Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cringeworthy Jenna Sherer

Jenna Sherer publishes her best of 2006 list. The Fringe she engages with regularly only makes an small appearance on this list.

Though she presents herself as genuinely interested in the fringe, I suspect from following her reviews that she is taken with production value as much as the Globe Herald and Phoenix critics are.

While I confess to enjoying her snark now and then, her inexperience and arrogant manner is defeating her attempts at being a young alternative to the other mainstream critics. And these problems are nowhere better encapsulated than in the following line praising The Pillowman at New Rep:

It’s about time Bostonians got a dose of the playwriting coming out of Ireland these days; and there’s no better man to start us off than His Royal Highness of Black Comedy, Martin McDonagh.

This statement is so clueless that it almost defies belief. Though Sugan is on hiatus this season, Boston has been treated to much of the best playwrighting coming out of Ireland in the last few years. McDonagh himself has been represented very well.

I do not believe that critics have an obligation to serve the theatre community, and Ms. Sherer and others should call them as they see them. But please try not to make ignorant statements when making your prescriptions for the theatrical landscape.


Jenna Scherer said...

You're right. That bit about Martin McDonagh is somewhat uninformed. But I'm relatively new in town, and am day by day building up my knowledge of the Boston theatre community. In the meantime, I can't hang back from making strong statements, even if I sometimes make mistakes.

As for underrepresenting fringe theatre in my Best Of: I'm not sure what you consider "fringe," but I'd say a good half of the shows mentioned are done by fringe troupes.

And if fringe doesn't show up enough, maybe that's because, as I've often said, local companies still have a lot of growing to do.

YS said...

Hello Jenna,

Thanks for commenting.

Fringe has different definitions for different people. I have learned that over the years. If you think that over half the shows you have listed are "fringe" then I am pretty sure of what your definition is.

Local companies always have a lot of growing to do. But not because you think that they should live up to the production values of Travelling Broadway shows, or LORT B Regional Theatres.

As for making strong statements, you really are letting yourself off the hook too easily for the Pillowman comment. It was a potentially damaging statement to a theatre community that has presented the best of Irish plawrighting for the last decade.

So I would disagree that you have to make strong statements without holding back and researching them.

For instance, on this blog I once wrote a post about how there were not that many Beckett productions scheduled for the coming anniversary.

This blog is only read by about 25 people a day, but still, before I hit the publish button I checked all of the seasons and schedules of about 90 theatre companies in New England.

Why did I do that? To make sure that I was accurate, and wasn't missing a bunch of Beckett productions in some festival that was not known to me.

As I have said before. You don't owe anything or have any obligation to the theatre community, but you do have an obligation to your readers. The statement about productions of Irish playwrights here in Boston was a disservice to that readership by not properly representing the facts.

Anonymous said...

I just read this little exchange, and while I agree that Scherer should have researched before making such a comment, I was struck by something that you said:

"You don't owe anything or have any obligation to the theatre community"

Coming from a critic, I find this statement a bit disturbing.

To me, you seem to be saying that theatre criticism can exist without theatre itself.

In quickly looking thru the last few months of your blog, I see this is pretty true for you.

Here, and elsewhere, you admit that you don't actually see the shows that you comment on, but rather you comment on what other critics have said about them. For example, you proclaim The Onion Cellar to be a "jumbled mess" based on what you read about it and making a guess, rather than actually seeing it. (I notice that you did the same for "Three Sisters")

This seems surreal to me.

It's your blog, of course, and you can write about whatever you want (and I find your musings on theatre rather thoughtful) but I would be more interested if you actually SAW the shows and offered an opinion.

I only noticed two plays in the last three months that you actually viewed (and one, you admit, had your wife in the cast, which is a bit of a conflict of interests).

You chastise Scherer for not knowing about the Sugan, and yet where do you even mention the Sugan and their work in this blog? Perhaps if you had written about their work beforehand and helped to generate some interest in them, they would not be shut down right now.

And while you seem to be portraying yourself as a champion to fringe theatre, it doesn't appear that you actually attend any fringe shows. I haven't noticed any meaningful mention of Boston fringe theatres or their work on your site, besides listings. I tried to seach, at any rate, and found nothing.

But theatre critics themselves are mentioned by you all the time.

So this seems, to me, to be a place where a critic comments on other critics, while leaving the actual production out of the equation.

