Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Being too kind

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.


Anonymous said...

As usual, you are right on with your comments. I have generally gotten good reviews but have also gotten bad ones. While I don't change anything that I do as a result of any review, good or bad; I do remember them and think about them later as I have found them to be helpful in terms of whether or not my character or how I directed something achieved the desired purpose. So both good and bad comments are a helpful tool not just to the audiences, but to the actor, director, or technician. I wholeheartedly agree that putting what you hoenstly think in a constructive and critical way is the only way to go. There are those who always write the "rah-rah" reviews and, while I appreciate that they are very supportive of theater, I have a tendency to ignore their reviews because I never know if they are what the persons honestly thought or if they were just being nice. It is sad that there are some that take harsh criticism as a personal slap rather than recognize that there is rarely anything personal in the review (at least that is the supposition) but only an honest attempt to convey to the writer's audience what they thought worked or didn't work. The audience is then free to make up their minds. I try to not take it all so seriously and learn from reviews and or comments - it can be hard at times, but I see it as a way to grow. - Rick D.

Bridgette Redman said...

The thing is, I do understand that what gets written in a review can sting. But you're right in that it isn't supposed to be personal.

I even get that it is impossible to not take it personally right away. I know when I get feedback on the things I write (and most of what I write for work goes through multiple peer review and editing rounds), I close my office door when I first go over with it. I then argue with it and complain about it to my screen. Then, once I've gotten through it, I take a deep breath, I make most of the changes, and I realize that the feedback was good, helpful, and has contributed to making a stronger document.

So I understand why people can take exception to individual things written, especially if they hurt. What I can't agree to, though, is that those things shouldn't be written or that art should go uncriticized.

And sure, I would prefer that when people disagree with my review that they argue the points of the review rather than send out nasty notes or post blog entries that attack my person or character in lurid language, but that's merely a preference of mine. I do recognize that it comes with the job. And unlike my colleague in Indianapolis, I've never had someone come up to me and pour a mug of beer over my head because of what I've written.

Anonymous said...

(I don't really understand what all those "google/blogger/open ID/name/url things mean) ANYway -- I sympathize with your "being too kind" article -- as I have sort of gotten myself backed into a corner to "review" everything I see (or else have it assumed that I hated it) This was not my original intent with The Jane E-Mail List. I think a "real reviewer" should point out the weak spots, but I find it hard to do; I don't think of myself as a "reviewer" as much as a "promoter." I think readers can differentiate between a "real rave" from me and a "there were some good parts" kind of hedge. Jane Z

Bridgette Redman said...

Hi Jane!

I would agree with you--the way you write about shows is highly appropriate to the purposes of your list. It would in fact, be inappropriate to be highly critical of a show in the type of newsletter you send--and it is one that goes out to people who are already theater people.

What you do is a tremendous service, but I would agree with you that it is also different (not in importance, just in function) from what a media reviewer does.

Thanks for the comment!


Anonymous said...

I guess I've never seen Jane's list as a review so hadn't really thought about it - but I guess I've also never really seen the purpose of a review to be primarily good or bad - as I thin you alluded to, Bridgette, it is a conversation between the writer and the audience whose purpose is to further the arts and to promote discussion. You both provide an incredible service to the Mid-Michigan area - I have been around the world on more than one occasion and have done theater in just about everyplace I go. No many places matche the support that Community Theater receives here. Kudos to you both- Rick D.

Anonymous said...

This is very good insight. Know thy audience! Although I wonder about the mind of a non-theatre person who decides whether to attend based on a review. I guess it is similar to my decision to not spend $8.50 to watch a movie on the big screen that gets a 3 out of 10 rating.

Also, as an actor who generally knows his limitations, I LOVE to be told when I didn't do something well. I want to keep learning and growing. A lot of directors don't have the time to discuss every actor's characterization pros and cons. When I don't hear from the director, sometimes it's because they liked it, but sometimes I can't help but wonder if I was doing something not in their vision, but not so far off base as to deserve correction. Thus the objective review can be a tool to bridge that gap.

Oh, and by the way, Bridgette and Jane BOTH provide excellent writing on local shows. I feel I am particularly good at deciphering Jane-speak when she is lukewarm to cool on something or someone she's reviewing.


Joseph said...

Though I certainly don't want a dishonest opinion from a reviewer, I do disagree on a couple points..

In particular, I do believe that promoting theatre is part of a critic's job. Perhaps promoting one show or another is NOT the critic's role; promoting theatre in a more general sense, and challenging readers to get out there and attend theatre, appears to me to be squarely within the critic's job description. Lest the critics forget, without the theatre, they would have no job.

Too often, I read reviews which simply discourage people from attending live theatre. In a time where our art is struggling to keep an independent, non-commercialized voice, I think this is particularly damaging.


Joe D