I recently ran across a comment that although not directed at me personally, I felt it certainly could have and in fact may have been indirectly. Whether or not it was in response to a recent review I wrote, it brings up themes I have thought about and discussed at length with many over the last 5-6 years, but particularly the last year since I created Artsalot. The comment certainly is a catalyst for this LONG post (apologies and thanks in advance if you make it through) and provides an opportunity to both present my mission with regard to the reviews I write, as well as gain essential feedback to help improve my methods for what I have always intended to be used as a positive tool for the arts community for those that chose to.
Every reviewer has their own personal angle or perspective based on their background and experience. A dramaturg might focus more on the history or structure of the writing. A musical director might be more in tune with orchestral motifs, being note perfect, or cadences then the average audience member. For me, my experience as a performer, director, designer, stage-manager, producer, teacher, marketer and playwright inform my reviews in their own way. I straddle the line between knowledgable participant/creator and audience member. I have turned down being a member of official critical organizations because for me, I feel, I don’t want to be a “critic.” I don’t want it to be a job or a personal credential. Then what is the bloody point I hear you say?! Ah, the point…right on cue.
The reasons I took on writing reviews were the following:
1) I’m always going to go to support my friends in performances when I can, but when I have to make a choice about spending my additional arts dollars with limited time, how can I match my mood and budget to a production to yield the best result? That’s when I might factor a review into my decision process. I used to read reviews that drive me bonkers. From saying nothing good at all about a production to saying everything was always GREAT, to giving away the best jokes that people work hard to make spontaneous to an audience, to flat-out spoiling the end of the shows, to writing like an elementary school book report, to simply using big impressive words and esoteric references without saying anything about the particular version of the performance, there were a lot of words out there that weren’t telling me what I wanted to know. It gave me no sense at all of what to expect about the show and how best to enjoy it. I wanted to attempt to bridge that gap in case there was anyone else looking for that same element and not finding it. Sometimes you need a tie breaker and a review can help point you in the direction of decisviness.
2) Reviews are for sure tough sometimes for me personally. They’re not something I chose to take on in my limited spare time lightly. Being a member of the very community I review is to some degree a risk. I really enjoy a lot of the artists involved in the community and we don’t always all do our best work. I know all too well when a less than favorable review comes my way, it’s hard not to take it at least a little personally. And yet, that’s just the way it is, right? I don’t think there should be a double standard to something as subjective as art. You like it when the feedback is good, not so much when it’s not? Yes, we tend to want to believe the good and not the less than good, that’s just human nature and this sentiment is not reserved for artists, mind you. In anything one is passionate about, it’s harder many times to receive criticism. Even more so from someone we don’t know. “What qualifies them to say such things?” Oh, I know this feeling, trust me. So, it’s with that personal empathy of the process that I took on, in part, writing reviews. Better they be from someone you know and is consistent and known for being direct and honest perhaps than a total stranger. Or maybe not. But, here we are. I see 125+ live performances a year (of which I choose to review about a third) and am directly involved with an additional 2-4 productions a year with various local organizations. I easily spend $1,200 on my own money easily on tickets a year to local live performing arts. I am clearly passionate about the necessity for creating art and want to see more art created and arts groups succeed. I want to help cultivate (if I can) even at the risk of someone focusing in on my criticisms over my praise.
3) With major cuts to the newspapers the larger circulated coverage of performing arts was becoming limited, mostly centered on the East and North Bay and larger companies. This resulted in the majority of the 600+ smaller arts groups in the South Bay and Peninsula getting shafted. With little press or reviews occurring in a timely fashion, there was nothing to market the shows to patrons during the run or to use for future grant applications. This was hurting our arts groups.
4) With the reorganization of Artsopolis, and the login requirements for Goldstar, the patron reviews, which had in some cases been helping to provide at least some feedback (and not without controversy mind you) seemed to be becoming more and more scarce. The groups were losing what little voices they had, they were losing crucial feedback as a way to measure their perceived appeal. strengths and quality, and consequently losing potential audiences at critical times.
