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Critics and I revisited

In response to my earlier post on the artist/critic relationship and a brief email exchange after his review of Orestes on Austinist.com freelance writer  Dan Solomon wrote a very thoughtful reply which I think deserves to be featured better and had been lost to the dark matter of the interwebs:

And I quote:

The guiding principle behind my work as a reviewer is that I owe the theatermakers only fairness – I don’t owe them kindness (though it’s rarely fair to be unkind, in life as in criticism) and I don’t owe them support or encouragement or anything else. I owe the readers honesty.

As a critic, I’m a representative of the theater-going audience. (How large a sample I represent, I’ve no idea.) I have to be honest because I’m representing people who aren’t given the same platform I am and I need to do that as accurately as possible. I also owe them honesty because some of them, at least, are trusting that my opinion is worth considering when planning how to invest their time and ticket money, and that trust needs to be repaid.

The responsibility to the artists is a little bit trickier. Fairness is a double-edged sword. With Orestes, and other shows like it, I try to walk the line by focusing only on saying things in print that I’d be comfortable saying to your faces. I read every review I write aloud and try to imagine that I’m saying it to the director of the show – who, often these days (and more so in the future, I’m sure) is someone I know personally. (And probably like. Music criticism’s much easier, as those dudes are d-bags.*) That’s part one of being fair. The other part is trying to actively consider what the goals of the theatermakers are. And they vary. It’s unfair to hold an initial run of an original play that’s being tested out at a new works festival to the same standard that I held Touch. It’s unfair to consider an intentionally-slight, improv-based comedy show in the same context as The Method Gun, or to expect that they’ll be attempting to reach that level.

And the flip-side to that is that it’s unfair to hold a play like Orestes, made by theatermakers who take their work very seriously and intend to be doing work that’s meant to compete with world-class, professional theater, to a standard that isn’t exacting. There have been plays I liked less, and that I thought were less good, objectively speaking, than Orestes, and which I gave more positive reviews to. Because Austin’s theater scene is still relatively small, and not everyone in it as the intention of making big-boy theater, as you put it in that email. Work that’s intended to make a handful of paying audience members, most of whom are the performers’ friends, giggle, succeeds by accomplishing a lot less onstage. Work that’s essentially a dry run of new material succeeds by showing promise. A finished product like Orestes succeeds when it’s as good as the work being done by any company anywhere in the world. Even the greatest companies in the world come up short on that some of the time. (Ask me sometime about some of the crap I saw at Steppenwolf when I lived in Chicago, or the nonsense the National in London tried to pass off in 2007-2008.)

Dan Solomon

Take your lumps – and LEARN

Kris Vire talks a little bit more about the role of critics in a theatre community, and as I just closed a show that was reviewed by 5 very different humans and they had pretty different opinions on the show (which was pretty consistent with general opinion – the wildly divergent I mean).

Avimann Syam of the Austin Chronicle
Michael Meigs of AustinLiveTheatre.com
Claire Canavan for the Austin-American Statesman
Ryan E. Johnson for the Austin Examiner
Dan Solomon for Austinist.com

If Critic-o-meter were to stop by in Austin and handle the math for us I think that they would find it to be about a B-.

I think it was better than that, but it really depended on your mood and expectations when you showed up, so I don’t think it’s too terribly out of line. But what I will say is this: Every single one of them did everything I ask of a critic or reviewer. They told exactly how they felt about a piece and they wrote about it with as much care as we presented it.

That’s all I ask.

We’re all in this together. If we both go out of our way not to piss in the pool we’ll be fine.

But producing companies? You have a responsibility here too. Be self-aware. You know if you’re winning or not, and I understand that you have a momma-bear fighting interest in your show, but take a step back. Ask the unthinkable: are they right? 1 of those 5 above really didn’t like the show, and called me out personally for my performance. I can get huffy and indignant or I can simply ask if he’s right. (He’s only half right).

