Lately, I’ve been wondering what to do about my own leaky faucet when I’m watching a show. What happens to those reactions that one just doesn’t have time to catch? In Analyzing Performance: Theater, Dance, and Film, Patrice Pavis champions the drips, distinguishing between analysis as reconstruction, the typical mode of criticism, whereby the critic collects and shapes his thoughts after the performance itself, and analysis as reportage, where virtually no drip is left behind:
Analysis as reportage could have live radio sports reporting as its model; such an analysis would comment on the developments of a performance as it unfolds…This would entail dealing with the performance from within, in the heat of the action: reproducing the detail and impact of events, directly experiencing everything that moves the spectator at the actual moment of performance…Ideally, reportage-analysis of this kind should be carried out during the performance; the spectator-analyst would react immediately, only becoming conscious of her reactions just after they have been expressed…Most traces of these reactions are lost, however; for in Western culture, theater spectators,… particularly with text-based theater, are barely authorized to express impressions, reactions, and perceptions openly; they are expected to wait until the end of the performance to express them. Therefore an important part of these immediate impressions is lost forever, at least buried away beneath memories and rationalizations of past emotions a posteriori.
In taking notes as I watch performances, I try to capture my reactions in the moment, but those usually fail to translate directly into reviews for a number of reasons. First, my notes don’t always make sense after the fact, even when my handwriting is legible and I’m not writing on top of another note I already made. I have so many reactions, many of them unconscious, to each individual moment that before I can even begin to record one of them in my nonsense-shorthand, the next moment is already over, and I’ve missed it.
(A page of my highly intelligible performance notes. I've often wondered if these babies secretly belong in a poem—or a play!)
But I’m also not sure that pure reportage would make for compelling criticism. Much of what we value in any kind of good writing is synthesis and analysis. Stream-of-consciousness would be too easy to write and too frustrating to read.
Hilton Als, in a (fairly) recent review of Master Class, a revival of Terrence McNally’s play about opera singer and teacher Maria Callas, starring Tyne Daly, achieves an exemplary balance of the two modes. He shares the way his thoughts developed over the course of the performance, while still crafting them into a narrative:
During the intermission, I found myself wondering how Daly and her excellent director, Stephen Wadsworth, would keep all this intellectual and emotional splendor aloft. Though they’d captured my heart with the first half, there was the worry that exhaustion or lack of imagination would cause the acting or the directing to topple…
What Daly understands about her role as Maria Callas is that Callas can’t put herself on: she doesn’t distinguish between her life and her performance. Her life is a career, and her career is her life—a fact that becomes even clearer in the second act, when she must deal with a strong-willed diva-in-training, Sharon Graham (the appropriately haughty Sierra Boggess).
So much criticism omits the critic’s story of being at the performance. A writer (and most of the time I, too) presents a review as though he’d been an unmoved blank slate during the course of the performance, only to have his thoughts arrive at curtain call exactly as they’d appear in his article: inexorable, self-evident sentences and paragraphs, signed, sealed and delivered.
Approaching the process as Als does requires more personal sharing: In this article, he mentions not only another show he’d seen recently but also how his interpretation of the performance was heavily influenced by a number of his gay, opera aficionado friends who’d died of AIDS in the 80s.
But where it’s thoughtful and space allows, the inclusion of personal material makes a review more honest. Criticism, after all, is inherently subjective, and it’s never the writers who discuss their own relationship to a work who make the galling mistake of sounding like theirs is the final word.
I’m considering a few ways of attempting to tell my own audience member narrative in my upcoming review of Exit, Pursued by a Bear (at Crowded Fire). We’ll see if it works—Stay tuned!