Thursday, August 06, 2009

metaDRAMA: Bad Habits

I had a bad experience lately, followed by a great one, and the two were directly connected. First off, the bad: I saw Summer Shorts 3: Series B and wrote a review of it. Then, the good: José Angel Santana, the director of William Inge's previous unperformed (and therefore "new") one-act, The Killing, responded in the comments. Obviously, we disagree, but the great part is that (1) it opened up a dialogue, which is what I'm after, and (2) it made me more aware of a bad habit of mine.

Here's that habit: because I'm reviewing for myself (i.e., not for pay, not for a publication), when I see something that I don't connect to, or which feels like a waste of time, I don't spend a lot of time writing about it. This doesn't mean that I "rush to print" (in fact, there are a few shows I've seen that I haven't published reviews for, because I simply couldn't fathom them), or that I don't spend time processing why I don't like the show. It just means that I'm not as bothered to convey that--and that's a problem, considering the critic's job is precisely that: to convey why something does or doesn't work (at least, in the critic's eyes).

I thought Santana had removed his post from the comments because he didn't want to engage, so I replied to him via e-mail. (Actually, he was just clarifying what he wanted to say, and you can read his comments.) We wound up corresponding back and forth, and lo and behold, though we still disagreed on certain fundamental issues, we at least better understood where each of us was coming from, i.e., why we made the choices we did. I wish I had taken more time to elaborate precisely why I felt a lack of drama in the piece: that is, because the deck is so stacked in favor of one actor, while the other actor's character is so passive that there is little tension between them, like a game of tug-of-war between a sumo wrestler and a baby. In retrospect, I wish I'd been clearer that I didn't like The Sin Eater: by saying that it had high stakes, I leave the door open to a misreading.

There is little I can do for my review of Summer Shorts 3: Series B at this point, but what I can do--especially when approaching Series A next week--is to invest more, even in something I don't necessarily like. As the Amoralists remind us (in their terrific The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side), the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference, which is what Santana accurately called me out on (the laziness, well, that's just wrong). In fact, I think it's a habit all of us theatergoers need to break, whether we write about the shows or not. Reading Infinite Jest reminds me again and again of just how necessary it is to invest in a novel: so while I'm invested at the theater, I need to remain invested at home, too.

That's why I'll continue to run unmoderate comments, and why I hope all of you will use the comments to help turn some of these reviews into deeper discussions, discussions that help to touch on why we go to theater in the first place. It's not lazy reviewing that will kill the theater, nor is it just a lazy artist: it's a lazy audience. Let's all wake up.


lindsay said...

I think it's awesome if you were able to engage in a conversation, where there was disagreement and differing point of view and it didn't disintegrate to mud slinging. There are many blogs I can't read anymore because people seem intent on taking others off at the knees.

José Angel Santana, Ph.D. said...

Yes, I do commend the back-channel "back and forth" between Mr. Riccio and myself. And yes, it was very helpful. In fact due to his elaborated comments in our email exchanges I was able to see some things that I'd not seen before, which helped me focus some things since we were still in previews. And that is why I actually respect criticism in the first place, so that I can improve the work.

But what really stung me about the criticism was the dismissal of Mr. Inge’s play's inclusion in the festival, as a premise. For two reasons, 1) Because, as David Belcher's excellent article in yesterday’s New York Times shows ("Out of Kansas, Into the World: A Trove of Inge Plays", any offering of a discovered work of a great artist, simply cannot be dismissed as an "insult" but rather must be applauded as an act of contribution to the theater – the producers should be commended; and 2) because that premise made it impossible for me to learn anything from the words that followed. It felt like the production was being dismissed without any close examination, just as Mr. Inge's work had been in the latter part of his life and which lead to the taking of his own life.

So, yes, dialogue is good, and taking time to listen and elaborate on ones views in order to broaden everyone's view is also good – and with an open mind, that's what “The Killing” is saying – If only people would just talk and listen and accept one another. That’s what the” tired back and forth” was all about, and it’s too bad it was missed. Thanks for the reflection Mr. Riccio, and for our joint "back and forth" toward mutual understanding.