Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Pet Peeves in Arts Journalism

Marissa Skudlarek pens her penultimate column.

We’re winding down Theater Pub and winding down the blog, so as the longest-serving blog contributor, I thought I would use my next-to-last column to complain about my biggest arts-journalism pet peeves.

(This is not meant as an indictment of anyone who has written for this blog, just of general trends and irksome phrases that bother me.)

“The Bard” — This nickname is just so corny, promotes a false idea of Shakespeare as some kind of Merrie England wandering minstrel, and contributes to the problematic belief that Shakespeare is the greatest genius who ever lived and we mere mortals are unworthy of him. (There’s a reason that overzealous admiration of Shakespeare is called “Bardolatry.”) And yet I feel like the use of this phrase is only becoming more common because “The Bard” is 8 characters while “Shakespeare” is 11. (Thanks, Twitter!) Can’t we just agree to call him “Shax”?

“Penned” — This is a pretentious, cutesy word to use as a synonym for “wrote.” When I hear the word “wrote,” with its grinding r and hard t, I picture someone laboring over a messy notebook with a sputtering pen, forcing the words out. When I hear “penned,” I picture a lady in a negligee, sitting at a dainty writing table with a quill pen poised in her hand. Authoresses pen. Writers write.

“The play’s the thing” — I have seen countless theater-related articles headlined “The Play’s the Thing” and if this was ever clever or funny, it no longer is. As a child, my parents once convinced me to use “The Play’s the Thing” as the title for some book report or essay that I wrote about theater. I am still ashamed of having done that.

“Unbelievable” — In slang, “unbelievable” is a compliment and a synonym for “amazing,” but I always find it ludicrous when it is used in theater reviews as a compliment. The goal of mainstream, realist theater is believability, so when a critic writes something like “John Doe was unbelievable in the role of Willy Loman!” and means it as praise, the critic just ends up sounding like an idiot.

“Kinetic,” “melodic” — Writing about theater really means writing about many different art forms that combine to create a show. A critic reviewing a new musical may find herself evaluating the story, the dialogue, the music, the lyrics, the singing, the acting, the dancing, the direction, the sets, the costumes, and the lighting. It’s hard to write about abstract art forms like dance and music, though, and many theater critics have no special training in those disciplines. (In his book, Sondheim complains that music critics never review Broadway scores and theater critics often know nothing about music.) So in order to say something and sound knowledgeable, critics often fall back on phrases like “kinetic choreography” or “melodic songs.” But do those phrases really tell you anything?

“Stoppard/Sondheim has a heart after all” — This has been a staple of theater criticism since the 1980s. Both of these writers (whom I admire immensely, if it wasn’t obvious) came to prominence in the ’60s with works of clever, glittering wit; then, in the ’80s, critics started to perceive a new emotional depth in their work. You can quibble with this reductive description of their careers, but, more to the point, it’s no longer news to point out that the men who wrote Arcadia or “Not A Day Goes By” are perfectly capable of breaking your heart.

Lack of knowledge of the past — Over the past year, I’ve read articles claiming that “the Schuyler Sisters are the best female musical-theater characters ever” and “Rey from Star Wars is the best movie heroine ever.” I like the Schuyler Sisters and Rey just fine, I am pleased at the increased attention paid to female representation in art, but to claim that these are the “best characters ever” is appallingly shortsighted. Yeah, yeah, the Internet demands hyperbole and most people could afford to be more wide-ranging in the art that they consume, but wanting to write about how much you love a recent work of art is no reason to put down all the art that came before it.

