Theater Around The Bay: A Critic Isn’t Batman

Stuart Bousel talks about why he’s nowhere near as worked up about a bad review as some people think he should be… and why nobody probably ever should be.

So, over the weekend, as I was listening to a first reading of the first draft of a new play (my adaptation of Kristin Hersh’s memoir, RAT GIRL), an article on another theater website, HowlRound, was apparently causing some distress amongst my circle of theater associates, largely because the writer, Lily Janiak, had written less than flattering things about both my play and the play of a friend of mine, FANTASY CLUB by Rachel Bublitz Kessinger. To be fair, Rachel (and her director, Tracy Held Potter) got the worse end of the stick, but to be fair to Lily as well, her article was less a review of either of our plays (or a third play, WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW, by Monica Byrne) as it was a meditation on whether or not her ability to critique a show is influenced by her own personal aesthetics, taste, and (since this was a comparison of three plays “about women”) the social-political agenda that she personally, as a woman, wants to see satisfied by a theater experience ostensibly focused on women. As I read her article, she ultimately concludes that yes, of course, all these things factor in, but she still feels she can tell a “good” show from a “lacking” one. In light of all that (and regardless of whether or not I personally feel, based on her work, that Lily has reached the point where she can think outside of her own perspective), I really found her inclusion of my play in her article rather flattering, and my reaction to it directly can be summed up by the following post on Facebook:

Everyone keeps asking if I’m going to have a response to a play of mine being mentioned (somewhat negatively) in a HowlRound article and I have to keep telling people I just don’t really care. Ironically, I may now have to write a blog about how and why I just don’t really care… To me, that is a worthy topic: about how I long ago stopped putting much weight into criticism- even though I absolutely think criticism is valuable and I’m happy, as an artist, that my work gets talked about at all. But that’s just it- the goal here is to stimulate conversation, not like… be loved by everyone. And the truth is, the article isn’t really about my play, and to some extent the writer, who I know personally and think very highly of (even though I frequently disagree with her), is crediting my play with having made her think about what part her own personal taste plays in her review of what she sees. Which I take as a compliment. The whole part where she doesn’t like how some of my female characters talk too much about their ex-boyfriends is like… whatever. The point of the play isn’t about women who can’t get over men, it’s about how all people struggle with their past and what relationship it continues to play in their lives. But even if it had been a play about women who can’t get over men- THERE ARE WOMEN LIKE THAT, and while you may not be interested in that, it doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Just means you should go see something else. As a gay man who is frequently sitting at shows where I see disappointing representations of gay life and gay people (frequently created by gay theater artists and gay theater companies, I might add), I long ago realized that my personal taste isn’t everyone else’s, and something isn’t bad or unworthy, just because it isn’t how I want it or would do it/say it. To me, her article is about her coming to realize that and I’m kind of just shrugging and thinking, “Good for you, and thanks for spelling my name right when you credited me as part of that process for you.” Job well done on both our parts, I say.

If you’re interested in reading Lily’s article, you can do so here. If you would like to read a different perspective on my show, you can do so here. It’s worth noting that both reviews are written by critics I know personally (Sam openly states that in his article, but the fact is Lily was in the same festival a year earlier), neither of whom I think has a particular personal bias towards me as an artist, as one thing I have really tried to establish about myself over the years is that I treat everyone the same, whether they’re into my work or not, so long as I feel they are coming at my work from a place of honesty and make a reasonable effort to speak their opinions coherently. Do I feel that Sam “got” this particular play and Lily did not? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I think Lily’s perspective is wrong so much as it’s just hers and her perspective is one that is seeking an experience that isn’t the same as the experience I sought to create as an artist. Which obviously is disappointing to her, but the suggestion that my characters are not strong portrayals of women or speak like television characters is really just her opinion- and she’s entitled to it. I mean, I put the work out there, and if I’m allowed to do that (and I am, and should be), then she is allowed to have a reaction and articulate that reaction (and as a critic, she’s obligated to do so). The risk we all take, artist and audience, is that one half of that equation might not work for the other half of the equation. That doesn’t make either half wrong, in and of itself, merely unsuited for one another.

