Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Critics are not the enemy

At one point this past weekend, I worked myself into a good little snit. I think it started percolating a couple of weeks ago when I re-listened to a podcast of Bill Davis (playwright of "Austin's Bridge" from last summer) in which he was asking insinuating questions about the motives and the vetting of theater critics. Then last week I heard an interview where Edward Albee talked about how he’d prefer that his productions not be reviewed because he would rather that people come to the theater without any preconceptions. Then just a couple of days ago, someone who I think is a very talented comedienne called a rave review about her show "terrible" because it included one lame line about our world “where women are not smart or funny” – a line that I at least took to be ironic.

There are plenty of things wrong with the world of theater and live performance but I don’t see critics as being a significant part of the problem. Call me defensive but I don’t understand why some people want to make critics the bad guys (or bad gals). In response to Mr. Davis: I don’t know any critics with an agenda other than wanting to see good stuff that they can write about. In response to Mr. Albee: theatergoers may be art lovers but they are also consumers who are being asked anywhere from $20 to $150 for admittance into a show. Without theater critics you may get fewer people with preconceptions coming to the theater …or you may just get fewer people coming to the theater.

And to my comedienne friend: critics are people, too, and sometimes they write lame stuff. But performers shouldn’t expect a flawlessly written review any more than a critic should expect a flawlessly performed show. Nobody and nothing is perfect; I think judgments should be made with that in mind.

These comments come at a time when critics in general are disappearing. NPR did a story recently about the couple dozen or so movie critics that have been fired or retired recently in major markets. Here in Richmond, there was a time when there were two daily papers, each of which had a full-time staffer doing theater reviews. Now, the T-D has a couple of freelancers.

Movie box office doesn't seem to be suffering because there are fewer critics. But movies have massive marketing machines and movie trailers are ubiquitous on the Internet. For theater, critics are still an important part of getting the word out about a show. Until theater companies can develop their own massive marketing machines, critics will continue to play a key role. There are plenty of theater reviews that I’ve disagreed with or thought were lame in one way or another. But I’ve never read a review that was as vociferous in its sentiments as some of the average audience members I’ve talked to who were disenchanted with a show. A critic (who has usually attended for free) may be disappointed; the average consumer (who has ponied up significant funds for admission) may feel downright cheated.

In my experience, the great majority of theater professionals appreciate critics – if sometimes begrudgingly – for their role in the art / commerce system. But for those few who look at us as the bad guys, I have a question: if theater critics suddenly ceased to exist, do you really think the theater world would be better off?


Anonymous said...

How about this comment from Harvey Fierstein? http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/47401/

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave
I hope I can make you feel a little better by simply saying the people that dont like critics are the ones that can't seem to handle a bad word being said/printed about them. Elbert Hubbard once said "To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing." "Constructive Criticism" is what makes us grow. We who have poured our heart and souls into shows, may not realize we made a bad choice somewhere along the way. We artists need to learn how to take a step back sometimes and see what the audience member is seeing. It is an entirely different show when you have worked on a play for months and when you come in to see it built in front of you. But Dave to be fair it is human nature to not want people to tell you what you are doing wrong. Hence you being offended by people not likeing critics, we perceive these statements as personal attacks, even though that is not how they are meant. As long as I have put a quote out there I believe it was once said that "Asking a working writer(actor/artist) what he thinks about critics is like asking a hydrant how it feels about dogs." Just my 2 cents for what they are worth.

Dave T said...

Mr. Fierstein's comments are so rife with inanity, I almost don't know where to start. Is it really that easy to fly out to Hollywood and get work? That might come as news to all of the out-of-work writers out there. If writers were so sensitive to rejection that they would move on to a different medium so quickly, I expect that there would be 95% fewer novels written. Finally, and perhaps most pertinent: Critics don't have the power to kill most shows. If they did, Frank Rich would have killed Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" years ago, "Cats" would have run three weeks, and "Little Mermaid" and "Legally Blonde" would not currently be on Broadway. Lack of audience kills shows, not critics.

Fierstein lashing out because his current show is tanking after he's enjoyed many years of being fabulously successful indicates to me that, not only does he not know what the fuck he's talking about, but that he's a big petulant baby.

Dave T said...

Dear Anon #2: Thanks for your 2 cents -- they are invaluable! I love the "hydrant / dogs" quote - hilarious. And I totally understand the sensitivity of someone who has devoted so much energy to an artistic pursuit. It's something ever-present in my mind when I sit down to write a review.

