28 November 2011

Critiquing Critics

Everyone knows I love Stephen Sondheim's work for theatre and film. He does not always succeed in his efforts, but I admire that he tries something different, something other than the sloppy writing that is Andrew Lloyd Webber and others of that ilk. Because he tries to be different, audiences often refuse to try to participate in his efforts -- and for that, we all pay a dear price.

Recently, Sondheim released a second book of lyrics "Look, I Made a Hat." In it there is a section about his experience with theatre critics and criticism that I found to be totally and sadly correct.

For about seven years I was the theatre critic for "The Phoenix Gazette" -- a highly praised, worthy newspaper that was allowed to suffer an ignominious and slow death. At that time there were six or seven other writers in the Phoenix area also doing criticism.

I don't know what people thought about my criticism, but I will tell you that I tried to be both an enthusiastic supporter of what each company was trying to do, and something like a parent-figure who wanted to gently guide the child through the rough spots of life and into a brighter world. Sometimes doing these things was difficult, indeed; but my good intentions were there and sometimes others realized it.

When I was reviewing, theatre in Phoenix was hot. There were times I would review 10 to 12 plays or musicals in one week -- racing from the theatre to the paper to write a review that would be on the streets in a few short hours. It was often exhausting work in grueling conditions, but I loved every moment of it -- even considering the productions that were not quite where they should have been.

As a critic, I was a little different in that I had actually spent many years working in theatre -- acting and behind the scenes. Very little of it was professional work; nearly all of the amateur kind -- the point being that I knew a little something about making theatre. I knew how hard it was, I knew about tech rehearsals, costume change glitches, gels that fall off lights, sound cues that are missed and entrances made too early. No one who has not actually been part of a theatrical production has any idea of the millions of moving parts that must align for the effect to be (and I hate the cliche) magic -- for magic it is when all those parts mesh perfectly.

Unlike many of the critics mentioned in Sondheim's article, I loved theatre and wanted everyone to go to see a show without any regard to anything I might write -- not because I liked something and not despite the fact I did not. I wanted people to go to the theatre because it was a live, living organism -- an art form that has almost no peer and that is different every night because of the people who sit in the audience.

I loved the theatre so much that I wanted people to understand the valuable contribution made by critics, so I did lots of public speaking engagements about what a critic does and how to read a review. I went to schools and I spoke at theatres on the nights they were otherwise dark.

And, as Sondheim mentions in his book, I was loved and hated in equal measure: loved when my review was favorable to a show or performer or designer; hated when I was less favorable. On occasion I was confronted by a person who felt slighted by my review. In most cases, I had also given this person a favorable review at one time. So, when confronted, I gently reminded him / her about the previous favorable review and asked "Did you disagree with that review, as well?" Of course not. I hope that made them understand you either had to accept all the reviews equally or accept none at all: agreeing with the favorable ones and disagreeing with the unfavorable ones was an unhealthy pastime.

Then I lost my job at the paper and something happened that surprised me: I received only a single note from a single person who lamented that I would no longer be reviewing theatre. Of all the effort I made to help people understand and enjoy theatre, of the many hundreds of reviews I wrote and the many thousands of people whose work intersected with mine, only one person made it known that he was sad I was leaving. That was probably a harsher review than any I could have written.

You can read Sondheim's comments about critics here.

You can buy his first book of lyrics here.

You can buy his newest book of lyrics here.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I appreciated it. The paper kept its local theater reporter, but there's a big difference between reportage and criticism. I'd rather read some thoughtful analysis than rah rah cheerleading any day.

Newspapers are nearly dead anyhow - r.i.p.