Too much knowledge of the past — At the same time, it really annoys me when older critics spend the bulk of their theater reviews reminiscing about how the original production did it. I feel like this reinforces the belief that theater is for old, rich people who’d rather look to past glories than attempt to push the art form forward. I was fortunate enough to see The Producers in 2001 starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, but when it’s revived in 2036 starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Justin Bieber, I hope I can take their performances on their own merits.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If she has ever committed any of these sins in her own writing, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

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In For a Penny: Everyone’s a Cricket

Charles Lewis III, opening the new year with a chirp!

chirping_cricket copy

“In criticism, I will be bold, and as sternly, absolutely just with friend and foe. From this purpose nothing shall turn me.”
Edgar Allan Poe, in a letter to Joseph Snodgrass, 17 Jan. 1841

Considering the Theater Pub theme for January was supposed to be “downtime and balance”, it’s been… interesting to read how my fellow ‘Pub writers have interpreted that. I won’t pretend that I’m immune to the same anxiety – if you read my “Running in Place” piece from November, you know that isn’t true – but I’ve forced myself to take some deep breaths and enjoy some well-earned relaxation. Case in point: last week was my birthday and I successfully avoided a lot of headaches by cutting off social media, stopping at a few bars, and heading to The Castro to finally see Birdman. I was surprised to see that it was a film about theatre. Yes, I know, Will wrote about it, but – whether for film or theatre – I tend to avoid such write-ups before a show so that I can go in as “fresh” as possible. And given that all the advertising sells it specifically as the story of a washed-up film star looking for a comeback, you’ll understand if I wasn’t exactly expecting A Midwinter’s Tale. Besides, I still liked it. I didn’t find it the masterpiece everyone else has, but I thought it was well-performed, beautifully-shot, and had an ending that some are calling ambiguous, but I’m calling beautifully tragic.

Still… there was one thing that didn’t sit right with me as I watched it; one character really. And it’s a damn shame that with so many great characters that were over-the-top, yet ground, this one damn-near ruined the whole show for me. It’s a character that personified one of my most hated tropes. No, not The Magic Negro, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or the emasculated husband whose spirit is killed by his shrewish wife. It wasn’t the socially awkward intellectual, the “ugly” pretty girl with glasses, or the woman in the refrigerator either. No, dear reader, it was that was that one character you expect to show up in every clichéd “artist story”; that foul creature who brings only pain and misery wherever s/he goes. That’s right, folks, I’m talking about The Evil Critic.

Now don’t get me wrong: I understand the Fountainhead-esque urge to include such a caricature. Artists to put a lot of themselves into their work, so it only makes sense that they take criticism of said work personally – I say that as someone who has been singled out in reviews as being the weak link in a production. But putting aside the fact that this clichéd character has been done to death, its mere presence suggests that 1 – artists are beyond reproach simply because they’ve created something, and 2 – anyone who would criticize said work would only do so out of spite from not having created any of worth. Those ideas don’t just bore me, they offend me.

Say what you will about the overall increase or decrease of critical quality over the years, constructive criticism is invaluable to the artistic process. When done right, criticism isn’t really about the appeal of a work to public at large, but rather what the work says (if anything) beyond its surface interpretation, how it compares to other works that have done the same, and what it adds to the legacy of work that has come before. As Roger Ebert often said “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about what it’s about.” So when I so when see so many one-sided artistic interpretations of critics, it offends me because it implies that artists are just cry-babies who want to lash out at anyone who doesn’t go along with what they say (y’know, kinda like the way they show critics).

That’s not to say that critics are above getting personal in their reviews – they’re human beings. There are critics that hold personal grudges or just flat-out refuse to take seriously the work of a dedicated artist for petty reasons known only to the critic. In the near-decade I’ve been involved in professional theatre, every artistic director I’ve known (along with a few writers and directors) have shown me legitimate examples of critics with obvious axes to grind. They exist. We’ve all seen them.

But the critics can also be the ones to see the value of your work when you’re not bringing in the big audiences. In fact, I think that’s what gets me about Evil Critic characters like Ratatouille’s Anton Ego and Birdman’s Tabitha Dickinson: they come from the minds of two artists who once had nothing but critical praise when their films weren’t box office successes. I mean, I get when it comes from someone like M. Night Shyamalan (who had, then lost, the love of critics) or Roland Emmerich (who never had it), but seeing it come from critical darlings Brad Bird and Alejandro González Iñárritu strikes me as incredibly hypocritical.

