Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Questions...And Bad.

David Cote asked a question in the Guardian:
Anyone leafing through the London Review of Books will see the bylines of published novelists or non-fiction authors. So why don't we read Stoppard on Hare? Ravenhill on Prebble? Churchill on Butterworth? You would enjoy a whole new level of technical perception and aesthetic empathy, not more middle-of-the-road consumer reporting which is virtually indistinguishable from telly or film reviewing. Of course, this raises a perennial question: must theatre critics have firsthand knowledge of the craft?
Wicked Stage Rob follows up at the spiffy TCGBlog:
Of course, the biggest objection to reviewing a field you work in is, as Cote succinctly concludes, “politics.” Another way to put that is: Theatre is a small world and you shouldn’t poop where you eat. With the advent of social media, it can be an even smaller world, as Alexis Soloski, a critic for Village Voice, noted in a blog post last year that tracked her evolving views. She says she used to think there was “no reason theatremakers and critics shouldn’t fraternise. We went to the same parties. We took the same drugs. We even dated one another. And most of my journalist colleagues were also aspiring actors, directors, playwrights or dramaturges; for models, we looked to Shaw or Tynan. We knew the heartache and toil that went into theatrical productions, even bad ones: surely, we were uniquely qualified to critique them.”
The Alexis Soloski piece he quotes is here. The thing is, back in November, Isaac and I went around on this very subject. I said this then and still stand by it:
In an e-mail exchange a while back, Isaac posed the whole "why don't playwrights review plays" question and my response was that it had a lot to do with profit motive: a review from a playwright couldn't be trusted because either they were trying to curry favor with the theatre or they were trying to drag down a rival. Since most reviews are primarily a tool for generating sales (as you can see, I may not have the best feelings about the state of criticism in this country right now), who would want a rival doing the reviewing?
Since doing this blog, I've had my integrity questioned on more than one occasion. I know Isaac has, too, a lot more, even. And it keeps me from writing reviews, from talking about the work. I don't want to talk smack about my friends, even if I didn't like their work, for fear that A) they'll take it personally and B) that it might, somehow, hurt their career (not that this blog is all that, but it is Google-able). I'm happy to talk about things I like, but things I don't...I keep to myself a bit.

When I was in grad school, one of my teachers made a big deal to my class about how hard the life of the playwright is, how much work it is, and how, really, no one else can fully understand it. His point was that, as playwrights, we were all in the same foxhole, all in this together. That made quite the impression on me. I've been in one playwrights' group or another since 1997. I love the company of playwrights and it feels like writing a review is somehow a betrayal of that. I know that's just me; I'm certain there are other playwrights who don't share that same feeling. But that's how I feel.

There's a part in this, too, about the feeling of scarcity. We exist in a field that's perpetually starving and it can feel like you're taking food from someone else if you write a bad review. You're hurting their play, hurting their career and, the assumption is, angling to help your own. We don't have a culture of confidence and safety, where I can say my piece about your work and it won't matter because you have your resources and audience and I have mine. It just feels...personal.

I'm not saying this is healthy or good for the field. In fact, I think it's patently bad and connected to a whole host of pathologies that stunt our field and our artists. Absolutely artists should be able to speak about each other's work critically and honestly, in print or wherever. Of course having the perspective of someone who's been in the rehearsal room recently (or even currently) would shape criticism to the better, give a fuller view. If we want theatre criticism to rise above consumer reporting, we need practicing artists to tell us what they think of the art. However we can encourage that, let's! I'm just saying that it might take some convincing to get playwrights in the right head-space. Myself included.

A few years back, in David's own magazine, I received a pretty rotten review, written by another young playwright. We weren't friends, but we knew a lot of the same folks. His criticism was actually pretty spot-on, if snarkier than I would have liked. Still, I nursed a grudge against that guy for years. Years! I would see his name in press releases and e-mail blasts and give it a dirty look. Finally, at some event or other, we wound up at a bar, next to each other. I'd had a couple of beers, so I didn't mind turning to him and saying, "I owe you a pop in the nose!" At first, he was, of course, confused and mildly concerned (I'm not really the "pop in the nose" kind of fella), but when I mentioned the review, he covered his face with his hands and let out a moan. It was the only review he ever wrote, he felt terrible about all that time and tried to retract it. I told him that I was kidding about the pop in the nose (only sorta) and that his review was actually pretty right. We hugged it out, and kept drinking. A nice ending to the tale, but there is why playwrights don't do more criticism: the way things are right now, it doesn't do anybody much good.


George Hunka said...

I don't understand why theatre people are considered to be such a touchy breed -- touchier than novelists, or poets, or musicians, or painters who write about each others' work? Not to those who know novelists, poets, musicians and painters. Of course personal politics is rife in each of these disciplines, but surely it's just a matter of acting like grown-ups. I panned one of The Brick's shows when writing for the Times, but it didn't prevent Jeff Lewonczyk and myself from enjoying each other's company when we met not long afterward.

