Chelsea Sutton, whose play 99 Impossible Things closes this weekend made a bit of a stir with her heartfelt and awesome response to negative criticism:
I’m profoundly grateful. I’m thankful I have a place to try new things. I’m thankful to fail and to discover and to succeed past my expectations. I’m thankful for reviewers who came out and wasted one or two hours of their evening listening to my work. I’m grateful for fear – and grateful when I can overcome it. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be hurt, to be mangled, to be exasperated by negative opinions of my work. And I’m most grateful for the opportunity to stress about it for two months straight and then finally realize that all of it really doesn’t matter.(The above snippet was featured as the Bitter Lemons "Potable Quotable" for the week)
The problem with theatre is that it requires an audience. A painter can paint 1,000 shitty canvases before showing the one good painting; a writer can waste reams of paper and GBs of memory before revealing the one profound verse. A theatre artist must have an audience in order for the art to be actualized. The people in the dark are part of the equation of an art-in-progress.
Being privy to the seeming impossibility of producing a stage play, I hate writing bad reviews.
In July of last year, I wrote my first pan for Stage Happenings. After, I posted the following on Facebook:
I've heard some of these things before, but subjective experience is a more effective instructor:It is important for a theatre artist to take their lumps and keep moving. Likewise, it is important for critics to do more than riff on how bad a production may be. If our under-99 seat theatres are populated primarily by friends and family members, in all likelihood a critic's most earnest readers are the very people he or she is reviewing. We have an opportunity to help improve the quality of the shows we see; to offer constructive notes, placing our aesthetic judgement on display in a forum as public as the theatre. I believe that is the most worthwhile and helpful thing we can do, for artist and audience alike.
1. Reviewers want a play to be good. It SUCKS having to write a negative review! I know how much hard work goes into putting on a play. It's a labor of love, compensated by applause and the dear memories one makes whilst working with fellow artists in the pursuit of a common goal. The theatre artist taps a vein and pours himself into the process. A negative review thus takes on the color of a personal attack, regardless the intent of the reviewer.
2. If the actor doesn't connect emotionally with the role, the audience will not connect emotionally with the play. Period. (Some day I'll have to write up my theories regarding transference and catharsis. There is a real, psychological process that happens in theatre.)
3. You cannot force a play to do more than the script allows. Listen to the text. Roll the dialogue around in your mouth. Endeavor to understand the words better than the audience ever possibly could. It pays off when producing Shakespeare; it's an equally potent approach for modern works. Mamet says that the job of the players is to simply say the words. That sounds like an oversimplification, but the truth often does.
It can be painful to one's ego, but it is necessary to strip away the preconceived notions you bring to a text. Let the text be the text. Keep your personal prejudices and pet peeves out of it.
4. Reviewers are obligated to speak truth. Just as the production team is obligated to treat the text in front of them, divorced of all superfluous additives, so to is it necessary for a reviewer to review the PLAY THEY ARE ACTUALLY WATCHING, not the prejudices and pet peeves they bring into the house with them.
5. Reviewers are obligated to be specific. If I wrote a bunch of snarky words that added up to "I didn't like it," there would be negative worth to what I do; a net loss for all involved. Not only would I contribute nothing, I would trample on the aforementioned labor of love, needlessly insulting their efforts. That's a dick thing to do.
It was damned difficult, writing this review. It's one thing to be an opinionated ass. It's quite another to parse your opinions in a helpful way.
At the very least we need to remember one thing: Snark is not a public service.