Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Well now I HAVE to get out to see it

I pulled up Mr. Griset’s review of “Arcadia” in this week’s Style, just expecting to grab the URL to link to. Little did I know there was a maelstrom of comments brewing. Nothing like a pan to get people’s dander up.

As I’ve mentioned at least a half-dozen times here before, I’m a big fan of Rick St. Peter’s work; productions he directed here before running off to Kentucky were among the best I’ve seen in Richmond. In the past he has been quick to call out sloppy or wrong-headed criticism (particularly when posted anonymously). And while I can understand his defense of Stoppard’s play, I take issue with some of his comments. First off, the quote of Stoppard’s he cites may be clever in its own way but I find it sorely lacking in truth, and in my experience, exactly wrong. I am regularly chastised for doing my job well -- that is, presenting valid concerns and criticisms about a play -- and very often no one seems to notice when I do my job badly -- that is, when I give a lackluster or subpar production a pass.

As for hating to be criticized, I don’t love it but I regularly solicit input simply by having this blog. The papers that print reviews – both Style and the T-D – allow people to comment online or write letters to the editor (that are often printed), thereby openly inviting criticism. I can’t speak for any other critic but, personally, I appreciate constructive criticism. But whether any critic loves or hates counter-criticism, they get it. And, if they want to continue to do the job, they have to learn to deal with it.

What I have a hard time with is people whose criticism is of the very act of criticism. Critics are paid to offer their insight – however flawed you may think that is – on a work of art. Criticizing a critic for doing his or her job is like yelling at a mail carrier for delivering the mail.

Having said that, I understand that people get annoyed and upset at the way a critic does his or her job – you don’t want your mailman scattering your letters all over the yard, for instance. That’s the kind of counter-criticism I welcome. Was I vague in what I wrote? Was I confusing? Did I miss something about the production that was obvious to you?

What I find bitterly ironic (to reuse a phrase I had reason to employ recently) is people whose criticism turns personal. “That critic is a fool!” “This critic must be angry at somebody.” “Joe Critic is just a frustrated actor who can’t get cast in town.” That is the level on which many people respond to critics. For all most people know, Mr. Griset could be a Nobel Prize winner with a Ph.D. in theater pedagogy, and yet they would question his credentials versus responding to his words. As I’ve also said before, if my criticism was on that level – for instance, “Joe Smith’s direction of this play shows that he obviously has delusions of grandeur and his narcissism gets in the way of any valid artistic statement he’s trying to make here” – I would be fired. Or I should be fired because that's criticizing the artist, not the art, and that's not my job.

I have not seen “Arcadia” so I can’t speak to the substance of Mr. Griset’s review. If I was just criticizing the writing, I might say that it’s a little laundry-listy for me. Still, he makes some refreshingly blunt observations that should be refuted on their merits. Mr. Griset does seem to be reflecting the attitudes of at least one patron, as noted by a commenter, and I know Ms. Haubenstock’s review of the play also indicated some issues.

Finally, I appreciate the endorsement of one of the commenters – it’s nice to have a fan, even if only one! However, as many folks associated with theater know, both my wife and son have been active in local theater making my personal connections in the scene pretty direct. I’ve tried my best to remain objective but certainly the argument exists that I am compromised just as much as or more than the unnamed female reviewer.

I may or may not be able to actually make it out to see “Arcadia” before it closes. But one positive side effect of this negative review – and the comments it elicited – is that I’m more motivated than ever to try and fit it in. That way, I can judge the work for myself, which I encourage everyone else to do as well.


Anonymous said...

Dave - a few observations.

My questions would be to Mr. Griset: How does mentioning that a patron nodding off effectively help the review serve it's purpose? To explain that it is "boring?" The commentary should be kept on the play that the reviewer is reviewing. If you're looking around at other patrons during the production, you're obviously not interested in what's going on, which means you have a lesser chance of doing your job correctly. Read any Frank Rich or Ben Brantley review from The New York Times. No commentary is ever made on the status of the patrons at the performance.

Mr. Griset mentions that Adrian Rieder is "annoying" in his role. Back that up - WHY is he annoying? Do you just not have a preference for how he is portraying his character, or do you find Adrian personally annoying? You have to be able to justify comments such as that, and Mr. Griset does not do so.

Many of Mr. Griset's comments seem very PERSONAL rather than objective. "Well guys, so does the audience" is a direct comment to the actors, which you should NEVER do in a review. Keep it objective. Maybe you don't like being shouted at, or the volume that the actors use (that is called PROJECTION, though I have known many Richmond actors to over-act and SCREAM), but you shouldn't speak for the entire audience, unless, of course, you set up some kind of poll where you asked the audience before they left for the night if they enjoyed all the shouting in the play.

