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November 13, 2009


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Scott Walters

That's why giving awards for "Best Costumes," or "Best Direction," or "Best Actor" is so silly. They are given as if these were individual contributions. We should just give awards for "Best Production" and leave it. There is no way to separate individual work out of a collaborative process, in criticism or elsewhere.

Elisabeth Vincentelli

I almost always discuss the director in my reviews. Maybe it's a continental-European bent on my part, but I tend to think parts of the auteur theory apply to theater. I follow some contemporary directors a lot more avidly than I follow contempory authors.


I often wonder how many reviewers actually bother to read the script and compare it to the production.

Jack Worthing

None of this matters if you're trying to shine a turd. You can do a bad production of a good play, but not a good production of a bad play.


"You could write a thesis paper just on his use of vests."

This just makes me laugh and think of Houdini's vest, specially cut to show off extra chest. (At least he had the decorum to put on a jacket over it for the end of Act I.)

Thomas Garvey

But have you any suggestions as to how to tease apart the contributions of writer, director, actor, etc.? If the answer is "there's no way," then you may as well not have written the post, correct? And to Scott Walters - maybe you should try telling the designers themselves that they shouldn't get any awards; they might give you an earful.

These are all ongoing issues in criticism, it's true - but I don't see how illuminating any of this discussion has been. In my experience, good instincts plus experience in making theatre help a critic in these determinations. That's why so many reviewers are so bad at it - they've no idea how this stuff goes together; but the only way to find out is to DO it, I'm afraid, not read about it.

Duncan Pflaster

@ sashanaomi:

As a reviewer, I only get a copy of the script as part of the press kit about 1/3 of the time. If I do get one, I usually skim through it after seeing a play, so see what was what. I generally notice if lines have been changed or if wildly amazing things were visualized by the playwright or not...

Thomas Garvey

Just btw - that Guardian post was rather odd in that the example it used was one in which no one could have divined that the controversial scene was not written by the putative playwright unless they'd been explicitly told. Thus that example wasn't about critical ability, it was about truth in advertising.


There has been a longstanding tension between the playwright/screenwriter and the director, a vying for credit, that has no doubt affected the way critics review productions. (There are certainly some films that like to depict/parody/perpetuate this tension...I'm thinking of Adaptation, Synechdoche,New York, and State and Main.) Then, there are playwrights (Mamet, Mcpherson, etc.) who double as their own directors and an organization like 13P that makes the fusing of that role central to its mission. Even with press kits, reviewers still have to do their fair share of reading and research in order to compose solid reviews.

Beyond this, the role of "theatre critic" suffers from both overappreciation and underappreciation, from being taken too seriously and not seriously enough--both of which present problems for the craft. The former puts the critic on a pedestal, in a vacuum of sorts, removed from the practical side of theatre, aloft with the “literary gods.” The latter, in one sense, discredits the whole notion of a specialized “theatre critic” and clumps the role in with other forms of criticism--namely, all things artistic and cultural, from music and film to food and fashion. For an example of the devaluation of the theatre critic, one newspaper in my area (South Florida) has routinely sent out the fashion editor to review plays, and the result has been poorly written, insubstantive reviews; CL Jahn over at the South Florida Theatre Scene blog has done a nice job of analyzing (and thereby sparking positive changes in) theatre reviews in the region.

Both stances—overappreciation and underappreciation--do a disservice not only to theatremakers and theatergoers but also to criticism as a practice.

In grad school, my classmates and I had to analyze reviews and write our own, and the beauty of this exercise lay in how different our approaches initially were, largely because of the different roles we each had inhabited up to that point within the world of theatre—we ranged from playwrights, performers, and directors to dramaturgs, historians, and educators. Acknowledgment of our diverse backgrounds helped us be especially mindful, going forward and writing reviews, of all the people who come together to create a theatre experience.

While all people are entitled to opinions about theatre, not everyone is deserving of a formal (paid) journalistic platform to espouse these opinions. Not just anyone will do. (Certainly not someone just thrown haphazardly into the role from another section of the paper.) Perhaps, if those who perform the role of theatre critics were treated/perceived more like insiders, rather than judgmental outsiders, and if there were more dialogue between critics and theatremakers, some of the mystery/misunderstanding/oversight about what goes into a given production could be dealt with, making critics better attuned, better equipped to write more conscientious (which is not to say soft or undiscriminating), incisive, and effective reviews.

Isaiah Tanenbaum

I tend to give directors credit (or, conversely, detract) when choices made by actors or designers noticeably improve (or detract from) the coherence, pace, or story.

An actor can make a great choice -- a laugh, a sigh, a gesture with his hand -- but if it's at the wrong moment or in the wrong location on the stage, it can destroy the carefully crafted house of cards on which any good play rests. It is the director's responsibility to say to that actor: "no, you can't laugh there, even if it seems funny to your character, because I want the audience to pay attention to the tragic moment experienced by this other character." As an actor, I want to live truthfully in each moment, but the director must shape the impulses of all the actors like an impressionist painter working with many colors, picking and choosing the exact shade to bring out for each specific moment in the play.

A weak director will allow actors to walk all over the greater moment with their individual shtick. Of course, an over-controlling director won't allow them to breathe, which can be even worse. I've worked with both kinds -- I've been both kinds -- but the "effective" directors channel the impulses to suit the needs of the greater show, and the good critics can see that at work in specific moments, while the mediocre ones can only judge their experience as a whole.

Elisabeth Vincentelli

Re: Jack Worthing's comment that "You can do a bad production of a good play, but not a good production of a bad play."
A sterling example of a good production of a bad play is currently at the Public Theater, and it's the two-part "Brother/Sister Plays." I find the works themselves rather weak, but the productions are as good as can be, and actually make the material feel better than it actually is. Tina Landau, in particular, did a great job with "In the Red and Brown Water." It moves swiftly, it looks great, the actors are completely *on* and in sync. In fact the same cast overacts slightly under Robert O'Hara's hand in the other two plays in the trilogy.


So glad to hear that Tina did good with R&B Water, cuz I really like her, but think that her work was the weakest link in Superior D's.

Any scoop on why 2 directors for the 3 B/S Plays? I've never seen where that served a collection's best interests. It's usually cuz someone's over committed to other projects.

Elisabeth Vincentelli

I'm not sure why there's two directors -- though Landau is supposed to direct the trilogy for Steppenwolf next year.
The five parts of Taylor Mac's "The Lily's Revenge" are handled by five different directors and it works beautifully, but then the segments are meant to be conceptually and aesthetically different.

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