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May 13, 2005

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Isaac at Parabasis is thinking something-hard about reviews and reviewers. Somethin-hard thinking makes me brain hurt, but I thought I'd use the opportunity to make a confession that relates to the topic: I am Parker Wilson. [Read More]

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alkali

Two thoughts:

1. "Stop writing feature articles about Hollywood stage novices who are doing plays. It simply reinforces a vicious cycle and leads to star fucking. They didn’t pay their dues, and they’ve done nothing to earn their column inches."

I would back off that just a bit. To take one example, Sean ("P. Diddy") Combs has probably been on stage more than most members of Equity. He is not going to start in New York theater as chorus boy #3. He could probably get seven figures for doing a johnny-handgun-type movie. If he wants to take a stab at serious theater instead, and he does a credible job, then wish him well and don't begrudge him a few articles. (Feel free to bash the journalists for ignoring the more deserving veterans, however.)

2. I would add that theater reviewers seem to have pointlessly long memories. It is lovely that a reviewer has been seeing two plays a week in New York since he/she was 8, but even a sincerely held belief that a production is not as good as the version you saw in 1965 starring Ralph Richardson is not, not, not a sufficient basis to pan the production. It's live theater, for Pete's sake; I can't go down to Kim's and borrow John Gielgud or Ethel Merman to see their version. The production your review shuts down today may be the last production I'll be able to see; think twice before shooting.

Fred Friedman

Hate to be negative but I dont think there's nearly enough negativity in theatre reviewing (or is it criticism)? I am just a casual consumer of theatre. When I read the unanimous chorus of praise for "Art" or "Doubt" and then go to see these utterly insubstantial, vacuous (and in the case of "Art" annoyingly pretentious)tripe, I'm thinking "Emperor's New Clothes"--isnt there anyone writing for a recognized paper, magazine or blog who will just call these plays out or is everyone cowed by their aura of seriousness (read "snob appeal")or just reluctant to depart from the consensus view?


Lydia Steier

Hey all. Great article. Thanks for tackling the subject.

A huge problem in American theater (and indeed society) right now is a functional inability to call shit shit. There are dumb ideas and policies. There are scripts, sets, actors, choreographies and all varieties of conceptual masturbation (or total forfeit thereof) worthy of the vitriolic hate poetry which, until sometime in the last decade or so, was the honor and obligation of print criticism.

In terms of theater, this "I love you...just differently" mentality has infected training, pedagogy, academic writing and quasi-qualitative debate, in addition to criticism. I would argue that part of this issue stems from Isaac's 2nd Axiom, that the nobility of artists should be accepted without question.

Artists, and theater folk in general ARE handled with inarticulate "kid gloves" in New York. As Fred said, this is part of the problem.

Why do we deserve this? While there is the occasional NfP dramat who's clawed his way out of abject Appalachian poverty to take his place within the hipster poverty of the downtown scene...I, and most of the artists I've met in NYC come from cushy suburban backgrounds...set apart only by the fact that no-one around us had the sense to tell us that a starring role in a high school play + mild bisexual tendencies does not an Olivier make.

Quality isn't about where we've been or the journeys we're undertaking. And thank god. Noblity aside (and YES I include that other favorite nobility...the art created by and/or for and/or about anyone other than straight white men), IT HAS TO BE ABOUT QUALITY.

Was the hour-and-a-half you gave up of your life worth it? Do you want it back? Are the "two or three cool moments" adequate justification for the cornea-broiling inanity of the other 874?

Oh, for the days when a heaping dose of critical vitriol could close a show on opening night, leaving investors moaning, contracted performers and crew wailing and New York's theatrical firmament buzzing with gossip. Oh for the days when we buzzed with something other than frustrated self-pity...

Listen, I don't think we care if a show's been mounted by a first time dilettant who doesn't know Chekhov from his asshole, or the world's longest-suffering starving artist/performer/songwriter (or a troupe made of Medicins sans Frontiers or even convicted child molesters). If it's engaging, provocative, aesthetically bold, and makes me glad to have spent $80 rather than only $10.75 at the AMC...then write about it. Sing it from the rafters.

But if it's not...let me wipe the bile from that page in Arts & Leisure.

C'mon Brantley. Open up and say Ahhh...


Art

I really enjoy the comments here from artists and theatre goers.

