Thursday, March 25, 2010

metaDRAMA: Why So Negative?

Flavorpill, picking up the thread of Steve Almond's reflexive look at the use of negative reviews, posts this "Defense of Negative Reviews." The point of theirs that I really agree with is #4: "Keeping the critical conversation lively and diverse." I started blogging here (and editing for Theater Talk's New Theater Corps) because I wasn't seeing any of the shows that I saw getting covered anywhere else, and to me, that spoke to a lack of diversity in the critical conversation. I also wasn't finding many young critics, which spoke to the apathy of my generation toward theater, but also to the under-representation of my demographic in ensuring that shows like Looped don't clog up the stage.

The goal would be, then, to do whatever it took to put the word out about worthy shows--though I soon found that I couldn't write nothing about shows that I didn't like, and moreover, that I couldn't lie, either, accenting only the positives, or presenting them in disproportionately to how I felt. Eventually, I settled on the idea that as a critic, I would simply stick with One Man's Honesty--not an end-all-be-all summation of the show, but as clear a critique as I could manage of what I liked, disliked, and most importantly, WHY. (This is also why I used to write about the need for a Metacritic of the stage, and why I was delighted by StageGrade.) The hope, of course, would be that others would chime in and discuss, or take me to task for what they disagreed with, as with the lively back and forth about Inge's The Killing here.

Anyway, although the Flavorpill article is mainly about music, here's what I take from that:

1. A critic should be a fan.
You've heard this before in critiques of, say, Charles Isherwood: "so-and-so doesn't even really like theater." I'm hoping this is rarely true, but especially now that money is vanishing from the theater community, you really shouldn't be writing about a subject unless you really love it. This doesn't mean that you need to like every type of theater--I don't much care for burlesque/cabaret and I'm overly fond of clowns--but if seeing a show is a commitment to you, your writing is going to sound like that of a man desperate for a divorce, but too fearful to ask for one: passive-aggressive shit.

2. Fuck snark.
I wrote about this last week. It remains true, and often reflects my first point. This isn't "if you can't say anything nice, say nothing at all"; this is, by all means, say bad things--but more importantly, explain bad things. The artist is, by nature, surrounded by people who support their work; what's important, then, is for the artist to be able to hear honest, unbiased critiques of it. At the same time, we're reflexively over-defensive, so for your comments to be effective at all, you can't give the artist a reason to simply tune out.

3. It's all about the experience.
A lot of reviews I read--and admittedly, write--describe the show. Depending on our backgrounds, that may be in a way that focuses on the script, or on the actors, or even on the aesthetics. That's all well and good, but it's crippling theater, which is more than just the sum of its parts. The gut has been, ironically, gutted from a lot of mainstream reviews because it doesn't fit house style, or because the editor has a "just the facts ma'am" approach to anything that goes in a newspaper. But it's crucial that we find a way to preserve and provoke the feelings that we encountered while seeing a show: it's not easy, but it's important that we at least try. Often times, we may discover, in the process, what we really thought of a show, particularly some of the complex experimental works that may otherwise leave us at a loss for words.

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