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

13Jan/152

Happier Trails

I'd already resolved to find ways to lessen my life's anxieties when, about two weeks ago, the crown on one of my molars exploded in my mouth. I'm sure the popcorn I was eating at the time was a factor, but the crown was less than two years old and I hadn't bitten down on a kernel. When my dentist took a look, he said, "Holy smokes, dude, what're you stressing about? Have you been gnashing your teeth? You're grinding away the enamel. It looks like you're carving Mount Rushmore in there." He asked me politely if I'd consider a night guard. I was embarrassed; I didn't know how to tell him I did most of that damage during the day.

Like most people, I have occasional concerns over money, but the biggest source of my stress has been an element of my night job. I'm proud to say I've been a critic, columnist, and occasional feature writer for The Weekly Volcano for over five years now. That's part of the reason I get to call myself a professional writer, a fact that brings considerable happiness. I like and respect my editor/publisher/boss, I've been known to enjoy the occasional perquisite, and I've had the amazing joy of helping draw attention to dozens of worthwhile productions. I've written something like 180 theatre reviews. I'm no Clive Barnes, but yeah, it adds up.

I spent my formative years in a college town where the only newspaper critic, a guy I'll call Dick, wrote his reviews under a pen name. He did so largely because he was also the president and de facto monarch of that town's only community theater. Conflict of interest? What conflict of interest? This smarmy bastard went so far as to review shows he himself directed, referring to himself once as a "visionary." Lord almighty. I have to tell you, that still burns. Years later, I sought my job at the Volcano after another local critic reviewed a show he hadn't even seen. So believe me when I say I've thought a fair amount about why criticism is necessary, how it can go wrong, and why it's important to remain as objective as humanly possible. And that, because heaven knows it wasn't for riches or fame, was the main reason I clung to my ideals in the face of considerable opposition.

Y'know what, though? Enough is enough. The truth is I feel horrible each time I have to pan a show, more so if my friends are in its cast, crew, or production staff. It feels as if I'm delivering a death notice. I can't sleep. I get hate mail, not to mention an awkward reception upon showing up at parties. My more cutting remarks get quoted back to me; never once, not that I can recall, has anyone ever quoted a compliment. And the funniest thing is I feel almost as much stress when I turn in positive reviews. I pore over Facebook, obsessively waiting for someone to notice I've been a sweet guy this time around. I can't take the roller coaster anymore. So with that, I've decided to take what I call an open-ended sabbatical from theatre criticism. My editor was kind enough to grant this request and offered to increase my word count in other areas. Let me say again: this was my idea, not his or anyone else's, and it's been a long time coming. I've been pondering my exit strategy for years. My editor has been nothing but supportive, even as certain theaters clamored for retribution.

Usually when a critic steps down or away, he or she uses an essay like this to say what an honor and pleasure it's been serving the theater community. As I said before, sometimes it has been an enormous pleasure. There are folks I could name who've been lovely even after I panned some of their efforts. They know demanding critics oblige us to become better artists. That's been true in my case. I still remember the first review I got from ol' Dickie. I appeared in a Broadway revue (almost certainly produced sans royalty payments, but that wasn't my concern at the time) in which my solo was "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. Dick wrote--keep in mind, I was 24 at the time--that I was "a dead ringer for Topol but could show more enthusiasm in the role." Topol was Chaim Topol, the burly actor who played Tevye in the movie, when he was 36 but looked a decade older. And the worst thing about that review, which I can still quote from memory? The son of a bitch was right. I was half-assing it on stage. I did have Topol's physicality but none of his dance moves. I remember the reviewer who told me to my face that I'd added nothing to a show I directed that wasn't in the script. I could lay out numerous logistical reasons why that had to be the case, but it was the truth nonetheless. I was guilty as charged. I was guilty when a grad committee member bashed my understanding of blocking actors in the round. I was guilty the many, many times professors told me I was growing too full of myself. And it hurt. Oh, man, did it hurt. But in the long run, I grew as a person and a performer. I'm still growing with the help of objective audience members and readers. That isn't something that stops just because we get a few tricks and years under our belts. We can't say, "Listen, I've done a hundred shows" and expect that to absolve us from working on our craft.