But again, talking about Lily’s review specifically, isn’t all that interesting to me, so much as talking about how I got messaged by fifteen or so people, over the course of Saturday and Sunday, asking me, “Did you see this yet?” and then “What do you think?” after I confirmed, yet again, that I had seen it and certainly have the ability to recognize my own name when it pops up. What I began to realize, however, is that what people really couldn’t understand was how I could have read the article and not had a strong reaction to it, and so the assumption was, as more and more time passed without me talking about the article, that I must have been in ignorance of it. A fair assumption, I suppose, especially as Tracy Potter and Rachel Kessinger had been talking about it on their Facebook pages and Tracy had gone so far as to post a response in the comments section on Lily’s article. Around person eleven or so to ask me what I thought, I finally replied, “Do you think I should be angry or upset? ‘Cause I’m not. I just find it all kind of amusing that more people are writing or calling to ask if I’m upset than to congratulate me on the good reviews I got when the show was up and running.” The friend in question (who for the record, is always very supportive) replied, “I think what makes this special is that being mentioned on HowlRound at all is kind of a big deal.” I wrote back, “Yeah, I guess it is. And then again, it sort of isn’t.” And there in lies the twist that, to me, makes for a more amusing blog post than anything I might have argued about this particular critic’s response to this particular play of mine.

Once upon a time, when I was 19 and a junior at Reed College, an early but cornerstone play of mine, THE EXILED, came very close to being made into an independent film. Well, as close as most films get, meaning it died on the table early in the process and nothing in regards to that effort has happened since. If you know anyone working in the film industry, you probably know that the number of never-made movies far outweighs the number of ones that get into the production phase (where many films also die), let alone the number that actually get finished and then released (the day you find out how many finished films sit forever in some studio storage space somewhere, never to be screened, is the day you really truly realize just how small a percentage of aspiring artists ever actually see their efforts presented to an audience on even the most humble level), but a never-made movie is still farther along than a never-considered screenplay and it’s astounding how traumatizing something that never actually happened, can be. And how it can really put into perspective, for the rest of my life, what any critic (professional or amateur) will ever say about my work.

So what exactly did happen? Well, I scrambled to write a screenplay after the boyfriend of an actress who liked the play (and wanted to play the female lead) rashly decided to finance a film of it. This happened in 1998, when making independent films was sort of the raison d’etre for my entire generation (besides going to the music store and spending all night in coffee shops), but what made this particular situation a little different is that the aspiring film producer in question was able to use his connections as a former alternative/extreme sports star (a la Jason Lee) to open a number of doors that led to rooms none of us was really experienced or equipped to walk into, let alone hold our own in. He teamed up with a co-producer who was the son of a prominent entertainment lawyer (and of course, an aspiring actor himself) who in turn pulled his own strings (namely, using his dad’s contacts to bypass agents and get my hastily assembled screenplay directly into the hands of celebrities), and the result was that my work was suddenly being read by some really famous people long before it should have been, and not even remotely in the right context or with the correct layers of agents, organizations and other protections that would have probably stopped, or at least mitigated, the level of direct correspondence that ultimately resulted in me being forwarded (by the co-producer/wanna-be actor) an outrageously nasty email where an actor who had been approached to play the male lead basically said I should be executed and my work should be mulched for toilet paper. I think I’m actually making him sound more polite than he was. Anyway, I was forwarded that email as an explanation for why the co-producer suddenly wanted me to completely re-write the script and then subsequently walked on the project once I refused to do so without some kind of contract promising me some kind of control and ownership of my screenplay and more importantly, my stage-play.

