Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

20May/101

Everyone’s a Critic!, Part 3

"Why do I even bother? Who reads theatre reviews, anyway? Should you? If my review says a show is bad but you think it sounds like fun, should you go see it anyway? Okay, but what if your cousin is in it? And now that local companies are announcing their 2010-2011 seasons, which upcoming shows look most promising?"--from Part 1

It's my considered opinion that most Americans have never seen a great play production. They probably saw a play in junior high or high school, but not a professional production. Now, there are plenty of highly trained directors and other theatre practitioners working in secondary schools, but they're usually not given much of a budget, so the results are undistinguished. It's hard to buy a fifteen-year-old in the role of King Lear or even Claudius, and few teenage actors can play Shakespeare worth a damn anyway. Looking around community theatre performances in Washington and Oklahoma, I saw a lot of gray hair; most young people can't afford the cost of a traveling Broadway production. And why should they, really? They've grown up attending movies for a tenth of the price, and it's hard to imagine a drowsy production of Our Town seducing their attention from pr0n and World of Warcraft.

Yet theatre matters, for the same reason a killer rock concert matters: It will never be repeated exactly the same way, and you are there. It's the biggest reason I'm a proponent of Meisner-style acting. In a Meisner show, performances vary from night to night. They're alive. They're exciting. You can watch those shows again and again and have a different experience every time. It's also why I prefer more intimate theatre venues of two hundred seats or less. A show like Wicked or Les Miz is so precisely orchestrated--for necessary musical, technical, and safety reasons--that it's like watching Audio-Animatronic figures at Disneyland. They never budge from their appointed intonations.

[P.S.: And sometimes I'm just wrong. My friend Michelle writes:

"I definitely beg to differ on the big shows not being unpredictable. They are carefully orchestrated, sure, but I GUARANTEE that after almost 15 years of working on them, I can safely say they are ALWAYS unpredictable and you never know what you will see each night. It's still live theatre and the actors and crew bring something different to it every time. Plus there's the time that the turntable just doesn't work, and that's always fun to see! I have seen many shows over 500 times and it's a different show every night."

Cheerfully retracted, Michelle. I may just be jealous of people who can afford to see those big traveling shows! They only play once, so I don't have a convincing reason to review them. But hey, Washington Center, if you want to throw me pairs of comps out of the goodness of your collective heart...]

Live theatre, even the big-budget shows, is hard pressed to compete with the spectacle of a summer popcorn movie, and I'm not convinced it should even try. Theatre specializes in the immediacy of human interaction. There's just something about being a fly on the wall when characters get urgently human with each other. Of course, it's hard to deny a stage full of high-kicking chorus girls can still take our breath away; but for the most part, what brings me and so many others back to live performance after all these millennia is the idea that we might witness (or, if I'm onstage, hopefully do) something completely unpredictable and riveting. When it happens, it's overwhelmingly electric, as much so as any other form of entertainment--and that includes sports and music.

So yes, you should care about theatre. We're lucky to have so much of it here. But it's also important for you to take time to find productions you're likely to enjoy before you attend. Consider this: At some point you had your first bowl of pho, plate of rogan josh, or bite of hamachi sushi. What if it'd been terrible? I mean, what if you hadn't done your research and went to a horrible restaurant, maybe even an expensive one, and the food was disgusting? You'd probably never eat those dishes again. I worry about people who grew up having to suffer through godawful theatre--wooden acting, apathetic directing, outdated scripts they couldn't possibly relate to or even understand. I get why they're loath to go back. After all, the movies are awesome, and cable TV is cheap!

That, Gentle Reader, is where I come in.

As I say, I'm not the sole arbiter of taste. I've probably given a positive review to a show you'd think was so-so at best, and someday I'm likely to knock a show you found enjoyable. Such is life. Art's subjective. But I'm informed and educated enough to know mistakes when I see them, and I can usually see the greatness in a show that possesses it. I might like good Shakespeare more than you, musicals less, but I can point you in a direction you're more likely to enjoy than many others. I'm on your side. My job, above all else, is that of consumer advocate.

No matter what I say, of course, you're mostly likely to see a show your friend or family member is in. That's both good and bad. It's good because you have a vested interest in the success of the show. (I saw the Roland Emmerich remake of Godzilla at a premiere screening with hundreds of people who worked on it; they cheered their ever-lovin' brains out, and I got caught up in the excitement. It was only an hour later that it dawned on me how abysmal that movie truly was.) We all enjoy watching friends perform, especially if they're any kind of talented--and there's the problem. They may not be. As you attend more and more theatre, you'll come to notice actors and even directors whose work you really admire. Once that happens, you'll have a personal interest in their shows, too. It's fun to be a fan. I look forward to seeing any number of actors in Olympia (Dennis Rolly, Pug Bujeaud, Jason Haws, Robert McConkey, and Megan Kappler, to name just a few), and I'm gradually coming to know the directors. I also have favorites in Oklahoma.

If I knock a show, and you still want to see it, by all means go. Theatre companies have to pay their bills, and your attendance at a mediocre show means its parent company can afford to produce the next good one.

I often wonder who reads my reviews, and the comments pages online don't provide a clear picture. If I have to guess, it's mostly the people involved with the shows themselves, looking for public flattery. There's nothing wrong with that. I do it myself. As Noel Coward said, "I love criticism, just so long as it's unqualified praise." But I've noticed even my most positive reviews fail to satisfy some actors and directors, in that the praises should have been longer.

The bulk of our South Puget theatre season will wind down by late June; the next ramps up in the fall. I think TAO will have fun with Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in September. Prodigal Sun's doing How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel's morally complex take on an incestuous relationship, in November. Both Capital Playhouse and Paradise Theatre in Gig Harbor will stage The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in early 2011. And next spring will be packed with great material, including Love, Sex, and the IRS (OLT), Boom, Unexpected Tenderness (both Harlequin), Kiss of the Spider Woman (Capital Playhouse), and Amy's View (Prodigal Sun).

Hope to see you there!

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  1. I’m not really a theatre-buff, but I remember seeing a production of “The Yellow Boat” when I was a kid. It was good stuff, fun, but really freakin’ sad at times. I must’ve been around 6-7 years old when I saw it. The fact that I still remember it shows how much it meant to me.
    Oh yeah, interesting post by the way, definitely get a sense for your passion and can sympathize.
    Also, thanks for bashing the Roland Emmerich “Godzilla.” Godzilla was, and is my biggest hero, and that movie, that I happened to see on my birthday, was the only one I can recall coming out of and having my own mother apologize to me for how bad it was.


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