Who is this supposed to be? Everyone who actually liked The Iron Giant?

Who is this supposed to be? Everyone who actually liked The Iron Giant?

But if you take the word of playwright-turned-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin – a writer whose work I admire, but whose ego is notoriously easy to bruise – the problem isn’t what is said so much as who is saying it. From The West Wing to The Newsroom, he’s used his characters to express his belief that giving the masses a voice through the internet is nothing but a detriment. That’s funny coming from a guy who claims to pride himself on freedom of speech.

Yes, the internet has made it possible for an anonymous troll to have his/her opinion heard as well as any established scholar. Yes, it’s created a Möbius strip of scrutiny in which everyone’s opinion about an opinion is subject to someone’s opinion. But in case you hadn’t noticed, that’s the price one pays for living amongst human beings and their ability to string together (mostly) cohesive thoughts. Everyone with a voice has the right to use it, just as YOU have the right to IGNORE them, if you so choose. That’s the not-so-hidden secret of receiving feedback: it isn’t the end. You take the feedback, digest it wholly, and take away whatever is necessary for you to improve. If a particular feedback source isn’t providing that, choose another. Choose several. Choose however many it takes for you to show improvement, but don’t complain just because someone exercised their human right to speak out. Every time I hear someone complain that their work “didn’t have the right audience” or “was presented to a public that wasn’t ready for it”, I always think back to one of my favorite quotes from Theater Pub’s own Cody Rishell (bold emphasis mine): “You are an artist. An artist cannot control his or her audience. You want people to talk about your work, good or bad. If you do not, you are a hobbyist.”

When I finally decided that this would be my column topic for this week, two incidents immediately went through my mind. The first was a memory of when I was offered a really, really great role in a classic play, but had to decline due to a previous commitment. When I went to go see the production, they guy they got to replace me was… well, he wasn’t the best thing in the play. At all. The only thing better than watching him crash and burn on stage was how all the critics singled him out as the downside to the show. In private moments of schadenfreude, I would boast to myself “That’s what happens when you don’t cast ME!”

The second incident that came to mind is one that regular ‘Pub readers know all too well. I actually love this because it’s the perfect example of what I’ve been trying to say: that the things we do and say don’t exist in a vacuum. A playwright didn’t like public perceptions of women, so she responded to it with her art. Her art was performed publicly, so a critic responded to it. His criticism was made public, so it too was responded to. And then that response was responded to. And so on and so on. That’s what’s so great about what we do as artists, we create something intangible that has a lasting effect on all who experience it.

I’ll admit that the older I get, my reaction to can be equal parts Zen and hair-pulling. On the one hand, I’ll hear that there’s a critic in tonight’s audience and think to myself “I’ve spent the last few months putting together something that you want to destroy with a two-star rating? Bring it on, muthafucka!!” On the other hand, even when I’ve seen my name mentioned positively in print I tend to fall on the Barton Fink reaction of “Well, they’ll be wrapping their fish with it in the morning.” I don’t know how others deal with it, this is just what works for me. This is why I’m not partial to straw man interpretations of critics; they come expecting the best, but your definition of that might be completely different than theirs.

At the end of the day, there’s only one thing I take away from every review I read – which I hope is similar to what every critic takes away from my work – what did you learn? Did you learn about the lives of characters like the ones in the show? Did you learn how to arrive early before the show starts? Did you learn that a black box production of a 17-person play might not be the best idea? Did you that the artistic director of this company is only interested in putting on productions that represent his/her myopic worldview? Hell, did you learn that the bar down the street from the theatre has the best garlic fries in the city? Above all, what did you learn?

If you can answer that question, then a two-star review might just be worth your trouble.