Sunday, April 11, 2010

A review of a review...

A "reviewer" of local plays (read: Guy With a Blog) took it upon himself to review the show I've directed (To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday), and man-oh-man was he offended that we--the community theatre company, the actors, the stagehands, the playwright--forced him to sit through it. Am I upset about a negative review? Not really. I went to art school. I've had numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints critiqued, slammed and praised by qualified professionals whose work I admired as well as by curmudgeons whose best work was long behind them and by fellow students who had very little discernible talent. You have to develop a thick skin, and an ability to accept a critique for what it is -- an opinion -- and if possible, see your work through the eyes of others and use that information (if it's actually useful) to make better work in the future. So a negative review doesn't bother me all that much. But what does bother me is an intentionally snarky review with an agenda, and one that does not take into account the context in which the show is done.

The aforementioned reviewer (GWaB) claims that his intent is to fight "the perception that local/suburban theatre is not as good as 'Chicago' theatre." He intends to achieve this objective in part by warning people about those shows that he feels are not worth the price of admission, because "there's no one out there telling people what shows are worth the personal investment of money and time, and which ones are not." Thank god for blogspot, because otherwise, I would assume he'd have to stand out on the Eisenhower Expressway with a sandwich board, to prevent all those city commuters from coming out to the 'burbs in the event there might be a show that GWaB feel is not up to his mathematical standards.

GWaB has been heavily involved in local theatre for many years, including acting and directing at the very theatre at which my play is running. Might there be a conflict of interest? Not so, says GWaB, for he has disassociated himself from any theatre organization of which he may have been a member and has retired from stage work and directing. He apparently did so last week, when the last show he was in (at another local theatre) closed.

Since I have additional inside information, I should also disclose that GWaB's mission appears to have been inspired specifically because the theatre that's putting on my show doesn't make it a practice to post links to negative reviews of its shows.

Last year, I acted in a show that received an overly harsh review from one of the only sources for reviews of non-City theatre (another GWaB, but I won't call him that, because frankly, it will get confusing). The theatre's publicity staff chose not to post a link. GWaB was incensed. How dare we post only the positive review and not post the negative one? (Why the fuck would we?) Fast forward about 10 months or so, and that same reviewer came out to see our show. He doesn't like the script. He doesn't like our show. Okay. Fair enough. We're not going to link to it. GWaB sent an email to our publicity staff as well as to the webmaster email wondering why we don't. Since I used to be the webmaster for that theatre's web site, and since I've been too lazy to remove the auto-forwarding that sends me those emails, I saw the message. I responded to explain to GWaB that we are not attempting to suppress negative reviews, but we won't promote them. Like with movie posters and commercials. If Peter Travers from Rolling Stone likes your film, you're going to put his name and quote in your ad. If he doesn't, you won't. I would expect that he'd understand this. And his response to my email seemed to me that he conceded it was a valid point. Shortly after, he announced his blog and his intention of making his review of my show his first one.

I am in no way attempting to draw any sort of conclusion about any sort of personal beef between GWaB and myself, since I was first made aware of his weird obsession with getting the "truth" out there around a show I was in, and it comes full circle with his review of my show. At least I don't think it's personal. He was actually personally kind to me regarding that other show.

Enough exposition.

Does GWaB raise any valid points in his criticism? Some. When you get past all the snark and attitude, there is a kernel or two in there that might be useful information, should I choose to direct another show.

And he points out a rather major blunder on my part that had nothing to do with my directing abilities. Something that upon reading it, I was pretty embarrassed about. In my director's note in the program, I opened with the following:

Thank you for coming to see To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. Like many, I was unfamiliar with this play when it was suggested as one of the possibilities for this season. I had seen the 1996 film version featuring Peter Gallagher and Michelle Pfieffer, and hadn't loved it. But when I read the script, I was interested to see that what didn't work so well in film could work differently on stage. I began to understand why this script was awarded the Oppenheimer Award for best play in 1983. And like you, I took a chance on a little known play.

The publisher of the play touts it as the "Oppenheimer Award Winner." It's been all over the press releases written about this show. Like GWaB, I hadn't heard of the Oppenheimer Award. Unlike GWaB, I didn't look it up. It seems that the Oppenheimer award isn't really all that prestigious. It is an actual award. But not in the same league as, say, the Pulitzer Prize. Okay, GWaB. You got me. I should have done my homework, or at the very least, just removed any reference to an award I knew nothing about. IN MY DIRECTOR'S NOTE.

GWaB spends three paragraphs on this. About 1/3 of his review was written before the play began, as he gleefully mocks the Oppenheimer Award and any reference to it. And then he goes on to rip the script and our production apart.