"Brian Barker's chandeliered set works fine." Um, alrighty then. Care to elaborate? Glad it was good enough for you, Mr. Griset.

I could keep going on, but there were a lot of grammatical errors and badly worded phrases in the review that don't justify my time. While I applaud Mr. Griset for having the courage to state HIS TRUTH, that he basically did not enjoy the show, I think what most people take aim at is the fact that it is a poorly written, not-backed up review. "I didn't like it", and not saying why you didn't like it is extremely frustrating. Dave, you tend to do a very good job on explaining why you like or dislike something.

Critics have no right to dislike being criticized. Guess what? You're judging actors. We're being criticized. If you can do it to us, we can do it you :) It's human nature. Everyone enjoys finding things to discuss, bitch about, and nitpick. (Dave this was not directed necessarily at you, but moreso in general. You welcome criticism openly, and it is much appreciated).

As to the whole argument of keeping personal distance between critics and performers, well that topic, at least in Richmond is an open book. It's a small town, and everyone knows everyone else. Children have grown up together, people are social and friendly (for the most part). Anyone with intelligence knows who "the female critic at Style is", and her behavior has crossed lines and boundaries in recent years. You tend not to do that, Dave. Thank you for being normal :) On the flip side, sometimes critics and actors become friends. Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim became lifelong friends after Rich reviewed some of Sondheim's early work.

And Mr. Griset is far from a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and has no Ph.D.. Check his Facebook. He looks like a young frat boy who got lucky and got a job at Style, and drinks a lot. I would hardly trust him to form terribly valid opinions about what he sees. However, just as in the review, this is MY opinion based on what I've seen. I don't know the man. Perhaps he's a delightful frat boy at that.

Oh, the sweet mysteries of actors, critics, reviews, judgment, truth, honesty, and all that jazz. It's a fascinating world, is it not?

I truly hope I won't be completely lambasting for attempting to shed a little feedback on your post, Mr. Griset's review, and things in general. Feel free to edit as need be.

Anonymous said...

There are just so many things wrong about that overly long comment.

Thanks for opening the forum Dave!

I hope to be back with more time soon!

Should get very interesting very quickly.

Unknown said...

Dave, I hope you can make it out to see Arcadia. We're very proud of the production and have gotten a lot of positive feedback. If you come for no other reason than to see Adrian Rieder and Jennie Meharg give really beautiful performances, you will not be disappointed. You can decide for yourself on everything else. We stand by it!

Liz Blake White

Anonymous said...

Hi's still nice to have a fan, I don't have many these days!! I guess the Stoppard quote was sort of my way of throwing gasoline on the fire and I own up to it BUT in my experience, you are the exception rather than the rule of critics being to or open soliciting criticism(that Stoppard quote is also from a time before newspapers made the fatal mistake of letting any anonymous dipshit with a keyboard and an opinion have the opportunity to comment on your reviews and features, thereby subtling undermining and cutting the legs of their own critics)...I can guarantee you the cat who sat in the critic's chair of the RTD for more than 30 years ABSOLUTELY could not stand to be criticized in any fashion or form and most critics I have run across tend to fall into his category.

But that is beside the point. My main irritation with this review is you have a preternaturally talented man of the theatre like Foster Solomon, who has paid his dues, worked hard at learning his craft, honed his skills as an actor and director and he is tackling a monumentally challenging piece of theatre only to have his work criticized by what appears to be a "frat boy" who may or may not like to drink a lot. Unfortunately in our field, critics seem to be in large part the final arbiters of our work and one is always forced to ask, "What makes you qualified to sit in judgment of me?"

I believe this is a valid question to ask and I don't believe "I like theatre" is a valid enough response. I would argue that Mr. Griset is WHOLLY unqualified to properly judge the aesthetics of Foster Solomon and the dramaturgy of Tom Stoppard. Hence we get the sloppily written review published in Style Weekly.

That doesn't mean the production is perfect, it may be crap for all I know, I haven't seen it but considering the folks I know involved in it, I would dispute that. I will also guarantee that it is probably not a perfect production, as we are still waiting for the perfect production of anything in the history of the theatre and frankly I have a feeling that a perfect production would be boring anyway...