I'll just reiterate, though, that I've never read a review that was as scathing as some of the comments I've heard from other audience members. It's my opinion (and granted, just my opinion) that most of the time, if a decent critic is saying a show is less-than-great, there is someone in the audience saying it sucks.

Anonymous said...

I saw Harvey Fierstein's new play. The critics were actually much nicer than I would have been. Overheard in the bathroom after the peformance I saw of "A Catered Affair" . . . a conversation between two women from their separate stalls:

"That was so sad."

"Why? Because it was so bad?"

I guess you're right, Dave!!

Amy B.

Anonymous said...

Although I do not know Mr. Firestein personally, I would have to disagree that he doesn't know "what the fuck he's talking about", and that he's not a "big petulant baby." The man has had a long, successful career, both as a playwright and actor. I'd venture to say he's seen every side of the business possible, and DOES know what he's talking about. He's survived bad reviews before; he'll survive these. This, of course, is simply his opinion, just as a critic is entitled to one. Is he upset and defending his work? Sure. He has every right to do so. But let's not be foolish enough to say the man doesn't know what he's talking about.

Anonymous said...

As a longtime resident of Richmond, I find I have figured out what our local critics like and dislike, so I can take that review and figure out if I will be seeing the play/movie reviewed. I have grown to trust them. (Not always agree - but trust.) I know, for instance, that one of our local TD reviewers isn't big on "chick flicks" so I can usually trust that a bad review doesn't mean a bad movie....
My dilemma comes when I'm out of town, I love to see shows in other places (just saw a wonderful production of "Reefer Madness" in Colorado - can't wait to see how the Firehouse show stacks up!) and I must admit that a good review will not make me want to see the show more, but a bad review will make me think twice, and in some cases, not even go if I had been wishy-washy about seeing it anyway.
And since I am not familiar with the critic, I can't really make an informed choice. Again - we trust.

And as a techie for several theatres around town, may I just say that all critics who love our shows are brilliant, and if you don't like our shows, well, we won't go there....but it's the nature of the beast, I'm afraid...
(I do think that all reviewers should work a show at least once in their lives!)
My take on things!

Dave T said...

Anon#3: Fierstein is quoted as saying “There’s so little future in theater because our wonderful critics don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.” In this one sentence, he goes far beyond defending his work: he demeans critics as some monolithic class of idiots, he demeans playwrights (insinuating they can't take criticism), and he demeans theater in general by saying there's little future in it.

I would expect him to love and defend his work. But to lash out at others and the world without perhaps considering that about his particular play maybe critics know EXACTLY what they're talking about, is infantile and borderline irresponsible.

Angelika HausFrauSki said...

When it comes to film critics, I like to read the opinions of several on movies I've seen and then eventually only read the one whose taste most reflected mine -- in my case, Roger Ebert. Sometimes his critiques make me not go to a movie, sometimes I say to hell with it and end up disagreeing with him. But more often than not, we're on the same page.

I think many theatre-goers feel the same way about theatre reviews.

As for the way theatre professionals respond to critics, well...if you're doing it for the critics, you're doing it for the wrong reason. To me, anyway.

Personally, I just do it for the cash. The cold, hard cash.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, Theatres and Critics should exist symbiotically. Critics can help promote Theatres and get the word out about events in the community that people may not know about, and Theatres obviously help Critics by keeping them employed and by adding to their body of work.

I'm not suggesting that Critics should give all good reviews by any means - it's their job to call it as they see it - however, I am suggesting that there are professional and unprofessional ways of giving bad reviews (and good reviews, for that matter).

I've read some very unprofessional reviews by the TD Critics in this town. Things like reviewing the script but not the show, being downright rude, and failing to express whether or not the reviewer actually enjoyed the show or not are pretty common practices that I see coming from the TD reviewers. (Okay, being rude is pretty rare, but I can't say it's never happened).

The Style and Richmond.com reviewers simply don't get out to see many of the shows outside of the big name theatres. Even here on this blog, I see a lot of talk about Barksdale/Theatre IV, Swift Creek, Firehouse, Richmond Shakespeare, and Henley Street but not much else. There are many other theatres in town, some of which put on shows which are on par with and sometimes even better than the bigger theatres. TD usually reviews these other theatres, while Style and Richmond.com usually do not.

