Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What gives a critic authority?

There is a fantastic blog entry over at Arts Journal by a books blogger who was also a theater critic. It was written somewhat in response to the L.A. Times article, "Not Everyone's a Critic," but he really gets into the whole question of what gives a reviewer authority to be a critic.

A few morsels to tempt you to read the whole thing:

In the early '90s, the Dallas Times Herald hired a new theater critic who, it turned out, had been a professional actor. He even still had his Equity card; he'd acted off-Broadway.

Then one evening I ran into a theater director/professor/friend and happened to ask him what he thought of the new critic in town. He was curious to know more about the fellow's background, and when I explained, my friend promptly quipped, "Oh, yes, that's what every director wants judging him from the seats. An ex-actor with a grudge."

Well put. What this says is that not only is direct education/experience in an art not absolutely necessary for a critic, it can even be a hindrance, a distortion. Your teacher could have been an eccentric, someone with a warped notion of his art. Or, considering the highly collaborative nature of an art like theater, extensive background as a lighting designer may cause one to over-value the importance of blue gels and undervalue the contributions of, oh, say, actors.


It's with the word "earn" that I realized how this all actually works. We have it backwards. The critic doesn't bring authority to his reviews. It's his reviews that grant him authority, earn him any authority. A review is not an opinion, as Mr. Schickel says. It's not even (just) a wise judgment. It's an attempt at persuasion. It doesn't simply tell us that this book is worthy of our time and attention. A review tells us why and how. In trying to explain the critic's own response, the review justifies them. The review leads us into sharing his conclusion.

In other words, the critic earns his authority by using his knowledge, his rhetorical skills, his humor, his personal insights, maturity, modesty, bravura cleverness -- whatever it takes, in this particular instance, to convey the experience of the film in question and to convince us not only that he's right but that he's worth listening to. These are the only things that matter with a critic. Just as with a teacher, it's all about the classroom (and how he handles the homework), with a critic, it's all about what's on the page. If he can't do that, all the rest is meaningless.

He has lots more good stuff to say.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Theater and friendships

One of the reasons that I am so passionate about theater is that theater makes its community a better place to live. It goes far beyond providing an entertainment choice on a given weekend evening. It even goes beyond the role of engaging the community in conversations that matter.

Theater creates a community in which people are drawn together. People become friends through doing shows together, through attending shows together, through volunteering for theater organizations. We are drawn closer to people we meet through theater through the discussions that we have about shows. We learn about what the things that they value, that they care about, that they dream about. Theater becomes a means by which people are drawn to connect with each other.

This weekend I won't be seeing any shows (despite really wanting to make it out to see Kevin Burnham in An Evening with Mark Twain) because I'll be attending a wedding (and the surrounding activities) of two dear friends both of whom I met through theater. It reminds me again what a difference local theater has made in my life.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My cup runneth over

Last night and this morning I was reviewing the spreadsheet I've set up of all the shows I've seen this year. It was rather pleasant to reflect on all the wonderful things I've gotten to see this year.

And make no mistake--this year's season was filled with many delights. Sure, there were some shows that were subpar, but they still beat out a night in front of the television watching anything at all.

All told, I've seen more than 80 shows in the past 11 months. A dozen of those were from out-of-town, but all the rest were here in Lansing. That includes two operas, but does not include the high school shows, ballets, or concerts that I went to. Nor does it count the shows I saw more than once, though I must confess that's happening a lot less in my life these days. It's one of the things that I miss: seeing the same show multiple times.

I really do feel blessed and fortunate to be able to attend so much theater and to live in a town where the theater community is so incredibly vibrant. There will always be people who complain about what is not happening or what is wrong, but I am so frequently overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is going right and what is interesting and compelling, that I often find the complaints unworthy.

There is a survey being offered at many of the local theaters that is trying to get a view of the overall theatrical community and audiences. I've filled it out several times now. One of the questions that I steadfastly refuse to answer is the one asking which company is my favorite. I don't have one. If I were told that for the next two years I could go to only one theater, I don't know which I'd choose. Each group has something different about it to love. Each company is important for a different reason. Local theater truly is an ecosystem, not a hierarchy.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Detatchment vs. Advocacy

Today is a huge catch-up day for me with lots of writing to do, so I'm simply going to introduce a topic that I wish to come back to in other entries:

The model of critic as arts activist or advocate as opposed to the model of critic as detached observer.

