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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