Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Eighteen years ago today, my lovely wife and I were married. She is responsible for many amazing and exciting things in my life but one that I don’t often reflect on is this whole theater critic gig. It was through her (in her capacity as one of Style’s associate editors) that I learned that Style would be needing a theater critic and through her that I submitted my first reviews for consideration. It’s been a wild ride (both the marriage and the critic thing) but I don’t regret a minute of it.

News this morning is that ‘9 to 5’ scored big in the Drama Desk noms. Has anyone here in Richmond seen this? Even given all of the nominations, I’ve got about 5 other shows I’d like to see in NYC before that one.

Okay, so to follow up on my posting from yesterday, here’s a very rough and extremely reductive formula and probably the kind of thing that’ll get me kicked out of the reviewers union (if there was such a thing):

Positivity rating = [Musical Factors] * (Individual Performances * Company allowance) x (Technical Elements * Venue allowance) x (Strength of Material * Originality allowance) x Overall Experience + Wild Cards.

This kinda-sorta represents the process that I go through to come up with my reviews. This is usually a subconscious process, particularly these days after doing it for 10 years. But every once in while – like with “Annie” this past weekend – I have to bring the specifics into focus more distinctly to come up with my final word. While the formula shows a final rating that you might think is numeric, I never come up with a actual number for any show. But I do often come up with a more general feeling, almost like a letter grade. The problem is that then I have to translate the letter grade into narrative, which can be tricky. The ‘A’s and the ‘C-‘s aren’t the problem – it’s the solid ‘B’s that are the challenge.

I don’t mean to be off-hand about this – it’s a process I take very seriously and that sometimes ties me up in knots. But without some kind of objective background like this – even if it is only a broad list of factors – I think it would be too easy to be flippant about work that very talented people have put hundreds of hours of work into, not to mention thousands of dollars.

So I think most of the factors are pretty self-explanatory but I should go into a little more detail about some of them. First off, crammed into “Musical Factors” is a potentially huge number of production elements, including individual vocal performances, ensemble vocal performances, overall musical direction, the band or orchestra, and even aspects of sound design and venue acoustics. The different allowances have to do with recognizing the constraints that go along with specific circumstances. For instance, I’m going to approach a show produced in a space like the Gay Community Center without expectations of Broadway-caliber lighting design. I’m just not. That doesn’t mean the lighting designer gets a free pass, just a little understanding about the challenges he or she may be dealing with. Similarly, producing a new or challenging work earns at least a little credit for originality.

The ‘Overall Experience’ factor has a lot to do with how the show is directed and also with what happens after you leave the show. For a musical, do you have that cliché experience of leaving the theater humming the tunes? For a drama, do you end up talking about or even just thinking about issues the show dealt with later on?

And Wild Cards, well, I hope that’s clear. Sometimes, one aspect of a show is so good or so bad that it has to be addressed. One performance – like maybe Scott Wichmann in “Richard III,” as an example – is so good it overshadows many or most of a production’s deficiencies. There are many negative examples here too. I caught some flack many years ago because of disparaging remarks I made about a production of “Children of Eden.” The production was actually pretty good but I will always have a problem with this show because of the way it changes the story of Cain and Abel, completely reconfiguring the instructive and moral content of one of the best known and fundamental Biblical stories. I just think it is a bad bad bad choice in so many ways that I will reiterate that opinion every single time the show is even mentioned. (Be forewarned.)

Anyway, there’s my review calculus laid out moderately plainly. Some time soon (maybe tomorrow if my review shows up), I’ll talk about how I applied it to “Annie.”


Keith C. said...

I can't wait to read your "Annie" review. I hope you enjoyed the show!

kbsaine said...

our 'Rouge Family of Artists' got the sneak-preview of our season announcement this morning... to the press tomorrow.
since i love this blog (& thank you for it!) and consider all of this community our family of artists, here's the Sycamore Rouge 2009-10 Mainstage Theatre Season:

40 Acres and a P.O.W.
by Woody Eney (world premiere)
October 16 ~ November 17

Santaland Diaries & Season’s Greetings
by David Sedaris
December 5 ~ December 27

Jar the Floor
by Cheryl West
February 19 ~ March 13

The Crucible
by Arthur Miller
April 16 ~ May 8

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by William Shakespeare
July 16 ~ August 7

okay, theatre family: discuss!

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Megan Hilty is a budding goddess! A goddette, perhaps?

amyberlin said...

Hey Dave,

I know you don't pay for your tickets (usually), but does ticket price play into it at all? I tend to judge plays with high ticket prices differently than more affordable shows. If I pay $60 or more to see something, I expect it to be darn near perfect -- a weak performance here or there or a lazy design makes me mad. But if a show is $20 or so, I can give a lot of things a pass so long as I am entertained.

I suppose art is art, and it shouldn't matter what you paid, but I do like to see my money on the stage -- whether in exceptional performances or gorgeous, creative stagecraft.

Or maybe I'm just cheap.


Dave T said...

You have a good point, Amy, and no, I don't think you're cheap. I think your statements reflects the concerns of the reasonable consumer whose expectations of quality are definitely tied to price, whether they are taking in a show or buying a blender.

Ticket price plays a part for me but it's not totally explicit. It's the kind of thing that's usually reflected in the different "allowances." The "company allowance" takes into account that a company like the Barksdale often hires equity talent and the "venue allowance" incorporates the pros and cons of a theater like the Empire. So my expectations of a Barksdale show at the Empire are higher than they are of a Henley Street show at Pine Camp. Usually, that kind of difference in company and venue also translates into a difference in ticket price.

When the ticket price moves into the $60 range for traveling shows and such, the bang-for-the-buck aspect of the show definitely plays a bigger part.