Now, real producers would not have let an actor’s bitchy email bother them, but I wasn’t working with real producers and I definitely was not working with artists: I was working with people who were looking to ride a cultural wave to fast fame and hopeful fortune and the whole thing had never been about me, my work, or film-making as an art form. If they had been interested in any of those things, they would have known that it is hard to make a movie, and that rejection is part of the game, particularly when you are doing something new or different or with people who don’t have enough celebrity clout to get a free pass on their “work” no matter how good or bad it is because everyone just wants to be associated with them. Real producers and real artists know that when the going gets rough, as it’s bound to, that’s when it’s most important to stand by your people and your work. Even at that age, I knew that, and I was prepared to dig my heels into the project and see it through to the end and the only reason I rationally walked away was because my agent at the time, bless her, calmly said to me over the phone, “You are young and this will not be your only opportunity, and you need to realize that if this movie even gets made, and I doubt it will, there is virtually no chance it will be something you want your name attached to because none of these people share your vision and that is the only thing that would make sticking this out worth doing.” I knew she was right and we killed the contract the next day. A year later, EXILED had its first small theater production and was well-received and has been periodically produced in small theaters across the country since. I’m happy every time it happens and almost never think about the debacle that was it’s three months in “pre-production”.

Except, sometimes, when I get a bad review.

I am very lucky, and generally speaking my work receives positive reviews. Even when it doesn’t, it’s rarely trashed (I can only think of one out-right pan I have ever received) and usually the critic appears to have at least taken it seriously, discussing the problems and merits of the piece, demonstrating that at the very least it gave them something to think about and was, thus, worthy of their time. I long ago realized that I do not create mainstream theater and I am okay with that. Actually, I’m proud of that. Sure, sometimes I feel unappreciated, unpopular, or like there is just no point in doing what I do, but I don’t know any artist who doesn’t feel that from time to time, and on the plus side I know that I am my own man, that my work has integrity and reflects my ambitions and beliefs and not someone else’s prescription for success, and on those rare occasions I do score a hit or a critic really gets what I do it’s all the more gratifying because I know they’re not just blowing sycophant smoke up my celebrity asshole. My former agent would frequently remind me that my work was “not-marketable”, “too esoteric”, “too smart”, “not trendy” and “difficult” and all that used to rankle me, but now I realize that all that boils down to her opinion and ability to sell me to people who probabably held similar perspectives. None of whom would do my work well anyway. On one level it does suck that I apparently have small hope of being a famous, oft-performed writer; but if the price of fame and fortune is that I change my art into something that doesn’t reflect my voice, then it comes at much too high a cost, and by the way, the majority is still not everybody and there is no shame in being a niche voice that speaks to a niche community. These days, a strong cult following appeals far more to me than universal acclaim ever did. The universe always finds something new to crow over; cults honor forever.  Similarly, the words of someone who gets my work, matter so much more than the words of someone who doesn’t; even when that someone is famous or is associated with some kind of “big deal”, be it a studio, a theater,  or a publication. Being successful at a business that is at least one third luck and one third who you know, doesn’t actually make you someone worth listening to any more so than someone who hasn’t achieved the same level of “success” but may have put in just as much (or more) work.

So who was that actor who wrote the nasty email proclaiming this was literally the worst thing he’d ever read? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just call him “Batman”. The people who know me well know why and the rest of you can have fun thinking about it. Who he is honestly doesn’t matter because in the end all that did matter was that he was kind of a big deal then, and he’s an even bigger deal now, and regardless his opinion means nothing at all beyond being his opinion and the fact that he is famous adds no more weight to his words.

Or maybe it does, but not in the way that most people think.

See, when I got that email, I cried. I mean, seriously, I got to the first derogatory comment and burst into tears. And then I had to get through the rest of the e-mail and it just got worse and worse and worse. Where a simple “no” would have sufficed, Batman felt a need to go the extra mile and really just express over and over how it was basically insulting to him to have even been asked to consider the part he was being offered (which is amazing because honestly, even if a project is not for you, it’s always an honor to be asked and anyone who sees otherwise has a ridiculous ego that will only harm them one day and sure enough, Batman has developed a nasty reputation). The particulars of what he wrote do not matter, all that matters is that at this point in my life, though I had been bringing my writing to workshops for three years now and subjecting it to public viewing and review for just as long, nobody had ever just torn me to shreds so ruthlessly, so explicitly, and so comprehensively, tearing apart not just my work but me as a person, even though he knew nothing about me. In this actor’s defense, he had sent the email to the producer, not me, and maybe would not have been so nasty if he had known I’d end up reading it (maybe) but I was 19 and I just simply lacked the experience to react in any other way than total horror and sadness, taking entirely personally what was, in reality, the ridiculous ranting of an egomaniac actor who has most certainly made far worse films than the one I wrote. Anyway, I ran downstairs to a friend who lived on the floor below (at the time I was living in a dorm) and gushed out my sorrow and despair.

