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:
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:
>Date: Thu, 23 Jan 1997 18:12:57 -0500
From: J Tormey <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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.
From: email@example.com (Dean ODonnell)
Subject: Re: Thoughts? Responses? Ideas???
Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 12:49:42 -0500 (EST)
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
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."
Date: Sat, 11 Jan 1997 19:08:02 -0800
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Sharyn Shipley)
Subject: Re: Thoughts? Responses? Ideas???
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.
G.L.Horton -- Newton, MA, USA
Linda Eisenstein (email@example.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.