Tuesday, October 10, 2006

People Hate Critics

People hate critics. I know I do. I hated them before I became one and the situation hasn't changed since. Daniel Neman bugs the crap out of me. I find his overuse of "we" in his reviews annoying as heck, as if either he's assuming that "we" share his perspective (which I usually don't) or he's using the royal we. Danny -- it's YOU that saw the flick, not we.

Anyway, I'm sure that there's people that are annoyed or angered or bored by my reviews (or my blog). Fine by me. Difference of opinion is what makes our democracy strong.

But for you non-critics out there, here's a window into the conundrums critics face. I saw Richmond Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" last Friday. Generally a very good production (but I'll save the specifics for when my review shows up in Style). I liked the performance of Jeff Schmidt as Mark Antony quite a lot. He's was doing a great job with the funeral speech ("Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...") but then, at the very end of the scene, he totally went blank. Like, totally. It was the most complete full-stop flub I think I have ever seen on stage. There was nothing but dead air for a good few seconds. As I remember it, he eventually repeated one of the lines from earlier in the scene and then everyone just exited.

I'm not pointing this out to be mean. I think Mr. Schmidt is a fine actor; he had been doing well, performed nicely during the rest of the show, and overall did an admirable job. But as a critic, what do you do? Do you memorialize that momentary lapse in print in the spirit of giving an honest assessment of the production? Or do you gloss over it to be "nice?" Movie reviewers can be jerks in their assessments because they aren't usually going to see the person they wrote about at Ukrop's the following Friday. But how do you balance giving a hard-working actor the benefit of the doubt with keeping up a semblance of journalistic integrity?

Or how about this: "The True Story of Pocahontas" opened last week also. As Ms. Haubenstock pointed out in her review, the script has some serious problems. She didn't even mention what I thought were the most significant issues: Pocahontas's motivation for saving John Smith isn't explained, and a huge hunk of the show is told in the future tense, which was confusing to me, not to mention the kids of various ages I had along with me. But you also have to admire the fact that they tried to "keep it real" and not do something that totally made Pocahontas something that she wasn't. Do you reward intent? Or damn with faint praise by saying, "well, at least it wasn't something worse."

Q: What would you do?

A: Avoid becoming a critic at all costs, perhaps?

PS: Style could still use someone else to write them reviews. If this entry isn't inspiration enough, I should tell you the pay isn't so great either...


oneeyeddog said...

I usually have pretty strong opinions and I share them freely - which I hope people find endearing :) However, since you've asked, I'm going with your answer - avoid being a critic at all costs. I love my friends too much, and while I think they are all enormously talented, every now and then an actor (or director) sucks. No matter how good they are, it's bound to happen at some point in their career. And while I might gossip about it with Janine, there's no way I'm putting it in print. Your blog is the closest I'll ever come to being a critic, and I even use a pseudonym here (although I don't think any of my friends are fooled by "oneeyeddog").

As a performer, I appreciate the reviewer who just fails to mention me completely when I'm terrible. I'm usually well aware of it already, and I prefer to keep the public in the dark about it if at all possible. Ah vanity, thy name is - I'm not telling.

Anonymous said...

Well Dave, I for one am VERY grateful that you did not mention that I wiped out the night you came to see Full Monty or that I repeated a line in a song when you came to see “I Love You…”. I owe you one babe!

Anonymous said...


(Let's try this again in the right place, shall we?)

I have been onstage for more of those awful line flubs than I'd like to admit to. They happen a lot, and the audience usually has absolutely no idea anything is wrong. Usually, they only last a second or two because another actor has an opportunity to step in and move the action forward.

This one was, indeed, once-in-a-lifetime, because any actor playing Mark Antony has a singular challenge in Act III of Julius Caesar: he is the sole impeller of action. Every single thing the Plebians do and say is motivated by the last words that came out of Antony's mouth. If no words come out, there's absolutely nothing that can be done to help him. Nothing. The Plebians can't remind him of the will, because the whole point is that they've forgotten about it. They can't leave to seek, burn, and kill the conspirators, because Caesar's body is still onstage and there's necessary action yet to happen in the scene. Poor Antony is on an island with no hope of rescue. This was a perfect storm situation.

For the record, I don't know of anyone in Richmond's theatre community that "hates" you as a critic. Unlike certain former reviewers who shall remain nameless, you have always come across as both knowledgeable about the theatre and cognizant of performers' need to be entertaining. Your mixed review of our Othello last spring (my professional directorial debut) delighted me because you caught on to many of the thematic elements we were striving for, but you also recognized many of the production's failings that I myself was concerned with.

