Monday, January 25, 2010

In Praise of Don Hall

I'm not the first one there, not by a long shot, but I also wanted to raise a glass to the irascible, irreplaceable Don Hall. His series of response to the reviews of his show, The (Edward) Hopper Project, should be an inspriration to us all and should be a model we follow.

Critics seem to want to be A) the final arbiter of worth and quality, based on some set of credentials and qualifications that no one really agreed to and B) consider themselves in conversation with the work itself, ignoring the creators. And sometimes the work, too, when it's inconvenient to the point they're trying to make. And we all, by silent acclamation, just let them. We, obviously, don't have to.

Isaac and I have had a couple of back-and-forths over e-mail about criticism and how it functions in theatre. I come down on the side that we have a weird relationship with critics and reviewers because of the hybrid commercial nature of our work. Reviews sell seats and the reviewers know it, so we can't be seen as either too combative or too deferential. We're expected to strike a pose of semi-indifference, only really disagreeing (in private, natch) when they give us a review that we don't like. Because that's when it seems unfair. I think it's juvenile. If a bad review is unfair and the product of the particular reviewer's biases, then so is a good review and they're equally useless (or equally important).

But we need to maintain the veneer of the passionate, impartial reviewer, so that we can tout his or her good reviews in our advertising safely. So we don't challenge them, push or prod them. They get to sit back, pass judgement, pay no price for it, have no skin in the game and we invite them in, over and over again. Sure, sometimes we work the ref, write a letter of complaint, or lobby to have one reviewer or another come and see our work. But once the review is out, that's it. Whatever that review says, good or bad, that's what our show is.

I like that Don Hall is saying "Fuck that" to that relationship. We should be having a conversation about the work. We, as artists, make choices. The reviewer and critics come and say what they think about those choices. We should be able to defend them, to push the conversation further. Apparently, this scares some folks. (And if you don't think that fear of dialogue motivated that letter, ask yourself this: ever get a cease and desist letter for publishing a good review?) Why? You have your opinion. Own it. Defend it. Be willing to listen to a challenge. We were. This should be a two-way street. Get on the road.

And Don Hall? Slainte! Carry on, my wayward son...

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