Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Theatre Reviewing - Honest Dialogue

In the Guardian, critic Lyn Gardner writes about the difficulty of pinpointing what went wrong in productions of new texts:

My wider point here, I think, is not that we should all beat ourselves up for getting it right or wrong, but that we need to create a more honest dialogue about what works or doesn't, why it works and where the responsibility really lies. If we are to do that then critics will have to be prepared to discuss our reviewing process more openly. Theatre-makers will have to be more honest too, not just laying claim to successes but also taking responsibility for what doesn't work - and learning from the experience.

It is important that we create this open dialogue because we are living through an era when both theatre-makers and theatregoers are fascinated by process.

Interesting, but I think Gardner goes off the rails a bit with this statement from earlier in the article:

What interests me is that as a critic – or, indeed, as an audience member – it is often possible to identify that a play is or isn't working, but it is considerably harder to identify exactly where the responsibility lies. However, we assign responsibility all the time, either as professional critics or as theatregoers. I reckon we are probably getting it wrong a great deal of the time.

No. I don't believe critics, or audience members for that matter, are getting it wrong "a good deal of the time." To be honest, most critics and audience members don't really spend that much time assessing new plays in those terms.

But the ones who do - the few who try to parse out and think about the text they have just heard and then engage their critical faculties toward reconciling that text with the production - well, they generally arrive at pretty solid conclusions.

Unfortunately, for the playwright, the natural and logical first step of handing out praise and blame for a new work is to examine the play itself. I say "unfortunately" because, in the case of a bad review, reviewers will often find themselves stuck in this first gear, grinding out a review that pins the entirety of the blame on the script. It is a rare occasion that a pan of a new play, in any way, tries to vindicate the text in the face on an incompetent production. An excellent example would be a comedy that is cast with a genuinely unfunny group of performers. Most critics have a hard enough time sorting this out with performances of classic comic texts, which they know from experience are hilarious.

Of course, this cuts both ways. Positive reviews of new plays rarely look too closely at the playwright's work. This cursory criticism can result in praise of a mediocre to below average script that, in reality, has almost nothing to do with the enjoyment of a particular evening at theater. This is unfortunate for a playwright who, perhaps, has some work to do on his craft. For instance, a talented actor or cast of actors can possibly put over a powerful and heart-breaking emotional climax that is undeserved by the text. Or a director can create an atmosphere so charged - romantically, eerily, grungy, etc. - that, providing the play is not too long, it can power the proceedings through the whole run time.

So, just to recap, with regards to Lyn Gardner's point: I don't think that people get it wrong most of the time, I just think they don't even try.

But want to know the real secret? The real secret is that in the case of most productions there isn't anything terribly wrong, and there isn't anything superlative. In the case of the large majority of theatre, most works are just O.K. I'm not making excuses for mediocrity, but I am just acknowledging its ubiquity.

There are many average works upon our stages, in our rehearsal halls, in our heads -yet to be written. But that is not our problem, it is just a fact that will always be. Our problem is that there are also many average critics and average audience members. The mediocre critic and the mediocre spectator are easy marks for marketing, into which dramaturgy has bled quite easily.

Like the special edition DVD, theatre marketing and dramaturgy can provide a powerful combination in the selling of a lackluster piece of entertainment. Paraphrases from press releases can be detected in reviews, and theater lobbies can transform into an aviary full of parrots, chattering with trivial notes from the playbill, or pull quotes from positive notices that have been pasted around the place. Like the emperor, we can walk comfortably naked through such an environment.

Harold Bloom is fond of saying, about our age of the world wide web, "Information is endlessy available to us, but where shall wisdom be found?"

As I was writing this post last night I found an interesting discussion about Content has sprung up at Tony's blog.


Thomas Garvey said...

It's nice to talk "honest dialogue," but I'm never sure where this kind of abstract conversation is supposed to go. In my experience, people who have actually done theatre are a bit better at assessing productions than journalists (or academics) are - but largely because they're less prone to the kind of theorizing that Lyn Gardner is indulging in here. To be blunt, I don't think more honest, open theorizing would help the situation much. For my part, the quality of one aspect of a production has rarely confused me about its other aspects. I've never wondered, "The set was great, so was the play bad or good? I can't tell!" I'm not even sure what that confusion would mean, in fact; I simply seem to be able to assess the different components of productions on their separate tracks. I'm rarely fooled by great acting in weak plays, either (again, so it seems to me!); watching Anthony Hopkins or Richard Burton in Equus didn't make me imagine the play was profound, for instance. It seems to me that if you can't do this kind of multi-tracking, then you shouldn't be reviewing theatre. In fact, you probably shouldn't be seeing theatre, either.

Tony Adams said...

thanks for the mention . .

"But want to know the real secret? The real secret is that in the case of most productions there isn't anything terribly wrong, and there isn't anything superlative. In the case of the large majority of theatre, most works are just O.K."

I'd agree, and add that the same can be said for a lot of criticism (nationwide) as well.

"In fact, you probably shouldn't be seeing theatre, either."

Really Thomas?

I can think of a lot of productions that the acting made the play seem better or worse than the script really is. You may not, but is that really a good reason to tell people they're not equipped to handle going to a show?

Thomas Garvey said...

Yes, really, Tony.

I, too, have seen plenty of productions in which the acting was better than it "should" have been, given the material - in fact, that's often the case; there's much more high-quality acting than writing out there. But at the same time, I tend to think the play's flaws are usually apparent, anyway, at least to a practiced eye.

And yes, that's a good reason to tell people they're not equipped to handle going to a show. Frankly, I think people like that shouldn't even leave the house.