Sunday, February 21, 2010

Critics v. Civilians

This profile of Graceland playwright Ellen Fairey has gotten me thinking. My ambivalence on the show has been well documented here, as has the show's continued success. I'm not here to dump on the show more but rather to discuss the thoughts that it has provoked.

To briefly summarize: what I liked in Graceland were the dialogue, the acting, the staging, and the design. I had three major problems with the script: some of the plot developments weren't credible, I could usually guess what was going to happen in a scene shortly after it began, and the whole production felt like something I'd seen before.

But this leads to an important point: I see a lot more plays than most theatregoers. My guess for last year is 60-75 shows. (I could probably figure it out if I tried, but I don't keep records. Maybe I should.) During the period of January 13th to February 10th of this year, I saw 11 productions--12 if you count both parts of The Brother/Sister Plays separately. There are others who see more than me, certainly (I'm looking at you, Kris Vire), but it's a fair bet that most of them are other critics, industry people, or members of the Saints or the Jeff Committee.

It's not a big leap to conclude that seeing this many shows has an impact on how I watch theatre. Even when not on the job, I can't help but watch with a double consciousness--both reacting instinctively to what I see and analyzing my reactions and the craft onstage. I'm also probably more aware of how stories are told onstage, and certainly keep up with the tricks and trends in theatre. (I think this piece would not have happened if I hadn't seen and read so many plays using dead relatives onstage, for instance.) As a result, I probably get tired of certain devices, techniques, and plays before most theatregoers would. If I accept that it's a matter of taste whether Graceland's plot developments were credible (and I do), the other flaws I saw could easily not matter to someone who sees only 10 plays in a year. Quite possibly the large audience that saw and enjoyed Graceland didn't feel like they'd seen it all before because they hadn't.

I've certainly noticed that phenomenon with my friends who are aficionados of other arts. I've been to choir concerts with my boyfriend Adam (a choir teacher who knows way more about the art than I could ever hope to) and practically seen a different concert than he did. Tim Brayton's negative review of Star Trek was based to a large extent on problems he had with the cinematography and composition that I simply didn't notice when seeing it. (I like movies, but I don't think I could tell you after seeing most movies whether they had more close-ups, medium shots, or long shots, and whether those shots were unusually long or short.) I can articulate what I did or didn't like about a concert or movie and why, but I can't say it in the same way that someone educated and experienced in the workings of choir or cinema can.

So what does it mean that a critic's experience of his or her art is fundamentally different from that of the vast majority of the people reading it?

Some would argue that the critic has a responsibility to review like an average audience member would: those are the people who always comment on the audience that was having a great time when watching a show that a critic panned. (Another manifestation are those who will protest that the show was "just a good time, not a deep drama" or "made for kids, not grouchy grownups," as if either of those meant it didn't still need to be good.) This is ridiculous. A critic can't review from a perspective other than his or her own. It's tough enough for me to figure out my own reactions to a show, much less everybody else's. (This is particularly true because openings are frequently filled with those who worked on the show and their friends, who tend to react much more positively.) It would be dishonest to react with anything other than my own feelings.

But it would be just as silly to say that audiences' tastes need to catch up to critics. I don't love movies enough to become an expert in them, and most audiences could never afford to see as many plays as I do. (Ah, press seats, how I love thee.) Everyone has the right to like what they like. Tastes evolve with time and experience, certainly, but criticizing someone for what they enjoy or don't is a waste of time.

In the end, I think it comes down to the essential contract between critic and reader, which I've discussed previously: It is the critic's job to honestly and articulately describe his or her experience with the artwork and the reader's job to read the review with an understanding of his or her own tastes and the critical thinking to make a guess at the critic's tastes and interests. (Having read the critic for a while and reading multiple reviews for the production helps a whole lot.) No two people have the same tastes and reactions, but you can learn a lot with someone whose tastes are different from yours.

Any additions, disagreements, or clarifications? Comment away.


Mr. K said...

I think you've got a good point. I've found that my mother is very good at recognizing characterization issue in film or plays, because she loves to read and reads a lot. But she'd be harder pressed on more aesthetic grounds, even though she sees about 4-6 shows a year (at least), which is a lot for a civilian.

In addition, the trends we see a ton of (because we're in an area that does a lot of theatre) reach places like my hometown more slowly because at best they get regional productions of the big shows or touring productions.

We might complain about Sarah Ruhl and her imitators, but chances are most people outside Chicago have probably been lucky to see more than one of her plays by this point.

Jessica said...

I think the best thing a critic can do is, as you say, express his or her own opinion. I also think it's about knowing how you felt, knowing why you felt that way, and trying to understand and articulate why a general audience may or may not like the piece of art. It's a tricky thing, ain't it?

However, if you're someone who saw Transformers 2 and wrote 'THIS IS THE AWESOMEST I LOVE IT OMG SOOOO GOOD WOOOOO HOOOOO ROBOTS BOOBS ROBOTS WOOOOO', you may not be a critic. You may be a fanboy 'webzine blogger' invited to a screening to pad the rotten tomatoes tomatometer score.

I'm trying to imagine a fanboy reaction to Desire Under the Elms. It's...not going well for me.

Felt I should express all that.

Mr. K said...

I know have an intense desire to see AICN-style reviews of theatre.

I can only imagine AICN's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS review would either talk about Carla Guigno as "teh hott" or claim it doesn't respect the original continuity O'Neill.

P.S. Even for giant robot fights, I've heard TRANSFORMERS is pretty shitty.

Monica Reida said...

Critics opinions vary just from one critic to another. For example, a lot of people, including you, liked Wilson Wants It All more than I did, although I thought it was better than the Reader did. Even the friend that sat next to me at the play thought it was better than I did.

It's the case with any art or media. Look at Twilight: It's a phenomenon with women and teenage girls. They think it's one of the greatest things ever written. You give the book to me or one of my English/fiction writing major friends and they'll say that it's poorly written, the characters lack any depth and the fourth novel is anti-climactic. (Although I'd also point out that it sets feminism back a few years by a protagonist being in an abusive relationship and loving it.) Of course that doesn't mean that those with a better education have a different opinion, I know English teachers that love the books.

We just all have different opinions and we all try to honestly convey them, regardless of if we're critics.

Monica Reida said...

Wait, Kris Vire has his own label? (I just noticed that)

Zev Valancy said...

Sure Kris has a label (as does Tim)--I've mentioned his work in posts. Chris Jones, Leonard Jacobs, and Charles Isherwood also have them. Play your cards right and you might have one too!