Salempost 9: reviews

Submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Never published.

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What happens when a play gets panned by a critic? I have long suspected that, in our thriving artistic community in Philadelphia, the answer is: not much. We are blessed in this city by an audience community that seems not to sway with the critic’s bluster. Since I arrived on the scene in 1994, I am not aware of a play closing in Philadelphia because of a bad review. If you are a part of the theatre community – as I am – a bad review is read with a kind of horrified wonder as long as it’s not your play being panned. I read them guiltily. I can’t take my eyes off them, the way I stare at an awful car accident or a wounded animal. Quite often, I am outraged. More often than not it is my friends that are being pilloried. But more and more, I think: what’s the point? What purpose does art criticism serve in the 21st century? More specifically, how does it serve the community of art makers and art viewers a newspaper serves? From what I can tell, most newspapers view art criticism as simply the expression of their critic’s opinion about something he or she saw. But then I am led to ask, why is this worth printing? What is it about critics that makes their opinions worth taking note of? And, what else might be possible, were the simple expression of an opinion deemed not enough?

When a play you are in is panned, it’s gut-check time. One of the great challenges for the actor (at least actors who read reviews – like me) is that we still have to go on. I had the opportunity to witness this phenomenon recently after reading this paper’s nasty review of People’s Light & Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which I play the Reverend Hale (for the record, I was not mentioned in the review). I use the word nasty intentionally, as intentionally as the critic sought to wound various artists associated with the production, and impugn the theatre which mounted it. I use the word nasty since an editor at this paper signed off on the headline of the review: “’Crucible’: a puny production of a powerful play”. I use the word nasty since in her review, the critic never acknowledged the subjective nature of her response to the piece, but rather used the declamatory language of most criticism with which to pass judgment. This kind of language leads to two deceits perpetrated upon the readers: 1) the notion that any work of art can be objectively judged “good” or “bad”, much less “puny”, “plodding” and “disappointing”, words she chose to describe our production, and 2) that the critic is the judge.

Newspapers seem to have a great deal invested in allowing their critics to simply pass judgments on what they see and then leave it at that, as if, because their paychecks say Knight-Ridder on them (for instance) their opinions automatically acquire a kind of infallibility. This follows a notorious tradition best exemplified by New York critics like John Simons and Clive Barnes, whose pans were works of vicious entertainment in themselves. Indeed, reading the review of The Crucible, it occurred to me that perhaps this is the point: to entertain readers by artfully maligning a local production with clever quips and surgically applied bitter wit. It’s the kind of entertainment that appeals to our baseness, in the same way that TV shows like The Apprentice or American Idol do, which trade on public humiliation.

We rallied the day after that review came out. We performed that morning for 400 high-school students from Norristown and Delaware Valley Friends School. That night, we played to a nearly full house of ticket buyers. In both shows, I was struck with the force of the performances. I have experienced this before: it’s a kind “shout out” to the critic, in which the ensemble gathers and releases it’s indignation in a more focused performance. In a perverse way, the critic inspires greater artistry through our shared loathing of what she wrote. I was also struck in those shows with the stillness with which the play was received. An actor learns to read audiences, and there is a kind of listening that has tension in it, like a taught string before it’s plucked. This is how our play is being heard. It is no small feat to keep teenagers still and engaged for two and half hours. That they were soaking up the ethical force of Miller’s play made their attention all the more rich, all the more compelling.

I am pleased to share the stage with some of Philadelphia’s brightest young actors, people like Jeb Kreager, Annie Berkowitz, Kim Carson, Kristy Chouniere and Julianna Zinkel. They have chosen to stay and work in our city because they believe in what Philadelphia has to offer artists: world class performance opportunities and the possibility of living the semblance of a normal life while you pursue your calling. What a shame if criticism will not grow up with them, evolving into something approaching a civil dialogue, in which the critic treats the thing criticized with respect at least, and perhaps even compassion, even when the thing is found wanting.

What happens when a play is panned? We bristle for a moment, then we shrug and say, the critic didn’t like it. The review then becomes irrelevant. It’s an empty event. And this emptiness carries over and informs the good reviews as well (also for the record, our production has gotten a couple of those too). None of it seems to matter anymore. It’s a shame, because I feel there is an opportunity being missed.

What if the critic spoke to a theatre’s history, it’s stated mission, the careers of one or two of the artists involved? What if the critic saw the thing reviewed against a wider sky, one in which the trajectory of the artist or the theatre might be witnessed and evaluated? What if the critic rose to the level of wise educator, who is able to speak to our successes and failures against what we have done before, and where we claim to be going? What if critics acknowledged the power they have to influence the tone of aesthetic dialogue in the community, and take responsibility for being leaders, setting an example we would be glad to follow? What if we were actually speaking to each other? Critics must criticize, and this is not a plea for nice-only reviews. But how are we in the theatre community to take a critic seriously when we aren’t treated with respect in print? What weight should we give one person’s opinion? After all, there’s a joke about opinions, and the punch-line goes like this: everyone has one.