Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Murky Boundaries

(Lily and her co-playwright letting their creative sides loose during December's San Francisco Olympians Festival. Photo by Charles Lewis III.)

I've been thinking lately about the uneasy relationship between theater critics and the rest of the theater community. The Bay Area has a notoriously lovey dovey theater scene. Everyone loves and supports everyone else's work -- everyone except for those mean critics.

To some extent, this suits me. I'm a loner, and I don't always trust that I'd be able to be honest were I reviewing a close pal's show.

Yet at the same time, I'm convinced that a critic only does better work the richer her relationship with theater is, the more that she talks with the artists she reviews, the more she participates in theater outside from being a critic.

And I haven't just been thinking about this idea -- For once, I've been putting my thoughts into practice, and in a few different ways as of late:

(On the other side of the footlights. Photo by Charles Lewis III.)

In December I did something artistic in public, by golly, for the first time in many years. I wrote a play called Die, oh! Nice, us!, and the San Francisco Olympians Festival produced a staged reading of it. I applied to write in the festival because -- surprise! -- I'm not just a critic; I also have a flaming artistic streak, though I usually share it with only a few. I write short scenes and silly poems and sillier songs. I sing and play the piano. And those of you who visit this site often know I think of my criticism as my art. So it was thrilling to me to hear my morbid, juvenile jokes performed by actors and (occasionally) laughed at by audiences. But another reason I was excited about this festival was that I wanted to remember what it was like to be a theater artist and how much bravery and passion it takes so that I'd be better able to connect to and understand subjects of future reviews.

(Mark Bedard and Mark Anderson Phillips wait for he who never comes. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got to work with Marin Theatre Company and review them at the same time. I've written before that I have a big ol' soft spot for the company -- I started assistant directing for them within twelve hours of first moving to California, and a connection I made there got me my first theater criticism gig. For years now, I've been reviewing their work. Then recently, I was asked to speak as a "critic and a scholar" at a talkback for their production of Waiting for Godot (which just closed). I'm no Beckett scholar, by any means -- my scholarly interests, if I can be said to have any, are in contemporary theater -- so I prepared (a little). But I was surprised at how easily the guest speaking came to me. I never had to lecture. The other guest, the audience, and I just responded to questions the moderator posed. Still, I was surprised to find how calm I felt, which I think comes from my teaching. It feels the most natural thing to me to address a crowd -- perhaps more natural than one-on-one conversations! I was also surprised that I didn't feel I had a conflict of interest in serving a show (albeit in a small way) and reviewing it. Some pieces of the review could have been copied and pasted from what I said in the talkback; other pieces might even seem opposed to what I said that afternoon. While that might suggest disingenuousness, I think it's important to be able to talk about a show in different registers. Just because I'm reviewing a show doesn't mean I need to launch into an unflinching critical diatribe every time I talk about it.

Finally, most recently of all, I reviewed a show created by and starring friends of mine -- people I want to keep being friends with, so I knew I wouldn't be going Bernard Shaw on them. Breach Once More Theatre was recently founded by folks I know from S.F. State, and they just produced their first show, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. In reviewing it, I thought about advice Mark Jackson gave me (in a comment on this site!): Never write something in a review that you couldn't say to an artist's face. I didn't write a word of this review without giving it the Mark Jackson test, and I think the review came out the better for it. I had to justify each one of my assertions as if I were a lawyer, and my discussion of the acting got pretty wonky, but in a good way. I sound much more reasoned and fair than I usually do. In fact, I think this and my Godot review are some of my best pieces in the last few months.

The longer I stay in the Bay Area, the more multidimensional my relationship with theater will be; less and less often will I be the isolated, shadowy figure scribbling away in an aisle seat, only to flee at curtain call without making eye contact with anyone (though I'm sure there will still be plenty of that). This is a good thing. Theater critics shouldn't be lovey-dovey; the theater scene needs us to put a check on that. But we are all better off when we see each other as human beings. That's what theater is about for so many of us: seeing the world from someone else's point of view.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea continues through Feb. 23; info here.


  1. Well said! I will add that most artists are too sensitive. How can we adapt; get better if we can't take criticism? I for one am glad you are out there mixing it up, and absolutely "pullin no punches".

  2. Thanks for your comment! I don't know that I always succeed -- it's a difficult balance, being honest while also being respectful. I deeply admire Kenneth Tynan, one of the least respectful critics in theater history, but I also appreciated Terry Teachout's recent criticism of his work:


    I don't know that there's a causal relationship between attempting to be respectful and being able to see and admit, later, that you were wrong in your criticism, but my gut tells me they're related qualities.

    Thanks again for reading and writing.