As a director, I know that ultimately, whatever ends up on stage is my responsibility. Do I acknowledge that I have put up on stage an imperfect work? Absolutely. I knew from the beginning that the production would have flaws. How do I dare put something before an audience with which I am not 100% satisfied? Almost no work of art - painting, film, music, theatre - is perfect. In all my endeavors, I set my bar very high. In art school, I never judged myself against my peers, but rather against the work of the great masters. Did I ever get there? No. I didn't. But I continue to try. I do the same with my theatrical endeavors. However, if I refused to act in a show because I can't do it like Sir Lawrence Olivier, or direct a show like Harold Prince, I would never grow as an artist. And that's why I continue to do it.

Both GWaB and the other reviewer who didn't like the show point out some very valid flaws in the script. Note that there are some people who absolutely LOVE this script. I am not one of them. I think there are some very nice moments in the script, but my tastes run to the macabre and the twisted. This show isn't that. And the general critique that the answers the script provides regarding love, loss and life are too pat is valid. This is a "nice" little show. It isn't one of our great American plays and I would be surprised if it is still being done 100 years from now.

GWaB makes a valid criticism when he says that HE FEELS that our production does not rise above or overcome the weaknesses inherent in the script. That's useful criticism: someone who saw our show wasn't dazzled enough by our collective skills to not notice that the script is imperfect. But when valid criticism is wrapped with the sort of glee evident in GWaB's "review," it loses it's ability to construct, and instead tears down.

The point that GWaB misses entirely is that we are engaged in "community theatre." I do theatre because I love it and enjoy it. I have SOME training, both in acting and directing, but I am not a professional. And this show is not presented as a professional production. The actors in the show all have varying backgrounds, skill and experience levels. We all behave as professionally as we can, and attempt to deliver the most professional product of which we are capable. Each actor in the show is giving what he/she has, to his/her level of ability. And I'm directing to my ability. Throughout I have seen enormous growth from those with less experience. There are people on that stage that are stretching beyond their comfort zones. GWaB would say, I think, that the audience doesn't care about that stuff. But I care. I'm very pleased with the work these actors have done.

Now that the show has been running for three weeks, and I've been able to sit back and watch it as an audience member several times, there are probably some things I would change. I'm not surprised by this. It happens in all my artistic endeavors. I critique my own work, too. I always have. But I'm not embarrassed about the work we did, and the show we have, warts and all.

GWaB ends his "review" by putting a price sticker on what he feels the show is worth. His whole hook is "is the show worth the price of admission?". In his intro to his blog, GWaB states that he's putting "his" price on the ticket because... you know... for your $18 you can get a lot of DVD rentals from the Redbox (ignoring fully the economies of producing a show, of which GWaB is fully aware). But GWaB gives the show an arbitrary price tag, with no indication of how he got to that price. I think it's fair to suggest that a show is, or isn't the price of admission, but to put an arbitrary price tag on it just ads to the overall snarkiness evident throughout.

I wish GWaB had liked our show. I really do. I want everyone to like it. But that's how it goes. Many people have liked the show. Some have not. On the other hand, GWaB took it upon himself to target our production as his virgin review. He suggests that people should ask him to come review their shows. He'll do it on his dime. Bully for him. We did not extend a personal invitation to him. Not because I was afraid of what he might say, but because had my suspicions of how he'd say it.


Maggie said...

Thus continues my complete and utter disdain for bloggers who think they're critics. It sets my teeth on edge. Having been in a show or two, or having seen a show or two, does not a critic make.

Anyone can have a blog. It doesn't make you a journalist any more than owning a box of crayons makes you an artist.

basest said...

It's interesting that GWaB shares your opinion. Truth be told, I don't have a problem with it one way or another. A blog is certainly a valid way of getting one's opinion out there, and people can choose to take it for what it's worth. A poorly written blog will not be followed for long. And any review, whether or not written by a legitimate journalist is merely opinion.

So, I don't have a problem with blog reviews, per se. I don't have a problem with theatres using reviews from blog reviewers for promotional purposes. There is a risk, if the review is dishonestly written, that the reviewer's opinion in time will not be trusted.

Whether a trained "journalist" (and there are some trained "journalists who have had their own agendas over the years...) or a blogger, I have agreed and disagreed over art for many years.

There are some critics of music, theatre and film that I generally agree with, but I don't blindly take their word as gospel.

But the truth is, I object not to the negative review (he's entitled to his opinion), but to the spirit in which it was written.

