I have been mulling over how to rejoin this conversation that I thought had pretty much petered out after dozens of comments last week. But just today, this very pointed comment showed up that sure helped me focus my thoughts:
“Please give me a break. Not one actor who has kissed up to the critics here has ever gotten a bad review - even when they were universally agreed upon as bad. As for credibility, read some of the previous comments here. Dave makes it fairly clear in his remarks that if make nice here, you are set. As for his own son being in an upcoming production, how can he or Mary even consider reviewing said production?”
My, so many things to say! I’ll take the simplest point first: you are absolutely right, Anon, I will not be reviewing the upcoming “A Christmas Story,” would not even think about it. There have only been two other occasions where members of my family have appeared in a play that was even an option for me to review and of course I didn’t review those either (though I did turn one of those into one of my favorite pieces of my own writing. Can I link to it again? I think I can!)
I think it’s interesting that you think if people “make nice” here, I’ll give them a pass. I’ve been blogging for a little over a year but reviewing for almost ten. This blog frankly has very little impact on how I judge a play or a performance. I put it out to generate conversation about theater; my hope was that fans would come and comment. As it has developed, theater people frequent it much more than I would have expected. Which is great and what I hope it does is give people a chance to judge my performance as a critic, not necessarily to kiss up to me. But by all means, give it a shot (I’m partial to chocolate and micro-brews, by the way). But if you stink up the stage, I will still probably mention it in a review, your nice comments notwithstanding.
What is much more likely to have an impact on my reviews than this silly blog are the personal relationships I’ve been able to find and foster through this critic gig. I am lucky to know some incredibly talented people, I have a great deal of respect for them, and many of them I am honored to call friend. But has that made me water down my reviews? I don’t know: you could ask Bruce Miller, someone I admire and enjoy talking to regularly, but who I’ve also knocked occasionally – most recently I think for one of the Hanover Tavern productions. Or (a few years ago), Rick St Peter who I think is fabulously talented and who I still correspond with, but who did some relatively dreadful thing at the Firehouse (“Marisol” was it? Synge, I think you were in that one…) before he left town that I remember putting down pretty distinctly. I know I’ve chided Scottie at least once for a performance I considered “one-note” and Larry Cook, who I have loved in many things, made some choices that I questioned on these very virtual pages not too long ago. I’m sure I’ve pissed Grant Mudge off with a review or three of mine, though he is always cordial to me and I always enjoy talking to him. A fellow Style writer, Ed Slipek, has done some great set design work for the Firehouse and some, well, not so great, in my opinion, which I mentioned specifically in my Style review. Ironically, a production that I did not particularly like in very recent memory was “Austin’s Bridge” at the Firehouse, which was produced by new pal and blogmate, Mary B.
I will certainly own up to one thing that might confuse some people like Anon: I don’t usually write negative reviews. As I said above: if you stink up the stage, I will PROBABLY mention it. I approach theater as a fan, not as someone hired to pick it apart. When faced with limited space in print, I tend toward highlighting the positive versus harping on the negative. But I think the examples above are evidence that this is not universal.
Is it harder to judge productions that involve friends and good acquaintances? Yes, without a doubt. What it does, though, is challenge me to be as specific and fair with my comments as possible. Because, not only is it likely that I may run into the object of my commentary at Ukrop’s or Smoothie King, it’s not unlikely that they’ll be over at my house for dinner or a holiday celebration some time.
This is not an unusual situation. Many reviewers are or have been connected to the world they review in some way or another. This includes some of the greats, people like Kenneth Tynan in theater or Roger Ebert (screenwriter) in film. The reality is that the people who are interested enough in an art form to write about it often and for frankly not much money often participate in the creation of that art form in some way. And even if you start out not very involved, you GET involved. I don’t just write reviews; like most other critics, I also write features, which means I regularly chat, meet and have lunch with people in the theater world. Even if a critic doesn’t start out knowing or liking anyone in the world they’re writing about, chances are they will make several good friends in the community before all is said and done. Does it make everything a little incestuous? Yeah, probably, but you know, life is like that, particularly in a town the size of Richmond. It makes it seem a little more like a family and my role in this particular family is to be the smart-ass little brother who delivers commentary on everybody. It’s not always been a happy little family but, for the most part, everyone I’ve dealt with understands that we each have our role to play.
I don’t consider this a negative. Sure, maybe some reviewers try to use their ironic distance to be funny or otherwise entertaining. Many of them fail. And I can’t help but think that some reviewers – movie critics in particular – might speak with a little more clarity if they were in danger of regularly running into George Lucas or Brad Pitt at the local Kroger.
OK, I’ve rambled off track here a bit but let me bring it back to Anon’s first and most perplexing comment. Performances that have been “universally agreed upon as bad?” Please point me to blog or chat room or coffee house where I can find out what the “universal” consensus is. I’d be really interested to know where such a consensus is developed and promulgated, just to know whether I’m consistent with the ‘in’ crowd or not.