But, then, what the hell is theater criticism anyway? It’s like pornography, as Justice Potter Stewart might say: You know it when you see it. Close window. Delete history.
But then, what responses are valid when a local playwright asks us not to “review” a play? What is a legitimate “theater review” in the eyes of a professional organization of theater critics?
In my estimation
I got a review request a few months ago from a PR professional paid to promote MJ Kaufman’s Destiny Estimate. A Phindie contributor said he’d like to review it.
I admire the work of several actors in the play and Kaufman is a talked-about and well-produced playwright with local connections. I included the play in a preview round-up for another publication and put it on the Phindie calendar, so I thought I’d ask for press tickets too, just to come see it.
A couple days before opening, the producers asked that the show not be reviewed. Actually, they never got in touch with me, but I read about it on another online arts site. I reached out to my reviewer and told him if he still wanted to review I’d pay for a ticket. He didn’t want me to do that, and he ended up reviewing it for a different publication.
I still wanted to see the play, but I didn’t feel right asking for press tickets to a show that rejected any critical analysis from press. What if I had wanted to tweet my opinion of the play? Or mention it critically in a review of another piece featuring the performers or written by the same playwright? What if I wanted to address it by publishing a piece of writing on a website I run interrogating why we review plays and what qualifies as theater criticism?
So I paid for my own ticket (they gave me an unrequested industry-price ticket, which was weird and nice) and here I am, not reviewing a play I didn’t want to review anyway.
What is a review?
Obviously, there’s a much easier way to not review a play.
What inspired this more expansive non-review was a letter a friend of mine, irregular contributor to this site Jessica Foley, received from the American Theatre Critics Association.
Rejecting Jess’s application to join the professional organization, the chair of ATCA’s membership board Anne Siegel wrote, “The reviews you submitted do not meet our standards for … understanding the basics of what must be included in a theater review.”
Anne listed some specific “off-putting features”: “profanity”, “comparisons between the play and today’s political climate”, “editorial statements about … personal political views”, and, um, “discussing the set design … in the first few sentences”.
At least one of the pieces of recent theater writing Jess submitted for consideration was published on this site. It included profanity and talk about today’s political climate, yet I filed it under the categories “theater” and “reviews”. What does it mean if ATCA disagrees?
Perhaps, I thought, it could point me towards a response to Destiny Estimate that would satisfy my desire to examine the world around me and share my analytical response to art produced for public consumption.
Can I respond to a play without “reviewing” it.
Is there life on Mars?
Destiny Estimate was okay.
This one actor, Melissa Krodman, was fucking amazing. Her Louisa May Alcott combined an affected representation of nineteenth-century mannerisms with contemporary references and concerns. Kevin Meehan and Jenna Horton played along really well in these scenes. Jenna also played a wheelchair-bound old man and her body awareness as a larger male person was spot on. I liked the music.
It was only 80 minutes long with no intermission, which is a good length for a play. Playwrights shouldn’t make their plays any longer unless they’re really sure it’ll be worth it and then they’re probably wrong.
I’m a person who went to that play and those are some of the things I think about it.
The American Theatre Critics Association and Me: A romance
I thought about applying to ATCA last year, when their annual membership conference came to Philadelphia and membership gave a discount to registration. I didn’t. Work obligations would have precluded my attendance at most of the workshops and lectures. Of the plays offered to conference-goers, I was already seeing those I wanted to see and purposefully not seeing those I didn’t want to see.
There were other reasons I didn’t apply.
This isn’t my first encounter with the critical policing of the ATCA establishment. Last year, while serving as a member of the ATCA executive committee, local critic Wendy Rosenfield questioned the credibility, quality, and ethics of anyone who would write a review for free. This snobbish attitude, frequently stated, already characterized the membership of ATCA in my mind. I responded. (We’re cool now and I think she’s doing a good job with Broad Street Review.)
The week of the ATCA conference, I did reach out to the local chair to see if I could attend the keynote address, on diversity in criticism. Trish McFadden, a precociously talented 21-year-old African American reviewer, had been corresponding with the speaker, Diep Tran. Trish had published a piece on Phindie taking white reviewers (including me) to task for the way they wrote about plays by black playwrights.
I was told Trish’s attendance, and mine, “wouldn’t be fair” to conference-goers who had paid to attend the whole event. Yeah, fair enough, but also ironic (or is it just 90s-pop-song ironic?). Oh well. I worked that day anyway; Trish is no longer reviewing.
Thanks for sharing
I’m not going to write a review of Destiny Estimate, but maybe you’ll see me and searching for something to talk about you’ll remember I like theater and you’ll say “have you seen any good plays recently?” and i’ll say “no.”