I agree with some of what Lydia says. In fact, she makes such a great argument that she falls into just the sort of thing she is taking issue with.

While setting up her argument, Lydia says, "While there is the occasional NfP dramat who's clawed his way out of abject Appalachian poverty to take his place within the hipster poverty of the downtown scene.."

Please, I don't mean to be niggling, but why make the distinction, Lydia? Somebody from Appalachian poverty has no more right or talent to create art than one of the Bush Daughters would. Which is exactly your point in your next paragraph.

I like your comment about High School Drama. It makes me think of how, in sports, after about three or four years of little league most people know, somewhere inside, how their natural abilities measure up. Because sports are so results oriented you can identify and improve the weak areas. And, in some cases, people can improve immensely and actually go on to shock the world. (Michael Jordan.) However, people who strike out all of the time, (or can't block anybody at all on the football field,) can rarely proceed through organized sports for any length of time under the complete delusion that they are great.

Alas, the inflated egos of us Artists sometimes have no such puncture mechanism, save the negative review. I was one of the lucky ones. My first public review of one of my produced plays was a savage drubbing, so bad that I cannot think of one positive thing in it. Later that week, the same play then got a very positive review. (Interesting, I can almost recite the whole negative review from memory, but I can't quite remember even one whole line from the positive review. No Kidding.) It built my character

I think a fascinating by-product of the antagonism of theatre artists is the rejection of serious theatre criticism by many in the theatre community. Sure, they read the local reviews and such, but do they really pick up copies of books by Robert Brustein, John Heilpern, or Tynan, etc. My own experience is that most don't.

On the side of the artists, I do feel one of the down-sides of vitriolic criticism is that it is like zero-tolerance management style. It gives the impression that either something is a masterpiece, or it is a piece of junk that should not have been attempted. The true snark has no time or patience for mediocrity, which is actually the arena where the instructive nature of criticism should be excercised most vigorously.

Most of what we see on stage is just average. One of the problems is that we actually have to make a pilgramage to see most of this mediocrity. This exerted effort to see some thing cultural/entertaining is usually reserved for Picasso and Monet exhibits, but for the theatre lover, parking, mass transportation, high ticket prices, directions etc, are just an average day at the office so to speak.

There is something about that exertion that builds this tension of boom or bust. In other words, something that is so hard to get to and enjoy, can either be life changing or a disappointment. We can order an OK movie from Netflix and not sweat it one bit as we turn it off half-way through and decide to watch The Apprentice. But when we contort ourselves with axle grease and a shoehorn into seats made back in the days of stunted growth, and pay 90.00? Well, it so much harder to say, "that was OK." And the critics, if they take the position of our advocates, know this. So the mediocre play or production shifts from being a key subsitute player, to being somebody who should be traded.

These dynamics, unfortunately, are something that we cannot change. In fact, they are going to get worse. The regional theatre boom turned out to be, instead of a massive laboratory in which great drama is created, a willing participant in perpetuation of mediocre drama.

There are cracks of light here and there, but it is disheartening when LORT theatres keep insisting on producing the mediocre works of even great dramatists, and accompanying those productions with dramaturgy that spins, like a political pundit, reasons why it is an overlooked masterpiece. It reminds me of my software marketing days, which were spent spinning ridiculous direct mail copy about the capabilities of certain products, while customers kept calling in, screaming about serious defects in the applications.

But then again, as Andrew Taylor, the Artful Manager, says, "Remember, you are selling the promise of an experience, not the actual experience."

Review the Reviewer

Great points. We are very much in agreement. In Toronto we're responding to bad critics with our own reviews of their work.
www.critickle.blogspot.com

Ethan Stanislawski

Funny what googling theater criticism will result in for someone who agrees with you more or less on the points of theater criticism vs. reviewing. Of course, since this post was written, the hopes for more column space for theater criticism have become a pipe dream, but thankfully the blogosphere has opened up for some regard. The question is, can they highbrow old media normally associated with theater criticism content with the lower brow new media. I wish everyone on the internet was as elegant as a Kenneth Tynan or John Heilpern, but that's a pipe dream as well (which pipe dream is more unrealistic is actually debatable). But the internet does increase discussion, and unlike blogging about, say, sports or kittens, theater bloggers generally tend to know what they're talking about more than most bloggers.

christian louboutin

haha...It is so useful imformation for us to read...gogo..

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