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22 August 2006
Having a critic slam your beloved show is one of the most frustrating things for a theatre person. I remember the years when I was with The Lamplighters and how frustrated we'd get when a critic just lambasted a show, when we felt it was unjustified. (One guy always gave a bad review to shows with two specific actors in them he didn't like them and he wouldn't say good things about them, no matter how good they were).
The theatre company can write a letter to the editor complaining of unfairness or bias or whatever, but you never ever get back the impression that the review made on the reader, because they are unlikely to read the letters to the editor. And it just sounds like sour grapes anyway. You just have to eat it and hope for a better review next time.
It happens to everybody, from Broadway shows that close after the first reviews come out, to the humblest community theatre. Sooner or later, you're going to get a bad review that makes you angry.
Occasionally a show is so fabulous that word of mouth can make up for a bad review, but usually not.
When the bad review means people don't show up for your show, and seats sit empty, when you have big bills to pay, sometimes you feel like you just have to do something.
That's what people from the a theatre company in Sacramento did when Sacramento Bee critic Marcus Crowder wrote what they felt was an unnecessarily bad review. (I don't review this theatre, so did not see the production.)
It wasn't a bad review, it was just kind of a luke warm review. I would not have ordered tickets myself, based on this review.
Members of the company are pissed. So pissed they made signs and began picketing (the news report I saw showed them picketing outside their own theatre, which makes no sense...but perhaps they had already been to the Bee offices). One woman who was interviewed complained that critics make or break small shows and that in the interest of supporting the arts in the area, they should be more positive about productions.
Uh. There's a slight flaw here!
I believe a critic has certain responsibilities, or at least that's the way I've always approached it. Yes, part of the job (for me) is to be encouraging to local theatre, to let people in the community know what's around so they can decide what they want to see. BUT, by the same token, this does not mean praising every production to the skies. There are some productions that just aren't very good. If I write a good review about every production, I lose all credibility as a critic because my opinion is meaningless and everybody knows it.
If a company puts on a show of, say (I'm trying to think of a show that hasn't been produced in this area, so I don't offend anyone!) ... ok...how about Wicked. A company puts on a production of Wicked but they can't get good people out to audition and their lead singers have a difficult time staying on pitch, the orchestra hits sour notes throughout, and the dancers all have two left feet.
Does the theatre company charge less because this is an inferior production and they damn well know it (or should know it, if they are honest with themselves)? Of course not. So if I then decide to be a good guy and say only good things about this show to help them sell seats and you plunk down your hard-earned money to see the show I've told you is so much fun and then you see this second-rate, badly sung production, will you ever believe me again? Of course not.
I hate writing bad reviews, but sometimes you just have to.
I also try, whether theatre companies believe it or not, to be gentle in my criticism, except in some blatant cases which are too bad to soft-pedal. I think there are ways of saying things that let the audience know this is not the company's best efforts, that a certain performer really is not very good in this role, but not head for the jugular.
I try to say something positive, even when I have to work at it. "I'm sure it's opening night jitters and as they settle into the role, the performances will improve," "Some are not quite up to solo quality voices," "This is a high spirited show by a cast who has obviously worked long and hard on their roles." "The members of the company are obviously dedicated to their craft and have a loyal following in town. There are weak moments and strong moments, but overall, it is an enjoyable production."
But sometimes it's just bad, bad, bad. I hated to give a bad review to an original play we saw several years ago. It was written by a well-known TV star who had recently died and his family (and some of his co-stars) came to the theatre for the world premiere. But it was a horrible play.
It's an awkward position to be in, being a critic. You see the same people at all the same shows and the temptation is to get chummy, but then if you're going to turn around and give your honest opinion of the show, sooner or later it's going to strain whatever friendship you had developed it's also going to make it more difficult for you to be honest in your review.
So I don't schmooze after a show, though many shows have receptions where you get to meet and greet the people involved. Not only am I not the "sociable type" (i.e., I get all tongue tied and make an idiot of myself anyway), but I don't want to chat with someone if I'm going to say bad things about his/her performance in my review. I don't want to talk with the director of a show I hated and know I'm going to say negative things about when I write the review.
(For one thing, I have the feeling that the actor smiling at me and being very friendly is mentally sticking a knife in my back for something I said about him/her three shows ago.)
It's a shame when a negative review keeps people from coming to see a production, which puts a theatre company in financial difficulties, but it's not the critic's job to fill the seats. Marcus Crowder was very fair in his review (I watched a brief video that was posted on the web and was bored to tears; I might not have been so kind!). If the show is boring, that's not the critic's fault, nor should a critic compromise professional integrity by saying it was great, when it obviously is not, just to encourage people in the area to buy tickets for the production.
When members of a theatre company attack a critic for a bad review, they are simply showing their own unprofessionality. Yeah, there are sometimes going to be bad calls made by a reviewer. We're all human. We all see things different ways (Crowder gave 5 stars to a show I gave 1 star to years ago!) but the theatre savy review reader takes all reviews with a grain of salt and decides how badly s/he wants to check out the production for him/herself.
Years ago, before I became a critic, I remember a big brouhaha where one of the actors in a play which had received a bad review wrote a lengthy letter to the editor about how unfair the critic had been, saying essentially that they were all volunteers and that they had day jobs and had to rehearse long hours at night and were tired when Friday came around and couldn't be expected to give a great performance on opening night.
My question is: are opening night tickets cheaper than Sunday matinee tickets? If so, then that excuse may possibly be valid, as long as the patrons are told that the tickets are cheaper because the cast is tired and won't be at their best. If the tickets are not cheaper, then the theatre company owes it to the opening night audience to give them the same quality performance that they will give subsequent audiences. Audiences don't care about your personal life they want the performance they expected to get when they paid good money for the ticket.
And if theatre companies expect a critic to come opening night (which they always do), then by God they'd better give their very best performance, or not complain because they were too tired that night and so shouldn't get a bad review. ("Mary Smith gave a lackluster performance tonight, but we should excuse her because she had a hard day at work. Check with the management to get a partial refund.")
I don't know how much clout I have in this small town. I've heard that "nobody pays much attention to her anyway," and that may be true. But I do have self-imposed standards for reviews and I try to stick with them, even if some people get offended or if it keeps audiences away from a production (which, if nobody pays much attention to me, it shouldn't do anyway, right?)
At least nobody has taken up picketing because
of something I've said!
PHOTO OF THE DAY
A lamb Peggy is bottlefeeding