Critics

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Critically
criticizing
critics!

Two weeks ago I got this letter from Rosann Hickey, who is a director, actress, diarist, and occasional reviewer for The Theater Mirror in Vermont:

Dear Larry,

Do you ever sit down with other critics and discuss the art and science of your work? I wonder sometimes if critics realize how crucial their information is to us -- actors and directors.

Of course our friends and family are all going to say pretty much what they think we want to hear. And, so often in the tight little world of our company, politics can play much too large a part in any feedback one gets from other members. "If I tell her what I hated about this show, will she ever cast me again?"

The unbiased critic has a chance to inform us, hopefully not too brutally, of how we succeeded or failed at our task. This is a crucial element to our growth in the craft. We want you to be articulate, intelligent, unbiased, and to have a genuine love of, or at least respect for theatre.

That's a lot to ask. Lots of the time we don't get it. In this area there are only 2 or 3 "genuine" critics. The rest of the papers simply send out whoever feels like using the tickets, or send someone under duress -- not an auspicious factor.

I realize that the review is probably seen by editors as being for the reading public, rather than the players, but couldn't there be some happy medium?


And the more I thought about it, the more the question cried out for open discussion. I sent the letter around to some critics and some theatrical practitioners to prime the pump, and now we'd like to hear opinions from everyone. These have come in by Email so far:


Founding member, POCKET MIME THEATER

>Date: Thu, 23 Jan 1997 18:12:57 -0500
From: J Tormey <70511.1513@compuserve.com>
Subject: Thoughts? Responses? Ideas???

I don't know Larry, In the days when my name appeared in reviews I must admit, if I am honest that it was 90% vanity. I wanted to know that someone else knew and appreciated what we had tried to do. I somehow felt that the critic represented the average intelligent, educated audience member. And not much more. The REAL value of the critic, at least to the professional, was in terms of PR. And the more powerful the critic, the more effective the PR. Not to put down the individual critic, but it was consensus that we looked for. If one critic hated it, so what.... If they all hated it, then maybe we were on the wrong track. .Of course there were always useful suggestions and observations from the reviewers, but the cake was pretty much baked and there wasn't much that was going to change in the show. Some tweaking, yes. But not usually something substantial.

the mime has spoken.


Playwright, producer, director, teacher

From: dodo@world.std.com (Dean ODonnell)
Subject: Re: Thoughts? Responses? Ideas???
Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 12:49:42 -0500 (EST)

On reviews:

If it's a good review, then we get a bigger audience. Basic fact. If it's a good review, then it gets hung in the lobby, and even the people who didn't find it on their own will read it while milling about out there and come into the show with a good attitude, i.e. they'll be ready to see a "good" show, instead of having a, "well, c'mon and show me" attitude. That's kind of bottom line stuff, and doesn't affect me as an artist, except that because of it, I might get another job.

I appreciate a fair review, even if it's not positive. In general, if every review mentions a specific problem, then I take that into account.

I do agree that the critics are the only ones I can really listen to. My friends aren't going to tell me they thought the play bogged down in the second act, and when people tell me they thought it was great, I take it with a grain of salt. I usually try to stay anonymous (one of the perks of being a playwright) and listen to the conversations during intermission. The best review I ever got was from a fellow smoker during an intermission. We were outside, and he told me that he didn't go to a lot of theatre. He said, "My wife dragged me to that 'Phantom of the Opera' thing and I fell asleep, but this-- this is pretty good."

So what do I want from critics? Simplicity, fairness and accuracy. The worst reviews are the ones that seem more concerned with how clever the critic can be. Even if it's a good review, I see it not as serving the art or the audience, but only the reviewer. A witty headline is all fine and dandy, but give me the basic facts-- quickly summarize the plot, give me the high points of the performances, and tell me what the problems were. This not only goes for reviews of my work, but that's what I want when I'm reading about other shows.

Also, a problem critics sometimes have with new plays is separating the script from the performance. Someone doesn't like my play, fine, but don't take it out on the actors just because they were associated with it. Heck, sometimes they spend the whole review kicking the script around and never even bother with the performance, and that means they're just not doing part of their job.

Do reviews help me with the next play? Well, if they're encouraging then I feel like I'm actually doing something worthwhile when I sit down to write. If they're bad, then I sit down and say, "Wait'll they see THIS one."

Dean


Playwright

Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 19:08:02 -0800
From: sharyns@ix.netcom.com (Sharyn Shipley)
Subject: Re: Thoughts? Responses? Ideas???

Dear Larry,

I really count on sharp critiques of my work. The best form (most tolerable) is the sandwich method. What worked, what didn't, what did. I like specifics. Act and scene, speech, word, delivery, pause. Whatever. By the time something's happening with it, I've been over it so often I can't see it. It's especially hard for me to tell what's missing.

I do think reviews are for the audience. But as what I'm writing is for the audience, that's what I want to know too.

Ideally I'd like my work to be an emotional roller coaster ride with the highs and lows clearly defined and a slow pleasant coast at the end. What kind of a ride did the reviewer have? And that's most likely what I'll find out from the review, immediate and personal specifics of the reviewer aside.

Of course if it's wonderful and flawless (hah!) then slather me with oil and let me bask.

All best

Sharyn


Actress, playwright, ex bus-driver, AISLE-SAY's Boston critic

G.L.Horton -- Newton, MA, USA
ghorton@tiac.net
www.tiac.net/users/ghorton

Linda Eisenstein (herone@en.com) wrote perceptively in answer to the question:

"What kind of schooling/training do you need to be a theatre critic?"

"Theatre production experience helps. Loving theatre helps. Having a thick skin helps, too. I recommend *getting* a slew of good, mixed, and bad reviews yourself -- in some capacity -- before you give any. It humbles you and puts the shoe on the other foot."

I second these remarks of hers, and add that:

As a critic you should feel obligated to listen to the play, and give yourself over to it as an audience member. DO NOT think about what you think of it, and what you could say about it, while it is happening. If it is at all possible, DO NOT TAKE NOTES! For quotes, scribble madly at intermission or immediately afterwards, train your memory -- or consult friends with a good aural memory --- get a copy of the script: but a good play is packed at every moment with "stuff" that requires your full attention, and has an emotional through line. You can't channel surf, or take "time out" to jot down something clever, and still experience the play. Time is one of the formal elements of drama.

G. L. Horton

Ed. --- See G.L. Horton's commentary on Boston Theater, featured previously in the Theater Mirror.


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