Both models have been used in the past by critics of all stripes and the debate continues as to which is better or more "correct." Currently, most newspapers are leaning toward the detachment model saying that critics ought to be as separate as possible with no possible conflicts of interest.

However, that's a model that brings with it its own set of problems.

Personally, I'm far more in favor of the model of critic as arts activist. It is certainly more challenging to act ethically in that role, but it is a far more authentic position that is of greater use to both newspaper and community.

More on this subject later.

Friday, May 18, 2007

No theater for me this weekend

Thankfully, I was able to see the delightful one-man show, Underneath the Lintel, on Wednesday as the rest of this weekend is going to be focused on the MSU/East Lansing Art Fair. By Hand will be exhibiting there and we have a full line of new purses and wraps. We even have some spring/summer hats that will be great to wear on summer days.

I've had a lot of fun these past few months experimenting with the mosaic lines of purses. I only wish I had been able to get to more colors. Right now most of the ones I've done are in the red, green, purple, and orange families. I would have liked to have done more spring colors. I did get a few blue ones made. According to Pantone, blue is the color of the season.

But, this is a THEATER blog and I'm getting sidetracked. For those of you who would like something to do after the Art Fair, your options include:
  • Someone to Watch Over Me at Riverwalk
  • St. Joan at Sunsets with Shakespeare
  • Underneath the Lintel at BoarsHead
  • Music from a Sparkling Planet at Williamston Theatre
  • Fiona the Mother Goose Musical at The Gate
  • Laura Dennis at The Gate
  • Chicago at Dewitt High School
Have fun! Go see a show!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

St. Joan

For Mother's Day this year, my family joined me in a visit to Woldumar to see St. Joan, walk the nature trails and enjoy the beautiful weather we had this past Sunday.

St. Joan is being performed by Sunsets with Shakespeare and directed by Mark Zussman.

I think the play was made all the more enjoyable by the fact that my 9-year-old son joined me. The experience became as much about the historical exposition as the dramatic presentation. The elements that became the most memorable and meaningful to me were watching as my son wept at Joan's death and the discussions we had about the play afterward. Both those things are intensely personal reactions that have little to do with any sort of professional analysis or critique of the show.

Yet, art is personal. Art is all about the response it elicits--whether it is a response in the artist or the audience is a point that has been debated through the ages and isn't any closer to a resolution now than it was centuries ago.

The version of St. Joan that Sunsets is producing is a shortened version, one that sticks slavishly to the main story, eliminating the extraneous political sublines. In some ways, it makes for an almost too-quick production as the historical context is hit upon so lightly. For people who are already conversant with feudalism and the political beliefs of the time, its easy to fill in the blanks. Everyone else need pay close attention and be willing to ask questions afterward.

Nor is this a subtle production as much has to be said in a small amount of time. There are times when the actors get a little too big with their lines but that is definitely the exception. For most of the play, I was drawn into the story and eager to see how Joan would manage to win over men accustomed to ignoring anyone not of their class ranking or gender. The characters themselves are big--kings, lords, bishops, and princes. With the exception of the Dauphin who wants little to do with his royalty and everything to do with his personal indulgences, the characters are their titles far more than they are individual people. They carry on their shoulders a mantle of responsibility which they never forget.

Joan was particularly interesting to watch for her quirks. She had a confidence that won people over, but she also had a skittishness born of an overflowing impatience. She very early foreshadowed her fall as she was oblivious to the world around her and its dangers. Nor did she ever truly connect with anyone, which also made it impossible for any of them to save her.

On an acting note, it was enjoyable to watch those characters with more than one role as all of them did great job of differentiating those characters.

