Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Accentuate the Positive?

Marissa Skudlarek continues her mis-adventures in Theaterland. Want to send missives from your corner of the Bay Area Theater Community? We’re looking for Wednesday columns- pitch us one!

In order to succeed as a theater artist, you need to be good at identifying subtext. Playwrights strive to write dialogue laden with subtextual layers; actors and directors spend the rehearsal period investigating the play’s deeper meanings and determining how to highlight them in performance.

And when a show opens and the reviews come out, a sensitivity to subtext can again prove handy.  In order to assess the merit of a review, it helps to know where the critic is coming from: her tastes, her biases, her approach to criticism. For instance, if your production ofSweeney Todd gets a negative review, it’s very different if it comes from a known Sondheim fan than if it comes from someone who is on record as hating all musicals. Reviews should not be taken at face value; you should first evaluate them for their subtext, and only then decide how seriously to take the reviewer’s opinion.

The subtext of a review is not always simple to discern, but sometimes the reviewers make it easy for us.  Lily Janiak, theater critic for SF Weekly, has a fascinating blog called The Split End (lilyjaniak.blogspot.com) where she discusses her writing process and critiques her own criticism. For instance, in a recent post, Janiak interrogated the approach she took to reviewing the Bay One Acts Festival:

“Reviewing an entire festival of plays definitely posed some structural challenges:  Ought I write a detailed review of each of its ten plays? How could I do so without the article feeling list-y? Should I instead just discuss the event’s mission and general vibe? If so, would the article still be a review?

“Instead, I took an in-between route: beginning with some general observations and then discussing the most successful one-acts in detail. I worry, though, that this choice skews the review: If I don’t analyze what I disliked about the other shows, does the article give the false impression that my experience was more uniformly positive than it was?

“In the end, I felt that because these shows were all produced by relatively small companies, lauding those that really deserved it makes more of a difference than picking apart flawed shows. Readers ought to know about playwrights and indie theater companies whose work transcends; trumpeting their achievements is a critic’s most exciting duty.”

This post got at many issues I have been pondering lately as well. In general, I agree with Janiak’s approach to reviewing the one-acts festival. I believe “it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” — it profits the world more to focus on positive solutions and things that work, rather than complaining about what is broken. Writing about things that you love and want to promote is better for your soul and your karma than writing about things that you despise.  While it can take more work to write a positive review than a negative one (it’s all too easy to turn your Snark-O-Matic on and lambaste away), the challenge almost seems to prove the moral value of the action. As Tony Kushner once said, “It is an ethical obligation to look for hope. It is an ethical obligation not to despair.”

But, as Janiak notes, this approach has its downsides, namely, “giving the false impression that my experience was more uniformly positive than it was.” I understand the impulse to do this. As artists working in San Francisco indie theater, we feel embattled and defensive. Our art form is not at the center of the cultural discourse, so we feel compelled to promote it and talk about how awesome we are all of the time.  But when does a focus on the positive cross the line into mindless boosterism?  Or worse, an intolerance of negative opinions and the feeling that we cannot honestly discuss our work with one another?  Our focus on the positive means that sometimes, when someone does express a negative opinion, it comes off as far harsher and more hateful than intended.

Furthermore, this approach encourages artists to read between the lines. Yes, plays are all about subtext, but should theater criticism be about subtext too? If a review of a one-acts festival focuses only on the plays that the critic liked, you will assume that if she didn’t mention your play, she despised it. And you’ll get annoyed at the critic because of something that she didn’tactually write. Wouldn’t it be better to get annoyed because of something that’s there on the page, rather than your interpretation of the subtext?

I suppose that, even more than I value blind positivity or blunt honesty, I value transparency in the way that we discuss our work and our reactions to the work of others. That’s why a blog like The Split End is so valuable: it shows that a critic’s opinion is not an objective judgment handed down from on high. Instead, it’s just one person’s perspective – and even then, the critic may second-guess herself. Janiak acknowledges what few critics dare to admit: reviews are full of subtext and they cannot possibly cover every noteworthy aspect of a production. She does us a service by bringing the subtext of her reviews to light on her blog: reading her posts, we can better evaluate her approach to criticism, and thus, better evaluate our own work.  What would our theater community be like if more critics embraced Janiak’s metacritical approach and started blogs of their own?

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, dramaturg, and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com and on Twitter @MarissaSkud.