In compiling his top ten of 2011 list, the Times’ Ben Brantley wrote, “This was a year for celebrating both the enduring power of traditional theater and the creative stealth bombs that can be planted within it, for putting new and explosive life into classic vessels.” On the other hand, Terry Teachout, of the WSJ, called this “the year of the revival.” For his own list, Charles Isherwood found a trend in “American playwriting that strives to tell subtler if less handily marketable truths.” And Bay Area critic Chloe Veltman has called 2011 “the Year of the Puppeteer.”
I’m not going to do a top ten list, and I’m not going to reveal my descriptor for 2011 (at least, not until my next review comes out Tuesday night). But I will use this arbitrary marker of time as an occasion to reflect on my criticism. Obviously, the big event of the year was switching papers. But the smaller developments (and some are quite small) deserve contemplation, too. I’ve now reread every published review of the year (no small undertaking), and here are some thoughts:
Most reviews I now remember so poorly that I can reread them in genuine suspense. Sometimes they even seem like they were written by another person. I made some mistakes I’ve mostly overcome (thanks largely to my new editor), like the information overload in this clunker:
These pre-show antics are far from the only contemporary allusions director Jon Tracy makes in Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the Joad family’s journey from the dustbowl to California during the Great Depression.
But there were also some mistakes I still make: wordy transitions, excessive colons and dashes. (Periods just feel so harsh!) On the other hand, a few reviews still feel like well-written essays in their own right, and some descriptions were effective enough to conjure images I’d forgotten about. Snark, as I’ve written elsewhere, looks harsher than deserved in retrospect. And I like most of my conclusions that introduced a bigger idea or broader context, to give the show and the review more meaning, but once in a while that device ended up looking cheesy, probably when I tried to force it on the review instead of letting it emerge naturally.
One idea that came up again and again was “insistence on the stage,” a phrase which I should attribute to one of my professors, Larry Eilenberg. (Just another plagiarizing grad student!) It refers to a work of art that could only take place, or at least resonate fully, in live stage performance—not, like many plays, on the page, the television or the silver screen. It’s been helpful to refer to when I’m trying to understand why I’m bored with or enchanted by a production. More broadly, it also reminds me that I need to constantly ask myself what performance is, how it operates, and why it’s special. When I keep those questions in mind, as I hope to more consistently in 2012, my reviewing becomes more informed, more engaging and more accessible.