Saturday, June 19, 2010

metaDRAMA: Okay, Now I'm Seeing Stars

A couple of days ago, I was reading through Matt Freeman's fair questioning of the somewhat misleading Time Out New York star ratings (and Time Out's well-reasoned response) and I remember being surprised by Derek Ahonen (of the Amoralists) lashing out at Matt (a fellow playwright) for not being 100% supportive. And now I read about this Leslie Jordan v. Elizabeth Vincentelli feud (RTWT at Upstaged) and I'm shocked again by this whole sense of an artist's "entitlement"--that because you're in the "same camp" as a fellow artist, you should just automatically support--or more accurately, indulge--their work. To not do so, well, that makes you bitter.

I've been paying a lot of attention to stars and ratings lately, especially since I started aggregating some reviews for StageGrade, and while I stick to their description of grades when doing their work, and purposefully don't use grades on my own site (except for during the Fringe), I thought I'd explain my own stance on how grades should work, in an ideal world. When I was taking Advanced Scene Study up at Binghamton University, under the direction of Theodore Swetz, he said something that to some was a wake-up call, but to me was a delight: everybody in the class started out with a "C," and if they came to class every day and did every assignment, they would leave the class with... a "C." That's right. "C" means "average," so if you simply did what was expected, you'd get a "C." You are not entitled to an "A"--as so many students think they are--simply because they attend the class. They're not entitled to an "A" even if they do their level-headed best: that's just not always enough, though some extra-credit assignments and other extracurricular outreach may bump that up to a "B."

Though I'm more biased than my old professor--I'm looking for the best in every show I attend--each production still starts with a "C" in my book. If the acting is terrific, that's up to a "B." If the direction's great, too, that's an "A-." If the script is outstanding, that's a perfect "A" in my book. Poor design elements or other noticeable flaws in the lighting or sound, well, that can lower the score. Point is: if it's passable, it has no effect on the review--often times, I won't even mention something that's neither good nor bad. It's really only worth mentioning if it adds to the show or takes away from it (and in both cases, we "graders" have an obligation to explain why, so that the subject understands where we're coming from).

I found it interesting to peruse the comments on this recent Parabasis post, especially when realizing how hard it is to avoid the superlatives and hyperboles and actually define the "best" stuff out there. The truth is, there are so many shows done, and most of them are going to be average, at best--not because the artists are bad, but because that's how averages work. If everything is outstanding, then a new bar is set, and I think that's what we should all be striving for. After all, it's worth wryly noting that Vincentelli's so-called "bash" of Jordan's one-man show still gave the thing 2.5 (out of 4) stars: if you're offended by anything less than perfection, take up math--something as subjective as theater is not for you.

1 comment:

Q Factor said...

I just read through the whole kerfuffle on Freeman's blog, and I'm fairly appalled at Ahonen's post. Matt's response is dead-on--it's just petty for Ahonen to lash out like that, even putting aside the fact that his play and company have been receiving constant praise the last month or so (and that Matt's initial post was pretty anodyne).

Ahonen's exhortation to "fight the good fight" highlights one of the big liabilities in this otherwise wonderful off-off scene. This inability to accept criticism (let alone thoughtfully engage with it and take something from it) is maddening. One excellent way to impede off-off's ability to get butts in seats (presumably an important goal of the "good fight") is to spread goodwill promiscuously and just assume that a play deserves praise just because everyone worked really, really hard. This keeps the scene insular, in-jokey, and artistically stunted.

Mr. Riccio, you pretty much savaged the last play I was involved in, and while I'd respectfully submit that you were wrong, I like that you basically speak your mind in these reviews. We could all benefit from some more honesty and fair-minded criticism, delivered in good faith as at least partly as a service to the off-off community.