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.

  • tthomas48

    I've discussed this in depth with Hannah Kennah, and I think the problem in Austin is that reviews used to be the key way to get audiences in. And there was only one place in town that was doing any real number of reviews (the Chronicle). As the number of critics is expanding I think we have a much better scene for having lively debates. It's no longer only whether the Chronicle gives you a thumbs up or thumbs down.

    That said, I don't think you should ever challenge a review (unless to say that you've addressed a complaint and fixed it). You just have to trust your audience is intelligent and can decide for themselves.

  • jennymarie

    So is Will going to review No One Else Will Ever Love You?

  • Travis, I decided from the first that I would abstain from grades, stars and numeric ratings. Any piece of theatre is terribly complex. The same work may be rewarding, annoying, disturbing and amusing in the course of the action and in any of the many aspects of real life art. That's my caveat — but you entice me, certainly unintentionally, to express my opinion that even with all evaluations thrown into the Cuisinart together, Orestes would certainly merit more than a B-. regards, Michael

    p.s. And I've put a link to your post on ALTcom!

  • I think the gatekeeper problem is absolutely true and on the wane here in Austin. I think that the dozen or so writers we have in town are also pretty involved in the theatre scene themselves and judge each according to their ability if that makes sense.

    I have to say even with the couple of mostly negative reviews I just wanted to have a beer with them and talk more… but I love getting notes 😉 But challenging them in public just seems like the worst idea ever.

  • I really hope so, I love Dan's idea, and the entire attitude he's taken in general towards writing about theatre in Austin (and his pretty pretty writing). But he hasn't mentioned one way or the other to me… once Muses is open maybe he'll de-cave.

  • I appreciate that.

    And actually I appreciate that you take the space offered you by unlimited pixels to really talk about *all* of your feelings on a show rather than having to distill them down to 500 words. I have a very clear picture of what you liked and didn't like and a pretty good idea of why. It makes it very hard to take that sort of writing personally.

    Maybe I'll have a chance between projects to sit in a couple of houses with you.

  • Apparently yes he is. Just slow on the reply trigger.

  • No matter how much the bad sucks to hear, we need both the good and the bad to move forward. That could simply be a matter of being able to take the bad without getting huffy. That can be a huge personal step forward. I'm working on it myself…

  • steveramm

    1. If you don't like criticism, don't read reviews.

    2. If you like praise, read reviews… unless…

    3. If you like praise and don't like criticism, sacrifice the former so you don't have to experience the latter.

    If you believe the theatre has the power to change the threads in the social fabric, then bad reviews, good reviews, no reviews… whatever – shouldn't matter. Except where reviews affect audience numbers – even then – not in your control. So don't waste your time.

    Are you doing theatre to gain fame? Or because you have a vision that you want to share? Do you think you're perfect or do you know that the work is never done? I was always taught that if in your life, your work affects one person for the better, that you're a success. If you've studied audience behavior at all you know that the viewer's perception of the show is informed by so much more than the aesthetic at work. A bad pre-show meal, an uncomfortable seat, a neighbor in the audience that unwraps candy the whole time, a pre-disposition either for or against a specific genre – these are just the examples I thought of while writing this – and these examples and MILLIONS more affect the viewer. And I believe that as educated or aware as reviewers may be that they are still humans and still fall under the umbrella of the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that may inform how a production is viewed.

    But you can't change that. You can only do your work – that hopefully – for the sake of your review – doesn't look like work. You can only control what is within your power. So focus on that.

    Arguing a critique is like when an actor can't take or leave a note and instead becomes distracted. His or her work becomes complacent and feeble.

    So what is responsibility of the reviewer? To tell us where our vision or our ideas or intentions fell short or succeeded. And reviewers are as responsible for this task in the theatre as the practitioners are responsible for committing themselves to producing the best work they can… and I mean the best… That means taking your editorial eye off of your work and committing to your vision and voice. And if you do that then you need the reviewer to tell you where your “best laid plans were bound to go awry.” Take it or leave it – but whichever you choose, leave your baggage at the door.

    Finally, the reviewer is the go-between. Often the audience doesn't think in our terminology and the reviewer does. Further the reviewer sees the show as an audience member – unbiased. So the reviewer helps the audience understand our work and helps us understand our audience's perception.

  • steveramm

    Also, any press is good press. Rarely will a reviewer say “Don't see this show.” And if he or she does… examine your work first…

  • steveramm

    One more thing… for Travis… you don't know me, but I saw the show. If you want a review of Orestes I'll give one.

  • We love all feedback: travis at cambiareproductions.com and will at cambiareproductions.com

  • 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.)

    Anyway, this has gone on long enough. Thanks for starting a dialogue here that let me go on about this. And I'll be in touch in a few weeks – we can talk structure!


    *I kid, musicians.

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