Thursday, September 15, 2011


No matter how many raves critics write, they rarely make everyone happy. When they pan something people like, they get called nasty names. When they laud a show someone else doesn’t like, they get dismissed as toadies for the theater company. If they praise something but do it in a way that someone doesn’t like, they still get flack.

I’m not “boo hoo-ing” here: This is the nature of the game, it has been the nature of the game for centuries and anyone who has written anything evaluative or critical for mass consumption should not be surprised by it at all. In the space of just two responses to my post on Tuesday, critics in Richmond were categorized as “not knowing how to write a proper review,” were accused of not having any idea why they like a production, and were called “unethical.” After writing reviews for 13 years, none of this surprises me anymore. The artist / critic interaction is fraught with tension so emotions run high. That’s part of what makes it interesting.

With that perspective, Mr. Miller’s arguably ill-considered response to Ms. Haubenstock’s review of “Lend Me a Tenor” didn’t surprise me. I know theater artists often have a strong reaction to a review even if it is largely positive. The post he subsequently removed had some very interesting and certainly valid opinions.

However, there was one question in it that surprised me. “Why is it too much to suggest that critics should write informed, OBJECTIVE reviews that evaluate each play…for what it is, not for how it appeals to them personally?”

Let’s be clear: all reviews are subjective. To suggest some reviewers write subjective reviews and others write objective ones is simply not accurate. We are all of us shaped by our histories, our genetics, our gender, our race, our religious beliefs, and any number of other factors. Even when these factors are not obvious in something a critic writes, they are there.

Ms. Haubenstock wrote a review where she stated a bias upfront: she doesn’t generally like farces. She then went on to say how good “Lend Me a Tenor” was. As a critical construct, this kind of review is actually a way to amplify a complimentary review. One way of looking at it is to think “Even someone who doesn’t like farces liked this show; it must be really good.” Of course, that isn’t how everyone would choose to look at it.

But imagine if Ms. Haubenstock thought “Tenor” was wretched and wrote a review ridiculing the unbelievability of the plot, the broadness of the acting, and the infantilism of the jokes. Many people would immediately assume “well, she obviously just doesn’t like farces.” There is a Catch 22 here: State your bias and be lambasted for that. Don’t state your bias and have it assumed anyway.

I’m also curious about how exactly a critic is supposed to review a play “for what it is,” in other words, in some completely objective manner. It seems to me that restricting a review to just the aspects that one can be truly objective about – the plot, the technical elements, the reaction of the audience (perhaps), the ability of the actors to remember and recite their lines – leads to the type of “book report” reviews that also raise people’s ire. Another Catch 22: Write subjectively and get criticized for your opinion. Write “objectively” and get criticized for your lack of opinion.

These are just two of the many paradoxes critics get caught in. A comment below wondered how much “professional theater experience” critics in Richmond had. Well, first off, critics are journalists not theater professionals. But put that aside and you quickly get to another paradox: If a critic is too much a part of the theater world, he or she is clearly biased. If a critic isn’t at all a part of the theater world, then they are ignorant and have no business evaluating it.

I was very lucky this past June to take part in a program with 25 other arts journalists from around the country. As part of this program, one of the editors involved in the program, Michael Phillips, gave a talk about criticism and being a critic. Phillips writes about movies for the Chicago Tribune and had a brief stint on the TV show “At the Movies,” taking over for the ailing Roger Ebert. He started the talk with three main guiding principals for critics:
-- Be brave,
-- Be specific (without specifics, reviews are just assertions without backup), and
-- Screw the ‘o’ word (objectivity). Your goal should be informed subjectivity.

The way I choose to interpret what Mr. Phillips said was: there's no way to remove subjectivity from the reviewing process. So the job of a critic is to temper that subjectivity with as much knowledge and clear critical thinking as possible.

