Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Reviewers Suck

Claire Rice bravely talks about one of the Bay Area theater scene’s biggest elephants in the room.

“Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.” – Joyce Carol Oates

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I’ve written on this blog multiple times that honesty about our opinions on the art around us shouldn’t be condemned, but is itself a necessary element of the act of creation. We do not create in or for a void. I myself go on and on about my wishes, my favorite things and my awkward (and possibly hypocritical) feelings about pretentious theatre. While I believe what I say has merit, it also is done on an utterly volunteer basis. My opinions matter to me, but they will not be part of the historical record of events. Whatever my impact has been as a writer for this blog (whether it has induced eye rolling or link clicking or whatever) I have my doubts about any sort of prolonged impact. Despite the fact that it’s called “Enemy’s List”, it is more or less a victimless blog.

This is not true of reviewers. These are the men and women we reserve seats for, hand press packets to, and have debates back stage about how to interpret their laughter or their sighs. Their opinions do matter. When a person is paid for their review it has a legitimizing effect on both the writer and the show. It means that the opinion was worth paying for and the show was worthy of the time it took to see it and write about it. This is, of course, an over simplification; but then to your average civilian who is looking for either a) something to read about while on the train or b) something to do on a Friday night none of this background matters. They only have what is right in front of them in black and white. This person’s opinion is worthy of print and this show is worthy of being reviewed.

In my day job I’m asked to research news items from “legitimate sources” for evidence in cases to be presented to our government. The government still operates on the premise that if it is in print it is “legitimate”, which is why when you create a business and you have to post your business name it must be in a printed newspaper. These sorts of things may be the only thing keeping the printed word a float: people paying to legitimize themselves. It certainly isn’t the news or people’s opinions of art. So print news sources have had to cut back to the minimum.

Which means critics and reviewers are a dying breed.

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Reviewing used to be one of the avenues for writers to earn an income while writing books, or poetry, or plays or something. Now that there is so much free space on the internet, the phrase “everyone is a critic” is literal. Social networking is dependent on opinionated people dispensing of their opinions for free. Or, a person can start up a blog, sell ads for revenue, and start saying whatever they want about anything. Aggregates like Huffington Post aren’t necessarily curators of these blogs when they re-post them. Sometimes they are, sometimes the relationship is based on algorithms.

Is a person now legitimate because of their click rate? The title of this post is “Reviewers Suck”. This is a little bit of the old bait and switch. I don’t think reviewers suck. But if a lot of people read this, does it mean it is legitimate? Am I the one who decides something like that? Is it you, the reader? Is it a reviewer of blogs? If this blog gets an award does it mean it should be taken more or less seriously?

I would like to reiterate that I don’t think reviewers suck. I do think the relationship between the reviewers and the reviewed is always fraught with emotion.

I didn’t invent being butt-hurt due to an unfavorable review.

“Asking a working writer what he things about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.” – John Osborne

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What I do wonder is, who are the reviewers I should be listening to? Who are the reviewers that anyone should be listening to?

And when is it ok for me to be critical of them?

Taylor Mac commented on fellow Theater Pub blogger’s Facebook page to call her out for her opinions on his show “Hir”. You can read her post here. Unfortunately, the conversation happened on her page on Facebook, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to link to it. Marissa’s opinion of “Hir” did not illicit a loving and positive response from Taylor Mac and he felt the need to reach out and tell her so. Is it because she isn’t a published reviewer, but her thoughts are published on her personal blog, so he felt she was approachable? Is it because she is a big fan of his and he felt he could change her mind? Is it because he’d gotten several favorable reviews and this one was the one contrary one? Did he get too many unfavorable ones and this one was the straw that broke his back?

Whatever the reason, we’ve all wanted to do it.

I do sympathize with him. We’ve all wanted to publicly lambast our detractors. We’ve all wanted to pull apart their critiques piece by piece and present evidence that refutes their beliefs. We’ve all wanted to cross our arms and stop our feet and say “But we sold out! I’ve had many people say they loved it! You are just too (old, white, stupid, irrelevant, apathetic, jaded, sheltered, biased) to get it!”

“Reviewers , with some rare exceptions, are a most stupid and malignant race.” – Percy Bysshe Shelley

A reader can develop a relationship with a critic over time and come to trust their taste and their expertise. A reader can also come to trust that they will disagree with whatever a critic may say. I really only read theatre reviews after I’ve seen a play. In which case, I am either looking for someone to agree with me (because I like that) or someone to vocally disagree with (because I like that too.)

But, in this atmosphere of fly by night bloggers, Gold Star reviewers, social media status updates, aggregators, and dying print media; how do we develop relationships with reviewers? And I do mean develop. The people coming out of college and starting up little theatre companies, who do they email to invite to shows? Who’s opinions to do they take seriously and who’s do they silently tolerate? Who is legitimate?

