Ann Arbor Theater Vixen: Jenn McKee's Blog

{May 4, 2010}   A thoughtful, recent exchange about criticism and personal bias

On Facebook, Performance Network executive director Carla Milarch posted this excerpt, along with a link to Charles Isherwood’s New York Times piece called, “A Theater Critic Suffers Odd-Man-Out Syndrome.” (I highly recommend reading it!)

“Because responses to artworks are so personal, a responsible critic must acknowledge that idiosyncratic predilections may play into his or her responses to a show, and must be careful to separate considered aesthetic judgments from plain old personal prejudice.”

This prompted the following dialogue, which I asked to re-post here, given its substance.

Carla: And no, I’m not directing these at anyone in particular. There just seem to be a lot of interesting articles on the subject lately…

Me: I really like reading Isherwood’s work – he’s smart but grounded – and I think he hits several points right on the head with this article. I certainly have, in the past, noted an audience’s mood in a review, when my own was markedly different (I’m looking at you, “Menopause: The Musical”) – but I try, generally, to focus on examining my own responses, and why I had them.

Carla: Yes, but I think his point is a good one in differentiating considered aesthetic judgements from plain old personal prejudice. Critics have more than just their own responses. They are also providing a whole frame of reference from within which the reader gains context for viewing the work. In order to do that they need to write from a higher, much more informed perspective. I think the critic has a responsibility to educate as well don’t you?

Me: Isn’t this, in part, the role of the preview? For me, that’s when I do the research, talk to those involved about their vision for a show, and share that with readers. And certainly, the information I glean during that process informs my review. But I think, if you ask most readers what they want most from a review, they’ll tell you they want the critic’s honest evaluation.

Michael Cichon: I’ve always enjoyed the NY times. Such a vocabulary building exercise, really helpful in high school. Anyways, “idiosyncratic predilections” was what I agreed most with. But he also mentioned experience. Sometimes a critic must view their work as educational. The decision to become ‘cultured’ is just that; a decision. It can be made at anytime in life. Whether born into it or to have ‘enlightenment’ come at a later age. A critic, I think, must consider, sometimes, that their audience has never seen a show in their life but they are reading your article because of you own notoriety or that of the papers. Take care to guide your audience as well as critique the show. As happens most often with farce’s and life, those who know the least, laugh the hardest.

Andrew J. Hungerford: My favorite pieces of criticism are those that use the work in question as a jumping off point for further discussion rather than simply summarizing the plot and reductively offering some sort of grade. Roger Ebert’s movie reviews are a great example of the sort of criticism I love: they offer an opinion of the work and even a numerical ‘star rating,’ but are usually much more than those component parts.
In small theatre markets, where there are say one or two critics, one bad review can be totally devastating to a show. But equally frustrating for me is when critics heap praise upon a show that is thoroughly mediocre. 
I understand that it’s a tough balance for critics as well. 
But that’s another reason why I would love to see more theatre criticism that does not limit itself to simple evaluation. Even the worst show should be able to provoke a larger discussion.

Me: I love criticism that ventures into the work’s larger questions as well – but I disagree that “even the worst show should be able to provoke a larger discussion.” I only feel like I have the opportunity to venture into such discussions when the production is pretty solid and succeeded in making me feel or think about the issues at its story’s core. (U-M’s pro wrestling feminist musical comedy “Trafford Tanzi” is a recent example.) It’s a pleasure on these occasions to venture down related avenues of thought and share those ideas with readers.
When a production is really wobbly, though, or the play just doesn’t work, then the issues that contribute to that need to be addressed in the review. That’s one of our responsibilities as critics. And besides, if a play doesn’t succeed in transporting me somewhere interesting intellectually, then I’m not going to force such a discussion.

Andrew J. Hungerford: I’ve seen a fair amount of truly terrible theatre over the years (a production of ‘Menopause: the musical’ is on that list), and even the shows on the very bottom of the pile have led to interesting conversations. 
But I do appreciate that there’s a difference between musing aloud and the print restriction of column inches: I suppose it is better to save the ink for productions that have earned more consideration.
Above al, I want to be able to trust that a critic will be honest. Acknowledgment of being the “odd person out” for a particular show would go along with that. 
And so, though this may seem like a contradiction of my previous post, I believe that if a show is truly bad it should be called out as such. And if a show is bad but has something of interest that may be worth seeing, perhaps that’s worth noting.
And a show should not be heaped with praise as something new and groundbreaking even though it’s been staged to be totally impenetrable because people don’t want it to seem like they didn’t get it (this last isn’t a problem I’ve run into in the Metro Detroit area, but certainly in other markets…)
Being a theatre critic is a tough job, especially these days. And all of us, the playmakers and the critics, we’re all struggling to create the best work we can and keep the audiences in their seats and engaged.

