The Artist, The Critic, and This Blog

Monday, December 8, 2008 Leave a Comment

...this blog is intended primarily as a source for a closer look at the goings-on of Flux Theatre Ensemble and our surrounding community. This means that when we're in production, that's what you're going to read about. And as often as possible, we're going to write about our ongoing developmental work. Occasionally, we'll post responses to the work of other artists, musings on theory and the theatre community as whole. But all of that is done to share the progress of our company with whoever cares to read about it.

Which is a short way of saying this bully pulpit is a shared one, and as such, different rules govern its use than the blogs of individual theatre artists.

I suppose that's obvious. But I offer it as a context to a question that's been nagging at me for some time. We talk often about the critic's responsibility to the artist.

But what is the artist's responsibility to the critic?

The relationship is so frequently adversarial that it feels strange to even ask it, but the question became increasingly present as I posted the reviews for our recent Angel Eaters Trilogy. The press was very positive, but not towards every show and artist within the trilogy, and I needed to decide which negative comments I would include in the posting, and which I would omit.

In a larger sense, is it responsible for a theatre company or artist to take a critic's work out of context? Should we as theatre artists and producers view critics primarily as the creators of pull quotes? How far can the words of a review be manipulated before they lose all value? Is there a more sustained and holistic relationship possible?

Certainly, the realities of traditional media make a more sustained relationship difficult. It is very difficult to engage fully as a critic when you have a limited word count, and what emerges is at best critic-as-gatekeeper and at worst, critic-as-stand-up-comic. There is something stale and sad about reading a review where the critic spends their limited time mugging the work with malicious puns and cleverness.

Online, that relationship changes somewhat, as the critic may use as many words as necessary to engage with the work. Also, without the institutional filter of a more established paper or magazine, reviewers seem to speak more directly, generously and persuasively. More and more, I find myself relying on bloggers and online reviewers to gain a sense of what I want to see. Occasionally, online critical writing will cause me to rethink and even relive the experience of a play I have seen in an unexpected way.

That doesn't mean that I want mainstream theatre coverage to go away. Far from it. It only means that for me, the style and content of much mainstream theatre coverage falls short of the art it is covering. As a result, I turn more and more to the excellent critical writing happening online.

So what responsibility do I have to these critics whose work I value? Is it right for me to post half of their review? Should I cut out the lines that would be painful for our artists to read, or accept that if we value the positive things a critic writes, we must also value the negative? There was some really well written criticism of the trilogy that even if I didn't agree with, I respected.

But out of respect for the artists involved, I left most of those critical parts out.

In the end, I did so because making good theatre is not only hard, it is incredibly personal. Searingly, blindingly personal. There is simply no way to not take it personally. And why wouldn't you? Theatre is shit if it isn't personal. In the heat of a run, even a well-intended piece of useful criticism can send an artist into a paroxysm of doubt that diminishes their work. And practically speaking, getting butts in the seats is so hard that anything discouraging an audience member to come makes you want to bury it deep in Yucca mountain.

And yet...and yet...

Is it fair to be upset when a critic doesn't fully engage with a play when we rip apart reviews for whatever pull quotes we can find? Or, if the artist owes nothing to the critic, then what does the artist owe to their audience? Don't we owe them a level of honesty? Isn't putting a good quote from a mostly bad review in our marketing materials essentially lying to our audience? And if we do owe nothing to critics, then why do I read the ones I love daily?

And if a more sustained, rigorous and holistic relationship between artist and critic is worthwhile, how is it achieved?


  • Zack Calhoon said:  

    These are very complex and astute questions you are asking. I like Martin Denton's approach. From what I know of him, he sees himself as in dialogue with the artist. A sounding board for the artist to see if they had obtained the desired effect.

    When I write about shows on my blog, I try to think of it as a recommendation or plug for the show, unless I'm asked specifically by the artist (or their PR rep) to write about the show. I'm no Kenneth Tynan. I know that. I'm an actor and a playwright. So when I write to I try to be in conversation with the piece. To get other people excited about what I saw or give them some of my perspective. Whatever it is worth. It's really only recently that people have started pulling quotes from my posts.

  • Anonymous said:  

    The question here seems to be regarding the integrity of using pull quotes that paint the show in a more favorable light than the review does. I think an artist's relationship with a critic is essentially a symbiotic one ideally, as noted by Zack's comment.

    To use pull quotes in publicity that evade the truth of the review is, yes - immoral. It is injurious to a critic, mainstream or not, to lead people to believe a critic reviewed a show one way when in truth it was not so.

    However, throughout the production period, links were available to the full reviews in the blog and openly referenced. It is this that kept the use of pull quotes (or in some cases, 2/3rds of a full review) on the blog on the moral side. Slightly misleading, a bit grey and fuzzy but still moral. I'd venture far enough to cite it as an example of "show biz is dirty biz."

    What I don't believe is that the full reviews themselves were not posted to "respect" the participating artists. It strikes me as a little patronizing to assume that the artists wouldn't find the reviews all by themselves. The positive reviews were posted only so as to generate further "buzz" about the production. I would surmise that there was little artistic debate or concern about individual artists guiding the posting of partial reviews or pull quotes, and a lot of production decisions instead.

    The artist needs the critic to offer response as much as the critic needs the artist to create the art. Bending the words and intentions of either artist or critic is simply dirty pool. Flux muddied the waters on this, but it is nothing that every other theater company doesn't already do when they've got mixed responses to their work.