In the heat of the moment, after reading five hundred or so words on something I’ve worked the better part of a year on, I am willing to dismiss the whole lot. But I know this isn’t fair or correct.

But, here are the things I want for our reviewers and critics in the Bay Area:

I want more of them.

I want them to be younger and hungrier.

I want them to be well informed culture omnivores.

I want them to have cult like followings.

I want them to be better writers then I am.

I want them to be openly critical of each other.

I want them to be openly critical of and write often about the whole Bay Area scene.

I want them to work the whole Bay Area.

I want them to have a sense of history in their reviews.

I want them to be rewarded and awarded for their efforts.

I’m not looking for a reviewer or critic who will be “on my side”. I’m not hoping that with a critical mass of writers there will be one out there who “gets my work”.

“Loyalty in a critic is corruption.” – George Bernard Shaw

“You need a high degree of corruption or a very big heart to love absolutely everything.”
– Gustave Flaubert

But I will say that there are some reviewers and critics who I don’t take seriously, whether it is mine or someone else’s work they are commenting on. I will also say I don’t feel like there is a guiding star to tell me who I should take seriously and who I shouldn’t. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. And since reviewing our reviewers is the only real taboo in theatre, I’ll leave you with that.

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12 comments on “Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Reviewers Suck

  1. Rob Ready says:

    This is great, and pretty accurate. Couple other things I’d add:
    – most Bay Area critics are older, straight and white
    – many are not particularly good writers
    – many are unwilling to cover, or simply unaware of some of the most cutting edge / exciting work (never seen a legit review of Tourettes Without Regrets or Hoodslam or EndGames Improv despite the fact that those shows regularly draw HUGE audiences and are all really inventive)
    – The Bay Area Critics Circle and their awards have absolutely no impact on my life as an active member of the theater community

    All that said, props to Rob Avila and Lily Janiak for being A) pretty great writers, B) willing to see shit that’s outside the norm and C) mixing it up with artists in a real way.

  2. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here. I agree that there are some Bay Area critics who are legit, think about what they write, and are actively engaged in theater as an art form, and a constantly evolving one at that. Some of them write for traditional publications, and some fall into the blogger category. Some do both. I would also agree that there are many who are too old (and it’s not an age, so much as a mentality that qualifies them as “old” to me), non-professional, obviously don’t bother to even edit their work (to the point where it’s impossible to pull quotes from them), and are not even good thinkers, meaning that while it’s perfectly fine to say you don’t like something, it’s often blatantly obvious that all there is to their opinion is their knee-jerk opinion (which is still a valid response, but qualify it as such). My problem with a few too many of the local critics is that they don’t seek to discuss work or try to understand what it’s doing and then evaluate if that was pulled off or not, nor do they seem to take into consideration the context of a work, who its audience might be, and what its potential future could be. As an artist, it makes it hard to glean anything of value from both negative and positive reviews. As a producer, it greatly reduces the value of reviews to me when selling or considering a work.

  3. The days of the salaried critic are quickly coming to an end. Many bloggers just want free seats to events. There are some of us who have a long enough history of theatregoing and critiquing to offer informed opinions that are not just slash-and-burn fests from bitter old queens with wounded egos. The best way to evaluate a critic’s acuity is to read his/her work for a period of several months and see if you learn anything from it (as opposed to whether or not you agree with it).

    As for the quality of writing? Some people don’t (or can’t) proofread their work; others can’t spell or even use basic grammar. I’ve had periods where my allergies were so bad that I could barely see what was on my monitor’s screen (which makes proofreading a bitch). But, having worked at various times in my life as a secretary and medical/legal transcriptionist, I tend to do a lot of proofing.

    Not every critic can attend every show that’s being performed (some of us have personal lives as well). But there are a handful of critics who only want to see shows in big houses (or whose primary goal in attending an opening night is to get some free food after the show).

    If you doubt a critic’s perspective or credentials, consider the source. He may be a flack, a hack, a drunk, an idiot, or his work may simply not be worth reading (that’s the polite way of saying that his opinions ain’t worth shit)..

    George Heymont

  4. I understand the rule “no reading reviews backstage” for the EXACT same reason I and every castmember I’ve known has broken it: reviews produce a visceral reaction in the reader. Earlier this year I had to bow out of a show and EVERY critic who reviewed the finished show pointed to the same weak-link-in-an-otherwise-strong-production: the guy who played my role. I’ll admit to feeling a great deal of schadenfreude in watching them all pick him apart, especially after having been called the weak link in earlier plays.

    Reviews, like awards, are things we tell ourselves don’t matter so as to disguise how much they do. As someone who appreciates the remarkably similar philosophies of Bruce Lee and Isadora Duncan (“Take only what you need and dump the rest”), I try tune out most of them and pay listen to those which have something of value I can use in the future.

