Friday, August 14, 2009

Adding it up

Next Thursday, I’ll be seeing “Fully Committed” at Hanover Tavern. I just checked my geeky little spreadsheet where I keep track of company schedules and various other details and noted that it’ll be the 40th distinct local professional theater production I’ve seen between September 2008 and August 2009.

I say “distinct” because I saw Stage 1's “Children’s Letters to God” at least 4 times, maybe 5. I saw Theatre IV’s “Annie” twice all the way through and other additional snippets during its run.

I say “local” because I saw “Oliver!” in Charlottesville 3 times and “South Pacific” in NYC, just once.

I say “professional” because I saw two VCU productions, an exceptional CYT show and a few endearing school plays.

And I also saw a few shows that I don’t exactly know where they fall along these various spectra (is the Playhouse at Fort Lee local? Is it professional? I don’t honestly know either answer.)

So if you add it all up, I can pretty confidently say that I saw, on average, one play a week this past year. Out of all of those productions, I wrote 20 reviews. (I also wrote an indeterminate number of features and interviews, maybe 8 or 10?) This leads me to make a few comments:

People wonder – some out loud, some just to themselves I’m sure – what qualifies me to be a critic. If I was lost in a fit of braggadocio, I could maybe outline some journalistic qualifiers. But one of the most important aspects of being a good critic, I think, is seeing a whole bunch of shows. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years now and so have seen at least 500 distinct local theater productions during that time. Nothing has given me as much perspective on the range of talent and skill available here in Richmond or versed me as well in the differences between just a good show and a truly amazing one.

I’m realizing slowly but surely that this level of viewership is unsustainable for me. A couple of years back, I was going to fewer plays because I was writing fewer reviews but this past year, because of my son’s activities and because of the whole Critics Circle awards thing, I’ve been seeing more shows. And I am regularly encouraged / invited to see the ones I’ve missed. I can’t keep it up. There’s simply not enough nights in the week or hours in the day.

I’m really lucky. Not many people get to see so much theater. And fewer get paid to do it. If seeing theater and writing about it paid enough to feed my family, I’d do it as my sole vocation (maybe). And whether the number of shows I see diminishes or not, I’ll never stop going. Theatre is simply too much fun.


Anonymous said...

The criticism is always louder (and often more frequent) than the praise. Don't lose heart! We love you!

Dave T said...

Not that it really matters but I took a little bit closer look at my geeky spreadsheet and I had counted the VCU productions on my list among the professional productions I saw last season. So technically, I only saw 38 distinct local professional productions. Ah well. I could also add though, that I was forgetting that I saw "Les Mis" at Signature in NoVa and that I saw "Last Xmas Pageant Ever" at least twice. So the total number of shows I saw last year was still the same. Clearly, I'm not an accountant...

Anonymous said...

Students in the VCU shows are not paid for their work, and based on many previous comments on this blog, plus the criteria for the RTCC awards, how do VCU productions fall under the title "professional production(s)?" Just curious.

Dave T said...

OK, I clearly did not state this clearly enough. In my original post, I said I saw 40 DLPPs last season. VCU shows are of course NOT professional productions. That is why I revised the number of DLPPs I saw to 38 because I discovered that 2 of the ones I had been counting were VCU shows. It was an error in my spreadsheet, not in my definition. Is that any clearer?

kb saine said...

i'm suprised no one has yet thought to simply say thanks.
i've said it before, both to you & to others: no one sees the number of productions you do, simply because -as you put it- there aren't enough hours in the day or days in the week (or, because we're working when our peers are, too!) this blog, and your ability to share with all of us 'the dirt' on everyone else's work has kept us up to date, kept us cheering for one another, and kept us striving for our own artistic bests.
so... thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sooooo, let me see if I got this straight: "seeing a bunch of shows" has "versed" you "in the difference between just a good show and a truly amazing one"??! Okay. Here lies one of the many problems with critics--they frequently (not always, of course),egotisticly presume that their perspective is the correct one when, in fact, it is only one opinion based upon their own taste and temperment. By your thinking, if I watched "a bunch" of television shows but my preference (whether conscious or sub conscious) was for,say,game shows, reality programs,and American Idol (instead of,say, Frontline, Masterpiece Theatre or Virginia Currents) I still have obtained the complete insight, objectivity,and wisdom to determine what is art and what is crap and I'm usually, almost always correct??? ...Because...I've seen...a bunch of shows...and I've been doing it for a really long time. Wow! That's cool. I should get into that racquet--no heavy lifting required. Well, hey, good for you! Good for you, I say. That's quite a gift you got there--kinda like,sitting in the shade, watching a person build a stone wall in the hot sun and being able to say, "Weeeelll, it's okay, I guess. I've seen better walls. I've seen some truly amazing walls. In fact, I've seen a whole bunch of walls! I've never actually built one...but I know which ones are good and which are great and so I'm gonna spread the word on yours!" Maybe you should have ended your above (badly hidden)boast with two simple, yet precise words: TO ME. But, of course, any sensible potential audience member already knows that, right? Seeing a review (of one person's opinion) couldn't possibly sway them as to whether or not they purchase a ticket. Nah, I doubt that one person's opinion can have any real effect (no matter how small or how big)on ticket sales based on a single review--that just never happens; people are way too smart for that. Hey,bad press is better than no press at all. You're just giving the public your educated opinion and we all know that. It's a great service you're providing,actually, and we're grateful for that. You really love theatre,...well, except for those times when you it. Roll the presses!!!