Theatre in a town of this size is a community, and the more tight-knit, the better. I would urge all the Critics in town to get out and see as much Theatre as they can (you're writing about it because you love it, right?), and not to let pre-conceived notions about the kinds of shows or quality of shows from particular theatres interfere. All theatres put on bad shows and good shows - it's just the nature of the beast - what's important is giving visibility to everyone, regardless of whether you are praising the show or not.

The enemy? No, certainly not.

An under-used tool? I think, in some cases, yes.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

"Even here on this blog, I see a lot of talk about Barksdale/Theatre IV, Swift Creek, Firehouse, Richmond Shakespeare, and Henley Street but not much else."

Each theatre has an audience base. I find it impossible to see everything done at the above listed theatres along with sometimes catching friends in shows at some of the other theaters. I choose to go to those theatres because they tell me they strive for a certain quality. Those that strive to fill other needs other than quality (and those certainly exist and fill their niche quite well) are not what I'm out to see.

If you feel that the community theatres should be talked about, go for it! You are obviously able to comment here as well!

Anonymous said...

I'm not talking about community theatres. They aren't reviewed by the TD. I'm talking about Triangle, Sycamore Rouge, CAT, AART, and a number of other theatres.

I'm talking about the opinion that you have, and how that opinion seems to permeate lots of people in the Richmond theatre scene:

Theatres that aren't Barksdale/TIV, Swift Creek, Richmond Shakespeare, Firehouse, and Henley "strive to fill other needs other than quality". I can assure you this isn't the case. I've seen shows at all the aforementioned theatres, and all have had shows that ranged from very high quality to very low quality. Yet somehow, the smaller theatres are only reviewed by TD and very seldom talked about in the community.

I can assure you, there is some very high quality theatre going on where people aren't looking. If the Critics at Style and Richmond.com gave those theatres press too, you can be sure they would be more visible.

Seale said...

Hey Dave-

Sidebar topic to "The critic: Friend or Foe", I'm in Denver at the TCG conference right now and I am on my way to see Mike Daisey's "How Theatre Failed America" solo performance. We are blogging about it at www.actorsguildoflexington.blogspot.com and I will have more to say after seeing the show tonight. Visit our blog, follow the conference and see what a shit storm Daisey stirs up here.


ps A certain TD critic who is now retired absolutely had an agenda when he would come to the theatre...imho

Anonymous said...

It is very rare indeed that any actor speaks up with a dissenting opinion here. When they occassionally do, they are obliterated by the "non-anonymous" who simply always agree with the opinions here for obvious reasons. There have been plenty of poor shows at Barksdale/TIV, Swift Creek, Richmond Shakespeare, Firehouse, and Henley. All theatres in this area strive for a certain quality and these theatres deserve to be discussed on this blog. I moved here from D.C. for school, and I am sure that the artists there would consider most of the theatres here as of a " lesser quality."

Dave T said...

Wow, Anon (#6? I've lost count), your post seems rife with subtext, so much so that I tread softly in even trying to respond. Mostly, it seems I should apologize for giving any impression that discussion of any theaters in town is not worthy of this virtual space. Am I more tuned into the happenings at TIV, Barksdale, the Mill, the Firehouse, etc.? Perhaps I am. Am I interested in all theater in Richmond? Absolutely.

I would mention (in defense but trying not to be defensive) that I recently posted comments about RTP's "Two Svengalis," that there was quite a bit of virtual ink spilled in discussion of the CAT / Barksdale dustup, and that not too long ago there was practically a throw-down over my comments about AART. I recently mentioned being intrigued by a show at Sycamore Rouge for next season and, not to let anything out of the bag here, I am planning to finally make it down there to see one of their productions when they do "Streetcar" later in the summer.

If by "obvious reasons," you mean that people don't want to ruffle the delicate feathers of this cranky critic for fear of getting a bad review, I am puzzled by that reasoning. For one, several "named" actors have posted views in contradiction to mine (Mr. Wichmann, I'm looking at you!) and even more anonymous ones have as well. I don't deny people the ability to post anonymously (though some people have encouraged me to do so) so you are free to lambast me to your heart's content, or alternately, relentlessly promote a production at one of those "neglected" companies (though they were not relentless, I gave the "Veronica's Room" fans plenty of lee-way).

So I'm sorry you have that impression, anon, but I hope you feel free to post away in an effort to turn things in a different direction.

