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Hatred, loathing, fear, terror, and getting reviewed

April ART TIMES 2006


Sooner or later, as one climbs the ladder of theatrical success, you get reviewed. Undoubtedly not in high school, probably not in community theatre, possibly not in college/university productions, but pretty likely in anything above that level—though, to be sure, some productions at all those levels do find themselves evaluated in print.


With respect to reviews, theater companies and theater people live in a wonderful mixture of desire and terror. A good review, especially a really solid review, a ďmoney reviewĒ as itís known, is greeted with near orgasmic ecstasy; the actors are gods, the director is a genius, the writer is a prodigy, and the reviewer a subtle, perceptive, highly-cultured person and a master of English prose to boot. The bad review causes anguish, wailing and gnashing of teeth; bodies toss and turn in the lonely night, minds feverishly spinning against the deep damnation of the spewings of that horrid ink-stained wretch, that theatrical ignoramus, that evil, capricious and malevolent maker of chicken scratches on newsprint that must needs sentence the theater company to a quick and ugly demise—even though the actors are still gods and goddesses, the director is still a genius, and the writer is still a prodigy, to say nothing of the excellence of the designers and technical crew. And, of course, even though the reviewer is the same writer who was, well, you get the idea.


Itís asking a lot of human beings to respond productively to criticism, especially when the criticism is published in a public forum that is, essentially, unanswerable. Human beings are simply not built to do that, and the organizations built by human beings are even less so. Especially in a field like theater, where you give up so much to practice the art, and you have to work so hard to do it, especially to have any chance of doing it well, it is very difficult to turn around and say, in all honesty, that yes, there are flaws in the work. Itís much easier, and a whole lot more fun, to pay attention only to the flaws in the criticism and avoid at all costs any possible admission that the critic just might be right.


The fact is that the critic is, in a sense, always right. (I do make the assumption here that the critic is in fact honest; that one is not dealing with the hostile writer of a classic hatchet job.) If the critic does in fact write from the actual experience the critic had in the theater, then in at least one sense there can be no argument. The critic came to the show; the show was performed; it evoked such-and-such a response. That response may not be the desired response, but it was in fact the response that was evoked. You can try very hard to shoot an arrow at a target and still fail to hit the target you aim at; so it is also with theater, and even more so, since the shot is a lot trickier to make.


Theater people dearly love to dismiss the criticís response on the grounds that it is just one personís response, that the audience seemed to like the show, that the critic isnít as qualified or knowledgeable as one would wish—though these things are never said about positive reviews, only about negative ones, of course. The brutal truth is that the facts are otherwise. Reviewers are at worst no different than most theater-goers; in the vast majority of cases they at least see more productions than the average theater-goer, and in the absolute worst case they are no more ignorant or insensitive than the general run of other people who are in the seats.


Even if that were not true, theater companies virtually never compensate for it by seeking out feedback from the audience. Some few theater companies do talkbacks, but the usual talk-back session involves very little listening by the theater folks. In fact, the feedback from a talk-back session is handled in the same unproductive way as the feedback from the critic: love the good stuff, toss the bad.


And then the theater companies complain that they canít figure out what the audience wants.


There just could be a few ways in which thatís connected to the rest of this.


The opportunity is there. Theater people could shed a few layers of armor and listen, really seriously listen, to the feedback they get. Theater people could find ways to get more feedback than they do, and from a wider variety of sources. Last but not least, theater people could take to heart what they hear, and really learn from it, and really put what they learn into practice. In the last word, theater people could re-discover the fact that the audience actually is out there; that the audience actually is an important player in the process; that the audience actually does have something to teach as well as to learn.


Now, that would be a fine, healthy thing to see in an industry that doesnít offer very many such things. I wonder if weíll have a chance to see it somewhere, sometime soon?

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