P.S. Maybe you can post this so folks can write in, "Awwww, that person was really bitter and way too rough on you! (Kinda like, let's see...A CRITIC?) What do they know? Don't let it get to you!" Afterall,it's just one person's opinion...right? (Man,sure get's hot in the kitchen, doesn't it?)

Dave T said...

Wow – what a remarkable range of sentiment in just two comments! I appreciate the thanks, kb, and I hope to have more conversations with you about art, theater and creativity. I don’t really expect thanks from the folks I write reviews about, maybe just tolerance.

Which brings me to Anon… It seems like grinding that axe of yours has left its blade a little dull. Your comment is almost not worth answering, given its lack of coherence, but it provides too many opportunities for shedding light to totally avoid.

I can see where a post about how many shows I’ve seen this past season might have seemed like a “badly hidden boast” to someone with their panties already in a bunch. But mostly, the number of shows I saw is a fact and it occurred to me to post it not to boast about it but to report it. People who read my reviews have no idea whether I’ve seen 2 shows or 2,000 so I thought they might be curious. (Also, just for the record, Ms. Haubenstock at the T-D undoubtedly sees more shows than I do and my other critical counterparts in town probably see at least as many or more.) It certainly wasn’t stated to bolster my ego. If anything, it bolsters my growing feelings about the cost/benefit ratio of this whole gig.

I made (and make) no claims to having the “correct” perspective. I made the relatively common-sensical observation that I have learned a great deal about theater by seeing a lot of shows. To consider another realm of experience: the first time I tried chocolate mousse, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. In the years since, I have had chocolate mousse dozens of times, and so have come to realize that sometimes it’s sweeter than other times, sometimes smoother or fluffier. While I’ve rarely had a bad chocolate mousse, I’ve been able to discern the kind of chocolate mousse that appeals most to me. But I also have gained an appreciation for all the different ways it can be prepared and presented and can now recognize more distinctly any one mousse’s characteristics and unique qualities.

If I had written about that first taste of chocolate mousse, I would have waxed endlessly about how mind-blowing that restaurant’s mousse was without any perspective whatsoever on any other mousse on the planet. And it’s that kind of perspective that I was saying one gains from experience, not necessarily any additional claim to some kind of ultimate knowledge.

I could go further in saying that, beyond just watching so many shows, I had to summarize most of them, think critically about their pros and cons, and articulate my opinion in a succinct manner for a general audience, things that most theater (or TV or movie) patrons don’t have to do. That process has also been educational for me. I could also follow up on your TV sort-of-analogy, Anon, and say that, if I was interested in a recommendation for a good reality show to watch (under the assumption that “good reality show” wasn’t an oxymoron…) I would tend to seek out someone who has seen many of them and so had some perspective, versus someone who saw “Survivor” a couple of times and hated it. (to be continued...)

Dave T said...

Lost somewhere in your bilious comment, Anon, is a point (I think) about someone who doesn’t build walls not having the perspective (or maybe the right? Who knows…) to comment on the wall’s worthiness. And in that, I think you are exactly wrong. Someone who has poured their blood and sweat into building a wall has an inherently biased perspective on that wall. Because, after all, a wall is built to accomplish some things and primarily it has to be judged on whether it effectively accomplishes them. Someone who has lovingly brought a wall into being looks at that wall much differently than an external observer who is only asked to tell whether it stands straight or is sturdy enough or is effective in doing what it is supposed to do.

If your comment had as much light as heat, I might feel a little hot under the collar, Anon. But probably not since most of the time, I welcome articulate and insightful commentary on my writing and opinions. I wouldn’t put them out in this blog format if I didn’t. I also receive critical feedback all the time, starting with editors, but also from readers and theater artists. Even if what I hear back isn’t always articulate or particularly enlightening (and arrives unfiltered by an editor or, in some cases, a “morning after” review for coherence), I think a critic has to be able to take criticism. It’s only fair, right?

Anonymous said...

What the. . .?

I usually associate my name with comments I make on this blog. Dave, I'm not this time so my simple "thank you" doesn't come off to the loony-pants contingent as a Richmond theatre professional sucking up.

So thank you for all you've done - providing a discussion forum, seeing shows, forming and sharing your opinions (which I don't always agree with!), etc.

Don't forget to take care of #1 - you.

Sue said...

Fort Lee - local, probably....since a lot of folks from Richmond act/crew down there. It is not professional in that the actors don't get paid, but the quality is pretty good!
PS-Just my two cents, but I've kind of figured out your taste vs my taste in theatre. I have adored things you thought were so-so, and I've wondered what mind altering substances you were on when you raved about a show that I hated. Do I let your reviews influence whether or not I see a show? Maybe....sometimes....not usually. In fact, because of your time restrictions I daresay I tend to see a show before you review it. I do enjoy seeing your reviews to see if we agree....
Anyway - thanks for the reviews and this blog - let's us all posit our opinions!

