The Guardian Online's Andrew Haydon brings up an issue close to my heart: How most theatre reviews are referendums on the writing of the play, with little understanding or acknowledgement of how the production of a play may impact a reviewer's experience of it. There's some cultural differences at work between British Theatre and American Theatre in the piece but in general, this rings true:
This gets at the heart of several problems with reviewing and discussing theatre:
Still, it seems fair to say that the writers' theatre still prevails in Britain: critics reviewing a new play will generally credit most of what happens on stage to the writer, and assume that the director was simply "serving the text"...I've already written about the short shrift given to actors by critics, but when it comes to the people on stage, how do we know where the performances come from? Has a director spent weeks fostering an actor's genius, or is a dreadful performance down to the actor following, to the letter, wrongheaded directions?...While it feels as if we might finally be moving away from anxieties of directors' versus writers', the question of exactly who was responsible for what can still seem an impenetrable mystery from this side of the footlights.
(1) The script is always mediated through the production. Even in the most "invisibly directed" version of a play, there are still artists other than the writer making choices that impact the audiences appreciation, understanding and interpretation of the writer's words.
(2) Theatre is created by a group process. As a result, there is tons of overlap. Discerning what was an actor's "responsibility" (or fault, depending) can often be nearly impossible. The words they are speaking are not their own, and the choices they make are guided by someone else. In the meantime, the director's work is shaped by what the actors bring to the performances, by the set design (which she has also helped shaped) etc. etc. and so forth. Everything overlaps on everything else. My sound design choices for Meg's New Friend are both guided by Mark's input and help shape Mark's vision for what the transitions from scene to scene will look like, which in turn helps shape how the piece feels and how it moves and what its rhythms are, which in turn helps shape the actor's performance. There's a kind of butterfly-in-China aspect to it, everything affects everything else. Seldom, for example, will you read a review in which the costume design is discussed in terms of its impact on the actor's performances, yet in almost every show I've ever worked on in any capacity, the costume design is the last piece of the puzzle that helps shape who the character really is.
(3) The director's art is purely ephemeral. "What do directors even do, anyway?" Is a question I get a lot from civilians. Every other part of the production produces something tangible except for the direction, and yet the direction is the key lynchpin that (hopefully, when done right) holds the production together. Or to put it a different way, a reviewer can see, say, Santo Loquasto's costtume designs for Ragtime and critique them on aesthetic grounds. Similarly, they can critique line readings by the actors, or physicality etc. But other than the pace of the show (which is the vocabulary by which directors often get praised, with the dreaded "effective" being the equivalent of four stars) the directors job remains somewhat difficult to see.
This results in reviewing that doesn't always take into account what is (supposedly) one of the really essential roles in the process. To return to Ragtime again... I will bet you dollars to donuts that Santo Loquasto's costumes get lavishly praised in the reviews. As well they should. His costume design for the Ragtime revival is one of the best costume designs I've ever seen in my life and hopefully he'll win like 6 Tonys for them. You could write a thesis paper just on his use of vests.
What won't get talked about is this: At some point in the design process, the decision was made to let the costumes be the key design element in terms of storytelling, whereas in the original, the key design element was the set. Now who do you think made that decision? Well, it probably happened as a group, the power dynamics of design teams shift to-and-fro etc. But ultimately, that decision is the directors responsibility.
There are other ways to spot the director's hand: Reviewers talk about pace, that's a good one. Tone is another. Style is a third. Every way to do a play-- including the "invisible" version or the "naturalistic" one-- is a stylistic choice. It may not feel like one, but it is. I would argue that coherence is a fourth-- do the elements of the production cohere? And where they don't cohere, is it intentional? And whether it's intentional or not, does it work? Those questions lead back to the director.
I don't write the above because I want better pull quotes... I think we'd all be better off with reviews that discussed the production as a whole rather than focusing on just the script, particularly writers, who frequently get blamed for things that clearly aren't their fault, or production choices that highlight weaknesses in their scripts instead of strengths etc.
What I'm talking about in the above is quite hard, by the way. In most other art forms, there are either (a) much clearer boundaries between jobs, (film , etc.) (b) obvious "primary artists" (dance, etc.) or (c) no real collaboration (fiction etc.). It gets much easier with classics, where the reviewer (or audience member) generally knows the work and can see-- even in the most transparent of directing jobs-- the interpretative wheels turning. The question is How do you spot them when you don't already know the script?