Why I Stopped Writing Theater Reviews

Some of you may know that for much of 2009 and 2010 I was a weekly writer for the upstart online publication LA Theatre Review.  Each week I would accept a complimentary ticket to one of the dozens of live performances that are produced in Los Angeles each weekend, and in return, I would give my honest assessment of the show’s quality, vivacity, and relevance.  And like so many ‘blogger-critics’ in this city, I did my best to distinguish myself from the pack by writing as insightfully and as brutally as I could muster, regardless of the consequences.

I am myself an aspiring theater artist.  I write plays which I often produce and/or direct, and I work freelance as a designer, writer and fundraiser.  I have a horse in the race, is what I mean, and after a year of straddling the fence between critic and critiqued, I found the conflicts of interest to be too damning and difficult to navigate.  So I quit, but not before I discovered the guilty thrill of panning an awful show, or the even guiltier shame of pandering to popular mediocrity.  I was a willing participant in the great chicanery that is LA theater criticism, and for that I am sorry.  And after again living through the glory and agony of being under the critical gun, I’ve solidified my stance on the inevitable democratization of art criticism.

Take this excerpt from a review I wrote of a late-nite production of Adam Rapp’s Bingo with the Indians by Rogue Machine:

The shocking elements of the story (which include onstage anal sex and a surprisingly deft rap about the infamous ‘Turd-Burglar’) seem to preoccupy not only the playwright, but the actors as well.  The audience is left with little reason to care for these characters (with the exception of Brian Norris who cuts a sympathetically wide eyed performance from a silly script) and no reality where the cruelty might land and affect.  Without a foundation in love or pity, the violent ending is awkward and inconsequential.  While the design and staging are competent, the play fulfills its own critiques of concept heavy performance.  I was waiting for it to end.

But this is a part of what we’re meant to experience, isn’t it?  Don’t we gather into tiny theaters under crumbling freeways, in back-wrenching seats, shoulder to shoulder with each other to watch the underemployed practice a dying trade?  It’s funny, when you think about it!  I’m laughing, because I know the joke’s on me.  Bingo with the Indians teaches us to lower our expectations of avant-garde theater, a lesson which I refuse to learn.

Now, a lot of my problem with this play was with the script, and I admit that as a playwright I spend a lot of time thinking about the words as written rather than performed.  But a cursory glance at this entry shows seven references to the first person (singular or plural), a clear presumption that the critic’s (my) experience was universally held by all in attendance, and the single worst thing you can say about a play (“I was waiting for it to end.”)  All of these things can be justifiable criticism in certain circumstances, but when I look back on this production and I think of what my actual response to the work was, I am baffled by what I wrote.  Did I really dislike the play this much?  Not really.  It wasn’t great, but it was better than watching TV.  So why all the self-important bile?

Another example:  For my second bout with LA Theatre Review I was sent to Santa Monica to watch a one-man show by Frank South.   Despite my distaste for the assignment, I was determined to do a good job and show my bountiful talent for observation.  I went out of my way to research the play’s writer and star, and I even took the time to interview him following the show.  This excerpt shows what I really thought of the work and should have been the entire review:

It’s hard to tell if Mr. South regards this play as an exercise in self help or if he truly sees it as a chance to entertain others and shine light on his various co-morbid conditions.  That the show has crossed the Pacific to open in Santa Monica is evidence that he and his producers feel the show has legs beyond just gathering awareness for attention deficit disorders.  Performance is an effective tool for healing, and while this show is honest and includes the witty self-deprication that is often the engine of this kind of work, South’s muddy performance is hard to parse.  At 130 minutes with no intermission it is an ordeal, and I suspect that there are times when South succumbs to his ADHD, loses focus, and repeats sections of the script.  Perhaps it is all intentional.

I was not excited to write this review – I do not like autobiographical one-man monologues about people dealing with their alcoholic selves, partners or parents.  They are boring to me.  So why in Christ’s name did I write a 1000 word review on a play I didn’t like at all?

The answer is because blogger-critics don’t write about theater. They write about themselves at the theater. And it is because of this observation that I have removed myself from their company.  I mean look at me! I can’t even speak out against self-reference without quoting myself for nearly an entire page!  And I am not the only one.

Some of you may remember the series of blogs by Rick Culbertson, Colin Mitchell and others that flew around the tubes for a few weeks in the spring, all addressing the issue of blogger-critics, critic-actors/directors/writers, and generally unaccredited journalists attending and writing about LA theater.  Steven Leigh Morris and Don Shirley even weighed in on the side of bloggers, both agreeing that bloggers are useful but should declare their conflicts of interest.  It was a fascinating conversation, and I believe I stood up strong against Culbertson and his disdain for the people’s critique.  How could he be so blind to the beauty of this oncoming revolution?

In particular, Colin Mitchell is basically obsessed with the subject of amateur theatre critique, going back as far as 2006 to find controversy related to the practice.  And why wouldn’t he?  His website is built on the idea that all critique is equal and should be considered when rating a show’s quality.  This is, of course, ridiculous.  One needs only look at the Bitter Lemons archive to see dozens of shows with 100% ratings whose only mentions include the Tolucan Times, whose notoriously corrupt drama desk issues a positive review for the price of a 6″x6″ advertisement.  Add to that the mind-numbing convention that a review is either positive or negative with no accounting for nuance and you get exactly what you deserve: a watered down number that supposedly rates the critical reception of a particular production but really means nothing.