Certainly we're not rivals, even if we have different visions of what our own theaters should be like. But at best, in our criticism, we respond to those visions, and not to the persons who express them. Harder to do the first than the second -- it's more of a call on the defense of our ideas than on our powers, as you note, J., of snark or sarcasm. It's when personal attacks attempt to undermine the viability of a writer's career, a play or an idea that criticism becomes problematic, and again, avoiding this too is a matter of acting like a grown-up. Yes, people can be petty. But they don't have to be.

99 said...

I very much agree with you that we should be able to be adults about these matters. Of course some people are petty, in any field. But what I've found, and this is honestly even true of myself, isn't that theatre people are "considered to be a touchy breed," but that we ARE a touchy breed. We tend to be a thin-skinned bunch of folks and take a lot of criticism to heart. Add to that strain in theatre (and film criticism) that trends towards the mean as an indicator of independence, and the very personal nature of a lot of our work (and, frankly, the over-large importance we place on the personal aspect of our work) and you've got a toxic mix of oversensitivity being met with harsh criticism leading to the sense of common enemy. We the artists lined up against them the critics and when one of ours crosses the line, it's more of a betrayal.

Again, I'm not saying this is a good thing. I don't think it is. But that's the reality of where we are. More artists as critic would lessen that feeling. But I think we need to be honest that that's part of the landscape.

Ken said...

Reviews have more consequence in theater than they do in almost any other artistic field. A bad review (and just one, if the source is powerful enough) can doom a play's chances. If, say John Irving reviews the new Philip Roth novel for the Times and trashes it, what will it mean for the career of Roth? Will publishers hesitate putting out his next one? If Jeff Koons tears apart the new Damian Hirst exhibition, is that much of a blow to Hirst? Do his process suddenly plummet? No. But if, say, Tony Kushner's newest is massacred by the paper of record, the play may well not ever be done again, at least not for many years, after the toxic effect of the review dissipates a bit. Now, do you want to be the one to have written that review if you might travel in the same orbit of not only Kushner, but the director, the actors, or anyone from the producing theater?

I wrote theater reviews for a brief time, and finally had to stop because I felt so uneasy about reviewing the work of people I knew even in the slightest, passing-acquaintance fashion. I imagined the awkwardness at our next meeting if I had trashed their show. Plus, I also imagined I'd be ripe for retribution when I had a show up, especially if some aspect of the play I had lambasted could be detected in my own work. "Ha! And he said he didn't care for naturalism!!"

I really needn't have worried, because I wrote for a downtown arts journal that was primarily about painting, sculpture, performance art, etc.--the theater reviews were just something the publisher let me do out of pity for me, I guess--and whose readership was tiny. But still, I ultimately didn't feel my particular opinions warranted enshrinement in print.

Ian Thal said...

Honestly, I never heard of this rule that theatre artists should avoid also being theatre critics until the last time you brought it up. I think it silly since in the poetry world, nearly every reviewer, editor, and publisher is also a poet (and some are incredibly touchy!)

As far as the appearance of impropriety, theatre artists who also review can protect themselves from such accusations by being very articulate in their critique. Explaining as clearly as possible why the play (or the particular production) wasn't great. So long as there's a minimum standard for theatre criticism, we get to know who's a hack reviewer and who isn't.

Two of the goals of a liberal arts education drilled into me when I was in college as 1.) was to be able to formulate articulate criticism, and 2.) to be able to listen to and comprehend viewpoints with which one disagrees. So theatre artists need to be, at the very least, thick skinned regarding criticism

As a general rule, I jump at the opportunity to do something I don't normally do: whether that means doing film work, dancing in a concert, running tech, or reviewing a show. We shouldn't be denying ourselves these experiences because some people are petty.

Your story of the bad review, J., is a great example of how we can rise above pettiness.

99 said...

I don't think of it as a "rule" for playwrights, but more as an expectation for critics/reviewers: objectivity. A playwright is assumed to be subjective, generally for outside reasons (connections to the playwright/theatre or currying favor) while what's expected from a critic is that they'll be "objective" and simply respond to the work on the stage. Which is, of course, a total fallacy.

I agree that any good playwright can critique a script, and give good, smart and even tough criticism. The problem, the way I see it, lies in that most reviews are consumer reports, really. And someone with "conflicts of interest" aren't supposed to do those.

Wouldn't it be interesting to have a playwright who knows a theatre, knows how it works from the inside to offer a review of their new play? I'd think so.

Ian Thal said...

I'd be happy with an articulate and insightful actor, director, or designer writing theatre criticism.

Still, as I point out, in some realms, like poetry, or any academic work, it is expected that the reviewer also be a practitioner.

99 said...

I'm right with you. I'm just saying that in theatre, it's very much expected that a theatre reviewer isn't a current practioner. A practioner would be suspect. I think that's because what's expected of a theatre critic is different than what's expected from other arts critics. Plus there's the sense that theatre criticism is largely just telling the reader what happened and then telling them whether you liked it or not. In other forms of art, there is a threshold of understanding necessary to "get it." If you don't understand 20th Century painting, you can't really be an art critic. But if you don't understand absurdism, you're actually probably more likely to get hired as a theatre critic.