“Batman doesn’t like my work! Batman thinks I should be taken out of the gene pool! Batman couldn’t even finish his morning coffee because he hated it so much!”

Seriously, he’d said that in the e-mail.

My friend, who is herself an accomplished sci-fi/fantasy writer, listened to about five minutes of my wailing and then cut me off with the incredibly insightful, “Stuart… Batman… read your screenplay.”

Which, looking back, is the only part of the entire experience that matters.

I believe we need critics. As a producer, I need reviews to market my own shows and the work of the artists who create under my banner, whose work I believe in enough, be they writer or actor or other type of theater maker, to risk not only my finances but my reputation. As an artist, I like reviews (and I always read them and don’t believe people who say they don’t) because I like knowing my work is being seen and instigating reactions and conversations- whatever those reactions are and wherever those conversations may lead. Also, sometimes, a critic will show me something about myself and my work I didn’t see, and that’s always valuable, whether they illuminate a positive or negative aspect. Sometimes they are also just dead wrong and that’s valuable too as it documents how a work can be mis-perceived or fails to strike the proper chord with someone. I know that something needs to be fixed when I have been watching the show, night after night, silently feeling the same way, and a critic who nails the problem I already know is there is a jewel to be cherished. On the other hand, if I love my show, it kind of doesn’t matter to me what the critic says. And for the record, I have occasionally read really positive reviews of my work that made me roll my eyes because, as much as they liked it, they clearly didn’t “get it.” Being understood is actually, for me, way more important than being liked or loved. It’s certainly more gratifying. But I try not to begrudge any audience member their experience and just be grateful that they were there and had one at all. I’m not making art to be loved, but I am definitely not making it to be ignored.

Ever since I figured that out about myself it’s been much easier to absorb the bad reviews along with the good. Sure, it’s disappointing from time to time and as a producer it can be stressful if I feel like it’ll damage the financial success of a show. When someone I like and respect doesn’t like my work it’s not a happy thing, but it’s also not a requirement of knowing me or being my friend, and I’d rather an honest conversation about what I do than a dishonest one, and I do my best to engage people who I like and respect but don’t like my work because it can be valuable but also because at some point it’ll probably happen at least once with everybody I know since I chose not to surround myself with idiots and paid escorts. Honestly, part of being an artist is accepting that some people are just not going to be my audience, and that includes some of my friends and it definitely includes some critics, most of whom are no more bias free than anyone else who has ever seen more than one play, read more than one novel, heard more than one song. Once I figured all that out it really takes whatever sting was left out of whatever someone has to say, and on the rare occasion a habitual detractor or the perpetually unimpressed colleague does throw me a compliment I’m like, “Oh, thank you, what a pleasant surprise”. What’s nice about that is, since I’m not looking for approval from them, the compliment can be a good thing without becoming something I pin my identity as an artist upon. Far too many people I know, no matter what they say, are living for approval, be it from friends or critics or the audience or the industry, and that is a dangerous thing to base your art on because it’s entirely out of your control and entirely subjective.

The truth is, I’m not looking for approval from anybody except the artists I’m working with on a given project, who must buy into or share my vision for what we’re doing together to truly work. For them and they alone, on a case by case basis, am I still willing to put my ego into such a vulnerable position. Occasionally, I catch myself letting someone’s words get to me without any real validity to what they have to say, but when it comes right down to it, I recognize that I have to have confidence in my work and if I don’t that’s my issue to deal with, not the result of somebody else expressing their opinion. When it comes to your art, other people’s opinions are only as valuable as you let them be, and once you’ve been torn apart by Batman, it’s astounding how many people who are supposedly “a big deal” suddenly aren’t any more. Not because they are or aren’t Batman, but because in every situation, regardless of the critic, I am still me.

