Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Done, For Now ...

I've learned to never say never, but as of this moment I believe I've written my last theater review. For now, at least. My schedule prevents me from getting out to see much of anything, and I'm beginning to question the need for one more Los Angeles theater blogger passing his easy judgement on the hard work of undeniably talented artists.

Before I hang it up, I thought I might share something. Some time back, Ken Davenport published his "5 Ways to Revive Reviewing." I started this draft back then, but only recently finished it:

Five Things I've Tried To Keep In Mind When Writing Reviews

1. Know my audience. After a review is published, I drop the company's publicist an email. Quite rapidly, that review will be visited a dozen or more times. It doesn't take a genius to see what's happening here. People intimately connected to the show are reading the review. My first, most immediate audience are the very people I'm writing about.

This realization led to a couple of policies around here. First, we try to keep the snark in our reviews to a minimum. Perhaps that keeps us from being a more popular review site, but I give zero fucks about that sort of popularity. Second, we try to treat the reviews like we're giving notes. Arrogant? Perhaps. To be honest, the vast majority of who I review may not care about my notes so much as my pull quotes, but for those who are interested, we strive for a certain level of honesty and constructive criticism.

2. My review may be the only experience some people have of the show.  What lasts? After the set is struck and the cast and crew moves on, what record exists of their production? There's the script, of course, but the text is potential energy, not necessarily a record of what happened. And good luck finding a copy of the vast majority of original plays that debut each year. There are the company's own archives, but these are rarely made available to the public at large, and more than likely sit moldering in a hard drive or banker's box.

And then there's the review.

Reviews are unique in that they (often) describe the experience of seeing the show. The script is mere literature. The company's available archive is mere publicity. A well-written review suggests the actual flavor of the show. Part of my job, whether I've liked it or not, has been to serve as an unofficial archivist. A highly subjective, perhaps unreliable witness to a tiny sliver of theatrical history, but a witness nonetheless.

3. Some people want to know if a live performance is worth their time and money. Is it an experience they will love or loathe? How splashy is the splash zone, how challenging is the audience participation, can I bring my mother to the play about the child molester, etc. The trick is to give people an idea of what lies in store for them without spoiling anything. It's tricky.

4. Theater is a unique art form. It's not film and it's not television. It is the rare art form that (with the possible exception of some heavily automated Broadway shows) is never in its final, fixed form. No two performances are exactly the same, discoveries are constantly being made, moments are continually explored. Each performance can be made or undone by the audience itself -- a matinee crowd may love it, and the evening performance could bomb. 

Nitpicking a hiccup is stupid. It's a waste of the reviewer's words. That light cue may never be late again. That one dark spot upstage may be a blown lamp that was immediately replaced after the audience went home. I believe that you should posses and employ a working understanding of how theater is made in order to write a worthwhile review, and trust that the folks running the show saw (and will correct) the same hiccup you saw.

5. There are no 'bad' plays. I can't remember exactly where I heard it -- it may have been Craig Mazin who said it, on the entertaining and education podcast he co-hosts with John August, Scriptnotes -- but I've heard it said, "there are no 'bad' movies. There are movies that work, and movies that don't work."

The same is true of theater. No one sets out to produce a bad play. I try to focus on where a play works, and where it doesn't work. It helps me focus my writing, and helps me achieve the other aims listed above.

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Mad Theatrics isn't going to pack it in completely, but what we do next is anyone's guess, self included. Will I publish another Permanent Ink list? I don't know. (Anyone want to take up the chore? I'll help tabulate the results. Email me.)

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