Monday, May 28, 2012

The Understudy, at SJ Rep

(Craig Marker and Gabe Marin in the West Coast premiere of Theresa Rebeck's play. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Criticism can be a battle against impossible numbers.

SF Weekly pays me to write five articles a month, six if I do a podcast. Beyond that, I can elect to write preview pieces for the paper's Night + Day section. But six per month is pretty much the max for reviews.

That probably sounds reasonable for a weekly paper with an online presence. But I get (I estimate) about 30-40 review requests per month, and it's getting increasingly difficult for me to pick which shows to cover. Increasingly, I opt to see those shows that contact me early -- as in, for a show that's premiering anytime in June, by May 1. What that means is that I disproportionately cover shows with well-organized publicity teams (i.e., those with money), not necessarily those with the most interesting artistic goals. For June, frustrated about all the shows I miss because I learn about them last-minute, I even asked my editor if I could hold out a while longer before I selected shows for the month, the better to include those that might only be able to send out a press release a week or two before. But even then, I only lasted a week longer than usual: All six June reviews were already scheduled more than a week before June even started.

Obviously, what this means is that I need to follow my own advice: learn to say no to publicists. Until I can do that, I might have to keep doing what I call pro bono reviews -- reviews I write without getting paid. When I was a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, I saw no problem with seeing a show for free without reviewing it because I could potentially vote to give it one of the group's annual awards, which was more than enough compensation for most theaters. But now that I've left the Circle (for reasons I might describe in a future blog post), I cannot offer even that meager justification for my free press seats. All I can say now is something like, "I can't do an article on you guys, but I think it's important for my ongoing coverage of your company to be exposed to this new work," which is pretty weak. Actually, many publicists would happily accept my mere presence with zero promise of an article, but all the take, take, take makes me feel slimy. (O Catholicism, how tightly you grip!) So instead I usually just decide to write an article, promising myself I'll make it short. 

Recently, I wrote such a pro bono review for San Jose Rep's production of The Understudy. I almost never cover shows in the South Bay because of the region's dismal public transit. But I was excited enough about the playwright -- Theresa Rebeck -- and the male leads -- Gabe Marin and Craig Marker --  to make an exception and find a +1 with wheels. 

I used to write reviews for free all the time, of course, back when I worked for the San Francisco Bay Times. But how quickly one adapts! Trying to write this one was like pulling teeth, and unfortunately, I think that's born out in the quality of the review. It lacks focus and depth. It sounds perfunctory. I'm not even sure the argument is convincing. And all this has nothing to do with the show itself, just the fact that I didn't have pay or deadlines to motivate me.

What this tells me is that I can't do an infinite amount of pro bono reviews, particularly when I'm feeling burnt out after scrambling to finish my master's thesis on time. Clearly, I have to find another way to deal with my impossible numbers: the huge number of shows I want to cover vs. the very few I'm permitted to. Some might say that I ought to refrain from pro bono reviewing anyway because it cheapens my work, allowing me to be taken advantage of. (But who in the arts doesn't feel taken advantage of?)

Part of the reason I'm feeling so angsty about this is that at least my May shows were mostly by smaller theaters:  The Bay One Acts Festival, The Dark Room, Sleepwalkers, the Cutting Ball -- and then A.C.T. for good measure. In other words, even though I decided what to cover early, at least I was still bringing attention to the up-and-comers. The June shows, by contrast, will mostly be by bigger theaters: Marin Theatre Company, the Magic Theatre, Berkeley Rep, the Aurora -- and then Crowded Fire is the token little guy. For this month, I feel like the imperative to settle on a schedule early has led me to make more obvious choices.

Of course, it's not as if my six reviews have to be divided in a particular way. If the shows that most interest me in a given month happen to come from big-budget companies, then so be it, right?

I guess what I'm writing about here is really many different issues: how to pick shows when I find out about them all at different times, especially since earliness of press releases generally corresponds to company size, and also what to do when I want to cover shows beyond what I'm paid to cover. I probably  should have written about them in separate posts, but they're all jumbled together in my mind. As ever, any thoughts or suggestions would be immensely appreciated.

The Understudy continues through June 3 at San Jose Rep; info here.

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