Or wait, maybe you’ll say “have you seen any plays recently?” and I’ll say “I saw Destiny’s Estimate [sic]” and you’ll ask “how was it?” and I’ll say “it was okay”. And that would be a truth.
But if I wrote a review I wouldn’t just say “that was okay”, I’d want to say why and how. I’d want to attempt to engage the playwright and director and actors and designers’ intentions and assess how successfully they were in achieving those intentions and interrogate the specific ways in which they fell short. Also, maybe I’d be expected to mention the lights or music and give a plot precis and somehow tie all that into a coherent readable structure. 400 words.
That’s not easy.
Maybe I’d do that well, and I’d write a good review, successfully intellectualizing that reaction i had that “this isn’t very good but it’s okay”. Maybe a few hundred people would read what I wrote. Maybe more because Melissa Krodman’s mother wanted to share the nice things I wrote about her daughter.
But you would read it and maybe have a friend in the show and think it was a “bad” review, because I’d also say the ways in which it didn’t work, and use specifics to tell you why it was unsuccessful. I’d say how MJ Kaufman tried to address grief through interrogating narrative structure but that the narrative structure stripped the grief of any emotional resonance. The company wouldn’t share my article because they didn’t really want a review, they wanted a pull-quote to post on Facebook and email en masse to everyone who ever gave them an email.
And what I wrote would just be obfuscation anyway because I spent 80 minutes of my life with mediocre art and I have relive it to say “that was okay” in a more formalized and less truthful manner.
Any club that would have me as a member
Despite my misgivings about ATCA, I had assumed that the decision on whether or not to join the organization was mine. I hadn’t considered that my writing might not fulfill “the basics of what must be included in a theater review”.
I read some of membership committee leader Anne Siegel’s reviews with this in mind. She’s a reviewer based in Milwaukee, Wisonsin, which apparently doesn’t prevent her from seeing theater, or at least Guys and Dolls (“one of the most cherished musicals in the American theater canon” as Anne puts it) and Rent (which “forever changed the direction of American musical theater”, she says).
Her reviews aren’t “bad”. They summarize the plot (check), give the production some context (check), mention the actors and designers (check), use some telling adjectives (“nuanced voice”, “choreography is second to none”, “terrific Equity actors”) to let us know what she thinks. I found a college literature textbook a few years ago which included an essay on “reviewing a play”. Anne’s reviews would pass that class.
No, they’re not bad; they’re just boring boring boring boring ass shit. There’s no personality, little indication that we’re reading a reaction by a real human to a performance by real people. The reviews are interchangeable. They’re as safe and conventional and self-congratulatory and mediocre as a lot of the theater I see and probably pretty much everything that makes it to Wisconsin.
Beautifully, she also violates the precepts she lays out to Jess, inserting editorial political sentiment into a review of a play with Pakistani-American characters (“it may heighten non-Muslims’ fears about terrorism”). Somehow, Jess’s paragraphs of Bernie bro nonsense (love you Jess!) are “pointless”, but Anne feels okay taking a lengthy aside for some bigoted anti-Muslim tripe.
But I’m less interested in Anne’s hypocrisy than her standards.
“Perhaps writing for your own blog has given you the kind of “carte blanche” [scare quotes?] that most writers do not have,” Anne writes to Jess. “Editors have a purpose in life, and I believe an editor could have helped a great deal with shaping your reviews.”
Before I started Phindie, I’d written reviews for a bunch of places. Two or three of them folded as I was contributing; one of them owed me money. At that time, Philadelphia Weekly and the Metro had just stopped publishing reviews; the Inky was shrinking, had decided to only review full equity shows and was about to embark on another round of layoffs that would include its only full-time reviewer; the City Paper was shrinking paper thin and critics had to fight for any space. It would soon fold. WHYY didn’t review and Philly mag didn’t review and when those venues started doing so it was with print cast offs, DC Metro was in DC alone, there was no thINKing Dance, Broad Street Review reviewed much less and then only big shows and it had weird guidelines that reviews be opinion pieces and the week I published a first piece there the editor published a horribly rapey editorial.
Just, I wanted an online venue that didn’t wish it was print and I didn’t want to present it as a personal blog. I wanted to write readable stuff, within a more independent and less strict set of guidelines and expectations. So I started my own site and began to post theater reviews on it.
I’m the editor. I can write whatever I want. I am my only editor. No one else will cut my political asides, question why I shared something about myself, or tell me not to say fuck. I can write in any style to any conclusion. Sometimes, that makes me lazy. I leave typos and digressions and half-baked analyses. It’s on me to stay concise and coherent and readable.