Critics need to actually see the shows if they are going to comment on them. They aren't obligated to like everything they see, but they are obligated to actually go to the theatre. It's a symbiotic relationship, and a critic owes that to the theatre, at the very least. Theatre can exist (quite happily) without critics. But critics cannot exist without theatre.

YS said...

Hi Anon,

Thank you for commenting.

I actually couldn't agree more with your thoughts about critics needing to see many shows.

By the way. I see far far more productions than I actually review or talk about directly. I am not a critic or a reviewer of theatre, and I am not trying to be. I usually only write a review or a critique when I feel really moved to do so, (or have the time,) and the reasons vary.

I literally could not see the Onion Cellar, or Three Sisters because I am always in a show that performs during the Holiday season every year. I'll admit I wasn't interested in seeing Three Sisters, but I was interested in the Onion Cellar because the project intrigued me and I am generally attracted to new works. (But after all the car-wreck hype came out, I think I then wanted to see it for the wrong reasons.)

As far as my wife in a production, I don't in any way see how that is a conflict of interest. I mention these connections every time. And I would never, under any circumstance take a paid assignment to review a production with those connections.

As far as "obligations," I think you are right, that does read as a chilling statement.

I will be more clear, (and take a page from the recent Thalia speech): Reviewers have no obligation to the theatre community. Critics have a deep obligation to theatre.

Reviewers, (of the daily or weekly newspaper variety,) whose job it is to tell the public what they need to see or do not need to see have an obligation to their readers. They are looking out for the readers' pocket books.

People define this many different ways, and reviewers practice this many ways, but probably the best way I have heard is this: "Tell us what happened at the theatre the night you went to see the performance."

However, critics are in a different profession. Critics are trying to illuminate the art form. They are generally well read, travelled and cultured in their art form. Critics write books. They write more considered articles.

The definition is ever evolving and you may not agree, but the way I usually put it is this:

Robert Brustein-Critic
Ed Seigel- Reviewer

Eric Bentley - Critic
Peter Marks - Reviewer

By the way, I enjoy both immensely and I mean nothing derogatory about either by placing them in these categories. And some people bridge the gap quite well.

As you write, this is a blog, I can say pretty much whatever I want. Or talk about whatever I want.

The good part about blogs is that I can do that. The best part about blogs is that nobody has to read it.

As you mention, "critic commenting on critics," can seem a little a little detatched. And I guess an anonymous commenter commenting on a critic commenting on critics is getting really meta. :)

This is a good question, and one that has been brought up on some other theatre blogs. I want to talk about it also, but I haven't had the time to put together lucid thoughts about it.

I will take issue with one of your arguments. You state that my reporting the opinions of critics and articles on a production while clearly stating that I didn't see that production is the same as what Ms. Scherer did.

It is not. I try to be very clear when making statements, and to back them up.

You would have a point if I had written a post all about the Onion Cellar without ever having seen it, and then to present it as if I had. I read three long articles and every review of the Onion Cellar that I could find. I also talked to three people who saw it. And in my post I am clear that I making statements based on second hand information.

Sometimes the value of blogs can be in their ability to provide a connection to disparate sources.

The Sugan has been praised by all of the Major Press Critics in this town, they are the winners of Eliot Norton and IRNE awards. I have mentioned the Sugan and their crucial mission before on my blog and in writing elsewhere. (And by the way, I did not write that Ms. Scherer needed to write anything about the Sugan.)

I do not portray myself as a champion of fringe theatre. Crap is crap whether it is fringe or Lort B. And so is excellence.

What I freely admit I get nervous about is when fringe companies and established companies are kind of heaped in together. Speakeasy Stage and Rough and Tumble are very different to me. As are Boston TheatreWorks and 11:11. I get edgy when I think of theatre's value being judged by production value.

Critics tend to throw them all in together and call it the Fringe. And I admit I may get hypersensitive about that sometimes.

As you stated, I don't review many productions at all, but out of the few I do, I did talk in depth about Whistler in the Dark's Summer Fest, and Rough and Tumble's Hinterlands in the past year.

Lastly, I wish I could write more in depth about a lot of things, but I write plays, I act, I teach, and I have a day-job.

Looking through my blogger files I see that I have over 20 posts I started with an idea, but I guess never finished.

Sorry for the long response, but you brought up interesting points.

Thanks for reading and keeping me honest.