Sunday, August 17, 2008

On the Art of Criticism

Recently, a friend was in the other room, reading this blog on her computer. Suddenly she burst out laughing: "My god; you're reviewing the REVIEW?!?" She shook her head and said something to the effect of "it's about time SOMEBODY did it!"

Reviewing theatre critics isn't actually my purpose. Do I do it? Sure I do. I read a lot of theatre reviews. I can't say I read them all, but I do read the ones who have the most influence, and the ones who have the greatest understanding of what's going on in our South Florida theatre scene. It's a critical part of bringing you this blog.

There has always been a love/hate relationship between those creating theatre and those writing reviews of what's been created. And it goes both ways; as much as the artists resent the possibility of a bad review they crave the good ones: and with the possible exception of Frank Rich, no theatre critic endures a performance simply so they can trash it.

It's a symbiotic arrangement; without actors, directors, designers, playwrights et. al., theatre critics would have nothing to do. And without the critics, without their reviews and stories and commentary, we who produce theatre would have no audience.

You'll note that I use the word "critic," and not the weaselly P.C. term "reviewer." Somewhere in the last few decades, people have become afraid of criticism. It's gained a wholly undeserved negative connotation. Perhaps it was in reaction to the power that a critic can wield. "Criticize" literally means "to consider the merits and demerits, and judge accordingly." "Review" is far more passive; "a general survey, "an evaluation," and "a retrospective."

Producers have long lamented the power of the critic's bully pulpit; Frank Rich could kill a show by giving it a bad review, and did. Those of us who bring the work to the stage have no forum to defend the merits of our work. Nobody comes to us unless they buy a ticket, and they don't buy them if critics say it's not worth the price.

And newspaper publishers resent that power, too. They don't like the constant badgering from producers to get a critic to opening night, they don't like the complaints about the placement and/or timing of the review. The publishers hate the fact that theatre relies not on advertising, but reviews, to get the word out about their plays. Newspapers don't make money on reviews. It's a slap in the face to publishers when we tell them that we must have the critic write a story about our show in order to promote the show. All the publisher sees is the paycheck going out. Content doesn't bring revenue in like advertising does. And the cold reality is that only a vanishingly small number of people buy the papers in order to read reviews of plays.

But whether or not reviews are a more effective marketing tool than actual advertising is a whole other discussion. THIS is a discussion of theatre criticism.

In the decades since the end of World War II, there has been a drastic change in the tone of our national news, and it is due in no small part to a shift in our basic approach to journalism. In an attempt to make news reports more factual, there has been a push for complete objectivity. The new standard for news is to have no opinion outside of the Editorial page. "Just the facts."

The problem is that this makes for utterly worthless reviews of ANY artistic endeavor. The arts, including theatre, can only be discussed meaningfully in subjective terms. Beyond all the objective discussion of technique and scholarship and production value, ultimately the theatre patron wants to know if the play was enjoyable; a subjective value.

There's a further layer of complexity; everyone's tastes are different. And everyone knows this, apparently, except for newspaper editors. They keep trying to do away with a permanent and designated critic. "It's just another news story," they say. "All we need is the story of going out to see the play."

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

We need for each paper to have a single voice, a defining point of view, in their reviews of our art. It does not matter if that point of view is the same as ours, but it's crucial that it is constant. That's because theatre patrons - and other arts patrons - understand a particular critic may have different tastes or standards than the patron; but over time, the patron will be able to understand the relationship between the critic's taste and their own.

Theatre critics are NOT unbiased; they CAN'T be. But we come to understand their biases. And we can make our decisions accordingly.

After years in the business, those of us who put plays on a stage can predict with reasonably certainty which critics will write reviews that tend to endorse the show, and which critics will tend to pan the show. And it doesn't always have anything to do with whether or not the show is any good. It often depends on the specific agendas of the critics.

There's a long time critic whose agenda is to encourage producers to take greater risks, and to stop staging "the same old stuff." This critic's reviews may not outright slam a big old book musical, but they will always make more allowances for performances if it's on something new or daring. And this person will not necessarily give a thumbs up to a new show if the script is weak and the direction is poor and the quality is low, but over time you begin to see that this person's negatives on an old standard may not be quite the black marks as they might otherwise be.

Does that mean I don't read their reviews, or give them merit? Far from it; I know their bias, and take it from there.

But this is why I'm so hard on random reporters standing in for a reviewer; it's not that I doubt they can write a great review, or that their review is accurate. There's nothing personal about it at all. It's that because they are unknown, they have utterly no value to me as a scale.

You see, I know what Christine Dolen or Jack Zink or Hap Erstein have said about shows that I have either seen or actually worked on. I don't know anything about a one-timer. I have no record to balance their opinions with. And that makes those reviews fairly worthless to me. It's like suddenly reporting the temperature in a made-up scale; 'today will reach a high of fibraleem over goramix!' We don't know what it means, however sincerely it is presented to us.

Theatre critics can not, should not, and must not be treated as simply a warm body to send out. Theatre review - ART review - depends entirely on the observer. It's not like football, where all you have to do is keep score. There is no objective scale to rely on. We need to be able to judge the messenger to determine the value of the message.

This is also why I complain when a critic fails to communicate how they felt about the play. A few weeks ago, Brandon responded to such a complaint:
"When discussing a piece of art of any kind, the most boring question you can ask or answer is "Did you like it?" It's boring because it's meaningless. If you like or don't like something and say so, it says nothing about the piece of art under discussion -- it only says something about your own circumscribed tastes. Better to say what a thing is than to say how much you liked it/didn't like it/loved it/hated it/whatev."
Brandon's journalism instructors would be so proud. That's a textbook response. It's the kind of emasculated drivel that has become the current standard of journalism.

But Brandon is wrong, and so are his instructors. The point of art, of ANY art, is to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, period. What the thing actually is is completely and utterly irrelevant, all that matters is how it affects you.

When I goaded Brandon by repeating "did you LIKE it," I wasn't actually trying to find out if he actually LIKED it. I was trying to find out how it made him feel.

We go to the theatre to be transformed; we want to be engaged, we want to be stimulated, and when we leave the theatre, we want to have a new understanding of the world around us, however slight. Maybe all we get out of the evening is an escape, or a tune that we hum for a few days. Maybe we gain an understanding of a difficult situation. Maybe all of that, or none of it.

But we turn to the critics, and we expect an answer. Not "what was the play about," or even "who was in it?" No, all that we ask of them is this:

"Were you affected?"

Everything else is mere detail.

No comments:

Post a Comment