Anonymous said...

Here's the #2 problem with critics: They don't like to be criticized.

They often fain bewilderment at artists getting their "panties in a bunch" when maybe they should check their own drawers. Their typical response is to sharpen their razor wit, flex their vocabulary muscles, and school you with a writing lesson filled with... chocolate mousse. DT, your response to my response proves my point: If we're not suppose to take it personally, why should you? Sounds little like "the pot" to me. Most artists get no genuine public rebuttal after being scorched by a critic with the possible exception of maybe,MAYBE getting a tiny letter to the editor printed in that same critic's paper (Good luck with that.)or by their continuing efforts with their art. Ultimately, the feeling can be like getting punched in the nose and then having the bully run away back to his typewriter. Stings, huh? You can't assume because an artist calls you on some of your own BS and ego (Yeah, amazingly,artists aren't the only ones who have an inflated one.)that they have an axe to grind-just cause you don't like it. Some, I repeat, SOME of these same butt kissers who pronounce, "We love you, DT!", have, I guarantee you, called you an A Hole after getting slammed in the paper for their friends and family to see. I agree, this blog is a really good network of information that the theatre community needs (We miss the rialto!)-it's great, but when blogs are open to response you might get one you just don't like. I guess you gotta suck it up and deal, just like artists do and not go to the assumtion that it's a personal attack. If the axe you assume that's being swung is so terribly dull and incoherent why the long winded response? You should no more assume that axe is there any more than artists should assume or think yours is being grinded, I think. Sorry, but there's a little steam coming out of your own collar, whether you own up to that or not. It's true-I don't like critics. Sorry. I've simply never seen a legitamate purpose in what they do. Educate us? Inform us? Advertise for us? Advocate for us? Help us to grow as artists? Do you assume we wouldn't without it? Are you there mainly for the public? For the sake of genuine civil argument, sans witty name calling or barbs, tell me: What is the true PURPOSE of a critic-(from a critic's perspective, of course)? I'd honestly like to know. Hopefully, this is a coherent question. Please excuse any misspellings or typos; I never claimed to be a writer.

joepabst said...

I once spent two weeks working on a monologue for an acting class. I developed what I thought were incredible nuances, poignant subtext, and a senstitive delivery. A classmate hated it, providing ample criticism -- and missing everything I had worked so hard to convey. I exploded! He formed this awful, negative opinion, after watching for 5 minutes, when I had spent 2 weeks preparing this?? How dare he??

My instructor reminded me, in not so subtle a fashion, that an audience gets one shot to see my work. If they don't appreciate it, or "get it", then I must not be conveying everything I had hoped. I need to find a better, more accessible way to share my work.

The point is, everyone is entitled to their opinion. Those who have the advantage (or added burden) of publicly sharing their opinions will always be scrutinized, even loathed. As theatre professionals, we just need to keep putting our best work out there, perform with integrity, and hope that everyone "gets it". I think the same can be said for the critic!

Dave T said...

Joe, Sue and Anon#2: I appreciate your input, responses, and thanks. I am glad people don’t always agree with my reviews and I’d be happy to hear more feedback back from those who don’t agree. I very frequently gain insight from others’ perspectives.

I would respond more categorically to Anon#1 but apparently the very act of responding is somehow proving his/her point. Mostly, I don’t think he/she is actually reading or processing what I’m writing (I don’t like to be criticized? Then why do I specifically provide a forum for people to give me feedback? And to do so Anonymously? Because I expect nothing but more strokes to my stupendous ego? Please…)

However, I will say that I appreciate that you made clear the basis for your ranting, Anon: you don’t believe critics serve any purpose. If that’s the case, anything I put out will be like arguing with an atheist about whether God is a man or a woman. I’m clearly not going to convert you so I’m not going to try. I don’t need to justify myself.

So instead, I’ll wrap up my thoughts on the subject as distinctly as I can: though you may not believe it, artists and critics are on the same side about much, much more than they are opposed. If you want more than that, I’d suggest you ask your fellow theater professionals whether they would prefer a critic review their shows or not. I’d be curious as to the responses you get. Honestly.

And if anyone out there shares Anon’s view and would prefer I not review your show, please let me know. I’m not going to complain about more empty spaces on my calendar.

Anonymous said...

-"Anon 2"

Jeffrey Cole said...

Dave, I really wish you'd go back to talking about the chocolate mousse. That was quite nice.

And thanks for the work you do. It takes cojones to put your head on the chopping block like you, and still... you do it. Lots of work, little reward, lots of people wanting to throw batteries at you... ah, a life in the theatre!

Dave T said...

Mr. Cole, I think there is little comparison between what I do and the portrayal of perhaps the most celebrated male lead role in Western drama, cajones-wise (not to mention that little role most famously played by Jack Nicholson). But thanks just the same!