Back at the NEA Arts Journalism fellowship in the winter of 2007, we had sessions where we met with a professional reviewer who was willing to act as a writing coach. We would attend a show, write a review, and then the coach would give us feedback on our writing in small group sessions.
It was an extremely helpful process, even if it was a bit nerve-wracking. I took a lot away from those sessions, much of which I've continued to mull since then. One of the things that came up was that critics do a disservice to the art form if they are too kind. That's the job of arts marketers and art leaders, but not critics.
Sure, people who take great risks in putting themselves before others and performing would love to hear only good things about what they have done. However, reviews aren't for them. They already have a director and audiences to provide them with that sort of feedback. A critic should not be in the business of directing.
A critic is in the job of having an open, honest discussion with the audience and the public about theater. Reviews should be a part of the public conversation about why theater matters and why art is important. If a critic is constantly kind and doesn't speak openly about flaws, then they not only lose credibility, but they aren't being authentic in their conversation. Their role is not to advertise, it is to help make sure that the art is seen and heard in its true form. And sometimes that means pointing out where bad choices have been made.
This is a tough one for me, because my inclination is to be kind rather than harsh. And I know there are many people out there who think it is wrong to be critical or that an over-critical eye is an insult. It's a shame, because in truth, being willing to criticize is a mark of respect to the artists and to the art. It expresses a faith in the vigor and strength of the art. It also shows a deep respect for the audience with whom one is speaking.
I've talked to some people who don't attend live theater despite the fact that they have many friends who are involved. I'm always curious why those people don't go. One response that I've heard repeatedly is that they associate live performances with poor quality. Now, yes, those of us who attend theater frequently know that you're far more likely to see an outstanding show than an awful one. However, it takes only one to turn someone off live theater forever.
So let's say that I go to a show that I think is mediocre or lacking in passion--a show that fails to excite me in any way despite my love and passion for theater and live performance. However, I know that people have worked hard and that they have day jobs, so I write a review that focuses only on the positive. I don't mention the lackluster singing or the inappropriate costuming that takes you right out of the story. I don't mention that the pacing is so slow that your butt gets numb in the seat. Instead, I write about the particular actor who does a great job despite not getting anything from his fellow actors. I write about the splendid dance number where the one actress brings incredible energy to the stage. I praise the script.
If I'm writing to people who are already theater folk, then no harm is done. There is great harm done, though, if someone reads the review who isn't a theater person and decides that perhaps they'll give it a try. They go and lose hours of their time that they'll never get back. They experience the disappointment of expecting something to be good and being greeted with mediocrity. Then what happens? What happens then is that they either decide that they're simply not fans of the art form--since this was supposed to be a good representation of it--or they take a cynical approach to all future reviews since this review sold them a faulty bill of goods.
Anyone who cares about audience development and getting new people into the theater have to be committed to an authenticity in their conversations, especially if they are talking to people who are undecided about the art--the people who make up the vast majority of the population.