Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reviews, reviewers, and different markets.

Rather than hijack Dave's blog (scroll down to "Other People's Writing" if you want to share the pain), I'm going to make a few remarks in this space. Interestingly, Dave's discussion comes from remarks on yet another blog, so this is a topical three-peat.

It was remarked by a very polite Anonymous (a rare thing) on the subject of negative reviews in Richmond versus New York that "Reviews in the big markets are written by experienced theater critics who have the guts to tell the truth, and not sugar-coat everything."

So is the argument here that experienced critics have a better eye for crap? Or that they have earned the right to call plays "awful," "garbage," or "tripe," or to say that an actor "has no business working as a professional actor" or some such? I'm sorry, but I believe you can be critical of a play, even savage a production, while avoiding language that functions primarily as character attack. You can even do that on a blog. Even anonymously. To my mind, exceptional writers use descriptive language, not simplistic value judgments.

I've read reviews by both knowledgeable and ignorant critics that used nasty, deliberately insulting language. I read it far far far more when I lived in New York and DC than in Richmond or Albany. There are, I'm sure, many reasons for that, but I suspect the fact that artists in Richmond routinely run into critics in Ukrop's has something to do with it. Much like posting anonymously gives some people the freedom to be insulting, writing in a huge city does the same.

This isn't New York. It never will be. There's much less of the "artists waiting for a big break" here; enough persistence and finding the right niche can get you some fairly regular work here. Bad reviews won't force you out of town. Many of the artists in town are lifers. And there are only a half-dozen reviewers in the Circle. How foolish and impolitic would it be for them to use insulting language in reviews? Good luck getting an interview with one of the insulted actor's friends, which is pretty much 90% of the rest of the theatrical community. Honestly, we don't need the reviewers the way they need us.

I'm not going to find fault with a community of reviewers who chose to approach their craft with an eye partly toward building up the arts community in a town that needs building. Especially since there are plenty of voices, many (not all) anonymous, WITHIN the theatre community who have no problem tearing it down in the name of "honesty," an "honesty" that is sometimes embittered by not getting a part they wanted.

And if you think the local critics "sugar-coat everything," you must have only been in a lot of really exceptional shows. I've gotten plenty of tepid reviews in this town. I've read between the lines and knew what they meant. They were mostly right; examples of shows where my idea didn't work the way I'd envisioned or where my work just wasn't at as high a level as the role and company demanded. None of it changed the way I viewed my craft. Never have I gotten a bad review of work that I thought was flawless. I don't do theatre for reviewers. I don't take notes from them and I don't let them influence my artistic choices. I use them as a barometer for some things and I rely on them for promotional materials. And they provide a starting point for discussing the craft of theatre, which I love to do. Also, I've met many of them and they are nice people.

How many actors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? 100: 1 to do it and 99 to blog anonymously about how they could have done it better.

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  • At 10/26/2009 9:30 AM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    I saw a few of our local critics at a Friday night production opening. Taking a break for fresh air at intermission, I happened to walk out of the theatre to find one of them directly in my path, so I chatted briefly as another reviewer dropped into the conversation circle. I didn't stay long, as it occurred to me one of them might worry I'd ask for their thoughts on the first act. Of course, I have enough tact to avoid such a ham handed question, so I excused myself and slipped away. Though I was only there as a patron, they both knew I had friends involved in the show, and I knew they were there to do their job.

    Our local critics love theatre, unlike Mortimer Brewster from "Arsenic and Old Lace", a fictional critic who hates theatre. Yet you have to wonder if some New York critics really do enjoy theatre, since so many of them are either scathing in their reviews (sometimes deservedly so, though not often), or just extra nit-picky. And sure, you can make the argument that if you're spending $150 on a Broadway show then you want to know if it's good. But the mean spirited approach many New York critics take to their reviews gives the impression that they're simply trying to say "Hey, I'm a professional and I know more about theatre than you unwashed masses buying the tickets". There's a strong element of condescending to their audience.

    In Richmond, I'd agree many critics are more polite in their criticism, though they don't love everything they see by any means (I've also taken a few hits in my day). But they DO seem to take the perspective of someone who enjoys the theatre, and has an experienced and discerning viewpoint, and that seems pretty healthy to me. In the final analysis, what they're saying is "Here's MY perspective on this show", and if that's not what they're here to do, then what the hell does anyone expect from them?

    It's a tough job. Being a good theatre critic is like being a good referee in a sporting event: You know when someone makes the right call, you respect those who do it well even if you never say so, and you only cheer them when they make a call that goes YOUR way.

  • At 10/26/2009 4:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Mr. Hamm-
    What is exactly your beef with those who wish to respond anonymously? If you have any genuine knowledge of show business at all, then you know that going against the grain can mean career suicide. There are many folks out there who choose to respond and want their opinions to be heard without the fear of being blackballed by the theatre circle. In a town the size of Richmond, making any sort of waves can end your career (at least, in this town). Do you think that doesn't happen? Being righteous doesn't make you right and being a lemming doesn't make you brave.

  • At 10/26/2009 5:50 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Good question.

    Anonymous web posting encourages insults, trolling, and flaming. Being required to sign your name to an opinion gives something anonymous posting lacks: accountability. Using your name encourages giving more thought and courtesy to your posting. I just don't see where that's a negative.

    I have made more than my share of waves in this space and on Dave's blog, all with my name attached, and have had local theatre artists and critics calling for my head. I try to counter any damage that does by working my ass off, surrounding myself with good people, and producing the best work I can.

    The most civil web forums I have participated in have required not only a name for each post, but some variation on YOUR name. The ones I post on that allow anonymous or nickname posting always--ALWAYS--devolve into flame wars and trolling.

  • At 10/26/2009 5:51 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    And again, I repeat: If you want to post your opinion anonymously, start a blog called "Anonymous Richmond Theatre Blog" and post to your heart's content. But anonymous posts generally will not be allowed in this space.

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  • At 12/31/2009 12:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Okay, I still have a favorite line from a New Times critic reviewing a play that rented space for a limited run at The Lamb's Theatre when we were all there holding forth. The reviewer said, "As an actress, singer, dancer, choregrapher, Miss ------ has great hair."

  • At 12/31/2009 12:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    However, I'm pretty sure the times critic spelled choreographer correctly.


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