Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog

{August 12, 2009}   Honesty is such a lonely word…

Oh, Billy Joel. You seem like a messed-up cat in some ways, but you got that much right.

I recently read a FB comment, by someone I don’t know, that posited a tired-but-widely-held belief: that critics go into shows looking for things to criticize and put down. OK. So not true. Just like everyone else, we’re sitting in our seats when the lights go down, silently voicing that prayer that the Narrator voices at the start of “The Drowsy Chaperone”: “Dear God, please let it be a good show.”

I think all critics walk into the theater hoping every time to be moved, amused, challenged, or transported. How could we not want this? Almost no one spends as much time seeing different shows than critics do, so doesn’t it make sense that we’re always hoping for the best? Yes, as humans, we always have expectations going in, informed by a company’s previous work as well as our familiarity with the play/musical being staged. But that’s not to say that these expectations, great or not, can’t be foiled. They are – on a pretty regular basis.

Just last year, Eastern Michigan University surprised me with a few shows that I didn’t expect to embrace as much as I did: though not a Brecht girl (like a Breck girl, without the great hair), I was pretty riveted by “Brecht on Brecht”; and although I’ve seen “Romeo and Juliet” several times before, I’d never seen it done in the way director David Blixt staged it; and while “The Exonerated” sounded on paper like it might be a too-earnest, slanted rant about capital punishment, it was a thought-provoking, fascinating night of theater.

But I reminisce about all this while having just filed a mixed review of “Oklahoma” at the Encore Theatre. Yet the circumstances were the same. I went in rooting for the Encore, wanting to love the show. But when that didn’t happen, I had the unpleasant task of reporting the news by way of a review.

Because believe it or not, critics don’t relish writing middling-to-negative reviews. Positive ones are much simpler, faster, and often more fun to write; plus, the process then isn’t weighed down by the dread of the inevitable, often-personal feedback that you’ll get from those who disagree with you.

So take it from me: critics never go to a show with their eye trained only on the negative. On the contrary, we’re rooting hard for local theater companies, and shows, every time we go to an opening night, and we’re also always looking for the good stuff in productions. The reason we end up doing this work is because we love theater far more passionately than someone with merely a passing interest.

Friends sometimes ask me, “Don’t you get sick of going to shows all the time?” My answer is always, “I can’t imagine ever reaching that point.” And it’s true.


Jenn’s correct: I’ve never yet met a local critic who arrives at the theater hoping NOT to be entertained! (Some of us are just crankier than others, that’s all!)

In fact, I’ll go one step farther than Jenn and say that I suspect ALL of us go out of our way to find SOMETHING good to say about every play we see – even when the theater we’re reviewing makes that almost impossible to accomplish.

And like Jenn, even after reviewing something like 500 plays over the past eight years or so (give or take a dozen), I still enjoy it. But once it’s no longer fun, I’ll be gone. But not a moment before!

Your last line is exactly why you’re in the right line of work. Great post.

Chelsea Sadler says:

Hi Jenn-

Love the blog. It’s fun to hear the “personal” Jenn and all the things that go along with that (opinions, advice, suggestions, snarky commentary). It also satisfies my curiosity and voyeurism.

Looking forward to hearing your voice more in the blog-like when the new season gets started!

ronannarbor says:

This is a fantastic blog entry, and really true.

Like you, I am truly rooting for the Encore Theatre — but when their mission doesn’t match what you see on stage, it is absolutely correct to let that be known.

Curiously, of all the reviews I read of OKLAHOMA, yours, Don’s, mine ALL said the same things about the show, pointing out lots of positives as well as mentioning those things that miss. That all those writing about it mentioned the same negatives points to some glaring problems. That we all found different positive things about the show points to how many things worked well for this production!

I recently wrote a less-than-stellar review of THE PRODUCERS at Croswell. I got several livid comments in response but felt that there were some massive problems that had to be pointed out. It hurts to write things like that, especially for a theatre I love as much as Croswell, the only summer stock musical theatre company left in the area…

Thanks for this great blog entry, Jen!

A2Lover says:

It’s not your job, or prerogative as a critic, (or are you reviewers?) to go to the theatre hoping to be entertained, nor to try and find something positive to say. Your job is to be provide an informed, unbiased, constructive (or destructive if necessary) and, hopefully, insightful critique of what you see. The public relies on your expertise as arts journalists to relay an opinion that will help them make a decision to go to the show, or not.

Too many times we read obviously ill-informed, I-want-to-be-liked or I mustn’t offend actors, directors, or the theatre, type of review. This severely damages a critics credibility, especially when we read review after review that give praise where it’s not due and obviously glosses over less than professional production values and concepts. It also calls into question your knowledge of theatre, your research, and ability to discern what exactly you’re seeing and responding to.

I’m sure theatre people can take it if the show is not reviewed positively. They know when a production is not up to a high standard, and, believe it or not, theatre practitioners never (unlike Max Bialystock in THE PRODUCERS) try to put on a bad show. So my sincere hope is to read critiques of productions that are impartial, intelligent, erudite and reflect exactly what is on the stage, and not just spring from a critic wanting to be entertained or trying desperately to find something nice to say, then you are just a reviewer.

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