I’m an adult producing art for public consumption. I have a strong desire to be very good at this. It is in my best interest to have as rigorous a review of my work as I can get. I may discard some of it as not useful to my future work or as an outlier in reference to this work. But if it’s all going to simply be treacley appreciation for “how hard I tried” I will never be one whit better tomorrow than I am today.

Orestes Live! Wherever you may be!

Watch this space.

In this space tomorrow night at a little after 8PM Central Time we will be livestreaming Orestes to your very own computer.

Hopefully we’ll have the chat fixed this time so you’ll be able to talk throughout the show with folks all over the world.

Streaming .TV shows by Ustream

If for some reason you have difficulty on this page you can go to this one and watch there.

Thank you for stopping in.

If you enjoyed our production please feel free to avail yourself of the donate button below.

We welcome your comments and criticisms at any time, either in this space or at 512.524.3761

3 Chances Left to See Orestes

Orestes Photos Robert Zick 8.8411

Good ideas and good beginnings

Well that was a very long week.

Last week began at 6am Monday morning, not a common time to be awake and alert for yours truly, and ran through until 11PM Saturday night. But Orestes is open and finding it’s footing and I only owe something like 350 more favors to people at the end of then week than I did at the beginning.

The week culminated in one of my best ideas in a bad situation in a long time: Actor Benefit Night.

The City of Austin like other cities is having a spot of financial trouble (you may have heard). One of the City’s responses was to freeze a major funding program for us – their Auxiliary Program funding, which grants small sums to groups on a rolling basis throughout the year. Our actor stipends for Orestes were to come through this program and so needed to be stripped from the budget when we lost that half of our guaranteed funding.

We very much want to pay all of our people. It may not be enough, it may not reflect their talent or achievement, but something.  So: Actor Benefit Night. A publicized event evening with every dime going to the (non-company-member) cast. The community gets an opportunity to directly support each other and maybe the cast can recoup half of gas/fast food money from the rehearsal process. It was moderately successful. Not successful enough that I’m going to brag here about how much that they’re going to receive, but enough that I won’t have to pay them out of pocket.

As proud as I am of the idea and it’s (moderate) effectiveness, there are two things about the night that still rankle.

  1. There was a palpable enjoyment on the part of some of the audience that it was going to the cast instead of the company.

    Parse that properly please. I’m all for gleefully giving to the cast. This cast especially. But check your attitudes at the door. Having a name for our company doesn’t make us Starbucks. You aren’t sticking it to the man, you’re receiving a night to give to a different underdog. That show comes out of our pockets, and we’re not trust fund babies. We’re a coupla guys with admin jobs who create opportunities for artists instead of taking vacations.

  2. There was a throwaway comment post-show on Saturday about another company in town that pays well on every show being “all class”. It wasn’t meant as a slight and the company mentioned is 100% class, but it hurt.

    We’re going to lose money on this show. My first producer loss ever. Not much I’m sure, we’re not idiots, but a loss nonetheless. That’s not some phantom corporate cash. That’s our money. Our personal money. Mind you there are no regrets, and I’m not looking for sympathy. I choose to spend my money this way, and losing a week or two’s pay on a show hurts my pride not my dinner table, but the idea that not being able to afford an additional $2000 means we’re not a class organization really hurts.

So there’s that.

Morose foot-stomping aside, folks you really do need to see this show. Gabriel Luna is a force of nature and he is surrounded by a group of performers eager to push back. There is a storm brewing down there on Hidalgo Street and you’re going to be sorry you missed it.

EDITED TO ADD:

Don’t post during sugar crash after a very long tech week.

The second half of the above post is a whine and casts its participants in an unfair light. I leave it up because I deserve to take my lumps for it. I didn’t adequately draw out that the commenter in #2 wasn’t intending offense or making a direct comparison, and that the entire thought process was on my end. I take great personal pride in the fact that I’ve never lost money on a show and I’m about to. So I’m taking all money talk a bit more personally than I normally would.

My apologies for the lack of clarity in this post, the oversensitivity and the whine. We return to your regularly scheduled upbeat community building tomorrow.