    When several critics all point out the same problem, like a noticeable plot hole, then that’s something to keep an eye on in the future.

  5. Lily Janiak says:

    curious to know what folks think of this model I’ve been kicking around for a while: Say I assembled a small group of critics who were generally respected for (at least at first) a web-only publication. This would probably start as just theater because that’s what I know but could eventually include other arts as well. To support it there’d be a subscription and/or a commission model. Do you think individual artists, companies or audience members would be into that? I’m thinking that at first it might start as commissioning. Like say a theater commissioned Rob Avila, who’s hands down the best writer about theater in the Bay Area, to write a super in-depth piece about their show, a combined interview and review, a piece with the kind of context that Claire talks about in her post. I’m thinking that a lot of the big theater companies would pay good money to support that kind of coverage of their work; articles like that start REAL conversations and elevate the art. Obviously, the issue here is editorial control: Can you bite the hand that feeds you? The site’s articles might not have the snappy quips that I’m fond of, but little SF criticism does anyway these days. And maybe not every article on the site would be of that type; perhaps just some, and those could subsidize other kinds of writing as well. I’d also be interested in pursuing grants to support the work, but, partly inspired by Piano Fight Productions, I’m not sure I want to depend on that. I’m thinking there could be many different subscription or membership levels, and that there would be a fair amount of content that’s not behind a paywall at all (or maybe just a preview of every article). The important thing is to have a super-affordable level, for any cash-strapped artist, that still gets them supporting criticism. IS THIS TMI FOR PEOPLE? SHOULD I STOP TALKING NOW? Would LOVE to know what y’all think.

    • In addition to the “bite the hand that feeds” problem, there’s the danger of subscribing theatres only accepting critics they like. It’s why in a perfect world there’d be no chance for conflict of interest with critic and artist.

      In fact, that’s what I genuinely like about the “democracy” of the internet: while the opinions might not all be refined, most of them can come unsolicited.

  6. Nicole Gluckstern says:

    For the record I have covered both Hoodslam and Tourettes Without Regrets and consider them to be highly inventive and “legitimate” theatrical events. Lily also covered TWR if I’m not mistaken. Were these not “legitimate” reviews because they were blog posts? Just curious how we are defining “legitimate” in this context.

  7. Rob Ready says:

    I should add to my comments above that while I do think there are many unprofessional critics, there is just as high a percentage of unprofessional theater makers.

    Also, Lily, THESE ARE AWESOME IDEAS. I think the two key things to making that successful are:

    1) Gathering a really great group of critics – young, diverse, excellent writers and who have a good sense of theater in all it’s different forms.

    2) Branding / marketing of the site. Bitter Lemons in LA is good example. At this point, I think Rotten Tomatoes could start putting out it’s own reviews and make dough that way (though they probably don’t need to). Essentially, you have to build the brand well enough that the general public knows to look at that site for good reviews of live performances.

  8. Nicole Gluckstern says:

    So that last comment was specific to what Rob wrote, but I wanted to address the greater post as well, because it’s an interesting topic, and also a wider conundrum that I think arts criticism in general is struggling to answer. And that is the question: who/what is arts criticism actually being written for?

    Is it for the benefit of an artist, that they might be able to reflect on the critics observations and utilize their input in the creation of future works? If so, wouldn’t a letter suffice? Particularly if the artist in question “doesn’t read reviews”? Why not a system of peer-to-peer reviews and critiques? Wouldn’t that be a more direct method of generating usable feedback?

    Is arts criticism being written for the greater public, to be used as a barometer for potential audiences to gauge how they themselves might enjoy a certain work? Possibly, but most people I know looking for something to do on a Friday night are going to decide what to see based on a number of factors. There’s an actor they particularly like, or a director they follow. The theme or format or historical context or even a convenient proximity to BART appeals to them. Chances are their mind is half made up before they even get around to checking if a particular show even got any reviews, and will keep their mind made up regardless of what the reviewer in question has to say. How many concert tickets have you bought in your life based on a review the band got the night before? Me neither.

    Stuart brings up the marketing angle, but is it really the critic’s job to market a show? To generate pull quotes and swell the ticket sales? That doesn’t seem to explain the (almost) “reviewless” successes of entities like Tourettes Without Regrets, or Endgames, or The Lost Church, or Viracocha, or anything remotely underground, and besides which, it would seem that marketing is the job of the publicist, not the audience.

    Or rather, is the role of criticism to start conversations and contextualize certain works or certain aspects of it for a broader audience? That probably is one of the greatest underlying motivators for the work, but again, if it’s not reaching an audience then just the people specifically interested in the topic already (or not even them), then frankly it’s not much of a conversation. Arts writing should be able to get people talking and thinking about art even if they’re not directly involved (either as creators or consumers), and as long as the outlets for such writing keep shrinking, then the scope and impact of the writing will also continue to shrink. And will the scope and impact of the arts shrink with it? We’ll always still have creators in our midst. But if you put on a play in the forest and no-one is there to hear it, will it still make a sound? That’s something we all need to be thinking about.

