Should a critic socialize or engage with the artists in his/her field? Or should she remain detached and aloof, the better to evaluate a work objectively?
I was thinking about this question during a performance of Mrs. Warren's Profession at CalShakes this weekend. One of the show's leads, Anna Bullard, and I worked together last year, and in this current production, I occasionally saw glimpses of Anna, the actress -- a facial expression here, an intonation there -- in the way she portrayed Vivie, her character. Of course, I don't expect an actor to completely dispense with her sense of self in playing someone else -- on the contrary. Especially for a pro like Anna, the selective harnessing of personal experience and physical repertoire can help an actor relate to a character. Did those recognitions make me unable to sustain my disbelief? I don't think so: If anything, catching bits of Anna's lovely personality in her performance only made the experience more pleasurable for me.
Fortunately, because Anna performed so well, I won't have to tackle a more difficult question: Had I criticisms of her work, would I be able to voice them candidly in my upcoming review? Were I a true professional, the answer would be yes. And other Bay Area critics I've spoken with have said yes for themselves, despite the tightly-knit nature of our community. A few, so I've heard, have even started a theatre salon, in which professionals across the discipline -- critics, actors, directors, designers, writers -- meet periodically to discuss, "candidly," the artistic issues of our time and region.
Yet not all are so chipper about this epidemic of bonhomie. I've heard one editor complain that San Francisco's critics "dance around" actual criticism. And Theatre Bay Area has recently stated a desire to "hold up a new standard, challenging ourselves as an organization and striving to foster excellence -- especially artistic excellence -- in our region's theatre community." Translation: It's time to take some responsibility for the quality of our theatre.
I wonder, therefore, if critics are really as candid as they say they are. I wonder, too, if more candor would even increase artistic quality, or if criticisms would be taken too personally, the more vitriolic among them overstating their authors' cases and killing artists' creative impulses.
In any case, I know I always think more carefully when reviewing a production whose participants I know personally. When you want someone to succeed as an artist, it's more difficult to succeed as a critic.