4. Who Owes What To Whom? Kris Vire of TOC wrote a great post awhile back on his personal blog titled "Critics Aren't Obligated To Support Theater We Don't Like". You can read it here, basically Kris takes to task people a reader who claims that critics are supposed to "support and encourage theatre in this town". Calling this viewpoint "bullshit", Kris writes:
Part of what a Chicago theater critic is charged to do is to support and encourage good theater in this town. It does no one any good to encourage bad theater. A while back I was cornered at an opening by an administrator of another theater company who berated me about a bad review I'd written; this person used a variation on this trope and a number of its corollaries, some of which Allison also employs: these people worked so hard on this, other people in the audience were clearly enjoying themselves.The question comes down here to who owes what to whom? And what is it that they owe?
The absolute WORST thing we can do as critics is to be soft on a show we didn't enjoy because people worked so hard on it. As other commenters at the Trib have noted, if we put the hard sell on shows about which we have significant reservations, what happens to the audience members who fork over their money based on our review and find themselves with the same reservations? How much harder will it be for us to convince those same readers to take a chance on trusting us again?
It seems to me that the reviewer's primary responsibility is to their audience. Kris is right. It does no one a bit of good to be soft on a play you didn't like. It may be good to note in a review that your reaction seemed to be in the minority if, for example, it felt like everyone was laughing but you. That's just being honest.
It's easy as an artist to feel like reviewers owe you something. You, after all, have worked for weeks and given them free admission so that they can make money off of one night's consideration of your labor. Their relationship to your work is fundamentally shallow. And yet they have such impact on your work! The equation looks unfair. That is because it is unfair. It is also, unfortunately, one of those things in life that is both unfair and unchangeable. It's the nature of the beast.
You don't, after all, mind when someone with an equally "shallow" experience of the play loves your work, loves the production. And it's worth noting that the reviewer's level of experience is the same as the audience's... part of being a theatre artist that is both essential and essentially tragic is that you have one shot in real time to get it right. That's part of what makes it hard. If you can't get psychically used to that, you need to be in a different art form. If your work requires someone knowing how hard you worked on it, your work isn't good. If your work requires a lot of background information to understand or appreciate, your work isn't good. if your work requires audience buy-in to theories of what art should be rather than demonstrating the values of those theories in a prima facie way, your work isn't good. A reviewer calling you on that might hurt your feelings, but I don't really care anymore. I used to. I used to think that we were owed a certain level of niceness from reviewers. But my mind's changed on this one. Why? because frankly our bad work makes it harder for good theatre to reach audiences, because when they think "theatre" they're thinking about our shitty play that someone went soft on because they were thinking about how hard we worked so hard on it.
That being said, I do think we are owed something. I think we are owed the reviewer having an open mind when they see our work (or electing not to see it if they don't think that's possible), and I do think we are owed the reviewer being judicious in their use of snark and outright nastiness. I enjoy reading snark and outright nastiness, don't get me wrong, I just think were owed it being deployed judiciously. I also think we're owed the work being engaged with and not dismissed (there are exceptions here I can think of, but for the most part I'll stand by this). I also think we're owed reviewers endeavoring to be good writers. In a way, sloppily written (or reasoned) reviews of my work have been far more angering to me than well thought out negative ones.
But we're not owed them being nice. Openminded? Not dismissive? Sure! But a reviewers' ultimate duty is to their reader. We're secondary in that equation, and that's ultimately for the best.