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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Working Title: Old School Wargames & Desk Sets

This week Will Leschber asks…Would you like to play a game of Global Thermonuclear Office Dynamics?

Technology is timeless. Sure, it’s a marker that can pinpoint a place in history with ease: Computers that would fill whole rooms in the 50’s, the brick cell phone of the 80’s, the you-thought-you-were-so-cool 90’s pager, the ever present smartphone of today and tomorrow. Yet, technology and the keystones therein are just another tip in the waves of change.

Which of these buttons turns on Netflix again?!

Which of these buttons turns on Netflix again?!

Recently, I’ve been re-listening to a band that I fell in love with in the early ’00s (Isn’t it crazy that we can now be nostalgic about the 2000’s, Whoa mental-timeshift!) Just like the chunky cell phone I had at the time, the music of Alt-rock Indie band The Get Up Kids served as a marker to a phase in my life now ebbing away. It’s an odd thing stepping back and thinking, I feel further away from that time now than I ever have and yet the emotional link is the same. You know what I’m talking about; Think back to plays you worked on, bands you threw all your churning emotional youth into, School clubs, video-game worlds or any healthy obsession that took so much more of our time when we had more time to spare. My point is the emotional distance to those things can feel so thin, and the linear distance ever expanding. Revisiting these things can be like relating to an earlier version yourself; maybe a technological equivalent would be using your modern iPhone 6 ears to listen to a iPod Touch version of yourself.

iamyourfather

There are no rules for nostalgia cycles, yet the way I look back has changed as time goes on. Being in a distinctly different phase of your life will do that. Glancing from 27 to 20 feels much different than looking from 33 in the same direction. I’ve come to think that being two steps removed from a particular time in your life (or relationship you had, or school you attended, plays you worked on, acted in, directed, etc) is the minimum distance to get a semblance of perspective. Or maybe that’s just me starting to set my experiences in the solid amber of memory.

The beautiful thing about looking through amber is that everything has a golden sheen, and (If you’ve seen Jurassic Park as many times as I have you know…) magnifying your petrified past can occasionally cast accurate light on what is captured there. Looking back to earlier eras can fulfill a nostalgic niche and also remind us that so much of our experience is universal. This week No Nude Men and The EXIT Theater open The Desk Set, a workplace comedy set in the 1950s where the four leading women in the research department for a television studio are facing technological advancements which threaten to take their jobs. Technology taking jobs…sound familiar!?

Compleat Computer Comic

This old theme is constantly new. More interestingly, re-visiting human relationship dynamics, well that’s always in vogue! How we relate to one another proves a curious conduit to another time. Inter-office power dynamics, male and female roles inside and outside the workplace, the social tools readily implemented by each sex: How much have these things changed in 65 years? Perhaps, Desk Set is the perfect tool to make such comparisons. Check it out and you tell me.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide you all with some relevant film offering to wet your palettes before or after your play viewing. I reached out to the ever exuberant, Kitty Torres (who is one of the excellent actors featured in Desk Set) to help pull some fitting cinematic recommendations. She had not one but THREE superb suggestions. Take it away Kitty:

Kitty Torres as Ruthie in Desk Set.

Kitty Torres as Ruthie in Desk Set.

I would have to say that the top three films (because I cannot just pick one) would be:

1.) Adam’s Rib (another Hepburn/Tracy film, 1949) for it’s relevance to women in the workplace as well as the impact it had on relationships at home during the 50s.

2.) WarGames (1983) mostly because of the relevance between computers and people on the civilian level as well as the political level (and because I adore Matthew Broderick in this)
and

3.) His Girl Friday (1940) for the relevance of office themes, fast talk, quick wit and Roselyn Russel.

Matthew Broderick, making hoodies tech-chic since '83.

Matthew Broderick, making hoodies tech-chic since ’83.

So if you want to play a game with Matthew Broderick, or listen as fast of possible through the newsroom of His Girl Friday, or maybe even make a case for the opposing romantic lawyers of the Oscar nominated Adam’s Rib…DO IT and then go see The Desk Set. Now may be the best time for looking back.

WarGames & His Girl Friday are available to stream on Netflix, Huluplus, and other streaming sites. And Adam’s Rib can be found for rent on Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms. Tickets for The Desk Set can be found HERE!