift in audience perception of the world of the stage. Incorporate miniatures or enlargements of established stage reality. Nothing says great theater like the entrance of a fifty foot Hitler or a three inch doppelganger of the protagonist.
Rule #21: Include music. There’s nothing better for introducing new music to people than having it accompany stage action. Take the opportunity to re-contextualize known music through performance.
Rule #22: Get non-verbal. Words can be a crutch. Always include a non-verbal segment of the production. Conceive of it as a dance.
Rule #23: Establish ritual through repetition. Give the audience a ritual or repetitive pattern with which to identify. Create a shared history for the audience. Once a ritual is established, you can speak volumes through tiny variations on a theme. The art is in the details. There’s nothing better than feeling part of an inside joke.
Rule #24: Make theater economically affordable to all. There should be no financial limitations on who can be in the audience. People should be able to see your production for the cost of a movie and popcorn. Cheap theater with a diverse audience is much better than expensive theater for a narrow swath of the elite.
Rule #25: Unify the audience. Give the audience shared experiences which create faith and trust in each other. Create an event that brings disparate people to identify with each other through their mutual, but individual, experience of the show.
Rule #26: Break the rules. Don’t do what anybody tells you. Make your own theater. Find your own way. Create your own art.