So all in all, I jumped in with my comments because I love that play, I respect and admire Foster's work as an artist, I have no stake in calling out anything in Richmond theatre since I probably will never be invited back to work there anyway (I still clearly haven't learned to keep my big mouth shut!!) and it bothers me that we expect our artists, technicians, and administrators in our field to constantly work under adverse conditions without proper support on any level and then we subject their extremely difficult work to sophomoric level review (you can't call it criticism) and we wonder why people flame out of the business all the time...they deserve better that that and our audiences deserve better than that and certainly Mr Stoppard's play deserves better than that.

As always, stealing from the Artist Formerly Known as Dennis Miller, "Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong."

(But I'm not...)

Peace and Love from Deep in the Heart of Texas!

Rick St. Peter

To you forever from me to you said...

Disclaimer: This discussion prompted many questions for me and is no way a response to the production of Arcadia by Richmond Shakespeare but directly results from the dialogue following the review.

Who was this play produced for? Is it presently important and vital? Is there really an indication that the critic didn't understand the plot of the play? It seems like he understood what it was supposed to be about. Just because something is well written doesn't mean it's compellingly performed. It's easy to point fingers and place blame at one person's response, but it is much harder to take responsibility and onus for artistic failure. And is failure not often times more important than success? Should a failure be ignored, or embraced? Do we not have more to learn from what did not work, and should it not spur an artist to try to new approaches rather than relying on business as usual?

I have not seen this play yet, though I will. I have read a great deal of reviews in this city, the majority of which I disagree with. There is a balancing act the critics of this city walk in advocating, and earnestly criticizing.

If the work is strong it will speak for itself through the voices of those who witness it's power. Many a show has been bashed in black and white yet gone on to enjoy rich box office success. Does attendance equate quality?

Also being a professional actor having worked at various theatres, some times elder patrons actually come to the theatre to nap. Odd I know. But somewhat adorable to think they find a great deal of joying resting before players in a theatre.

To you forever from me to you said...

Addendum to comment that was too long to post:

Lastly, Mr. Griset is a young man, whose attitude and opinions may be reflective of a potential generation of theatre patrons. I would say his perspective may be indicative of the attitudes and tastes we as artists may want to appeal to in order to keep our medium VITAL. This is not to say intellectually stimulating and challenging work should not be undergone. It is to say that the means and methods with which we approach the ways in which a story can be told should continue to be explored.

Local theatre lover said...

I've not seen Arcadia and there's clearly enough debate on the pros and cons of this particular review, so I just want to talk generally about theatre critics and what I do expect - hoping others might find some common ground with my perspective.

Here goes:

1)Be informed. A critic is expected to know the play and therefore come to the production more highly informed than the average theatregoer. Otherwise we might as well enlist any random audience member to be paid to write about their thoughts on the production.

2) Be specific. I know space limitations for theatre reviews in Richmond are a fraction of what a New York production receives, though as exacting as NY critics might be, the good ones tend to be very specific about what they do or do not like about a performance, costumes, set, light and sound design, and direction. Richmond theatre critics must choose their words very carefully given editor constraints, yet specificity is still possible.

3) Be inclusive. By this, I mean put your personal preferences in context of the larger audience. For example (and I've seen some nicely done Richmond reviews in this vein, such as "I'm not a fan of farce, it doesn't tickle my funny bone, but if YOU enjoy farce,this one is well produced and highly entertaining". Same goes for whether or not a critic finds an actor attractive; this may be mentioned provided it does not influence the critic's assessment of the performance. We're all humans, but in the past (using Mr. St. Peter's reference), the RTD had a theatre critic who, most would agree, regularly wrote reviews lauding performances that appeared to be based more on the actor's physical appeal than on their performance. Subject to some debate, of course, though truth be told, that was the consensus in the theatre community.

So be informed, be specific, be inclusive and steer away from personal perceptions unrelated to the production values. I'd say these are the key elements of a savvy theatre critics' approach to a review. Finally: No one likes to be criticized, though specific criticism is absolutely essential to human improvement in every walk of life, and theatre is no different. If every review was wonderful, there'd be no value in writing them, since we all have seen mediocre or poor productions. This helps us appreciate the excellent and sublime, as they are exceptional for good reasons. Life is not full of perfection and is often dull, harsh, or joyless - this is what makes positive emotions and experiences all the more sweet!

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Joe! Thank you for that incredibly astute, fresh, and much needed voice to this conversation!!!

I think maybe that covered most of what I would say.

So I'll rest on being excited that that was voiced.

Anonymous said...

From Grant's posting yesterday: