Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Pitfalls of Camaraderie: Or, A Justification of Dark Glasses

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.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Plot Summaries

In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, Will Blythe writes:"If you're like me, you tend to regard plot summaries as a necessary boredom at best. They're the flyover country between a reviewer's landing strips of judgment, revealing almost nothing about the way a book actually works, almost nothing about why it succeeds or fails. If plot were the crucial measure, there'd be no difference between a story about the fish that got away and 'Moby-Dick.' Reading such summaries (or writing them) is usually as beguiling as listening to some addled fan of 'Lost' explain what happened on that botched rune of a show." -- The New York Times Book Review

Your Lost politics aside, these difficulties resonate -- even more for theatre critics, I dare say, than for book critics. In play reviews, limiting plot summary to a paragraph is not just prudent; it's necessary. Theatre critics do not merely evaluate a writer; they evaluate the whole host of artistic professionals who collaborate on a production. So how could one devote more than a few sentences to synopsis when that alone is unlikely to sufficiently evaluate the playwright, let alone the cast, crew and design team?

Yet even including the most concise of plot blurbs can feel contrived, meaningless, unworthy of the paraphrased piece. The reason we have art and literature is that a few naked, purely narrative sentences cannot alone arouse emotion or conjure meaning. Plot summaries read more like straight journalistic prose than they do the literature they describe or the literary criticism toward which their (more ambitious) authors aspire. They are the book reports of journalism: Character and actor names crowd and tangle. Events all seem to follow teleological trajectories. And before one can even begin to care about disembodied names and events, the summary is over and the review has (thankfully) returned to what the reviewer does best: reviewing.

Readers, however, want and deserve to know what shows are "about." Either to judge their own desire to see a production or to evaluate a review on its own merit, they need to know a few nuts and bolts, a few objective truths, about a production. But maybe classical plot summary is not the only way to establish common ground. Perhaps a reviewer might describe more abstract themes. Perhaps she might write a "trailer" of sorts that includes choice quotes and choice images.

I'll be on the prowl for reviews that tackle this problem with stylistic ingenuity. Updates to come!

The Meta-blog: A Reenvisioning

My aspiration to make a living as an arts critic seems to necessitate blogging, yet since beginning The Split End I have been struggling to "blog" content that would be separate from my reviews for The Bay Times. Once in a while, a colleague even offers me the chance to pitch a story to another periodical, yet I feel I have few ideas or observations about the Bay Area "theatre scene" (with its trends, its movements) as a whole; I find I am interested only in reviewing individual productions.

But now I'm thinking that such a proclivity might prove my strength, my niche, as a blogger, rather than my weakness.

Since I started writing for the Bay Times a year ago, the reviewing process has become the intellectual, literary and professional challenge that most intrigues me. I pursue other professions -- tutoring, proofreading -- only as they serve my obsession for arts criticism. Thus, I've decided to reenvision this blog. The Split End will now be a commentary on my own commentary, a review of my own (and others') reviews.

Stay tuned!