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What Critics -- and Theater Artists -- Are Feeling When Critics Come See a Show 

Thursday, Jan 3 2013
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The question was put to the L.A. Weekly's stable of theater critics: What do you most dread and what do you most anticipate when being assigned to review a production? The responses were varied, but somehow the picture didn't seem complete without the inverse question being asked of some artists: What do you most dread and anticipate upon inviting critics to review your work?

The relationship between critics and artists is like that between parents and children, though who's the parent and who's the child remains an open question. There's a layer of anguish and frustration, a power-identity struggle surging from mutual condescension as well as respect, from a deep-seated and sometimes subliminal desire for bonding.

A View From the Critics

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Paul Birchall says, "Oh, if I went in feeling dread, I suspect that I really ought to find a different kind of work. Sometimes I do dread the traffic in Los Angeles, and when I am assigned a play, my first reaction is to tensely check the MTA sites to see if the journey to the show will take me less than an hour and a half (I go to my shows via public transit).

"Otherwise, I am a firm believer in not going to a play with any preconceptions. Indeed, sometimes my favorite part of the experience is that moment before the show, when the lights dim, and everything seems possible for just a moment."

How critics are treated at the theater is an issue. Our critic Tom Provenzano dreads "that the producer insists on talking about the show and then sits me in front of a company member shill who shrieks with laughter at every possible joke." On the other hand, he hopes for "that 5 percent chance that something transformative will happen."

Bill Raden gets queasy when assigned autobiographical one-person shows: "Please bear in mind there have been memorable and transcendent exceptions. ... This subgenre might be tempting for the budget-minded producer [but] its bar is in fact perhaps the highest in all of theater."

What does give Raden hope are the bright spots he's seen in the past, such as Rafael Goldstein's Dane in Hamlet at Zombie Joe's Underground or the Production Company's June staging of haunted-hotel tale Very Still & Hard to See. "For experiences such as these, I would gladly hitchhike through a desert snowstorm at least as far as Redlands and maybe all the way to Banning."

Jenny Lower worries about writing a review that she'll disagree with later: "My opinion on plays changes over time. Sometimes rereading my old review is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope, and I realize I was too soft or too harsh. It's difficult to have perspective on that at the time."

On what she anticipates, Lower adds, "I love new (or newish) plays because there is always the possibility that my reality will be shifted in some small but radical way. All good art should do that, of course, but I think it's a bit easier to meet your audience when you're working with contemporary material."

Rebecca Haithcoat calls for artists' rigor and respect for our time: "I don't fear seeing a bad production or poorly written play nearly as much as I dread an overlong production. As writers, we're told all the time to 'kill our babies.' More and more often I find my aversion to a show has to do with the playwright subjecting the audience to infuriating pontificating or meaningless banter."

Haithcoat adds that she hopes for a show that offers some "surprise, leaving us with a renewed sense of just how vitally important theater still is."

Deborah Klugman, Lovell Estell III and Neal Weaver all dread being assigned a show with nothing to recommend it. For Weaver, it's "because I hate writing pans. ... I know full well how much hope, work and striving goes into even the worst show." Nowadays, he adds, "when almost all reviews are reduced to a single, short paragraph, it imposes on us a pass/fail mentality, with no room for acknowledging that a show can be seriously flawed yet worthy of attention because of a strong cast, a provocative script, important ideas, adventurous spirit or simply that it is very funny or highly entertaining."

For Klugman, the prospect of a terrible production presents a slightly different conundrum: "You have to work to find something good about what you've seen. Sometimes it makes the reader believe the show is better than it is."

However, she looks forward to "dramas that carry political import or involve psychological enigmas."

Pauline Adamek has certain keywords that arouse excited anticipation: "Theresa Rebeck, John Pollono, Neil LaBute, Ann Noble, Jaime Robledo, Michael Matthews, Rogue Machine, the Road, Troubies, the Fountain, Eclectic, Celebration, Zombie Joe's, Astra Dance Co."

Mayank Keshaviah's biggest fear is that a production "will be an 'indulgence' piece, by which I mean a solo show (often) or a play with a larger cast that was undertaken to provide a stage credit to one or more actors who might care about theater but care much more about finding an agent."

A View From the Artists

Curiously, in light of Keshaviah's dread of artists' "indulgence," solo performer John Grady, whose Fear Factor: Canine Edition, about his dog, was one of the most moving entries in the Hollywood Fringe festival, wrote in: "I dread that they may perceive the show as being indulgent and clever. But if I've done my work, then I anticipate they will have had, at some point in the evening, an honest theatrical experience that they feel inspired to write about. ... Oh, I also dread that the douchebag sitting in front of them has neglected to silence their cellphone."

The douchebags have invaded. Says Martha Demson, artistic director of Hollywood's Open Fist Theatre, "I dread that the rock band to which our landlord has leased space adjacent to ours will start practicing, or that the therapeutic improv group to which the landlord has leased the space on the other side of us will start their primal ululations — and that no amount of professional production work will overcome the impression of cheap theater. You think I'm kidding? Both groups have our performance calendars, but still our final, sold-out performance of Foote Notes was accompanied in its most tender moments by the shrieks of at least 50 improv-group members."

Similarly, director-producer Jeremy Aldridge is very concerned about uncontrollable circumstances that might influence critics' impressions: "I worry about traffic, parking, the temperature of the theater, who will be the first face the critic meets, will that person deliver a good handshake, is the chair lumpy, will we have a 'good' or 'bad' audience and then, of course, the performance. ... Much of this I have no control over, so it's a good exercise in faith and always a test of leadership."

Writer-director Jaime Robledo, unwittingly expressing many critics' dread, sees reviews as more about affecting ticket sales than about creating a dialogue about the show. "It isn't just about getting a good review, it's about getting the right kind of good review. ... The good review makes your show an option to a prospective theatergoer. A rave can demand their attention. The critic can almost play kingmaker."

Mark Seldis and Katharine Noone run Ghost Road Theatre Company, which devises works collaboratively with its ensemble. They just want their work to be understood on its own terms. "When critics view our work, it is always our hope that the person reviewing the piece will have some sort of knowledge of our company, or at least the ensemble devising process, and be capable of putting the work into its proper context."

Sometimes artists worry about certain critics. Says solo performer Kristina Wong, of one critic who has reviewed a couple of her shows, "What I dislike about her bad reviews is they are so scathing and unforgiving, like she wants to not only scold the artist but kill their careers forever as well." She adds another dread: If critics, or even audiences, don't like her show, they'll avoid wanting to meet or speak with her "or feel that our friendship has ulterior motives."

This ache for a relationship between critic and artist underlies the comments sent via Facebook by solo performer Mike Daisey, currently working on a performance about criticism (who wrote after he'd submitted the following that he wanted to clarify that he really does like critics, but they, like artists, must rise to the occasion):

"In no other artistic endeavor is the act of the creation of work so intimately tied to its criticism — only in the performing arts is the critic present, affecting the performance by their very presence. What I most anticipate is rarely achieved — a true synthesis and communion with the critic, whose words illuminate beyond a recitation of what happened, or a Yelplike assessment of whether the show is 'worth your money.' What I dread is the opposite: seeing the same reviews over and over again, even when they are positive — especially when they are positive — written with no real contact with the work, without risk or joyful struggle, by overworked, underpaid scribes who get no support in our age for real criticism to take root. Every critic should know that they themselves will be weighed, and the better the artist the more exacting our measure is. ... Truly great theatrical criticism is a unicorn in the American theater — but I'm a dreamer, and I want to believe, and insist on believing, that it is possible."

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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