I've also found that I don't much care what anyone says about me, or my work, but I've become very protective of my cast, so when someone bashes my show and critiques their work, with no regard for the effort an growth that I know they've gone through. Remember this is a community theatre production.

Somebody in the comments section to GWaB's review agreed with the reviewer and suggested that WE owed him/her some money back. Last time I checked, nobody involved with the production was being paid.

Maggie again said...

I guess where I come from, such agendas are much more prevalent within the blogger community than in the credentialed media. Bloggers have zero credibility where I am concerned. While I understand that both bloggers and legitimate critics offer the same product - an opinion - only that of the legitimate critic holds any weight. While I realize we all see the world through our personal lenses, ethical members of the actual media work very hard to leave their personal biases at the door. Bloggers are not held to this standard; in fact, many of them are simply unaware that it's expected.

A legitimate critic puts a great deal of effort into writing his or her opinion fairly and without malice or personal agenda, whether his or her opinion is favorable or not.

I guess what I take offense to is this: I am the harshest critic I know. I love the theater, but I hate bad shows, and I have never been one to shy away from telling folks how I feel about their performance or direction or questionable Cockney accents. I am both an actor and a trained journalist, and I thoroughly enjoyed the production of "To Gillian ... " While it was not by any means perfect - and I can't remember the last time I thought a show was - it was thought-provoking, and each actor had shining moments within the story. I'm mystified at how one could come away not feeling like he received at least $16 worth of entertainment out of it.

Which is why I must chalk him up to being ignorant, unprofessional or just someone who doesn't have a clue. Perhaps a combo of all three?

basest said...

understood, and appreciated. Yes... anyone with an internet connection has the ability to be a voice crying out in the wilderness. And I'll agree that more often than not that can lead to irresponsible, unethical, and often BAD journalism, criticism, etc.

As to your thoughts on Gillian: Thank you. And sometime, over drinks or something, I'd love to hear your honest and constructive critique, so I could have your perspective and maybe learn something from it.

Our GWaB? I don't think he's clueless or ignorant. He has an agenda. He most certainly does. And it has a lot to do with his general misanthropy, and a desperate need for attention, IMO.

maggie said...

I will totally take you up on drinks or something ... remember, I know where you live!

wbarryjr said...

It's not a personal vendetta, or a cry for attention, but there is an agenda. A mission, so to speak. To inform theatre-goers of what shows I feel are worth the money, and which ones are not. I didn't think I had to explain the math to you, but the $2.60 is 20% of what I paid. It's akin to getting 1 star in a 5-star review. Not arbitrary at all.

I've been thinking about reviewing for a long time. A couple of years at least. What held me back was the petty vindictive nature of some people within community theatre, and I wasn't personally ready for the backlash. I still wanted to do shows, and felt that if I told it as I saw it, I would be blackballed. So I waited until the last show ended, quit my membership to WDI, and retired from acting and directing because I felt it was time to do what I've wanted to do for a long time. Your show was the first one I could do, and I wanted to get started on this new venture. Next week I'll be reviewing productions at Attic Theatre and Albright.

Hey, maybe you and I and Maggie can have drinks sometime and talk about it.

basest said...

I have chosen not to engage with you, or anyone commenting on your blog because your style of review does nothing to but stir up the "petty vindictive nature of some people within community theatre," as is evident--on both sides of the argument--in the comments section. I feel you have the right to say whatever you want to say, however you want to say it. But whether or not I agree with what you're saying, I don't like how you've chosen to do it. I like even less the "anonymous" comments by people who have taken your review as a cue to express whatever vitriol they feel about, well, anything.

I wrote this blog to let a wide group of people know what I thought about your review, and what I think about my show. You chose the style and tone of your review. It is written without regard for the volunteer nature of community theatre and without honoring work people have done. You appear to take offense at what doesn't in your mind match your high expectations for theatre.

You're too smart a person to not be aware that you were writing a review designed to get a rise out of people. You got what you wanted. But in doing so, you chose to be a destructive force, instead of a creative one. I think I've already pretty clearly expressed that I have no problem with constructive criticism. Whether or not there is any personal beef, your closeness to the community (just because you have officially quit as of last week does not give you a pass), your tone and your actions leading up to the creation of your blog certainly create the appearance of such a beef.

Me? I don't feel that your review was a personal attack on me. I say as much in my original post. And I've been careful to not personally attack you, while questioning your motivations and your methods.

But I do think that you aren't being honest with yourself and with your readers. I don't think you can convince me otherwise.

And drinks? I already know what you think of my show. Why would we need to discuss it over drinks?