I have my own opinions about the critics currently writing in Richmond and, for the most part, they are pretty high. That’s because I know something about most of them and I believe that they are pretty well informed, as well as generally fair in their evaluations, rigorous in their research, and clear in their writing. They take their job seriously and beyond their exorbitant pay (ha!), they do what they do because they enjoy writing and love theater. And just the number of productions they see every year informs them about the Richmond theater scene to a degree well beyond the average arts consumer.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have my problems with certain reviews that get published (those that lean toward “book reports” are far from my faves, for instance). But the one thing I know about every single review I’ve read here (or anywhere else, for that matter): it is the product of an individual’s subjective evaluation. Ms. Haubenstock put her subjectivity front and center in her “Tenor” review. But even when it isn’t stated so plainly, you can rest assured it is there.

On to less contentious matters: two big openings this weekend, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Firehouse and “Keep on the Sunny Side” at the Mill. Each is the story of a southern family, though I expect with entirely different issues as their central focus. I can imagine an interesting mash-up of the two: “Keep on the Sunny Side of a Hot Tin Roof?” I think Tennessee Williams set to music would be pretty entertaining.


Mark Persinger said...

Dave - I read your article with great interest and I appreciate that you are standing up for yourself and your fellow critics. Unfortunately, I did not get to read Bruce's post, so my comments will not be in reference to anything he posted. Instead, I have a couple of reactions to your article that I think are valid opinions from an actor's point of view (and I think are also valid for the average theatre patron). First let me say that I totally agree with you that any review is by its very nature subjective for all of the reasons you state. A critic should absolutely give their subjective opinion on the quality of the artistic vision and execution of the staging, acting and technical aspects of a particular production. That being said, I want to suggest that subjectivity is welcome, but that personal bias is different from subjectivity and any critic needs to recognize the difference and handle bias much more carefully.

I think it is a poor choice to admit to biases in reviews (not just theatre, but movies, food etc.). Honestly, I think the critic is doing a disservice to themselves and their readers. If you are biased against something to the point that you think you need to mention it in your review, turn down the assignment. For example, I love food and I love to eat but I do not generally like Thai food. I would never personally choose to go to a Thai restaurant. If I were asked to review a new Thai restaurant, I would have to give it great consideration. I would feel the need to carefully consider if my personal dislike of Thai food would unfairly color my review. If I felt I could put aside my personal bias, then I would accept the assignment and write the most objective review possible. The review would certainly contain subjective observations but would be written without bias. If I did not feel that I could approach the assignment objectively (without bias), I would pass on the assignment. If I did accept, I would certainly not state my bias as a part of the review. Because I have determined that my bias will not have a negative impact on review it does not need to be mentioned. But more importantly, mentioning it is likely to lead to confusion and negative perceptions by my readers.

For example, if a critic states up front in a mostly negative review of a big musical that they do not generally like big musicals, several thoughts immediately enter my mind (both as a cast member of a reviewed musical and as a potential theatre patron). How much of this review is legitimate and how much of this review is influenced by the reviewer’s stated bias against musicals? It calls into question any negative judgment they make. Also, why did this publication send someone who does not like musicals to review a musical? Was there really no one else available to review this show? To me,it doesn’t reflect well on the publication. The critic might actually be spot on with some or even all of his/her negative observations. But by accepting the assignment, then stating their bias at the outset of the mostly negative review, the critic has undermined the credibility of the negative points made in the review and the judgement of the publication they represent.

In the specific case of Ms. Haubenstock’s review of LEND ME A TENOR, which was mostly positive, this impact might seem to be reduced or even be a backhanded compliment to the production. But it could also be interpreted as the critic talking down to the reader... Farce is silly and I don't care for it, but this one is pretty good, if YOU like that sort of thing."

Would it make sense to employ a theatre critic who stated that they do not like any live theatre? Who would want to read a theatre review written by someone who expressed a dislike for all live theatre up front? Not many. So it seems reasonable to me that some people would be suspect of reviews of specific genres of theatre written by people who have stated upfront that they dislike those genres.

Mark Persinger

Humble Opinionator said...

An Answer to Some of Dave’s Questions About Subjectivity and the Function of Critics

Or…It’s a Long One, But It’s Worth Reading.

Mr. Persinger made some incredibly astute points about bias in criticism. I applaud his forthrightness and want to expand on a few topics in this pseudo-feud.