What if I submitted my portfolio to Anne and she told me I wasn’t writing reviews because she didn’t like my language or technique?
But more worryingly, what if I submitted it and she did? What if I have complete freedom to write whatever I want and yet I still write conventional, formalized theater reviews that would please a priggy, snobby Milwaukee hack?
Fuck that shit.
Please don’t review this show
Writers are assholes. I say that as a writer and asshole.
To create art with our words we use our experiences and imagination and the experiences of our friends. We dress those up, prettify, and obscure them with lies that are words.
There’s a great line in Patrick Marber’s play Closer when one character is struggling for an insult to hurl at someone who stole his wife. “You writer!” he spits out. “You liar!”
MJ Kaufman’s stated reason for writing Destiny Estimate was to “tell stories of deaths while consciously unraveling the mechanics of their storytelling.” The play’s leading character is an academic playwright, and much of the play grapples with grief through layers of academic discussion on narrative, on storytelling. There are real emotions there, truth obscured by words, covered up by the act of writing a play.
It’s probably a safe bet that Kaufman experienced grief and tried to write it out. Why would a writer want anyone to assess the success of that catharsis? What would success even look like?
I’d assumed the playwright didn’t want reviewers because the show was bad. But Kaufman was probably telling the truth: it felt too personal to be treated to shitty criticism.
Maybe there is no satisfying way to write about grief. But if we express our experiences with words and offer them to the public, we invite shitty responses from assholes. And maybe, I don’t know, maybe there is a way to write about human emotions without lies and mediocrity and maybe I wished I’d seen it when I saw Kaufman’s play.
The sister test
My heart is dead and I sometimes wonder if it’s wrong for me to review art because I find everything in this world so deeply unsatisfying. But, also, I love the theater; I like that feeling in the darkness of expectation and intimacy and hope and longing to be shown something that feels true and meaningful, and sometimes I like plays.
In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Camus compares our lives to the figure of Greek mythology, condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a hill and watch it roll to the bottom, push a boulder up a hill and watch it roll to the bottom. Life is pointless; there is no god; there is no meaning. Yes, but then what? asks Camus. We acknowledge the futility and absurdity and find meaning and contentment within that.
My sister likes theater okay. By that I mean she likes it more than almost anyone else I know who isn’t involved in it. She’ll go once or twice a year maybe, but she isn’t willing to sit through something unless she’s pretty confident it’ll be good.
So I have a test when I think I like a play. Did I like it enough that I’d recommend it to my sister. She has taste. She’s well read and likes indie music and thinks the Mural Arts Program sucks balls. She’s not going to like a Midwestern production or Broadway tour of fucking Guys and Dolls and she’s not going to want to read a shitty review of that shitty play.
Considering the essay on Sisyphus, Adam Gopnik equates Camus’s unstated, characteristically French existential question “why not kill yourself tonight?” and the preoccupation of Anglo-American philosophy, “how can we make the world a little better tomorrow?”
I like theater which seems like it was written by a human for humans; which isn’t necessarily formalized; which isn’t safe or easy; which brings a little meaning into our meaningless existence.
I want my theater to be stuff I could recommend to someone who likes cool, quality stuff.
I want my theater criticism to be like that too. And almost every time I write a play review I fall short.
A poor player
A few years ago, I watched my friend and roommate die of a heroin overdose. I came home from seeing a performance of A Doll’s House, energized by a strong rendition of a classic play. Tim was hanging out on our stoop with some of our friends. He went to get a lollipop from the local bodega. The last words he said to me before heading inside to finish his ice cream and snort some fentanyl-heavy blow were lines from Macbeth’s speech upon hearing of his wife’s death.
“Life’s but a walking shadow…”
Ten, twenty minutes later someone went inside and found Tim passed out between the bathroom and the hallway. We couldn’t wake him up.
I remember his weight as I tried to carry him to the street to get a taxi to the hospital. I’d carried drunk friends to bed, lifted a drunk Tim onto a couch, but this was different. Everything limp, heavy, ungiving.
The color of his skin: bloodless, inhuman.
His eyes: pinpoint, glassed over, colorless. Gone.
“Call an ambulance.”
CPR. The taste of vomit. The long long long long seven-minute wait for anyone to arrive. The efforts of the responders. Jefferson Hospital’s ER waiting room. The confirmation.
Loneliness. Blame. The futility of friends, of drink, of words, of things I thought I enjoyed, of time. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” said Tim.
Oh. Please don’t review this.
Destiny Estimate ran October 19-29, 2017, at Christ Church Neighborhood House. Anne Siegler stepped down from her position as chair of ATCA’s membership committee.