Thursday, January 19, 2012

Criticism is an Act of Love

A couple of recent internet related spats over criticism have left me wondering about the role of criticism and whether it is a good or bad thing. 

First, dear twitter friend @MrTylerMartins quoted a Broadway World message board quote "Why do people who love theater hate so much of it?"  A loaded question to be sure.  Second, John Lahr, the esteemed New Yorker theater critic, went so far as to accuse Mildly Bitter fave Daniel Kitson of "defaming" critics by telling people to punch them if the critics were distracting them in a performance.

I'll take the second part first.  Lahr was critical of not only the suggestion that critics could be punched if distracting but that Kitson does not release scripts so the critics were FORCED to make notes and be a distraction.  He seemed to suggest this is why he could not possibly focus on the work (which by the way he did not seem to find particularly compelling)  I guess because he had to make notes and at the same time fear being violated.

Instead of taking notes during the Kitson show, I just saw the show a couple of times and relied on my brain to remember what I could (and scribbled down some thoughts afterwards).  And I'm a wholly unprofessional blogger with a degree in film production and law (yeah, call my mother and you can all talk about my poor life choices).  But I managed.  In any event, I think Lahr missed the mark a bit in thinking Kitson was anti-critics.  I don't think Kitson was saying critics should not exist or all criticism should be met with violence.  But that some people paid for tickets, some critics did not.  And the non-payees were ruining it for the payees.  The quote I recall from the last show I saw, Kitson went on to say that punching a critic might be more distracting than the original scribbling distraction but we could all stand to be "distracted by justice."  I think was more about economics than criticism.

And also, why the hell did you not go during previews like a normal critic John Lahr.

Ok.  As for the bigger question of how can you love theater and hate so much of it.  I think there are several reasons:

1) Expectations of Art and Commerce:  Theater in New York might be art or commerce and on the rare occasion both.  We all come to theater with different expectations for what we want out of our experience.   Let's take my step-dad for example.  He will only see Broadway musicals...that are funny.  Anything else is not good theater to him.  I am programmed exactly the opposite.  Is it sad?  I mean really sad.  I mean do they club baby seals.*  And they don't sing.  Perfect.  I'm in.  But sad-sack seal-clubbing non-musicals probably don't make money.

Broadway producers are taking huge risks and investing in projects they want to succeed.  It might be nice if it is art, but they hope they get some return on their investment.  They are not going to produce works just for weirdos like me or they would lose lots and lots of money.  They are probably going to find the most common middle ground and produce something safe enough that will make money, but might be hit.  If it turns out it is art, well that's nice.  For Broadway, they are also heavily dependent on the tourist trade.  Say what you will but I'm guessing they are a driving engine of the Broadway economy--even if they don't know how to walk on sidewalks.

Producers often rely on pre-existing material because there is a built in fan-base and name recognition (movies to stage adaptations) and if a tourist is going to shell-out $150 a ticket they want to be damn sure they already like it (jukebox musicals).  Producers are likely going to revive works that have succeeded in the past because maybe they will succeed again (How to Succeed, Rent).  And then there are the maverick producers who try to revive works that have not succeeded in the past in the hopes that THIS version will become successful (Follies, On a Clear Day, Carrie).  So obsessive theater lovers might not necessarily be the people the producers are most focused on.  I'm really curious about the economics of Broadway business and if someone can point me to any studies on this I would love to read them. 

2) Criticism Can Be Love:  I love criticism.  I sometimes feel like a show doesn't exist unless I talk about it.  I love seeing shows with other people for that reason.  But I also enjoy being able to go on twitter after a show and share my experience (good or bad) with other people and hear about their experiences.  I love mining the good and bad bits in a show.  I learn from that.  I learn about art, structure, writing, performance, direction.  I like to learn.  Don't you?  Some people love everything.  Wow.  What was it like to be hugged a lot as a kid?  Tell me.

Seriously.  How can you love everything?  There are so many different types of shows, performers, music.  They are ALL great?!  They are all great, EQUALLY?!

I know I am on the end of the spectrum that hates more things I see than things I like.  But most of the time I don't mind that.  There is nothing better than being blown away by something you did not know would move you, excite you, and entertain you.  Recently, Goodbar was that show for me.

I just pictured me trying to tell my step-dad about that show:  Well it's about a woman who likes rough sex (Step-dad places fingers in his ears and starts saying la-la-la-la) and is stabbed to death by one of her hook-ups and it is performed by a glam-rock band and they sing a song called Best Fuck of Your Life.  As an aside my step-dad thought When Harry Met Sally was a disgusting movie because all they talked about was sex.  That's why the above scene would be really funny to me.  Maybe you had to be there.

Anyhoo....I know my expectations for theater are really too high.  Rarely will a show meet my expectations for being emotionally engaging, exciting and new, and entertaining.  That's a lot to accomplish especially when I have seen a lot of theater, films, art in my life.  The chances that you have something new to say or have a new way of saying something I have seen before is rare--which is why I get so excited when I find that work.

And hating a show doesn't mean I don't want people to stop trying or to do better next time.  I still love theater which is why I want it to be good.  Like a homing pigeon, I keep coming back no matter what.

Of course, there is good and bad criticism, just as their is good and bad theater.  And that's a blog post for another day.

CONCLUSION:  Let's keep talking about theater.  Good, bad.  Let's keep writing about theater.  Good, bad.  Let's hope people keep trying to make theater--big, small, weird, mainstream, crazy, subdued, funny, sad.  Maybe don't go punching any critics unless it is in the name of justice.

*I'm not advocating clubbing baby seals.  Nor do I actually want to see baby seals clubbed.  I'm saying this for melodramatic effect of something that would make me cry.  And when you have to explain stops being funny.  Sigh.


  1. Exactly right on Lahr I think - I like a lot of his criticism but think he just does not get what Mr. Kitson is about. I just saw the show last night and loved loved loved. Gregory Church still haunts my dreams (always with a lovely cup of tea). On the other stuff - I know the composer for the Goodbar peeps (small world) ...and... while high expectations (both of individual pieces but also of what art can do) are risky but, for me anyway, essential. Thanks for the blog and twitter feed. Looking forward to more. Derek

  2. Will proof my next comment before posting.