First I’d like to assert that we tread pretty subjective waters when we pose the question, “What is a critic?” For all intents and purposes in this post, I will be referring to the so-called critics as reviewers. My reason for this is that I have seen exactly zero truly critical reviews written with the aesthetic and mastery that is the standard for critique. Very loosely defined, a critic is someone who writes for a publication or blog about what they see. This means that anyone with an opinion and internet access can dub himself a critic. The craft of critique, however, is one that balances how one felt about a particular subject and why she felt that way. Whether it is a word limit or a lack of expertise remains to be seen, but there is no real critique happening in the greater Richmond area.

What fills the reviews is, rather than well-articulated responses to elements of a production which are either effective, successful, or not-so-much-so, is fluff. Nearly all the reviews one reads in Richmond blogs and publications amount to, “It was a nice night at the theatre. Everything was very pleasant. This is what happened in the plot. It wasn’t perfect, and I won’t go too far into it, but overall, it was a real sweet time.” This wastes the reader’s time, the writer’s time, and is mush not fit for any artist to consider with any effort. But why are reviews so vapid?

Let us look at the critical ecosystem in Central Virginia. Since Roy Proctor retired, the jungle lost its chief predator (while rarely vicious, Mr. Proctor regularly tore into a production he considered to be ill-composed, and he was ready to articulate why he felt so). What has resulted is that needling herbivores and parasitic flora have overgrown. Reviewers consider their jobs to be bolstering the egos of the production companies rather than challenging the artistry to achieve new heights, and daring audiences to form their own opinions. The critics become either self-decided Messiahs of the arts, pouring mercy and forgiveness all around, even if a production is complete garbage, or they become sycophants that feed on their own fan base—in some cases, the very actors and creative artists they are intended to write about.

It should go without saying, but it doesn’t: Conflicts of interest and unethical conduct among critics and publications is abounding in Richmond. Compared to New York, Los Angeles, or even neighboring DC, there are behaviors that simply wouldn’t fly. The kind of sycophancy I described is one such behavioral problem from which this theatre community suffers. I have heard in several casts that “So-and-So is in the house tonight!” before they change their performances to shine more brightly. After the performance, everyone rushes out to meet with So-and-So to garner a good review. Here’s the problem: they tend to get them. Whether one is an actor, director, or manager, playing the reviewer’s patsy is a quick way to get ahead in the reviews. The flip-side to this truth is that when someone does not stroke a critic’s ego in the lobby following the show, a bad review can sometimes be expected, and even if it isn’t in the reviewer’s consciousness, there is a pressure on the artists to be certain. It is not an artist’s job to be the friend of the reviewer.


Humble Opinionator said...

The argument could be made that it is not the reviewer’s fault that actors feel the need to behave chummily. It is the fault of the reviewers, though, that such a climate has been allowed to set in. The reviewer needs to maintain a professional distance from his subjects, or his biases become unavoidable. Inviting artists as friends and commentators—peers, even—on this website is setting the stage (no pun intended) for conflicts of interest. Waiting in the lobby to chat following a performance, accepting flattery and praise, is unacceptable for a journalist of any degree. Reviewing a medium in which you want a friend or family member to excel in is borderline unethical. If a person wishes to be a part of the theatre community, she should do so. If she wishes to review it, she should do so. But she mustn’t try to have her cake and eat it too—it is unfair.

If “unfair” seems harsh, allow me to speak on behalf of some production artists that cannot speak for themselves for fear of retribution. The production companies sometimes feel as though they must cast according to the critical temperature in Richmond. They feel somehow bullied because of their proximity to the reviewers. They are trapped between a rock and a hard place because they are obliged to invite journalists, but did not invite the journalists to move in. For fear of a bad review—and I reiterate, this review may be nothing and completely of the artist’s imagining—the production companies have to keep mum about their real feelings about what is said. If Hal Prince wanted to swat down a piece of Ben Brantley’s criticism, no one would give it a second thought. If, for example, Bruce Miller had something to say about Ms. Haubenstock’s review, he has to jerk it down quickly before he incurs critical fire. Because of an unspoken politesse that artists must assume, we are made to sit and eat whatever is given to us. It is therefore the reviewer’s duty to enforce his own distance, when the artist’s hands are tied. We will not tell you to go away. We are too tactful for that.
Now let us briefly return to unethical behaviors on behalf of journalistic institutions. Corporate sponsors of theatre companies should not be permitted to “criticize” productions, or to nominate them for awards. It is a conflict of interest, plain and simple. Additionally, such awards nominations should be made only by those reviewers that made it to all the shows in question. It bears mentioning.


