Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Theater Salon

I went to my first “theater salon” Sunday night.  The group, a mix of theater artists, producers and critics, has been hosting infrequent and informal gatherings for about five years.  Each meeting has a general topic with a few suggested points of inquiry; this meeting’s was theater criticism—not just public criticism, what I do, but also the less formal criticism from a peer or friend.

The event was wonderful for me for a number of reasons.  First, perhaps more than any other type of theater person, critics work alone.  If we talk to anyone while making our art, it’s our editors, and, as I’ve said before, via email.  When we complete a work, often the only satisfaction we get is in clicking the “send” button; after that it becomes official property of the digital abyss, with only our loved ones, the rare publicist and the even rarer stranger ever inclined to have a conversation about it.  Putting a group of people who share a passion together in a “salon” naturally changes all that—especially since participants hail from a mix of professions.  One of the salon’s missions is to help critics and artists see each other less as adversaries and more as colleagues.  I left feeling enlivened, remembering that much as we let the curtain divide us, we do all have the same goal: to get San Franciscans to see great theater.

It was also great for me to feel taken seriously by, well, grown-ups.  Too often I feel like a little kid who’s just pretending to do this theater critic thing, and to be honest, I hid in the bathroom for a few minutes at the beginning.  But so open were the old hands at this that I quickly went from skulking around the bar to asking clarification questions to asking questions I really cared about: Is it going too far in a review to prescribe a way for a director to fix a show?  I also got to talk to some actors of my generation, which gave me yet another sense of community.

Finally, I got some great bits of food for thought about the role of a critic.  One person suggested that a critic be like a curator, providing artistic and historical context and suggesting a way to approach an art form that many find intimidating.  Theaters just don’t make their work accessible the way museums do, the thought went.  Because audiences are more likely to read a review than they are a program insert (a claim I found dubious), part of the educating should happen in the newspaper.  That herculean responsibility is part of why I’m (re)applying to PhD programs this year.  The idealist in me believes that a review ought to have the weight and insight of a full academic paper behind it; it’ll just (hopefully) be written in more concise and intelligible prose.

Another participant proposed that a critic be like any other newspaper reporter, with theater as his/her beat.  Bernie Weiner, the former Chronicle theater critic, was held up as an example of what this philosophy of reviewing can do.  Even when he wrote a negative piece, someone said, he still got you excited about the theater.  No matter how bad a show was, he took care to identify one part that transcended the rest and describe it a way that made you want, if not to see it, at least to talk about it or keep a sharper eye on the theater scene.  I experimented with this mode in a review that will soon be published; we’ll have to see if I succeeded.

There were so many more ideas shared than I can remember.  Much as I wanted to, I didn’t take notes at the event—because that would be frightfully uncool, of course, but also because I was supposed to be a contributor, not an observer.

I’m sure these salons are the kind of event that give you a high and raise your expectations the first time you go, but I’m definitely stoked for future gatherings.

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