The reason this measurement is so flawed is because it hovers somewhere between ‘criticism’ and ‘public opinion’ while paving over the complexity of actual review.  Rotten Tomatoes, a site to which Bitter Lemons owes quite a lot, has solved this issue by dividing its ratings between ‘Top Critics’ and the general populace.  Anyone can write a review, and anyone can click a button to move the rating of a particular movie, but the opinions of actual seasoned critics who are employed by outlets with institutional ethics and expectations are kept segregated from the democratized audience.  Why? Because their opinions are more valuable and speak to a different kind of appreciation for cinema.  Some movies are critically acclaimed while they fail at the box office.  Others are quite the opposite.   And while some people appreciate critics who point them in the direction of sure-fire entertainment, I have no use for them.  I can read box-office figures on my own.

I want critics to be smarter than me, more experienced, and more involved.  I want them to direct me through the marketing and the hype to pieces that are truly valuable.  More than that, theater needs critics who can look past themselves and their need for entertainment and write with authority about the substance, context, and meaning of a particular piece without forcing themselves into the picture.  A telling post by Colin Mitchell shows the disconnect I’m talking about (he quotes  Charles McNulty at the top of the post, his words in italics):

“Additionally, it’s imperative for theater artists to break out of their self-imposed ghettos and become more fully engaged — politically, economically, artistically. Too much contemporary theater seems to be produced under a middle-class anesthetic.” (McNulty)

What the hell does that mean?  A “middle class anesthetic”?  Is he implying people should be making theatre for a more “elite” crowd?  Like, oh, I dunno, the academics?  What’s the sound of one hand jerking itself off?  Anybody?  Bueller?  Good Lord. (Mitchell)

Later he adds that:

Entertainment is a key component to all of this – if not THE key component. Entertainment and cutting edge are not mutually exclusive. (Mitchell)

What McNulty means, of course, is that the pressure to produce popular work has undermined the more interesting impetus to innovate and take risks.   But Mitchell rejects this notion immediately, saying that entertainment is probably the most important element of choosing and executing a piece of theater, the elites be damned!  I believe this is reflected in his writing and the critics he chooses to include in his ratings.  And while I didn’t mean to turn this post into an indictment of Bitter Lemons (I’m a frequent reader and I’ve met Colin, he is very nice) I do think the blogger-critic problem can be summed up in this attitude.  The purpose of real criticism is not to play the consumer advocate and warn people of shows they may not enjoy.  The critic is present to provide perspective beyond what the average audience member could employ.  And when their opinions are held up alongside the eager masses of David Jette’s all clamoring for their seat at the table, the artists and their prospective patrons are the ones who suffer most.

The answer, as Morris pointed out, is full disclosure.  I am not going to stop writing about theater on the internet, and I probably won’t stop giving my opinion about the shows that I see.  What I won’t do is ask for a free ticket, or write in a stilted third person that hides my self-interest or inexperience with the format.  I am going to write as myself – an artist and an advocate, a voice among a thousand who only wants to see our scene get better and better.  That’s all I’m really qualified to do.

6 Comments »

  1. David – as usual, very well written. And I agree with a lot, perhaps most, of what you say. I also think a “This is good, see it” and “This is bad, stay away” form of criticism is horrid and have said so on LATR and to the folks at Bitter Lemons. (I also am a frequent reader of their site. Partly because it makes it easier for me to find the reviews of plays that I’ve already seen written by people I respect. I consider this a sort of conversation, as they often are at odds with my opinion and I love seeing the different perspectives.)

    I (that word!) disagree that having the first person referenced in a review is an indication that “… the critic’s (my) experience was universally held by all in attendance… ” I think knowing a critic’s preferences, prejudices and background are important to the conversation that a good review is, and the only way for the reader to get a perspective on who he’s reading is for the writer to reveal himself in the writing. I often disagree with the audience of a play I’ve seen, and often disagree with other reviewers. I often, also, agree. Any review is and only can be one person’s (hopefully informed) opinion.

    You end by saying, “I am going to write as myself – an artist and an advocate, a voice among a thousand who only wants to see our scene get better and better. That’s all I’m really qualified to do.” That’s all I ever thought you were doing, all LATR and, I assume, your readers required of you.

    I would love for you to continue with us, whether it be reviews, opinion pieces or articles, but no matter where you do it, keep writing.

    • Hi Geoff!

      It could have been a self-imposed air of authority that I brought to my reviews, but it was there nonetheless. I do think that the editorial process and general style of LATR lends itself to anonymity with little ‘regulation’ in terms of content. This allowed me to write the way I did (and it wasn’t all bad, in fact, I rather like my reviews except for the flights of fancy) under the banner of LA Theatre Review without any reference to my personal attributes. In my individual case I believe this created a sort of bait-and-switch, where the production comps an objective critic then gets a review from a peer with an opinion and an agenda, however unconscious. I would love to write more for LATR, and I invite you to syndicate this and other relevant commentary onto your site. The hardest thing about walking away from review writing has been missing out on the connections I was building with you, Kat Primeau and all the other great folks who write for you. If I can return as myself, warts and all, then I’d love to. 🙂

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