And so, I set about to do reviews, keeping in mind my own personal frustrations with some of the reviews that I’d been exposed to and trying in every instance possible, to not commit the same offenses. Trying being the operative word.
The purpose of my reviews work in conjunction with the intentional and in some cases unorthodox structure I set up for them. Like any review they do not try to be everything to all. They are not THE last word. They are one opinion, suited to a specific audience looking for a specific perspective or writing style to hopefully successfully serve the following objectives:
1) First and foremost, my reviews are intended to set up an expectation of how best to enjoy the show. If it’s billed as a comedy, but it has much darker elements, I’ll suggest people attend on a night when they are in a mood for something more along the lines of a black comedy, than a light farce in order to enjoy the show best. If the production is vastly different in interpretation than a typical, common, well-known version of a play, it’s safe to say that the “purists” might appreciate a heads up if they are seeing Death of a Salesman (set in Space) for example. If the temperature in the theatre tends to be extreme, it’s easier to enjoy a show if you’re prepared for that. If there are sight line issues and better seats than others exist, this is also information not normally conveyed in other reviews I’m familiar with. Can I enjoy a heavy 3 hour play better on a Saturday than I can on a Friday after a long work week. And, if the play wasn’t my cup of tea but the audience I attended with REALLY LOVED IT…that is worth mentioning. Doesn’t change my opinion at all, but I always maintain that I am just one person. Anyone who puts too much emphasis on what any one person thinks, especially about something as subjective as art, and even MORE SO by someone who calls herself the Princess, may need to reboot. 🙂
2) No spoilers. I won’t describe the plots in details or give away the end. If someone wants to read the play, or see the movie, or research more, they are free to, I just don’t use time/space recapping it in my review. I assume my audience is smart and can research to the level they desire through the link I provide to the production in each review. Essentially, if a company didn’t put it in their marketing materials, they probably want to keep it fresh for the audience, and I respect that.
3) I very, very rarely ever use names of the cast members, staff/crew, or even playwrights in my reviews. Having done just about every possible job in the theatre, I feel very strongly that the production is an ensemble effort and while I may call out characters or elements of the play, I do not “name names”. I don’t encourage people to search for their name when they are part of a whole. I try not to encourage that type of “egotism” when it’s a group effort…which leads us to…
4) My reviews are intended as much for the company as for the potential audience. Criticism from a point of relative industry knowledge can and has on occasion encouraged companies to improve the patron experience, to strive for better suited shows for their space and talent pool, to upgrade their technology, to expand their horizons. I certainly know I’ve taken the good and the bad criticism from friends, colleagues and reviews alike and used it to improve on the next project. I’ve also promptly ignored advice. It happens. If we chose to place meaning on a review/comment and we can use the more critical components to make the next experience better, great. I once wrote that the sound opening weekend was frustratingly flawed and I couldn’t understand anything from stage left. The Artistic director contacted me and thanked me for letting them know, as no one else had mentioned it was a problem. She observed the problems herself the next performance and FIXED the issues. I was invited back and the adjustment made ALL the difference in the world. Like an entirely different show.
5) Finally: If you can’t take it, you certainly shouldn’t dish it out. I do not hide behind anonymity. My own personal reputation/integrity must be attached to my opinions, which, are just that…just my opinions. I operate face to face the same way I do in my reviews. If I didn’t, I’d feel like it was gossip and there is too much of that via word of mouth these day that is not constructive and far more damaging that what I write. I never give a compliment I don’t mean which I hope makes the compliments I do give out mean more. Good or bad, sincerity is at the core of my mission as a person and my reputation for being frank (not to be confused with “right” mind you) is exactly why some people ask for my opinion and exactly why some do NOT ask for it. Here, written down, no one has to ask, it’s there if you are interested in it, and if you are not, I’m not forcing it on you, nothing to see, move along. I stand by my opinions and those of anyone else who sees these shows. I disagree with some of my best friends about shows we see on the same night and I enjoy the dialogue created by differences in opinions. That conversation is one of the most wonderful biproducts of art.
I fully recognize the “risk” when I started spending more of my own time and money to support the arts in this way, but for me the potential for positive impact for the community was worth any personal criticism I might receive. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.