So don't worry about being hated. Honest, educated criticism is a rare and precious thing.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with oneeyedog (have my suspicions on THAT identity, but not totally sure)...and I'll go a step further. While it's often polite to keep performance criticisms to yourself amongst your acting friends, I think we all have folks we really love to work with, and others with whom we're...well, less enthusiastic about sharing the stage. And I'm sure there are folks on both sides of that sentiment regarding yours truly (though somehow, I get out of bed each day despite that knowledge!) The fact is there are some actors we all pretty much agree will lift up a production overall by their performance almost every time; there are those who can do so often or on occasion, depending on the role they're given; and then there are some who we all look at and ask, "Why do they keep casting him/her?" Thankfully, that latter group is QUITE small amongst the top professional theatres in town, but if you choose to work one or two tiers down in terms of compensation, well...then you can only hope David T. and his peers at the other papers skip the production altogether.

Anonymous said...

I actually believe that local reviewers can be too lenient. I can't count the number of times I've seen a show after reading a positive review and been sorely disappointed. While a "kind" review may spare performers' feelings and while I don't advocate being cruel, I think critics who aren't completely honest perpetuate average theater productions instead of encouraging excellence. If a so-so production is lauded, those involved are supported in believing that it's enough. And audiences are discouraged from attending theater, because they are bored by the so-called "good" productions.

I appreciate an honest, thoughtful review about exactly what worked, what didn't work, and (most importantly) why, a review that recognizes the hard work involved while not being afraid to speak the truth. A review that basically says "I liked it!" or "I hated it!" is not interesting, IMO. I don't envy a reviewer's job, as it must be very difficult to put critical comments in print(well, I'M anonymous), but I believe theatre criticism can be an art in itself, and that's the kind that I like to read. Sometimes, I feel like reviews in general have become less objective commentary and more just some sort of outlet to publicize the plot.

However, David, I think you have been very honest and interesting with the opinions and stories in your blog! I'm hooked and look forward to your future insights.

Anonymous said...

My hope is that potential patrons of ANY art form are not basing their patronage solely on the opinion of one person. How many times have you seen a movie because a friend said you HAD to see it... and then you went away wishing you could get your money back? The fact that one person's opinion is PUBLISHED doesn't mean it can't be WRONG! I have loved things that reviews have trashed, and I have hated things that reviews have praised. And sometimes a scathing review piques my morbid curiosity! Let me just say this: I don't hate critics; I hate the fact that some critics write their reviews to make their opinions sound like facts. There is a big difference between "I hated this show!" (opinion) and "This show is terrible!" (fact). My favorite reviewer of all time was a woman with whom I failed to see eye-to-eye with on most occasions. And she could make the most outrageous, scathing comments: "Pabst's performance alone was enough to make me want my money back -- and I got in for free!" But this is what I loved about her... At the end of every review, rave or rant, she included a gentle reminder: "But this is only my opinion. I encourage you to see for yourself." (Sometimes, she would add "...if you dare!" to the end, just to get that last dig in.) These reviews were entertaining, irritating, amusing & infuriating all at the same time. But she had the sense to remind people that the Arts are subjective, and no two opinions are exactly alike. She considered it her job to support the theatre community & encourage others to do the same. I hated her opinions, but I loved her support!

Anonymous said...

It'd be great if audiences attended theatre productions regardless of reviews, and I'm sure some do. But the very reason there are critics is because most don't, and they use published reviews (at least in part) to decide what to see. So, a reviewer really has an important job, which is why I vote for honesty over being nice. Like I said before, critics who aren't completely honest perpetuate average theater productions instead of encouraging excellence. Of course, we all have different ideas of what constitutes "excellence," but dishonest reviews, while kind in the short run, hurt everyone in the long run.

Anonymous said...

David...I think if you want to be respected as a critic then it is essential to be honest about the show (both the good and bad). In the end, a discerning reader would have understood that this one actor's brief lapse didn't ruin what had gone before or what came after. As you noted, it was a generally good show.

I don't read my reviews...I don't have to because I was there. For those who were not but might be, there is you...sometimes only you. It isn't pushing the button on the first ICBM headed for North Korea but it could be the difference between a night of wasted time and money and one that is a journey to remember. As for the flub...big deal...next time (gulp) write about it...but remember, they still went on the journey...so did you. If we meet sometime, let's have a good laugh about it...it WAS a whopper. SHOUT OUT TO THE HAMMITE FOR GETTIN' MY BACK!

Anonymous said...

Big up yourself, Schmitty. Hope your trip to Nashville was successful.

I never went out of my way to read my reviews until I was a full-time staffer with a theatre company. Now I look at them less for their value as literary criticism as for their value as publicity.

Of course, this is from a guy who writes movie reviews on his blog that are exactly 100 words, so my thoughts on criticism should probably not be taken too seriously.