Thursday, February 26, 2009

I Respectfully Disagree

I always enjoy it when Rick posts something here (or anywhere, really. You should check out his blog at AGL sometime). I think he is consistently one of the smartest, thoughtful, and informed people in theater that I know.

But on this whole posting-on-reviews thing (see comments on previous post), while I concur with the spirit of at least some of Rick’s statements (see David Denby’s “Snark” to read some thoughts on what the Internet is doing to our national conversation), I respectfully disagree with the letter of it.

First of all, regardless of whether you think it is a terrible practice or not, it is where we are. The Internet brought many amazing things to us all and one of those things is the ability to make us a more truly interactive society. Readers now expect to have the ability to interact more immediately with written content – whether it’s through embedded hyperlinks, complimentary video/audio, or the ability to post comments. One of the reasons print media is dying is because consumers now demand the immediacy and interactivity that the Internet provides.

Beyond that economic / functional reality, there is a democratization involved in this interactive media that I believe is overall a good thing. How many times have I decried (or heard other decry) the “imperial reviewer” in the past? The concept that the reviewer is some peerless “expert” just because his/her words and opinions are the ones that get published is still regularly complained about. For years, people have argued that their opinion is worth as much or more than the one in the Times, Style or the Times-Dispatch. So yes, now, everyone can be a critic if they want to be and post their comments or write their blogs. Power to the people!

The problematic aspect of this is that the ability for us to be truly interactive does not automatically or magically elevate the level of conversation. Yes, there is a lot of anonymous snark and mean-spirited knuckle-dragging and mindless babble. But is that the fault of the website that allows it? No. You open up the place for interaction and you get whatever interaction comes your way. People used to argue against universal suffrage because the average person is too stupid to make an informed choice. But Democracy won out in America, and we see the results in our leadership (good and bad), and these days we see it in the Comments sections of our websites.

So we are all subject to gobs of drek online now. However, having said that, I have found a LOT of value in the comments I have read, both on this blog and on the Style website. Yes, I have to filter out the babble and the snark – and the well-meaning people who manage to infer that I lack class, even as they are trying to be productive (thanks, Andrew!) I don’t believe the answer is to shut down the process. I believe it is imperative on us to raise the level of the conversation when we can, be more discerning of the garbage and snark, and if possible rescue the pearls out of the muck.

For example: the whole underwear debate about Amadeus. The initial commenter cared enough about what was said in the review to do independent research and then write something about it. As a reviewer, I wouldn’t feel undermined by that; I would feel appropriately challenged. With the Children of a Lesser God review, someone impugned Ms. Seigel’s ASL ability. Surely, this person had an axe to grind but it also made me think that I really didn’t have any basis to judge her ASL ability and that, to a deaf person watching the show, that ability would have been crucial to their enjoyment of it. Important insight embedded within a snarky comment.

So even if the bulk of anonymous commentary is drek, I’d rather have the comments (for the percentage of value derived however small) than not to have them just because they can be irritating. If the reviews I write can be undermined by someone who has an axe to grind against me, then I should consider (or my editor should consider) whether I should be the one writing those reviews. And if someone just wants to say, “your review SUCKED,” fine, that’s someone’s opinion and they’ve got a right to it. If an actor / director / designer is annoyed to the point of distraction by some snarky comments on the Internet (or by simple or frank criticism), they should get out of the business. In my reviews, I don’t normally say – “hey, that aspect of the production sucked” – but you can bet sometimes I’m thinking it. If an anonymous commenter says the same thing as I would only more bluntly, it doesn’t necessarily make it wrong in my book.

After all, in the olden days, didn’t they bring rotten fruit to the theater? Yes, digital rotten tomatoes are annoying, stupid, ridiculous, etc., but they are only the latest vehicle for audiences expressing their opinions.

Finally, as a big fat caveat to all of this, I think commentary submitted to websites, blogs, etc., should be edited and culled based on the appropriateness of the content. The wide-open commentary that I allowed on this blog at first provided a quick study in how people can cross that line from snarky or stupid to damaging and potentially libelous. I’m pretty sure there is some approval mechanism at the Style site for comments, but I’m not sure. Since I started putting comment moderation on this blog in response to a couple particularly mean-spirited comments, I have only felt compelled to deny one comment. Have all the comments been pearls of wisdom? Not exactly. But the benefit of the conversation – regardless of how insightful – clearly outweighs the disadvantages. At least, that’s my opinion.


