By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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
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."