Greg Allen’s 25 Rules for Creating Good Theatre

24 Nov

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.

Greg Allen
September, 2005


Posted by on Saturday, November 24, 2007 in fractally weird


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3 responses to “Greg Allen’s 25 Rules for Creating Good Theatre

  1. Sally

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 9:56 am

    I agree with all of them except #9.

    That’s kind of insulting to all of the really good actors out there you just don’t happen to be friends with, Mr. Allen.

    That is part of the problem with the theater world – nepotism. You see it all the time, and sometimes it’s justified. Sometimes, someone is good enough it doesn’t matter who they’re friends with, but more often than not, it’s people who are fun to work with but awful to watch.

    Especially with young theater artists. They cast people they like or went to college with, and more often than not, the result is a production of uneven quality.

    Young, impressionable theater artists: don’t listen to #9. Get to know other people. Everyone wants to work with friends. But open yourself up to outsiders, too. It isn’t until you start expanding your horizons and getting to know people outside of your circle that you begin to challenge yourself and grow as an artist.

    Go to see productions by other companies, and if you like their work, talk to them afterwards. Ask around about people’s attitudes and personalities so you’re not going in blind. Find out how to get a hold of the people with good reps and ask them to work with you.

    In my experience, the prima donna trips more often than not come from the people who are friends/spouses/whatevers you know…there’s a certain entitlement that can happen in those situations. I once cast one of my friends who was actually a great actor, but we’d never worked on the same piece together. He turned out to be the biggest prima donna in the show.

    There are good actors out there who are jerks, sure, but as for Chicago at least, they are outnumbered 25 to 1 by good, hardworking people. I’ve met quite a few great friends by holding auditions for pieces. I’ve even met a few of my now-longtime collaborators that way, too.

    Don’t close yourself off. I have sat through many a production at the Goodman, the Steppenwolf and have mentally recast it in my mind with better actors who just don’t happen to know the casting directors there.

    And interestingly enough, rare has been the audition notice for any of Mr. Allen’s prime time shows, either. I hope Mr. Allen rethinks this rule someday, and opens himself up to those outside of his inner circle. There are some terrific, fun actors waiting for the opportunity.

    • Greg

      Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 4:24 am

      Point taken Sally and I totally agree. I have blindly cast many people I have never met until auditions who turned out to be amazing on stage, but I got a sense of their spirit and good nature as a person in the audition rather than their acting experience. My emphasis here was really on getting a great performance out of an unknown who you can work with, rather than casting the well-known experienced actor who is a pain in the ass. Perhaps that isn’t clear. Thanks for the feedback.


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