Tuesday, December 06, 2011

metaDRAMA: Computers Killing Critics?

I had the recent opportunity to speak with a director regarding the clash between the poor critical reception of the show and what appeared to be much warmer responses from the audience. I understood the director's frustration -- that's why I started blogging, freelancing, and aggregating for StageGrade: so as to help widen a discussion about theater that is often dominated, sometimes unfortunately so, by the so-called 1% (it's actually far, far, less) of critics who get paid on a regular basis to weigh in on the merits of a show.

Like this director, I actively disagree with some of the major critics out there, particularly when I feel they've misinterpreted a show (like Milk Like Sugar) because they come from a different background and don't "get" or aren't able to "engage" with the work, or when they fill up an allotted number of words speaking about things tangential to the production, like the book or film that preceded it, the previous work of the actors or playwright, etc. (Not that this information is necessarily bad; I just feel it shouldn't dominate and skew the conversation.) However, unlike this perhaps righteously wounded director, I also think that criticism is important, and that this director's dream of direct-response, in which audiences might reductively give each show a "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" that would help to inform other paying theatergoers -- in other words, People Just Like Them (the 99%, to continue that popular metaphor) -- what the real story was. I'm assuming here that the implication is that critics often get things wrong, and that even when they praise a show that the audience isn't investing in (like Journey's End, the early closing of which pains me to this day), they should shut up and let the market do its dirty work.

The biggest problem with this, for the record, is that people in a theater are not Just Like Them -- particularly on Broadway. For a 40-seat theater that produces risque work, it might help to know how the immediate audience felt: they know what they're getting into. But the larger the house, the more varied the audience, and the more difficult it is to quantify the results of stripping their thoughts into an American Idol-style vote (and it should be noted that American Idol was originally watched, in part, for its critics -- particularly the foul-mouthed ones). "Thumbs up" and "thumbs down" doesn't actually tell you what people liked about the show, so as to help you with the next production you work on, nor does it help to recognize actors (which might help them to get work in the future), and might lead to bad plays being produced more frequently, as there'd be no way to direct that "thumbs up" at the star, or the director, or the costumes, etc. On the flip side, a good play that's poorly mounted in its debut, or which finds the wrong audience might be doomed forever. Now, I'm not saying that a critic is going to be more accurate -- but they're going to be more descriptive, and that critic is going to have a body of work behind them that allows the various producers, directors, and audiences to decide how much of their review seems trustworthy.

Another problem is that this would lead even faster to the proliferation of "easy" shows, "light" entertainment in the theater, and work that's more "simply" marketed. There's already a ton of tourist-friendly pap flung up on the boards each year ("holiday" shows, I'm looking at you), and critics are already largely ignored when it comes to certain mega-spectacles (Spider-Man); while it may be more profitable, would it be healthier for the theater if everybody suddenly shied away from the harder sells, knowing that they'd no longer be able to lure people in on the merits of the work? (Ironically, this director spoke about how nobody working on a show was in it for the money, while simultaneously pushing for a way to make more money.) In the same sense that sports can be heightened by an understanding and appreciation of rivalries, histories, and statistics, so too can theater be strengthened by a fuller, livelier debate of the ideas expressed within.

The final, largest problem, is that simply looking at percentages of likes and dislikes doesn't help you to find the sort of show you're interested in. Do you buy a ticket to a show simply because it's 100% rated? No more than you buy things on Amazon simply because they're closest to five-stars: you go because something about the production speaks to you. Hopefully, in a good review (and there are some stinkers out there, I'm guilty of some myself) the critic's description helps to describe it to you, or can be purposed to work like the Netflix algorithm, in which how closely you agree with past reviews helps to recommend new shows. Direct democracy doesn't seem to have been all that great for California -- do we really want that in theaters? (Also, not to be skeptical or anything, but such a system would no doubt feature a lot of ballot stuffing, right? Assuming you could even get apathetic audiences to talk back?)

Ultimately, I was glad for this discussion with the director, however seriously intended it was (raw emotions and hard alcohol sometimes lead to faulty conclusions). I'm not the hugest fan of the system we have, but I'm convinced that doing away with it entirely is not the right solution. To me, the real trick would be in getting audiences to more actively speak out in dialogue with the critics, and making sure that there's a way to aggregate those thoughts right along with the reviews. (Again, I'm biased here, but StageGrade is the only thing that even comes close to doing this.) One voice is too tyrannical, every voice is too anarchic. I've written before about the wisdom of crowds, but it's a wisdom that comes only through moderation. Let's find the best way to talk about theater; after all, as you can see, my own voice alone is more a rant than a solution.


RLewis said...

Aaron, I'm not even sure what you're saying here, but I think that's a good thing. I don't think that it's a rant, but I've never thought there was any one solution to criticism. It may take several.

It also brings to mind a post I just read at Rob W-K's blog, which reminded me of how much a role context and expectation play in this process. If a show were to have 100% thumbs up, it better be something that everyone will like. Cuz I, like others, who go on the basis of the thumbs up will be expecting some world rocking. Anything less and I'll have bad thoughts even if the show is better than good.

I remember when everyone hated Frank Rich. Sure, he didn't like anything, but that never stopped me (and many others) from seeing a particular show. In fact, after reading him for a while, I could kinda tell when I'd love a show that he hated or hate a show that he said something good about.

On the other hand, there's an indie theater website that reviews tons of shows and never has a bad word to say. I hate that, cuz I can never tell if I'm gonna want to see a show from its review there.

And then, there's a TONY critic who writes great reviews, but in real life he has very unique tastes, and that's putting it lightly. Often I wonder what he sees in some shows, but it's very clear that he sees something. Maybe I don't get the context, but I always learn something.

For me, I guess it goes back to cliches: there's no accounting for taste, and you can't make other people think. Critics are too cold and audiences are too warm. There is good and bad in both, so if your friend is taking either to heart, it is sure to drive him/her mad. Critics are people, too, so they ramble and digress just like audience individuals, and they're not all great at their jobs.

Maybe it's the jagged edges of varied responses that tell the real story that aggregation only mellows. We want solutions to straighten things out, straighten us out, but maybe on this one it takes a village and a messy one at that. Thanks for making me think about this.

Aaron Riccio said...

Glad to hear your thoughts, RL; I especially like that line: "critics are too cold and audiences are too warm." That's what struck me most in this conversation; yes, a forgiving audience would most likely tend toward praising a show (I'm still astounded at how many average shows manage to force a standing ovation these days), so I can understand a producer's desire for them to weigh in, but to have a director say as much? Particularly an artistic one?

As you note, too, I think there's value in getting to know a critic's taste. I've gone to see things that a critic has panned -- because I know that I like the work that's not up his alley. Problem is, most audiences don't rely on a critic in that sense: they're been taught to look for simple blurbs and to think that entertainment is built only with neon lights, which sometimes enables critics to kill a show when audiences don't bother to think for themselves.

I think back to Charles Isherwood's review of Fuerzabruta, in which he wrote about how uncomfortable he was. Sure, but his description of what MADE him uncomfortable is also what had me run out to see it. You could say the same of something like Sleep No More, too; the only way you'd have a bad review of that production is if the critic didn't mention what the show was doing. As long as he describes the basic concept and execution, his gut reaction isn't likely to turn off anybody who wouldn't already be turned off to begin with.

This is what we talk about when we talk about theater, eh?

RLewis said...

yes, agreed. I can't wait to toast from afar the day when you replace one of those old cranks at a big hardcopy paper.

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