While this play has a very historical feel to it (the excellent costumes contribute to that feel), it does raise interesting questions: Would we still prosecute someone of pure faith and conviction who pursues her convictions in the political or military realm? Would we later saint them? How much do we still use religion as the stick to silence our political enemies? Why do we consider that the moral high ground rather than simply acknowledging the political necessities?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Should critics respond?

I'm a frequent user of Google Alerts. They help me track a variety of topics for the blogs that I write. They also help me protect my writing by alerting me to instances of plagiarism. Today in my Google Alerts an old item popped up--though it was one I had never seen before.

An actress who was in a play that I gave a bad review to (and we'll keep her nameless to protect the guilty) took great exception to what I wrote. Well, no, actually, she didn't contest anything in my review. Instead she launched into a cruel, personal attack which I won't reproduce here because I prefer to use slightly more refined language in this blog--or at least language that I wouldn't be ashamed of having the children I teach read. Despite never having met me, she made certain assumptions about my background and my personality which I suppose she rightly felt she could infer from what I had written. Sadly, she chose epitaphs that were inherently sexist and terms that she wouldn't likely use if she took similar umbrage for any of my male colleagues.

On one hand, my inclination is to shrug this sort of thing off. I don't write reviews for actors; I write them for potential audience members and to encourage participation in the theater community at large. That requires me to be an honest observer and critic of what I experience. If I simply promote, then I lose credibility with anyone who knows better (which I'm willing to assume is 99.9% of my readers). Likewise, I feel I owe a production enough respect that they would rather have an honest assessment than false praise. The latter is condescending and I have no desire to be patronizing.

I understand that actors need to say and do whatever they need to so that they can get back up on stage and out in front of an audience again. That's not an easy thing to do no matter how experienced the actor is. Egos can be a fragile thing and I have no problem with people doing what they need to do to not only protect themselves but to enable themselves to take the stage night after night. It's why I rather think it healthy for actors to vent about critics backstage or at cast parties.

That said, if you're going to publish a complaint, I daresay there are slightly different standards to what you write. I recognize that when I critique a work, the artists involved are going to take that criticism personally, even though the review is not personal. Until someone has a great deal of experience at it, it is difficult to separate the professional from the personal. If you're not able to do so, you may want to think carefully about what you put out for public consumption as the manure you throw has a nasty habit of clinging to your own hands and may fall far wide of your target.

My inclination has always been that it is better for a critic to not publically respond to personal attacks (or even letters to the editor) with anything more than a "thank you for your opinion." In part, that's because of all the things listed above. You can't have a rational argument with an emotion. I also choose to establish pretty firm boundaries to protect myself from people who choose to be abusive--which includes not giving them the respect inherent in a drawn-out debate or discussion.

As for a private response to such attacks? Well, that's why we have friends and colleagues to vent with. It's not why I personally have a blog or newsprint space.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

For a show to really work, the director needs to have a passion for and commitment to the script. When such a marriage occurs, there is a chemistry and excitement that flows out to the audience.

Emma Dowd definitely has that sort of passion for Frank McGuinness' Someone to Watch Over Me. It's something that is obvious in talking to her and is obvioius in seeing the performance at Riverwalk.

The two-act play explores how men survive as prisoners of war. In this 1992 play set in the mid-1980s (and I'm committing the sin here of writing about a show without the program handy--so I'll have to correct any spelling or name errors later), Edward, Michael, and Adam are held hostages in Beiruit, Lebanon. Michael (David Bristol) is an British professor of English. Edward (Jack Dowd) is an Irish journalist and Adam (Kevin Knights) is an American doctor.

This is one of those plays that is inspired by a true story (that of former hostage Brian Keenan) but doesn't claim to be a documentary. Instead, what it does is force you to feel their claustrophobia and fear. One of the lasting impressions of the play is that it is long, a feeling that really has nothing to do with the play's pacing or the time that ticks by on the clock. Rather, it is because you end up feeling such empathy for the characters on stage. The actors make you believe that you have been in this cell with them for months and lay upon the audience the heavy cloak of despair that accompanies that.

In some ways, I was reminded of how thirsty I became when reading Frank Herbert's Dune. There are so many details that communicate the extremes being suffered. It creates an immediacy that brings the audience into sympathy with the players on stage.