Yes, it has been a pleasure being a theater critic. Sometimes. On the other hand, it's also been a pain in the keister. If it was, in fact, an honor, there were times when that honor felt more like a dreaded obligation. The truth of the matter is certain theater practitioners are laboring under the delusion that critics work for them, not for the critics' editors and readers. Of course we do serve the theater community as a whole--but constant promotion is not the only way to support the arts. That's what publicists do, and it's easy to tell they work for theater companies because theater companies sign their paychecks. Now, it is true theaters give critics pairs of comp tickets, and that ain't nothin', especially when shows are expected to sell out--not that most opening weekends are full. But what troupes are buying when they hand out those tickets is an impartial authority who'll tell them the truth. Audiences won't do that. Audiences lie, as they say in Oklahoma, like a big dog. Audience members walk right up to theater managers, time after time after time, and say, "That's the best show I've ever seen." They give exuberant standing ovations to shows that are mediocre at best. They lie because social etiquette demands it, especially in our highbrow, artsy circle. Furthermore, audience members aren't usually theater authorities (a few major exceptions notwithstanding). It's why banal musical revues sell better than smart, intense dramas. It's why 40-year-old Neil Simon scripts, charming as they are, sell better than newer, edgier texts with more relevant jokes. I wasn't brought in to act like your average audience member. Theaters already have audience members for that.

As actors and directors, usually under assumed names I could see right through, blogged or commented in angry rebuttals of my critiques, I did my best to maintain the rhetorical high ground. I labored to consider their complaints, no matter how inelegantly or insultingly phrased, and mine them for valid concerns. There were times when my colleagues were right. I was too glib when I wrote that puff piece about local burlesque. I was new on the job and made obvious rookie mistakes. I committed typos and even significant factual errors. I held theaters and theatre practitioners to the highest standards I'd seen them achieve in the past, a policy that make sense but didn't always square with the vicissitudes of theatrical budgets and schedules. I wrote negative comments as jokes sometimes, a practice that casual readers of the Volcano loved but which caused even mild rebukes to land like sledgehammers. For all that, mea culpa. I apologize. This is not an easy job, especially if one is doing one's best to do it honestly and fairly, and I'm not without blame in its execution. Besides, if you're one of those people whose feelings I hurt, I know it doesn't matter a whit to you why it happened. You just think I'm a jerk. I could invite you to chat up my wife sometime about how it all went down, but that'd put too much unnecessary stress and responsibility on her.

Again, I did my best to take the high road. Sometimes, that road is downright exhausting. I didn't take this job because I'm made of impermeable stone. I know it's popular to paint critics as self-important jerkwads who sit around compiling lists of all-purpose insults, but I've met a fair number of critics now and I have never met that critic. What I have met are theatre geeks who adore the art form and know how effing great it can be. It's not only I who spends months looking forward to writing his or her annual "best of local theatre" awards column. I doubt I'm the only critic who spends twice as long writing a negative review as he or she takes writing a positive one. And boy, do I understand the temptation to soft-pedal or obfuscate or downright perjure oneself to avoid writing unflattering reviews. I enjoy being liked as much as the next guy. Trouble is, I also have this insane OCD aspect to my personality, and it demands that if I intend to fulfill this job, I have no other choice but to do it as I know it's supposed be done. And if you think it's the job of a reviewer to avoid talking smack about artists' work, then check out Richard Roeper's review of Night at the Museum 3. With the passing of Roger Ebert, Roeper's probably the best-known critic in America. Folks like them were my role models, not hometown Dick that I was telling you about earlier.

Anyway, this may be my last chance to write about this stuff, possibly ever, so allow me to debunk a few common responses. Here's a list of reasons people claim I reviewed their work negatively.

1. He's just mean.

I do have a mean side. I admit that, and not without shame. I often laugh at mean jokes and have been known to express such myself. I'm an easy laugh, an easy cry, and equal parts romantic and cynic. Of course, I could say much the same about you, more than likely. I suspect a truly mean person would derive some pleasure from hurting other artists' feelings. I do not.

2. He plays favorites.

Ask director Pug Bujeaud about that sometime. Ask Chris Serface or John Munn. Ask them how being my friends shielded them from negative reviews. Or, for that matter, peruse this year's Carvy awards list, in which I gave justly-deserved recognition to folks who were cursing my name at the time.