Jeffrey Cole said...

I can get what most of you are saying, both on this posting and your previous, Dave, but I think it bears mention that, as actors, we are notoriously thin-skinned. We can take the slightest critique and blow it amazingly out of proportion, as well as infer a volume of derision from any off-handed comment.

Personally, I think Anonymous posting has merits, but I think it is abused far too frequently. The Style Weekly posts regarding Amadeus and Children are proof positive of this.

Ultimately, however, by putting ourselves onstage, we open ourselves up to commentary and criticism, however uninformed or catty. If someone pays money for a product, they have the right to tell others how they feel about it. We also don't have to be offended by what is said. I think we all have better things to do than get righteous over an anonynmous posting; it's a slice of time that has come and gone.

Really, is this what we've come to? Educated men and women, artistically trained, culturally informed...getting our underwear in a bunch? (sorry)

Sorry if this has seemed disjointed; it's been a hell of a school day.

Rick St. Peter said...

"For years, people have argued that their opinion is worth as much or more than the one in the Times, Style or the Times-Dispatch. So yes, now, everyone can be a critic if they want to be and post their comments or write their blogs." Dave, in one respect I agree with you, in another respect, I couldn't disagree more. For years people have been arguing that, well, for years they have been wrong. You ain't reviewing for Style for free are you? As soon as Style or the RTD decides to pay you for your opinion, than your opinion becomes worth more than the anonymous rants about Andrew Hamm's acting or Miss Blake's underwear, truth be told, I would love to see!! I am all for people expressing their opinions, God knows I have no qualms doing so, but THIS is the forum to do it in. Or my AGL blog (which may not even be the case because I am not AGL), but if you hate Andrew Hamm or love Miss Blake's underwear, get yourself a blog (hell do it anonymously for all I care) and blog till your little heart is content...however, attaching your anonymous tripe to Dave Timberline/Mary Burrus' review COMPLETELY undermines YOUR credibility as a critic. For years, I have complained about reviews, Lord knows there were times when I wanted to egg Roy Proctor's house, but that was HIS job, to express HIS opinion and HE was paid for it.

What the internet has done has allowed everyone to have access to information...access to information does not equate to knowledge and while Style and RTD decides to continue to pay you for your opinion, than your opinion is more valid than anonymous posts at the bottom of your reviews and they do undermine your credibility as a my humble opinion...and this is from a guy who basically ALWAYS had the opposite opinion of every film review I ever read of Daniel Neuman's...or whatever his name was...that guys was a terrible critic!! (And that's what makes this debate fun...)


Dave T said...

"For years people have been arguing that, well, for years they have been wrong."

I love this conversation because, like many good ones, its tendrils reach out in all sorts of provocative directions. There was a touch of facetiousness in my seeming endorsement of the "everyone's a critic" statement. (Tried to indicate that via "power to the people" line. Doesn't always translate.) I would agree with you, Rick, in that the people who have argued for the legitimacy of everyone having equal critical sway have been wrong. I don't claim to be the most insightful person about theater in the world -- or even Richmond -- but the very fact that I see so much theater and that I can express opinions about it relatively concisely and coherently -- and that I am paid -- does in some way make my opinion worth more. It also, I'm sad to say, make Daniel Neman's opinion worth more. So the critical ball bounces.

Anyway, there seems to be an issue of proximity that somehow relates to you feeling random comments completely undermine my (or any critic's) credibility. In a way, I can see this. But then I also think of analagous situations, like comments that people post after opinion pieces on and such. I don't feel that those comments undermine the credibility of Frank Rich at or Campbell Brown or Ed Rollins at I'm not sure, then, why random comments after a review (which is essentially an opinion piece) would undermine my credibility. If I've made a factual error, then I should be called on it and that's fine. If someone disagrees with my opinion, particularly if they express their opinion elegantly and with specific examples, I say more power to them. My reviews should be able to stand on their own and Mr. or Ms. Anonymous shouldn't really be able to undermine them. If they can do so effectively, like I said before, I don't think I should be writing.