    The more “traditional” media outlets shrink, so too will “traditional” criticism. It’s up to all of us to decide what the future of the form will look like and what role(s) it will perform. We can start that by having more conversations like these.

  9. Charles Kruger says:

    As a reviewer, I find this excellent reading, with many points well taken. I do not see the point, though, of being “openly critical” of other reviewers. I have my opinions in that regard, but I mostly keep them to myself. There are reviewers I respect and there are some whose qualifications I doubt. Enough of that.

    I especially appreciate the writers’s call for reviewers to have a sense of history. When I review a play, I always think first of history and context. Then, if it’s a revival, I’m asking whether the production seems to be cognizant of a play’s history and whether the director has brought new light to the material, or presented a traditional interpretation with particular skill. The last question I ask (if I ask it at all) is: Does this entertain me? Who the f**k cares? I see my role as helping to educate my readers to appreciate ways of viewing a play, to recognize what makes good acting, good direction and good playwriting, to understand how to bring real effort to their viewing and to be co-creators of the theatre experience. Great theatre requires great audiences. The first responsibility of the critic is to help audiences be great.

    I really doubt that any negative criticism I have ever made of a play has been of much value to any director or producer. If the criticism has validity, they probably already knew. I am happiest when I am able to see something a director has noticed and polished that the average audience might miss. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to tell an artist: yes, I saw that! Look what you did! It wasn’t wasted!

    Above all, I relish it when an audience member says to me, “Oh, wow, you helped me to see something wonderful in that piece that I might not have noticed.”

    On the rare occasions when I pan a production, I lose sleep. It hurts me and it hurts people I respect and care about. But I do try to be attentive, open-minded, willing to work to get something that might seem obscure at first, and always enthusiastic for our fabulous invalid.

    It’s nice, too, to think that something I say may get someone to go to the theatre. I am always delighted when a theatre is able to take something I’ve said to help promote a worthy production.

    Although I know that a good or bad review can sell or prevent the sale of a ticket, I am always focussed on the big picture. I hope that folks who look at my reviews find themselves thinking, “Hmmmm…. seems like there’s a lot of good, interesting theatre around here that I should know about. I ought to go more often.” While I may say something good or bad about a particular production, my over-arching goal is for people to talk and think and get excited about theatre and want to go, often, and see for themselves.

    There you have it: a reviewer’s 2c.

  10. Because the media landscape for arts criticism has changed so rapidly in the past decade, there are several considerations I would offer with regard to the role of the critic.

    First and foremost, although the critic is reporting on a specific arts event, the critic’s readers are not necessarily in the same market where the event is taking place. Think of how many people read reviews in the New York Times arts section even if they will not be going to New York anytime in the foreseeable future.

    Here’s the part that most people heavily involved in local theatre forget: Plays travel. Actors travel. If someone reads an interesting review of a play or performer, they might be interested to attend a performance if either one of them shows up in a future local subscription season. A theatre producer in another city may read a review and think ‘Hey, that’s an interesting play, maybe I should look into it.” One of Ben Fisher’s plays got an out-of-town production because someone 3,000 miles away read a positive review I had written that appeared on The Huffington Post. So think globally, not just locally.

    Second, the documentation and insight a critic provides should not be counted on to pull quotes with the expectation of immediately boosting ticket sales. One reason is that many shows have relatively brief runs – maybe two weeks, maybe a one-night stand. However, a critic who knows what he’s writing about can offer strong insights on a production’s weaknesses, a playwright’s insight (or lack thereof), and problems a theater company might be facing now or in the future.

    Third, a critic’s write-up shows that someone with a critical function felt that a certain production was important or viable enough to attend. This is less important for immediate box office returns than it is for future fundraising – to build a dossier which shows potential donors that an arts company is creating exciting work which demands attention and support. Such reviews may also be valuable to include in press packets for future productions.

    Finally, a good arts critic is essentially an arts advocate and arts educator. Since many of us are now writing in blog format (for example, I use Blogspot) there is solace in knowing that our work will remain on Google’s servers and be available to search engines for people anywhere and at any time. Some of the people who read my blog are arts professionals I’ve known over the years who are now living in places like Houston, Miami, Bangkok, Melbourne, etc. When it comes to independent filmmakers who can’t afford huge marketing budgets, having one’s work written up ANYWHERE is invaluable in terms of being able to include links on social media to spread the word about your work. For theatre artists, it can help beef up a website, Facebook page, or entertain friends, fans and family.

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