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.