And Rick, I'll certainly dial up your impressions of the Daisey show; I'll be most interested in your opinion. And while I didn't always agree with the "retired former critic" of whom you speak, I never discerned a specific agenda. Perhaps you'll share your thoughts on that with me (off-line or on) because I find the idea intriguing.

Anonymous said...

I want to add more to this discussion and clarify my point a bit later (short on time at the moment), but I just wanted to point out that The 8:25 anon isn't me, that's someone different. I'm 3:46 and 6:54.

Anonymous said...

Stupid little point, but Triangle does get reviewed in STYLE.

Richmond.com: who knows?

Angelika HausFrauSki said...

Yay, Streetcar! You SHOULD come to see that, Dave. 'Cause I'm playing Stella. :)

Andrew Hamm said...


Unknown said...

I agree that the retired critic in question did sometimes have an agenda, while reviewing a certain college like Shakespeare show comes to mind. However I think that he more often than not did give a show a fair shake. And I have to admit that more often than not I agreed with his bad reviews.

Hey at least he reviewed the lighting designer...

Anonymous said...

Dave, you might want to consider having an occasional "Open Thread" here. Readers could comment on shows they've see that haven't been reviewed or talk openly about other theatre issues. You'd get more ideas for blog posts.

It's great that you're getting lots of traffic in the comments. Thanks for hosting this blog.

Anonymous said...

No one seems to be asking the question, and Anon #6 is really dancing around something (though I can't say what), so I'll ask the question:

Dave, why doesn't Style review Sycamore Rouge, CAT, and the African American Repertory Theatre? There may be more I'm missing, but these are the only ones listed in this thread that are reviewed by the Times Dispatch but not reviewed by Style. One anon was quick to point out that the Triangle Players are indeed reviewed by Style.

Anonymous said...

It's no so much that I care whether or not STYLE reviews them - my point is that any blog named "RICHMOND THEATRE BLOG" should be inclusive of all. It might be better to rename this blog: AS DAVE TIMBERLINE SEES IT. This blog is NOT representative of all theatre groups in the Richmond area.

Anonymous said...

One reason might be that the readership of STYLE doesn't really overlap with the audience base of those theaters.

Dave T said...

Wow, Anon 11:18pm, I appreciate your sentiment that 'any blog named "RICHMOND THEATRE BLOG" should be inclusive of all,' but that's a pretty tall order. Your statement makes me realize that I should have an easily accessible link to my first post ever where I say why I started this blog. If maintaining this blog was a full-time paid job, I might be able to make it all inclusive. As a part-time, voluntary time-suck from my already too-busy life, it can only be what it already is.

I know the name is a bit of a misnomer as I also try to talk about national and even regional aspects of theater when it occurs to me. But I would suggest and wholeheartedly recommend you approach RAPT, Richmond Marquee, or RichmondTheatre.com about starting something that might be more all-inclusive.

Dave T said...

"Dave, why doesn't Style review Sycamore Rouge, CAT, and the African American Repertory Theatre?"

That is a question best posed to the editorial staff at Style if you want a comprehensive answer. I will say however that many if not most AART productions have been reviewed by Style. Also, there have been several "big company" shows over the years (produced by Theatre IV, Barksdale, the Mill, etc.) that have NOT been reviewed in Style.

While I cannot provide anything like an "official" answer, I can anticipate the answer that Style would provide which is that all decisions about what they cover are made based primarily on the space available in the magazine on a week-to-week basis. You may notice that Style also doesn't cover all major recording acts that play in the area or all of the movies that open each week. Style does not generally pull reviews from other subsidiaries or from the AP like the Times-Dispatch often does. Style is an "alternative weekly." It therefore does not, can not, and some would argue should not provide the same coverage as a daily.

Andrew Hamm said...

Dave and Eraserhead,

There is now an open web forum on RAPT's website.

The URL is http://www.richmondtheatres.org/forum/.

The RAPT forum is designed for exactly the kind of discussions you're talking about having. My goal is that it will become a central location for people to discuss whatever the heck they want about area theatre. You want to write about the show you're working on? Do it. You want to write about the show you just saw? This is the place.

It will also free Dave up to write about what he wants to write about, rather than feeling a need to be an all-inclusive source for all things theatrical.

So go on over to RAPT's website, sign up, and start yakking!

pnlkotula said...

Hey, hey, don't send the dissenters my way. I got problems of my own...