Carla: Of course a critic should be honest. But I think there IS (and maybe it’s a fine line) a distinction between what is personal prejudice and what is aesthetic judgement. I don’t think it’s enough to just state your own p.o.v., list what you personally liked and didn’t like and then leave it at that. The critic is the ultimate arbiter of quality, so they MUST be able to make some objective statements. It’s their duty to be well-informed enough about theatre to know when a performance is really fine, or when it’s really not. 
Even Isherwood in his article says that Lend me a Tenor is not a good example of the farce genre, which he usually likes. That’s a different thing than just saying “everybody else seemed to be enjoying it, but I just couldn’t relate” which would be a cop-out from a critic of his caliber.

Me: But Isherwood saying that “Tenor” is not a good example of the farce genre is a kind of prejudice, isn’t it? It’s his opinion, not something that everyone in the theater world agrees upon. I think the line between aesthetic judgment and personal prejudice is pretty fuzzy…

Carla: Sure, but that’s a pretty slippery logical slope. ALL observations have inherent in them a certain amount of personal bias. But is it a personal bias if massive amounts of people agree with you? I can’t stand Lend Me a Tenor – does that just mean that Chris Isherwood and I share a personal bias or is there something more to it than that? If Ben Brantley and Anne Bogart also agree is it STILL a shared personal bias, or does it then start to seem like a conclusion drawn by theatre experts? 
Whether we like it or not, the theatre critic’s personal opinion (no matter what you call it) is always going to drive public opinion – that’s what they’re there for. So, claiming that your writings are just “one person’s opinion” is a false construct – because if they were, they would have no consequences. But they have very real and often tangible consequences, and even consequences that impact the financial livelihoods of others. Any which way you slice it, it’s a responsibility every theatre critic must own…

Me: I didn’t mean to hijack this conversation, by any means, but I’ll throw out one more thing. (And I’m no fan of Ludwig’s work either, I’ll confess, but critics have to go into every show with as open a mind as possible. There’s always the potential for surprise, which is a wonderful thing when it happens.)

I don’t know if I agree that critics “drive” public opinion. We certainly provide a jumping-off point for discussion among patrons, but plenty of people regularly disagree with us, of course, and use reviews as a starting point to say, “I didn’t have that reaction at all. I loved/disliked this element, that element, etc.” 
That’s one of the values of arts criticism, in my mind, is that it helps those conversations get going, and people have them with their friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.
That having been said, I think critics can only truly own responsibility for the things they say; and while they may play a role in the success or failure of a show, from a box office standpoint, I don’t think they can be pointed to – with the exception of the NYTimes’ negative reviews, which can be deadly – as the primary source. We can all think of locally-produced, review-proof shows that did booming business, despite lackluster reviews, as well as shows that didn’t sell many tickets, despite critical raves. And that’s as it should be. Word-of-mouth, the play’s content, the public mood, current events, etc. are ALL things that factor into the equation, in addition to critical response, regarding how well a show sells.
I think critics all write with awareness of our role in the local theater ecosystem; but that can only affect our responses so much, or else we’re not serving our readers.

Chelsea Sadler: What a good discussion!
I very often find myself to be the odd man out. Probably because most people attend the theatre to be simply entertained, or as a social affair. And while I desperately wish I could just sit back and enjoy the show, I usually spend those two hours picking it apart and wondering what’s wrong with everyone who’s laughing and crying — are they watching the same show?
When I discuss shows with people, I’m usually pretty honest about my feelings, but also try to include some information about how the rest of the audience was responding, or how my friends responded, though I know that within the context of the conversation, my opinion is going to reign supreme. 
Regarding whether a critic drives public opinion, I wonder how that is changing with the decline of paper press? Is it driving it more because there is less to read, or is it driving it less because there are less readers?
I think that a critic’s review does drive public expectation (which is probably a better word) but the extent to which that happens depends on the market. How many critical reviews are available to readers? Which are considered “important?”

Lynch R. Travis: This has been some great discussion, I appreciate Jenn letting us see inside her head as a critic. I’m one of those that have often wondered why a critic that didn’t like a show where the performance was overwhelmingly liked by the audience don’t comment on that aspect of their experience on that given night. I guess in a way its like when as a director, I try to instill in the cast that its not their job to make sure the audience gets it or to be concerned if “they were”dead tonight”.     

It is fallacious for us to react to critics as “just another opinion'” because the printed word is powerful and there are those that are not going to come see it anyway to form their own opinion. Thus we are ever challenged to always be great!

Martin Kohn: That a critic and an audience might disagree is is not exactly a new subject. I think what motivated Isherwood is that nearly all the other CRITICS liked the play a lot. He never mentions that, though. Check out to see excerpts from and links to all the reviews of “Lend Me a Tenor.”
This is where we left it. But what do YOU think?

Erik Kuszynski says:

Two quotes come to mind. I don’t know who gets credit for them.

1) The trouble with critics is that they’re looking in the wrong direction. If you want to know if the performance was enjoyable, turn around and look at the audience.

2) Everyone is entitled to my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

et cetera
%d bloggers like this: