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 than 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 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. I’ve been asked why I don’t spruce up my reviews with photos from the production and for me photos of the set, the costumes, the goat on stage, all come under the no spoiler rule for me. I like to be surprised at what I see and experience and so I try not to give the visual away too much.
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. This certainly may come off as vague or incomplete, but I can live with that. In many cases we come into an audience either friends with members of the production or we wouldn’t know them by name anyway. There are other reviews that address this and you can find back pats more specifically in those. 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 my 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) My voice and style of the review often times (though not always) takes on the style of the play I’m reviewing. I don’t always intend this, sometimes it just kind of happens. A random, post-modern play can sometimes take on a bizarre metaphor. A light comedy takes on a cheerier tone most times. A deeply moving play brings out a lot more prose. Precise, intentional language and flow are key to my personal voice and so each piece tends to vary and reflect the subject/source play. My reviews would not be printed in a newspaper, sometimes there is vernacular or curse words (not to mention typos that make it through in the late hours of my posting) and sometimes they are attached to a personal story that may or may not be relevant at all to a readers take away from the review. For me when art brings up a memory or a train of thought is should be shared and so I use the vehicle of a the review sometimes to do that. I do not take notes during the show (I find this to be very distracting personally as an actor and an audience member) and so what I leave with, the biggest impressions left in my memory, are the big take aways that make it to the review. I’m not likely to quote exactly, especially if it gives anything away, but I may elude to my reaction to a particular moment.
6) 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. Or, maybe not mean more, but taken as serious and not just being nice. 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 byproducts of art.
Aside from the structure of the review, the question still remains, WHY? 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 drove 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 personally 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 occasionally help point you in the direction of decisiveness.
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. But, this sentiment is not reserved just for artists. In anything one is passionate about, it can be hard to receive criticism. Even more so to receive it 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. Maybe it becomes easier to hear comments from someone you “know” and from someone who is consistent in their format, known for being direct and honest than to hear it from a total stranger. Or maybe not. But, here we are. I see 100+ live performances a year (of which I choose to review about 20-35%) and occasionally I am directly involved with an additional 2-4 productions a year with various local organizations. I easily spend $1,200 on my own money on tickets and additional donations each 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. 8 years at Artsopolis (an arts marketing website, where I was the director of local marketing for the last 3 years I was there and 5 years at the San Jose Convention and Visitor’s Bureau) put me directly in touch with organizations who time and time again indicated they were struggling with the marketing side of things as a result of their being less critical reviewing.
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 thus 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. 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 and is worth any personal criticism I might receive. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.