Thursday, January 3, 2013

A Critic's Job

“In criticism, I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.”
-- Edgar Allan Poe

Several people who have accompanied me to plays I was reviewing have asked me why I don’t take notes. To be honest, when I first started I did take notes – scribbles in the dark, more comprehensible jottings written during intermission – but I soon realized I never used them and, in fact, the taking of notes was skewing my experience of the play. Pad and pen in hand, I was not a true member of the audience, I was a “judge,” waiting for something to happen that would justify a notation.

Now I simply plop myself down in the seat and watch, but that doesn’t mean my brain isn’t working on multiple levels, for, as I see it, my job as a reviewer is five-fold: I need to experience the production as an audience member – a human being responding to the efforts of other human beings, seen and unseen, to transport me to a world different than my own -- but I must also keep in mind that I will eventually have to write something about what I am seeing that will, ideally, instruct, inform, evaluate and entertain. I’ve thought quite a bit about these multiple aspects of reviewing and although I haven’t come to any final conclusions (perhaps there aren’t any), the cogitations have, if nothing else, refined what I write (whether for better or worse remains to be seen).

I am not impressed by critics who draw attention to themselves while in the audience, whether it’s by flashing a press kit or name-dropping loudly enough so those audience members within proximity know that they’re sitting near someone “special.” I was at a performance at the Yale Rep in New Haven, CT, several years ago when a critic sitting several rows in front of me used a pen with a built-in laser light to facilitate his note taking during the performance. Not only was it distracting it was a subtly self-defining statement: “The rest of you are mere members of the audience while I am charged with evaluating what you are watching; I am not one of the unwashed, I am a critic!”

As I sit waiting for the house lights to go down I try to cleanse my mind of the idea that I am hear to “evaluate.” I place the press kit (unread) on the floor beneath my seat and engage in one of my favorite pastimes: people-watching. As I do so, I try to generate the normal emotions of any playgoer: I wonder what I’m about to see? I hope it will be “good,” although what that word means is elusive. I am a person who is about to invest two to three hours in watching a world unfold. I hope that “world” will be enjoyable, meaningful, entertaining, engrossing, memorable…understandable.

In essence, I have the greatest of expectations -- even when there is a part of me, that critic that I can’t totally erase, that might have a doubt or two. However, over the years I have found that these doubts are often unfounded. Two productions at MTC MainStage in Westport, CT, come to mind. Before the lights went down I wasn’t sure how this venue, restricted only by size, could pull off “Cabaret.” It did, with a vengeance. Then there was “Next to Normal” – an emotionally charged musical that, I thought, was simply too high-powered to work within the confines of the theater. I was ready to squirm; instead, I was riveted.

Then there’s the “This is really going to be good” mind-set. If I hadn’t been disabused of that notion already, sitting through “The Killing of Sister George” at New Haven's Long Wharf was the cure. You just never know, which is as it should be.

So, at the outset I try to approach each production simply as another theatergoer but, of course, things happen that trigger other responses. What are they? They are myriad. It could be a lighting or sound cue not dead-on, a bit of blocking that just doesn’t seem to work, a cross that seems unmotivated, dialogue meant to convey passion delivered by two actors who lack chemistry, pacing that seems a bit off, choreography slightly out of sync. In essence, it is rare that there is not a moment when, try as I might, I don’t shift gears, that the audience member in me fades and the critic comes forth. These moments imprint on my mind and on the drive home they start to evolve into paragraphs that will eventually become an attempt to capture what was right and wrong with the production I have just watched.

Ah, “right” and “wrong.” Would that these terms could, in matters theatrical, be concretely defined, but beyond general guidelines, they can’t. Hence, I acknowledge that what I write is essentially subjective, backed only by whatever knowledge and actual experience I have of the theater and my trust in my “human” response to what I see, what it does to me, how it makes me feel. However, unlike the normal audience member, I have to explain these effects, explicate those feelings…in a review.

This brings me to the aspects of what we do, beyond being an audience member, that should be part of, in my opinion, any competent review: we must “instruct, inform, evaluate and entertain.” I’ll deal with “entertain” first, since it is perhaps not the most obvious.