3. He should be more supportive of theatre.

That's like saying the only way of being supportive of theatre is to suck up to everyone who makes it. Come on. You know better than that. If I agreed with that idea, I'd be doing a disservice to all the teachers and directors who were hard on me over the years, then reveled as I got better and prospered in the arts. They were being supportive. They supported me with honesty, at times brutal honesty. I needed that. You know artists need that. Without it, we're too lazy and self-defensive and we allow ourselves (and our art form) to stagnate.

4. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

See, there you go insulting my teachers again. I guess you're entitled to your opinion, but I can promise you I did not find my degrees or résumé at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.

5. He wanted to hate that show.

As I've said a million times, I never want to hate any show. I value my time too much for that. It's more fun seeing great shows and extolling them in print.

6. He expected to hate that show.

Maybe. Do you expect to love every film playing at your local cineplex? Is it possible you're more drawn to comedies, for example, than to torture-porn horror films? Do you suspect the next Transformers epic might be less than a classic of its form? I grant you no one's fully objective about anything; I concede I'm more drawn to edgy dramas than to camp. But please, give me this if nothing else: I'm open to having my mind changed. The play I named show of the year in 2014 was a camp homegrown musical. The play I expected to love most, it turned out, underwhelmed me. I reviewed the show I saw, not the show I expected to see. Make it good, and you were probably in the clear no matter how I felt driving into the parking lot.

7. He's biased on behalf of certain theaters, especially the ones that cast him or hire him as a director.

That's an easy assessment to make if you've never cast or hired me. If, on the other hand, you have, then you remember the pans I've given Capital Playhouse, Lakewood Playhouse, OFT, OLT, and TAO over the years. You may ponder how seriously you'd take my remarks if I never did theatre anywhere.

8. He thinks he's better than us.

It depends. I do think I'm better than certain other people, at least at certain things. There are actors and other theatre folk I know are better than me. Almost anyone alive is a better dancer. That doesn't mean I can't recognize an ill-rehearsed or sloppily choreographed dance number when I see one. I'm fairly confident in the caliber of my training as an actor and director, and I'm fond of my own writing. That's kinda what led me to applying for the job, right? Would you rather I thought I was worse?

9. He doesn't know the troubles we were up against, nor how hard we worked.

On the contrary, I assume you performed Herculean labors and were up against the world, because I'm an actor and director. I know how much sacrifice and effort it takes to put on a lousy show, let alone a terrific one. Sometimes, though, love just ain't enough, my friends. We've all been in that show we beat our heads against but could never lock down. It happens to the best of us. Y'know who doesn't know what you were up against? The audience, and they mostly don't care. They paid their money; now they want terrific entertainment. They deserve really good entertainment and whoa, I'm asking for the moon here, they benefit from theatre that makes them think and rewards good taste. That's your job, no matter how things went south.

So yeah, those are explanations people give, to themselves and others, as a way of offloading the blame for their hurt feelings onto me and other critics. I submit to you, however, that there's another reason some shows get panned, and it's a simple one that invokes Occam's razor. Are you ready? Here it is:

Sometimes shows just aren't that good. Now, it doesn't mean people weren't trying. It doesn't mean people aren't talented. It means that's how the cookie crumbles at times. I've been in clunkers, too. And sometimes, we balk at negative reviews because, as I did above, we suspect they have something of a point.

I do feel better getting this off my chest. But y'know what'll make me feel even better than that? Using my freer time to create new art of my own. I'll be directing a backstage comedy called Laughing Stock this spring, and I'm also very happy to announce I've been cast as Roy Cohn in Angels in America (Parts 1 and 2) at Olympia Little Theatre, opening February 19. I look forward to critics' reviews. If I deserve to be panned, then I will be. The responsibility is on me to earn critics' respect, not on critics to pat my head no matter how the show goes. After one more review, for Cirque du Soleil's Kurios, I'll hang my theatre critic's hat up until such time as I feel happier doing the job. And if that bit of news gives you a warm feeling of gloatiness inside, then I hope you'll keep that to yourself.

Oh! And if I should happen to come strolling into your restaurant, all bets are off.

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