And time has proven that not even Batman can stop me.

Stuart Bousel is one of the founding artistic directors of the San Francisco Theatre Pub. You can find out more about him, AGE OF BEAUTY, THE EXILED and more of his work at http://www.stuartbousel.com.

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5 comments on “Theater Around The Bay: A Critic Isn’t Batman

  1. As someone who has been called “the weak link” in shows in which I’ve performed, I honestly took those reviews and gained more respect for the art of critique than I’d had before.

  2. As someone who writes reviews of film, theatre, and opera, let me suggest that people always keep these two pieces of information close to their heart:

    1. The only person with the responsibility/burden of loving you unconditionally is your mother. Assuming she’s not a theatre critic, she knows you better than you might like to think.

    2. There’s a lot of truth to the old adage that ‘Opinions are like assholes — everybody’s got one!”

    George Heymont
    http://myculturallandscape.blogspot.com/2007/11/about-author.html
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-heymont

  3. Totally agree with this post. One aspect of my side of this story that I don’t think people get is that I genuinely loved getting a review and I wasn’t actually hurt by the negative comments. Like Stuart, I stand behind my work and I already evaluated my own shortcomings and knew where I stood on each of the reviewer’s points. I was really puzzled by one interpretation she had about picking up rape vibes, but I know that 20 people can watch a car accident and have 20 different interpretations of what happened. I was delighted to respond to her article on HowlRound because, *Hello! I’m on HowlRound and I want to drag this out a little longer!*, but also because it was a forum for my favorite topic in theater, which is gender parity. I was thrown a little to be put on the what-not-to-do side of the parity equation, but I wasn’t personally hurt by it because I know that this reviewer is one of dozens and dozens of people who saw this show and the odds are that some of them aren’t going to be happy with something. There were people who LOVED that show and I heard audience after audience laugh loudly and heartily. Some people enjoyed themselves in spite of their intentions not to. I also saw some people sneak away without making that much eye contact with me because they didn’t like it. I’m proud to say that I’m creating work that some people love, because that’s not easy. Also, I credit years of intense aikido training with my ability to separate this kind of thing from my self-worth, and it’s interesting to me how hard it is for people to believe that the review didn’t have a devastating affect on me. In fact, the opposite was true. I had been having a really hard week and this review made me feel like my work was paying off. If people actually come to my shows and bother to critique one of them on a national playwrights website, well, dang, that’s awesome. And if a reviewer comes along one day and gets what I’m doing, then that will be amazing, but obviously that’s not why I do this work.

  4. I know a lot of performers who don’t read reviews during a run, good or bad. I can see how they can distract–even a review that says something like “moving and poignant” can encourage you to unconsciously try to play to that instead of focusing on the material. But I have found reviews helpful myself, taken with a grain of salt.

    I got a review in Edmonton that greatly improved my show. The critic saw my first nervous performance in the space after several months off stage and noted, “All she needs is a little more punch in the delivery and more attention to silence, to those quiet pauses and changes in volume that would help the significance of her words sink in.” Absolutely right. I finally had a long enough show time to do that and took his words to heart.

    At the same Fringe Festival I got this gem along with a one-star review: “She introduces the audience to far too many family members (of course, playing them all).” I just had to laugh. The reviewer obviously hates solo shows, reviews one, and then objects to the characters all being played by…the solo artist!

    It’s too bad audiences put so much stock in reviews and stars. I read them occasionally, but compare the reviewers take on a show I’ve already seen to get a sense of what they like or don’t like and if we are in alignment. And I resign myself to certain things, such as reviewers who can only follow linear narratives not liking a show that juxtaposes scenes requiring you to draw your own conclusions. (Which is not an excuse for writing incoherently.)

  5. […] I saw myself, got my friends’ names published on a national theater website, and spurred a response from Stuart Bousel on our own blog is just icing on the […]

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