A review is, in essence, an essay, and any essay worth its salt (i.e., one that a reader wants to read to the finish) must capture the reader’s attention and, using various rhetorical devices, cajole, amuse, challenge and divert. After all, the reader could just as well use the time it takes to read a review to eat a bagel, wash some cups or weed the flower box. A large part of entertaining, I imagine, comes down to that indefinite term “voice” or, in more technical terms, persona. Thus, each review must have a created “person” behind it, someone the reader can hear, someone with a certain attitude. Yes, it’s a pose, but a necessary one, vital, and that’s why the first two paragraphs of a review are so important, because they not only let the reader know what the “essay” is about and the reviewer’s general take on the production before he or she gets down to details, it also establishes the “voice” of the article, and it is the “voice” that entertains.

Going back to the laundry list, “instruct” sounds a bit didactic, but most theater-goers really don’t know much about the mechanics and terminology of the theater, nor should they. It’s not necessary to know what “wash light” means, but its absence may be critical for a scene, and if it is, the reviewer should comment, defining the term and explaining why its lack affected a scene. If the “follow spot” lags or is shaky, explain its function and how said lagging or shakiness distracted.

Turning to “inform” gets us into the easiest (maybe) part of any review: the who and the what. The “who” involves telling the reader the names of the creative team: actors, director, choreographer (if there is one) and technical crew – essentially most of the people listed in the program. Mention is based on relevancy – the lighting director will be noted high in the review if there were problems with the lighting or, in turn, the lighting made a substantial impact on the experience. Alas, lighting directors will be add-on notations in the review if they simply do their job, which is to accent and underscore without drawing attention.

The “what” is, in essence, the plot of the production, and there are pitfalls here, for many reviews are “filled” with nothing more than summaries of the play or musical. You have to make a judgment call here. How much do you convey? Do you really need to go into an in-depth plot synopsis of “Camelot”? You have to make certain assumptions – if your reader is reading your review of “Camelot” you have to believe he or she knows, basically, what “Camelot” is about. Cut to the chase – heavy on how the production was staged, how the actors performed. Are you reviewing a new play entitled “Og Makes Love to Harpo Marx”? Well, then there’s a bit more about what the play is about – maybe a lot more. Comments about the actor’s interpretation of Og are meaningless if you don’t attempt to describe who Og might be, or is supposed to be, and why he might possibly want to make love to Harpo (and, of yes, remember the generations gap[s] – you may been to identify Harpo Marx for your audience).

Finally we come to “evaluate,” which is, perhaps, the most contentious requirement of all, for, as reviewers, we must suggest to our readers whether they should spend their hard-earned money and invest their limited time sitting in a theater watching a certain play or musical. Seldom, if ever, is it a blatant “Don’t go!” I can remember only one review in which I baldly warned audiences to head for the hills; it was for something called “Fan Dance,” and when the people running the venue sought me out and made sure to tell me before the curtain went up that they were not responsible for what I was about to see, I knew I was in for an interesting evening.   

A play or musical can disturb an audience, delight an audience, shock an audience…or bore an audience. Most productions fall in the middle range: seldom bad enough to warrant a warning, seldom outstanding enough to warrant a rave. All you can do is write what you hope is a balanced review, pointing out what went well and noting what went wrong, with the requirement that if you do comment on either a positive or a negative you must explain yourself. If an actor wowed the audience, tell your readers why; if an actress didn’t deliver, tell your readers why.

I can’t speak for other reviewers, but I don’t like to write a negative review. There have been times when I have been tempted to pull my punches, but every time that thought arises I have to tell myself that I am a potential audience member’s ombudsman. If I don’t write the truth (at least as I see it), then I’m not performing my function, I become merely a cheerleader. Why not just go ahead and re-type the press release.

I once was emailing a director soliciting an article from him for the Connecticut Critics Circle web site. In passing, he commented that although he didn’t always agree with me he respected my opinion, not only what I wrote by how I wrote it. That meant quite a lot to me. On the other hand, I got an email from a show’s creator commenting on my essentially negative review (the show was another iteration of what had become a franchise), telling me that no matter what I wrote I couldn’t harm the show. He missed the point. It was never my intent to “harm the show.” My intent was to write the truth, at least as I saw it. I would have respected his opinion more if he had addressed any of the points in my review. He didn’t.

So, read reviews. Read them because they are written, for the most part, by people who are passionate about theater. Is a review the ultimate “call” on a production? No, it is just one person’s (hopefully) informed opinion about an experience he or she shared with fellow human beings, an attempt to put into words what was seen and heard and felt. A brief look at the reviews posted on the CCC web site ( will reveal that not everyone sees, hears and feels the same things but, by and large, there is often more agreement than disagreement, and when my fellow critics disagree with me, well, of course, they’re wrong.

“’That was excellently observed,’ say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.
-- Jonathan Swift 

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