This is a show that can be difficult to direct. It's got a lot of substance to it and blocking is limited by the fact that all three actors are chained to the wall. Despite the chains, they manage to create a great deal of movement--Adam is constantly exercising, Edward paces and moves with a barely suppressed antagonism, Michael dodders and withdraws.

The accents are a necessity in a play in which three different nationalities are brought together, though it did take some time to get over the artificiality introduced by the marked accents which were obviously not native to the actors' tongues.

Someone to Watch Over Me is a psychological drama that really does transcend the political events of either the play or our current world. Yes, people are still being taken hostage, but the face of that hostage-taking is constantly changing. What transcends the individual setting are those universal things the characters struggle with: regret over things left unsaid and undone, fear and hopelessness, how we treat each other in extreme circumstances whether it be to help each other or to turn against each other, and what our coping mechanisms are.

There are many moments of genuine humor as the trio turns to flights of fantasy to keep their sanity and to find ways to connect with each other. It's a humor that leavens an otherwise heavy show.

More common are the intense dramatic moments, ones that the actors carefully build up to so that even when the inevitable happens, the audience is not bored by the outcome.

It's a fascinating show that provides a lot to think about. I'm glad I went.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Six shows going on this weekend

I saw two shows this weekend:

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me
at Riverwalk and St. Joan at Sunsets with Shakespeare. It had been my intention to go see Come Blow Your Horn on Saturday night but I came down with a painful headache that simply wouldn't respond to painkillers. It seemed a little unfair to go to a show when any noise made me wince. So I stayed at home.

This coming weekend I'll be at the MSU/East Lansing Arts Fair and won't be seeing much of anything. I'm scheduled to review BoarsHead's Under the Lintel, but I doubt I'll get to any show other than that one. For those with more time, there is the BoarsHead show and The Ledges Playhouse is opening An Evening with Mark Twain.

All told, there will be six shows to choose from in the local venues. There are also some good high school shows. DeWitt is doing Chicago--one of a very few groups who were able to get the rights to that show. The students going there really are very fortunate to have the program that they do.

Friday, May 11, 2007

This weekend

Lots of good stuff going on this weekend.

In addition to the continuing runs at Williamston and Icarus Falling, there are three shows opening:

  • Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, directed by Emma Dowd at Riverwalk as part of the Black Box series
  • St. Joan, directed by Mark Zussman at Sunsets with Shakespeare
  • Come Blow Your Horn, directed by Rick Dethlefsen at Lansing Civic Players
I'm hoping to get to all three and will try to comment here on each of them.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

sex &

Last Saturday I went to see Icarus Falling's production of sex &

To my surprise, I rather passionately disliked the script. It ought to have been my kind of play. I greatly enjoy shows that are non-linear and are experimental in the storytelling. It's a style that Icarus Falling does well and they're one of the few groups who ever does them. The play also deals with some interesting concepts: Internet addiction, sex addiction, loss of privacy, and the dangers of all of the above. It addresses such modern elements as people disguising their identities online, the loss of boundaries when we share too much personal information for all the world to see, and the substitution of an easy, unseen sexuality for the greater challenge of maintaining a passionate sexuality in a long-term face-to-face relationship.

All of these elements could lend themselves to theatricality and fascinating discussions. They're certainly ideas that are worthy of exploring and experimenting with on live stages. Icarus Falling did an excellent job of bringing out the theatrical elements of this script by using electronic sculptures, projections, and audience interaction in the space they've been loaned by

However, this script fails in its undertaking because it is pretentious and arrogant. The playwright is too fond of his own voice and mashes words together with an utter disregard for whether they make sense or communicate. If he liked the sound of it, then he threw it in.

I'll confess that my reaction to the script went from a lukewarm dislike to the passionate dislike when I read the playwright's own Web site and his screed against anyone whose attitude toward sexuality was different from his own. For all that his play addresses the dangers of sharing too much of their sexual nature with strangers, he is equally scornful of monogamous intimacy, writing off those who have different views than his own as being repressed and victims of the church.

