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.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 19, 2009


Congratulations to Sandra Clayton, Brandon Crowder, Stacie Rearden Hall, Kerry McGee and Adam Mincks, the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for winning the 2009 Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Award for Best Ensemble Acting!

This award is the second-greatest honor of my professional career. The greatest was working with these talented artists and beautiful human beings in the first place.


Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

RTCC Awards 2009

I hate arts awards.

Hate is a strong word. Let me back up a bit.

I am deeply suspicious of labeling one person’s art as being superior to another’s, or in the case of a “Best” award, all the others’. Art is incredibly subjective, both from the perspective of the performer and the audience, and theatre perhaps the most of all. For example, what about the phoned-in performance that critics and audiences love? Is it “good” art because people liked it, or “bad” art because little effort was invested in its creation? And what about the brilliant performance that half of a small audience simply didn’t get? Who’s at fault; the actor, the playwright, the director, the spectator? Everyone or no one?

So I don’t like arts awards. I don’t watch them on TV and I don’t care what the results are. I hate the politics, the sense of entitlement, the atmosphere of egocentric self-congratulation.

So it’s fortunate that this isn’t what the RTCC awards this Sunday are about.

Last year’s awards were one of my favorite memories of all Richmond theatre. Friends and colleagues gathered at the Firehouse to celebrate each other’s craft in an evening of fellowship and congratulation, a night of wine, women and song, and of men who looked so good in tuxedoes it made me wish for the fashions of yesteryear. The Richmond Shakespeare contingent was the bad kids in the back rows, making a ruckus as usual. I had written more than a couple blog treatises about how much I hate arts awards, so it was with more than a little awkwardness that I sat, a nominee. Fortunately, the puck my show won was for costumes, and Becky Cairns got to give a speech instead of whatever unrehearsed horribleness might have spewed from my piehole. For me, events like this are especially odd, because most of my Richmond theatre experience is with one company and I don’t know many of the performers who work elsewhere, simply because we haven’t played together—and because I am often too shy to stick around after shows I see to tell performers I don’t know that I liked their work. (Yes, I am shy; try not to faint.)

This year, I am once again honored to have a show nominated for an “Artsie.” (By the way, let me just publically state here that “Artsie” is the most generic name imaginable for an award. Can’t we find a way to name them after the first recipient of a memorial award, Liz Marks? The “Lizzies,” or the “Marksies?” Even “Ratsies” or “Ritzies” is better. Maybe we could use one of the rejected baseball team names, which are also hideous.) That’s actually what I most wanted to write about today, but I haven’t blogged in forever, so I’ve sort of rambled a bit.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is nominated for “Best Ensemble Acting” this year, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is quite a contrast to last year’s noms for As You Like It, which caused me mortal dread at the prospect of winning, dread which was only assuaged by the certain knowledge that there was no way in hell the show would win Best Play or Best Director. Interestingly, when the 2008 nominations were announced, I mentioned that a “Best Ensemble” award, like at the SAG Awards, would be a welcome addition. While I was, indeed, thinking of the experiences of directing Doctor Faustus (an ensemble of two) and As You Like It (another truly remarkable couple of ensembles) at the time, this seems more than a bit self-serving now; ironically so since A) it’s an acting award and therefore not mine to receive, and B) I would be dreading the prospect of winning it were I able to do so. Wrap your head around that mass of contradictions. My ambition of becoming a real-life Joss Whedon character is fulfilled.

But I absolutely have to re-state how immensely proud I am of the Midsummer company: actors Sandra Clayton, Brandon Crowder, Stacie Rearden Hall, Kerry McGee and Adam Mincks, designers and crew members Ray Bullock, Becky Cairns, Will Hankins, Annie Hoskins, Bryan Laubenthal, Emily Rawlings, Caroline Sumner, J. David White and David White (confusing, I know), musicians Jake Allard, Todd Borden, Holly Harris and Holly Lucas (who was also a designer) and everyone at Second Pres and Agecroft Hall whose names aren’t on the tip of my cerebrum, not to mention producers Grant Mudge and Richard Moxley. This is technically an acting award, but all those people are honorees in my book. That’s what ensemble is about, in my book.

When I direct, I try to strike a balance between making it fun and making it a challenge, and these actors rose to the fun of the challenge and the challenge of the fun like none I’ve ever worked with. For a director who prides himself in building ensembles, their nomination is an indescribable honor. Plus, it’s the best of all possible worlds: I can root for them without having the awkwardness of actually having to accept an award if they win. Score!

So regardless of what happens on Sunday evening, I offer my congratulations to the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I look forward to seeing my enormous Richmond Theatre family dressed to the nines for a celebration of our trials and triumphs at the Empire on Sunday night.

Labels: , , ,