Saturday, May 27, 2017

In Defense of Bad Reviews

Ok, the play was bad, but the hazmat suits don't seem necessary
I want to say something: We need more bad reviews.

I don't mean "poorly written reviews." We certainly don't need more of those. And I don't mean poorly thought out reviews that fail to understand and acknowledge what is being attempted. And I definitely don't mean "mean spirited reviews."

But what I do mean is this - we need theatre critics to be more, well, critical, in the fullest sense of the word. 

Look, everyone likes it when people say nice things about them. Lord knows I do. And there is no shortage of local theatre deserving fulsome praise. But there are some reviewers or outlets that seem to feel their proper mission is to promote local theatre, and they can best do this by writing glowing reviews of any and all theatrical endeavors in the theory that just getting people out to the theatre is the most important thing they can accomplish. And I get that. And that's very nice. But ultimately, it's not helpful. In fact, in my humble opinion, this behavior actually hurts local theatre. 

Giving positive, even glowing, reviews to productions that are mediocre, or even quite bad, that is not helping anyone. If someone reads that review, and thinks "this production is worth my time" and then they decide to spend the extra money to experience theatre, and get a babysitter, and all the rest, and they actually get out and see a show, well you have succeeded in the short term by "promoting theatre" - but if they don't actually enjoy themselves, you have hurt theatre in the long run. If the show is disappointing, they are likely to think "I guess this must be good for local theatre. Next time let's watch a movie." And boom, you have lost someone to the theatre market. 

There is so much you can do with your time. Movies, great TV, video games - lots of which you can enjoy from the comfort of your home for much less money than seeing a play. Actually getting someone up and out to see a show is an achievement. And it is absolutely the responsibility of a production (the company, the artists, etc) to produce something funny, touching, thought provoking, true ...  worth the time of their audience. But it is absolutely the job of critics to participate in this process by helping theatre companies get better.  And that includes being truthful about when they fail. 

I am not advocating that people be needlessly critical or thoughtlessly cruel. To that end, I think a few points are worth noting:

1) Student productions - Productions put on by educational instutions can often be quite good. Particularly the production elements, costumes, etc... can frequently be superior to most local offerings (nice to have a budget and room for a scene shop). And some of this work does deserve recognition beyond the University press. However - reviewers should keep in mind that these productions are frequently part of an educational process for the students. A student might be cast in a role they are not ready for, or for which they are not the best fit, because their educator wants to push them, or perhaps to give them the opportunity to play a character that they may not get to play outside of an educational setting. Also, these are young artists in the process of learning. Any criticism of these shows should be measured mindful of these facts. Again, this doesn't mean "don't be critical" but it does mean be thoughtful, gentle, and encouraging.

2) Reviewing "to the level" of the production. OK, let's be honest, there are some "Community Theatre" productions that have casts and production values equal to or superior to any in the area (again... a budget for costumes? Wow). There are also some productions that are really about building communities and letting voices be heard. About giving people the opportunity to express themselves and have a positive experience with theatre. It is 100% OK to take these things into consideration when reviewing a piece. I'm not saying crap on someone's first time on stage because they were green. Don't measure the set of a community theatre production on the same scale you do a production at Playmakers. That said, you have an obligation to the community and to your readers to be upfront about what you are doing. Hopefully not in a condescending way. Just in a way that is honest and acknowledges the limitations of the production and the company.

Overall though - if a play is bad, PLEASE, say it is bad. I have seen too many average or even actively poor shows praised with words I would reserve for maybe 2 productions in a year. And as a practitioner - let me say that I will be more than willing to accept my share of bad reviews. I don't mind if you don't like what I do (I will likely disagree, but that's fine). When reviewers feel it is their duty to praise rather than criticize, we all lose. Critics are critical to growing the quality, not just the quantity, of local theatre. Challenge the productions that fall short. Encourage companies to improve when they need to. Demand excellence and help your readers find it.

And helping your readers find excellent theatre means not just writing good things about good shows, but also writing bad things about bad ones. 

1 comment:

  1. Good points and mmostly agree- wondering who the reviewers/critics are you reference- the volunteers for XYZ Web site or ABC blog?

    -What makes a reviewer a reviewer?
    -Who decides?
    -In what is inevitably somewhat biased, how can he or she (said reviewer/critic) avoid blatant conflicts of interest, particularly in small/medium-sized markets?

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