It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: It IS Only an Opinion

Dave Sikula finds his voice.

I was about 600 words into this week’s post when I realized that, not only was I writing myself into a hole, I was also full of hot air. (NOW he notices?) So I’m chucking the whole thing and starting over.

I wanted to discuss reviews, reviewers, and self-perceptions of work done, but I was getting bogged down trying to make the specific too general and just making the whole damn thing muddy, so I’m going to start from scratch.

Here’s the thing: as much as we all strive to do good work, sometimes we fail. When that happens, who do we trust to tell us the truth? Do we rely on friends? Partners? The people who are also in the production? Reviewers? Our selves? Who should have the last word? For that matter, is there even a last word to be had?

As I mentioned in my initial post, I’ve been in the theatre a long time – longer than most of you have been alive, no doubt. (Yes, I’m old. “Old as mummy dust,” as my wife would put it …) I’m not going to say that everything I’ve been involved with in those decades has been brilliant. I’m not going to say that everything was even good. In my mind, the good work has far outweighed the bad, but I remember things like a production of “Gaslight” I was in sometime in the 80s. I was asked to take over a part on ten days’ notice. It was only after I took the part that I realized that, once the guy came in, he didn’t shut up for 50 pages. I took it as a challenge and was able to actually memorize the damn thing. (Nowadays, such a Herculean labor would be next to impossible for me. Memorizing lines, once child’s play, is now a slow torture.) Anyway, the production was horrendous, hampered by a set that was on the verge of falling over, costumes that didn’t fit, a director who was in over his head, actors who were no better than I, an overhanging sense of doom, and my performing with the worst Irish accent in the history of English-speaking theatre. Fortunately, our last week of performances was cancelled when the grade school auditorium we were working in was rented out for a Thanksgiving party.

Shows like that are obviously bad. We didn’t need crap reviews or boos to know it was awful. But even under those circumstances, the audiences of friends, families, and perfect strangers who came to see the show were supportive if not overly enthusiastic. Should we have trusted them? Agreed with them? Were they actually right and the show wasn’t as bad as the cast knew it to be? Who gets the last word?

The reason this comes up for me right now is because of the show I’m currently in. For most of our limited rehearsal period, I haven’t felt confident about the work I’ve been doing. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but among our little ensemble, I’ve felt like the anchor who’s weighing things down by being generally unfunny. (I don’t offer this as a prompt for compliments, by the way; I’m ruminatin’ here.) Granted, most of what I do in the show is to set up the other actors and play straight for them, so I’m not really expecting belly laughs or trying to be funny, but I like to feel that, with this much experience under my belt, I’d know whether the work I was doing is good or not. But this one has been hard to judge. My wife, who is the only critic I truly trust, has told me it’s good, so that’s validation enough. Now that we’re open, things seem to be going better, but there’s a battle being waged in my head between my own perceptions, my wife’s validations, and the reactions of the audiences. Where does the “truth” lie in that situation?

I’d like to think I’m at a point where I’m review-proof. I don’t mean that the reviews I get are glowing; I mean that I just don’t care about them. Don’t get me wrong; I read them, but I don’t let the bad ones bring me down or the good ones go to my head. I know plenty of actors who run the extremes of not reading them or taking them too much to heart, but I can’t (or don’t want to) give someone else that much power. (Not that it matters with this show; I don’t think we’re going to get a great many reviews from the media.)

So who to trust? My director was a great help, working with what I gave him as he tried to turn that dross into gold. My fellow actors (all of whom are marvelous and funny – which, of course, is what leads to my temporary inferiority complex) have been more than supportive, as well, as have the people to whom I’ve talked after performances. (I guess the ones who like it stay and the others leave ASAP.) But what does one do in circumstances like that? My own artistic compass is apparently on the fritz.

Ultimately, I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Everyone who walks into a theatre – actors, crew, performers, and staff – will have a different perspective on what happened at that performance. How many times has a line been dropped or a vital bit of business flubbed that completely “ruined” a show, and went unnoticed by the audience? Rough day at work? Someone near and dear to you ill? Bad fish at dinner? That’ll affect even the funniest comedy or most moving tragedy.

I guess what I’m ultimately trying to say here – and have just wasted 900 words trying to get here – is that, despite my firmly stated beliefs and judgments, there are no right opinions in art; no wrong ones, either. I don’t agree with a lot of the artistic judgments my friends and colleagues make (“You hate everything!” I hear them say), but it doesn’t make me right and them wrong (or vice versa). And it’s not mere contrariness. You develop an aesthetic as you grow older, and have to trust your instincts as to its rightness. (And how delightfully frustrating when they’re overturned!) The choices I make as an actor and director are direct results of my aesthetic and, in spite of my current doubts, I have to assume they’re the correct ones for the given circumstances, otherwise I wouldn’t make them.

And because those choices are “correct,” when you come to see a show I’m in, I fully expect you to tell me how wonderful I was after the performance, even as you wonder “Why the hell did he do that?” And you know what? We’ll both be right.

Dave Sikula has been acting and directing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area for more than 30 years. He’s worked with such companies as American Conservatory Theatre, South Coast Repertory, the Grove Shakespeare Festival, Dragon Productions, Palo Alto Players, and 42nd Street Moon. As a writer and dramaturg, he’s translated the plays of Anton Chekhov and had work produced by ANTA West.