There are those who still prefer their intimacy to be intimate. The fact that no stranger knows what goes on inside their bedrooms doesn't mean that they are repressed or frigid. It might mean that the intensity is so great that there isn't room for anyone but the two people involved--no matter how dull the couple might look from the outside.

There was a great amount of talent in both the acting and the technical achievements of this show. However, they were wasted on a script that is nothing more than a playwright's public masturbation.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Children's Ballet Theater

Last Friday I went to see the Children's Ballet Theater's spring production. The first half was a presentation of dances and the second half was the ballet Finding Anastasia.

It really was a fascinating evening and I'm awed at the work this group does. I took a friend's daughter with me--a 5-year-old who loves the ballet. She got a little squirmy during the first half, but was just as fascinated as I with the second part.

The first half, titled "Ballet Collective" alternated between ensemble dances and pax de deux (duets with a male and female dancer). I especially enjoyed the final number which will be going on to a Youth Arts competition this weekend.

Frankly, I don't feel qualified at this point in my life to provide a dance review, so I'm going to leave it at the statement that I enjoyed it. Perhaps in a few years after I've developed my skills further I'll be able to provide more intelligent comment.

The Finding Anastasia ballet was impressive not only for the dancing but for the dramatic presentation. The story was very clearly told and told on a grand, beautiful scale. I was impressed with the discipline that the dancers of all ages showed. Having just completed a production with children I have a deep understanding of the challenges inherent in that.

I also came away thinking that more guys ought to go into ballet. Certainly they'll have their pick of juicy dramatic roles to say nothing of the high physical fitness demands placed on them.

Up next: Icarus Falling's sex &

Monday, May 7, 2007

Children's Drama

I've been quiet this past week because it was the week for the children's drama program at Montessori Children's House of Lansing. Richard and I are drama teachers there and the first week in May is when the children perform.

This year the lower elementary did shows that had peace as a theme. I rewrote some of the reader theater scripts that Aaron Shepherd posts online (his page is a fantastic resource for anyone teaching drama) and turned a poem by Kim Martin Auer into a play. The plays were:

  • Peddler Polly and the Story Stealer
  • When the Twins Went to War
  • More Than a Match
  • The Great War on Mars

The upper elementary did a play called "Misaki and the Four Truths" from Plays Magazine and scenes from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (which Rick titled "A Midsummer Night's Day Dream.)

The photos in this entry are of my son who played Dr. Sebastian Spellbinder--the villain who steals the stories from the villagers in Taletown. We have lots of other great pictures of all the kids but I don't have permission to post those on the Web, so I'll stick with the pictures of my son. (Sorry, photos removed. I'd be happy to share them with anyone I know who wishes to contact me directly.)

It was a lot of work leading up to the performance as there were rehearsals to conduct, costumes to make, and sets and props to build. All told, we had about 80 children participating. The school's art teacher, Renee Dvorak, is absolutely brilliant and had so many outstanding ideas for how to make things work. She also labored ceaselessly to make sure that the children had everything that they needed and so that the show looked great.

I was especially pleased to see the growth in the children from last year's program to this. All of them had better volume, were more confident in their movements, knew their lines better, and looked like they were having fun. Even when things went wrong, they pushed through and made things work.

It was also a reminder for me of why drama is so useful for children of this age and why it is such a shame when schools cut back on their drama programs. Performances like this are one of those times when the kids have to step up to the plate and shoulder responsibility. There are no adults out there on stage with them. They have to come through and can't rely on anyone else to do it for them. It's also an activity that can be all or nothing. They have to memorize all their lines or they'll be left hanging (and leave their classmates hanging) on stage.

For all that we try to make the environment as safe as possible, there are risks and with those risks come highly satisfying rewards. Many of the kids were almost intoxicated with the applause and certainly there were smiles on everyone's faces.

This afternoon we met with the kids and gave them a chance to talk about what they liked and what they disliked. There were almost no comments in the latter category while they were very quick to praise. We also went around the room and for each child had three of their classmates say something they liked about their performance. Once again, there was a whole lot of good feeling going around the room.