Humble Opinionator said...

Next, I would like to delve into the function of the critic, as I see it. I ask for only a few elements. The first is one that Richmond reviewers do well: They promote conversation and awareness of productions. I give kudos for that. The critic’s job is also to act as the fire under the production companies, to keep them on their toes. If something is vile, it should be called out, so that the company will know never to turn out another poorly conceived production again. It raises the bar and challenges the theatres to create better, more crafted works, instead of applauding junk and making companies complacent. An illustration of this is as follows: [Production] is a poorly cast, badly managed, and inaccessible piece of theatre. Because the reviewer is friends with the group involved, he gives it a great review in his publication. A reader sees that [Production] is outstanding! The reader invites her friends to see it, and they all leave this ghastly production thinking, “I hated that”. But the reviewer—the supposed expert—says that it is good theatre. “If that’s good theatre,” the audience member thinks, “I must not like theatre. I’ll go to a movie next time, and save twenty bucks!” And we wonder why audiences shrink. The last element of the critic’s profession, then, is to ask the important questions about what he saw.

If a critic goes to Waiting for Godot, a play that sits firmly in the canon of great dramatic literature, and does not understand it, he has one of two ethical paths to choose: He can either tell his editor (if such a creature still exists in this point-click-publish world) that he isn’t prepared to critique something he knows so little about, or he can do his leg work and ask the questions: Why didn’t I like it or understand it? Was it something about the clarity? The communication? The performances? Was it material I wasn’t receptive to? Was over my head? Was it an element missing? Could I hear the actors? If it is the fault of the production, then by all means, the reviewer should give the information. If the reviewer simply wasn’t willing to figure it out, he should hand in his resignation and let a qualified journalist have his job, because that is what separates a book reporter from a critical reviewer.


Humble Opinionator said...

As for what else qualifies a reviewer, giving bad singers good reviews is simply offensive. A reviewer of musicals should know if the singer is belting, mixing, or screaming. He should have an understanding of tone and phrasing and should be able to hear if a singer is on-pitch. Only a handful of Richmond area singers consistently sing on-pitch, and companies often import singers with that skill from New York. Ergo, singers who could not hold their harmonies should not be nominated for honors.

When it comes to the RTCC awards, it is assured that cronyism is its foundation. I will not attack the awards, however, because they are a fundraiser and if the supposed critics wanted to fix the crookedness, the inconsequential awards would be less about stroking and more about awarding truly great work.

I have seen excellent work in every theatre in town. Each company has things of which to be exceedingly proud. If a reviewer slams or overlooks a show, I hope the theatres will feel empowered, as Mr. Miller does, to applaud their own great work in their own publications and blogs. It is not a theatre’s job to please the critics, but rather to tell stories to the audiences. If the theatre does good work, the critics will enjoy it—and if they still don’t, then there is an adage about opinions being similar to body parts. Once the theatres no longer feel the need to pander to or retaliate to critical responses, I think that the artists will have more time to be fulfilled.

What I challenge the reviewers to do is to become those necessary predators for the ecosystem. If something is appalling, let the audiences know—There’s no such thing as bad publicity (look at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark raking in between 1.2 and 1.7 million dollars a week). Furthermore, the theatres will be compelled to do better work when they know they are not able to rest on their laurels.
In closing, I must reiterate that critics mustn’t have their cake and their pie and eat it, too. It’s too much sugar for everyone. They start gibbering incoherently and the artists suffer the crash.

This writer has worked in the theatre for over a decade and has only ever received good reviews in Richmond. AND thinks things are out-of-whack. I post anonymously because other artists attached to me should not be made examples of by my becoming a pariah.